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Just as he was about to shut the window, he caught sight of a group of people charging up the street. Three women leading five or six men. They were half-naked and running like maniacs, but the main thing was, they were blue. Really blue blue, like zombies in a cheesy horror movie. It was sick. Their mouths were wide open, and their eyes were black and bugging out of their heads.

Ok lets just stop for a moment. Have you seen the name of the author in this post’s title? Walter Greatshell? What an awesome name! I picked up the book just so I could claim to have read something by a writer with that name.

Now the title itself was a cause for concern. Yes the marauding undead creatures in this book are referred to as ‘Xombies’, but then I did enjoy Charlie Huston‘s vampire series, with its own attendant neologism – vampyres. Then there’s ‘Apocalypticon’ – it sounds like a bargain bin video game. But I put these concerns aside for you, dear blog reader, for I felt the need to bring you word of Walter Greatshell.

Of course I quickly realized this is actually the second in a series of novels. The background to the plot is quickly established in the opening chapters. An engineered virus named Agent X has swept the world (hence ‘X’ombies) and human civilization is in ruins. Sal DeLuca is one of a dwindling number of civilian refugees aboard a submarine approaching the East Coast of the United States. His father died trying to make sure his son was given safe passage on board, but now the teenager has new problems. With the vessel’s commander isolated by a mutinous crew, the ‘non-essential’, passengers, mostly adolescent boys like Sal, are rounded up and sent ashore to forage for food. If they survive they will have proved themselves useful.

There are no women on board the submarine, apart from the sinister scientist Alice Langhorne. She was involved with the experimentations that led to the creation of Agent X. She worked with its creator, Uri Miska, even helped cover up the initial outbreak of the contagion, which was originally intended as an elixir dispensed by the Mogul Cooperative to those that could afford it. Eternal life and rule over the entire world. It all went wrong though and an experimental version of the serum got loose, targeting women and transforming them through a process of asphyxiation into undead Xombies. Alice Langhorne has another ace up her sleeve though, the sole remaining leverage left to her. An intelligent Xombie, the blue-skinned girl known as Lulu, who can command and pacify the marauding hordes on land. Through her Alice might even find a cure for the contagion, that is if she is truly interested in saving what remains of the human race.

This book is quite unusual. I really had a hard time making my mind up about it at first. It begins with a flashback to the beginnings of the outbreak, a useful introduction for those who had not read Xombies: Apocalypse Blues. Greatshell describes an odd scene of prison convicts playing poker in the middle of a rodeo, for the entertainment of locals. Then all hell breaks loose as blue-skinned teenage girls begin assaulting and choking the people in the audience. What am I reading, I thought to myself? Is this some kind of misogynist tract?

Perhaps on the surface it seems that way, but Greatshell has broader ambitions. There are references to Greek myth throughout – female Xombies are referred to as Harpies, or Maenads at times – and the terrified men on board the submarine quickly turn mutinous, attacking one another instead of focusing on survival. There’s a scene with Langhorne and a senior military officer were he notes she is taller than him, older than him and possesses more natural authority than him. I am not sure whether the novel’s themes are a reaction against sexism, or appealing to an outright fear of women. Either way it’s an interesting counterpoint to the macho canon of militaristic sf/horror.

Yes the prose is quite purplish at times and the quotations from a supposed official account of the Xombie epidemic that open the early chapters lack that clarity of language that made Max BrooksWorld War Z so convincing. Still I can’t help but admire the book for doing something interesting with zombie tropes.

A most curious horror novel.

According to Harold Schechter in a New York Times editorial, father snorting is not such a far-fetched notion. It comes from a custom of funerary cannibalism, which “springs from a profound and very human impulse: the desire to incorporate the essence of a loved one into your own body…the belief that when someone close to us dies, the person lives on inside us – that he or she becomes an undying part of our own deepest selves.”

Maybe we should all partake of this form of inhalation. And often.

Breathe in what you love.

