A Trio of Short Reviews

I thought I’d sneak a couple of short book reviews into that week between Christmas and New Year.  Too bloated with turkey, booze and chocolate to concentrate on reading, I often find I’m scouring the web at this time for stuff to read and do!

The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee

last kings of sarkThis is the story of new graduate Jude, who is engaged to be a tutor during the summer to Pip, a sixteen year old boy and Sofi, a young Polish cook from Ealing. The action takes place initially on the island of Sark (one of the smaller Channel Islands between England and France).

It’s an odd household. Eddy, Pip’s father, is often absent, away on business. Esmé, Pip’s French mother, mostly stays upstairs and never appears to eat anything. Pip doesn’t want a tutor, but it is to prepare him for school on the mainland for the sixth form. Sofi, meanwhile is full of life, and not a very good cook!  When Eddy goes away on an extended trip, the three drop lessons and get a life. Needless to say summer doesn’t last forever and the trio have to part after an extended farewell. The last part of the novel looks back several years later at where the three of them are now, and how they wish they could rekindle that summer.

This was a beautifully crafted novel, but not enough happened in it for me. Narrated by the quieter Jude, Sofi dominates the story and her weird little flashes of insight can’t make up for her limited ambitions and love of partying. Pip is underdrawn, and I couldn’t bond with Jude either, and wanted to know why Esmé was so reclusive. This could have been brilliant, but was rather so-so for me. (6/10, review copy)

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

orphan choirThis was another novel I really wanted to love – Sophie Hannah turning her hand to a short horror novel in Hammer’s new imprint.

Set in and around Cambridge and Hannah’s invented Spilling, The Orphan Choir concerns Louise Beeston, a woman who is slowly being driven mad on all sides (we think): by her neighbour’s late night parties that always end with the same Queen song played at loud volume; by her husband who wants to get their expensive house sandblasted, which will mean covering the windows and living in the dark for weeks; by Dr Freeman, the choirmaster of the boarding school where her seven year old son is a chorister – Joseph has to board, and he is taking him away from her; and the voices of children singing! She finds escape, persuading her husband to buy them a second home in a gated community near Spilling, but after an idyllic start the voices start again. Is she going mad?

While I could understand Louise’s problems, especially with her son having to board at only seven years old, I didn’t like her at all. The first half of this quite short book went on for so long with the spat between Louise and her noisy neighbour, I got a bit fed up with it, then the second half rushed by, getting twistier and twistier in Hannah’s trademark style, and I reached the end thinking what just happened?  However, Hannah is always readable, and her twisty plots are something else – I look forward to her next horror outing, but this one missed being a hit for me. (6.5/10, own copy)

Dr Who: Last of the Gadarene by Mark Gatiss

bbc-book-50th-3I love all Mark Gatiss’ TV work, but I’ve not read one of his novels before. This Dr Who one, reissued as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations probably wasn’t the best place to start, I should have tried one of his Lucifer Box novels perhaps?

This novel features the third incarnation of Dr Who, as played by Jon Pertwee together with his assistant Jo Grant. The Dr was Earth-bound at this stage of Who-history and worked for UNIT, investigating supernatural phenomena.  Set in a disused RAF base in East Anglia, which is taken over by a secretive organisation. Local villagers go missing, only to return grinning inanely, having been taken over by the Gadarene who are invading Earth as their own planet is dying.

It may have had a classic plot, but there were quite a few boring bits in this novel, and the Doctor didn’t appear until over a quarter of the way in. I didn’t quite warm to Gatiss’ style of writing here either – a little overdone in places, and quite adverby. Basically though, I’m not a fan of the third doctor – his outfit, cape and yellow vintage car (Bessie) wasn’t my cup of tea, even if the Maggots (remember them?) scared me stiff (though not as much as the Yeti).  (6/10, own copy)

Sorry to end my book reviewing of the year with several books that didn’t quite make the grade for me – but you may think differently!

I will be back in a day or two with my BOOKS OF THE YEAR post.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee. Pub Virago Nov 2013. Hardback 288 pages.
The Orphan Choir (Hammer) by Sophie Hannah. Pub Hammer Oct 2013. Hardback 336 pages
Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene: 50th Anniversary Edition (Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection) by Mark Gatiss, pub 2000, BBC paperback 320 pages.

