Sunday, 27 December 2009

ElvenQuest

An example of the law of unintended consequences: as a result of buying a Sony Reader I now listen to a lot more radio. Turns out it’s perfect for listening to radio recorded on the PS3, and that’s how I came to listen to this highly enjoyable programme.

After doing a Q&A at a bookshop fantasy novelist Samuel Porter is approached by three figures in strange costumes: Lord Vidar the elf, Penthiselea the warrior woman and Dean, a dwarf. They need the Chosen One to save their world from Lord Darkness. But Samuel isn’t the Chosen One: it’s his dog. Amis bounds straight into the quest for the Sword of Aznagar, turning into a human upon arrival in Lower Earth, while Samuel is only convinced to join by the pointed arguments offered by Penthiselea’s proud bosom.

ElvenQuest starts ominously: there’s a joke about fantasy fans not having girlfriends in the first minute, quickly followed by “you people take all this stuff too seriously”. I was all set to strap on my +3 sword of indignation, but thankfully it quickly left that stuff behind to race through six very funny, imaginative episodes that showed real affection for the material being spoofed.

Given the proximity of their broadcast dates, you can’t help wondering if Kröd Mandoon and ElvenQuest sprang from the same round of pitches – if so, Hat Trick backed the wrong horse, because this was substantially funnier than Kröd. For example, one episode begins with a solemn recital of all the tasks facing the heroes, ending with “for as it is written in the Great Elven Book of Knowing, isn’t life just one bloody thing after another”.

The cast is excellent, far outshining that of Kröd: Stephen Mangan, Darren Boyd, Sophie Winkleman, Kevin Eldon and Alistair McGowan, sounding exactly like Rowan Atkinson as Lord Darkness. I expect it’s easier to get actors to London for a few days than Hungary for a few months! And unlike its television rival, ElvenQuest’s satirical net covers more than a single movie. Lord of the Rings is obviously a big target (if target is the right word for such affectionate ribbing), but there’s also a lot of Thomas Covenant in here.

Lord Darkness is consistently funny, not least when he has to check in to a retox centre to top up his evil. Readers of Groo #77 will feel the warm glow of recognition upon hearing many of the jokes about Amis, but they are just as funny the second time around. Some of the jokes are real groaners, but delivered with panache: the studio audience is having such a great time that it’s hard not to be caught up in the fun.

The ending sets up a second series, and I certainly hope one will be forthcoming. In the meantime, do listen out for repeats on BBC7.

ElvenQuest, Series one, 6x30mins, BBC Radio 4.

Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire

Kröd Mändoon (Sean Maguire of Meet the Spartans) becomes a leader of the resistance, and with his merry band of outlaws searches for a way to strike at local overlord Dungalore (Matt Lucas). Sean Maguire – always decent in his US sitcom appearances – and the rest of the cast do a fair job, but Matt Lucas rules the roost from start to finish, shining in his first real acting role and making the very best out of every line. He’s clearly enjoying himself. It’s no surprise that his character gets the last scene of the last episode rather than the titular hero.

Lots of other familiar British faces are involved, both behind the scenes (Jimmy Mulville produces) and on screen, including James Murray from Primeval as Ralph Longshaft, the man who’s everything Kröd wants to be, Alex MacQueen from The Thick of It as Barnabas, Dungalore’s long-suffering vizier, and Tony Bignell as Homunculo. You probably won’t recognise that last one, but he was also in BBC3’s Coming of Age, putting the poor guy in two of the most critically-derided comedies of the year.

But I’m not sure Kröd quite deserved the kicking it got from the critics. The humour is fairly run-of-the-mill stuff (Dungalore talks of his Uncle Zanus, which gives you an idea of what to expect), but it has its moments. There’s some quite funny anachronistic chat about casual Fridays and so on. It’s no worse than say The Quest of Dick & Dom, though obviously expectations are higher for a grown-up programme. It’s much, much less funny than Radio 4’s ElvenQuest. Funnily enough, Kröd features an inversion of its rival’s dog-into-human joke, but puts it to predictably cruder purpose.

