Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Shadows Over Baker Street

Michael Reeves & John Pelan (eds)
Del Rey

Sherlock Holmes enters the nightmare world of H.P. Lovecraft 
New Tales of Terror! 
What would happen if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's peerless detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his allies were to find themselves faced with Lovecraftian mysteries whose solutions lay not only beyond the grasp of logic, but beyond sanity itself. In this collection of original tales, twenty of today's cutting-edge writers provide answers to that burning question.
Contributors include Neil Gaiman, Brian Stableford, Poppy Z. Bright, Barbara Hambly, Steve Perry, and Caitlin R. Kierman. These and other masters of horror, mystery, fantasy and science fiction spin dark tales within a terrifyingly surreal universe.

I've known of this book for quite a while after happening across a copy of the Neil Gaiman story 'A Study in Emerald' in one of his anthologies.  Just how good that story is notwithstanding I always felt that the melding of the world's of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft's mythos was a fairly daft idea.  Holmes' world is the antithesis of Lovecraft's creation which shows in some of the clodhopping attempts to shoehorn one into the presence of the other in this collection.  It strikes me that the only truly effective way of doing this would be to utterly abandon the Holmes reality and retain only the characters.  You would need to abandon Holmes' rational mind set and instead reinvent him as an occult detective with the supernatural playing a part throughout his life rather than a sudden, "Oh look, a monster!" or a "Watson, there's something I never told you..." both of which make numerous appearances here.

It isn't all awful though, not by a long stretch, and indeed there was only one story that truly taxed my patience but equally only one that I can honestly say I enjoyed and that one opened both the book and this review.

If you're a fan of that whole literary mash-up genre then you may well find much to like here but for me it was an interesting experience but one where most of those involved failed to really get stuck into the concept and do anything truly interesting.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Greenwitch

Susan Cooper
Puffin Books

Simon, Jane, and Barney, enlisted by their mysterious great-uncle, arrive in a small coastal town to recover a priceless golden grail stolen by the forces of evil -- Dark. They are not at first aware of the strange powers of another boy brought to help, Will Stanton -- nor of the sinister significance of the Greenwitch, an image of leaves and branches that for centuries has been cast into the sea for good luck in fishing and harvest. Their search for the grail sets into motion a series of disturbing, sometimes dangerous events that, at their climax, bring forth a gift that, for a time at least, will keep the Dark from rising.

This third book in Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' series turned out to be an absolute joy.  The first was a bit 'Tally-ho chaps' Famous Five style frolicking and the second, despite being a huge improvement and thoroughly enjoyable lacked any sense of jeopardy as everything in the story just felt like it was entirely preordained for young Will and all he really had to do was sit back and go along for the ride. This instalment brings together the protagonists of the first two in an uncomfortable alliance back in the town of Trewissick at the time of the making of the 'Greenwitch' in order to locate the Grail instructions lost in the battle at the end of the first book. 

The story here is a much more cohesive, well plotted and enjoyable read than the previous two volumes, and when I say much I really do mean much.  The others were an OK way to while away a lazy afternoon but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

I'm not quite sure why poor Will wasn't allowed to confide in the other 3 about his true nature and so had to endure their ill manners but from the making of the Witch through the travels to the other realm and the battle with the agent of the Dark and the angry Witch I was hooked.

The narrative moved at an easy lope and there was no padding that I noticed.  The improvement / growth in Cooper's writing from the first to this is immense and the confidence she shows in playing with her world is a joy. I am genuinely excited to read the next two books.

Buy it here: Greenwitch (The Dark Is Rising)

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Murder at the Vicarage

Agatha Christie
Harper Collins / Collins Crime Club

Murder at the Vicarage marks the debut of Agatha Christie’s unflappable and much beloved female detective, Miss Jane Marple. With her gift for sniffing out the malevolent side of human nature, Miss Marple is led on her first case to a crime scene at the local vicarage. Colonel Protheroe, the magistrate whom everyone in town hates, has been shot through the head. No one heard the shot. There are no leads. Yet, everyone surrounding the vicarage seems to have a reason to want the Colonel dead. It is a race against the clock as Miss Marple sets out on the twisted trail of the mysterious killer without so much as a bit of help from the local police.

