Posts Tagged ‘ghosts’

Nobody’s Home by Tim Powers

November 15, 2014 4 comments

Nobodys Home by Tim POwers

In the land before time forgot (that’s when my health and strength were good, and memory was still working properly), I could actually recall what happened yesterday. On such a day, I went out of my then home to the Andromeda Book Company in Birmingham and bought a copy of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. This proved to be a good buy both in terms of enjoyment when I read it, and in terms of investment when I later sold it along with the rest of my collection. This sad tale of a collector forced to sell his books through force of circumstance (I was relocating to a different country) is a way of introducing a new novelette called Nobody’s Home (Subterranean Press, 2014) set in the same universe.

It features a young woman from the source novel called Jacky, an ambiguous name which suggests to her that moving through London’s less salubrious quarters would be less dangerous if she was a man. So she arms herself with a false moustache, cuts her hair short, and affects a deeper voice. Somewhat surprisingly, this enables her to duck and dive her way through London in pursuit of Dog-Face Joe. Now this is a fascinating creature. It’s one of these body-hopping beings that, after the transfer, begins to sprout body hair. In one sense, this makes it somewhat like a werewolf except that the process of transformation continues regardless as to the phases of the moon. Over time, this increased hairiness becomes somewhat conspicuous, so it takes a slow-acting poison in the current body and transfers to a new body. This makes it very difficult to track. But our young Jacky is determined. Her fiancé was one of those occupied by Dog-Face Joe and, after ingesting the poison and being released by Joe, he went to the home of the young woman he loved. She saw only a monster and, as is the way of young women who feel threatened, she shot him through the heart. When she realises the terrible crime she has committed, she wants revenge. Hence her search for the Dog-Faced beast that deprived her of her life-partner.

Tim Powers

Tim Powers

During this pursuit, she rescues a young woman called Harriet. She’s haunted by the ghost of her husband. Under normal circumstances, this would not be too serious but, in life, he was an Indian national and now he wants her to follow him into death through sutee. The fact she’s missed out on the funeral pyre to throw herself on is not something the ghost cares about. He comes armed with his own pyrotechnic skills and aims to finish off the job himself. The rest of this elegantly atmospheric tale takes us through this dark and dangerous version of London in search of a way to rid herself of this ghost. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, nobody’s prepared to help.

It’s not actually necessary for you to know the original novel to enjoy this novelette. It reads well as a standalone. But it’s a richer experience if you can remember what happened in the source novel. So my advice, should you not have read The Anubis Gates, is to read it immediately. It was and remains a highly successful time travel novel with Gothic overtones. This will set you up to read this very enjoyable backstory element for Jacky.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Hide Me Among the Graves
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Hexed by Heather Graham

August 4, 2014 3 comments


The Hexed by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2014) is the lucky thirteenth in the Krewe of Hunters series. It starts with Craig Rockwell as a young man with his first experience of having a ghost talk to him. As a result of what she says, he finds her dead body. This diverts him from a possible career as a football player and into law enforcement. Now, thirteen years later, he’s well-established in the FBI and applying for transfer to the Krewe of Hunters because another body has turned up in his home town. It’s been laid out in exactly the same way as the body he found. Needless to say, the Krewe has done its homework on this man and his application for a transfer is accepted. This sends him back to the Salem area (and into danger of romantic entanglement). As he drives into town, he almost knocks down Devin Lyle, the joint heroine and romantic interest. Remember that no coincidence should appear on its own, so she’s just discovered another body (it’s the same signature so the couple are already on the right track) and she can see ghosts too (in magical terms, three coincidences is a charm). And, yes, this is the third body with the Pentagram Killer’s signature! With the triple stars in alignment, it can’t be long before this pair are a couple.

And what better news than this is my third book by this author! Thematically, we have this specialist group of people recruited to an FBI unit to deal with the more serious crimes where it’s difficult to get a result. They beat the usual systems for investigation because they can talk with ghosts. For this to work as a plot device, all the victims they interview must, for some reason, have failed to see their killer(s). They may be shot from a distance by a sniper, or attacked from behind, or poisoned by anyone who had access to their food out of sight, and so on. This leaves the field open for a classical police procedural with a supernatural twist. I actually like the formula because there’s little artificiality about the interaction between the sensitives and the ghosts. The relationships are almost exactly the same as human to human and, as in the real world, the ghosts are just as unreliable as human witnesses. The result is marginally more information available to the investigators than might otherwise have been the case, but there’s still a need for proper investigative skills. The second in the series, however, was overburdened with history that was dispensed in fairly indigestible lumps as spiels to tourists on a ghost walk. Indeed, this book threatens to go the same way with one dollop of information thrust at us in the same way. However, all the other history which is relevant (and a surprising amount is for the solution of this puzzle) is more carefully parcelled out as discussion, extracts from history books, and so on. It’s relatively more acceptable in this format. Because we’re in Salem, we’re deeply into the history of witchcraft and the way in which the trials were manipulated to protect the reputation of the men and dispose of women who could make their lives difficult. It’s a very interesting way to show how deeply entrenched misogyny has been in the American psyche.

Heather Graham

Heather Graham

From the outset, the book sets out to make Devin as talented as the formal members of the Krewe. She’s quickly talking with Aunt Mina, her recently deceased relative, and preparing to hobnob with those who died centuries ago. Once you get into the groove, all ghosts prepared to talk to you are the same. Of course, some ghosts of choosy and decide they want nothing to do with some humans. If approached by the wrong type, they just disappear. It’s a useful talent I wish I’d developed for use at social gatherings. Anyway, through a combination of dreams, discussions with the dead, and human intuition, our team narrows the pool of suspects to a relatively small number who have recently bought a weapon of the right type, have some connection to “witches” (both current and historical), and who may drive dark-coloured SUVs. Then it’s down to trying to check alibis both thirteen years ago and now. No-one is excluded as the net is thrown out across that part of Salem society which traces its roots back to the days of the original trials and may have an interest in Wiccan or other non-standard supernatural beliefs. When it comes in a dramatic climax, the answer is rather pleasing.