Like Robin Hood, it’s filmed around Budapest, and you do expect Kröd and his men to run into Robin’s band of outlaws during one of their many rambles through the forest. The fantasy element is fairly perfunctory, the best story being about a biclops – a cyclops who swings both ways. What Kröd reminded me of most of all was the diabolically bad Dungeons & Dragons film, right down to the Wayans-esque sidekick, but played for intentional laughs this time. You could quite easily believe the D&D movie (and perhaps Krull) to be the only fantasy of which these writers are aware. Shame, though, that it misses that movie’s best (unintentional) joke: the dwarf who was one of the tallest members of the party!

All I ask of a comedy is that it makes me laugh – whether it is good or bad doesn’t really matter (hence my appreciation of the work of Rob Schneider). Kröd manages that, though not quite as often as it could, especially when Lucas is off-screen. It was made for Comedy Central by our own Hat Trick productions, and I can’t help thinking Hat Trick would have more joy with an American HIGNFY than another series of this. But there isn’t all that much fantasy comedy to choose from – I watched every episode of Red Dwarf without ever really thinking it was any good – so if they make another series of this I’ll watch it, slightly begrudging the times it hits me with a cheap laugh, but laughing nevertheless.

Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire, Series one, 6x30mins, BBC2/Comedy Central

Frenzy, by Carole Johnstone

Eight men find themselves in a life raft with no memory (or so they say) of how they got there. It’s an odd kind of raft – basically a hoop from which each of them dangles in a claustrophobic little pocket, like an inverted toolbelt. No land is visible. The water beneath them is very deep, and it’s full of sharks – though they have as much to fear from each other.

I do enjoy a good shark story every so often (Meg was great fun, for example), so that brought this novella by Carole Johnstone straight to the top of my reading pile. However, it was disappointingly light on shark action. The sharks are there just to give the men something extra to worry about, to set them against each other. In fact, the men are almost in too much danger – from the sun, from each other, from drowning, thirst, hunger and madness – for the sharks to be a big problem.

This is really a psychological horror story, exploring Pete’s nightmares, his feelings about his brother, his relationships with the other men. This is done extremely well, but for me it lessened the drama of the situation. Anyone would be upset at what had happened to his brother, but would it be uppermost in your mind with sharks nipping at your toes?

As the days go by, and people bleed into the ocean from various wounds, the threat of a frenzied shark attack seems ever more distant. It’s sidelined so much that it stops being frightening. The sharks feel like an afterthought, added at an editor’s suggestion to make the book more commercial. The novella would have worked just as well without them – and shark fans wouldn’t have felt cheated.

In fact, no part of the story really blows up in the way you might have hoped: the sharks don’t seem hungry, the male rivalries are trumped up, the mystery of how they got onto the life raft summarily dismissed. At one point I thought the story might take a truly horrifying turn – why didn’t any women make it to the raft? – but even if I wish the story had focused elsewhere and taken different turns, it’s well written and never less than gripping. Just don’t expect Jaws.

Frenzy, by Carole Johnstone, Eternal Press, ebook, 80pp.

Ultrameta: a Fractal Novel, by Douglas Thompson

Alexander Stark is a university professor who goes missing; this book contains accounts of his life – or rather lives – from that point on. His – and sometimes her – stories take us all over the world and into the past, to ancient Greece and medieval Italy. Those he left behind try to piece things together from a trail of corpses. Where is he going? What is his purpose? Is he a serial killer or a serial suicide?

I should say up front that four of these stories were published in magazines I edited (two here in TQF, and two in Dark Horizons), so some bias in my review should be expected. But of course there was a reason I selected those stories for publication: I thought they were fantastic. So for whichever reason you choose, it’s no surprise that I loved the book too.

Let’s get my reservations out of the way first, since that leads directly to one of them: it’s perhaps because I read many of the stories in isolation that I saw the book’s overall linking structure as something of a flaw. In some places the linking material gives away too much about the stories which follow, but also the stories stood so well on their own that threading them along the skein of one man’s life lessened them slightly for me, losing a little of what made them unique by stressing their similarities. Production-wise, the book is afflicted by Eibonvale’s usual love of blank pages (fifty-four of them!) and enormous indents. There’s also an odd bit of spacing between each paragraph. Discreet is muddled with discrete throughout, punctuation is occasionally erratic and typos become slightly more frequent as the book goes on. On the other hand, each chapter announces itself with a bold, atmospheric illustration by publisher David Rix, and there are useful essays by Allen Ashley and Joy Hendry.

