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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

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.

On top of this blog and my magazine internship, I have taken on yet another writing gig. Tastes Like Comics is a recently launched comic website that is looking to offer more than just reviews of the latest releases, with a number of columns from different writers featuring interviews, essays and even parodies.

I am having great fun and I invite you to check out what the folks over on TLC have got up to since launch.

You Are Here opens in the countryside idyll of Phoenicia in upstate New York, looking for all the world like a classic Disney enchanted forest. A cute raccoon even appears, seemingly on the point of breaking into a musical number with a beautiful princess. Instead he enters a cottage in the middle of the woodland, revealing an interior filled with pastel-coloured paintings of flowers. The artist in question is one very grumpy New Yorker, Noel Coleman. For the past year Noel has been living a life of bliss with the beautiful and unflappably charming Helen, a woman who does share all the qualities of a Disney princess. She even talks to the animals. Noel’s problem is he has been lying to her the entire time.

He is not an artist with an abiding interest in florals, but a former jewel thief with an extremely sordid past. Hoping to leave all that behind him, Noel travels back to Manhattan to sell his apartment. When he encounters some former friends, the general assumption is that he has been in prison for the past year. He quickly slips back into some bad habits – smoking, heavy drinking, eyeing the girls – but then an old enemy gets out of prison with murder on his mind, the police are on his trail and Helen then arrives, expecting to introduced to the many high-brow academics and artists Noel invented as part of his tapestry of lies, as opposed to the drunks and strippers he is actually friends with. Murder, mayhem and high speed pursuit on horseback through Central Park soon follow.

This is a classic book, a genuinely hysterical comic teaming with fantastic art courtesy of Kyle Baker. I first encountered Baker through his miniseries for Marvel Comics, Truth: Red, White & Black. The series had the ingenious idea of marrying the origins of Captain America, that symbol of national patriotism who was created by a secret military experiment, to the real-life history of the Tuskegee experiments. The story reveals how before Captain America was created, the military first experimented on African American test subjects. Baker’s satire was razor sharp, his art perversely cartoonish and despite the widespread online condemnation of the series, I absolutely loved it.

You Are Here is similarly perverse. Noel yearns to be a ‘happy person’, like Helen, hence her Disney-esque life in the forest. Pollyana-esque, he is horrified when she turns her sunbeam charm on drug-dealers, muggers and worst of all – rush-hour traffic drivers. Manhattan is almost a different kind of reality, a fallen world that slowly reclaims Noel, pulling him to its sordid bosom.

The art throughout is very amusing, especially Baker’s decision to visually model killer Vaughan on Robert Mitchum, released from prison with a best-selling novel titled ‘Yes I Did It And I’ll Kill Again’. The script is rendered alongside the panels like a film storyboard, used to great effect when Helen is accosted by a number of different ethnic New Yorkers, with the competing voices overlaid on top of each other to  illustrate the linguistic confusion.

This is a great hybrid of romance and crime thriller, gut-bustingly funny with fantastic art.

“Dirk Pitt of the National Underwater Marine Agency.” The voice was quiet and deep, but there was nothing evil or menacing about it. “This is an honor. I have followed your exploits over the years with some interest and occasional amusement.”

Among certain friends of mine I am notorious for my love of terrible films. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, Shay Casserley and James Bennett’s Fatal Deviation – these are classic examples of trash cinema, that I nevertheless love irrationally. Now Breck Eisner’s Sahara is nowhere near as terrible as these two Ed Wood-like classics, but it was pretty bad.

Guess what. I liked it. It is certainly not a good film, but it has its charms. Matthew McConnaughy’s performance as Dirk Pitt is nothing to write home about, but the banter with Steve Zahn as best friend Al Giordino makes the film for me. I hoped that I would find this book by Clive Cussler as enjoyable.

Six months after a prototype nuclear submarine, the Starbuck, disappears somewhere in the Pacific, Dirk Pitt’s afternoon on a deserted beach in Hawaii is rudely interrupted by the appearance of a bright yellow cylinder just over the waves. Inside he discovers a series of messages from the captain of the missing vessel, hinting at a horrific underwater tragedy. Pitt drives straight to the office of Admiral Leigh Hunter, commander of the 101st salvage fleet, whose startled reception of this stranger wearing little more than bathing trunks is silenced when he presents the cannister. As he happened to discover the information on the lost vessel, Pitt is seconded from the National Underwater Marine Agency to Hunter’s command, on a mission to locate the Starbuck.

