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There’s something about your own name in someone else’s handwriting that gives you an instant blip of recognition, even when you meet it in unusual circumstances. And this certainly counted as unusual in my book. For one thing, it was written backwards, from right to left: but then, that was because it had been written on the inside of the car windscreen, by someone sitting in the driver’s seat. More strikingly, it was written in blood.

When I first read Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know I was pleased with his mixture of Chandlerisms and references to Vertigo Comic’s John Constantine, with protagonist Felix Castor also a Scouser with paranormal abilities. Thankfully Carey was able to go further with his own literary sandbox, introducing themes and ideas that might not have gone over to well with DC editors looking to develop further sequels to the mediocre Constantine film. The three titles in the series preceding the subject of today’s review are fast-moving supernatural thrillers, with Felix Castor a sometime-exorcist by trade, trying to make a living in a post-Millennium London that is teaming with werewolves, zombies, demons and ghosts.

This book quickly introduces the status quo, without leaving new readers lost. I would recommend reading Castor’s previous adventures, just to get a feel for the universe Carey has fashioned, as well as the excellent supporting cast.

Thicker Than Water opens with a daring heist, of sorts, with Castor and his partner Juliet (a succubus whose actual name is Ajulutsikael, but that’s not important right now) absconding from a private hospital with a very special patient. Some years ago Castor botched an exorcism involving his friend Rafael Ditko, which body was then transformed into a cell for a very powerful demon named Asmodeus. For years Castor has played a game of brinkmanship with the creature, managing to keep it sedated for brief periods so that Ditko can enjoy some peace. Until that is word got around about the powerful demon trapped in a human’s body and a court order was issued releasing him into the custody of old rival’s of Castor’s, who dearly wish to see what makes a creature such as Asmodeus tick.

After everything seems to go according to plan, Castor tries to lie low. Ditko is safely stashed away at a friend’s househouse. His landlord Pen gets to visit her old boyfriend for a conjugal visit or two while the demon is slumbering. And his buddy Nicky, the paranoid zombie, has invited him around to watch a private screening of Blade Runner in his own restored cinema. Then everything goes wrong fast.

Castor is implicated in the stabbing of a man named Kenny Seddon. Not only did he grow up with the victim in Liverpool, the severely wounded man managed to write the exorcist’s name in his own blood at the crime scene. As a suspect Castor is ordered to stay at home for questioning, but suspecting a fit-up, he returns to investigate Seddon’s home at Salisbury estate, a vast perpendicular warren of tower flats and narrow over-passes. There he discovers a malign, vicious miasma of evil, infecting the ordinary families living in the towers with a thirst for blood and violence. Somehow it is all connected to Felix and his childhood. And only Asmodeus knows what it wants.

First off this book is a great leap in quality from the preceding entries. I enjoyed them for what they were, but thought the formula was beginning to wear a bit thin. Carey has positioned all his pieces nicely for this book, allowing for greater depth with a more personal touch entering the proceedings. Castor’s childhood and his relationship with his brother Matt the priest is dwelled upon, we learn more about the nature of demons, adding to the already impressive world-building of the series and his rivalry with the demon Asmodeus finally comes to the fore.

New characters are introduced, including a zombie with a woman’s voice and a team of Catholic exorcists with fewer qualms about eliminating souls than Castor. The overall feel of the book is that of a more pop-culture literate William Blatty, with a fine line in Scouse banter. There’s even a dig at Blair-era Labour cynicism, as well as themes relating to adolescent self-harm.

Castor’s the kind of bloke you’d enjoy having a pint with, but would never want to owe a favour to. Check out this series and enjoy his company – from a distance.

A note about the text. You have read my writing, Robert. This account may seem unlike it. The reason – I am limited by my transcriber. My thoughts must travel through her mind. I cannot surmount that. All the grains will not pass through the filter.

Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend has been a favourite of mine for years. Tautly written, but with a fantastical premise (the last man alive is besieged by an army of vampires) I read it in a single sitting. So I was looking forward to reading something else by Matheson.