To new readers the book’s tiny flaws will be imperceptible, hidden by the glare of the originality and imagination on show here. Looking back at my email accepting “Telemura” for publication (in which spiders rearrange Margaret’s house while she sleeps), I said that it reminded me of Borges, or maybe a more dispassionate Lovecraft – if I’d read enough Ballard to be confident of my ground I’d probably have mentioned him too. Now I’ve read the rest of the book, it only reminds me of Douglas Thompson. It seems to me he’s a writer who doesn’t sit down to write a story unless he’s got an idea to justify it. As an example, consider “Anatomicasa”, in which a man slowly takes his house to pieces and rebuilds it in the strangest possible way, revealing its structure, becoming both its coroner and plastic surgeon. These stories are original in theme, in execution and in subject matter. Over the last few years I’ve read hundreds of short stories, and these have been among the very best and the most distinctive. The remarkable thing about this book is that despite the experimentation, the eccentricity, and the frequent changes in point of view, tense, location and time, it’s exceptionally readable, each carefully crafted sentence going down like hot chocolate laced with brandy.

In that sense Ultrameta reminded me of Moorcock’s A Cure for Cancer, another book I very much enjoyed without ever really understanding. But like the ten-year-old in “Butterflies”, “I enjoy reading books that I do not understand, and revelling in that mystery, that blissful confusion” (p. 273). That sums up my feelings so exactly that I wondered at first if I was being quoted! Not knowing can be frightening (being lost in a strange city), but it can also be wonderful (being whirled in the air by a parent). With Ultrameta there’s a bit of each: it’s both frightening and exhilarating. By turns cynical and idealistic, liberating and claustrophobic, this book is entirely entertaining and highly recommended.

Ultrameta: a Fractal Novel, by Douglas Thompson, Eibonvale Press, hb, 304pp.

The Girly Comic Book 1, ed. Selina Lock

This collects issues one to nine of The Girly Comic, an indie anthology title of strips with female protagonists. Part of the appeal here is the wide range of styles included, from Flaming Carrot-esque superhero adventure to autobiography.

There are so many stories that I can’t go through all of them, but Lee Kennedy’s (apparently) autobiographical strips are a particular highlight. It’s strange and admirable that stories of abusive parents and wicked nuns can feel so positive. Caroline Parkinson’s “Do Not Feed the Bear” was another favourite, an eight-page story of a little girl’s encounter with a bear outside the city walls. I also enjoyed “Star-Crossed Bother”, in which Horsewoman (bitten by a radioactive horse, with the chomp-mark in her shoulder to prove it) teams up with Puma and Glamowoman to battle the villains of the Zodiac.

On the rare occasions something doesn’t click (I’m having trouble thinking of an example), there’s always something new around the corner. The quality level is very high, and despite being produced on a shoestring the book as a whole bears comparison with other excellent anthologies of comics such as Popgun and McSweeney’s 13.

The Girly Comic Book 1, ed. Selina Lock, Factor Fiction, hb, 278pp.

The Nyctalope on Mars, by Jean de La Hire

Saint-Clair, the Nyctalope, is a twentieth-century Riddick, able to see perfectly in the dark. It’s not much of a superpower, but it’s enough to put him one up on Flash Gordon! After twelve girls are abducted to become the wives of the Twelve – a criminal organisation which has established a base on Mars, in order to conquer the Martians from The War of the Worlds, before returning to conquer Earth – the Nyctalope heads to Mars to rescue them.

This is an old French pulp novel given the Penguin Classics treatment by Brian Stableford and Black Coat Press. As well as translating, Stableford provides much useful apparatus. A highly informative introduction puts the novel in context, draws out its themes, and provides biographical information. An afterword deals with the problem of the story’s uneven chronology, caused in part by its episodic construction, and partly by de la Hire’s decision to introduce contemporary figures. Thirty-six footnotes alert the reader to de la Hire’s many mistakes, scientific and literary. Reproductions of several covers round out a generous package. Numerous typos spoil the effect a bit, but I imagine Jean de la Hire would have been delighted to see his novel receiving such loving attention after all these years.