Although three ghosts do play a moderately important role in the solution of this serial murder case, the supernatural profile is slightly lower in this book than the other two I’ve read. Since the basis of the series is the expanding group of ghost whisperers, there have to be ghosts for them to talk to. In this instalment, I think the balance between conventional police procedural and supernatural is about right. Of course this requires a better quality of puzzle for the main players to solve and, again, this book has a good puzzle. My only gripe is not so much the romance which is within reasonable bounds, but the extent of the coincidence that Devin turns out to be not only a natural whisperer, but also an investigator who gets to the right answers. Rather than watching two relatively inexperienced whisperers solve the crime(s), it would be more interesting to see how the experienced approach the investigation of one of these crimes. I suppose this would also throw off the mandatory thriller ending when our hero suddenly finds herself in serious trouble and has to be rescued. In theory, the experienced investigators make the collar and retire to the nearest drinking establishment for several glasses of appropriate spirits. So I report The Hexed as being a good example of these romance-tinged supernatural police procedurals.

For review of two other in the series, see:
The Cursed
The Night Is Forever.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Cursed by Heather Graham

April 15, 2014 2 comments

The Cursed by Heather Graham

Well having found the last book in this series interesting, I decided to have a look at the next. And now a brief defensive note lest any of my regular readers begin to worry I may be diluting my male prejudices. I’m just exploring whether the last book was the exception that proves the rule, or maybe whether I have to make a more permanent exception for this author. The Cursed by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2014) is the twelfth in the Krewe of Hunters series. So let’s start with a word about the prose. This falls into my classification of easy readability. In other words, without being showy, it offers a direct and transparent means of delivering the narrative. As a feature, this is both good and less so. Because there’s no extraneous content, the success of the book depends on the quality of the plot. Other authors set out to distract their readers with more interesting vocabulary choices and flowery detail in the descriptions. With one component I’ll come back to later, this is a blend of supernatural, police procedural, thriller and romance — note I’m not classifying it as an urban fantasy for all it has ghosts, nor is it really a paranormal romance. As with the last in the series, it breaks the mould of police procedurals by having the FBI quietly set up a special unit comprising those who are able to interact with ghosts. With access to first-hand evidence derived from the victims and other ghosts who have witnessed events, the members of this unit have one of the best clearance rates in the FBI.

You may protest this is a form of cheating, but the plots are deliberately shaped so that the ghosts can be helpful but not give whodunnit information the moment they are asked. All a victim can say is the murderer came up from behind, or was wearing a mask, or was using a rifle from long range, etc. So, for example, this book sees a woman diver killed in a wreck. After death, all she can say is that her attacker was a large male and had blue eyes (obviously that’s all she can see through the face mask, the breathing apparatus hiding the lower face and the wetsuit hiding the shape and colour of the hair). This leaves a lot of work to be done by FBI officers in the real world — statistically there are a lot of large men with blue eyes.

Heather Graham

Heather Graham

So this time around, we’re with Hannah O’Brien, who grew up in a house in Key West and now runs it as a B&B. Like her cousin Kelsey O’Brien who’s a member of the FBI’s Krewe of Hunters, Hannah can also see and talk with ghosts. Indeed, she may actually be better at it than Kelsey. To distinguish her B&B from the mass of competitors, she advertises the presence of ghosts living in her house and offers tours around the area where she takes in all the local haunted places, plying all with details of the sometimes gruesome events that led to creation of the ghosts. This brings me to the one feature of this book that I find less than satisfying. Even though it’s relevant to the way she makes her living and, more importantly, does add background to the reason why the villain is stalking her, there’s a considerable amount of historical material. So we get to hear quite long excerpts from her spiel to paying customers on her tour, and there’s considerable information about her family and a possible connection with a long-lost box thought to contain a great treasure.

Anyway, the threat to all and sundry comes from Los Lobos, an evocatively named group of criminals who are into a range of activities including smuggling, drug distribution and murder. The key distinguishing feature to this gang is the cell structure. No-one knows more than one or two others, and people routinely use nicknames, making it difficult for anyone to reveal anything too damaging should they be caught by the police. There’s also significant paranoia among the group members because the leader, Wolf, is notorious for ordering the death of anyone even vaguely suspected of disloyalty or showing less than full competence in discharging the duties allocated. The FBI was congratulating itself on finally getting an undercover officer into the gang, but he turns up dead in Hannah’s back yard. This brings FBI agent Dallas Samson into view and, before long, he and Hannah convert mutual interest into sexual activity. In other words, there’s nothing really coy about the romance in this book. There are the usual misunderstandings. Once we get past those, there’s no real courtship. They are adults thrown together by circumstance. They enjoy each other’s company and quickly expect to remain a couple.

There’s plenty of action which fulfills the thriller requirement admirably. The FBI and local police pick up suspects with satisfying regularity which keeps the information flowing. This just leaves the mystery element as the usual trail of breadcrumbs albeit, once you get the analysis of the disposable phone records, it’s obvious what the answer must be. Fortunately, this comes quite near the end which just gives us the chance for more shots to be fired — no explosions in this book — and everything gets wrapped up ready for the next in the series. On balance, the quality of the plot is not as good as in the last book but there are many redeeming features. Indeed, had there been less history, I would have been really enthusiastic. As it is, I’m not dismissing Heather Graham. There’s just enough about The Cursed to justify having a look at the next in the series.