It has been a good long while since I had as much fun reading a book as I did with this one.  I've loved the various Miss Marple TV series for years but have never taken the plunge into the novels but when I found a stack of them in the local Oxfam I jumped at them.

Originally published in 1930 this is the first of the Marple books - although not the first published Marple story - and tells the story of the murder of the unpleasant Colonel Protheroe in the vicarage of the town of St Mary Mead.  The story of the investigation is told by the vicar and features a number of wryly funny observations, particularly with regard to the nosiness, insightfulness and mistrust of human nature of his elderly neighbour Miss Jane Marple, saying she 'always knew every single thing that happened and drew the worst inferences.'

Having seen several adaptations I already knew the various twists of the story so as a whodunnit it's effectiveness was difficult to gauge but it was assuredly, most satisfyingly convoluted but it was the unexpected humour that had me laughing aloud at several points that made this a real joy to read.

Buy it here: The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple)

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Injection vol.2

Warren Ellis (writer)
Declan Shalvey (artist)
Jordie Bellaire (colours)
Image Comics

Consulting detective Vivek Headland tackles a case involving a stolen ghost, but when human deli meat causes him to call for help the details of his investigation reveal a new battleground between humanity and The Injection.

In the first Injection collection we briefly met the various folks who made up the 'Cultural Cross-Contamination Unit' in the run-up to doing something, if not necessarily bad then definitely ill-conceived.  we also meet them some years down the line having had time to experience the repercussions of their actions and to know that the new surge of activity is a very bad thing.

Warren Ellis
Concentrating for the most part on Professor Maria Kilbride and 'cunning-man' Robin Morei volume one was a thoroughly Quatermassy experience filled with British folk legends, crusading scientists and embittered magicians - all the things that make Wyrd Britain feel all warm inside.  This time we're across the Atlantic and in the company of consulting detective Vivek Headland for an entirely Sherlockian ride as Headland is hired by a high flying financier to investigate the disappearance of a photograph containing the ghost of his mistress.  Into the mix are thrown a European esoteric militia called 'Rubedo' who want something the financier has - and it isn't his photo.

Declan Shalvey & Jordie Bellaire
(photo by Pat Loika)
At first Headland seems a cold sort of chap but over the course of the story we get to see the humanity in him and with the arrival of the other two ex-CCCU members we get to see the love he has for his friends and just how much values them.  Of those other two ex-colleagues, Simeon and Brigid, they are very much supporting cast here but there is a big, beautiful splash page - massive kudos to the art team here who are strong throughout but here they excel - that tells us, in no uncertain terms, down which Wyrd Britain road we'll be travelling next - happily it's my favourite.

So, two volumes in with hopefully many more to come and this is already the book I look forward to the most each year.  I do love it when Warren gets stuck into an idea and starts to take his time to wander around, grows his world and allow each of his characters space to do their thing in their own way.  It's something so few writers, especially in comics, take the time to do and it's one of the things that makes his work just so damn good.


Buy it here: Injection Volume 2

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Shadow On The Blind & Other Stories

Louisa Baldwin & Lettice Galbraith
Wordsworth Editions

The late Victorians had an insatiable appetite for the macabre and sensational: stories of murder and suspense, ghosts, the supernatural and the inexplicable were the stuff of life to them. The two writers in this volume well represent the last decade of the nineteenth century, and are of interest in themselves as well as for their contribution to the chilling of the Victorian spine. Mrs. Alfred Baldwin attempted as a child to contact her dead sister through a séance, and took to writing when stricken by a mysterious illness six weeks after marriage. She was also the mother of the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Lettice Galbraith is herself no less mysterious than the stories she wrote. She appeared on the literary scene in 1893, published a novel and two collections of stories in that year, a further story ( The Blue Room ) in 1897, and then nothing more. Readers of 'The Empty Picture Frame', 'The Case of Sir Nigel Otterburne', 'The Trainer's Ghost' and 'The Seance Room' will recognise the Victorian spirit at its finest.