Perhaps I should say careful attention, rather than loving: I probably enjoyed this book much more than Brian Stableford, who calls it a “thoroughly badly-written book”. The novel is certainly flawed, but enjoyable nevertheless. I don’t need all books to be good; it’s okay for some to be silly and entertaining. This book delivers entertainment in abundance, even if it’s not always deliberate.

There’s an Austin Powers feel to the novel at times. For example, one of my favourite lines recognises that Saint-Clair must already know everything he is being told: “‘I know all that,’ said Saint-Clair, ‘but every time you repeat it, it seems new, and I admire you…’” (p. 63). I’ve heard of hanging a lantern on awkward exposition, but that’s more like hanging a lighthouse on it! In another scene (p. 114), two villains stare at a dial in total silence for an entire hour to see if the power levels fluctuate. There’s lots of pipe and cigar-smoking. Characters monologue at ludicrous length, and nobody in the book seems able to think without speaking out loud. Even when hiding from hordes of enemies they still murmur long speeches to themselves (p. 280, for example). The book is full of that kind of endearing daftness. At one point the Nyctolope seems to propose putting someone to death for (among other things) “an extreme irreverence for science” (p. 86).

The book plays interestingly with other texts, for example establishing early on that Wells was a historian rather than a novelist (though why France was apparently unaffected by the Martian invasion is left unclear), foreshadowing similar experiments by Philip Jose Farmer, Alan Moore, and so on. Similarly the Nyctalope himself anticipates the pulp heroes that would follow: Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, and so on, all the way through to Tom Strong.

But for me this wasn’t just of historical interest. It was exciting, amusing, eccentric and quite unique, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who prizes those qualities.

The Nyctalope on Mars, by Jean de La Hire, tr. Brian M. Stableford, Black Coat Press, pb, 312pp.

Warehouse 13 (Pilot)

Warehouse 13 is reminiscent of the much-lamented Middleman, in that it’s about two beautiful people who work for a secret organisation that stops the world’s weirdness from getting out of control – but it’s as if some maniac wondered what The Middleman would be like without wit, sass, excitement, plot or sexy uniforms. And now the experiment is complete – but did they have to make the results public? Some very dull people go to work in a big boring warehouse. They have to find troublesome magical artefacts and put them in a pressure cooker full of goo to neutralise them. Then they file them away. In short, they take the unexplained and put it on a shelf.

I would love to watch someone like Russell Davies or Charlie Brooker sit through this painfully slow, leaden pilot: imagine their expressions of astonished disbelief as the guided tour of the warehouse drags into its millionth deadly minute! I’ve stepped on pacier slugs (inadvertently, of course)! It even seems to know how dull it is: the score, for example, noodles away apologetically in the background, careful not to draw attention to itself, unable to hit any peaks because there’s nothing exciting happening on screen.

The none-more-generic lead characters are Pete Latimer (Eddie McClintock – the guy who wanted Bones to sail away with him), who gets “a vibe” about things – wooh! – and Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly), a standard-issue FBI agent in a tight blouse. McClintock’s tone is all wrong – he smirks through the whole thing and looks thoroughly bored. The best I can find to say about Kelly is that she’s probably playing the role as written. The support is better: C.C.H. Pounder must feel she’s on holiday after those gruelling final seasons of The Shield, while Saul Rubinek, who I’ve often thought would be perfect as Ben Bova’s Sam Gunn, plays Artie, the guy who looks after the warehouse.

The screener only included the pilot (thank goodness – I couldn’t have taken any more!) – but who knows, maybe with better scripts and direction it could become watchable. Programmes often get retooled between pilot and series. Brief nods at Monk-ish cosy crime showed potential. But after a pilot so drab it made K9 & Co look like Band of Brothers, the best reason for giving this a second chance is that there’s little else on telly in the summer months.

Warehouse 13 (pilot), NBC Universal, US, 90 mins (pilot)

Forever Twilight, Vol. 1: Darkness Darkness, by Peter Crowther

“At a little after 3.15, the whole world had turned white, just for an instant, and then everything had gone back to normal.” But of course it didn’t. Everyone has gone, zapped out of existence in the middle of the night, and the four people left at KMRT are all that’s left. Till the light flashes again, the next night, and then things get really strange.