For reviews of others in the series, see:
The Hexed
The Night Is Forever.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Jewels in the Dust by Peter Crowther


For this review of Jewels in the Dust by Peter Crowther (Subterranean Press, 2013) I’m going to break my usual convention which is to write brief notes on the stories in the order they are printed. I think it will give you a better understanding of the collection, if I group the comments on the stories together by genre or theme.

“The Bachelor” is an elegant story to read alongside “Old Delicious Burdens”. Both are concerned with the nature of memories that can haunt us, and remind us of times as they used to be. Thematically, we’re not quite into the idea of ghosts as nostalgia. But if our characters are the sum of all the life experiences we can remember, ghosts may revisit when we grow forgetful. Of course, some of the events or sensations we might choose to forget. They are painful and might frighten us if we came across them unexpectedly. Others simply lack the salience to stay fresh in the memory bank. They fade as we age. So an old lonely man might be sustained by the ghosts of happy days past. A warring couple might reconcile if they realised the wealth of happiness they had enjoyed when younger and more innocent. This is not to say either story is sentimental. . . “Things I Didn’t Know My Father Knew” develops the theme by having the ghost of a father dead some twenty-seven years, return to talk with his son. This is a pleasingly atmospheric story that prompts us to ask what it might be important to remember about our childhood and, if we had the chance, what we might say to our parents after so many years. For example, if memory of the nickname cruel “friends” had given us when young, was refreshed, would that change us in any way? Would we feel less angry at our parents for giving us that unfortunate name at birth? Would we want to say we loved our parents, even though that might not be completely true?

Pete Crowther

Pete Crowther

“The Fairy Trap” is about the innocence of youth which might induce two boys to suspend disbelief long enough to help an old man in his efforts to trap a fairy. “Dei Gratia” (with Simon Conway) is a fascinating idea story. Let’s say, for a moment, that there’s a natural cycle in operation. We’re born, live here for a while, and then cycle to Heaven or Hell. Modern medicine has been seriously interfering with this for some time. If God had been expecting an influx of souls and suddenly found himself short, what would he do? Continuing in the same vein, we have “Circling the Drain” (with Tracy Knight) which wonders about personal fulfillment. As an individual, would we feel less unhappy at the prospect of dying if we had had children? Here’s a man in late middle age who suddenly only has a month or so to live. If he resists dying, how could he prove to himself and his wife what a good father he would have made? “Breathing in Faces” is a terrific novelette following in the footsteps of The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G Finney. A petulant girl and her BFF explore the midway. As you might expect, the pushy one will just not be told to leave well enough alone. She will insist on going into the tent. The rest, as they stay, is all about gathering speed as momentum accelerates the reader down the slope. This is a beautifully sustained piece of horror suspense writing. Equally impressive is “Tomorrow Eyes”. The idea is not original but this is a beautifully worked variation on the theme as a compassionate man takes pity on a haunted man to make the right decision. “The Doorway in Stephenson’s Store” is a time travel story that flirts with sentimentality and avoids excess given that it proves to be a kind of moral message. I confess I’m always partial to a little travelling through time and this is particularly ingenious, focusing on the characters of the people involved rather than the mechanics.

“Boxing Day”, “The Musician of Bremen, GA” and the titular “Jewels in the Dust” are straight stories. The first deals with the decision of a not unsuccessful criminal whether to continue in the trade or settle down with his wife to raise cats. The second maps the life of a truly gifted jazz musician who joins a group only to find two of the players are committed to a life of crime. While the third offers positive advice on how to accept the prospect that every new day may be your last. All of which leaves me with the final story in this rather admirable collection. “Thoughtful Breaths” manages to combine everything good about the art of storytelling. It introduces us to the characters and gives us time to get to know and understand them. Then it begins to weave its magic. Now “magic” is a word, for better or worse, that tends to be associated with fantasy. No, wait, I’m confusing the story-telling with the story itself. That will never do. So what exactly is it I want to say about this final piece? I suppose I’m referring to the wish of one character, out of love, to create the appearance of magic for the others. Just as the author, out of love, creates magic for the readers. In a way, the theme of this collection is death. Not necessarily in an unhappy or negative spirit. Rather we’re given the chance to celebrate the phenomenon and appreciate the potential for redemption on the part of some, and rehabilitation for others. As an older reader who’s already had one close brush with death, I find Peter Crowther’s work pleasingly unsentimental and, in a secular sense, quite inspirational. I unhesitating recommend this collection to you.

Jacket artwork by Les Edwards

Jacket artwork by Les Edwards

The jacket artwork from Les Edwards is particularly fine.

For reviews of other books by Peter Crowther, see:
Darkness Falling: Forever Twilight Book 1
We Think, Therefore We Are

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill

The Small Hand and Dolly

I suppose if you start with the broader genre of horror, the supernatural ghost story is rather like a cousin. In other words there are some shared genes, but with genre walls usually maintained efficiently, the authors are aiming at slightly different emotional responses from the readers. That said, we should not distract ourselves or prejudge as reviewers because of the genre or subgenre label. The essence of any successful creative work is that it’s believable. Which, of course, inevitably leads to scepticism that a ghost story can be believable. The majority of people are sufficiently rational to accept there ain’t no such thing as a ghost. If believability is our criterion, every attempt to conjure a ghost would fail. But this ignores the more subtle truth. As readers, we can believe in the psychology of the protagonist who, for whatever reason, believes he or she’s being haunted. In the real world, we all have issues to deal with. Guilt, for example, can lead to bad dreams. If our protagonist loses enough sleep, he or she may hallucinate or become delusional. In such cases, there’s no knowing what our imaginations might impose on our rational minds.

