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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

 

The book of war, the one we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another, was completely useless in this situation. We had to write a new one from scratch.

I reread Brooks’ follow up to the Zombie Survival Guide just as news broke that Glasgow had been converted into downtown zombie besieged Philadelphia for the Brad Pitt film adaptation. That earlier book featured a series of tongue-in-cheek survival techniques for dealing with the imminent time of the undead rising to feed upon the flesh of the living. If you go into a bookstore you’ll like as not find the Guide in the humour section. But the interesting section in the book was its latter half when Brooks introduced a series of short ‘histories’ featuring zombies tropes being applied to a number of unfamiliar settings. My favourite was the zombies in the French Foreign Legion narrative.

For World War Z Brooks revealed that the zombie apocalypse has already happened and following years of hardship humanity is slowly rebuilding itself. This time the storytelling device is that our narrator is a bureaucrat traveling around the world assembling a report on the outbreak of the mysterious disease that caused the ghouls and how it led to the breakdown of civilized society.

The one and one interviews between the narrator and the individuals he meets allows Brooks to introduce a series of contrasting genres into the monotonous zombie horror format. There are military exercises, home invasions, scientific inquiries, political satire – World War Z becomes a wide-ranging critique of many aspects of contemporary culture.

With brain-munching on the side.

Given the variation between the interviews, the tone shifts drastically from ‘objective’ reportage, to comedy, tragedy – even psychological suspense. There has been much comment over the years in relation to the celebrity cameos hidden in the text, from an apathetic Paris Hilton, to Howard Dean and even Nelson Mandela. There is even something blackly comical about Brooks pitching that the only event that could lead the political parties of the United States to unite is the near annihilation of the human race. As such this functions in the best tradition of post-George Romero zombie horror, happy to indulge in both gore and allegory.

There is no plot as such in this book. Rather this is a fictional history of the events that follow the outbreak of World War Z. Brooks was apparently inspired by the documented history of the second world war. Despite this the book is genuinely powerful, avoiding the calculated phrasing of the official report it will come to create. Indeed the narrator frequently alludes to how the official account will exclude much of the personal detail included here. That is possibly the smartest aspect of the book, how it balances the immensity of the horror unleashed with the ‘official version of events’. Compare this to Seeing by José Saramago, the sequel to Blindness, where we discover the government has completely buried the spontaneous lose of sight of an entire city’s population. Ultimately the characters introduced by Brooks are left to deal with the sights they have witnessed and the tragedies they have experienced alone.

This is an instant horror classic, which rises above its brain-dead peers.

World War Z

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.

‘Do you mean to say,’ he began, ‘that if I take the trouble to observe your directions – place myself in the condition which you demand: solitude, night, and a tallow candle – you can with your ghastliest work give me an uncomfortable sense of the supernatural, as you call it? Can you accelerate my pulse, make me start at sudden noises, send a nervous chill along my spine, and cause my hair to rise?’

Before Robert W. Chambers, before H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, there was Ambrose Bierce. The increasingly more excessive supernatural tone of their stories, with an equal increase in the overwrought standard of prose – at least in certain examples of the above, was initially derived from Bierce’s use of melancholic horror.

His name is often mentioned as one of the founders of the Cthulu Mythos, which would have been much to his amusement I imagine. For the horrors he unleashes are neither squamous, nor cyclopean, but often the very real horror of war. Certainly this collection of short stories, divided into two sections ‘Soldiers’, and ‘Civilians’, is rooted heavily in the events of the American Civil War, with the division of families and loved ones a recurring theme. What there is of the supernatural on show is weighted by Bierce’s own agnosticism.

The afterlife here is not so much damnation below, or a heavenly reward, but that brief moment when the dying soldier imagines that they have escaped their fate. There’s an excellent line in the story Parker Adderson, Philosopher that illustrates Bierce’s perspective on religion. A Union soldier – the Union throughout is referred to as ‘Federal’, which was a term I was unfamiliar with in this context – has been arrested by the Confederate army as a spy. Parker Adderson proves to be a witty and bemused subject for interrogation, engaging the enemy Confederate general in a battle of words. When it is made clear that he will be executed, Adderson refuses to speak to any priest, as he says: You can hang me, general, but there your power of evil ends; you cannot condemn me to heaven.

