Tuesday 31 March 2020

The Delirium Brief

Charles Stross

Someone is dead set to air the spy agency’s dirty laundry in The Delirium Brief, the next installment to Charles Stross’ Hugo Award-winning comedic dark fantasy Laundry Files series!
Bob Howard’s career in the Laundry, the secret British government agency dedicated to protecting the world from unspeakable horrors from beyond spacetime, has entailed high combat, brilliant hacking, ancient magic, and combat with indescribably repellent creatures of pure evil. It has also involved a wearying amount of paperwork and office politics, and his expense reports are still a mess.

Now, following the invasion of Yorkshire by the Host of Air and Darkness, the Laundry’s existence has become public, and Bob is being trotted out on TV to answer pointed questions about elven asylum seekers. What neither Bob nor his managers have foreseen is that their organization has earned the attention of a horror far more terrifying than any demon: a British government looking for public services to privatize.

Inch by inch, Bob Howard and his managers are forced to consider the truly unthinkable: a coup against the British government itself.

With this, the 8th of Stross' Lovecraftian spy series 'The Laundry Files' we get to view the fallout of the previous volumes invasion of the Elves alongside a sudden devastating attack on the very agency itself from foes both new and old.  Bob Howard is back at the centre of things after being awol last time round in favour of one of the 'phangs' and it's good to have him back as things are a lot more personable with the Eater of Souls as our narrator.

I'm not entirely on board - yet - with the current developments in the storyline. Stross almost lost me entirely with the superhero story and the elf bothering of the last wasn't entirely to my taste and everything has gotten a little too overt and blockbustery.  The books felt like they were on a more stale footing when it was all more clandestine in nature but I'm splitting hairs.  This is another really fun read in an often excellent series and even those books I was just whingeing about were a riot.  The fallout from this story and it's predecessor will no doubt be at the core of the books to come and it'll be fascinating and fun to watch all the health and safety violations that will make life a little too interesting for Bob and his colleagues.

Buy it here - The Delirium Brief: A Laundry Files Novel


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Sunday 29 March 2020

The Uncanny (1977)

The Uncanny (1977)
A joint UK and Canadian production with links to the Amicus studios via producer Milton Subotsky, 'The Uncanny' is a portmanteau horror film where author Peter Cushing tries to convince publisher Ray Milland that cats are evil supernatural masterminds out to kill us all.

Cushing tells three stories starting with the best that finds greedy nephew (Simon Williams) plotting with his aunt's maid (Susan Penhaligon) to diddle her cats out of their inheritance.  It's a quick and easy little tale of the type studios like Amicus and Hammer could knock out in an afternoon filled with Kensington Gore and profoundly grisly endings for those involved.

The two Canadian stories share a far more North American aesthetic.  The second tale has a strong central performance from Katrina Holden Bronson as an orphaned child relocated to the home of her unpleasant aunt and her bratty bullying daughter that has borrowed it's effects from Land of the Giants but certainly doesn't scrimp on the brutal ending whereas the third is played far more for laughs as murderous cat hating thesp Donald Pleasence is made to pay for his crimes by his wife's vengeful cat.

The Uncanny (1977) Peter Cushing
'The Uncanny' was a flop on release, is still poorly regarded and was certainly made at least 10 years too late coming some 4 years after the shift to much more sophisticated horror with films such as The Exorcist and being released the same year as the big budget extravaganzas of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind but personally I like it very much. My heart has always been in the B Movies and the schlock and this is very much both of those and let's be clear here the idea that cats are evil supernatural masterminds out to kill us all is undeniably plausible.

Buy it here - The Uncanny [1977] - or watch it below.


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Friday 27 March 2020

Trees Vol 1: In Shadow

Warren Ellis (writer)
Jason Howard (artist)
Image Comics

Ten years after they landed. All over the world. And they did nothing, standing on the surface of the Earth like trees, exerting their silent pressure on the world, as if there were no-one here and nothing under foot. Ten years since we learned that there is intelligent life in the universe, but that they did not recognise us as intelligent or alive. Trees looks at a near-future world where life goes on in the shadows of the Trees: in China, where a young painter arrives in the “special cultural zone” of a city under a Tree; in Italy, where a young woman under the menacing protection of a fascist gang meets an old man who wants to teach her terrible skills; and in Svalbard, where a research team is discovering, by accident, that the Trees may not be dormant after all, and the awful threat they truly represent.

Trees tells the stories of human existence after the arrival of extraterrestrials in the form of giant cylindrical 'Trees' that smashed into various points around the globe - including the middle of New York, rural Sicily, the arctic tundra, China -  and then proceeded to do absolutely nothing, except occasionally vent toxic waste.

Now though, many years on we join the stories of several people living in the shadow of the Trees whose lives are being profoundly impacted by their presence; a scientist monitoring a new breed of flowers, a young woman finding the teacher who can help her find her way to owning her own life, ambitious New York and Somali politicians and an artist discovering himself amongst like minded souls in a walled city in China.

As is often the case with Warren's work he begins his story with a focus on world building as seen through the eyes of the protagonists where we're offered a glimpse of who, where and what they are with the rest to be filled in as and when it suits.  I love this people centred approach,  too much science fiction is concerned with the idea over the people and whilst like the rest of you I love a big bold idea - and I think the benignly malevolent Trees are a great idea - it's the stories of the people that are the most interesting.

