Friday, 24 February 2017

Autumn Snow 1: The Pit of Darkness, by Martin Charbonneau, Joe Dever and Gary Chalk (Megara Entertainment) | review by Rafe McGregor

Stephen Theaker has been kind enough to allow me to indulge my nostalgia for 1980s fantasy gamebooks in his magazine and over the course of three reviews – The Voyage of the Moonstone (TQF55), The Buccaneers of Shadaki, and The Storms of Chai (both TQF57) – I’ve charted the remarkable story of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. The latest of my reports contains a couple of surprises of the kind I’ve come to expect by now, given the series’ incredibly complicated publishing history, characterised by first falling victim to and then being perpetuated by the domination of internet technology at the turn of the century. To begin at the beginning, I first found out about The Pit of Darkness courtesy of Project Aon (www.projectaon.org), the voluntary organisation that has done so much to keep the series alive during its many years in the publishing wilderness, in a bulletin listing the current availability of Lone Wolf products dated 8 July 2016. Megara Entertainment founder Mikaël Louys began crowdfunding for the volume in September 2014, the main purpose of which was to secure the services of the original Lone Wolf illustrator, Gary Chalk, who had an apparently acrimonious split with Dever between the release of Castle Death (#7, 1986) and The Jungle of Horrors (#8, 1987). The gamebook is only available from the Megara website direct (www.megara-entertainment.com) and has been released in both French and English versions. The two are presented distinctly on the website and although the price is quite steep (about £30 at the time of my purchase, no doubt more now), it includes postage and packaging and my copy arrived promptly and in perfect condition. I nonetheless have two small complaints about Megara. First, they don’t seem to advertise very well – I ordered immediately after following the link from Project Aon and the copy I received is already a “THIRD PRINTING, REVISED” – what happened to the first two printings? Second, and this may well be the reason for being in a third printing already (assuming all three were released in 2016), there are quite a few typos and formatting errors in the book (albeit all minor).

The volume itself is entirely pleasing, if printed in a slightly unusual format (a hardback that is either medium octavo in size or extremely close to it) with a wonderful colour cover by Chalk, around double the ten full-page black-and-white illustrations originally intended, and large easy-to-read print. Chalk’s artwork is highly stylised and his clear lines, imaginative use of negative space, and slightly disproportionate figures will be instantly recognisable to his fans from the eighties. His style is especially well-suited to children’s illustrations, in which market he has worked extensively, although I noted that the innocence and simplicity of his original Lone Wolf work has been eclipsed by a vision of Magnamund (the world of Lone Wolf) that is both more sinister and more intricately detailed. Chalk’s Vassagonian pirates are a perfect example, depicted in all their bloodthirsty savagery on the pages adjacent to sections 7 and 256 – not a Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-style comedy character in sight. The Pit of Darkness thus has two major selling points: it is the first Lone Wolf gamebook to unite Dever and Chalk in thirty years (Dever is credited as having “Edited and Augmented” the volume) and it is the first Lone Wolf gamebook to feature a female protagonist. The latter is particularly welcome, although in fairness to Dever the eighties wasn’t exactly a decade known for its equality of opportunity. Nor has the Kai Order eschewed gender discrimination entirely as male and female candidates are required to pursue different paths, the former to become New Order Kai Lords and the latter to become New Order Kai Konor. Autumn Snow is one of the latter, having joined the Konor when she was seven, mastered five of the ten Kai disciplines over the next seven years, and reached the rank of Initiate. The Lords and Konor study the same disciplines and this level of expertise puts Autumn Snow at precisely the same level as Lone Wolf at the beginning of the series, in Flight from the Dark (#1, 1984).

There is no explicit dating, but the story is set a year after Dawn of the Dragons (#18, 1992), presumably in MS 5081, while Lone Wolf is away, presumably on his last mission as a player character, The Curse of Naar (#20, 1993). This is a post-Darklords Magnamund, but is – just like our own post-Cold War world in the nineties – going through more than a few teething troubles. Autumn Snow is invited to join her principal instructor, Kai Lord Silver Flame, on what appears to be a routine investigation of sightings of former Darklands creatures on the Isle of Kirlu, which is part of the Kirlundian archipelago off the coast of Sommerlund. The first part of the gamebook takes place at sea, before Kirlu is reached, as the merchant ship on which Autumn Snow and Silver Flame are travelling is attacked by the aforementioned bloodthirsty savages. The battle involves a series of tough and exciting combats and leaves Autumn Snow the sole survivor of the crew, with Silver Flame missing in action presumed dead. Despite the fatal encounter with the pirates there is still a chance that the main mission is routine, but of course it proves not to be and when Autumn Snow arrives in Misty Bay after a dangerous journey on foot, she learns that Giaks (Magnamund’s orcs) have been sighted in the ruins of Wytch Aieta Nematah’s citadel. Autumn Snow infiltrates the ruins, finds a lot more than Giaks to fight, and the final part of the gamebook switches from a wilderness to a dungeon adventure (to use the old Dungeons & Dragons terminology). The Pit of the title lies beneath the ruins and it quickly becomes evident that the appearance of the Vassagonian pirates was no accident as the Vassagonians and Drakkarim, two of Magnamund’s most evil human races, are in league together.

