Church Of The Poison Mind: X&HT Read The Wicker Tree

One of the big disappointments of this year’s FrightFest was the not-very-long-awaited-at-all-actually sequel/companion piece to Robin Hardy’s 1973 pagan shocker The Wicker Man. Hardy had warned the audience not to expect a typical horror film. This is a risky strategy in front of a FrightFest crowd, and when they were confronted with a broadly satirical take on the subject of religion, sacrifice and pagan belief, they reacted as you might expect. Too broad to be either funny or scary, the best you could say about it was at least Nicolas Cage or bees didn’t make an appearance.

Continue reading Church Of The Poison Mind: X&HT Read The Wicker Tree

Forty Years Of Fear: The Exorcist, reissued

The following is a crosspost with For Winter Nights, the excellent literary blog from my good friend WetDarkandWild. She doesn’t really do horror, so I volunteered to help out when a review copy of the reissued Exorcist dropped through her letterbox. On this occasion, I was very happy indeed to do the favour…

For any horror fan that knows the genre, The Exorcist is the alpha and the omega. A dark, brutal trap of a film, and one of the few whose reputation remains unsullied and potent.

But the book, published in 1971, came first. A sensation on it’s release, a large part of the success of William Friedkin’s adaptation is due to how closely it cleaves to the original story. Now a fortieth-anniversary edition has been brought out, with tweaks and tidying by William Peter Blatty – an excuse, as he says in the foreword, to polish “the rhythms of the dialogue and prose throughout.” The original, as he admits, was rushed, and subject to editorial meddling. We have been presented with something closer to a director’s cut. Although fear not – there’s no George Lucas-style redecoration here.

Blatty began his writing career as a screenwriter, and those skills are obvious in the book. The story moves like a runaway train, at a pace that becomes ever more hectic. The purple prose that he uses in the prologue, set in Northern Iraq, is something of a red herring – the main body of the book uses a cool, distant style. Reportage that only makes the horrifying events in the book that bit more awful.

Do I need to tell the story? In broad strokes: actress Chris McNeil lives in a rambling house in a suburb of Washington with her daughter, Regan. The girl, a sweet-natured creature, starts to talk about an imaginary friend, Captain Howdy. The good captain gradually takes over, slipping into Regan as if he was shrugging on a suit. Howdy is no friend. Regan has become possessed by a demon.

The book is soaked from the first lines in a thick sense of dread. We’re never sure where Howdy comes from. A relic bearing his likeness is unearthed at the Iraqi dig that begins the book. Regan has been playing with a Ouija board. It’s never clear. It doesn’t need to be. All we need to know is that the girl has been taken, and that she will not be easily recovered.

In some ways, the story unfolds like a police procedural as Chris, and later the priest who becomes entangled in the case, the conflicted Damian Karras, try to find evidence that Regan is sick, suffering from delusions, somehow self-hypnotised. Like Sherlock Holmes, they eliminate the impossible to reach the incredible truth. The exorcist of the title, the haunted Father Merrin, only appears three-quarters of the way through the book. Before then we, like Chris and Father Karras, are struggling to make sense of the senseless.

The book still holds the ability to shock and unsettle. Sweet Regan’s transformation (is it any coincidence that her nickname is Rags? Howdy treats her as a puppet, throwing her around like a rag doll) is rapid and terrible, her foul language a shock when we have witnessed how her mother can’t even swear properly. Blatty’s clear, uncoloured description of what the possession is doing to Regan brings us to horror and revulsion in equal measure. We are rarely out of the Georgetown house, and as the focus becomes more claustrophobic, the tension builds. When Merrin arrives, in a moment that is the most memorable image of the film, the relief is palpable. But the worst is yet to come.

Blatty delivers his shocks like a swordsman’s coup de grace, leaving them to the end of a chapter, often in the space of one line. Then away again, leaving the resonance of what we’ve just read to clatter like a man thrown down a set of steps. It’s key to the pacing of the book. He doesn’t dwell on the horror. He knows that we’re more than capable of doing that ourselves.

