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“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.

As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.

The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.

Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online.  This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.

However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.

Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.

John Dies At The End by David Wong

He saw Maja’s little hands reaching for the baby’s bottle with her juice in it, her thin fingers curling around the edges of a Bamse comic as she lay back in her bed, reading. Her feet sticking out from under the covers. Six years old.

Anders stared out into the vast darkness with its single, flashing point of light. The wine had gone to his head and the light was swaying, sliding across the sea, and he could see Maja in her red snow-suit. She was glowing in the darkness, and she was walking across the water. The little body, the soft skin, the muscles tucked into her warm suit. A patch of red that was moving closer, but which dissolved when he tried to focus his gaze on it.

One of my, many, objections to the recent US film adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In was that the prosaic title change – Let Me In – was stripped of the author’s intent. For not only was the book’s title a description of the relationship between the main character and a vampire, but a reference to a song by The Smiths. Given the story’s setting in the 1980’s this was obviously a personal call-back for the author.

So when I found that a section of Harbour includes a flashback featuring characters becoming obsessive about The Smiths, well, let’s just say I was not surprised.

The story begins with a simple tragedy. Anders and his wife take their child Maja on a trip across the ice to the old Domarö light house. While the parents investigate the abandoned building, pointing out the graffiti left by teens who grew up on the island much like themselves, Maja walks outside to explore and then vanishes. The townsfolk help search the surrounding area, but no trace of the young girl can be found. Broken-hearted Anders turns his back on his marriage and embraces the bottle. Years pass before he can bring himself to return to Domarö.

Simon has lived on the island for most of his adult life. His landlady Anna-Greta was his only friend on the island when he first arrived and has since become his lover. Now an old man, Simon remains an outside on Domarö despite his relationship with Anna-Greta. Over the years he has grown used to their offhand treatment of him, but with the disappearance of Maja he begins to suspect something more sinister lies behind the community’s sheltered existence. He regards Anders protectively in a grandfatherly like manner and tries to help the young man find some balance in his life. Bound together by the tragic disappearance of the young child, they face the conspiracy of Domarö and the mysterious reverence felt by the people of the town towards the sea.

Lindqvist’s writing is fascinating in his rooting of supernatural horror in the ordinary lives of his characters. Like his previous book Handling the Undead, this is a wonderfully thoughtful piece of horror fiction, that takes its time to let us get to know these people, so that when diabolical misfortune enters their lives it feels all the more devastating.

There is also a cute storytelling device where the book itself – no one narrator emerges – apologises for having to dip in and out of Domarö’s history. Similarly a wedding scene in the latter-half of the book is glossed over because readers typically do not find weddings terribly interesting to read about. There is also an apt moment when Lindqvist addresses with horror fiction head on, namely that the ‘monster’ is typically an anticlimax when it finally appears.

As such the mystery of Harbour is teased and unravelled slowly and gently, making this a very enjoyable book, in terms of technique. The melancholy of Anders and Simon’s growing paranoia are very well handled, transferring to the reader.

The real surprise of this story is how it confirms Lindqvist as the true inheritor of Lovecraft’s title as the master of existential horror, albeit refining and maturing those concepts in a far more coherent form. An excellent work, genuinely gripping.

Harbour John Lindqvist

 

For indeed I am the sort of charlatan they seek to discredit. I am not what they say I am, but my deceptions are harmless and, I do believe, helpful at a time of personal loss.

I am a very nervous sleeper and sadly in our new abode the sound of passing vehicles – not to mention overhead flights – causes our little unit to wobble somewhat. Every time I jolt awake. This, as you can imagine, is quite annoying. But then I made the mistake of joking that any other creaks and steps could be the sounds of our own personal poltergeist. My beloved other half immediately freaked. See personally I cannot really see any reason to fear the ‘other side’, psychic phenomena, ectoplasmic stains, or indeed fallen angels. I lie awake at night terrified about home invasions and a piece of satellite falling from space and impacting on my roof…but the supernatural? Completely uninterested in it.