A Horseman In The Sky and The Coup De Grace both treat of the costs the war brought to bear on families, with fathers turned against sons and husbands leaving wives and offspring to a doubtful fate when called to the field. The former story features a native Virginian following his principles and joining the army from the North, setting him against his family and community. The hallucinatory story Chickamauga, resembling at times a gory Hideo Nakata movie, shows how children playing soldier games are blind to the inhumanity of the battlefield.

Cthulu scholars should read An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haita the Shepherd with interest as both stories feature names of gods and places referred to by successive authors, although the deity known as Hastur here appears in a far more benevolent form than in later supernatural fiction. The opening story The Suitable Surroundings, from which my opening quotation was taken, even has an early progenitor of the ‘evil book’, trope although once again, Bierce’s materialism does not allow for the amorphous threat posed by the Necronomicon. In fact I would argue his matter of fact scary story is far more frightening, as it is more plausible than outer gods threatening our reality through the gateway of mouldering, old books.

The real star of the collection though is Bierce’s seminal story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. This is an excellent study in suspense, with the protagonist a civilian devoted to the Confederate cause attempting to aid them and survive capture by the Federal soldiers. The story is as much a study of the lengths a man can go to when motivated by feelings of patriotism, as it is a mediation on death itself. An excellent story.

Many of Bierce’s writings can be found in different collections. This book that I have read was published in 1964 and his reputation has grown since then thanks to the generous credit given to him by contemporary Lovecraft scholars.

Suspenseful, thoughtful and chilling, this is classic supernatural fiction that does not stretch plausibility.

“Where in God’s name did you come from? Who are you?” burst out Mr. Burton frantically.

“I can’t tell you exactly who I am,” replied the querulous whine, “because I’ve only been born a few hours – but my last name is certainly Button.”

“You lie! You’re an imposter!”

The old man turned wearily to the nurse. “Nice way to welcome a new-born child,” he complained in a weak voice. “Tell him he’s wrong, why don’t you?”

I originally intended to review Walter Scott’s Rob Roy for today, but given the season I have decided to review a series of fantastical stories over the next few days. This was inspired after I read today’s io9 article written by Michael Farrant complaining that there are no decent horror novels out there anymore. I also think I will track down John Lindqvist’s latest novel, as I was very impressed by the English translations of Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead.

As to Benjamin Button well it is a very particular kind of adult fairy tale that treats of the deathless phrase ‘youth is wasted on the young’. Not quite Halloween you might say, but it is no less concerned with that most essential element of horror – our fear of dying.

Roger Button is a young man of means living a respectable life in the city of Baltimore. Happily married and having the good fortune to be able to count on any number of relations belonging to the old families of the antebellum South, he is the very definition of a southern gentleman on the make. So it is an absolute scandal when having booked his wife into a fine modern hospital that the issue of their loins should prove to be Methuseleh himself! The family doctor and the attending staff are convinced that Mr Button has set out to fool them somehow and insist he remove the aged child from the grounds immediately. The infant, whose parents eventually give the name Benjamin, is bemused by all the fuss his arrival has caused. His relationship with his father is forever coloured by that sense of initial shock and embarrassment which his birth caused.

Childhood proves to be quite a dull affair for the young/old Benjamin, who resembles an aged gentlemen of some sixty years or so, but finds himself forced to interact with insensible toy soldiers and playthings that do little to alleviate his boredom. Instead he studies dictionaries and encyclopedias in secret, as well as treating himself to a stolen cigar or two. He may be an infant, but he has the appetites and intelligence of a mature man, something Roger refuses to acknowledge. For the sake of the Button family’s social standing, Benjamin must continue to act like a child. Despite these efforts the myth of a strange child with the appearance of a wizened old man continues to grow. Roger fears he will die of embarrassment.

As Benjamine continues to grow young he discovers his body becoming stronger, his wit more adept. He falls in love for the first time and weathers this further scandal of marrying a bride seemingly twenty years his junior with aplomb. Rejection by the admission’s board of Yale University fills him with a burning desire to revenge himself on that august establishment, but for the mean time he concentrates on running his father’s business. Together the two men share a life in their prime, both appearing to be brothers at fifty. However, despite his condition, Benjamin’s loved ones refused to understand how little control he has over his de-aging. It is not the done thing. For the duration of his existence it becomes clear he will be something of a family embarrassment.