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Mr Sandman, bring me a dream …

The Sandman by ETA Hoffmann, translated by Christopher Moncrieff

sandman

I’m slightly familiar with the 19th century author E.T.A. Hoffmann through adaptations of his on the stage: the ballets Coppélia by Delibes, and Christmas evergreen The Nutcracker, also Offenbach’s opéra fanastique, The Tales of Hoffmann – but I’ve never read any of the source stories before. Alma classics has just published a new translation The Sandman, and sent me a copy to read.

The Sandman of Hoffmann’s imagination is nothing like that in the song by the Chordettes from 1954 win which the girls ask for certain qualities in their dream male:

“Give him a pair of eyes with a come-hither gleam,
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci,
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace.”

That interpretation derives from the nice Sandman in Hans Christian Andersen’s story (1841), in which he sprinkles sand or dust on children’s eyes to send them off to sleep and give them good dreams.

Hoffmann’s earlier version from 1815 is truly nasty – a complete opposite.  The boy Nathanael is traumatised as a child when his nurse tells him about the Sandman who throws sand in the eyes of children who won’t sleep and this makes their eyes fall out which the Sandman collects to take to the moon as food for his children who have beaks and peck at them.

See – there are two sides to every story!

Hoffmann’s tale starts with letters to and from Nathanael, now a young man, to the brother of his fiancée Clara, in which he recounts episodes from his childhood when his beloved father had a regular visitor in the evenings. That was Doctor Coppelius, and together they carry out alchemical experiments. Nathanael hides in his father’s room and when discovered Coppelius threatens to blind him with embers from the fire. A year later his father is killed in one of their experiments and Coppelius disappears. So a terrified Nathanael equates Coppelius with the Sandman. Then one day an Italian barometer salesman called Guiseppe Coppola appears, and Nathanael is convinced he is Coppelius in another guise and all his old fears are reawakened.

Nathanael is spiralling into depression and his relationship with Clara and her brother Lothario is threatened, especially when he becomes besotted with Olimpia, the beautiful doll-like daughter of Spalanzani, whom he sees in the opposite window… Anyone who has seen Coppélia or The Tales of Hoffman, will be familiar with the second half of this story which features in both.

I loved that in the best metafictional tradition, the author inserts himself into the story as the narrator and friend of Nathanael …

…I have done my utmost to begin Nathanael’s story in a meaningful, original and moving way: “Once upon a time” – the finest possible opening for a tale, too prosaic! “In the small provincial town of S., there lived …” Slightly better – at least it builds up to a climax. Or why not medias in res*: “‘Let him go to the devil,’ exclaimed the student Nathanael, his eyes filled with horror and rage as the barometer salesman Guiseppe Coppola …” In fact this is what I had already written, believing that I sensed something comical in Nathanael’s wild eyes – although the story is not exactly amusing. I couldn’t think of an expression that even began to reflect the glorious colours of the inner portraits, so I decided not to try. So, gentle reader, take the three letters that his friend Lothar kindly entrusted to me as a brief outline of the picture to which, by now telling the story I will endeavour to add more and more colour.

* Medias in res – a quote from Horace – in the midst of things.

This edition includes a fascinating extract from an essay by Siegmund Freud after the short tale. Freud subjects the tale to psychoanalysis, interpreting Nathanael’s fears of losing his eyes as a common, albeit terrible childhood dream, and goes on to cite blindings in literature and more. This was a big bonus to this slight volume, indeed my only regret was that there weren’t more of Hoffmann’s tales included. (9.5/10)

The end result of reading this novella is, of course, an immediate desire to read everything else Hoffmann wrote, there are two more on Alma Classics’ list. However, being a collector of luxury editions of fairy tales, I’d love it if the Folio Society would ‘do’ Hoffmann!).

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Sandman (Alma Classics) by ETA Hoffmann, pub Alma classics, new translation Dec 2013, paperback, approx 100 pages.

Scary reads for Halloween

Today I thought I’d pick out a few books from my archive that would make scary reading for Halloween tomorrow. I know, more recycling of posts, but it’s fun for me to look back at my blog, and maybe you’ll find a book you might like to read too. The links are to my reviews in the text, and where you can buy at the bottom.

