Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels

Mike Mignola & Ben Steinbeck
(Dark Horse)

Mike Mignola teams up with artist Ben Stenbeck (B.P.R.D.: The Ectoplasmic Man) for a look into one of the Hellboy universe's greatest enigmas: nineteenth-century occult investigator Edward Grey In one of Grey's first cases as an agent of the queen, he goes from the sparkling echelons of Victorian London to its dark underbelly, facing occult conspiracies, a rampaging monster, and the city's most infamous secret society: the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra.


At this point I've not read much Hellboy, one GN, two BPRD GNs and a novel, but the ones I had read I really dug, Sure it gets a bit too Lovecraft in places but I can forgive that if the rest is up to scratch. Witchfinder is a spin-off featuring Victorian occult detective to the Queen Sir Edward Grey.

The story deals with Grey investigating a series of deaths that are linked with a bag of bones found on an archeological expedition. The investigation leads Grey and his new found friends through a deliciously grimey and inhospitable London full of violent and raggedy people and strange occultist and religious groups.

The story's competent enough for an evenings read but I think I'm always going to prefer Mignola as an artist as opposed to as a writer.The art by Steinbeck is very nice when it comes to scenery but he seems to struggle occasionally with the people, I do mean occasionally though.

In all it was all good outlandish fun. Lovecraft as reimagined by Hammer studios.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Quatermass Memoirs

Nigel Kneale
(BBC Audio)

First broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1996, this is a mix of original TV soundtrack and drama-documentary, in which Nigel Kneale reflects on the 1950s fearful atmosphere in which he wrote the classic 'Quatermass' TV serials. The programme mixes the factual story with a dramatic narrative, in which the now-retired Professor Quatermass (played by Andrew Keir) reluctantly recounts his past exploits to a female journalist. This in turn is interweaved with soundtrack footage from the Quatermass TV dramas.


What a strange little artifact this turned out to be. I’m really not sure what it’s meant to be; part documentary, part drama, part reminiscence / retrospection. Throughout the two discs Nigel Kneale talks about the influences on each of the Quatermass TV series and attempts – rather clumsily – to put each into a socio-political context. Interspersed with this is an odd little dramatisation featuring Andrew Keir reprising his portrayal of the now aged, retired and even crankier Quatermass who is ‘pushed’ into reminiscence of the events of his past by a young researcher turning up at his door.

It was a pleasure to hear Keir and the Kneale sections were diverting enough in their way but on the whole this was a bit of a non event. The attempt at the very end to bring in a set-up for the world of the 1979 TV series was a nice little conceit but, much like the rest of it, rather clumsily done.

The Casebook of Carnacki: Ghost Hunter

William Hope Hodgson
(Wordsworth Editions)

Edited with an Introduction by David Stuart Davies 'I saw something terrible rising up through the middle of the 'defence'. It rose with a steady movement. I saw it pale and huge through the whirling funnel of cloud - a monstrous pallid snout rising out of that unknowable abyss. It rose higher and higher. Through a thinning of the cloud I saw one small eye... a pig's eye with a sort of vile understanding shining at the back of it. Thomas Carnacki is a ghost finder, an Edwardian psychic detective, investigating a wide range of terrifying hauntings presented in the nine stories in this complete collection of his adventures. Encountering such spine-chilling phenomena as 'The Whistling Room', the life-threatening dangers of the phantom steed in 'The Horse of the Invisible' and the demons from the outside world in 'The Hog', Carnacki is constantly challenged by spiritual forces beyond our knowledge. To complicate matters, he encounters human skullduggery also. Armed with a camera, his Electric Pentacle and various ancient tomes on magic, Carnacki faces the various dangers his supernatural investigations present with great courage. These exciting and frightening stories have long been out of print. Now readers can thrill to them again in this new Wordsworth series.

A year or so ago I heard the ‘Weird Tales for Winter’ version of ‘Gateway of the Monster’ and shortly after that I read ‘The Whistling Room’ as a back-up story in one of the Doctor Who novellas – ‘Foreign Devils’ by Andrew Cartmel – these sent me looking for the full anthology.

The two I already knew are amongst the best of the 9 Carnacki stories here. ‘The Hog’ was also pretty fab as was ‘the Horse of the Invisible’ even if part of the ending was maybe a little poor.  'The House Among the Laurels’ was a silly but fun Sherlockian short. ‘The Find’ was too brief by far and felt undeveloped. ‘The Haunted Jarvee’ had its moments but didn’t really go anywhere.  ‘The Thing Invisible’ was another basic Sherlock investigation and ‘The Searcher of the End House’ had nothing to offer in the end to live up to the build-up.