A twofer this one with the book split pretty much straight down the middle and featuring a selection of stories by two less celebrated authors.

Louisa Baldwin is perhaps more notable for being the mother of a British prime minister (Stanley Baldwin) but she produced a number of ghostly tales.  On the whole they are a slightly forgettable bunch.  I'm writing this review a couple of weeks after reading the book and looking forward at the contents page I can only recall one of her stories, the ghostly visitor from 'The Empty Picture Frame', but a quick skim reminds me of other highlights.

Louisa Baldwin
Title piece, 'The Shadow On The Blind' is a particularly unremarkable haunted house tale which makes for an inauspicious opening for the book but the following story 'The Weird of the Walfords' is much more satisfying with it's attempts at breaking a family curse.  The next two stories both deal with premonitions of death, 'The Uncanny Bairn' with it's annoyingly written Scots dialect that, for me, felt contrived and kept bogging the story down was the least successful with it's story of a young boy growing up with second sight whilst 'Many Waters Cannot Quench Love' drops a young holiday maker into a house with a sobbing ghost.  'How He Left the Hotel' is an insubstantial little ditty while 'The Real and the Counterfeit' is a nondescript practical joke with an inevitable conclusion whereas 'My Next Door Neighbour' tells you the ending early on and then allows you to enjoy the journey.

Of the final two stories that make up Baldwin's half of the book, 'Sir Nigel Otterburne's Case' deals with a family curse in much the same way as all the other stories of it's ilk whilst the final one, 'The Ticking of the Clock' eschews supernatural themes for a tale of cross-generational familial love and is all the better for not trying to shoehorn any in.

And so we move on to the Lettice Galbraith half of the book.  Her first story, 'The Case of Lady Lukestan', makes it abundantly clear right from the off that we are dealing with a very different writer.  Her prose is more forceful and her manner less, well, mannered as she tells of a spurned and vindictive vicar's revenge from the beyond the grave in a story filled to the brim with suicide, gossip, illegitimate weddings, children and death.

She follows this with a tale of gambling, touts and 'The Trainer's Ghost' just in case you weren't scandalised enough by the lady's knowledge of indelicate events in the previous story and by this point I'm liking this lady very much indeed. Tales of infernal bargains ('The Ghost in the Chair'), mesmerism and murder ('In the Seance Room'), spectral retribution ('The Missing Model' & 'A Ghost's Revenge') and finally occult detection and black magic ('The Blue Room') all confirm my early opinion that the lady had much to offer and of whom so little is known - you'll notice there's no author image attached to this half of the review.

These Wordsworths regularly offer up surprises and whilst the first half has it's enjoyable moments it is a little too well mannered and reserved for my tastes and I quite like well mannered and reserved.  Galbraith's second half on the other hand is a delight of unpleasantness, retribution and death and it's a real shame that there's so little work by her to explore.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Philip Madoc - A Villain for All Seasons

Madoc as the War Lord in 'The War Games'
Today marks 5 years since the fantastic Welsh actor Philip Madoc passed away.  Through his career he amassed a respectable Wyrd Britain pedigree with appearances in The Avengers, Space 1999, UFO and Survivors.

As an actor he will probably always be most well remembered for his cameo as the U-Boat captain in Dad's Army but for us here at Wyrd Britain he will always be most fondly thought of for his appearances in Doctor Who.

As Brockley in
'Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.'
Madoc appeared on film, television and in audio opposite 5 different versions of the Doctor; with Peter Cushing in 'Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.', Patrick Troughton in 'The Krotons' and 'The War Games', Tom Baker in 'The Brain of Morbius' and 'The Power of Kroll' and for Big Finish with Sylvester McCoy in 'Master' and Colin Baker in 'Return of the Krotons'.