The story begins with Robert Nielsen, the brother of the protagonist Chris, receiving a mysterious package from a distraught woman who shows up at his door one night. He discovers that it is a manuscript supposedly dictated to the anonymous woman, a psychic as it turns out, from beyond the grave by his dead brother. The account initially is flawed by misspellings and mistakes due to the woman’s poor vocabulary, patiently corrected by Chris.

It describes the moment of his death, his subsequent disorientation and eventual acceptance that he has died. He witnesses his own funeral, watches as his family struggle to cope with their loss. His son Ian has a growing interest in ESP and invites a psychic to attempt to contact his father. He is successful, even reading Chris’ lips for the benefit of his disbelieving and traumatized wife. However, Ann refuses to believe in the existence of an afterlife and Chris is forced to move on to a non-denominational Heaven.

“Heaven. Homeland. Harvest. Summerland,” he said. “Take your choice.”

This realm of existence is purely psychical, with Chris able to travel instantaneously, manifest objects at will and visit any perfect idyll he can imagine. Even his dead dog Katie is there waiting for him. His guide in the afterlife, Albert, explains that soon Ann will join him in ‘heaven’, as they are soul mates and destined to be together forever. First he must grow accustomed to the new rules of his existence and focus on improving his spiritual self. Despite the incredible sights of Heaven, Chris is unable to forget about Ann and continues to have visions of her experiencing pain back on Earth. Then Albert comes to him with the news that she has committed suicide and, because she refuses to believe in life after death, has been condemned to a private hell of her own making. Chris determinedly sets out to rescue his wife from this nightmarish torture, travelling through a series of hells that threaten to enmesh his own soul, trapping him forever.

Was this the place that Dante had confronted in his awful visions?

What Dreams May Come is in effect a reversal of Dante’s classic text, with Chris travelling in the opposite direction in search of his deceased ‘Beatrice’. However, Matheson’s book is frustratingly vague, with references to faddish theories of the paranormal, such as ‘etheric doubles’, auras and pan-psychism. God is spoken of, but all religions are described as imperfect attempts at describing life after death. In effect Chris’ Heaven resembles Plato’s description of a realm of ideal forms.

I also strongly disliked the stylistic choice of the story’s opening, with Chris harassing a psychic to write down his message to his brother for months on end apparently. It is made clear she is less educated than him, incapable of transcribing (at least initially until Matheson decides to abandon that stylistic quirk) her haunt’s thoughts into words. This idea of a Heaven composed of egotistical souls looking to use Earthbound humans as vassals for their thoughts and discoveries (apparently inspiration is the result of a divine ‘trickle down effect’, from the empyrean realm) is incredibly insulting. Chris, Albert and the other members of the host strike me as smug and condescending. Atheism is of course a passport to innumerable hells of suffering and pain, which is interesting. This version of the afterlife is non-denominational and egalitarian, except in the instance of non-believers. They are punished for their venality.

The book eventually is revealed to be an instruction manual of sorts, as to how we should comport ourselves to death. It’s an interesting theme, but one that I feel is rendered absurd by the descriptions of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’.

I found this book to be at once frustrating and dull. A real shame.

Things will get better. In fifteen years’ time and that’s such a little space – 90 per cent of the people living in Britain will be over eighty. There won’t be the energy from evil any more than there will be the energy for good.

I have got to stop reviewing books that have been adapted to film. I waste most of the review commenting on the differences between the film and the text. Plus this blog is dedicated to books and yet my love of cinema insists on creeping back in.

Still I was astonished at how much the screenplay based on P.D. James‘ novel diverged from the text. In his commentary on the dvd for Children of Men philosopher Slavoj Zizek comments on how the religious subtext of the book is dropped for more cinematic themes such as terrorism and a breakdown in multicultural society.