At best Hodgson was a journeyman writer. There are some nice ideas in there and the fact that Carnacki doesn’t always come across supernatural causes to the crimes he investigates is very satisfying. The stories though, often feel underdeveloped and the character himself is too dry and stunted and just doesn’t have the personality to truly carry the story, he really needs a Watson. Perhaps if Hodgson had survived WWI he would have developed his style and the character. It would have been interesting to see how his experiences would have influenced his words. Alas it was not to be.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain

Andy Roberts
(Marshall Cavendish)

Contrary to popular belief, LSD is much more connected to Britain than it is to the US. This engaging book looks at the use of LSD in British society, from its arrival in 1952 to the present day. It provides a hidden history of a controversial drug and how it permeated British culture. The author explores LSD's use by the medical profession in treating a variety of psychological and mental problems. At the same time, The Ministry of Defense believed they were on the brink of harnessing LSD as a battlefield incapacitation drug which would enable wars to be won without loss of life. But LSD's popularity rose with its use among the British counterculture, from the 1950s beatniks through to the late 80s acid house parties. At its height, when it was legal, LSD affected the lives and philosophies of significant individuals (politicians, scientists, writers, educators, entertainers, artists, journalists) as well as ordinary people for good and bad. This book is the first to explore LSD's amazing influence on British culture and society.

The Jay Stevens book, Storming Heaven, is one of my favourite reads but it is very US centric so when I spotted a copy of this in the window of a Glastonbury bookshop I felt an immediate need to read.

It was a little disappointing. The writing is OK and the information interesting but there are blatant gaps in the narrative - not his fault as the records are blocked - which are frustrating and jarring and drag things down somewhat and after a while you start to wonder (possibly unfairly) if maybe he could have been a bit more rigorous in his research. More frustratingly though is that Roberts is blatantly evangelical regarding LSD. I prefer my authors to maintain a short of scholarly distance and simply relate the facts. I can make up my own mind and don't particularly enjoy being preached at.

That said though I still found much of interest here and it's definitely worth a read if it's your sort of subject matter.

Anno Dracula

Kim Newman
(Titan Books)

It is 1888 and Queen Victoria has remarried, taking as her new consort Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian Prince infamously known as Count Dracula. Peppered with familiar characters from Victorian history and fiction, the novel follows vampire Geneviève Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club as they strive to solve the mystery of the Ripper murders.
Anno Dracula is a rich and panoramic tale, combining horror, politics, mystery and romance to create a unique and compelling alternate history. Acclaimed novelist Kim Newman explores the darkest depths of a reinvented Victorian London.
This brand-new edition of the bestselling novel contains unique bonus material, including a new afterword from Kim Newman, annotations, articles and alternate endings to the original novel.


Wow! Now that was a trip worth taking. Newman's reinvention of the Dracula mythos, indeed the whole vampire mythos, is a sumptuous and beautifully literate experience.

The basic conceit is simple. What if van Helsing and his followers had failed to stop the Count and he had fully implemented his plan to conquer and rule Britain? Here his marriage to Queen Victoria has brought all of the famous vampires out of hiding and has led to the adoption of vampirism by many within the country from politicians to beggars. Into this society comes the fear and outrage engendered by a spate of murders of vampire whores in Whitechapel by a killer christened first 'Silver Knife' and later, more famously (or infamously) 'Jack the Ripper'.

Newman makes no attempt to hide the identity of his ripper, it's one of the first things the book divulges and instead we are allowed to view, Columbo style, the slow advance of Charles Beauregard, agent of the Diogenes Club, as he investigates and eventually solves the crimes.

This is secondary however to the changes in both society and the individuals around Beauregard. The novel is bigger than a mere whodunnit. There is, in the great spirit of the Diogenes Club's most famous member (along with his brother and his author), a plan most devious, a plot most wonderful and a scheme most subtle that only the most indolent (no offense to Mr. Newman) could have conceived of it.