Firstly, a book for all ages (well for brave 8yrs+):

Moviewatch - Coraline (3D)

Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  This is a deliciously scary children’s novel that is destined to become an absolute classic. Think Clive Barker for kids, but with a sense of humour and you’re about there.  The animated film is rather wonderful too.  I never thought I’d get scared of everyday items of haberdashery, but Coraline will do that for you (see the bottom of this post if you dare!)

Now for a grown-up novel about werewolves:

red moonRed Moon by Benjamin Percy. Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.  Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel. His new approach takes the paranormal out of lycanthropy, and creates a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction.

… and IMHO the best vampire book yet written:

lettherightoneinLet the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. When I came to this Nordic vampire novel, I found something truly dark and horrific that needed a strong stomach and nerves of steel. It is a real contemporary chiller, full of violence and gore, totally relentless – yet at its heart is a the redemptive relationship between a twelve year old boy and a 200 year old vampire frozen into the body of a young girl. A bit long, but stunningly plotted and easily the equal of the best Scandicrime novels.

I shall finish with a classic:

jekyllDr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R L Stevenson. I love novels about mad professors – and this is the daddy of them all. Most of us in the modern age will know the essential twist but there is so much more to Stevenson’s clever story than that. The edition I read also contained two very Gothic short stories by Stevenson too – The Body Snatcher and Markheim – both brilliant also.

What scary books are you reading for Halloween?

34154-coralinephoto

You can button your own eyes at Coraline.com Click on the portrait in the house …

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
Let the Right One In John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

A new approach to the problem of werewolves …

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

red moonInside this chunkster of a werewolf novel are at least two shorter novels trying to get out… Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.

From the opening chapters in which a Lycan manages to board a plane, transform and kill all the passengers bar one, there’s no doubting that they are far nastier than the teen-wolves of the Twilight Saga. These werewolves only need anger/fear to be able to transform, and they leave a trail of gruesomely mutilated corpses …

But not all of them. One of the central threads of this multi-layered novel is a central high-school romance between, Patrick, the teenager who survived the plane crash and becomes a celebrity, manages to fall for Claire, a Lycan, who is daughter of two former Lycan activists. This is complicated by Patrick’s father being in the Marines abroad guarding uranium mines which are under Lycan threat.

In another thread, the loudmouthed, beer-swilling, womanising, and fiercely anti-Lycan state Governor is being groomed to run for the presidency. He’s rather a puppet for his closest advisor who pulls his strings, but when something happens to him it becomes a whole new ball game.

Linking these two main stories are the Lycan, and anti-Lycan activists, and to a lesser extent, Neal, a doctor researching a vaccine for the Lobos virus, who was a friend of Patrick’s father.

Interestingly, Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel.  Lycans are infected with a prion-based virus (like AIDS, CJD, Mad cow), caught through blood or sexual contact.  The threat of being infected rather than being devoured drives paranoia, as the Government takes steps to further and further restrict the lives of sufferers, ghettoising them. As the Lycans begin to take things into their own hands, the government quickly becomes militarised and we’re into dystopian territory.

Given that Patrick and Claire’s gritty romance is largely separate from the socio-political Governor’s tale, I felt the two could have been told in companion volumes, which would give more pace. Intertwining them kept slowing things down just as they were getting really interesting. I can see the value of having the two threads together, but it made for a long read at 530 dense pages.  Remembering who was who in the Lycan and anti-Lycan groups got a little complex towards the end also as the cast-list expanded.

I did like the author’s new approach of taking the paranormal out of lycanthropy though, and thus creating a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, pub Hodder & Stoughton, May 2013. Hardback.
 

Still shocking after all these years …

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Distractions! I had hoped to read or re-read more Banks books by now. But better late than never, I have returned to the beginning and re-read The Wasp Factory again, and updated my BanksRead page.

Published in 1984, I read it for the first time in 1985 when the paperback first came out. I read it again back then too, and I still have my original paperback.  The monochrome cover with its squared symbols and numerals, and the embossed title and author name really stood out then, and does now.

wasp factory orig papaerback

Banks has always been brilliant at beginnings,  and the first lines of his first novel are cracking.

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.