The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill are two quintessentially British novellas (Vintage Books, 2013). Ah, another Pandora’s Box to open. If I had to distinguish the American from the British approach to the supernatural, it would be in the scale. The transAtlantic ghost story is usually more explicit and showy with more overt mayhem. British stories tend to be understated and more about the sense of terror that comes as we empathise with a protagonist who suddenly finds him or herself cast adrift from secure moorings in reality. If I had to capture the principle underpinning the British more literary style, it would be that less is more, i.e. that the vicarious fear or terror arises more from hints and suggestions than from anything explicit. The template relies on the skill of the author to create an appropriate atmosphere and then leaves it to the reader to anticipate the worst. I suppose the best in ghost stories gives us the option of a rational explanation, e.g. by supplying a family background which includes some degree of mental disorder. Indeed, we might consider the appearance of a ghost as being a defeat for the author’s inventiveness. Then it all comes down to the characterisation and, sometimes, flirting with the device of an unreliable narrator to create the requisite effects. If there are cracks through which the ghost is going to emerge into our world, they will be cracks in the character of the protagonist. So perhaps the protagonist is just imagining the cold breeze on his neck or is having an anxiety attack. In the right mood, we can all abandon the thin veer of rationality and revert to a more primitive state in which we’re afraid of what may be lurking in the dark just out of sight.

Susan Hill still has the magic

Susan Hill still has the magic

One of the more commonly used devices is the abandoned or rundown country house as an extension to gothic romanticism which enhances its more melodramatic aspirations by placing the action in mediaeval piles. Even Dickens got in on the act with settings such as Satis House in Great Expectations, albeit not with supernatural overtones. So in The Small Hand, our bookseller “hero” is lost and, in the hope of finding someone to ask for directions, enters the overgrown gardens of what proves a derelict Edwardian house. This is a beautifully sustained moment as everything suddenly stills. Not even a cricket would have dared break the silence. Imagine how you would react in this moment of relaxation and peace if you felt the small hand of a child sneak into yours — as if you were suddenly trusted to be a friend. Yet when you looked down, you were alone. So begins a journey. Our bookseller has people to see and books to find. He travels around. Most of the time he feels safe, but then come disturbing episodes. Perhaps he’s no longer alone or maybe he’s following in his brother’s footsteps and developing an anxiety disorder. Is he merely succumbing to panic attacks? This is a supremely assured and elegant novella in which certainty and peace of mind are suddenly put under pressure. When you begin to doubt yourself, how do you tell what’s real?

Dolly takes us into the fens, to a hamlet called Iyot Lock where, appropriately enough, you find Iyot House. After a gap of forty years, Edward Cayley, our first-person narrator, returns to the house. As he approaches the house through the churchyard, he finds himself attracted to three graves near the wall. Perhaps he hears a rustling. . . there’s something just at the edge of his memory, something he can’t quite remember. As a slightly frail eight-year-old boy, he’d never been afraid of the house. Surely this is not the time for fear to come? Now his Aunt is dead, there’s the question of inheritance. And that’s why his cousin Leonora van Vorst comes back into his life. In the backstory, Kestrel Dickinson was one of three sisters who disliked each other. She and Mrs Mullen, the housekeeper, do their best to make the two cousins welcome. They reopen the attics which had largely been ignored since the tradition of having maids had died. Orphaned Edward proves persistently polite about staying there during his school holiday. Like her selfish mother, Lenora is spoiled and aggressive. She hates everything about being sent there as a companion for Edward. There are only two things they share — a love of thunderstorms and an absence of parental love in their lives. And then comes the incident with the doll. Of course, at the age of eight, they are not completely responsible for their actions, but that doesn’t prevent those around them from feeling resentful. Perhaps even wanting to take some measure of revenge when the children have grown old enough to understand. Except, Edward’s motives and actions were more human, maybe even honourable. If there were to be consequences, he would be forgiven. Ah, if only life could be so fair. After all, what happens is just bad luck. There ain’t no such thing as ghosts.

These two novellas represent a tremendous achievement, flirting with the borderline between the pain and hardships of real life, and the unlikely possibility of supernatural interventions as one of the causes. The Small Hand and Dolly are destined to be ranked highly in the all-time list of classic ghost stories.

For reviews of two other books by Susan Hill, see:
The Betrayal of Trust
A Question of Identity

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Wrayth by Philippa Ballantine

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment


Reading Wrayth by Philippa Ballantine (Ace, 2012) A Books of the Order 3, sees me breaking another of my house rules. I usually reject the chance to read any book in the middle of a series. My strong preference is to start at the beginning. That way, the reader can watch the plot develop and, assuming the characters are sufficiently interesting, follow them on their journey to the end. In this case, I’m coming in at book three with book four already announced for next year. My only defence is that, so far, my reading of Philippa Ballantine has produced enjoyment so. . . Anyway, this fantasy all seems to have started in Geist and continued in Spectyr, the two titles giving away the central conceit. Here we have a world in which the spirits of the undead can physically pass through the barrier separating the Otherside — not surprisingly supposed to protect the living — and cause not a little death and destruction. This requires the world to establish a defensive force calling itself the Order of the Eye and Fist — from the name you will understand this is not a religious organisation. There are two branches to the order. The Sensitives identify the incoming nasties and the Actives kill them (which is a neat trick given their undead status). Our heroine is Sorcha Faris. She’s an enigma with a broken past no-one can read and a future no-one wants to tell her about. The other key characters are Merrick Chambers, her partner, and Raed Syndar Rossin, the pretender to the throne. In this book, we’re also concerned with Zofiya, the Emperor’s sister.