A review by me of this book is a bit redundant, given the glittering literary stars lined up on its first few pages to praise it! Ramsey Campbell says it’s “as intensely menacing and gruesome as any George Romero film”, while Tim Lebbon calls it “a masterpiece of suspense and dread”. Michael Marsall Smith, Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter and Sarah Pinborough are among the others lavishing praise.

For me Ian Watson nails it when he says it “reminds me … of Stephen King’s novella ‘The Mist’”. This could easily be read as a very well done pastiche of Stephen King. The small group isolated at a radio station is reminiscent of The Fog, while the mysterious disappearance of the rest of the world and the tension between safe-in-here and dangerous-out-there reminded me of “The Mist”. Add a dash of 1950s sf cinema (think Invaders from Mars) and you have a tasty concoction.

At one point I began to wonder whether the book was set in the fifties (the CDs would say not) – a hysterical woman gets slapped across the face, not once but twice, by two different male characters (Johnny on p. 87 and Rick on p. 117). Not something you see in books so often nowadays. And the first occasion comes just after Johnny lets her open the door to danger – just because he doesn’t want to worry her.

The plot is the story’s main weakness. It relies upon the survivors spending the daytime (very sensibly) turning the station into a secure little fort, and then (unbelievably stupidly) going out for a walk in the pitch black night at 3.11 am, and coming a cropper. Why didn’t they wait till morning before investigating? Geoff said, “My view is that two of us walk down into town, while it’s dark. That way, maybe we can find out some more.” Johnny, “verbalizing everyone’s thoughts”, asked who should go. You’d have thought at least one person would be thinking, a four mile walk in the middle of the night during a worldwide catastrophe is a stupid, stupid idea!

But if the plot is flawed, the ideas, atmosphere and action are terrific. And it is as scary as the luminaries above say; it gave me nightmares for two consecutive nights. The sequence with the telephone is the most frightening thing I’ve read since the railway scenes in The Witnesses Are Gone, from the same publisher. The desperate struggle to survive at the end was thrilling, and left me eager to read the sequels from Subterranean Press.

I reviewed this from a pdf ARC, so I wouldn’t normally point out mistakes; there was one that could be confusing to readers if it makes it through to the final version, though. In one key passage I think the wrong brother’s name is given (p. 75, fourth para, Geoff for Rick), which had me puzzling for ages about what was going on.

Forever Twilight, Vol. 1: Darkness Darkness, by Peter Crowther, PS Publishing/Drugstore Indian, hb, 127pp

Different Skins, by Gary McMahon

Different Skins collects two novellas, “Even the Dead Die” and the shorter “In the Skin”, both by Gary McMahon. They share certain themes – death, identity, skin, gender relations – but are otherwise separate. The marvellous cover is by Vincent Chong.

In “Even the Dead Die” Mike Angelo (his parents must have had a sense of humour) moves through a London that he despises, soon discovering that there’s a worse London beneath. It’s a story of death, rape, murder, prostitution and sexual slavery. Structurally, there are similarities with things like Neverwhere or The Matrix, but in tone it’s closer to the movies of Clive Barker. I won’t say anything more about Mike’s discoveries; I don’t want to spoil the novella for anyone; but as you might expect they are shocking, horrifying and gruesomely entertaining.

This novella was bit of a tough read, even allowing for the gruelling subject matter, because it was marred by mistakes and patches of clunky, awkward writing. Some sentences looked good on the surface but didn’t stand up to scrutiny, while other sentences were overloaded with redundant words. For example see p. 40: “This was becoming repetitive, but despite all the information (he) was imparting, he was going nowhere near the answer to the only question that really mattered.” It’s not exactly wrong, but it’s not exactly elegant either.

Some sentences don’t quite slot together. For example, there was “a lengthy silence on the line, which was soon filled by the sound of Aunt Hilda crying” (p. 21) (was the silence lengthy or soon filled?), and “I needed air, even if it was the polluted miasma that hangs above London like a cloud of radioactive leakage” (p. 24) (if it’s a cloud above London will he be breathing it?). After a revelatory chat, his “mind was drowning in all this sensory information” (p. 52) – presumably the chat was accompanied by a laser show!