The Exorcist remains a remarkable achievement in modern horror, a book that transcends any danger of pulpy exploitation in favour of something much darker and richer. Seen at the time as harsh commentary on the corruption of the American soul during Vietnam, it stands today as an allegory on the ugliness that lurks in everyone, and how it can infect even the most innocent of victims.

Howdy may be otherworldly, but he takes a lot of his material from the people around him. The book digs more deeply into the characters than the film can, drawing you more deeply into their suffering, into their conflicts, and into the awful understanding that is The Exorcist’s black heart. The sacrifice at the end of the book is almost inevitable – you can see it coming from page one. Evil has a price that has to be paid before any form of salvation can be reached.


State Of The Noir Nation

Dark fictions flourish in dark times. As we lurch from financial crisis to social meltdown,  our reading habits change and our idea of what constitutes light relief gains some weight. This is a simple truth that the editors of new anthology title Noir Nation understand all too clearly. It’s the perfect time to launch, and the premiere issue is stuffed as full of hardboiled treats as an old fashioned sweetie shop.

A well-curated genre collection will take pleasure in the display of a wide range of voices, opinions and stories. Noir Nation hits all the buttons hard. It’s broad, wide and deep in scope, which suits a journal with a truly international remit. Standout stories for me include Tristan Davies “Surgeons”, which introduces us to a doctor who makes Gregory House look like that nice English actor Hugh Laurie, and RF Warner’s “Dog Of A Different Breed”, the story of a drug run gone bad, an unfortunate incident with a dog, and a serial killer with a yen for poetry and gameplay.

Speaking of poetry, there’s also room for a piece by Bonnie Parker. Bonnie and Clyde Bonnie Parker. Seems like she could shoot better than she could sling a rhyme, but it’s a fascinating curio from a famous gun moll.

The first ish also gives us a fascinating discussion on what constitutes contemporary noir (Alan Ward Thomas, the Eastern Hemisphere editor, pulls together a fascinating take that includes transhumanist SF, Alvin Toffler-style future shock, Cubism and Jung) and a forum on whether the genre has a moral compass. The jury’s out on that one, but there are equally compelling arguments for and against.

The one misfire is Jon Danko and Danda’s graphic novel, Fired On Deadline. It’s muddled, and text-heavy, with none of the bite of the prose pieces. It also, at least in my preview copy, looked as if it had been inserted at too low a resolution, leading to blurry, rasterised artwork. That’s a real shame, considering my predilections. It also does Danda’s lovely expressionistic art (he did the cover, shown above, which is a much better showcase of his talents) no justice. It’s apparently the first part of a larger work, and I’d be interested to see where Danko and Danda take the idea of Flamenco Noir. But for now at least, the whole thing looks like something of an afterthought.

But that’s a minor quibble regarding a strong anthology bulging with good stuff. You can pick it up at the Kindle Store and still get change from a poorly cephalopod. Noir Nation shows a genre that is in very rude health indeed. Live and goddam kicking.

Noir Nation at the Kindle Store

The Noir Nation site

Play The Game, The Game Plays You: X&HT Saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A note, before we begin, on the vexed question of remakes. I’ve already been caught out once this year by taking a stand against them, and came close to missing out on a film that may be in my Top five for the year. I should know better. There’s no such thing as an absolute rule. Everything on this blog runs according to the Pirate Code. I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.

Continue reading Play The Game, The Game Plays You: X&HT Saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A Fiendishly Good War Comic

Wartime horror is one of those subgenres that’s never really taken off. War itself is horrific enough. You don’t need to overegg the pudding with something supernatural.
SF can get away with the setting, as it’s an excuse for cool dieselpunk gadgets and Nazi robots and that.
There’s been a bit of an upsurge in films about Nazi zombies lately, but really they’re just the walking dead in an emotive costume.