I was always a Rolling Stones man. It took me years to discover the Beatles‘ album Revolver, which finally convinced me that they weren’t all that bad, but give me the Stones every time. On a related note I always preferred Pearl Jam to Nirvana, Pulp to Oasis….I never go for the populist choice. At any rate the Stones were to my mind the quintessential rock band when I was growing up. They were so knitted to the grandeur and rock pomp of American music I had no idea they were English! Jagger’s mockney accent probably confused me.

Jessica Pallington West focuses on that other lead persona of the Stones, Keith Richards. Immortal junkie. Modern-day pirate. Self-appointed ambassador for the blues. With this book the author has collected a series of aphorisms from the mouth of ‘Keef’, assembled into a series of themed chapters.

The book begins with a series of Commandments, twenty-six to rival the paltry ten of Moses. West pitches Richards as being an indefatigable performer, street philosopher and practitioner of the Tao of Keith – living according to a hard-won set of moral principles. These Commandments are referred to consistently throughout the rest of the book, supported by selective Keithist quotes. This third chapter is followed up with a series of comparisons between Keith’s philosophy and classical thinkers from the Socratics all the way up to Nietzsche. In the fourth West considers the aesthetics of Keith, his sense of style and fashion. Then there is ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards‘, a series of aphorisms on a series of topics, such as the afterlife, the blues and Mick.

Is this a must-read for Stones fans? Honestly, if you’re a fan most of this is familiar fare. Did you know Keith Richards used to be a heroin addict? And a doctor once told him he only had six months to live, only for Keith to find himself attended that same medic’s funeral some time later? Oh and he and Mick do not get along. Maybe this is a decent read for beginners, kids who are wondering what the fuss is about this old bloke in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I don’t really know.

On another level there is something ridiculous about pitching Richards as an urban philosopher, who has Plato as a ‘soul-brother’, and big hair like Schopenhauer. Who would have guessed that a heroin-addled guitar player from the projects would end up as a twenty-first-century philosopher and urban street guru? He is practically the reincarnation of St. Augustine according to West, returning to us from the realms of depravity with wisdom into the mysteries of life.

A series of incongruous comparisons are unleashed, with Keith the working class rock star – none of that embarrassing disguising of accents as with Mick – having survived heroin, women and general falling down, established as a sharp-edged pragmatist.

Keith has lived quite the interesting life, but what has made it so memorable is his refusal to think twice (and surely that is the disease of the philosopher). What this book has made me appreciate is just how funny Keith can be.  I also liked how many of the quotes reveal just how much of a grumpy old man he has become, dismissing MTV, hip hop and the Sex Pistols. “Get off my lawn!” Plus he really doesn’t like Elton John.

However, for yet another ‘unauthorised’, book on a major celebrity, West does not introduce much criticism into the proceedings. At all points he is lauded throughout the book as a rakish man of the world, who simply won’t be tolerated by ‘the Man’. Of course this is a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars. One who can afford to walk away from debacles like the disaster of Altamont “It was just another gig where I had to leave fast.

This book is a trite overview of an entertaining personality, weakened by its comparisons to philosophers.

“All right,” I said; “suppose the characters exist in the author’s mind, like the events; where does the value of invention come in?”

“Where the value of any invention comes in,” he answered. “In its purpose or use. A wheel spinning aimlessly is worth nothing; the same wheel on a cart or a pulley changes destiny.”

“You can’t learn anything from fairy tales,” I persisted stubbornly.

He smiled. “Maybe you havent read the right fairy tales.”

Damn. I got very excited by a certain stylistic quirk that I noticed in this book. Mr Ward Moore had seemingly written the entire thing without using apostrophes. You might see above he has written the contraction ‘havent’. Unfortunately right above that line of dialogue, he gives narrator Hodge Backmaker ‘can’t’.

Well there’s that theory blown out of the water.

Eight years ago I was working with a woman from Texas who used to proudly claim to share common descent with George Bush and Queen Elizabeth. What I found odd was not the claim itself, but that it was obviously so important to her. Of course I say that as an O’Cuana and we have done anything to be proud of in a thousand years.

