Thursday 31 August 2017

Doctor Who: The Shining Man / Diamond Dogs / Plague City

So, to accompany Peter Capaldi's last series as the Doctor BBC Books have released another 3 of their series of hardback adventures, These things, which they've been doing with increasing irregularity since the arrival of the 9th, are usually a bit of a wobbly assortment but there's often 1 or sometimes even 2 that are a bit of fun and Doctor Who books are a bit of an addiction with me.


Doctor Who: The Shining Man
Cavan Scott
BBC Books

“Being scared is the least of your worries.”
The Shining Men are everywhere. You spot them out of the corner of your eye. Abnormally tall, with long lank hair, blank faces and blazing eyes. If they catch you, they’ll drag you away to who knows where. No one is safe. They’re on every street corner. Waiting. Watching. Shining bright.
Of course it’s a hoax. It has to be, right? It started as a joke, a prank for Halloween. Then it went viral. Idiots dressing up as monsters. Giving folk a scare. Silly masks and fright wigs. No one gets hurt. Because bogeymen aren’t real.
Until people start going missing and lights burn in the darkness. Burning like eyes.
But help is on its way, in the form of a strange man called the Doctor and his friend, Bill. The Doctor will keep us safe. The Doctor will stop the monsters. Unless the monsters stop the Doctor first.

Cavan Scott is a new name to me but here he's jumped into the world of the Doctor with both feet. It's not often that Doctor Who goes fully fantasy, usually there's some sort of alien doohickey, thingamabob or race behind the happenings but here we get a full on fairyland extravaganza filled with folkloric traps, supernatural critters and other realms.

Scott has reproduced the Doctor and Bill very well - although the Doctor being outfoxed by cloud storage seems unlikely - but with what must have been only a cursory peek at a couple of the early episodes he has nailed the interaction between the two which is testimony I suppose to just how effective a character Bill Potts was.

As is always the case with these books it's a pretty quick read both in terms of pace and page count which suits me down to the ground as I can read them in an afternoon and get my doctor fix. They're not always entirely satisfying but sometimes, like here, they're often, at the very least, fun.

Buy it here:  Doctor Who: The Shining Man

Doctor Who: Diamond Dogs
Mike Tucker
BBC Books

“Here on Saturn, it literally rains diamonds.”
For over fifteen years the crew of Kollo-Zarnista Mining Facility 27 has been extracting diamonds from deep within the atmosphere of Saturn, diamonds that help to fund the ever-expanding Human Empire. But when a mining operation goes wrong, a rescue mission must be launched to save a worker lost overboard, a worker who claims that he has seen something amongst the swirling clouds. Something that can’t possibly exist.
When the Doctor and Bill arrive, they immediately find themselves caught between hostile miners, suspicious security guards and corrupt company officials as they face accusations of sabotage and diamond theft.
And below them, in the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant, something is starting to rise.

The second - that I read but I suspect it's meant to be the first in the trio - of this years hardbacks is a Who by numbers romp for the 12th and Bill.

The Doctor takes a flying visit to a diamond mine in the atmosphere of Saturn in order to nick a diamond suitable to keep Nardole in biscuits. They are,of course, soon discovered, captured and inevitably find themselves embroiled in some sort of intergalactic incident that will erupt into all out war unless the Doctor does his usual thing.

There's nothing here that we haven't seen many, many times before and the whole thing feels rather tired. I was glad to be finished with this one.

Buy it here:  Doctor Who: Diamond Dogs

Doctor Who: Plague City
Jonathan Morris
BBC Books

The year is 1645, and Edinburgh is in the grip of the worst plague in its history. Nobody knows who will be the next to succumb – nobody except the Night Doctor, a masked figure that stalks the streets, seeking out those who will not live to see another day.
But death is not the end. The Doctor, Bill and Nardole discover that the living are being haunted by the recently departed – by ghosts that do not know they are dead. And there are other creatures lurking in the shadows, slithering, creeping creatures filled with an insatiable hunger.
The Doctor and his friends must face the terrifying secret of the Street of Sorrows – that something which has lain dormant for two hundred million years is due to destroy the entire city.

This third of the latest trio of NSA Who books is an improvement on the last one but still a fairly uninspiring read.

Morris is a regular Who scribe so knows his way around the Doctor and his crew and here he places them in the middle of a plague epidemic in Edinburgh of 1645 alongside a mysterious 'plague doctor' who seemingly knows when someone will die and the ghosts of those who have succumbed to the disease. He really piles it on does Mr. Morris and that's most of the problem.