Magic as such is something I have difficulty with, because it seems like so much empty spectacle. There is a necessity to believe in order to be halfway impressed to begin with. In The Prestige Christopher Priest attempts to straddle that borderline,  that fudging of spectacle and the occult.

The rivalry between two late 19th century magicians comes to consume both their lives, a dual obsession that spurs them into more audacious feats. The Prestige presents the respective accounts of this contest from the points of view of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. This is not merely competitiveness, with both parties going out of their way to sabotage their rival’s acts. As they are both practiced in exploiting the gullibility of their patrons, whether it be through stage magic or séances for the dead, they know the weak-spots of each other’s craft, the key moment to stage and accuse the performer of being a fraud.

Then Borden’s act ‘The Transported Man’, involving him appearing in two places on stage mere moments apart, drives Angier to even more outrageous efforts. Borden has not employed any trickery that the other magician recognizes. He has somehow managed to achieve genuine magic. In his attempts to top the ‘Transported Man’, Angier travels to America and returns with a revolutionary new act ‘In A Flash’. Having consulted with the genius scientific recluse Nikola Tesla, Angier seemingly has confounding the laws of physics itself. Both men become so consumed by thoughts of revenge, that their intentions soon border on murderous.

The story is bookended by their descendents attempting to discover the reasons behind this intense rivalry, which has actually survived their deaths – assuming that the diaries left by Angier and Borden actually do present an accurate picture of events.

This is the second book by Priest that I have read. The first, The Inverted World, rested on a central idea that was quite interested, but the book overall felt strained. The Roshomon approach of The Prestige should create a sense of mystery, but once Borden’s secret – hinted at by suggestive choices in language during his diary – becomes clear, the book feels like it is frustratingly delaying the moment of the reveal.

Priest’s writing imitates the suspense and suggestiveness of the magician’s performance, but the characters are so deluded by their mutual hatred that their insistent company becomes wearying. The shared love of a woman named Olivia comes to seem spurious – is she just a beard for their homoerotic fascination for one another?

There is an interesting moment when Angier describes his impressions of Tesla “when I had seen his lecture in London he had all the appearance of a member of my own profession, taking the same delight in surprising and mystifying the audience, yet, unlike a magician, being more than willing, anxious even, to reveal and share his secrets.” Of course that was Tesla’s tragedy, that he did not guard his insights jealously enough.

The historical asides of this book are momentarily interesting, but for the most part The Prestige feels overlong and wearying with its venom and spite.

The Prestige

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.

‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’

Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel.  Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.

Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.

For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.

Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?

This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.

Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.

Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.

I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.

“How did you become a boy, Corinna, and a Folk Keeper?”

“I changed my name on the Foundling Certificate. It’s been four years now.”

But I said no more. He needn’t know I was sent to the Rhysbridge Home with a shipment of other ophans, including one boy who had apprenticed to become the Home’s new Folk Keeper. He needn’t know I took advantage of being unknown to them all to steal a pair of breeches, cut my hair, and turn myself into Corin. I will never tell anyone how I frightened the new Folk Keeper so dreadfully his very first night in the Cellar that he fled. I do not like to think of what I did – of how he screamed! – but I force myself to write it. I cannot let myself go soft.

A month ago I put out a general call through Twitter for book recommendations. As fast as fingers could type I got a series of great recommendations, including Franny Billingsley‘s Chime (which unfortunately my library did not have a copy of), so I tracked down this other title by her. If folks out there have any other Young Adult fiction books to pass on, please drop me a line here, or on Twitter.

Corinne is the Folk Keeper of Rhysbridge, disguised as an orphan boy (absent the last two letters of her name). The role is of extreme importance to the community. The Folk are an implacable species of carnivorous phantoms, that can only be appeased by the provision of certain sacrifices by a ‘Keeper’. Corinne has tricked and deceived her way into learning the trade of the Folk Keeper and through her status is enabled to maintain the pretence of being a boy. While she was never apprenticed and directly taught knowledge of how to protect the inhabitants of Rhysbridge, ‘Corin’, has talents of her own. Her hair grows to an extraordinary length during the night and she can call to mind the exact time to the minute.