In 2007 the BBC filmed a short interview with Madoc talking about his 5 filmed excursions into the world(s) of the Doctor which was included as an extra on the DVD for 'The Power of Kroll' but can also be watched (for now) at the link below.

Philip Madoc - a Villain for All Seasons

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

40 years of The Galaxy's Greatest Comic

Today  marks the 40th birthday of a very unlikely British institution, 2000AD.

Formed at the same time as the nascent punk movement in the UK 2000AD tapped into the same zeitgeist.  It was big, bold, bloody, beautiful and bonkers and for 4 decades this weekly anthology comic has been providing us with work from some of the worlds top comic creators.  The role call of contributors is mind blowing, Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill, John Wagner, Pat Mills, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Bryan Talbot, Simon Bisley, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Dan Abnett, Grant Morrison and so many more.  All of these guys - and it was almost exclusively guys, women creators have always been horrendously under-represented in comics generally and 2000AD in particular - would go on to define how comics looked and what they said from the late 20th century on.

Between them they gave life to hordes of classic characters, future teen Halo Jones, dystopian cop Judge Dredd, alien freedom fighter Nemesis, mutant bounty hunter Strontium Dog, Celtic warrior Slaine, genetic soldier Rogue Trooper, alien teenage delinquents DR & Quinch,  pop culture superhero Zenith, the list goes on.

It also provided us with the single greatest panel in comics


and two Dredd films of varying quality (we heartily recommend the Karl Urban one).

Over the 40 years I've been an occasional reader of the weekly comic but am an avid reader of the graphic novels.  Many of the classic 2000AD stories have been collected together in phone book (anyone remember phone books?) sized collections and the publisher - Rebellion - continues to issue nicely produced collections of more recent stories. 

So, happy 40th birthday 2000AD.  Wyrd Britain thanks you from the bottom of it's dark heart especially as you were a big reason it's like that in the first place.




Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Ghost Stories

Various
Cathay Books

Twenty-two exciting stories from the twilight world of haunted houses and hair-raising spectres are contained in this spine-chilling anthology.
Each tale is illustrated with specially commissioned drawings.


The more of these anthologies I read the quicker I get through them.  They're generally a fairly fast read anyway being short stories but in many cases the same stories appear again and again and again.  In the case of this 1984 collection from Cathay Books I already knew 12 of the 22.  Some, like M.R. James' 'A School Story' and Captain Frederick Marryat's 'The Phantom Ship' I skip past on a fairly regular basis but as these things are meant to entice (as opposed to being a warning to) the curious into the charms of the genre that's something that one has to accept.  With that being the case the above are fine inclusions as are other regulars such as Hugh Walpole's poignant 'A Little Ghost', Lovecraft's non mythos short 'The Music of Erich Zann', the unsettling presence of the cupboard in Algernon Blackwood's 'The Occupant of the Room' or Fritz Leiber's sooty city spirit in 'The Smoke Ghost'.

R. Chetwynd Hayes
Elsewhere in the book the unidentified editor has made some fine, if maybe a tad unadventurous, choices.  Charles Dickens is represented by his macabre tale of avarice and murder, 'The Ghost in the Bride's Chamber' wherein a murderer is forced to feel the intensity of his punishment increasing with each passing hour of the night which is far more than the guilty party at the heart (if you'll excuse the pun) of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' would have ever managed to endure.

The conclusion of Poe's tale signals the start of a run of rather inconsequential stories,  the black magic cat of R. Chetwynd-Hayes' 'The Cat Room', Catherine Crowe's somnambulist clergyman in 'The Monk's Story' and Saki's weakly witty 'Laura' before we hit a rich vein of the standards that I mentioned earlier.

Rosemary Timperley
The book makes another move towards the lesser known with Rosemary Timperley's tale of infatuation and fire, 'The Mistress in Black' and Guy de Maupassant's creepy little oddity, 'An Apparition'.

Undoubtedly the oddest inclusion here is an utterly pointless extract from Penelope Lively's 'The Ghost of Thomas Kempe' but it's easily skipped for the aforementioned Blackwood story and Jerome K. Jerome's practical joking ghost of 'The Haunted Mill'.