From a gaming point of view, I thought the level of difficulty was particularly well-pitched, the mission challenging rather than suicidal. The toughest combat is probably with the Pit itself and players will need one of the disciplines of Mindblast, Mindshield, or a high initial Combat Skill to survive. With regard to disciplines, I found Tracking useful and – as always – Weaponskill and Healing, although Martin Charbonneau has introduced his own take on the latter. With regard to the actual mechanics of play (which follows the Lone Wolf gamebooks exactly and also has the traditional 350 sections), I was very interested to see that a third option is being tried for the Healing discipline. Back when I first came to the series in the mid-eighties Healing allowed one point of Endurance to be restored for each section where one was not involved in combat. When I chose my five disciplines, Healing was my first choice, followed by Weaponskill (the former to restore my character’s Endurance, the latter to boost his Combat Skill) and I can’t imagine how anyone could have managed without both. Dever must have decided that Healing was too powerful – and, in retrospect, with the Sommerswerd, Healing, and a bit of commonsense I don’t think there was too much to challenge Lone Wolf post-Darklords – because in The Voyage of the Moonstone (#21, 1994), which launched the New Order series, a limit was placed on the amount of Endurance the discipline could be used to restore. In The Pit of Darkness, the limit is gone and Endurance is restored at the rate of two points rather than one, but only at selected sections (indicated by a grey rather than black section number). There are naturally never any grey sections around when you need them, but allowing for the fact that I’ve only used this system in a single gameplay I think it is the best so far and part of the reason for the balance I noted – not too easy, like the Kai Grand Master series (books 13 to 20), or too hard, like the tail end of the New Order series (books 21 to 32). Having discovered the secret of the Pit, the adventure ends with Autumn Snow en route to the Maakenmire, a swamp south of the Wildlands. The second Autumn Snow adventure is Slaves of the Mire, but there are no publication details available in The Pit of Darkness or on the Megara website. My worry as I write this is that it will have to be crowdfunded too, in which case we’re unlikely to see it in print for two years (given the rate at which The Pit of Darkness was printed). Hopefully, that’s not the case, especially if the series is reaching new fans with Dever completing the long-awaited final four New Order adventures. I think the Autumn Snow series could be an outstanding addition to Magnamund – the best since the Magnakai series ended with The Masters of Darkness (#12, 1988) – but word will need to spread beyond the Megara website if it is to reach its potential.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Aldebaran, tome 1: La Catastrophe, by Leo (Dargaud) | review

Contact with Earth was lost over a hundred years ago, soon after it was hit by an economic crisis, though life isn’t too bad on the planet known as Aldebaran. A religious order rules, but their influence is barely felt in Kim’s little village on the coast, where the beach is endless and the ocean the sweetest blue. She dreams of getting back in touch with Earth. Marc, a boy who fancies her big sister, works as a fisherman; his dream is to go to the big city. The fishermen find some odd corpses in the water, monsters driven up from the seabed, and a stranger arrives with dire warnings of a disaster to come. No one believes him and he leaves, before a journalist turns up, hot on his trail – Marc takes her after him, and they begin to see some really weird stuff. And maybe it’s a good thing he isn’t at the village right now… This is the first of five French albums collected in Aldebaran: L’Integrale, recently reprinted. It’s a gorgeous book, inside and out, and it feels like this first volume barely skims the surface of this strange and beautiful world. Leo’s artwork is rather like a slightly stiffer Steve Dillon, his creatures as weird as Miyazaki’s. An English translation is available, but it’s possible to order the French version through UK Amazon too, if you fancy dusting off your GCSE French. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 17 February 2017

Now out: Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #58: Unsplatterpunk!


free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: Unsplatterpunk! is now out! Guest-edited by Douglas J. Ogurek, this is a special issue, an anthology featuring five founding tales of unsplatterpunk, a brand new genre! Douglas describes it as “extreme horror stories [that] offer a positive message, whether blatant or subtle, within their otherwise vile contents”. So don’t expect any slap-up dinners in this issue!