It's wonderfully written with subtle changes of pace and tone which carry you along as much as the plot. Newman's writing was only known to me through his articles in Empire and his excellent book on Apocalypse Movies so this was a real revelation and a joy from start to finish.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Somnambulist

Jonathan Barnes
(Gollancz)

Project yourself back to Victorian London, with its teeming thoroughfares and dark alleys. Into that evocative scene now place Edward Moon, a deft stage magician and detective, and his silent associate, the Somnambulist. It would appear that the stage has been set for a criminal probes worthy of Holmes himself, but actually The Somnambulist unfolds something just as ambitious, yet far weirder. Moon discovers that giant rats are not the only things rustling through the city's gaslit streets; fiendish plotters, including the walking dead, have descended upon the great metropolis, bringing with them shades of Doctor Caligari and Edward Gorey
.

This startling little novel of magical-realist Victoriana about the exploits of a fading magician / detective and his gigantic, mute, milk drinking associate as he investigates a series of unlikely deaths is maybe not an absolute joy but is certainly an intriguing one.

Whilst occasionally straying into the psychogeographical realms of Iain Sinclair, Barnes' tale is a stirring tale of deduction and destruction. Holmes is the obvious reference point here but is only that as Moon has a fully developed quirky personality of his own that needs no counterpart. The Somnambulist himself (the above mentioned milk drinker) is very much a peripheral character with minimal effect on the proceedings which makes his role as the title character a little confusing but then again he does have a cool name so why not. The setting, London, is treated as as much of a character as the flesh and blood (or whatever it is The Somnambulist is made from) ones and there are a number of odd and unusual characters revolving around the core that it makes for interesting reading.

The Somnambulist (the book not the character) is an entertaining enough read. Steampunk purists should probably stay away but personally I enjoyed it. As a novel it was always reaching, it didn't quite make it to where it was going but it never stopped trying and that was good to see especially in a debut novel.

Friday, 25 July 2014

'Rivers of London' - books 1, 2, & 3


The magical history of the UK is the gift that keeps giving as far as authors are concerned. From big obvious storyworlds like the Potter books, Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange...', Mike Carey's Felix Castor series or Alan Moore's 'From Hell'.
In his 'Rivers of London' books Ben Aaronovitch places the old magic of the UK into a modern context and we find ourselves in a London populated by elementals and ghosts where magic, long thought dormant, is now on the rise.
Having established himself as a scriptwriter and novelist for Doctor Who Aaronovitch has developed a quick and easy style that races along at full pulp speed and in the best Who tradition mixes the mundane with the extraordinary.  I bought the first of these on a whim because I really liked the cover art (I am a sucker for good cover art) and am now completely hooked.

Rivers of London

Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London's Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he'll face is a paper cut. But Peter's prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter's ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

I've had this on the table for a while. I really fancied it but the modern setting kept putting me off. When I finally got to it though it really hit the spot. It tells of Peter Grant a newly minted London copper who gets pulled into a special department dealing with magical threats to the realm. As Britain's first new wizard in fifty years Peter is soon on a steep learning curve about both the how, the who, the where, the when and the why whilst also continuing to maintain his actual job and deal with a particularly nasty case that has landed in the collective laps of the Metropolitan police.

There are moments in the book when he rather gets ahead of himself (the vampires) and the book slightly runs out of steam a little about 100 pages before the end as the finale seemed very dragged out but it was a mostly satisfying ending. It very much reminded me of Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels which is hardly surprising but it has it's own identity and is a lot more fantastical. I'm pretty interested for book two.


Moon Over Soho

My name is Peter Grant, and I’m a Detective Constable in that might army for justice known as the Metropolitan Police (a.k.a. The Filth). I’m also a trainee wizard, the first such apprentice in fifty years.
Something violently supernatural had happened, something strong enough to leave an imprint on the corpse of part-time jazz saxophonist Cyrus Wilkinson as if he were a wax cylinder recording. He's not the first musician to drop dead of a heart attack right after a gig, but no one was going to let me start examining corpses to check for supernatural similarities. Instead, it was back to old-fashioned police legwork. It didn't take me long to realise there were monsters stalking Soho, creatures feeding off the gift that separates great musicians from those who can raise a decent tune. What they take is beauty. What they left behind is broken lives.
And as I hunted them, my investigation got tangled up in another story: a brilliant trumpet player, Richard 'Lord' Grant – my father – who managed to destroy his own career. Twice.
Policing: most of the time you're doing it to maintain public order. Occasionally you're doing it for justice. And, maybe once in a career, you're doing it for revenge.


