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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

‘Does it bother you not at all to bind ghosts?’ he asked at last. His thumb slid across the knuckles of her left hand, not quite touching the ring. ‘To enslave them? Not even spirits, but the souls of your own kind.’

‘Every ghost I’ve bound committed crimes that would see living men imprisoned or executed. You wouldn’t let a living man who tortured or murdered his family go free – why let him do such things in death?’

His lips twisted. ‘I know many torturers and murderers who walk free, and I suspect you do too. Even so, it still seems…cruel.’

Ah memories. This time last year I was still pumping out reviews every day, even during the festive season. Now I have the luxury of taking my time with my reading – too much time some of you might be thinking. Just the other week I was browsing in Kinokuniya and decided that I wanted to read a fantasy book written by a woman. Perhaps that strikes you as a strange prerequisite, but to my mind the success of Twilight and its ilk proves that there is a huge demand for fantasy literature among women, but the stereotype of the basement dwelling male fan persists. In many respects The Drowning City challenges those preconceptions of fantasy literature, a point I will return to below.

Isyllt Iskaldur is a secret agent from the kingdom of Selafai who travels openly as a necromancer to the occupied territory of Symir. Her mission is to undermine the expansionist Empire that rules the city. The Assari conquerors are resented by the native people of Symir as well as the unquiet dead and it seems all she will need to do is fund the efforts of the revolutionary movement that seeks to topple the occupiers and her task will be complete.

Complications, however, soon ensue. One of her party shortly after their arrival becomes troubled by the nature of their mission and is tempted to defect to the rebels. What’s more, there are schisms within the movement itself, with a group known as Dai Tranh favouring more extreme methods that threaten the lives of the occupiers as well as the native inhabitants of Symir. Then there is her abilities as a necromancer suddenly becoming highly in demand, as spirits are rising up out of anger at the occupation they died fighting to prevent and possessing the bodies of their descendents. Finally Isyllt encounters an imperial mage named Asheris, whom she suspects is himself a double-agent of some kind. In setting in motion the plot of her masters to cripple the Assari Empire, has Isyllt only succeeded in wiping out a city of innocents instead?

What I find fascinating about Downum‘s vision is her fusion of Sino-Arabian influences. The Assari broadly parallel the Ottoman Empire, whereas the culture of Symir is devoutly concerned with spirits and the revering of ancestors. Isyllt encounters a devouring spirit known as a ganghi, a concept similar to Chinese ‘hungry ghosts‘.

This is a welcome inversion on typical fantasy tropes founded on Anglo-European mythology and folktales. I have discussed often on this site the debt modern fantasy owes to Tolkien’s raiding of Saxon and Nordic myths. The Drowning City goes so far as to feature a climax familiar to fans of The Lord of the Rings. Of course the inversion of the X-Y axis of fantasy continues with the genders of these characters, most of whom are female as opposed to the stock standard sword-wielding male bruisers weighing down the shelves in your local store’s fantasy section with their overly detailed biceps.

If I had a complaint about The Drowning City it would be that the points of view of characters chop and change within chapters quite rapidly, with nary a telltale paragraph symbol. I suppose the crests and emblems of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin have left me spoiled in that respect.

This remains a confident and fascinating mixture of storytelling and worldbuilding. The first book of Downum’s series The Necromancer Chronicles, I look forward to the continuing adventures of Isyllt. Betrayal, political intrigue, magic and fraught romance – Downum delivers it all.

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

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 elders had always maintained, without even the slightest wavering on the matter, that we Survivors were the only ones of our kind. But they had taken it so much further than that, insisting that there were no other supernatural creatues in this world, nor had there ever been. Recently, in late night discussions with Lizzie and Sarah, elders with whom I felt close, they had told a few of us tales of how the outside world believed in creatures that God did not create. They had given us some aging copies of literature that a select few from my generation – Noah, Benjamin, and me – were allowed to read. We each got one book that, in turn, we’d end up sharing with each other. Until then, we had only ever read the Bible. Noah received a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Benjamin got a copy of Beowulf, and I got a tattered, gold-lined compilation of Hesiod works including Theogony and Works and Days.

