‘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

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The sky is harmlessly transformed into the underside of a table, and the clouds lengthen and thin into the wicked webs of spiders.

I am fairly certain that it was with this line that I fell completely in love with Pontypool Changes Everything.

To describe the plot feels like a Burroughsian exercise in futility, but sure I’ll give it a lash regardless. A peculiar disease begins to sweep across a regional township. The infected begin to suffer from an unusual form of glossolalia, unbeknownst to themselves as they babble to friends and colleagues. Shortly thereafter the infection progresses to the next stage and the afflicted become violently aggressive, fall into a fit and crack their own necks only to resurrect as ululating ghouls. The disease then explodes into multiple vectors, with those garbled phrases hooted and wailed by the creatures spreading it even further.

See what Tony Burgess has done? He’s gone and made memetic zombies.

The story warps and shifts its way through the perspectives of some few survivors and members of the infected enduring the horrifying process. Initially we are introduced to Les Reardon, a mentally ill drug addict, which neatly throws doubt on the depiction of events he passes on to the reader. For all we know these are the delusions of a madman. Even when Reardon slips out of the story, that suspicion remains. In part this is due to Burgess’ writing style, as exemplified above. Maddeningly elusive, hinting at possible meanings, elliptical in its descriptions of this pandemic – the book itself is clearly a vector of the very same disease. As the story opens it feels like a hybridisation of Joe Lansdale and José Saramago, but it quickly evolves into a far more cunning breed of book.

The film Pontypool was released a few years ago directed by Bruce McDonald. In the novel’s afterward Burgess, here seen interviewed on the film, goes on to explain the differences between the filmed work and his own novel. It seems entirely fitting that the story has mutated into a new form for its adaptation, dropping the storyline of a deranged father dubiously safe-guarding his infant from a pandemic in favour of Stephen McHattie playing a shock-jock DJ besieged by the infected. I have been a fan of the actor for many years – his performance in the execrable Watchmen is one of the few brief shining moments therein – and Burgess describes beautifully the moment when he visited the set and watched his words being spoken by the actors assembled.

Still the book is the original work and worthy of exploration by fans of the film, as well as curious bystanders. Among the many cruel jokes trotted out during its narrative, there is even the suggestion that Marcel Duchamp’s surrealistic urinal is somehow responsible for the chaos. The punchline that follows says it all “So, like, I guess this is one disease that you can catch off a toilet seat.”

This is mindbending, witty, bizarre stuff. Don’t bother reading it with the light on. It will warp your brain regardless.

Pontypool changes everything

Thou dost not know me, Holly. Hadst thou seen me but ten hours past, when my passion seized me, thou hadst shrunk from me in fear and trembling. I am of many moods, and, like the water in that vessel, I reflect many things; but they pass, my Holly; they pass and are forgotten. Only the water is the water still, and I still am I, and that which maketh the water maketh it, and that which maketh me what I seem, seeing that thou canst not know what I am.

It is always a great pleasure for me to encounter a classic adventure serial or novel and still be gripped by the narrative. Too often the trickle-down effect caused by plagiarizing and imitative creators robbing the beats of these original tales in the years since its publication lessen the impact. H. Rider Haggard has been a writer I have avoided precisely because of this. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ has appeared in different guises not only in the writer’s own sequels featuring Allan Quatermain, but the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with the Lady Galadriel and of course in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey.

As was the fashion of the time with fantastical adventure stories, Haggard plays up the conceit that this is an account of true events. So the story we are reading is in fact a document received by an nameless editor – the author himself – from one L. Horace Holly. The manuscript describes an incredible journey taken by Holly and his charge Leo to Africa, hoping to unravel a dynastic mystery connected to the younger man that stretches back in time to the pre-Christian era and may have led to the death of his father. Accompanied by long-suffering manservant Job, the group follow the directions left to them on a preserved clay shard , only to be shipwrecked and left stranded in a dangerous and unexplored region of the continent.

The group are rescued from certain death at the hands of a hidden civilization of man by the wise and venerable Bilali. Holly and Leo manage to communicate with the old fellow via a corrupted modern day version of his language and are informed that ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’, the white-skinned ruler of these people desires to see them. What unfolds is an adventure that becomes increasingly perilous for these proto-Indiana Joneses – being Cambridge academics that are also a dab hand at fighting off a multitude of opponents when the occasion arises – and one that may cost the young Leo his very soul.

My edition of She comes with an introduction from Margaret Atwood, lampshading the present-day relevance of the book by claiming Ayesha as prefiguring feminism. This feels unnecessarily shallow. The quotation I opened this review with comes from the most interesting section of the book, wherein Haggard flirts with the anti-Christian substance of She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha is fascinated by Christ’s message of peace, because in her eyes this is a typically weak and perilous philosophy for the cruelties of existence. It is a fantastic scene, because Holly is of course merely spouting the party line of what Christianity represents, as opposed to the realities of conquest, occupation and oppression that empowers the Church as an institution.

In that sense Ayesha in fact prefigures the secularist critique of Christianity, albeit in a fantastical way.

Haggard work is of its time, so there remains issues of chauvenism, racism and anti-semitism (towards both Jews and Muslims) in play here. If the modern reader can accept these caveats, the book can be enjoyed as an adventure story with ambitions beyond its seeming rip-roaring escapism.

She by H. Rider Haggard

If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that this gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ ‘being transported’, forging a ‘psychic connection’ with the author, ‘losing yourself’ in a book – all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are locked inside our skulls.