As Douglas says in his editorial, this isn’t a volume you’d want to pull out on family reading night, and you might want to avoid discussing it in detail with your coworkers. But it is interesting! Here’s what Douglas had to say about the stories in this issue:

In M.S. Swift’s deliberately disjointed “A Desert of Shadow and Bone”, brutality meets philosophy in an extravaganza of limb hacking, gentry slaughtering, and drug use that makes a statement about corporate greed and the repression of women. What starts as an extreme, albeit intimate ritual beside a tree-lined natural pool builds to a climax that is both apocalyptic and indicative of personal growth.

There’s something awry about an impending birth in “Quand les queues s’allongèrent”. When you discover what it is, you’ll get a jolt of humour and revulsion. Antonella Coriander offers a slashing take on misogyny and women’s empowerment.

Drew Tapley’s “The Fisherman’s Ring” delves into the absurd as he unveils what really happens in the secretive ceremony to select the next Pope. You get ringside seats for a series of trials full of pain-tertainment. You also get hope and solidarity.

In “The Armageddon Coat”, the collection’s longest work, Howard Watts (who also supplies the terrifying cover) takes us on a more serious journey of two pre-teens as they try to make sense of their world following an alien attack. The theme of innocence vs experience swirls amid political maneuvering, mass destruction, and vicious fighting to survive.

We also have a handful of reviews this issue, from Douglas himself, Rafe McGregor and Rose M. Rye (yes – after two long years we have once again published a female writer!), and they look at the work of Martin Charbonneau, Joe Dever, Gary Chalk, Neil Gaiman and Daniel Egnéus, as well as the films Arrival and Doctor Strange, and season eleven of the television show Supernatural. The issue concludes with twenty-four pages of notes and ratings for almost everything Stephen Theaker read during 2016 but didn’t review for us.



Here are the munificent contributors to this issue:

Douglas J. Ogurek’s fiction, though banned on Mars, appears in over 40 Earth publications. He is the guest editor of this special issue. Ogurek founded the literary subgenre known as unsplatterpunk, which uses splatterpunk conventions (e.g. extreme violence, gore, taboo subject matter) to deliver a positive message. More at http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Drew Tapley is a copywriter and journalist, and has been publishing in Canada, Australia, and his native England for the last decade, both in print magazines and journals, as well as online. He is now based in Toronto, and has been making short films for the last five years. Some of his films have screened at film festivals throughout the world. He was recently published in the UK’s Popshot Magazine, and has two published books: one fiction, and one nonfiction.

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford. He provides the wraparound cover art for this issue, as well as a brilliant story. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his DeviantArt page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is available on Kindle.

M.S. Swift writes horror and dark fantasy inspired by the ancient landscapes of the U.K. His contemporary horror tales have been published by Ghostwoods Books, the First United Church of Cthulhu, Schlock! Webzine and Schlock! Bi-monthly. He is currently working on a dark fantasy series inspired by the late medieval witch hunts, the first story of which has been published through Horrified Press. His long-term goal is to write a series of weird tales inspired by the early work of Wordsworth and Coleridge. He is paying off the accumulation of negative karma by working in the English education system.

Rafe McGregor Rafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, six collections of short fiction, and one hundred and fifty magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at @rafemcgregor.

Rose M. Rye is an actual woman, honestly, but she’s writing for us under a pseudonym because she doesn’t really want to be hassled at work by people who disagree with her opinions about television.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers and works in legal and medical publishing.



As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Fall of Cthulhu Omnibus, by Michael Alan Nelson, Mateus Santolouco and chums (Boom! Studios) | review by Stephen Theaker