This is the second of these Peter Grant novels and like this first it was pretty good fun. Grant is investigating the death of a part time jazz musician. Along the way he makes the acquaintance of a new 'young' lady friend, forms a new band for his dad and discovers that there is a very dangerous black magician working some particularly bad magic around the place.

Through the course of the book we are introduced to more of the less ordinary denizens of London whilst we are also, along with Peter, schooled in the history of magic and magicians in the UK. I'm an absolute sucker for this sort of urban fantasy but am also quite sceptical and hard to please so it's got to be done right. I'm uninterested in superpowered, supernatural creatures simply roaming the streets, it's silly and it's cliched and more importantly it's naff. For me they need to be incorporated into the fabric of the mundane; to be simply another ethnic group within the city albeit an ethnic group with unusual genetics. Aaronovitch manages this excellently.

It's a cool little caper with some really nifty characters who have real presence on the page. The story is fun and action packed with a lively pace throughout and an ending that opens the way for all manner of intrigue to come.


Whispers Underground

A whole new reason to mind the gap.
It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher—and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom—if it exists at all—is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as “the Faceless Man,” it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and—as of now—deadliest subway system in the world.
At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah—that’s going to go well.


This third book about apprentice magician and copper Peter Grant finds him dragged into the sewers and underground of London whilst searching for the killer of a young American artist. There's also a side plot regarding the continued search for the 'Faceless Man' and the 'Little Crocodiles'

On the whole this one was a little bit slight. The big, overarching, story very much took a back seat to a romp around London's subterranean workings with introductions to some of the other less ordinary inhabitants of the city. I must admit this did disappoint me a little as I am very much liking the big picture and back story aspects and so this all felt a little quiet and, as I said, slight but it was still a very fine adventure romp that kept me turning the pages.

Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Louis Neibur
(Oxford University Press)

Special Sound traces the fascinating creation and legacy of the BBC's electronic music studio, the Radiophonic Workshop, in the context of other studios in Europe and America. The BBC built a studio to provide its own avant-garde dramatic productions with experimental sounds "neither music nor sound effect." Quickly, however, a popular kind of electronic music emerged in the form of quirky jingles, signature tunes such as Doctor Who, and incidental music for hundreds of programs. These influential sounds and styles, heard by millions of listeners over decades of operation on television and radio, have served as a primary inspiration for the use of electronic instruments in popular music.
Using in-depth research in the studio's archives and papers, this book tells the history of the many engineers, composers, directors, and producers behind the studio to trace the shifting perception towards electronic music in Britain. Combining historical discussion of the people and instruments in the workshop with analysis of specific works, Louis Niebur creates a new model for understanding how the Radiophonic Workshop fits into the larger history of electronic music.


I was really stoked when I discovered the existence of this. I'd been hoping there was a book on the Workshop that I could read but had somehow managed to not notice this one.

In the end I did feel a little let down by it. Neibur has obviously done his research and he blatantly knows his subject but his writing, for me at least, was cold and lacking passion. He doesn't seem at all interested in the people. His entire concern is in the musical aspects and in the gear but even in that he's not concerned about glorious eccentricities like the 'do not fiddle with' and their other homemade gear which would allow us to learn more about magnificent mavericks like Workshop engineer Dave Young. Indeed the people of the Workshop get short shrift some only a cursory mention others not even that.

I don't want to appear too negative though as in it's way it was an interesting read but I'm an anthropologist / sociologist by qualification and by inclination because I like to know about the people and on that score this just didn't deliver. If however it's the technical details of both the compositions by and the composition of the Workshop then I'm sure this book will amply fulfil your requirements.

Survivors

Terry Nation
(Orion)

A virus has wiped out 95 per cent of the world's population in just a few weeks, leaving the remaining 5 per cent to stay alive in a world devoid of the most basic amenities - electricity, transport and medicine. The few survivors of the human race are forced to fall back on the most primitive skills in order to live and re-establish some semblance of law and order. Abby Grant, widowed by the plague, moves through this new dark age with determination, sustained by hope that her son, who fled his boarding school at the onset, has survived. She knows she must relearn the skills on which civilisation was built. With others, she founds a commune and the group return to the soil. But marauding bands threaten their existence. For Abby, there's a chance for a new life and love when she encounters James Garland, the fourteenth Earl of Woodhouse, who is engaged in a desperate fight to save his ancestral home. But more important, she must find her son.