What seems slightly odd about this set-up is that, although the defensive force uses words like “deacon” and “abbey”, there doesn’t seem to be an organised religion. In all real-world cultures there’s no evidence of any existence after death, but this world comes with clear proof of “life” after death. No need for faith! This subverts the usual systems based on the worship of ancestors. In Eastern religions, the living can burn paper money to buy goodies for those who went into the afterlife before them and hope this will buy them protection for their interests on Earth. In Western systems, God became human so that, after death, he could be an ancestor for all to worship. However, this is all hypothetical — a quid pro quo without any evidence you will see a return on the real money you spent on the paper replicas of Ferraris to be burned or for the prayers you offer up. If we stay with the Eastern models for evaluating these books, I suppose, we would tend not to respect our grandfather if his geist had just returned from the Otherside and was proposing to eat one of us as a light snack before lunch.

Philippa Ballantine

Philippa Ballantine

As is always the way when holding positions in society means acquiring status and power, the Order has proved corruptible. Some members have seen the geists as the means to acquire real-world power, looking to partner with the spirits rather than destroy them. They are the Order of the Circle of Stars, the old Native Order. Ah well, some things never change. Putting the usual temptations behind us for the moment, this book starts off with Sorcha trapped by her body which refuses to move. This is not a little frustrating because her mind works perfectly. If there’s an upside to this situation, it’s that the body is invulnerable. No assassins or other people bent on mischief can do her harm. Magic can be very convenient when you’re lying flat on your back defenceless. To start us off, people kidnap Sorcha, Merrick is tasked with investigating one of the newly arrived nobles, and Raed continues his problems with his in-house geistlord while investigating the castle of the Shin and the Wrayth. Why take Sorcha? Because she can lead “them” to Raed. Put her in an airship and she can act like a compass. So how will Merrick react to this enforced separation? The young man is no longer so callow. He should strike out on his own to discover why his righteous Order seems so alarmed. But at an early stage he runs into one of the corrupted Order. This represents a real danger and, according to the oath he swore, he’s supposed to deal with that rather than chase after his kidnapped parter. Ah such are the dilemmas authors come up with for their characters. And once the Shin notice Raed is crawling around the tunnels inside their castle, they are not a little upset. Or they are rather delighted because they are running a breeding program and it would be good to see what would come out of his genes. It’s fortuitous the cavalry is flying on its way to rescue him (and his sister).

There’s a slightly slow start as you might expect with the heroine unable to move or speak, and Merrick quickly following her into inactivity as he’s arrested and thrown into an underground jail. But, once the scene is set, we get into some nicely constructed action sequences. There’s a natural flair for adventure on display here. In the best possible sense of the word, the writing is graphic, i.e. you can picture the scene as a character is chased or has to fight to stay free. There’s also a pleasing revelation about Sorcha’s backstory which is elegantly set up as Raed goes exploring. This leaves me with the sense that Wrayth is good but not outstanding. I’m relieved there’s a darker edge to the fantasy. Too often those who write fantasy make their worlds not too unpleasant places in which to live. Philippa Ballantine has this population lined up as food, as hosts in forced breeding programmes, and so on. But some individual aspects of the plot are less than satisfactory. Raed’s transformations, for example, parallel the Hulk (except this guy loses all his clothing) without any hint of where the extra body mass comes from or, in another form, goes to. I live with the idea of werewolves because, for the most part, what we get is a redistribution of the original body’s mass plus hair. I suppose this geistlord is pulling additional matter from, or dumping surplus matter into, the Otherside. Perhaps the explanation is in an earlier book and that points clearly to the problem. I might have enjoyed it more if I had read the first two. I’m coming in as major revelations are being made and the Empire is about to fall. Missing the build-up devalues the experience.

For reviews of other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Hunter and Fox
Kindred and Wings
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Tee Morris)

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

ParaNorman (2012)

August 31, 2012 2 comments

I have the sense ParaNorman (2012) went wrong when the powers-that-be sat down to discuss what kind of animated film they wanted to make. Scripts are just words written on pieces of paper if you’re lucky or otherwise displayed on screens of various sizes. When it comes to animation, you can take a simple sentence and make it scary for kids or horror for adults, rotfl for smsers or laugh-out-loud for adults. How you show characters saying the words can be adjusted to whatever audience you’re aiming at. So when the powers-that-be sat down, I think they failed to decide what their intended audience was going to be. The result is something that, at times, may be too scary for young children but is never scary at all to those with any intelligence, with a sense of humour that ranges from the juvenile fixation with what goes on in the toilet stall to distinctly adult sensibilities. I think the rule is you either make an animated film for children with just enough to keep parents from passing out with boredom, or you make an adult film and, if parents are daft enough to take their slightly older children, they can do all the explaining afterwards.

Three generations of the Babcock family


So what do we actually get in this package? Let’s start with the stop-motion animation which is stunningly good. Although there’s some CGI in there, all the main action revolves around the use of physical puppets on actual sets using real props. The loving care invested shines through the screen and produces a visual delight. Now come the characters. Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) himself is one of life’s natural victims. His hair stands up and his ears stand out. As if this was not enough to make him the focus of attention for every bully in the world — in this case led by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — not only does he see ghosts, but he insists on telling everyone about it. So, not surprisingly, he goes into school and is greeted by the word “freak” written on his locker. The only one even remotely in as much trouble is the inevitable fat boy, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Together, they make a good pair. However, there’s a major discontinuity between the first fifteen minutes and the rest of the film. We start off with Norman watching a creature feature on television with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). It seems she died some years ago but is sticking around to keep an eye on our boy in case he gets himself into trouble. Then we see him walking off to school, first without his world view and then watching him react to all the ghosts around him. He’s hardly able to walk in a straight line, ducking and weaving through the crowds around him. But, once he passes through the school gates, we never see him fail to walk or ride his bicycle in a straight line. There’s never another hint he’s reacting to anything except two ghosts. His grandmother and his uncle who has the temerity to die before he can tell Norman how to deal with the “curse”.