The Doctor and Bill running around doing their investigating thing, meeting people and butting against authority figures is OK but increasingly it all gets a bit silly and with the arrival of the aliens and the volcano I pretty much gave up and just stumbled through to the end.

Buy it here:  Doctor Who: Plague City

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Horror Stories

E. Nesbit
Penguin Books

A groom promises to be at the church on time, even if he has to come back from the grave to do it. A man inherits a property where he discovers a portrait of a woman that will change his life forever. Two newlyweds find their dream country cottage, unaware of an ancient curse from the previous owners. A gripping, unsettling and utterly chilling collection of short stories from a best loved storyteller.

For many people Nesbit will forever be tied to her books for children such as 'Five Children and It' and the perennial classic 'The Railway Children'.  I've not read either of them and my experiences with the good lady have entirely revolved around occasional appearances in ghostly anthologies of stories such as 'Man-Size in Marble' and 'John Charrington's Wedding' both of which, unsurprisingly, feature here.

In this instance 'here' is a brand new collection of her supernatural stories from Penguin which is part of an odd set of five books that also features John Christopher's 'The World in Winter', the feminist sci-fi of Joanna Russ' 'We who Are About to...', cyberpunk romp 'True Names' by Vernor Vinge and the urban fantasy of 'War for the Oaks' by Emma Bull.  As I said, an odd assortment and all presented in garish day-glo cover art.

Inside the giant pink skull that adorns the book in hand we find ourselves in very capable hands indeed. Ms Nesbit has an assured touch and her stories are taught and deliciously macabre.  Aside from the wandering statuary and ghostly nuptials she presents us with stories of love lost ('Hurst of Hurstgate' and 'The Ebony Frame'), about the price of revenge ('The Violet Car'), about the madness of guilt ('In the Dark') and the destructive selfishness of pride ('From the Dead').

Scattered amongst these are a couple of standout tales such as the cosmic Jekyll & Hyde of 'The Five Senses' and 'The Three Drugs', the obsessive revenge of 'The Head' and the entertainingly gossipy story of 'The Shadow'.

These sort of collections often offer up a couple of duff tales and this is no exception but it is unfortunate that they constitute the final three in the book which means it all ends on a bit of a downer. 

This is though a pretty enjoyable selection. There's nothing here that you'll lose any sleep over but as a fun excursion into a vivid imagination it's a bit of a treat.

Buy it here - Horror Stories (Penguin Worlds)

Thursday 17 August 2017

A Midwinter Entertainment

Mark Beech (ed)
Egaeus Press

An entertainment consisting of 288 pages; dedicated to short, yellowish days and long nights, to heavy curtains and the cracks and pops of burning logs, to frost-encroached byways and sturdy old inns, to skeletal trees and hungry black birds; and to the ghosts of Ernest Nister & Ernest Dowson.

Featuring many curious pieces, including several newly written stories (amongst them a brand new Connoisseur tale by Mark Valentine & John Howard), a smattering of rarely collected obscurities, a couple of never before translated artifacts and much more.

The full contents are as follows...

Meet Me at the Frost Fair by Alison Littlewood
The Monkey & Basil Holderness by Vincent O’Sullivan
A Matter of Fact by Marion Fox
The Ruddy-Cheeked Boy (A Tale in Homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Snow-Image’) by Sheryl Humphrey
Drebbel, Zander & Zervan by Ron Weighell
Second Master by Mark Valentine
Window Widows by Avalon Brantley
The Secret by Anatole Le Braz (first English translation, by George Berguño)
The Longing for Which by Sara Rich
Barefoot Withouten Shoon by Tina Rath
A Winter’s Night by Arthur Symons
How Shall Dead Men Sing? (The Supernatural Affair of Lord Alfred Douglas & Oscar Wilde) by Nina Antonia
Better Than Borley Rectory by Jane Fox
The Harmony of Death (A Pianist's Most Terrible Experience) by Havelock Ettrick
Il va neiger... by Francis Jammes (first English translation, by George Berguño)
The Celestial Tobacconist by Mark Valentine & John Howard
Finvarragh by Nora Hopper
From the Mouth of Mad Pratt by Ross Smeltzer
In St. James’s Park by Hubert Crackanthorpe
Aut Diabolus Aut Nihil by X.L.
Somewhere Snow by Jonathan Wood

Mark Valentine (by R.B. Russell)
When this was first announced last year I gazed longingly at the mailout, positively salivating over the prospect of a brand new 'Connoisseur' story by Mark Valentine and John Howard.  When it finally appeared though the price tag (and this is in no way a criticism, it's a beautifully presented book) was way out of my newly unemployed pockets.  Happily, post Christmas a copy came to light on a popular auction site for a third less than the asking price and so I decided to take the plunge and I'm very glad I did.