This is the novel that sparked the 1970s TV show and the terrible remake from a couple of years ago. It’s good too.

I’ve read lot’s of these immediate aftermath post-apocalypse things over the years. They’ve become a sort of SAS survival guide for me; John Christopher’s ‘Death of Grass’, ‘The Earth Abides’ by George R. Stewart and ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy are the most recent. I know for certain that I’d be terrible in such circumstances. I’ve no useful practical skills whatsoever.

The book concerns the life of one small group of people as they band together and attempt to survive the aftermath of a pandemic. The plot here almost exclusively deals with the practicalities of life. There are some perfunctory nods towards some sort of conflict with a newly formed autocratic society nearby but they are sparsely featured.

I picked this book up early today out of curiosity and finished it late this afternoon so a light read yes but still enjoyable.

The Laundry Files



In the Lovecraftian world created by Charles Stross, The Laundry is the agency of the UK government concerned with fighting supernatural threats against Britain, particularly the imminent and inevitable end of the world or 'Case Nightmare Green' as it is referred to here. It is though above all, more than anything else, mostly concerned with ensuring a proper and correct paper trail when exercising ones duties on behalf of the organisation.
I really love this series. It's funny and exciting and sometimes a little bit sad but mostly funny...and exciting. Since I wrote this I've discovered there is in fact a new book out (woohoo!) which I'll talk about at a future date. In the meantime here're my little write ups of the story so far. Some of these are available to read online for free but truthfully I really recommend you start at the beginning and work your way through, things will make a lot more sense.


The Atrocity Archives / The Concrete Jungle

Bob Howard is a low-level techie working for a super-secret government agency. While his colleagues are out saving the world, Bob's under a desk restoring lost data. None of them receive any thanks for the jobs they do, but at least a techie doesn't risk getting shot or eaten in the line of duty. Bob's world is dull but safe, and that's the way it should have stayed; but then he went and got Noticed. Only one thing is certain: it will take more than control-alt-delete to sort this mess out.

These are the first two stories in the series of books about The Laundry; the UK governments anti (Lovecraftian style) demon organisation and in particular the exploits of one of it's operatives, Bob Howard.

In the Atrocity Archives we are introduced to all the principal character and are faced with a battery of explanations regarding how every little thing in the Laundry works. The story has Howard chasing both love and the nameless horror that's trying to get into our world via the remnants of some long dead SS necromancers.

The second story, The Concrete Jungle, tells the story of 'look to kill' weapons in the security cameras and an attempted inter-departmental coup against Bob's very scary boss, Angleton.

The over-description of the procedures of the Laundry does get a little tiresome but both of these stories were thoroughly enjoyable.


Jennifer Morgue / Pimpf

Bob Howard is a computer übergeek employed by the Laundry, a secret British agency assigned to clean up incursions from other realities caused by the inadvertent manipulation of complex mathematical equations: in other words, magic. In 1975, the CIA used Howard Hughes's Glomar Explorer in a bungled attempt to raise a sunken Soviet submarine in order to access the Jennifer Morgue, an occult device that allows communication with the dead. Now a ruthless billionaire intends to try again, even if by doing so he awakens the Great Old Ones, who thwarted the earlier expedition. It's up to Bob and a collection of British eccentrics even Monty Python would consider odd to stop the bad guy and save the world, while getting receipts for all expenditures or else face the most dreaded menace of all: the Laundry's own auditors.

A second set of Laundry books with a full length novel followed by a short, just like the last book. This one is a lot less Lovecraftian than the last with bags of James Bond style globetrotting over a John Wyndham creature feature.

The basic plot revolves around an attempt to steal from the creatures who live in the seas depths. The Bond-ness is deliberate as there is a spell cast that means the evil business magnate can only be stopped by someone conforming with a Bond stereotype. Bob is embroiled in this and stumbles through the case until the end when things get very interesting and twisty. It’s fairly silly but it is pretty fun.

The short is an innocuous thing about computer games and ghosts which didn’t grab my attention at all.


Down on the Farm

In Charles Stross’s novel The Atrocity Archive and its sequels, the “Laundry” is a secret British agency responsible for keeping dark interdimensional entitities from destroying the cosmos and, not incidentally, the human race. The battles with creatures from beyond time are dangerous; however, it’s the subsequent bureaucratic paperwork that actually breaks men’s souls. Now, in “Down on the Farm,” Laundry veteran Bob Howard must investigate strange doings at another obscure, moth-eaten government agency—evidently a rest home for Laundry agents whose minds have snapped.