Norman and Neil pledge mutual support


The rest of the family is mother Sandra (Leslie Mann), father Perry (Jeff Garlin) and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). In all films where the hero is a boy on the cusp of teenager status, older sisters exist in a parallel dimension, aware of their brothers in a vague way but never inclined to involve themselves in anything affecting them. The parents view their offspring as at a dangerous stage and fear for them (or maybe, as in this case, they’re afraid of them). The school has one of these over-the-top women as a drama teacher, the town has a sheriff and dim deputy, and there are the usual assortment of locals from the hillbilly yokel to well-heeled middle class citizens.

Uncle not yet dead


The plot is struggling to fill time allotted. In the distant past, seven Puritans conspired to kill a talented girl as a witch. Naturally, she was upset and cursed them. Once a year, on the anniversary of her burning, the seven undead return unless the witch is persuaded to go back to sleep. This task is passed down from one generation to the next except Norman fails to get the message in time. He therefore has to wing it, reacting to circumstances as best he can. Some of the early set pieces are wonderfully amusing but, in humour terms, the film shoots its bolt early. Thereafter, we’re left with a mixture of adventure and some preachy sequences when the film-makers thought they’d better give the kids an ear-bending on the need to look for the good in people, not to bully the vulnerable and not to judge people by appearances. All the pace evaporates and plot logic is sacrificed. For example, seven undead would be ripped to pieces and trampled to dust in five minutes by this marauding bunch of townsfolk. The failure to actually burn down the town hall is inexplicable. And so on.


So we should be thankful ParaNorman (2012) rejects the Disney animation approach which is to make all the humans and animals cute. You couldn’t hope to find a more dysfunctional town of people than this unhappy bunch. But the film fails to follow its own logic and so produce something satirical or frightening. Yes, there are some very funny moments, but they grow increasingly rare as the film progresses to what should be the major confrontation at the end. Sadly, there’s no real sense of menace or tension. Once the true character of the witch is revealed in a flashback midway through, even a five-year-old could predict how it will all end. So this is not a Coraline (2009) or Corpse Bride (2005). Rather it’s a film that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be and, in trying to be all things to all people, failed to keep enough of the people happy for long enough, leaving us with an empty spectacle — beautiful to behold but lacking in substance.


Categories: Film Tags: , , , ,

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

March 18, 2012 1 comment

William Hjortsberg: now there’s a name to conjure with. Even David Copperfield has finally abandoned abracadabra and shazam. When top magicians walk on stage, waving their arms impressively over their assistant’s hypnotised body, intoning Hjortsberg as the pendulum begins to swing would always get an audience expecting some heavy duty magic — assuming you knew how to pronounce it, of course. Checking back in my records, yes I am that obsessive, I see I read Gray Matters when it first came out but, honestly, I’ve no recollection of it. That’s neither good nor bad. In my defence, I’ve read thousands of books and can’t possibly remember all of them. Alternatively, it must be Alzheimer’s. So Nevermore (first published in 1994 and now reissued as an e-book by Open Road Media) is one of the most appropriate books for someone like me to read. Although I’m not quite old enough to have been around when the action is set, I misspent most of my youth demolishing American fiction, both pulp and mainstream from this era.

William Hjortsberg is playing the same type of game as Peter Lovesey in Keystone which examines what Fatty Arbuckle might have done in the real-world film studios of 1916. William Hjortsberg has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle investigate murders committed in the style of Edgar Allan Poe in the New York of 1923. Better still, it’s written in a pitch-perfect prose style of the day which makes it great fun to read. William Hjortsberg is blessed with a sure ear and is obviously enjoying himself with the more pulpy vocabulary and syntax of the 1920s. Ironically, in the cast of characters, we meet Damon Runyon whose style is adjacent to this. Given the chance, he could have written much of this book — with a little prompting from our William to introduce the more supernatural and macabre elements.

William Hjortsberg looking out of the past thanks to Janie Camp

Before looking at the plot, we must celebrate the appearance of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle as investigators. This use of real people is growing more common as historical fiction is popularised through mashups and steampunk. Today, all manner of real and fictional characters parade through the pages of novels for our entertainment. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, appears alongside Oscar Wilde in the mystery series by Giles Brandreth and in one of the Murdoch Mysteries based on the characters created by Maureen Jennings, as well as having his own short television series called Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes. The nice thing about this book is that, historically, we see the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini portrayed with some degree of accuracy. It starts us off at the fragile stage before the rather public “falling out”. As an irrelevant note, I see I’ve almost managed to publish this review on Houdini’s birthday — such is the spooky power of coincidence pretending to be a supernatural event.

So into action with spirits, ghosts, mediums and Halloween to the fore. As befits anyone who so fervently believes in spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle is visited by Edgar Allan Poe except it’s presented as real-time conversations, Poe characterising Doyle as “. . .a traveler from the future. . .” or a ghost emitting a spectral light. Harry Houdini gets to talk with his mother and engage in a little extramarital excitement. For once, both our heroes are on the same page (pun intended) on the reality of spiritual experiences, although not on whether the spirits are real. As the master of illusion should know, not everything you experience is real. So there are a series of deaths that recreate some of the scenes from Poe’s short stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s initial impression is that these are random, probably the work of a madman. He opines it will be impossible to track down the killer. Except Harry Houdini slowly comes to see a link between the victims and, when he shares it with Arthur Conan Doyle, they conclude everyone in Harry Houdini’s circle may be at risk. The problem, as always in these situations, is how to guard against the unknown attacker.