The book offers a mix of tales old and tales new, occasional poetry and a long discussion on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.  Of these, poetry isn't my particular bag and whilst there was nothing that made me turn up my nose there was nothing that raised an eyebrow either. Nina Antonia's Oscar Wilde piece was certainly interesting but for someone like me with barely a passing interest in other people's personal lives it was ultimately a distraction from the fictions.

Alison Littlewood
The book opens strongly with Alison Littlewood's elemental tale of all consuming loss, 'Meet Me At The Frost Fair', followed by the body horror of Vincent O'Sullivan's 1895 tale 'The Monkey and Basil Holderness'.  Sheryl Humphrey's 'The Ruddy-Cheeked Boy' had far too much of the folktale about it to fully satisfy but the ever welcome presences of Ron Weighell with his charming tale of books, obsession and alchemical pursuits 'Drebbel, Zander and Zervan' and Mark Valentine with his story of the various holders of the title of 'Master of the Queen's Mysteries' in 'The Second Master', soon get the book back very much on track.

Avalon Brantley's 'Window Widows' is an enjoyable haunted house tale that feels a lot older than it evidently is.  It's followed by a translation of a story called 'The Secret' from 1900 which begins with perhaps the worst opening line I've ever read and doesn't improve from there.

Sara Rich's 'The Longing for Which' reveals itself to be an enjoyable tale of obsession and possession which is followed by Tina Rath's equally readable story of possessions and freedom, 'Barefoot Withouten Shoon'.

With Havelock Ettrick's 'The Harmony of Death' editor Mark Beech finds another intriguing old tale of a pianist subjected to a 'Most Terrible Experience' whilst Jane Fox's 'Better Than Boxley Rectory' is an engagingly written but ultimately disappointing and rather silly story that takes far to long in the telling.

John Howard
And so we arrive at the very welcome return of The Connoisseur in 'The Celestial Tobacconist' as our esteemed aesthete participates in both the finest of tobaccos and a ritual performance to resurrect an ancient pagan sect.  As ever with the duo of Valentine and Howard the tale is beautifully written and enchantingly seductive.

The trio of tales that close out the book begin with the 'Vault of Horror' type twisty demonic shenanigans of Ross Smeltzer's 'From the Mouth of Mad Pratt' whose ending you can see coming from many miles away.  Much more enjoyable is 'Auf Diabolus Auf Nihil' by X.L. and dating from 1895 which despite being written in a style drier than a sand sandwich is alluringly creepy.

The book ends with 'Somewhere Snow' by Jonathan Wood which tells a slightly hallucinatory tale of loneliness and stories that unfolds slowly to give the book the subdued and slightly melancholic close that a book this mesmerically charged deserved.


Note - As I was typing up this review I learned of the recent death of contributing author Avalon Brantley.  Our thoughts go out to her, her family and her friends and we dedicate this review to her memory in the knowledge that her work will be enjoyed for years to come.

Sunday 13 August 2017

The Earth Dies Screaming

In 1964 the world ended...again.  This time it did so at the hands of legendary Hammer director Terence Fisher with the help of shiny silver space robots and some zombies.

The film stars husband and wife Willard Parker and Virginia Field as two of a small group of survivors who assemble in a small English country inn following the sudden death of seemingly everyone else.  The motley crew of survivors consists of rugged American pilot, Jeff, Peggy, the plucky English woman in exceedingly unsuitable shoes (Parker and Field), creepy criminal, Taggart (Dennis Price), drunken sot, Otis (Thorley Walters), Violet the panicky housewife (Vanda Godsell), Mel the rebellious young man turned obedient puppy (David Spenser) and his heavily pregnant wife, Lorna (Anna Palk).

The film opens with a series of establishing shots of trains and planes crashing, people dropping dead and of bodies lying in the street. Indeed, eight and a half minutes of the film pass like this before a word is spoken.  These long periods of silence are characteristic of the rest of the film with neither the robots nor the zombies uttering a sound and, of course, the absence of sound reflects the quietude of the newly dead world whilst contrasting heavily with the assertion in the title.