Some months ago I first encounted Amanda Havard over Twitter. She is one of an exciting new generation of writers who fully embrace the potential on blogging and online tools for the purposes of book promotion. It is an exciting development in contemporary writing. I was very happy when Amanda offered me the opportunity to read her novel – an offer I would never have received without the agency of Twitter and my own blogging project.

The story opens with a group of children exiled in the wilderness during the time of the Salem witch trials. Miraculously the majority of the minors survive the outdoor extremes – and take ‘The Survivors’ as their name and the definition of who and what they are.

Then the narrative jumps forward in time several centuries to the present day. We meet Sadie, a Survivor who is travelling to her friend’s wedding. It is quickly revealed that she is an unusual member of the community that has survived in isolation since their exile from the human world. For one – she has left. The Survivors have based themselves rigidly on religious precepts taken from the Bible, searching for a divine explanation for their own supernatural abilities. In addition to long life, each of the colony has certain powers. Sadie is considered undeveloped because her own skills have not evidenced themselves as readily. This outsider status informed her inquisitiveness and her consequent leaving of the colony and everything she has ever known to explain the outside world.

But are the Survivors really alone in this world, or is there more to their mysterious status as as society of immortals?

What I enjoyed the most about this book was how Havard demonstrates how Sadie has acclimatised herself to modern life after centuries of isolated existence. It is quite telling that a story that begins with the Salem witch trials is preceded by a musical quote from Coldplay. Sadie even has a Twitter account (I was tempted to investigate whether it existed or not). The character’s online activities reflect the author’s own online engagement strategy – somewhat meta that. While Sadie has lived a sheltered – obsessively so – life behind the walls of the Survivors’ colony, Havard establishes that she has managed remarkably to cope with the vagaries of the outside world. She is a true Survivor.

The influence of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer is evident here. Personally though I much prefer this work, because its breadth of reference is broader. Yes there is the requisite love triangle of Paranormal Romance, but it is informed by a central character who is legitimately conflicted. She has left behind everything she knows because of simple curiousity and as a narrative motivator, I find that quite a bold choice as opposed to random chance, or the disaffection of Bella Swan.

Also, that title font with the stand-out scarlet ‘S’ is just a delightful stylistic choice.

This is an entertaining and intriguing start to a new Paranormal Romance franchise. I look forward to the next entry in the series.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

 

“If the Deathly Hallows really existed, and Dumbledore knew about them, knew that the person who possessed all of them would be master of Death – Harry, why wouldn’t he have told you? Why?”

He had his answer ready.

“But you said it Hermione! You’ve got to find out about them for yourself! It’s a Quest!”

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I am not a fan of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps that will colour everything I say in a negative light, but despite my opinions on the books I am looking forward to the concluding film. Harry Potter is indisputably a modern-day phenomenon. Any adaptation presents the collaborator with an extraordinary opportunity to tap into a massive audience and perhaps put their own unique spin on then material.

The story opens with the shocking killing of a Hogwarts staff member taken prisoner by the evil Voldemort. His followers, who call themselves Death Eaters, are cowed into submission by the demonstration. The Malfoy family in particular are coming to regret their support of the tyrant, with Lucius left broken by his master’s callousness. Voldemort has discovered that his wand cannot harm Harry Potter and takes Lucius’s to make another attempt to kill the Boy Who Lived.

An opportunity presents itself soon, during an assault on the Order of the Phoenix, whose members including Harry are among the few opponents left standing against the dark wizard. The attack leads to the death of an ally of Harry’s, convincing him that he has to undertake his quest to defeat Voldemort alone. That mission was given to the boy wizard by Dumbledore and in the wake of his death disturbing revelation have begun to shake Harry’s faith in his mentor. Why would this quest to destroy the source of Voldemort’s power, the hidden Horcruxes, be given to a teenage boy? Has he been manipulated into becoming a weapon by the kindly old man he loved so much?

There is a great deal of confusing to-ing and fro-ing in this novel. Harry’s quest serves as much to delay his final confrontation with the now revealed Voldemort as anything, with Rowling‘s introduction of the Deathly Hallows, yet another series of hidden magical items, a further digression. There is also an awful lot of exposition in this book, chiefly concerned with the deceased Dumbledore, who despite being dead persists in reappearing as a ghostly presence throughout the book.