Both stories come from the same root, however. By 2021 the human race is doomed by a worldwide epidemic of childlessness that has lasted twenty five years. Theo Faron a fifty-year-old Oxford historian has begun a diary that provides us with an insight into how the quiet extinction of the human race has changed Britain. A new system of governance has taken over in the wake of global panic, ruled by his cousin Xan Lyppiatt, the Warden of England. Under his rule order has been restored to the country due to his wide-ranging policy changes and of course the increasing depopulation. Cities are quiet and safe. Criminals are deported to the Isle of Man. Immigrants from other countries are invited to England to do menial jobs, referred to as Sojourners, but are returned to their countries of origin once they become elderly.

The infertility event is designated Omega, with the last generation of humans born in 1995 known as Omegas. Theo describes them as being over-entitled, spoiled brats, who regard their elders with undisguised contempt. There are even rumours that there are roaming gangs of Omegas in the abandoned English countryside. Their youth is something incomprehensible and threatening to the dispassionate and increasingly listless older population. Some women who were of child-bearing at the time of Omega have never recovered from the psychological trauma. Dolls are wheeled about in prams in imitation of real children. There are even christenings of newborn pets. Animals it appears were spared divine punishment.

Theo’s diary also describes his relationship with Xan and  their time spent together as children, which allows him to believe he is untouchable even as his concerns about the nature of his cousin’s power over Britain grows. He is contacted by a small group of dissidents, the Five Fishes, who contact him in the hope that he can use his influence with Xan to repeal some of his policies. Initially dismissive of their utopian plans,Theo is an unwilling co-conspirator, until he is given a reason to hope for a possible future for the human race. It takes nothing less than a genuine miracle to wipe away his privileged sceptism.

At times Theo Faron feels like a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel who somehow became lost and wandered into this listless dystopia. James herself draws attention to this, by having Xan utter the line “How too Brideshead, dear boy. I feel the need of a teddy bear.” The early half of Children of Men is a fantastic eulogy to a dying Britain, with Theo a curator for a culture that will soon vanish, singing the praises of emptying churches, libraries and museums. The violent Omegas are strangely alien to him, remiscent of  The Midwich Cuckoos and Burgess’ Droogs (much like Alex’s friends, some are even conscripted into the police). The abandoned villages and seaside holiday resorts transformed into destinations for assisted suicide are beautifully evoked.

However, as Theo becomes more and more involved with the Five Fishes the novel changes, becoming an unusual mixture of thriller and religious allegory. Incredibly P.D. James has fashioned a twenty-first century neo-Nativity. Xan makes for a charming Herod, a politician who acquired ideology to suit his passage to power and finds it difficult to relinquish, even in the face of the end of the world. There is an amusing aside when The Beatles classic All You Need is Love becomes a rallying cry for evangelists.

Children of Men is more a novel of ideas than a work of science fiction, questioning the meaning of life without purpose. Remarkable.

Corporate Cannibal, Boarding Gate, Southland Tales and Gamer have almost nothing in common – except for the fact that they all belong to, and they all express, a common world. This is the world we live in: a world of hypermediacy [...]

Writing this review is a real treat for me. I have been following the career of Steven Shaviro for almost a decade now after discovering his online work Doom Patrols one evening while browsing the internet for information about Philip Pullman‘s Galatea. Not only did I discover Shaviro and his own particular brand of pop cultural critical theory, I emerged buzzing with curiousity about My Bloody Valentine, Grant Morrison and a renewed enthusiasm for the films of David Cronenberg. His blog The Pinocchio Theory is also well worth investigating.

Post Cinematic Affect presents a series of essays on a selection of movies and videos that in Shaviro’s view describe emerging new media forms that are as yet theoretically unrepresented. The book itself is not only concerned with film theory, but the post-Marxist absorption of the public in the entertainment industry. When discussing critical flops such as Richard Kelly‘s ambitious Southland Tales, or Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor‘s Gamer he is not so much interested in defending their reputations as cinematic works, as he is in demonstrating how they describe our evolving relationship with media. What might be said to be transgressive about these films is the way in which they have abandoned traditional presentation of plot, genre, camera style.