I say this as the notion of historical prestige is not something I guess I can understand. Moore with this book examines not just the premise of an America with an alternate history, but the importance of being able to draw descent from the respective sides of the Civil War conflict.

Hodge Backmaker begins his narration telling us that he was born in 1921, but that this is being written in 1877. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error – let me explain. The fortunes of the Backmaker clan are inextricably linked with the events of the Civil War, when the Union lost to the Southron forces. What ensued was a near half-century of economic ruin for the Yankee territories. A prevalent xenophobia for foreign nations became the dominant political rhetoric. What’s more while slavery was abolished,  most citizens are so impoverished they agree to a system of indenture to corporations until they are too old to be of use. Moore even includes a few alternate history jokes. George Bernard Shaw died a little-known reverend. Carl Jung became a police chief.

Hodge is something of an anomaly, in that he sees no future in labouring to support his family and prefers to spend his time buried in books. He dreams of putting his love of reading to some good use, perhaps even becoming an academic in one of the dilapidated academies that still exist in the Union. To that end he sets off for New York with his fortune of three dollars in his pocket.

The countryboy from Poughkeepsie notices that the metropolis lacks the skyscrapers of Confederate ruled Washington, but remains a glamourous sight, with its airborn zeppelins and thronging multitude. Of course the awe-struck yokel quickly falls on bad luck, which sets him on the path to a meeting with a bookseller named Mr Tyss and the revolutionary Grand Army.

Moore’s novel is concerned not only with history, but with the notion of an objective observer of history. Hodge learns a new understanding of events from two men, Tyss and the Haitian Ambassador  M’sieu Enfandin. The one insists that history itself is predetermined; the other that man is free to choose his destiny. Hodge himself lives frozen by indecision. In that his character is a sly dig at the pretence of historians to be unbiased spectator to events. Tyss mocks him for even desiring to be impartial, stating that his love of history is simply a desire to hide from action.

It is a very fine joke, made all the funnier by Moore then sending Hodge on a fantastical adventure that explains the riddle of the book’s opening lines. This is a gripping novel of ideas, one I am very surprised to have never heard of before. Much like Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle the book seeks to outstrip being merely an alternate history yarn, with far loftier themes in mind.

I also enjoyed how like Hamlet, Hodge is not the virginal prevaricator popular opinion might assume him to be. He’s actually quite the ladies man. He simply refuses to take responsibility for his actions, or indeed any commitments at all.

A thoughtfully written investigation of American history, with a sf glaze.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of checking out the new film Tron Legacy, which inspired me to do a little video blogging over on my disused Somnopolis account. Feel free to give it a gander. I have no problem admitting that my enjoyment of the film  is mostly due to nostalgia. Tron was a large part of my childhood. Y’know what I did not like when I was a child? The Punisher.

He’s a psychopath. A gun-toting Vietnam veteran who has decided to deal with the trauma of his family’s deaths by slaughtering the criminal underworld of New York. He makes Dirty Harry look like an easy-going guy. He cannot be reasoned with, is almost robotic in his lack of humanity and despite wearing a costume of sorts, is nothing like a superhero.

In fact writer Garth Ennis seems to agree with me. In his introduction to this volume of his initial twelve issue run he writes: Defend the Punisher? Justify what Frank Castle does to people? Condone the actions of a mass-murderer, whose bodycount must run well into the tens of thousands by now? I think not.

And yet. What Ennis does with Frank is to admit all of the excessive violence and inhumanity of his actions, while also poking fun at them. These issues feature endless scenes of murder and death, but also highlights just how ridiculous Frank’s vigilantism is, courtesy of an increasingly cartoonish set of villains and set-pieces. As Ennis concludes “you don’t have to worry about a thing: you can enjoy the Punisher with a completely clear conscience.”

The plot of Welcome Back, Frank concerns a vendetta between Frank Castle and the Gnucci crime family in New York. He has been systematically killing off the members of the Mafia clan and when he kills the sons of Ma Gnucci, she sends out a call for every gangster and hoodlum with a gun to hunt him down.