This is the first of two Laundry shorts that I had a listen to before tackling the next full novel - The Fuller Memorandum.

Bob is sent north to visit a sanatorium, for agents suffering from Krantzberg's Syndrome, from which a message has been received warning of nefarious activities.

Once there he finds a selection of top level researchers ensconced in work associated with battling Case Nightmare Green. Also there he finds a psychotic, possessed computer 'Matron' that has set up a trap for Bob that'll help her escape confinement.

A really nifty little tale that offered an extra little insight into the Laundry's plans to combat the end of the world.
read it here - http://www.tor.com/?option=com_content&view=story&id=61


Overtime

Introduced to readers in the novels The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue, the Laundry is a secret British government agency charged with preventing dark interdimensional entities from destroying the human race. Now, in "Overtime," the Laundry is on a skeleton staff for Christmas—leaving one bureaucrat to be all that stands between the world and annihilation by the Thing That Comes Down Chimneys. Written especially for Tor.com's holiday season, Charles Stross's novelette is a finalist for the 2010 Hugo Award.

A very silly little short Laundry tale setting Bob against Santa, or at least a demonic version thereof.

Bob is stuck doing overtime at Xmas where he discovers that someone has opened the doors of the Laundry building, or more precisely, the Laundry buildings chimneys. He sets a very festive trap at the bottom of the chimney, outside of the building's furnace, for the creature to feed on (as opposed to it feeding on him) before disposing of the menace.

It's all very daft but good fun and as I accidentally played this over Xmas without realising the context it was especially so.
read it here - http://www.tor.com/?option=com_content&view=story&id=58511


Equoid

The "Laundry" is Britain's super-secret agency devoted to protecting the realm from the supernatural horrors that menace it. Now Bob Howard, Laundry agent, must travel to the quiet English countryside to deal with an outbreak of one of the worst horrors imaginable. For, as it turns out, unicorns are real. They're also ravenous killers from beyond spacetime.


Bob is landed with an investigation into possible strange goings on at a farm outside of London.  The local DEFRA vet and part time crytozoologist has spotted tell tale signs of an equoid, or 'unicorn' as they're more commonly known, outbreak.

In Bob's world - and also in that of H.P.Lovecraft whose letters regarding his own dealings with them are interspersed through the narrative - unicorns are thoroughly malignant and murderous creatures that need taking care of with extreme prejudice...and fire...preferably napalm.

It's only a little short but it crackles with intent.  Often these little freebie reads can be a little weak but this feels like it belongs in the canon and wasn't just hacked out as a begrudged contract obligation.   Well worth your time especially as it's free at the link below.

read it here - http://www.tor.com/stories/2013/09/equoid


The Fuller Memorandum

Computational demonologist Bob Howard is catching up on his filing in the Laundry archives when a top secret dossier known as the Fuller Memorandum vanishes-along with his boss, who is suspected of stealing the file. And while dealing with Russian agents, ancient demons, and a maniacal death cult, Bob must find the missing memorandum before the world ends up disappearing next.


I used the previous two shorts to get me in the mood for this next novel in the series. I'm glad I did cause he makes several references to the guys sequestered away in the asylum featured in 'Down on the Farm'. This book is a lot less adventury than the others. It gives a stronger view of the Laundry prepping for Case Nightmare Green.

Angleton suspects a traitor in the Laundry and in order to draw the traitor out he sets Bob up as bait along with a report that would allow the cultists to summon up the 'Eater of Souls'. The problem for them is that even though they catch, torture and try to possess Bob it turns out the 'Eater of Souls' is already incarnate and Bob's boss.

I really enjoyed this one (I've pretty much enjoyed all of them). Lot's of characters all working towards a single goal and a glimpse into the wider worlds and plans of the Laundry and also their Russian equivalent, The Black Chamber.


The Apocalypse Codex

Bob Howard used to fix computers for the Laundry, the branch of the British Secret Service that deals with otherworldly threats, but those days are over. He's not only been promoted to active service but actually survived missions against cultists, enemy spies and tentacled horrors from other dimensions.

I really like these very British Lovecraftian books about the UK's magical secret service The Laundry that Stross has done but I'm not sure I could actually read one. All the one I've come across (and I'm fairly certain that it's all of them) have been audiobooks and now all the characters are so entirely tied up with the voices that reader Gideon Emery has given them that this is the only way for me now.