The night before he is due to depart Pitt finds himself in a hotel bar being literally fought over by two women, with the winner then turning on him and attempting to poison him with a hypodermic needle. A second attempt on his life is made by an assassin who tries to drive him off a mountain road. Despite his sudden popularity with exotic killers, Pitt proceeds with the mission to recover the submarine. Partnered with Commander Boland, Pitt discovers that their vessel, the Martha Ann, is actually a disguised naval vessel that resembles a rusted salvage ship. Boland proudly reveals the sophisticated equipment on board, only to be slightly deflated when Pitt claims to already be familiar with most of it through his work with NUMA. The ship sets off and thanks to Pitt’s intuition they quickly discover a graveyard of vessels on the pacific floor. To their surprise, not only do they locate the Starbuck, but there is no sign of the crew and the nuclear engines are intact. But the longer the Martha Ann stays in the region, Pitt fears they will all suffer the same fate of every vessel claimed by the ‘Pacific Vortex’.

In many ways, Cussler’s novels seem related to the Flint movie series, which portrayed an American version of Ian Fleming‘s James Bond character. Unlike the British government assassin, all ice-cold professionalism, Pitt is rambunctious and a risk-taker. However, he shares Bond’s libido, even casually threatening to rape a female assassin at one point in order to intimidate her. Given how avuncular he seems during his interactions with the navy officers, this makes for an uncomfortable note of misogyny. He also takes the time to lecture a former lover on her sex-life shortly before she beaten, much to his amusement, by the same assassin.

In fan-fiction there is a term that fits here, Gary Stu. Pitt is good at everything, his instincts are never wrong and he can survive incredible physical exertion. He punches a shark! In short – he’s a Rambo on the high seas.

What I did enjoy was Cussler’s obvious love of maritime technology. The prose comes to life when describing the various ships sunk by the villainous conspiracy behind the pacific vortex and I understand the author has dedicated a lot of effort to recovering shipwrecks. Yes, there is a real-life NUMA.

I suspect that Cussler’s work is not for me, but as he has blitzed the best-seller charts with every book in the Pitt series there are plenty of other fans out there.

The custom of the Northmen reveres the life of war. Verily these huge men fight continually; they are never at peace, neither among themselves nor among different tribes of their kind. They sing songs of their warfare and bravery, and believe that the death of a warrior is the highest honor.

‘cough’, ok time for Emmet to do some name-dropping.

This one time, Seamus Heaney nicked my glass of wine. That is the end of the anecdote. You may applaud.

In 1999 Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was published. I remember at the time I thought it an excellent reintroduction to the text, as well as a neat commentary on the epic poem’s privileged status in English literature, courtesy of the author’s stylistic choices. John Gardner’s Grendel is another excellent parody and commentary on the text, one which I would happily recommend to anyone.

I never realized Michael Crichton had had a go as well.

Eaters of the Dead concerns the adventures of a scholar from Baghdad, named Ahmad ibn Fadlan in Northern Europe. Actually his full name is given as: “Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, ibnal-Abbas, ibn-Rasid, ibn-Hammad.” Courtesy of a dalliance with a merchant’s wife (Crichton makes it clear that Fadlan is all man), the Caliph sends him on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars to instruct the people there in the Muslim religion, at the request of their king.

Crichton’s authorial voice appears throughout the book commenting on Fadlan’s ‘historical’, account of what happened next.

After passing through 10th century Turkey, Fadlan and his party encounter a group of vikings, led by the warrior Buliwyf. Through a combination of superstition and the sheer martial superiority of the Northern ‘barbarians’, Fadlan becomes an unwilling member of a mission to liberate a King Rothgar from so-called ‘mist-monsters’.

The majority of the narrative is concerned with the cultural differences between Fadlan and the twelve warriors who have press-ganged him. Unfortunately this tends to boil down to various vikings calling him a ‘stupid Arab’, or his admiration for their sexual prowess.

In fact there is not a single female character in this story. King Rothgar’s queen is mentioned and a proxy ‘Grendel’s mother’, is unveiled, but for the most part the women in this story are simply there to be sexually available to Buliwyf and his men. Fadlan is at first ashamed at public displays of sexuality and retreats making obeisance to Allah, but eventually he joins in.

Oh and the Grendel of old Saxon legend is revealed to be a tribe of ‘wendols’, or as Crichton makes clear in the afterward, neanderthals. I have a number of problems with this demystified take, not least of which the 10th century setting, as well as the descriptions of these neanderthals riding horseback. I was under the impression that not only would this bipedal species have long been extinct by the period of Crichton’s choosing, they would also be too large to be carried by horses.

Secondly the wendols are revealed to be a matriarchal society that worships a stone carving of a pregnant woman. The vikings react with disgust at sightings of her icons and when combined with the unusual emphasis on male virility throughout the book, a disturbing subtext begins to emerge.