Since returning to New York Frank has found himself a new apartment in a run-down section of the city. Much of the book concerns his relationships with fellow tenants and the risk his activities place them in. Ennis manages these character building moments with a great deal of pathos, which is not what you might expect amid the blood and thunder of a Punisher comic.

The third thread of the storyline is the influence of Frank’s vigilantism on others. We meet three self-declared defenders of the peace – although their ideas of what that means is contradictory. There’s The Holy, an axe-murdering priest; Elite, a Manhattannite with extreme views on neighbourhood watch; and finally Mr Payback, who targets the wealthy. All three look up to Frank as a source of inspiration, justifying their murderous actions by dedicating themselves to his example.

Despite the bloodletting and brutal imagery, this is a very funny book. Ennis is a master of poking fun at machismo, as seen in his hit series Preacher, a comparison reinforced by his frequent collaborator Steve Dillon’s art. Frank Castle ‘s face carries the same trademark grimace to familiar to Marvel fanboys, but his musculature is not as oversized as the in-house artists insist upon. Dillon has Frank appear as he should – just another anonymous New Yorker wearing a long coat on the streets of the city.

The absurd extremes of Ennis’ script is the source of much of the humour. The villainous hitman known as the Russian wipes out an entire special forces team in Kazakhstan, sending the surviving officer running crying for his mother. There’s a great little sight gag involving Ma Gnucci that references The Empire Strikes Back. And then there is the unfortunately named Buddy Plugg, whose behavioural assessment of the Punisher is rejected as pure psychobabble: “obviously less a man than a force of nature. Have left his own humanity behind long ago, he has become a symbol as stark as the one he wears on his uniform. A spectre of vengeance moving like a virus within the criminal psyche…” In one stroke Ennis satirises every complaint raised against the character. He is, as he insists, only trying to entertain. Any attempt to analyze the meaning of this ridiculous character is doomed to failure.

As such Ennis once again delivers a book that manages to be both funny and disturbing, in equal measures. If you enjoyed Preacher, you’re strongly advised to check out his spin on this Marvel icon.

It was along towards the end though that Grand achieved, in terms of public outrage, his succes d’estime, as some chose to call it, when he put out to sea in his big ship, the S.S. Magic Christian…the ship sometimes later referred to as “The Terrible Trick Ship of Captain Klaus.”

One of my favourite movies is the Peter Sellers/Ringo Starr spectacular The Magic Christian. It’s just as ridiculous as that sounds. Here’s Roman Polanski getting seduced by Yul Brynner in drag.

So I am delighted to finally have the opportunity to read something by Mr Terry Southern, even though it turns out the book itself is quite different.

Firstly of course the story is set in the United States and not the Pythonesque Britain of the Sellers film version. Secondly there is no ‘son’, role, played by Starr in the film (a Beatles connection that also unleashed Paul McCartney’s unremitting soundtrack). Finally Guy Grand in Southern’s novel is a large overweight, red-faced man, with a convincingly sincere smile and not the rakish eccentric played by Sellers.

In other respects, however, the book is quite similar. For one, there is no plot to speak of. Instead Southern introduces a series of anecdotes revolving around Guy Grand and his love ofmaking it hot for [people]. He enjoys pricking pomposity and taking advantage of the gullibility of mobs, mainly through bribing officials and hiring actors to create scenes of mass hysteria, or confusion.

In one adventure he offers a man several thousand dollars to eat a parking ticket. In another he bribes two prize fighters to act in an exaggeratedly effeminate manner when in the ring. His idea of safari is dragging bloodthirsty Westerners into the African veldt and then scaring off any animals in the area by randomly firing off a high-powered howitzer.

Guy Grand’s wealth is apparently limitless and his curious sense of humour allows him to amuse himself by exploiting the greed of his fellow man. Bigots, ignoramuses and the nouveau riche are his preferred targets. Southern introduces each chapter with an ongoing dialogue between Grand, his two elderly aunts and a shrieking socialite named Miss Ginger Horton. Unbeknownst to the fourth party, Grand and his aunts are engaged in an absurdist series of exchanges based on a very private sense of humour. Miss Horton, and her wailing dog, are much like everyone else Grand encounters victims of a unintelligible joke.