This latest one pits our promotion bound hero, computational demonologist Bob Howard, against an American evangelist with a hard on for waking the Sleeper which would be bad news for all involved and everyone not involved. Helping him along the way are two external operatives - Persephone Hazard and Johnny McTavish, a witch and an ex-squaddie respectively - who slowly reveal to him the the true hidden history and nature of The Laundry.

This time out it's less obsessed with the bureaucracy of the agency and what we get is more of a straight adventure story but as Stross has been writing each as a pastiche of different authors such as Len Deighton, Ian Fleming and Anthony Price and here inserting Bob into a Peter O'Donnell (Modesty Blaise) novel that's understandable. These have fast become amongst my most anticipated releases and are an absolute joy to find out where Stross is going to take Bob next which is a particularly apt way to end this review as it mirrors the tantalising end of the book.


Friday, 18 July 2014

The War of the Worlds

H. G. Wells
(Penguin Books)

The night after a shooting star is seen streaking across the sky, a cylinder is discovered near London. Armed with just a white flag, the locals approach the mysterious object – only to be burned alive by heat-rays as horrific, tentacled invaders emerge.
Soon, the whole of human civilization is under threat, as powerful Martians move across the land in massive killing machines, armed with black gas and burning rays. The aliens are determined to win the Earth for themselves.


I always said I’d read this one day and I finally have. It was pretty much well worth the wait too.

Like the Time Machine, which I read last year, the protagonist / narrator remains a nameless figure. His journey remains also at the heart of the book. Like the main fellow you are very much along for the ride as he stumbles from one encounter to another. His adventures are as mundane as they are extraordinary such as when trapped in the cellar for days on end with an increasingly mad curate he barely relates the activities of the Martians outside and instead focuses on the struggle within over their food supplies.

I must admit I didn’t expect it to be as readable as it turned out to be but then so was Time Machine. Wells had such an easy and personable style that you’re easily drawn along by his characters and absorbed by his plots. Wish I’d read this sooner and I think I need to tackle the Invisible Man next.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Aliens in the Mind

Robert Holmes & Rene Basilico
(BBC)

Strange people are discovered on a remote Scottish island. Classic radio sci-fi starring Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, written by Doctor Who script editor Robert Holmes

Originally starting life as a proposed Doctor Who script (Second Doctor) this was later made into this fantastic sci-fi serial starring real-life friends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price as old college friends – eminent brain surgeon John Cornelius and the laconic parapsychologist Curtis Lark. I’m very pleased that it was turned down. Cushing & Price are in phenomenal form trading banter and handling the often pretty absurd dialogue with aplomb. And, let’s be honest here they both have amazing voices that I could listen to all day.

The story details their discovery (via another old friend) of colony of telepathic ‘mutants’ on a small Scottish island. Amongst their number they identify two women they describe as ‘controllers’, mutants who can control the actions of other mutants. Their investigation into this phenomena leads them to London and an attempt to take over the government which they foil in what must be said is an anticlimactic ending.

The whole thing is gloriously dated and sublimely archaic and great, great, great fun.

ps - Whilst I would encourage you to go out and buy this little gem there is a free stream of it here.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths


Mark Valentine (ed)
(Wordsworth Editions)

The Gateway of the Monster… The Red Hand… The Ghost Hunter
To Sherlock Holmes the supernatural was a closed book: but other great detectives have always been ready to do battle with the dark instead. This volume brings together sixteen chilling cases of these supernatural sleuths, pitting themselves against the peril of ultimate evil.
Here are encounters from the casebooks of the Victorian haunted house investigators John Bell and Flaxman Low, from Carnacki, the Edwardian battler against the abyss, and from horror master Arthur Machen's Mr Dyson, a man-about-town and meddler in strange things. Connoisseurs will find rare cases such as those of Allen Upward's ‘The Ghost Hunter’, Robert Barr's Eugene Valmont (who may have inspired Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot) and Donald Campbell's young explorer Leslie Vane, the James Bond of the jazz age, who battles against occult enemies of the British Empire. And the collection is completed by some of the best tales from the pens of modern psychic sleuth authors
.

This is a pretty nifty little compilation of stories featuring detectives of the paranormal and the occult such as Thomas Carnacki and Valentine's own Connoisseur. The selection has been put together by the very lovely Mark Valentine of Tartarus Press and features some really wonderful tales alongside a couple of duffers.