Right from the off, you know you’re in for something different with Frank, a rather feral teenager who lives on an island with his abandoned father. Frank is rather fond of catching the local wildlife, and killing it to display on his totemic poles. Animals are not the only things Frank kills though…

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

For those that haven’t read this book, I’m not giving things away with the above quote. It’s part of the back cover blurb of my original copy and comes at the end of chapter two. However, by then Frank has told us quite a lot about his family history, how he became a murderer, and we know about his ‘accident’. His certified brother Eric is at large, and on his way home, which is a cause for concern for everyone except Frank, who although he loves his brother thinks he may rather cramp his style. He finds solace in a boozer in town with his only friend, Jamie, a dwarf, but I can tell you no more about the plot.

wasp factory newWhen I first read this novel, I was stunned; it made an instant fan of me.  It was so dark and twisted, yet had a strong vein of black humour running through it. Between Frank’s cruel experiments, Eric’s deranged rantings on the phone, and the father’s secretive behaviour, it’s clear that what is left of this family have real problems.

Banks’ prose still has the power to shock, even knowing what was to come.  This is definitely still not a book for the squeamish.  I could pick up on more clues in his Gothic coming of age story this time.  I also saw parallels between Frank and the horrorshow of Alex in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – both vicious adolescents growing up; and also with Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – another flawed young person who uses her own version of sacrifice poles to warn off intruders onto the family estate.

It feels as if Banks arrived on the scene as a fully fledged author with The Wasp Factory.  He’s taken it from there with each subsequent novel, always experimenting, always having a strong vision, and keeping that sense of humour underneath.  Still 10/10.

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I bought my copy decades ago. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks – Abacus paperback, 256 pages.
A Clockwork Orange (Penguin Essentials) by Anthony Burgess
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Half term movies

I’ve been to the pictures twice this half-term – two very different films and two gooduns.

First, I went with my daughter to see Tim Burton’s new stop-animation film, Frankenweenie.  Inspired by Frankenstein, natch, it’s the story of a boy and his dog, and like all the best classic horror films, it’s in black and white.  Victor’s dog Sparky gets run over and the poor boy is wracked with grief and retires to his attic where he puts a plan into action, inspired by his new science teacher (who looks like Vincent Price and is voiced by Martin Landau), which brings his dog back to life during a thunderstorm. Of course, it’s near impossible to keep the revitalised dog a secret, and havoc ensues…

It was a lovely film, both funny and touching, and it was chock full of references to all the great classic black and white films. At one point, Victor’s parents are actually watching Christopher Lee in the Hammer Horror film as Dracula on the TV.  There are some horrors, and a graveyard scene, but it’s not really scary being a PG family entertainment.

Then this week, I went on my own to see Skyfall – the 23rd James Bond film.  I’m a huge Bond fan, and IMHO this new film is one of the best.

I’m not going to tell you the plot, save to say there is an amazing opening chase, there are exotic locations, there is a beautiful girl or two, a charismatic baddie played by Javier Bardem with weird blonde hair, some brilliant action sequences, plus M and Q of course.

M and Q get to feature more than usual this time. Judi Dench reprises M who is up really up against it as this time it’s personal; the new Q, meanwhile, is the willowy young actor Ben Wishaw and he was perfect scoring points off Bond until they found their mutual admiration for each other.

Daniel Craig was superb in his third film as Bond, and director Sam Mendes makes him more human than in any previous movies – he’s a bit world-weary, and bored with what he does for a living, but comes to life again when the security of the realm is compromised. There’s also a neat look back towards his childhood that I really liked, which was introduced by Fleming in the novel of You Only Live Twice, and continued by Charlie Higson in his Young Bond novels.

Skyfall has its weaknesses, but I was more than happy to overlook them and enjoy every minute of the whole film from its gripping start to the neat epilogue. I think that Craig has finally overtaken Connery as ‘my’ Bond too…

Guest review of Ash by James Herbert

A few weeks ago I accepted a copy of British horror-meister James Herbert’s new novel ‘Ash‘ to review. I loved reading Herbert when I was younger, and thought it would be really fun to revisit him.

But I haven’t had time to fit reading it in yet, so I lent it to my good friend Julia, and today I’m turning over my blog to her for a guest post. Julia is a bookseller at my fab local indie bookshop Mostly Books and she specialises in SF&F, paranormal and YA books, and is a big fan of historical novels too…

Ash by James Herbert

James Herbert was one of my favourite authors in my teenage years and I spent many sleepless nights first reading his books and then hiding under the covers from the ghosts, rats and monsters he described so well. I was very excited to hear he had written a new book and clutching my copy of Ash I rushed home to read it and was not disappointed, the long wait was worth it.