I'm always excited by a new Ellis book and whilst his Injection books have got me besotted this proved to be prime Warren full of invention and sass and I'm very much looking forward to the next volume.

Buy it here - UKUS


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Wednesday 25 March 2020

Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country

Edward Parnell
William Collins

In his late thirties, Edward Parnell found himself trapped in the recurring nightmare of a family tragedy. For comfort, he turned to his bookshelves, back to the ghost stories that obsessed him as a boy, and to the writers through the ages who have attempted to confront what comes after death.
In Ghostland, Parnell goes in search of the ‘sequestered places’ of the British Isles, our lonely moors, our moss-covered cemeteries, our stark shores and our folkloric woodlands. He explores how these landscapes conjured and shaped a kaleidoscopic spectrum of literature and cinema, from the ghost stories and weird fiction of M.R. James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood to the children’s fantasy novels of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper; from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Graham Swift’s Waterland to the archetypal ‘folk horror’ film The Wicker Man… Ghostland is Parnell’s moving exploration of what has haunted our writers and artists – and what is haunting him. It is a unique and elegiac meditation on grief, memory and longing, and of the redemptive power of stories and nature.

Parnell's 'Ghostland' is a Britain of dark and lonely water, of gothic churches standing sentinel over tumble down graveyards where a solitary crow caws a lament to the dead, it's one of ancient woodland's that are home to nature deities driven by mischievous natures and windswept coastlines beneath which whole civilisations have disappeared.  Essentially it's exactly the same as mine.

His book is an exploration of this haunted old country of ours exploring it's by-ways as a way of understanding the inspiration it has been for writers of the numinous such as Arthur Machen, MR James, William Hope Hodgson, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner amongst others.  Truthfully, for devotees of those authors there may be little new to learn but for each he teases out a nugget or two and for all he introduces and explores in an always entertaining style.

Alongside this he tells his own story and of the relationships and experiences that have accompanied his reading of those authors and which have shaped his life.  Straddling the line between nature writing and memoir this was for me the least effective aspect, not because it was poorly written or anything of the sort but simply because neither are literary endeavours that hold my attention for long; I've more interest in being amongst nature than reading about it and autobiographical texts tend to make me feel unpleasantly voyeuristic.

As a whole though Parnell has produced an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the literary fascination that lies at the heart of this mouldy old run down land that will appeal to weird fiction neophytes and acolytes alike.

Buy it here -  UK  / US


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Wednesday 4 March 2020

Pale Illuminations

Mark Valentine,
Reggie Oliver
Peter Bell
Derek John
Sarob Press

Sarob Press is delighted to announce the publication of “THE PALE ILLUMINATIONS” ~ four all new darkly supernatural stories and novellas (each imbued with a sense of the mystery and the legends of landscape and place) by PETER BELL, MARK VALENTINE, REGGIE OLIVER and DEREK JOHN.
“Labyrinth” by Peter Bell ... set mostly in the 1960s this is a story of ancient well worship in the Peak District, and the cult of Proserpina in Roman Britain.
“A Chess Game at Michaelmas” by Mark Valentine ... a tale set in south-west England, and of strange customs and age-old ritual, a secret game, and a dark shadowy visitor.
“The Old Man of the Woods” by Reggie Oliver ... a new home in rural France, legends of the misty past, and a weird haunting story of the dark and deeply sinister woods.
“Cropmarks” by Derek John ... an Irish setting for a modern tale of witchcraft, dark ceremonies, a centuries-old place of worship, strange discoveries and a malevolent curse.

 I had the pleasure to read a previous Sarob collection a few years back and so was very happy to grab a copy of this new collection.  Inside we have four tales, two by authors who have featured in these pages before - Mark Valentine & Reggie Oliver - and two who are respectively new and newish to me - Peter Bell & Derek John.  Three of the stories I enjoyed very much indeed but one I found to be less to my taste and it's that one with which I'll start.

Derek John's 'Cropmarks' has at its heart a story that weaves communal life, neighbourly conflict and new age witchery into a tale that feels far too soap opera to satisfy me.  On the flipside though we have a trio of very fine stories beginning with Peter Bell's 'Labyrinth' a storythat tells of a student researcher investigating the remains of a 'forgotten' cult of Prosperina, the Roman Goddess of fertility, wine and agriculture.  Into a landscape drenched with the detritus of myth and folklore.  It's an absorbing tale that I could have lingered with longer and would have enjoyed watching Bell tease more out of his supporting cast of locals and yokels, particularly the stranger ones.

Reggie Oliver's 'The Old Man of the Woods' is a gentle story of a farmhouse haunted by loss and of the shadows we leave behind. As with the other stories of his that I've read - which admittedly isn't as many as I'd like - this is a delicate tale that unfolds around you and gently insinuates itself into your affections via the chills it sends up your spine.

Which leaves us with Mark Valentine's 'A Chess Game At Michelmas', one of Mark's signature strange little Machenesque / Dunsanyish / Blackwoody tales of neglected rituals and rural faery tale.  It is, of course, a wonderful read and Mark is, for me, alongside the creme of the weird fiction writers - I chose those names back there deliberately.  His writing is perfectly measured and I want to live in the worlds of his imagination and whilst I don't suppose that would be the most comfortable, or indeed safest, of existences what a time you'd have.

I've a couple of these Sarob Press collections now and they've been most excellent and whilst I'm pretty sure this lovely and very limited book is now sold out this is a publisher who deserves to be on the radar of everyone with a love of strange tales.


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