The opening line is already infamous: “London is an open wound … through which oozes the rancid puss of society.” And no, this isn’t a story about zombie cats. I’d guess the old lady with the hot body is supposed to be disconcertingly erotic rather than “discerningly erotic” (p. 54), though both could well apply, and when a baddie gets his just desserts I think the process probably involves being pulled apart rather than telling lies (“quickly dissembling him” (p. 67). There’s also a pile of smaller errors and the impression is unfortunately of a story that didn’t go through a proper editorial process.

Still, despite its flaws, it has many strong moments, lots of good ideas, and (as Tim Lebbon notes in his introduction) is written with exceptional passion. If the production is poor, the story being told is more than good enough to compensate and make this a very worthwhile and memorable read.

“In the Skin”, though, was better in every way. Dan goes on a business trip to New York, leaving behind his wife Adi and young son Max. Upon his return, his wife seems jumpy and his son seems unusually bulky. What has happened to them in his absence? And who’s that crawling around in the garden?

As with “Even the Dead Die”, the story is powerful and frightening. There is still the occasional mistake (how could he have watched both planes crash live on 9/11, and how does his laptop’s operating system run once the entire hard drive has been wiped?) but the language is leaner, direct and much less wordy – and hence more impactful. The writing is just plain better.

The author’s notes at the back of the book suggest “In the Skin” was written much more recently than the story that shares its covers (circa 2008, compared to 2002 for at least the first two parts of “Even the Dead Die”), so maybe that explains the differences between them. Either way, this was a very enjoyable book, and if my experience of the same author’s Rain Dogs is anything to go by, within a month or two I’ll have forgotten the mistakes and be rhapsodizing about the bits I loved.

Different Skins, by Gary McMahon, Screaming Dreams, pb, 120pp.

Contagious, by Scott Sigler

In this sequel to Infected, a prologue quickly brings new readers (and a new President) up to speed. The infected develop welts, kill their families, and die once pyramid-shaped aliens hatch from their bodies. The little aliens then start building stargates while the government tries to stop them. Former quarterback “Scary” Perry Dawsey survived the first novel by hacking off his genitals; here he takes the lead. Think The West Wing v Aliens with Michael Myers as the hero.

One of the shortest six-hundred page books I’ve ever read, this is split up into dozens of tiny chapters, one for every scene; it’s paced like a mini-series (you get to p. 131 before reaching the first line of the back cover’s plot summary), but cut like a music video, which gives it a style you might see as sketchy or punchy, depending on your point of view. The little aliens are not very scary, but the book is surprisingly brutal, and runs a nice line in body horror.

It’s a big sloppy puppy dog of a novel, daft and eager to please. It doesn’t surprise or innovate, but it’s perfect for the beach or a long train journey.

Contagious, by Scott Sigler, Hodder, pb, 640pp

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Quentin Coldwater is a rather sour over-achiever from New York, whose favourite books are the Fillory and Further series, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the Narnia books of our world. Before you know it, it’s teenage wish fulfilment time – he’s whisked off to magic school. But he finds that having your teenage wishes fulfilled isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Essentially, this is half-Potter, half-Narnia with a sprinkle of Miracleman, and at times the book feels as cynically commercial as that sounds, but it’s still fairly enjoyable. Grossman writes very well, the characterisation of his thoroughly unlikeable characters is excellent, and the storyline wraps up nicely in a single volume, which on its own is enough to set it apart from a lot of commercial fantasy novels.

What didn’t I like? The sarky snipes at Potter in the text seemed rather ungentlemanly, given how closely it followed the Potter template. As for the animal sex bits – if a woman’s ability to say no is taken away, because she’s been turned into an animal, and then you have sex with her, isn’t that effectively rape? I didn’t see much difference between that scene and the teacher putting Rohypnol in the school dinners… But then, reading further into the book, perhaps I wasn’t supposed to and should actually give myself a pat on the back for taking issue with it!