I’m kind of disappointed that there’s been so little material on Nazi vampires. I can’t think of anything in the realms of film apart from Michael Mann’s discodelic The Keep (oh, those lasers…). Angel and True Blood have both had WW2 vignettes.*

But it’s comics that have brought us the best examples of an admittedly niche trope. Some fine recent examples include the current run of American Vampire, and a lovely, creepy Captain America strip by Ed Brubaker and the sorely missed Gene Colan, that you can read in full here.
But for the definitive WW2 vampire story, look no further than my beloved 2000AD, and Fiends Of The Eastern Front. Drawn by one of the most celebrated artists on the British scene, Carlos Ezquerra, and written by one of it’s most under-rated scribes, Gerry Finley-Day, FOTEF is a stark, uncompromising and gloriously pulpy bit of horror.
The comic is set during the Russian campaign of 1942, and takes the form of a diary written by a German trooper, Hans Schmitt. His regiment becomes host to a group of Romanian partisans led by the charismatic Captain Constanta. They seem unstoppable in battle, and fight by night, spending the day asleep.
You’ve guessed it. They’re Transylvanian, and Schmitt discovers their bloody secret. Of course, none of his comrades believe him, and Constanta gives him a not-so-friendly warning. When the tide of the war turns, and Romania changes sides, Schmitt and his regiment face a new and remorseless enemy who are quite literally after their blood.
2000AD is unfairly tagged as the Judge Dredd comic, when it has published a wide range of solid genre work over the years. Their horror is particularly good (and probably worth a post all to itself), and I would hold up FOTEF as one of the AD’s finest hours.

Ezquerra’s stark black and white art is dripping with atmosphere and a sweaty, febrile dread. Findley-Day’s script is stripped to the bone, as tight and inevitable as a hangman’s noose. Bookended with a scene set in a Berlin bunker twenty years later that provides a neat final twist, FOTEF is a deeply satisfying read that motors along breathlessly. As a treatise on the way allegiances can all too quickly shift, and how trust be be so easily compromised, it has few equals in the comics field.
Finley-Day is best known as Tharg’s future war specialist, creating both Rogue Trooper and The VC’s. But FOTEF’s roots can be traced to his work with Battle and Action in the mid-70s. He was already known for creating sympathetic German heroes, and his work had a sharply political and cinematic edge. Rat Pack, an earlier collaboration with Ezquerra, is a neat take on The Dirty Dozen, and I can’t help but be reminded of Peckinpah’s Cross Of Iron when reading Hermann Of Hammer Force. Not least because Ezquerra’s heroes look a bit like James Coburn…
Fiends Of The Eastern Front was revamped (sorry) for modern audiences in the early norties by David Bishop, and those stories, dropping Constanta and his bloodsucking crew into real life battles, are a lot of fun. But the original is the best, and Gerry Finley-Day deserves recognition for a solidly original work of horror fiction. War, with Constanta at your heels, can indeed be hell.

Revolution Books have a nice new edition of Fiends Of The Eastern Front for your viewing pleasure, which include the original tale and David Bishop and Colin MacNeil’s reboot. Highly recommended.

*As expected, I has UPDATES from X&HTeam-mates. Ben Woodiwiss issues a Uwe Boll warning, and reminds me of Bloodrayne 3, which features more vampNazis than you can shake a stake at! Trailer here. Caution: not safe for anyone.

Meanwhile, Leading Man Clive has pointed me at this:

Looks like you have to go to the Germans for your Nazi Vampires…

Dirty Bristow

I’m pleased, proud and excited to announce my involvement in one of the more interesting magazine projects around at the moment.

Dirty Bristow is, as the clever buggers who thought it up say, a project dedicated to resurrecting the magazine as a fetish object. That is, as something to both covet and collect. An object of desire. Beautifully printed on premium stock, DB is designed to be proudly displayed on your bookshelf.

Each issue takes a loose theme as the subject, which the contributors explore as they see fit. Issue 1 fittingly takes on the subject of birth, with articles on (to thinly scrape the surface) overpopulation, free-running, the creative process, architecture and stand-up comedy. Impeccably designed, deliciously illustrated, the thing is a joy to own.