In this book we revisit David Ash, the parapsychologist from Haunted and The Ghosts of Sleath, for a third installment of hauntings and mystery. Set in the Scottish castle of Comraich, run by the mysterious Inner Circle, sinister paranormal events, which culminate in the discovery of one of it’s residents hanging from a wall severely wounded and attached only by his own congealing blood, prompt the I.C. to contact Ash and ask for his help in investigating the strange occurrences.

To read a very gory quotation, highlight the text below! It’s not nice – you have been warned…

In sheer desperation Ash pushed his free left hand into his assailants snarling, brutish face. He thrust two stiffened fingers directly into the madman’s right eye, wincing as they passed through the half-closed lids and pushed against the repugnant softness of the eyeball itself. Then beyond, his fingers slithered over the white globe until they reached the hard matter behind.
Lukovic screeched as blood gushed from the ruined eye socket, a sound amplified by the limited confines of the lift, and instinctively yanked his head backwards. But the tips of Ash’s gore-sodden fingers had curled behind the eyeball, and when Lukovic pulled his head back the eyeball popped as through sucked out and dropped against his upper cheek, held there only by thin bloody tendrils.

The castle is home to a mixed bag of people all of whom have paid a great deal of money to permanently disappear and their individual stories interwoven with the history of the old castle make for a truly spine tingling read. Royal mysteries, war criminals and insane inmates not to mention political intrigue and conspiracy theories are all included in this fantastic novel from one of the masters of horror.

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Thank you Julia. It sounds intriguing, and … um, suitably gory! Looking forward to reading it though.

This book was kindly supplied by the publisher. Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Ash by James Herbert – pub Aug 30th by Macmillan, Hardback 600 pages.
Ash – Kindle version
Haunted, The Ghosts of Sleath both by James Herbert, paperbacks.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Or can they?

The Flame Alphabetby Ben Marcus

Before Beryl Bainbridge Reading week, I posted about how I’d essentially bought this book on the basis of its cover alone which is rather stunning, and how it would be the first book I read after Beryl. Now, I’ve read it and the question is did it live up to its cover?

The book is narrated by Sam, and at the beginning he and his wife Claire are planning to slip away from their home, abandoning their daughter, for she is making them ill.  An epidemic has struck, and children’s speech has become toxic to adults.  Claire is suffering particularly badly and hides away in her room. Sam has distraction mechanisms, and at night when their daughter Esther is out or asleep, concocts potions in his kitchen, anything to help. Sam and Claire’s relationship is flagging under the constant barrage of lethal words from their daughter.

Claire appeared in the doorway, fully dressed, brushing the last of her hair.
“Why do you keep yelling my name?” she asked.
“I wanted you to see something,” I said. “This show I’m watching. On this guy who died.”
“Well you could have said that. I wish you wouldn’t yell my name. I really can’t stand it.”
I apologized to her.
“It’s fine,” she said, leaving the room. “But I can’t stand it. Please don’t do that any more.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, feeling less sorry.
“And I said it’s fine,” she yelled from another room. “Stop apologizing.”
Sorry, I said to myself, wondering how many times in my marriage I’d said that, how many times I’d meant it, how many times Claire had actually believed it, and, most important, how many times the utterance had any impact whatsoever on our dispute. What a lovely chart one could draw of this word Sorry.

Sam and Claire are members of a secret Jewish sect of ‘forest Jews’.  They have secret synagogue for two in a hut in the forest, where radio transmissions are piped in through orange subterranean cables.  At first, it is only Jewish children who develop this lethal weapon.

One day, Sam meets a man, Murphy, a disciple of scientist LeBov, who seems to know too much. He tells Sam about a place up north, Forsythe, where they’re working on a cure, and Sam with his skills would be welcome to join them. Sam is hooked, and when, on the night they were planning to go, Claire disappears, he realises he has to go there.  As language begins to fail, what happens there will shock him to his core.

Don’t be fooled by the quotation above, for this book is no normal family drama, nor is it a dystopian thriller.  It’s boldly experimental, full of weird science, and the sub-plot about the forest Jews was totally baffling. The goings on at Forsythe were horrific and made me think of Nazi Joseph Mengele!