I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it had been an actual Narnia sequel. Alan Moore’s Miracleman drew a lot of strength from building on the original Marvelman comics, and it was easy to imagine how much more powerful this novel would have been if it had featured Aslan and the Pevensies instead of Ember and the Chatwins. But it was a fast-moving, well-plotted novel about a group of very realistic teenagers (even if they are the kind of teenagers that adults will find intensely annoying). I wouldn’t describe it as Harry Potter for adults, but older teenagers may well adore it.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, William Heinemann, pb, 400pp.

Gilbert and Edgar on Mars, by Eric Brown

This very enjoyable little book sees G.K. Chesterton, having been mistaken for H.G. Wells, abducted by Martians. An energetic and rather unpleasant Edgar Rice Burroughs rescues him and the two head off into the Martian wilderness to find Edgar’s good friend, John Carter, dodging dinosaur attacks and battling alternative realities along the way…

This makes a nice companion piece to the same publisher’s Planet of Mystery by Terry Bisson, in which astronauts found themselves on a hallucinatory Burroughsian Venus, but where that could have been drawn from the pages of New Worlds, this is much more traditional, and slightly old-fashioned. That makes it no less enjoyable, though.

After all, this is a book which sees John Carter pointing a ray-rifle at Professor Challenger – what’s not to love? Burroughs fans may be disappointed by his unflattering characterisation, but it serves the story well. It’s perhaps a shame the Jabbak Kathro didn’t get a chance to rummage through Chesterton’s brain, but that’s what sequels are for…

Gilbert and Edgar on Mars, by Eric Brown, PS Publishing, hb, 90pp.

Mister Gum, by Rhys Hughes

Mister Gum is a creative writing tutor who illustrates the rules of good writing – beginning of course with “Show, don’t tell” – with a series of extended anecdotes that may or may not be from his own life. Eventually he loses his position, but his adventures in sex and language continue, including a spell working at the inflatable headquarters of Scrofula Yard with Detective Ynch Short.

This is a book drenched in gentlemanly emissions from start to finish, and if it isn’t the filthiest thing I’ve ever read (that would have to be Les onze mille verges by Apollinaire, which I expect to be arrested for reading any day now) it’s in the top ten, somewhere near Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. But for all the semen being flung around in these pages, it’s really very genteel and polite. This isn’t Rhys Hughes does porn, or Rhys Hughes sets out to shock; it’s the same Rhys Hughes, just with oceans of semen, talking hymens and characters like Fellatio Nelson, a pirate with a prehensile penis, and, erm, Lynne Truss, punctuation fanatic.

This is the third book by Rhys Hughes I’ve read in as many months, following The Smell of Telescopes (Eibonvale) and The Postmodern Mariner (Screaming Dreams). Mister Gum comes to us from Dog Horn Publishing, publishers of Polluto magazine. This multiplicity of publishers suggests that Hughes is something of a wanderer (either that or no single publisher can cope with his prodigious output). And so it goes with his stories (after three books I’m now an expert!), many of which feature journeys of one kind or another. His stories are like extended “a man walks into the bar” jokes; their conclusions share the unforeseeable inevitability of a punchline.

What I like so much about Hughes’ work is (egocentrically enough) exactly what I like in the novels I’ve written myself. It’s the freedom he gives himself, to follow his nose, to be deliberately silly, to extend jokes as far as he fancies. The difference of course is that mine are rubbish, lazily written nonsense, whereas his stories are carefully-constructed, detailed nonsense! He’s sometimes accused of being self-indulgent, but there are more than enough books out there that indulge their readers. How great to have a writer working for himself, to create more of the kind of art that he appreciates.

And anyway, as Frank Black sang about the Three Stooges, “Some nonsense, it is so serious.” Here, in a very, very silly book, I think Hughes is making very serious points about the near-total irrelevance of externally-imposed rules when it comes to creating art; they’re useful when it comes to selling it; and working within self-imposed rules can create interesting results (viz. the Oulipo work he admires); but if you want to write a story that is all tell and no show then don’t let a silly rule stop you.