Yes, of course I’m overegging it. Vested interest, donchaknow.

Aart from the cover price, the mag is funded through merchandising and live events, to make sure that you get a product free from ads. There’s no compromise, no sellout. Everyone who contributes to Dirty Bristow is free to say what they want, how they want. It’s an open forum, mixing the freedom of the small press with the production values of the glossies. The closest thing to it on the  news-stands is probably Little White Lies, which has the same themed approach, attention to detail and love smeared thickly over every page.

Finally, finally, issue two is on sale. The theme is BEAST. Eighty pages of articles, thinkpieces, illos and fiction. And somewhere in there: me, with an article on the smallest and most important beast of them all. I’m chuffed to bits to be asked to contribute, and can’t wait to see how it looks.

Here’s the important bit. You can order Beast here. While you’re at it, Birth and badge and sticker sets are available too. And the call is now out for contributions to issue 3: BREAK. I plan to submit to that, too.

Further, the launch party for Beast is on July 23rd, at the Edge in Digbeth, Birmingham. Six quid gets you entry, a copy of Beast and all kinds of music and general frivolity. If you’re in the area, you should give it a go.

Dirty Bristow. The fetish object that you can show to your mum.



DC: Dunces and Conmen?

Every time I think the comics industry can’t get any stupider, something happens to make me wonder how I got so complacent.

No, hang on, let me qualify that. Every time I think the American superhero-based comics industry can’t get any stupider, something like, well, this happens. DC are cancelling and rehashing 52 of their titles, starting them all back at no.1 with simplified back stories and in some cases changes to the origins.

Retcons. The curse of the American superhero-based comics industry. Ever since DC killed Superman, brought him back in a new costume before slowly reverting him back to the old blue-and-red romper suit, this nonsense happens on an annual basis. The claim is always that creators want to do something fresh and new with the old franchises. Rubbish. It’s all about squeezing a few more cents out of them. The new editions are scheduled to take place over the traditionally quiet sales period of September. No. 1’s of any title always sell, and all of a sudden DC are flooding the market with 52 of the buggers at once.

The argument brought forward by DC head Dan DiDio is that it’s a chance to make the books relavent for a 21st century audience who have little investment in the stories of the past. Which is, in it’s way, fair comment. Fifty years of character development and story cruft can leave any title in a funk, unable to properly innovate or tell tales in a fresh way.

But, as comics blogger and funny-book shop owner Mike Sterling points out, a jumping-on point can also be a jumping off point. The end of a story gives the bored reader who just wanted to see how things turn out the excuse not to bother with next month’s issue. Especially if it’s not the character he or she enjoyed reading about.

I’ve long been bored with the American superhero-based comics industry’s obsession with huge, multi-book events and gimmicky promotions, to the detriment of decent characterisation and storytelling. If this event doesn’t work, it could signal a reboot for DC as a whole, becoming a placeholder for superhero franchises, a brand name for movies, TV shows and lunchboxes. Which can only be bad news for fans and retailers again. Mike Sterling again:

“While I’m curious as a fan about what DC is doing, as a retailer I’m a little worried. Not just about the jumping-off point thing I noted already, but also about how I’m going to explain this to the customers who are going to be caught completely by surprise by DC’s plans. I know it sounds strange, since all of you reading this are plugged into the Web Matrix-style via interface ports at the bases of your skulls, but I have regular customers for whom their exposure to comics news comes from walking into the store and looking at the rack to see what’s new. I can hear them already: “Hey, why is Superman at issue #1 again? And Batman? …And, hey, Legion of Super-HeroesAgain? What’s going on?” Which is fine…that’s part of my job, to explain what new dumb thing a comic publisher has done to confuse and frighten its readership this week.

