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