Then one day the Lord Hartley Merton arrives at Rhysbridge and changes her life, even as his ebbs away. Corinne is adopted by his family and made the Folk Keeper of their estate Cliffsend – much larger in scale, with many secrets in its long history, including that of the Lord’s first wife, the tragic Rona. The Folk who reside there are also much savager. Corinne’s simple tricks will not be enough to hold them off and for all her stolen insight into the business of Keepers, she finds her skills are not sufficient.

In order to survive she will need to learn more about the Merton family. She develops a friendly relationship with the son of Hartley’s second wife, Finian, but as her feelings for him change, the Corin persona becomes harder to maintain. Also Sir Edward, the thwarted heir to the estate, seems to be plotting a coup that somehow involves Cliffsend’s new Folk Keeper.

Billingsley book is filled with subtle magicks, dark supernatural presences and hints of Celtic folklores. The Sealfolk in particular resemble Irish myths about selkies – in fact, a friend of mine was told growing up that she was a selkie by her brother. There is even a personification of death referred to briefly named Soulsucker, who is said to be warded off by black satin. I really enjoyed how the author introduced these local folk tales into her fictional world, adopting a darker hue with the blood sacrifices offered up to the Folk to prevent the bespoiling of crops.

The slow thawing of Corinne’s worldview is also delicately portrayed, which builds to a gentle romance with the perceptive Finian. In fact midway through this book, the high concept finally hit me between the eyes – this book is Yentl with added murderous ghosts!

Thoroughly enjoyable, with a neat line in supernatural horror and an entertaining mystery. I must follow up on Twitter recommendations more often.

What did I do to deserve this, God? What? What? What? But I know the answer to that very bitter question. It’s a simple one. And the answer is: everything.

I’m an absolute bastard.

That’s the simple honest truth.

We first meet investigative photographer Callaghan, a man who enjoys his drink, drugs and women, stark naked on the balcony of a hotel in freezing cold Glasgow. Inside the room he can hear the woman he was just pleasuring now in the company of her Romanian gun-runner husband. Perhaps this seems like an odd situation to find oneself in, but Callaghan simply can’t help himself. His life is one endless car-crash of danger, adrenaline and body-wrecking excess.

However, Callaghan’s adventures are about to take an even more bizarre turn. Acting on a tip-off from the mysterious Mr Volos, Callaghan and writing partner Jim become caught up in a police investigation into a series of gruesome murders. The police suspect that they are responsible, but other than their presence at the crime scenes, they have no evidence. Callaghan has recently been receiving threatening letters at his workplace – hard-hitting magazine  ‘Black and White’ – written in tone-deaf blood-soaked verse. Then photos from a crime scene that would have won himself and Jim a front page splash disappear, landing Callaghan in trouble with his ball-breaking editor Mrs Ryan. He suspects that his stalker is responsible somehow, but then again his articles have managed to offend some very dangerous people involved in the London crime scene.

What Callaghan does not realize is that he is in the cross-hairs of two supernatural opposing forces. As the murders continue, a disturbing trend begins to emerge. Each of the victims are themselves murderers, the very same ‘scum’, that Callaghan hates so much, which he blames for all of society’s problems. Could it be that serial killers are themselves being hunted by someone even more monstrous than themselves? When the murderer makes direct contact with Callaghan, he is terrified to discover that not only was he right in his suspicions over the identity of his stalker, it appears he is being groomed to become an accomplice in this horrific quest for twisted justice.

In many ways this book reminded me of Headcrusher by Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov, two journalists from Latvia who wrote a contemporary satire on capitalist excess in their former Soviet nation. There are also elements of the films of Nick Love on show here, I am thinking in particular of Outlaw, which also proposes that the only solution to society’s ills is even more brutal vigilante justice.