At only slightly over an hour in length it's pretty short and packs a fair bit in while maintaining what feels like a pretty leisurely pace.  The more familiar actors here - Price and Walters - are playing very much within their comfort zones but all the cast are fairly strong even if little (very little) is done with the female characters - Field is essentially a damsel-in-distress here whilst the other two are victim and baby factory.

Probably the films the most effective aspect are the zombies.  We're used to the prosthesis heavy gore laden shambling corpses of the current variety but here they are given blank eyes, an implacable, shuffling gait and an eerie silence and it works an absolute treat.  One can only assume their influence on George Romero when he made Night of the Living Dead four years later.

In this age of the remake with both science fiction and zombies being so hot and especially considering it has probably the greatest name of any movie ever made I am amazed that no-one has had another go at this one.

Buy it here - The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) DVD Reg 2 - or watch it below.


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Thursday 10 August 2017

The Occult Files of Francis Chard

A.M. Burrage
Burrage Publishing

Alfred McLelland Burrage was born in 1889. His father and uncle were both writers, primarily of boy's fiction, and by age 16 AM Burrage had joined them and quickly became a master of the market publishing his stories regularly across a number of publications. By the start of the Great War Burrage was well established but in 1916 he was conscripted to fight on the Western Front, his experiences becoming the classic book War is War by Ex-Private X. For the remainder of his life Burrage was rarely printed in book form but continued to write and be published on a prodigious scale in magazines and newspapers. His supernatural stories are, by common consent, some of the best ever written. Succinct yet full of character each reveals a twist and a flavour that is unsettling.....sometimes menacing....always disturbing. In this volume we bring you - The Hiding Hole, The Pit In The Garden, The Affair At Penbillo, The Third Visitation, The Woman With Three Eyes, The Soldier, The Tryst, The Bungalow At Shammerton, The Protector & The Girl In Blue.

I've been on a real detective trip of late but I managed to hold off for a fortnight before it was time to indulge myself in some more supernatural sleuthing with a selection from the author of my favourite ghost story, 'Playmates'.  It took me a while to cough up the readies for this slim volume, number 6 in a series of reprints of Burrage's work, which features the escapades of his detective character Francis Chard and his companion Torrance as the pair investigate a series of unearthly, chilling and unpleasant supernatural episodes but in the end desire overcame thrift.

As is ever the case with these sort of things Chard is a veritable font of knowledge regarding all things supernatural whilst Torrance is suitably dim enough to allow us some semblance of a clue as to what's going on as things are explained to him. There's a satisfying humanity to the pair and they seem a comfortable partnership with each coming to the others aid as they often struggle through their adventures occasionally coming a bit of a cropper or finding themselves scared witless.

I've encountered a few of Burrage's stories before (the above mentioned 'Playmates' and 'Smee' are both regular in spooky anthologies) and have always found him to be very readable which proved to be the case here.  The stories are inventive and adventurous with a unexpectedly violent streak and his characters are believable and engaging.

As I said I initially balked at paying the asking price for this tiny little booklet but I have to admit, in the end, I'm glad I paid it.

Buy it here - The Occult Files Of Francis Chard: Volume 6 (A.M. Burrage Classic Collection)


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Thursday 3 August 2017


James Herbert

In 1945, Hitler unleashed the Blood Death on Britain as his final act of vengeance.
Those who died at once were the lucky ones. The really unfortunate took years. The survivors - people like me, who had the blood group that kept us safe from the disease - were now targets for those who believed our blood could save them.
I survived for three years. I lived alone, spending my days avoiding the fascist Blackshirts who wanted my blood for their dying leader. Then I met the others - and life got complicated all over again.

I first read this book about a decade ago and was reminded of it recently when I read another Herbert book 'Haunted'.  My over-riding memory of it is that it was an utterly exhausting read that doesn't relax for a second and a quick reread showed that to be pretty much the case. Right from the off the book hares along at breakneck speed and never really lets up.

The setting is a devastated London three years after a defeated Hitler sets off his V3 rockets loaded with a virus that kills everyone except those with AB blood type.  Some die quickly, others slowly.  Among those taking their time about things are a group of 'blackshirts' who decide that draining the blood of the seeming sole survivor in London - an American airman named Hoke - and transfusing it into themselves will save their lives.  So, for 300 and something pages they chase him (and some others) around a desolate city until a final confrontation at two London landmarks brings it to an end.

It is utter nonsense and exhausting but it's also a fun, dumb read.

Buy it here - '48