This is a very peculiar book. As a fantasy it is a failure, a pale imitation of Beowulf. Vikings are a source of fascination for modern readers still and I wonder if it is because the simplistic take on their civilization – war-mongering sea-raiders, much given to slaughter and rapine – is not as morally conflicted as the European culture that followed. In that sense Crichton’s work is yet another indulgence in vicariously enjoying a life unfettered by contemporary mores.

Once again though my main objection to this author’s work is his insistence on pretending to pseudo-science. With Eaters of the Dead Crichton is attempting a revisionist work, challenging our perception of viking culture, while at the same time introducing contemporary prejudices into the narrative. This is a trend that would eventually led to his becoming held up as a authoritative global warming sceptic – following the publication of his book State of Fear, which was a work of fiction, but once again attempted to sit on two stools, occasioning much criticism.

Crichton writes at one point: “But Ibn Fadlan was a writer, and his principal aim was not entertainment [...] his tone is that of a tax auditor, not a bard; an anthropologist, not a dramatist.” Stangely fitting that.

“Most men have no purpose but to exist, Abraham; to pass quietly through history as minor characters upon a stage they cannot even see. To be the playthings of tyrants. But you…you were born to fight tyranny. It is your purpose, Abraham. To free men from the tyranny of vampires.”

When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out in 2009 it was an instant hit. I remember picking it up on my way to work, leaving it on my desk while I went to get a coffee and returning to find my boss reading it. After eventually wresting it from his hands, I got to check out this literary ‘mash-up‘, for myself. I was surprised to discover that Jane Austen meets zombies turned out not to be just an off-hand gimick. In fact I thought Grahame-Smith did a great job of reinforcing the themes of the original novel. Throwing in some zombies and ninjas helped, but I detected an incisive intelligence beneath the blood and grue.

This book is Grahame-Smith’s second in the sub-genre of horror mash-ups, although instead of throwing supernatural elements into a classic text he has taken the life of Abraham Lincoln as his ‘source text’.

Born in the wild frontierlands of Kentucky, Lincoln grew up with little formal education, but a burning desire to learn. In contrast to his lackadaisical father, his is physically active and eager to earn his own keep. In fact it is due to his father’s debts that the two most pivotal events in Lincoln’s early life occur. Firstly, at the age of ten, he loses his beloved mother to a mysterious illness. Secondly, he learns of the existence of vampires.

Believing his father responsible for the death of his mother, a consequence of the devilish fiend who murdered her seeking an alternate form of payment, he becomes consumed by anger at both his surviving parent and the entire species of vampires. Faster and stronger than humans, when revealed in their true state their eyes are black as coals and they possess prominent fangs. They hide in cities and roam the countryside looking for their prey. As the teenage Lincoln despairs “How could I worhsip a God who would permit [vampires] to exist? He sets about learning all he can about the vampire, after swearing to kill every last one of them in America.

Of course he is no match for the preternatural creatures. It is only through his unusual friendship with Henry Sturges, a sympathetic vampire and the sole survivor of the ill-fated Roanoke colony, that he acquires the necessary training and knowledge to fight the undead. Over the years Lincoln becomes a more proficient hunter, even recruiting other men to join him on his quest. The vampire is a hidden creature, but in certain circles its presence in America is well-known. Slave-owners and corrupt businessmen who have profited by associating with the monsters aid and abet them in their murders. Lincoln eventually decides to enter politics so that he can effect real change throughout the nation and defeat a second enslavement of humanity.

Initially my hackles were raised by the prospect of American slavery being portrayed here as entirely the invention of vampires. “So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires.” This seemed to me one fictionalisation of history too many. Thankfully Grahame-Smith anticipates this in the plot.

There is real fun to be had here with its mixture of history and fantasy. Some of the author’s inventions are quite amusing. I especially loved the introduction of Edgar Allan Poe into the narrative, who expresses a ghoulish fascination with vampires, quite unlike Lincoln’s determined drive to eliminate their race. The book also has a canny sense of its own ridiculousness. Chapters have a tendency to end with a clever quip and there is some great banter between Lincoln and his vampire hunting colleagues. Of course, seeing as this is a horror novel, there are scenes of graphic violence, cleverly married to the excesses of war. The American Civil War is not only the backdrop to the climax of the novel, but a staging ground for a final battle between humans and vampires.

The novel’s framing device is that Grahame-Smith himself has been approached by a vampire with a collection of aged diaries belonging to Lincoln, revealing the existence of the undead. It is an entertaining conceit, one that allows for extensive artistic licence.

Well executed and very amusing.

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