There are moments here that had me rapt; the aforementioned Carnacki, Ray Russell's tale of Clockwork revenge gone wrong, Rosalie Parker's gorgeously frustrating haunted house tale, Mark's own Machen-esque tale of folklore and obligation and Vernon Knowles' beautifully sad and odd tale of Basil Thorpenden.

Other tales moved me not at all - Donald Campbell's tale 'The Necromancer' was particularly woeful - but on the whole this was an eminently readable selection that provides a deliciously enticing intro to this most interesting niche genre.

The Book of English Magic

Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate
(Hodder Paperbacks)

The Book of English Magic explores the curious and little-known fact that of all the countries in the world, England has the richest history of magical lore and practice. English authors such as J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, and J.K.Rowling, dominate the world of magic in fiction, but from the earliest times, England has also acted as home to generations of eccentrics and scholars who have researched and explored every conceivable kind of occult art. Most people are torn between a fascination with magic and an almost instinctive fear of the occult, of a world redolent with superstition and illusion. And yet more people now practice magic in England than at any time in her history. The Book of English Magic explores this hidden story, from its first stirrings to our present-day fascination with all things magical. Along the way readers are offered a rich menu of magical things to do and places to visit.

I’m not sure why but I had a craving to read this from the moment I spotted a damaged hardback version in a local corporate bookshop. It was too damaged and pricey but it caught my attention. As luck would have it later that day I walked around the corner and found an immaculate paperback copy for a fraction of the price in another store.

The book itself is split into two sections, part history and part instruction manual. I ended up skipping over large chunks of the book as the latter sections hold no interest to me whatsoever. The history parts on the other hand were very interesting indeed.

Telling the development of English magic from Druidry to Chaos it was understandably a fairly vague undertaking (that’s a lot of ground to cover in a single volume) and will undoubtedly prove to be too much so for anyone with anything other than the most rudimentary understanding of the topic but, with just enough detail to keep a curiosity reader like me satisfied, I found it to be a fascinating overview of an unusual topic.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The White People and Other Weird Stories

Arthur Machen
(Penguin Classics)

Actor, journalist , devotee of Celtic Christianity and the Holy Grail legend, Welshman Arthur Machen is considered one of the fathers of weird fiction, a master of mayhem whose work has drawn comparisons to H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Readers will find the perfect introduction to his style in this new collection. With the title story, an exercise in the bizarre that leaves the reader disoriented virtually from the first page, Machen turns even fundamental truths upside down. "There have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin," explains the character Ambrose, "who all their lives have never done an 'ill deed.'"

Machen has been hovering around my attention for a long time now but as I've been so busy I didn't think I had the head space for him. Recently a gap in my schedule decided for me though that the time was right and what a treat it turned out to be.

Now, I realised long ago that my heart was in the pulps but I do like to occasionally stray into other waters as the tides takes me and of late I've been thoroughly enjoying some older work whist taking the opportunities afforded me by both free time and good weather for some outdoor reading.

Arthur Machen
There are moments of sublime beauty here, particularly the little title piece which is a perfect realisation of , entirely fictitious, Welsh folktales as filtered through the diary of a young girl who may or may not be experiencing the world they report first hand. Alongside this are several stories relating similar sorts of Welsh related folkloric horror and some, for me less successful, World War One inspired tales. Machen was obviously a devotee of the stories of his childhood but he was also not afraid of bringing these tales up to date as he does on The Terror. Truthfully though, this was the story I found least satisfying.

What let things down though (particularly on The Terror) were the notes by S.T. Joshi. Machen uses Welsh place names throughout which Joshi seems committed to attributing to actual places. Now, I grew up near (and still live close to) many of the places he claims are the ones mentioned and they just do not fit the descriptions given in the stories. For instance, Llantrisant which, in 'The Great Return' Machen describes as 'the little town by the sea [...]' is certainly not the one Joshi claims it to be due to the simple fact that it is nowhere near the sea. Indeed the nearest sea to the town is on the other side of Cardiff (the Welsh capital city). This was only one of several claims that drove me to distraction but equally it must be said that there were many notes that I found both interesting and essential.

The notes aside though this was a wonderful and resonant read for me as a Welsh man reading these tales sat under a tree on the Welsh coast.

Beautiful, lyrical and inspirational.