Andy Remic goes further here though, mixing in suggestions of supernatural horror. Murderers are said to be ‘Deviants’, evil forces that can be reincarnated to offend over and over again. Perhaps unwisely Fred West and Harold Shipman are named in the book as examples of otherworldly ‘Deviants’ (touches of David Icke?). Consequently the opening monologue from the murderer is deliberately pitched to confuse the reader into believing he is just another psychopath.

As such I chose to read the book as a satire on the excesses of ‘The City‘, – fast cars, designer drugs, easy women and cheap living – where every wideboy financier fancies himself as a coked-up latter-day James Bond. If that strikes you as something you would enjoy, then Serial Killers Incorporated fits the bill.

What I do object to though, and this is just a handy rule of thumb for writers generally, is the use of the word rape as an analogy. If a character is suffering from exposure on a hotel balcony, he is not being ‘raped’. If someone is being burnt alive, the flames are not ‘raping him’. I would have thought being burnt was in itself horrific enough. As it happens when a female character is actually raped, the novel describes it as feeling like being ‘entered….like fire‘.

Fast-paced violence, foul-mouthed dialogue and brutal excess.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

‘You don’t see anything,’ he snapped. ‘You’re as blind to the wonders of the world as the rest of us. We know nothing, Mr Raimi. We have theories, guesses and opinions. We hold beliefs, each as valid and ridiculous as the others. We trust scientists to delve into the pits of time and space, tinkering with great questions like children playing with sand.

In all my years I’ve met just one man who seemed to really know. He was crazy, a drunk working on the docks. He had trouble tying laces and buttoning his coat. He spoke in fits and riddles, but every word struck me to the core. I listened a very short time, then had him executed. I was afraid of him. If I had listened much longer, I’d have gone mad too. Truth is too much for minds as small as ours.’

You’ve heard the story before. A young man comes to the city to find his fortune with nothing but big dreams and the change in his pocket to fall back on. Everyone from Dick Whittington to Norville Barnes began their fictional adventures in this same way.

Capac Raimi is no different. Arriving in ‘the City’, to work with his uncle Theo and learn the business, he is a young man still on the right side of thirty with big plans.  The Cardinal, a crime boss who runs every scam and business in the City, is at the top of the food-chain, an alpha predator whose control cannot be challenged. Of course Capac intends to do just that. After all, he’s a young gangster on the make.

Instead through a sudden reversal of fortune he finds himself working for The Cardinal, who seems to be grooming him for some position in his organisation. Capac slowly becomes more curious about the history of The Cardinal, seeing past his own greed to the peculiarities about his new mentor, who claims to have a near preternatural understanding of fate and is obsessed with Incan culture.

There other strange things going on that Capac has failed to notice before. Such as the blind monks who appear whenever the City is shrouded in fog. Or the way in which various henchmen of The Cardinal have a nasty habit of disappearing, leaving not a single trace – even in people’s memories. For some reason Capac can remember, which makes him think either everyone is lying to him, or these people literally are being wiped from existence.

Of course, Capac has blanks in his own memory. In fact he cannot recall anything of his past from before getting off the train to the City.

That sense of the familiar persisted throughout this book. Where D.B. Shan decides to do something different, is to have Capac become a sympathetic figure, before plunging the narrative down a very dark path.

Unfortunately, I found myself reminded of Frank Miller‘s comic book series Sin City, steeped in noir clichés with every female character a prostitute (or dead); as well as Will Self‘s novel My Idea of Fun, which features a seemingly innocent protagonist doing very nasty things. This book apes the worst aspects of both of these works. There is a depressing nihilism at its heart, made worse by the whopping deus ex at the plot’s climax.

In Shan’s defence for the majority of the story events proceed in a slightly unreal manner, which creates an intriguing ambience. It feels like an uncanny crime drama, but then the identity of The Cardinal is revealed and suspension of belief collapses.

Initially quite interesting, but ultimately a disappointment.

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