The underlying theme of the book, about language and what happens when we have poor communication, is sound. Many teenagers go through a phase of hurting their parents in real life anyway. Despite the novel’s intellectual credentials, the language issue seemed a bit repetitive and even heavy-handed at times.

There is little character development – we don’t find out much about Sam, Claire, or Esther’s back story. The mysterious Murphy is the most interesting character, and until the later parts he remains an enigma. We also know nothing about the origins of the disease, its spread, its pathology.  We live in Sam’s present, and only hear his voice telling the story, and we share in his obsessions.  The deliberate choice not to give this information did make it frustrating for me, (in the same way as I felt the about Arthur C Clarke Award winning The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers).

In summary, The Flame Alphabet is a hard book to describe and pin down.  I can’t say I enjoyed it, but once started, I felt compelled to read to the end to see if I could comprehend it. One for fans of experimental fiction. (6/10)

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I bought my copy.  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Flame Alphabetby Ben Marcus, pub June 2012, Granta hardback, 289 pages.

One man against a world of vampires …

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

When I first started reading science fiction in my teens, most of the books came in the distinctive yellow jacket with mauve font of publisher Gollancz. Scouting for the cover pic to put in this post, I saw that Gollancz, now the SF & Fantasy imprint of Orion books had included it in their 50th anniversary editions … It took me right back.

I am Legend was first published in 1954; it was Matheson’s third novel. His fourth would go on to make cinematic history – The Shrinking Man would become a huge film hit as The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957.  I remember adoring the film, and applauding the philosophical soliloquy at the end as Scott accepts his place in the universe.  I now read that this speech was not in the novel, but also that several scenes in the novel were not in the film too.

Anyway, back to Legend – which has been filmed four times over the years, most recently starring Will Smith in 2007.  A plague has infected mankind, mutating humans into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures – vampires.  Robert Neville could be the last man alive – he’s had to say sayonara to his wife and child, and despite the awfulness of his situation, something keeps him going on.  By day he goes out scavenging, and killing vampires; by night he boards himself into his house, turns the music up and often drowns his sorrows in whisky.  The vampires keep the pressure up, trying to tempt him out – especially the creature who used to be his workmate and neighbour Ben.

Neville is a practical sort though.  He has a generator, fuel and freezers full of food. He has set up a workshop in his late daughter’s bedroom – and he turns bundles of stakes on his lathe.  He grows garlic in his outhouse – true to form, the creatures appear to loathe it, they can’t live in the light either.  He starts going to the library to learn about blood and diseases, and his diligence appears to be paying off …

This novel has an excellent balance between SF and dystopian horror. The vampires are scientifically explained which makes a change, and they are more zombie-like than traditional vampires too.  The parts of the book in which Neville relives the demise of his family are inevitably sad, but he deals with it in the same dogged way that he deals with everything else.

All through the novel, you are dying to know whether he is  the last man alive, and this sustains the plot through to the end, where I was surprised at the twist in the tail. This gritty tale is another SF masterwork. (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
I Am Legend (Gollancz 50 Top Ten)
The Shrinking Man (S.F. Masterworks)
Incredible Shrinking Man [DVD]

Gaskella meets … Charlie Higson

This afternoon it was my delight to accompany a party of boys from my school over to the Abingdon school theatre to hear author, actor and comedian Charlie Higson talk about his zombie horror series of books for older children and teenagers. After the event, I was also able to talk briefly to Charlie about his books in my first proper interview for this blog – so exciting!

Charlie started with a straw poll of the audience – zombies or vampires? Being mostly boys, zombies won. Boys it seems, tend to prefer zombie gore, rather than the romantic image of vampires.

Charlie went on tell us about a bit of the history of vampires and zombies in literature.  It all happened one summer back in 1816 at a house party on the shores of Lake Geneva.  It was the summer after Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted, and the whole world suffered weird climatic conditions as a result of the ash; so instead of swimming and larking about on the water, this group told stories and from them developed the types of vampires and undead creatures we all adore today.  But who were they?  None other than Byron, Shelley and Shelley’s teenaged girlfriend Mary, plus Byron’s doctor called Polidori, amongst others.  From this gathering would emerge Mary’s Frankenstein, and Polidori’s The Vampyre (expanded from a story fragment by Byron, who was was fascinated by the proto-vampire Strigoi of Balkan legend).  The first literary vampire was very much in the mould of the ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know‘ Byron, and was later combined with the nasty Wallachian king Vlad the Impaler to become best of all vampires, Count Dracula by Stoker.