There was a time there where I could not have a conversation about books with a stranger at a party say, without them launching into a speech about how amazing Atomised by Michel Houellebecq was. This became increasingly annoying for me because these ‘fans’ seemed unable to describe exactly what the appeal of the book was. They were astonished by the sense of shock that the writer had elicited and sometimes a conspiratorial feeling of belonging to a fellow-traveler – yes that is how the world really is – but both of these reactions seemed entirely self-directed. My conversational partners were unable to enlighten me as to why I should read the book too. I suspect fans of Portnoy’s Complaint were similarly cultish back in the day, but that was another time and polite conversation so firmly stratified, that the risk Roth-fans ran of offending was far greater. By the late nineties this was less of a concern.

Ben Jeffery tackles the meaning behind Houellebecq’s writings head on, placing the fictional exertions of the French literary enfant terrible within a far broader context  in order to draw out exactly what the egotism of the author is aiming at. In effect, he has done a massive service to a writer occasionally dismissed as being a reactionary whose deconstruction of modern society as being nothing more than a series of sexual power exchanges lies somewhere between Foucault and a depressing Carry On.

Instead Jeffery runs the gamut from Schopenhauer to David Foster Wallace to properly situate the likes of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, revealing that Houellebecq is investigating the relevance of any literary action at all. Engaging in fiction is in and of itself an ephemeral act, itself an echo of how we attempt to escape our own sense of mortality. What is most worthwhile about Anti-Matter is that Jeffery does not fall victim to the typical trap of Houellebecq critics. This is an intellectual salvage operation, that avoids rampant speculation about the personal life of the headline-bating writer, not to mention the rancorous testimonies of the author’s own mother.

What I am saying is I am grateful someone finally took the time to try and explain the point of Houellebecq to me. I have not had an easy time with the writer’s work myself. I thought his essay on Lovecraft bitterly disappointing for one, but Jeffery cites it prominently in Anti-Matter. The New England fantasist’s own ‘depressive realism’* is tied into Houellebecq’s, both arguing that life is essentially pointless. The latter’s own jaunts into sf utopias demonstrates his continuing interest in using imaginary worlds to illustrate how incomplete, fleeting and immaterial the engagement humans have with reality is. Fiction/fantasy are decadent acts that in Houellebecq’s assessment squander what is vital about life itself – hence his obsession with sex – but Jeffery’s astute addendum is that whatever sense of truth, or engagement with our existence that we enjoy is equally a ‘lie’. Realism is concerned primarily with seeming real and Houellebecq’s pessimism punches through the nadir point to the ‘truth’ – we need the lies.

Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

*Excepting your occasional ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – of course.

Anti-matter: Michel Houllebecq and Depressive Realism

“The Kellis-Amberlee virus was an accident,” said Dr. Abbey, still looking at the pane of safety glass. Her hand moved slowly over her dog’s head, stroking his ears. “It was never supposed to happen. The Kellis flu and Marburg Amberlee were both good ideas. They just didn’t get the laboratory testing they needed. If there’d been more time to understand them before they go out, before they combined the way that they did…but there wasn’t time, and the genie got out of the bottle before most people even realized the bottle was there. It could have been worse. That’s what nobody wants to admit. So the dead get up and walk around – so what? We don’t get sick like our ancestors did. We don’t die of cancer, even though we keep pumping pollutants into the atmosphere as fast as we can come up with them. We live charmed lives, except for the damn zombies, and even those who don’t have to be the kind of problem we make them out to be. They could just be an inconvenience. Instead, we let them define everything.”

“They’re zombies,” said Becks. “It’s sort of hard to ignore them.”

What the hell Emmet?! Zombies? Again!? Well..Set the way-back machine for June 21 2010. That was when I began the – now happily concluded (which you’ll have noted due to the lack of blog updates lately) – experiment to read and review a book each day. The first title was Feed by Mira Grant, the pen-name of Seanan McGuire who gave my humble notice a mention.  I even got to write up a piece for Filmink Magazine based on Feed for their They Should Make A Movie of That feature.

I am very fond of the book. Thankfully the sequel is pretty tops too.

Shaun Mason survived the events of the previous book physically, but mentally he is the walking wounded. The death of his sister George has left him so severely disturbed he finds himself conversing with her ‘ghost’. She was always the better half of the two siblings, the voice of reason, the sensible one. Shaun has gone from the fun-loving thrill-seeking to a man with a death-wish. His blogger colleagues have begun to give him a wide berth, his mutterings and explosions of temper making him a liability in their attempts to give unbiased lived coverage of zombie-afflicted regions in America.

But then a woman believed to have died in an accident shows up on his doorstep, describing a conspiracy involving the Centre for Disease Control – one that may be responsible for the death of George. Suddenly Shaun is a man on a mission again.

Grant ratchets up the tension with the sequel and gives even more insight into the ‘managed’ zombie apocalypse of the Feed universe. The world-building continues, with this series a fascinating commentary on how social media relates to the mainstream and the compromised relationship between politics and big business. It’s a fantastic irony that the rise of the undead has catapulted the health industry into the biggest business within the world. It’s very amusing to see the CDC become targeted in so many zombie dystopias. The Walking Dead also featured the Centre in their first season finale and they themselves have taken advantage of this sudden popularity and produced a zombie comic of their own!

There’s also some wicked humour on display here. Such as George and Shaun’s childhood viewing of Bambi when they cheered at the death of the titular deer’s mother, because she did not revive. Furthermore the ‘banter’ between the siblings produces a witty running commentary on the book’s action.

This is an excellent horror series, with real brains and heart.

Deadline by Mira Grant

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

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