Put all this together and what do we have? It’s probably fair to classify this as a pure mystery. For all there are possible supernatural elements and some references to Poe’s work suggesting a veneer of horror, Nevermore is actually a wonderful piece of literary flim-flam which, for these purposes, I will define as wit skating over the thin ice of parody and emerging with a triple lutz (one of those miraculous jumps Olympic skaters make look effortless). I was hooked from the first page and found myself irresistibly propelled to the end. Based on this, I should go back and reread Gray Matters to see what I’ve forgotten. Fortunately, this is now possible, courtesy of Open Road Media which, in addition to Nevermore, is republishing Gray Matters, Falling Angel and Symbiography as e-books. Yet more spooky coincidences.

A copy of this e-book was sent to me for review.

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

March 12, 2012 2 comments

Hide Me Among the Graves

Well, with Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (William Morrow, 2012), we’re back in alternate history territory with a cast of well-known characters encountering the supernatural. In this case, we’re deep into Victorian times and embedded into the world of the poets from the Prologue in 1845 to the Epilogue in 1882. In that it has the Rossetti family as central characters and involves the Nephilim, it may properly be considered a form of sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, a novel published in 1989 and much celebrated. But, before we actually set off with the review of this most recent addition to the Tim Powers canon, we need to spend a little while thinking about the creative process.

Both in what are now called steampunk and mashup novels, there are emerging clichés with anachronistic technology and various supernatural beasties arbitrarily released into eras approximating the Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian. In many cases, there’s no particular purpose to be served except to produce a different backdrop against which to slaughter vampires, zombies and assorted other creatures. The formula is the same no matter whether the genre label is steampunk or contemporary urban fantasy. A hero(ine) is confronted by dangerous thingies selected from the supernatural/horror back-catalogue and, at the end of the book, he or she has won the day, or the night depending on the beasties. The level of collateral damage among the humans also increases of decreases in line with the intended readership. Mashup novels are more pretentious because they ape the writing style of classic authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, et al. A part of the supposed interest is the incongruity of supposedly dainty figures like Fanny in Mansfield Park confronting Egyptian mummies, whereas the identity of the heroic figure is largely irrelevant to the readers who only want blood spilled in the most graphic way possible. Indeed, apart from the initial inspiration to deliberately introduce anachronisms and supernatural creatures, I see little creativity in any of these books.

Alternate history, however, is a far more exciting, not to say, respectable subgenre, particularly when it plays the game of a secret history. The idea is simple, but the execution is challenging. You take real-world events and, by introducing previously unknown facts, suggest a different interpretation. For example, F Paul Wilson runs a complete secret history behind his Adversary Cycle, even explaining in Ground Zero, what really happened on 9/11. For the most part, these extensive revisionist fictionalisations are interesting, but not technically demanding. In other words, once the author formulates the fictional “secrets”, the actual events are rewritten to fit the backstory. The better work is done by authors like Tim Powers who take the historical record and fit the fiction around it. This involves genuine research to find the cracks in the historical record through which new “information” could leak.

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

So here we are with the Polidori family. We should all know John Polidori because, in 1819, he wrote The Vampyre and this gives him the credit as the inventor of the blood-sucking trope that survives into modern times. He died in 1821. His sister, Frances, married Gabriele Rossetti, their children being Maria Francesca (author), Dante Gabriel (poet, painter and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), William Michael (writer and critic) and Christina (poet). Also involved in this book are Edward John Trelawny, a novelist and adventurer who was a member of different political and artistic groups including Byron, Swinburne and Shelley; a veterinarian, John Crawford who’s the son of Michael Crawford from The Stress of Her Regard, and Adelaide McKee, a reformed prostitute. This could have been a routine mashup in which our cast of famous poets take on and defeat John Polidori who, ironically, has become a vampire — a kind of literary infighting in a salon of the day. Except we’re cast into a fascinating alternate version of London in which ghosts, including a powerful revenant of Queen Boadicea, and now vampire-like creatures, are abroad. There are some beautiful ideas on display as ghosts infest the Thames and walk the waves of the North Sea. Birds are recruited into the fight, the Mud Larks stand by and over the Thames and, in the catacombs, the Hail Mary people find ways to keep the people of London as safe as possible. Yet, if John Polidori and the Queen can come together in the right way, the Queen may finally realise her dream of destroying London.

In all forms of art, there’s a mythology surrounding muses — often depicted as supernatural creatures who inspire the best work in the creative. Tim Powers produces an ironic difficulty for this artistic group to confront. It seems they also produce their best work when under the influence of these “vampires”. To fight and destroy these “muses” may also mean the writing and painting returns to a mediocre level — a neat intellectual and emotional trap for these people who live for the respect of their peers and the adulation of their readers. Indeed, poets might steal these muses, despite the known risks. Anyway, the two key events to set the ball rolling are that Christina is tempted into inviting her dead uncle John Polidori into the family home. And seven years before the main action begins, John Crawford and Adelaide McKee conceive a daughter, Johanna, who has disappeared from Adelaide’s care and is thought dead. Now the couple are drawn together again by the news their daughter did not die. Rather she’s being used by the Nephilim. In such circumstances, all interested parties must combine to see what can be done to save all the children who prove at risk. As in The Stress of Her Regard, we also have the link between statues and what they represent. For Trelawny, this is rather more personal, making him a literal bridge. It sticks in the craw to say it, but the Polidori link may have been buried.

Hide Me Among the Graves is a completely fascinating historical novel set in a beautifully realised alternate London where supernatural forces are threatening the lives of both the talented and the ordinary folk in cataclysmic destruction. Although I think it’s slightly longer than necessary, Tim Powers holds interest through the inventiveness of the developing plot and produces an entirely satisfactory outcome that is entirely consistent with the historical facts as we know them. In an alternate history novel, you can’t ask for a better result.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Nobody’s Home
Salvage and Demolition.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.