Guy de Maupassant
One of the biggest draws here was the opportunity to read something by another of the Le Fanu's.  The venerable Sheridan is here with 'The White Cat of Drumgunniol' but also his daughter Elizabeth who tells of a case of ghostly possession in 'The Harpsichord' which is a fairly told but lacks the invention of her father's work.

Closing the book are two authors who are anthology stalwarts, W.W. Jacobs, who is represented by a story I hadn't read before,'The Three Sisters' which reminded me entirely of 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and finally Joan Aiken's 'Sonata for Harp and Bicycle' allows the book to end on a romantic high even if it's a long way from being one of her best.

Some interesting stories make this a good but not essential anthology unless of course you're a newcomer to the delights of the genre then it's probably one to keep an eye out for.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Dark is Rising

Susan Cooper
Puffin Books

"When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back, three from the circle, three from the track; wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone; five will return, and one go alone.” 
With these mysterious words, Will Stanton discovers on his 11th birthday that he is no mere boy. He is the Sign-Seeker, last of the immortal Old Ones, destined to battle the powers of evil that trouble the land. His task is monumental: he must find and guard the six great Signs of the Light, which, when joined, will create a force strong enough to match and perhaps overcome that of the Dark. Embarking on this endeavour is dangerous as well as deeply rewarding; Will must work within a continuum of time and space much broader than he ever imagined.

Book two of Cooper's series of the same name takes a slightly different tack to the first.  What we see here is a far more developed and cohesive storyworld than in the first. The Blyton-esque overtones are much less obvious and the story has considerably more depth.  

The core idea here seems much the same - there is an eternal battle between good and evil / the Light versus the Dark - and the old fella putting the kids at risk in the first is back recruiting yet another wee fella to the cause.  This particular tiddler though is a bit special as he's the last 'Old One', one of the protectors of the world, heir to their power and magic and the chosen one who will find and unite the six signs that will herald the victory of the light.

Cooper has created a whole mythology for these 'Old Ones' tying them into human events throughout history and incorporating folktales such as 'Wayland Smith' and 'The Wild Hunt' which in many ways means the back story is more well developed than the book story which again is a little too pat.  The 6 signs almost literally fall into young Will's lap and by the halfway point it's apparent that - whilst obviously - he's going to succeed in his endeavours he's also going to do so without any great expenditure of effort.  It's an unfortunate flaw as in all other ways this is a most enjoyable read filled to bursting with invention that left me intrigued to see where she is going to take her story next but also with the knowledge that the story may be a little too pat.

Buy it here -  The Dark Is Rising: Modern Classic

Monday, 6 February 2017

Running Wild

J.G. Ballard
Flamingo

The thirty-two adult members of an exclusive residential community in West London are brutally murdered, and their children are abducted, leaving no trace. Through the forensic diary of Dr. Richard Greville, Deputy Psychiatric Adviser to the London Metropolitan Police, the brutal details of the massacre that has baffled the entire police department unfold.

I've only ever tried to dig into one other Ballard story before, an audiobook of The Drowned World which really didn't grab me.  I'm a creature of fickle whims as far as books are concerned, if the mood's not right it goes back on the shelf and the mood wasn't right.  I recently stumbled on this little novella in a charity shop and the mood was definitely right.


The story tells of the investigation of a mass murder at an ultra modern housing estate and the apparent kidnapping of all the children.  The story unfolds through the report of investigating psychiatrist, Richard Greville, who has been brought in to help think around the problem. Unfortunately it's not a problem that needs a lot of thinking around and you'll have probably worked the problem out within the first couple of pages.  It's then a matter of waiting for him to catch up.

So, with the whodunnit aspect in the toilet, this is a polemic, a castigation of the nanny state, a rebuttal against the eye of Big Brother and a prediction of the lengths people will go to to be free of tyranny and truthfully it's better that way.

Buy it here -  Running Wild