In a very real sense, Guy Grand has chosen to be living proof that everyone has their price and as the last of the ‘big spenders’, he is fully entitled to buy and sell people as he sees fit.

Southern’s satirical tone is both incisive and completely surreal. The degree of humiliation endured by the people Grand encounters is worryingly believable, even if his limitless wealth stretches credibility at times. Most chapters end with a variation on the same line – ‘it did cost him a good bit to keep his own name clear‘. The refrain becomes as casually absurdist as Kurt Vonnegut‘s ‘so it goes‘.

I imagine this book is not for everyone. For one it does read like a series of short sketches that happen to revolve around one figure. Still I personally found it very amusing, with the climax of the maiden voyage of his luxury liner the S.S. Magic Christian a fitting cap to his adventures investigating the extent of man’s inhumanity to man.

Satirical, humourous and very wicked, I look forward to reading more of Terry Southern’s work.

All passion in the end enslaves you, and if I felt in bondage to Bach and music at that time, it was because I still had doubts about my ability to make beautiful music each time I decided to play.

(taken from ‘bach (pau) in love’ by Subhas Jaireth)

I am sick and tired of hearing about the ‘death of the short story’. To my mind short fiction is in very rude health, having already colonised the virtual plains of the internet years before the lumbering novel woke up to the danger posed to the physical book by online writing. The e-book  represents an opportunity for poets and authors to be more radical, to present their ideas in a new, novel format that does not carry the same expectations as the physical novel.

Etchings, published by Ilura Press, is an excellent showcase for up-and-coming writers and artists. Like many anthologies it does not limit itself to a certain genre, but it also pieces on art, photography, interviews and book reviews. Seeing as the cover image for this issue is Adam Elliott‘s Mary and Max, I will lead off with Janelle Moran’s interview with the film-maker. It treats not only of Elliott’s career as a storyteller/animator/director (he pauses to query how exactly he should describe himself given his many roles), but of the processes involved in launching a career as an independent in today’s film industry, as well as his pride for Melbourne and its artistic reputation. The interview itself is a very insightful and enjoyable one, as the subject gives very generous material, explaining that he looks forward to interviews as a form of ‘free therapy’.

For the most part Etchings showcases poems and short fiction from a range of international authors. Subhas Jaireth’s tale, quoted from above, is a delicate and sensitive investigation of mortality and artistic legacy, with the life of Bach becoming a fascination for two men. Kafkaesque by Nora Nadjarian is itself both a pastiche of Franz Kafka’s paranoiac Freudian fiction, as well as a short mediatation on his literary legacy. I have always hated the adjective ‘kafkaesque’, which brings to mind a Robert Crumb drawing of tourists in Prague wearing t-shirts with a profile of Kafka on them. Yet Najarian’s choice of title is perfect:

The man said: Let me tell you this. I am the reincarnation of Franz Kafka.

I believed him because his ears were pointed and his voice was melancholy.

Simonne Michelle-Wells presents a story on body dismorphia, Catching the Drops, which explores not only the suffering caused by the condition, but the degrees of deceit routinely employed against family members. The story ends on a surprisingly surreal note more in common with horror fiction. It Could Have Been Any Party by Amelia Schmidt also mines tropes of body horror, reminiscent of Brian Yuzna’s Society, or William Gibson‘s The Belonging Kind.  Alice Godwin’s The Apothecary is more magic realism than horror, but excels at achieving a surreal sense of disturbance. Out of the stories on offer, Godwin’s is my pick of the bunch.

toy heart charnel house by Autumn Christian is both fantastical and melancholic, describing a family wracked by the suicide of a child in a futuristic setting. A process known as ‘reconstruction’, has been invented, designed to help the grieving process by rendering the personalities of the dead into a artificial body construct. This of course only introduces more problems:

One of my co-workers told me once that there’s this syndrome where people think members of their family are being replaced by impostors. It’s called Capgras syndrome. Ever since we started reconstructing people, the frequency has skyrocketed.