Fitzgerald writes this story in a manner of a wry and worldly children’s storybook. The social mores of Benjamin’s lifetime are treated with good humoured contempt, with the author and the infant Button both bemused at how people care so much about such silly things. For as he becomes younger it is made clear that Benjamin has the right of it, despite swimming against the current in such a seemingly rebellious manner. His ending becomes asurrender into soft thinking and soft flesh, Fitzgerald closing his tale with a flourish.

This edition carries a series of illustrations by Calef Brown that match the ironical nursery book tone of the prose. A wonderfully gentle fable about old age and death.

An overwhelming noise hit him, a bustling, howling sound, tumultuous in its overall effect. Listened to individually, however, the sounds were only whispers. Coarse and parched. Burnt voices.

One thing that I do not understand about Horror fiction is why it is often so overwritten. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski was to my mind the best horror novel of that last decade – and yet! It certainly was not written in a simple or direct manner. What the genre needs is a George Orwell-type, capable of describing a sense of dread with uncomplicated language. James Herbert is not that writer. However, the premise of The Survivor initially seemed to be quite a simple one.

A 747 passenger jet crashes just outside the town of Eton. Out of the wreckage a single figure emerges, the co-pilot of the flight. Miraculously he is completely unhurt. In fact his clothing is neither torn, nor even singed. David Keller’s survival is seen as an example of freakish good fortune at first, although soon the public begins to view the man with suspicion. His claims of amnesia provide no insight into how three hundred lives were so tragically lost and his employers at the airline realize he is no good to them as a pilot. They give him an extended period of paid leave in lieu of laying him off for fear of negative publicity. Keller himself wonders if somehow he was responsible for the crash, if his negligence led to the deaths of all the passengers on board. The victims include his air-stewardess girlfriend Cathy, as well as his mentor Captain Rogan. Keller has flashes of Rogan shouting angrily at him on the days leading up to the crash. Might their falling out have led to the disaster?

Meanwhile the townsfolk of Eton are disturbed by a rapid increase in the number of accidental deaths surrounding the site of the crash. The body of a local shopkeeper is found by the river, seemingly having collapsed as a result of a heart attack. A married couple fall to their deaths from their bedroom window. A school boy is discovered dismembered on train tracks. Unbeknownst to the people of Eton a single malevolent force is behind all of these deaths, one that is growing stronger each day. Keller is contacted by a reluctant spiritualist who claims that the souls of the dead are calling on him to aid them, but warns that there is another force at work. A demonic presence that was already on board the flight, that refuses to accept death.

This is a very grim and gruesome little tale. On the one hand the vengeful spirits of the flight passengers stalking the townspeople of Eton provide ample opportunity for Herbert to describe burnt flesh and grasping, skeletal claws. On the other, we have the moral turpitude of almost every single character within the book. Everyone is either an adulterer, corrupt, mad, or in the unfortunate example of the school boy, too fat to live. Then there is the villain of the piece, a composite figure of Aleister Crowley and Oswald Mosley. Did Herbert read over an early draft of the novel and think to himself ‘well, sure, murdering ghosts who resemble burn victims are all well and good, but what this book really needs is undead satanic anti-semites!’

Also apparently Catholic priests have superpowers. Anglican clerics haven’t a hope though.

As a result I found myself struggling to care whether anyone lived, or not. There is an attempt to address some larger themes, such as this passage: Keller had wondered how assassins of this magnitude justified their actions – [..] Their own madness justified it for them. To them, the whole world was guilty.

Yet Herbert makes no effort to counter this idea. An old man, who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the novel, seems to represent the notion that the only purpose in life is to survive for as long as possible.

Anyway, so I’m reading about the ghostly whispering, the apparitions of the dead, an immoral cast of characters, the plane crash survivor guided by some unseen purpose to defeat evil – and it hit me. This book is an awful lot like J.J. AbramsLost! Sure Eton is no desert island, but thematically the two stories are quite alike (both end inconclusively too). Maybe Herbert’s publishers should look into this.

Overall I found this book to be depressing and unsatisfying.

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