The other point of concern, and this has been a constant for the series, is that Rowling description of Potter’s importance sometimes smacks of Marty Stu-dom. This passage in particular is galling:

Kingsley, I thought you were looking after the Muggle Priminister?” he called across the room.

“He can get along without me for one night,” said Kingsley, “You’re more important.”

It is even more distressing when the narrative’s dogged focus on Harry, who goes into hiding from Voldemort’s forces, means that several dramatic events occur off-camera due to the boy wizard camping out in forests for the best part of a year. For example Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom‘s secret Hogwarts revot sounds like a fantasy-version of Lindsay Anderson’s seminal film If…. but is only referred to in passing.

Still, despite myself I continued turning the pages, eager to learn how the story ends. Yes I find Rowling’s books frustrating to read, but they remain compelling.

‘It was on this precise spot, as I remember it, that Calica stood to address the senate, urging caution in the Empire’s eastern expansion. It was down there that Juvens replied to him, arguing boldness, and carried the day. I watched them, spellbound. Twenty years old, and breathless with excitement. I still recall their arguments, in every detail. Words, my friends. There can be a greater power in words than in all the steel within the Circle of the World.’

‘A blade in your ear still hurts more than a word in it, though,’ whispered Logen. Jezal spluttered with laughter, but Bayaz did not seem to notice. He was too busy hurrying from one stone bench to another.

A few months ago I came across this very interesting discussion by Joe Abercrombie. I had become a fan of the writer since my review and his account of how he was unfavourably compared to J.R.R. Tolkien by Leo Grin raised a grin. This notion of moral relativism in fantasy is quite an amusing one, particularly since the last thing The Lord of the Rings is about is righteousness (Hobbits being made of much softer stuff than warriors and kings, yet in the end winning the day). The comparison was playing on my mind when I began reading this book though.

After the events of the previous novel, Logen Ninefingers finds himself trekking into the wilderness in the company of a legendary wizard, Bayaz First of the Magi, chasing after a long-lost weapon. Colonel West has been handed the unenviable task of ensuring the foppish Crown Prince Ladisla achieves a safe military victory in the Northern territory of Angland. To the south Inquisitor Glokta has been assigned to protect the city of Dagoska from an implaccable foreign army. His mission is hopeless, but he is spurred on by his hatred for the people who broke his body under torture, leaving him a bitter and twisted shell of a man with a razor sharp mind.

With the business of introducing the cast of this series done by The Blade Itself, Abercrombie concentrates on delivering sizable conflicts on a grand scale. The siege of Dagoska in particular is horrific, with Glokta using every trick he can think of to stall the Gurkish army in their progress. West finds himself in the centre of a rout when the arrogance of the Crown Prince, and a peculiarly wily enemy who outmaneuvers the main body of the army, forces him to flee a devastating assault. In the company of a motley gang of Northmen exiles he desperately tries to hang on to his civilized bearing and perform his duty in protecting the life of Ladisla. Unfortunately nothing would make him happier than to take the selfish prig’s life.

To all intents and purposes it is Logen’s sections of the series that supposedly describe the central narrative. Abercrombie gives us a sense of scale with the different outbreaks of war, but Ninefingers and his fellow adventurers are evidently on a quest, of the sort most common in fantasy novels. This is where I began to think of the comparison made by the uppity Grin. As it happens much of the material was disturbingly familiar. Bayaz is a flawed and occasionally unreliable magus, much in the way of Gandalf the Gray. The group visit the devastated city of Aulcus, which reminded me a little of Moria with its ominous shadows and incredible grandeur gone to rot.

My worry is that fantasy novels invariably begin to plough the same furroughs. I could mention that Robert Jordan also echoed Moria with his Shadar Logoth, yet another haunted city. Just how many wizards and weather-beaten warriors have traipsed before our eyes on the page over the years. The author here has a running joke that the magi all speak in riddles and circumlocutions, which few of the other characters have any patience for, a welcome criticism of the genre.

Abercrombie’s theme though is that the characters in this series The First Law Trilogy are in effect all monsters. Some are simply better at hiding it than others.

Perhaps the material is familiar, but Abercrombie still invests his writing with far more bite than most out there. Plus these books are very entertaining and deliciously black humoured. I cannot wait to read the next entry.

Before They Are Hanged Joe Abercrombie

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