The Black Opera by Mary Gentle

One of the most interesting features of information available to us is how quickly it enters the left ear and leaves by the right with almost nothing to show it ever spent time in-between. Yet, every now and again, one phrase or, in some extraordinary cases, an entire sentence will magically lodge itself in long-term memory. It’s as if we always knew this new thing yet never recognised it before. For example, in V for Vendetta, we discover that, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” We always knew you can’t kill an idea with bullets, but this scene somehow personalises it. We also know the same thing can happen to faith. The major religions of the world and their antithesis atheism seem to have weathered various attempts to eradicate them. Sometimes, the harder you push against a belief system, the harder it pushes back.

One of the times when the battle between faith and its enemies was drawn in more epic terms was during the Enlightenment. Not only were rationalism in general and science in particular threatening to displace ideas thought divinely defined, but religion itself was experiencing the Protestant reaction against the Catholic Church started by Martin Luther. This produced a period of intense conflict both physical and political as the emerging secular governments began to assert their right to rule without interference from the pulpits. At this point, let’s consider one simple proposition. In the opera houses throughout Italy, the emotion of life was expressed in newly permitted romanticism. Through the music, audiences could soar to new heights of passion and understanding. In the churches, sung masses were also developing into major musical events where massed voices were raised in celebration of the divine. When both secular and religious music was performed, there was always the possibility of “faith healing”. People in churches might be able to throw away crutches and walk again. People might leave an opera house with a depression lifted. In modern medicine, we talk learnedly of the placebo effect. In those times, such occurrences were considered miraculous or in need of scientific exploration to determine the cause.

Mary Gentle washed out after wrestling with some weighty ideas

So, in The Black Opera by Mary Gentle (Night Shade Books, 2012) let’s assume an alternate world, not unlike our own, in which a third party group emerges to represent the interests of the Prince of Darkness. Now we come to the problem of coincidence. Suppose this group believes in the power of music to change the world in the literal sense. They try an experiment and, while singing a Black Opera to their version of Krakatoa, it explodes and shrouds the world in volcanic ash. Not worrying whether there’s actual cause and effect, this group now plans a second performance. This time, they will sing to Mount Etna or Stromboli or both. Should the local Kings get wind of this plan, they would obviously commission a countervailing opera. We’re in Sicily and the King must find someone he can trust to produce it. At first, he gets the best in Italy to come to Sicily, but all their efforts are frustrated by illnesses and accidents — i.e. subtle sabotage. The project is abandoned as cursed. So he turns to an atheist librettist to pull something out of the fire. I forgot to mention this poet has only six weeks to bring the finished performance to the stage. Fortunately his cross-dressing sister thinks she’s a composer and a top-class violinist so she can also conduct. Now let’s be clear. There’s no need for anyone to believe Mount Etna will actually erupt, but it’s the idea that it might. . . Once it enters the heads of the King and his confidants, it’s not something that can be ignored. The idea has become bulletproof.

Anyway, our librettist is short of inspiration so, naturally, he resists the temptation to bounce ideas off the ghost of his father. He’s sworn an oath of secrecy and can’t trust his father not to talk out of turn. Perhaps someone ought to exorcise the father. Then the King selects a noble-born Count to write the music. He’s a poser who thinks he’s a composer with the librettist’s ex-lover as his wife, except she’s dead — this first zombie is only included because she’s a Countess and blessed with the most beautiful voice opera has ever heard. That’s always going to be a social challenge to add to the shortness of time to get words and music together. Then there’s the problem of the librettist’s dead father’s debts. Surprising, really, how quickly these distractions are piling up. Then the rehearsal theatre burns down. As you will gather, this is a fantasy with a sense of humour. Perhaps all this should become the libretto. It has all the drama. Surely no-one would miss hearing about an Aztec Princess anyway?

While he’s waiting for the music to catch up to his words, our librettist is sent off on a secret mission. The Satanic Cult is planning to destabilise the King of Sicily and something has to be done. After a successful outcome, it’s into the catacombs to continue the rehearsals while rumblings in Etna suggest the Black Opera is also in rehearsal. And then comes a revelation that changes everything! And here’s something to chew on while you read the book. If there was an eruption, there would be a lot of dead people. . .

I can’t remember reading a fantasy with such sensibilities before. It’s a magnificent blend of our history and a radically different alternate history in which religion and rationalism clash in a completely unexpected way. I was entranced by the possibility of our atheist librettist being able to debate theology with the dead. Anyway, putting this speculation to one side, I’m reminded of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. In both our history and this fantasy world, humanity might give meaning to life through a belief in a God. Indeed, the absence of such a belief would be likely to produce a dangerously unstable nihilism. So if an Übermensch was to emerge, it would create a new set of values affirming the value of continued existence without having to rely on Platonic idealism. In such a case, the Übermensch would not be an individual. It would probably take the form of a Volksgeist, a spirit collectively representing the human race, or at least a substantial part of it.

At this point, I apologise to my readers. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by philosophical issues that are not directly relevant to The Black Opera. Mary Gentle is playing with some heavyweight themes, but you don’t need to be interested in such background issues to enjoy this book. So here comes the headline. I was entranced, but I acknowledge that I’m a sucker for big idea books. It’s a wonderful story capturing the detail of how to write and stage an opera in six weeks, hoping it will somehow prevent a volcanic eruption. If that’s all you want, you will enjoy this book. If you want more, you only have to look beneath the surface of what happens when the curtain finally goes up.

And will you just look at the fabulous cover artwork from Sam Burley! Everyone who likes spectacular art should take a moment to look at his site.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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