This huge book collects six trade paperbacks in one epic volume. The first five stories, from “The Fugue” through to “Apocalypse”, concern the plans of Nyarlathotep, the creeping chaos, who has taken human form and resurrected Abdul Alhazred to write a new chapter of the Necronomicon, a chapter concerning the fate of Cthulhu, who sleeps undying under the waves in R’lyeh. A saga that ends with gods clashing and the Dreamlands spilling their nightmares upon the earth begins in a more mundane setting, with Cy and his girlfriend Jordan at a cafe, where Cy’s uncle, Professor Walt McKinley of Miskatonic University, shows up, rambling about the blood on his hands before taking his own life, right there, al fresco. He leaves Cy a big bundle of mysteries and a knife ornamented with eyes that follow you around the room. It’s the start of a story that will take Cy to the traditional Lovecraftian edge of madness and a long way beyond. He will meet allies, like Sheriff Raymond Dirk, whose family have long tried to keep the craziness in Arkham from bubbling malevolently to the surface, and Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves, or Lucifer for short, a teenage rascal with a pretty decent handle on what is going on. The three of them will encounter nightmares and gods, monsters of all kinds, most startlingly of all the Harlot, who summons unhappy men to the Dreamlands and gives them what they want, for a horrible price. A variety of artists take turns to portray this amazing colossal woman as we pass through the book’s six hundred pages, and each captures her horror in a differently spectacular way. The sixth section of the book is in part an ironic epilogue, but mostly a prequel, showing what went down (if you’ll forgive me) in Atlantis long ago. Overall, this is a good solid attempt at a Cthulhu mythos comic book, very much in the style of what you might expect from an official TV adaptation of Lovecraft’s work, rather than the glancing references and nods we so often get. The scenes in the Dreamlands are the high points, different artists and art styles used to render their strangeness. Cthulhu’s name is in the title, but this is about the Harlot and Nyarlathotep and the humans caught in the middle of their battle. You wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when R’lyeh starts to rise… ****

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Douglas J. Ogurek’s top five mass market sci-fi/fantasy/horror films of 2016



The fascination with superhero movies grows: half of the top ten grossing (U.S.) films of 2016 involved crusaders of one kind or another. Overall, last year’s SF/F/H film output brought some disappointments (e.g., Independence Day: Resurgence, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Suicide Squad (excepting the Joker and Harley Quinn)) and some silly yet fun fantasies (e.g. Gods of Egypt, The Huntsman: Winter’s War), as well as some pleasant surprises (e.g. Ouija: Origin of Evil). Though advertisements championed The Witch as the next super-scary horror offering (and critics seemed to agree), the film doesn’t hold a candle next to the last two decades’ masterpieces (i.e. The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, Paranormal Activity). So we horror fans patiently await the next attempt.

With the exception of Arrival, SF/F/H films are absent among major categories in this year’s Oscar nominations. Typical. But… Suicide Squad was nominated, for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. That’s the Joker and Harley Quinn again.

So here you go: my picks for the best SF/F/H films of 2016:

#5: Don’t Breathe – Suspenseful and fast-moving. The victim, a muscular blind veteran, becomes the aggressor when three unwitting thieves break into his home for what they think will be an easy job. There’s something quite unsettling about the thieves’ would-be killer standing feet away and using his enhanced non-visual senses like a predatory animal. Full review.



#4: Dr. Strange – This superhero origin tale details neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange’s transformation from self-absorption to pursuit of a greater purpose. Great acting, strong visual effects (nominated for an Oscar in this category), and quite a bit of humour. Full review.



#3: Deadpool – Entertainment personified. You probably don’t want this superhero on your child’s lunchbox. The wise-cracking Deadpool breaks the fourth wall (i.e. he talks to the viewer), carries a Hello Kitty backpack, gets to his destinations via taxi, and never shuts up . . . and you don’t want him to. Fun (and funny) from start to finish. Like Ferris Bueller, with explosions. Full review.



#2: Arrival – This sci-fi drama does away with the explosions and the ridiculous dialogue of the typical alien invasion film. Instead, it’s a sophisticated exploration of language, perception of time, and human response to the unknown. Full review.



#1: 10 Cloverfield Lane – A play, a horror film, and a sci-fi mystery all rolled into one captivating package. So many great elements, the best of which is John Goodman’s portrayal of Howard. Are his intents in imprisoning the protagonist in his bunker malicious or altruistic? Even the kitchen table scene will have you completely absorbed. Full review.



There you have it: a blind killer, a jerk, a bigmouth, cryptic aliens, and an ineffable antagonist. Let’s see what 2017 brings. – Douglas J. Ogurek

See Douglas’s top five picks from 2015.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison (Small Beer Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

Little baby Halla has the misfortune to be a fairy tale princess, of the sort whose mother has passed away and father has remarried. The new queen wants her killed, but luckily the baby’s nurse Matulli is from Finmark, and has the unusual knack of being able to turn herself into a bear. This she does, and carries the baby away into “the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep”. She lives with the bear cubs, learning to appreciate the taste of crunched mice, and the way the forest speaks in smells to the bears. She spends much of her later youth living with a friendly dragon, and comes to see the world from a dragon’s point of view, where maidens are thoughtfully offered for dinner, and heroes interfere with everyone’s best interests, and kings squander the gold that dragons sensibly gather together. When her stay with the dragon comes to an end, her voyage begins, taking her all the way to Constantinople to meet the Emperor. The book gets a little drier here, less whimsical, more political, and this, plus a certain amount of threatened and implied sexual violence, may explain why it did not become the famous children’s classic posited in the introduction. The way it approaches the hypocrisy of the established church is well done, but maybe not where readers might have hoped it would go after starting off with bears and dragons and a valkyrie. But it is still a very good book, one that plays clever games with defamiliarization, perception and time, and it lets its princess heroine decide for herself, a half century before Frozen and Princeless, whether her particular destiny was to marry or not. ****