I can’t imagine trying to edit or translate his work. Translating it, how to adapt the puns to another language, how to even spot them all? Editing it, how to know what’s a mistake, when almost any apparent mistake could be another joke? (Well, you would just ask on the proofs, but I’m coming over all rhetorical.) Reviewers face similar difficulties. For example, my pre-release version contains several mentions of prostrate glands. Should those be prostate glands, or is it another joke? Maybe they are prostrate, as a result of all their hard work! If it was a mistake, I hereby claim my no-prize! But if it was a joke, I’ve shown myself to be a complete dullard!

Anyway, to sum up: fantastically filthy, fantastically entertaining! But I think Lynne Truss will be on the phone to her lawyers…

Mister Gum, by Rhys Hughes, Dog Horn Publishing, pb, 108pp

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, by A.E. Moorat

King William IV is dead, and Princess Victoria takes the throne aged eighteen. England and its monarch are threatened by the forces of darkness (among them the King of Belgium); luckily the new queen has supernaturally quick reflexes and is handy with bladed weapons… Essentially this is Queen Victoria as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, dealing with monsters, boys, evil plots and a hard-ass mentor.

The cover of this book is fantastic, and its tag line is magnificent: “She loved her country. She hated zombies.” Maybe, but it’s p.136 before she meets one, and she only spends about seven pages fighting them in total, being mostly occupied by werewolves. Clearly the zombie angle has been (smartly) played up for commercial reasons.

This is lightly plotted Kim-Newman-esque fun. Little is resolved by the end, and there’s sometimes a sense of characters being moved around like pieces on a board, but those characters, especially Lord Quimby and his dead manservant Perkins, are good ones. Though you don’t have to read this book to get its best joke, there are others, e.g. monster hunters named Hicks, Vasquez and Hudson. Don’t be too disappointed if this turns up in your Christmas stocking.

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, A.E. Moorat, Hodder, pb, 376pp

Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street

With the tenants of a run-down tenement building facing what seems to be a zombie attack, this seems at first like an unofficial remake of [o]Rec, but when you realise it’s a fairly old film only now getting a UK release the influence of 28 Days Later becomes much more obvious: in the moody shots, the excellent use of music (The Walkmen’s The Rat is used superbly to set off one of the bloodiest scenes), the use of colour filters, and the fact that the attackers aren’t actually zombies, though they have a taste for human flesh.

No, Mulberry Street has caught itself a rat virus. The infected get twitchy, grow whiskers, and eventually scurry around on all fours looking for food, in one of my favourite uses of abnormal physical movement to cause fear since Stuart Gordon asked dancers to play the half-human villagers in Dagon. In the same way that Gary McMahon’s Rain Dogs chimed with anyone who had suffered a leaky roof or dripping tap – the bloody implacability of water! – Mulberry Street will elicit nods of appreciation if you’ve ever had a rodent in the house. Scenes where the ratties move behind walls and between floorboards are imaginative, frightening, and clearly created by people who have heard the pitter-patter of too-tiny feet themselves.

Another of the movie’s strengths is its interesting set of characters, the leads being an aging ex-boxer and a Polish barmaid. Their tentative romance is very sweet, and could have made for a decent film in itself – though it wouldn’t take Freud to find the relationship’s outcome rather icky, given how quickly it follows a reunion with his daughter. Nick Damici makes a very unusual and engaging lead. When he straps his hands and starts punching out ratties, you may well wonder what he could do in a Rodriguez or Tarantino film.

What’s more, Damici co-wrote the script, and it’s a good one. You’d expect an actor to write himself some good long speeches, but no – there’s not a word of unnecessary dialogue, and what there is is often very funny (“he’s turned into a big f**king rat!”). Damici has previously appeared in Law & Order, and that show’s New York naturalism is here in both script and performances, even though (or perhaps because?) many of the cast are apparently non-actors.

Any criticisms? Well, the actual plague rats (as opposed to the infected humans) are a bit silly, but in a charming sort of way. The inclusion of “Zombie Virus on” in the title is an innovation of the UK distributor (so don’t blame the film-makers for the film’s lack of zombies!) and the UK DVD cover features people who aren’t in the movie, but if a snazzy cover will get more people to pick this very entertaining film up in Blockbuster, what’s the harm?

Zombie Virus on Mulberry Street, Jim Mickle (dir.), US, 84 mins