They also indulge our culture’s fascination with celebrity. Cinema inherited much of its form from stage productions. Actors played parts, that allow the audience to engage with the story being performed. Yet celebrity has outdistanced any possibility of engagement with the characters being played in contemporary films.  Boarding Gate‘s protagonist is played by Asia Argento, an actress who has been violated and murdered onscreen multiple times in films directed by her own father. The controversy cemented her early fame, creating an identity that could overwhelm any flimsy fictional character. Director Olivier Assayas avoids this by having Argento play a woman who is constantly having to reinvent herself. Only through this continual renewal can Argento be subsumed into the story. Grace Jones similarly has a twin existence, as the music performer who must shapeshift with each appearance and as an individual woman who is quite conscious of the importance of maintaining that other self. Shaviro infers into the lyrics of Corporate Cannibal - “I’m a man eating machine, – a recognition not only of her sexualised alter ego, but her necessary existence as corporate product.

Shaviro impressively claims that Kelly is attempting a revolution against the very basis of Eisenstein montage with Southland Tales, where associations between images in and of themselves constitute meaning, without any broader context. The rapidly cut action scenes of contemporary movies demonstrate our ability, as an audience, to be viewers of multiple sources of information simultaneously. Our awareness of the action on screen is played with, such as the entertaining sequence when Justin Timberlake lip-syncs to The Killers. Here the character played by Timberlake, Pilot Abilene, is experiencing a hallucinatory drug trip. Yet our attention is drawn to Kelly having a celebrity singer ‘perform’, music by another act, music which it just so happens is far more evocative of his character’s crisis than the bland material he himself produces. Timberlake also breaks out of sync by drinking and carousing with the other performers, reminding us of the falsity what we are seeing (not to mention the drug-impaired perspective of Abilene).

It’s an excellent analysis of the levels of meaning sought by Kelly with this film. In Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer, he finds a sarcastic parody of subversive cinema. Viewers are deliberately made complicit with the insensate voyeurs of this dystopia. In engaging with the film’s genre staples, we become a reflection of the media depravity here vilified. The film also anticipates developments in MMORPGs, online games that require live interactions between players and game content.

Shaviro touches on multiple sources for his post-Marxist critique, including Spinoza, Fredric Jameson and Deleuze. His analysis identifies markers for our evolving relationship with new media, but no definite outcome. This book presents an excellent overview of the changing shape of cinema and our engagement with film.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

Meredith nodded as she thought. ‘You know, I often wonder whether this place – the villages, the moors – has a certain mystical quality that draws people back – or which won’t let them go.’

There has been an interesting attempt to revive interest in classic novels lately. Not only do we have the fitfully amusing mash-ups of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy with fantasy, or horror staples, but there was also a recent marketing push to design the covers of the likes of Wuthering Heights to appeal to fans of Twilight.

Today’s book not only carries an opening quote from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, it refers to the book itself frequently within the text. The contrast between the metropolitan lifestyle of protagonist Grace in London and her feelings of  isolation on the Yorkshire moors indicate that there are places in this world where the clock can be turned back to the periods described by these classic novels referred to in Beneath The Shadows.

Grace and her husband Adam left behind their hectic lives in London to raise their newborn child Millie in a cottage inherited after the recent deaths of his grandparents. Hawthorn Cottage is an opportunity to escape from the pressures of paying exorbitant rents and nights of blaring traffic, as well as give Millie a proper childhood in the fresh air of the countryside. If the change is too drastic, Adam promises that after six months they can leave.

Then one night Grace returns to an empty home, finding only a cryptic note from Adam telling her he has something important to tell her. Hours pass without any sign of him and then she discovers Millie safe in her pram outside the house, but no sign of her husband.

Adam’s disappearance is treated by the police as an apparently intentional abandonment of his young family. Grace is unable to accept this and returns to the cottage a year later secretly looking for clues as to her husband’s vanishing. Grace’s parents are unhappy with their daughter’s decision to return and her sister Annabel agrees to visit to make sure she is not slipping back into despondency. Once back in the Yorkshire village of Roseby, Grace sets about trying to renovate the old cottage to make it more attractive to a buyer. She is determined to provide her daughter with a proper inheritance. She meets a stoic man named Ben, a one-time native who has only recently returned to Roseby after years overseas who agrees to help with the renovations.