Friday, 3 February 2017

Closing to fiction submissions till April (except from female writers)

We have enough stories in hand for issue 59 now, so we are closing to fiction submissions until April 1, when we will re-open to subs for issue 60.

However, because all the stories accepted so far for issue 59 are by chaps, we'll remain open to fiction submissions from female writers (as well as new episodes in our ongoing serials).

Guidelines here.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Split | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Shyamalan triumphs again in exploration of mind-body connection and victim empowerment.

By now, it’s pretty much a sure thing. When I go to an M. Night Shyamalan film, I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to get odd characters, interesting ideas, an intriguing setting, surprises, and a doozy of a climax, as well as a deeper meaning to reflect upon for years to come.

Split, the next jewel in the underappreciated director’s oeuvre, delivers all these gifts. The film also proves Shyamalan’s strong awareness of the filmgoer’s role in the story. This time, he invites the viewer into the world of antagonist Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who has a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (DID)—they used to call it multiple personality disorder. Crumb imprisons three teenage girls for reasons that gradually come to the fore. It’s a fun story that keeps the viewer locked in for the entirety of the film, but also, in typical Shyamalan fashion, it’s a tribute to those who face trials. This time, he takes on the broken and the abused.

Beauties and the Beast
The inciting incident happens a mere five minutes into the film: Dennis (one of Crumb’s 23 personalities) abducts Marcia and Claire, along with chief protagonist Casey, a third girl he hadn’t anticipated. He brings them to his hideout, then his other personalities, which are aware of each other’s existence, begin to surface. Marcia and Claire try traditional escape routes, whereas the more pensive Casey attempts to manipulate the personalities. The scenes shift between the hideout, flashbacks to Casey’s childhood with her father and uncle, and psychologist Dr. Fletcher’s interactions with Berry (a fashion designer personality of Crumb’s).

Much of the film’s tension stems from a villain the personalities refer to as “the Beast”, who is supposedly coming for the girls. Shyamalan keeps the viewer guessing: Is the Beast a figment of Crumb’s imagination? Another person? Some kind of superhuman creature? Or is it the antagonist’s 24th personality that has yet to surface?

The Mind-Body Connection
The film introduces documentation of DID sufferers altering their body chemistry based on which personality is occupying them. For instance, one personality might need insulin whereas others don’t, or one personality might have a different cholesterol level than the others. Shyamalan takes this mind-body connection to the next level, suggesting that Crumb might be able to use the power of his fragmented mind to achieve exceptional physical abilities.

Dr Fletcher doesn’t give the viewer much reassurance. She argues that the Beast is an impossibility, but also posits that those with DID could be more physically evolved humans due to their ability to manipulate their bodies. It’s like a souped-up version of the philosophy that many of these self-help gurus espouse: if you think hard enough about some state of being, you can achieve it.

A Smash Split
One of the things I’ve always admired about Ozzy Osbourne was his willingness to step back and let his lead guitarists shine. Similarly, Shyamalan, despite his drive to impart a lesson and control his plot, lets James McAvoy do his thing and thus captures a truly riveting performance.

What a treat it is to watch McAvoy’s facial expressions and vocal nuances as the camera lingers on him. Especially enjoyable are those pivotal scenes during which we witness, sometimes gradually and sometimes quickly, a character shift.

McAvoy’s versatility is evident in Dennis and Patricia, the two vastly different “difficult” personalities that have enlisted the others in their “philosophy of the Beast”. The most entertaining personality comes in the form of nine-year-old boy Hedwig. You know he’s going to be fun the moment he utters his first words in the film: “My name’s Hedwig. I have red socks.” Watch for Hedwig’s maniacal dance to Snails’ “Frogbass”.

Though his portrayal of DID is likely way off base, Shyamalan uses our Hollywood-instilled preconceptions about the mental illness to create a compelling story.

Remember that Shyamalan, the conscientious director, may be challenging you, the willing participant in this tale, to fill in the blanks. So as you settle into his dark world, look for the light that may just shine through. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****