But as a pal of mine noted to me in email, if this particular publishing initiative falls flat on its face, where does DC go from there? This is an awfully drastic and wide-ranging strategy that won’t be easy to reverse without some consequences. And not just of the “fans and Marvel Comics laughing at DC’s failure” kind, but having highers-up at Warner Brothers looking at the crash-and-burn and thinking “that didn’t work, so why are we bothering with these pamphlet-thingies? Let’s just do cartoons and movies with these characters, and make some real money on them.”

Yes, quite. Although I’m no fan of capes and masks any more, and will gleefully and at length point out how comics are so much more, I don’t want to see a huge part of the industry collapse into rubble. I can see DC’s core readership shrink rapidly as no-one wants to read crappy new interpretations of perfectly good characters, with no new fanbase to take over. I could be wrong. I really hope I am. But confusing and alienating your customers is no way to run a business.

However, there’s no reason you can’t have a little fun with the idea…

Oh, and if you want to know how to elegantly tell an origin story without letting it taking over an issue, Grant Morrison’s four panel recap that started off his masterly All-Star Superman is the way to go. Perfect comics work.

Four panels. Eight Words. Seventy Years Of Back-story.

*One last thing. The heads up/impetus/desperate steal of an idea at the end of a dry creative day for this one came from long time X&HTeam-mate, Rob May. His new geek-friendly website Cake And Lies is very much worth your time. And as he says here, there are prizes to be won.  

Why Be Free When You Can Be Cheap? Music And A Book For Less Than A Latte

A couple of things that you might want to do with your digital pocket change today.

New imprint H&H Books have released their first anthology, Voices From The Past. Twenty-six stories under a common theme, none more than 1500 words, from acclaimed authors like Alastair Reynolds, Paul Cornell and Maura McHugh. There’s some great spookiness on offer, and the quality of stories is a notch above top. Recommended. You can pick it up from the website in ePub or Kindle formats for 99p.

Meanwhile, the creative whirlwind centred around Amanda Palmer continues to spit out some amazing songs. She, along with Ben Folds, Damian Kulash of OK GO  and her husband, Neil Gaiman (how much are we looking forward to Gaiman doing Doctor Who this Saturday? Thiiiiiiiiis much) gathered in Mad Oak Studios in Allston, Mass, to record an eight track album in eight hours. From scratch. They managed six tracks in twelve hours, which is still a remarkable achievement. The fruits of that endeavour are now available for you to download here. They are uniformly great songs – and who knew Neil Gaiman could sing? Nighty Night will cost you a buck.

At current exchange rates, then, that’s an album and a book for £1.60, and I think you’d struggle to find a latte that cheaply. Well, not one that you’d care to drink, anyway. Proceeds for both are going to charity. Get them both, make yourself a coffee, and be certain that you’ve done something good with your day.

Gaddafi’s Role Models: Five SF & Fantasy Despots

As Libya is on the verge of shrugging off the chains of the most comic-book of the villainous Middle Eastern dictators, I thought it would be fun to look at some slightly more fictional varieties of Gaddafi et al. With his elite guard of female killers and penchant for a fancy costume and ranting speeches, I reckon he’d fit in nicely amongst this lot.

Continue reading Gaddafi’s Role Models: Five SF & Fantasy Despots

A flag of convenience: turning pirates into customers

I’m thinking out loud here, so please do indulge me.


Adrian Faulkner tells a story on his excellent blog about a work colleague with a newly acquired e-reader, and his attitude to the cost of content for the device. In short, he thinks e-books are overpriced, and has taken to torrenting. Adrian recoils at this, and I agree. But at the same time…

I’m in the same position as his workmate John. I received a Kindle as a birthday gift, and love it to bits. But I was immediately struck by the disparity of pricing on the online store. Like most people with a new Kindle, I zealously hit the free or dirt cheap options, grabbing the complete works of Dostoyevsky and Dickens for less than I’d pay the lovelies at AMT Coffee for my morning cup of joe. But there were also Penguin editions of the same works that cost exactly the same as the paperback editions. There will, granted, be differences in translation, and of course e-books are liable to VAT, but apart from that I can’t see how that justifies a 700% difference in price point.