Local woman Meredith acted as caretaker for the cottage in Grace’s absence. Through her she learns more about Adam’s family, the history of the area itself, as well as much of the local folklore about spirits and ghosts. Grace becomes disturbed by a recurring nightmares involving Adam and supernatural creatures inspired by Meredith’s stories. When Annabel arrives and takes a fancy to the kindly yet mysterious Ben, she also cannot help but feel disturbed by how her sister’s flirtation affects her.

Then winter comes to North Yorkshire, covering the vast landscape outside the cottage with a blanket of snow, but also completely isolating Grace and her child, with no company save for the buried secrets of Roseby. The more she learns, the more she begins to question what she knows about Adam. She becomes convinced there is someone close to her, someone living in Roseby, who knows what really happened to her husband.

Sara Foster has followed up her debut Come Back to Me with a winning evocation of novels such as Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, – each namechecked along with Rebecca in the story – as well as the natural sights and sounds of the Yorkshire landscape. Ben makes for an entertaining reincarnation of Heathcliff, whose past is indelibly linked to Grace’s. I enjoyed how Foster updates the themes of these classic novels to a contemporary setting. The hints of supernatural forces dropped throughout the texts, with copious mentions of ghosts and barghests, add to the prevailing mood of menace. Grace and her sister’s relationship is also well established, comic sibling rivalry a more contemporary concern than classic naturalism.

All this is combined with the literary trope of a family with too many buried secrets to produce a work that casually merges classicism and contemporary to winning effect.

With thanks to Random House for my review copy.

The woman at Macy’s asked, “Would you be interested in full-time elf or evening and weekend elf?”

I said, “Full-time elf.”

I have an appointment next Wednesday at noon.

I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you all had a lovely day with your families, or sets of friends. Me I’m on top of the moon. For today’s review is coming to you courtesy of Amazon’s little Kindle device.

This will no doubt cut down on my weekly trips to the library and save me some back strain from lugging two dozen books around in my satchel.

Sedaris first made a splash in 1992 with this true-to-life account of his brief time working as a store elf in Macy‘s Santa Land. Apparently it has become a popular theatre piece as a one man play, particularly in college theatres. Like Bad Santa this book revels in the fouler side of the Christmas season, with pushy parents, lewd store elfs and apathetic Santas.

All I do is lie, and that has made me immune to compliments.

Sedaris finds himself working alongside not only out-of-work actors and performers, but former professionals who lost their jobs due to the recession. This makes for an unfortunate mix of attention seeking and bitterness. Elves must remain perky and cheerful at all times, even in the face of obnoxious parents. Sedaris describes encountering racism in his role on two fronts, with white families refusing to meet with a black santa, not to mention a mother complaining that the African American Santa she has been directed to is not black enough. Then there are the parents who enjoy embarassing their children in Santa’s grotto, or even forcing them to make preprepared speeches. Sometimes they insist on the child listing the gifts they have already bought for them, or in one case:

“All right, Jason. Tell Santa what you want. Tell him what you want.”

Jason said, “I….want…Prokton and…Gamble to…stop animal testing.”

The mother said, “Procter, Jason, that’s Procter and Gamble. And what do they do to animals? Do they torture animals, Jason? Is that what they do?”

Jason said, Yes, they torture. He was probably six years old.

Of course Sedaris’ colleagues are just as bad. Some use the opportunity of working as elves to try and pick up the mothers queuing for a date. Then there is the Santa who never breaks character. He insists on addressing Sedaris as ‘Little Elf’, and forces him to sing to the children. Not to mention Santa Jerome who enjoys lecturing the children about Entomology.

The Santaland Diaries whips along, with richly comic observations about the characters Sedaris meets in his low-paid role as a store elf. As his frustrations with the falsity of the store’s winter wonderland grows, his responses to ill-mannered customers and demanding children become increasingly acerbic. There are moments of pathos in the book as well though, so as the visits by disabled children, which require an ‘elf’, to assess and warn the ‘Santa’, how to respond. ‘What do you want for Christmas’, could have an unfortunate response.