Then it was on to the zombies!  Charlie told us how he loves horror movies and stories, and that his favourite film is the classic Night of the Living Dead which invented the modern zombie.  After writing five Young Bond books (see previous post), Charlie was ready to write children’s books with his own characters, and decided to try and scare the pants off his readers.

In The Enemy series, he has created a dystopian world in which a disease has killed nearly everyone over the age of fourteen – those who don’t die have been turned into pus-ridden, drooling, children-eating zombies. The remaining children have mostly banded together in groups for safety, and have to find a way to survive, and create a new society.  Sure, there are some Lord of the Flies moments, (my review of that here), but at the heart of the book is the childrens’ quest to find somewhere safe to live, without flesh-eating necrotic zombies around every corner.

The audience of older children, mainly from years 7 & 8 (11+), asked loads of great questions, and all groaned in digust at the drooling zombie in the video trailer for the new book – who rather resembled someone in the room…  I’ll be reviewing the Enemy books more fully in a week or so.

Then, after the boys had gone, I got to sit down and talk with Charlie for a short while.  (Many thanks to Mark at Mostly Books for arranging this for me).

After telling him how much I was enjoying reading all of his books, we started by talking about the Young Bond.  I’d noticed the deliberate homage to Fleming in the first sentence of Silverfin, and asked him about it. He said that he’d put in a quite a few references to the Fleming novels, but didn’t try to capture his style, more the ‘spirit of Fleming’.  I wondered if he’d pictured a younger Sean Connery as his Bond. Charlie said that Fleming’s Bond was really a toff, so that he’d be more a mix of Connery/Brosnan perhaps.  I commented that like Fleming, we always know what Bond is wearing – Charlie replied that the Eton uniform had formed part of his way in to the character – he’d worried that readers wouldn’t believe Bond in starched collars and formal attire, but then he realised it was essentially like a ‘shrunken down tuxedo’ and that was it.

I was going to ask him why zombies in The Enemy series, and not aliens or any other creature, but his love for them was already clear from the talk.  Charlie told me that he wasn’t deeply into the supernatural – his zombies aren’t actually dead, they’re just diseased.  He’d also touched upon the fact that there was the possibility that ‘the thing that’s trying to kill you could be someone you love’there was a scene in the first book where one of the children thinks he recognises his mother, and I said that had creeped me out more than the pus and gore.  I applauded his decision to kill lots of characters, including some unexpected ones – I was thinking of one less than halfway into the first book that I was just growing to love. He said he really enjoyed doing that, but didn’t want killing the characters off to become too expected!

Having a daughter who’s not into adventure books at all (yet!?), I asked if he was finding that girls were reading them too?  It was reassuring to hear that he was as happy to scare girls as boys. He said he did write some strong female characters in them, and felt they did have a good readership amongst girls – at least he had the advantage that girls aren’t afraid to be seen with boyish covers, whereas most boys wouldn’t be seen dead with any books that were at all girly.

I finished by asking him about The Fast Show. You may have heard, but the crew, sans Mark Williams, are back together to film some sketches for the Fosters comedy site, (link below) – they’ll only be online at first though. They will involve all the old characters; I expressed my love for Bob Fleming (cough) who just cracks me up. Charlie said he was great, but it was getting more and more difficult to think of situations to put him into as all he does is cough!

I usually keep out of any photos at events, but this was such a nice experience, I couldn’t resist the souvenir shot like the fangirl I am!  I’d like to thank Charlie for taking the time to talk to me, especially after all the signing he had to do.  He was an absolute pleasure to talk to, and is a really fantastic writer. I’m looking forward to reading many more of his books (including his adult horror ones).


Websites to check out: Charlie Higson,  Young Bond,  The Enemy, Fosters
I bought my copies of the books. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Fear (The Enemy) by Charlie Higson
Dracula (Penguin Classics) by Bram Stoker
Frankenstein: The 1818 Text (Oxford World’s Classics) by Mary Shelley
The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre (Oxford World’s Classics) by John Polidori
Night Of The Living Dead [Blu-ray] [1968] directed by George Romero.
The Fast Show : Ultimate Collection (7 Disc BBC Box Set) [DVD]