Modern authors also exhibit this disparity. Stephen King’s Under The Dome is a whopping £16.99 in the Kindle Store. You’ll pay half that for the paperback. I love Stephen King, but I’m caught in a bad place here. I don’t want to lug a breezeblock sized brick of paper around with me. That was a prime factor in buying an e-reader in the first place. At the same time, I’m buggered if I’m paying the thick end of £20 for it. Thus the dilemma that John has easily solved by merrily downloading his books for free. I don’t agree with what he’s doing, but I can kind of see his point. (In my case, I shall get the book out of the library, assuaging my conscience and supporting an essential public resource at the same time).

Part of the problem is the perception of worth. John thinks e-books are worth less than a hardback book. He sees craft and manufacturing cost in the heft and weight of a fat wodge of paper. He seems unaware of the fact that the paper is simply a carrier for the important stuff, the words on the page. But it’s not surprising he’s confused. There’s no consistency of pricing. A best selling CD, book, or DVD will cost you different amounts depending on where you buy it. And frequently when you buy it. Wait a few months after release, and a lot of titles suddenly have a huge discount applied, or turn up in twofer deals. Or sometimes free on the covers of newspapers.

Here’s a challenge. Given the choice between a vanilla DVD title in a cardboard sleeve with no extras for nothing, and a “normally” priced copy of the same thing with all the extras, I will lay money that the majority of people will plump for the freebie. I’m not talking your film buff or cineaste here. I’m talking about the man in the street. The sort of person that doesn’t want a director talking over the top of their Saturday night movie. The sort of person who doesn’t care about deleted scenes because if they were any good, they’d be in the film, wouldn’t they?

Of course, these films aren’t free. They’re promotional items, and you pay for the newspaper to get them. But they have the word FREE all over them. In the same way, musicians are now expected to put tracks online for free, again as promotion for full works. And here’s the problem. There’s already confusion over an object’s perceived worth. The idea of not paying anything for your entertainment has become an encouraged, acceptable option, regardless of the intention behind giving it away.

Neil Gaiman has extolled the virtues of this approach, citing the uptick in sales after doing just that for an audiobook of American Gods. Thriller writer Stephen Leather has done the same thing, putting his early work on the Kindle store for under a quid a shot. Again, this has been highly successful. But these are established artists, able to control the pricing structure of their material. If you’re a struggling author or film-maker, the appearance of your work on a torrent or Rapidshare feed chews up your revenue stream in a moment. If the film or book is all there is, if there’s no back catalogue for which you can use that free item as a loss leader, then the strategy seems to have failed.

That sounds incredibly negative, I know, and there’s no easy answer. Once people get used to the idea of free, then it’s really tough to change their minds. It’s easier than ever to get your work out to an audience, and much more difficult to get them to pay for it. It’s completely doable, of course – look at the success Amanda Palmer has had. She completely gets the vital role in keeping her audience sweet. She works incredibly hard at connecting and communicating with her fans.

There are ways of turning negatives into positives, too. Steve Lieber’s “Die Hard in a cave” comic Underground was merrily pirated by fans on 4Chan. Instead of complaining or issuing lawsuits, Leiber went on the site, and began chatting with the fans of his work, pointing out that the book was available as a print edition. Net result: a massive spike in sales. Similarly, fantasy author J.S. Chancellor asked people who had downloaded her work to leave reviews of it on Facebook and Amazon. It worked, and again, an uptick in sales was the result.

Self-pub and self-distribution is a tricky business to get right. It takes imagination, guile and a lot of effort to make a buck in this new marketplace, and the strategies that work for one artist are more than likely not going to work for another. Persuading your public that your work has value is more than half the battle, but if you can win that battle then good times approacheth. The Johns of this world can be talked into paying for their books and movies, if you talk to them in the right way.

(EDIT: to correct the schoolboy error JS Chancellor pointed out in the comments.)