What does that mean.

It means nobody is really who we think they are, and we know it.

The poetry collected here is also notable for the delicate imagery on show. Kevin O’Cuinn’s Untitled #11 describes the creeping dischord that can enter into relationships, with little resentments building into a divide between partners. He ends a description of an uneasy night spent in bed with the image:

a today will

appear in the window

like an uninvited guest

Anthony Noack’s Milk is beautifully understated and unpretentious in its sense of wonder. It made my wife smile when I read it out, so thank you Mr Noack.

Etchings is an excellent series, a welcome showcase for some excellent writers and artists and comes strongly recommended. With thanks to Ilura Press for my review copy.

I grabbed a bit of posterity for myself, unwittingly, when some of the fans started running towards the stage and I did my bit at the microphone. ‘Hey! You in the black T-Shirt, slow down!’ Hundreds stopped in their tracks.

Six years ago a friend of mine used to throw me some work checking concert tickets during the summer months. I needed the cash and it was a good way to see up and coming bands – as well as more established acts – for free. So at one of more popular music festivals I was at the head of a long queue of punters when I noticed a friend approaching at a rapid clip with a few mates. He had seen me and I could tell, was hoping that I would let him in gratis. Unfortunately for both of us I had a superior standing beside me with a scanning device designed to detect imitation concert tickets.

Those who know me have  often pointed out that I am rarely ‘in the moment’. So it was a surprising example of quick thinking on my part that caused me to turn to my superior just as my friend reached us and state “This man has no ticket”, then laugh in his shocked face, clap him on the shoulder and wave him and his party through. My superior took it as a joke and there were smiles all round.

Michael Chugg has had a far broader career in the music industry than I. He is also just as upfront about various examples of skullduggery. It comes with the business. What distinguishes Chugg from many other movers and shakers in the industry is that he is a well-known icon within Australian music. More a force of nature, thanks to his career-long tendency to take to the stage when needed to harangue the more unruly elements of the audience, he is also responsible for bringing acts such as The Police, Bon Jovi and Pearl Jam to Australia.

He was also devoted to helping Australian acts achieve more international reknown and throughout the book sings the praises of acts whether or not he ever got a chance to work with them, such as Crowded House, The Skyhooks and Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs. Chugg also expresses his frustration with the failure of acts such as Richard Clapton and Stevie Wright in foreign markets.

On the personal side Chugg describes how his wheeler-dealer personality evolved from his working class background in Tasmania, attributing much of his behaviour, relationships difficulties and addiction issues to the earliest period of his life. It’s not many people who can claim they became a coke addict due to peer pressure from Fleetwood Mac. Successive marriages break down due to time spent on the road, plus the attendant temptations that accompanied touring. Rock bottom was a frequent destination, including spending time behind bars in a Californian jail. Eventually Chugg achieved a sense of peace in Phuket, although he continues to run his own entertainment company, utilising many of the connections he made throughout his long career.

I first heard of Michael Chugg on the excellent Australian panel show Spicks and Specks. He related the same anecdote on air that opens the book – the absurdly decadent rider demanded by Fleetwood Mac on their tour. While it is clear that Chugg has an incredible reputation, it is a shame that his voice is not retained by his co-writer. One sentence in particular I found difficult. But for my powers of persuasion, he might have avoided the lengthy jail term that was to befall him.

This book is less a kiss-and-tell in the time-honoured manner of You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, than a chance for Chugg to settle some scores. His drug addiction is invariably justified as being due to others, or his control of it being cited as superior to that of other music industry figures, such as Stevie Wright, who would endure mental health issues.

As he describes how his career with company Frontier starts to chafe, he begins to refer to them as the evil empire, complaining after he went independent that former colleagues were badmouthing him to clients. After all, he was now a business rival. His indignation makes little sense to me. One shining light in the narrative is his friendship with Aussie rocker Billy Thorpe, which is a relief in amongst all the negativity.

I found reading this book bittersweet, which is a shame.

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