Christmas is a time for coming together, exchanging gifts and enjoying the company of our loved ones. It is also a time when buying a gift can mean running  a gamut of mobbed shopping complexes and families can drive you up the wall. I have been given Tom Brown’s School Days twice – from the same relative!

This book’s sardonic humour is a welcome relief from the stresses and strains of the holiday season. Richly comic and brilliantly observed.

“Darling”, she said, “I know you won’t believe it, and it’s rather frightening in a way, but after they left the restaurant in Torcello the sisters went to the cathedral, as we did, although we didn’t see them in that crowd, and the blind one had another vision. She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we should be in danger if we stayed in Venice. Christine wanted us to go away as soon as possible.”

Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg is one of my favourite films. Easily in the top ten. Along with Visconti’s Death in Venice it has successful convinced me never to visit that European tourist mecca.

This collection of short stories by Du Maurier comes with an excellent introduction by novelist and editor Patrick McGrath. He describes how Du Maurier had an impressive number of cinema adaptations of her work, with Alfred Hitchcock returning to the font a number of times. However, his version of The Birds, which is also featured here, not only transposed the setting to America, but lessened the apocalyptic feel of the story itself. McGrath reports that the author was most pleased with Roeg’s attempt, a fugue of visual associations that matches the supernatural paranoia of the novella.

The title story’s grieving couple try to escape the trauma of their daughter’s death by travelling on holiday to Venice. John and Laura play games over meals at their hotel, such as making up stories about the fellow guests. John delights in returning his wife’s smile to her face, erasing the worried frown that has haunted her since their child Christine died of meningitis.

Then one evening John notices two women staring at him from across the restaurant. He tries to include them in his comical banter with Laura, but feels uneasy. Despite comparing them to doddery old Australian spinsters, or more outrageously drag artists, the intensity of their stare disturbs him. Laura leaves to go to the bathroom and returns, suddenly elated. One of the women, Scottish sisters from Edinburgh, approached her with a message. Their daughter Christine is with them, standing in between them laughing.

John angrily dismisses any suggestion that these women have any kind of psychic gift and ignores their warning that the couple must leave Venice. They also insist that John himself has the gift of second sight.

The stage is set for a perculiarly unsettling supernatural tale of marital dischord and paranoia, with John’s growing anger at the sisters clouding his judgement. Du Maurier captures the two voices of Laura and John perfectly, as well as the sleeping hysteria that follows the death of a child, always moments away from being unleashed. The dark alleys of Venice are cloaked in menacing shadows, with the guileless blundering of tourists through the winding passageways leading them onward into danger.

The Birds also focuses on an English family caught up in a distressing situation, although Du Maurier describes a far more apocalyptic, post-WWII scenario. Nat tries to protect his wife and two children from an inexplicable rise in attacks from a host of birds on their small country farm. It quickly becomes apparent that the whole country is suffering similar attacks and unprepared for the savagery of the innumberable attackers, the authorities are quickly rendered powerless. Nat’s attempts to keep his family’s spirits up even as their supplies decrease and the emergency broadcasts on the radio are silenced makes for the emotional backbone of this story.

The imagery employed is brutal and bloody. Nat fights back against attacking birds in the upstairs bedroom by wielding a blanket like a club. Soon the flower is covered with the corpses of a multitude of birds. In attempting to repair the cottage’s defences he begins to stuff the bodies of dead birds into the cracks in the glass windows and damaged planks of wood (a macabre touch I thought would have suited the film quite nicely).

McGrath includes several other shorts by Du Maurier, including the ghostly fable Escort and a tale of tragic infidelity in a small Breton coastal village La Sainte-Vierge, where once again, as in Don’t Look Now,  a mystical vision is mistaken to mean something quite different.

These stories are perfectly poised, delicate and unwavering in their quiet sense of doom. An excellent collection from an unassuming master of supernatural horror.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope Santa brought you plenty of good books!

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