Archive for October, 2014

The Survivor

Posted: October 31, 2014 in Book reviews

By James Herbert

The historic town of Eton is hit by tragedy when a 747 crashes nearby shortly after take-off. The destruction is near total, with over 300 people killed outright. Only one person walks away from the crash site, with barely a mark on him. He is Dave Keller, the plane’s co-pilot.

An investigation begins into the cause of the crash, but in the days that follow the inhabitants of Eton are beset by tragedy upon tragedy, murder, suicide and insanity stalk the streets. Meanwhile Keller is troubled by the miraculous nature of his survival and driven by an urge to find out what caused the crash. When a spiritualist named Hobbs comes to visit Keller is sceptical, but he quickly comes to realise that the souls of many of the victims are still tied to the vicinity of the crash, confused, angry and dominated by an evil personality they’re eager for blood. They want revenge on the man who caused the crash, and Keller is their chosen instrument of vengeance.

This is my first review of a book I’ve read before, although to be fair it’s been an awful long time since I read The Survivor. Whilst I’ve been a huge fan of James Herbert since my teenage years, there are some books of his that I’ve only read the once (and one book, Fluke, which I’ve never read at all) and The Survivor falls into the category. Reading it again I can kind of see why, as it’s not one of his better books.

In fairness it is only the third book he wrote, and interestingly it’s his first venture in supernatural horror, given that The Rats and The Fog dealt with environmental/scientific horror.

The nature of the threat is different, but the overarching narrative is similar to the two previous books. There is a powerful threat and, in a series of vignettes we meet characters who are then destroyed, or at least badly damaged by that threat in a series of original and violent ways, meanwhile the hero stumbles through the carnage before finding a resolution.

The Survivor doesn’t have the visceral originality of The Rats, nor the crazed violent horror of The Fog, but Herbert does try to balance the gore with a general creepiness for the first time, and whilst not always successful it is possible to see the seeds of later works within this one, in particular Shrine seems to follow a similar path on a more epic scale.

Of course the main thing of note about The Survivor is the twist, which sadly I knew even before the first time I read this because I saw the Robert Powell starring film which obviously gave it away. In fairness it might have been surprising at the time, but certainly modern horror fans will likely see it coming a mile away (in fact maybe even in 1977 people saw it coming a mile away.)

Keller is a fairly bland hero, Herbert had a tendency to leave his leads as blank canvasses for the reader to imprint on, sometimes this worked very well, and sometimes it didn’t. The story has originality going for it, yet still seems fairly thin, and whilst Herbert was always very good as coming up with gruesomely original deaths for his characters there’s little meat beyond this, and the man behind the crash is revealed late on with very little foreshadowing. Given how good Herbert would prove to be at meshing horror with detective/thriller elements it’s a shame that this aspect of the story wasn’t given more weight as it might have improved the book no end.

Not terrible by any means, but Herbert would go on to write much better.

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The Long War

Posted: October 17, 2014 in Book reviews
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By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

 

Firstly a fairly standard warning from me… Because this is the follow up to the Long Earth, by necessity there may be spoilers to that book in the review of The Long War. Also, whilst I try to avoid spoilers, there is a pretty big one I need to address with this book. You have been warned!

 

It’s now around ten years since the end of the Long Earth, and 25 years since “Step Day” when humanity first collectively realised there were millions of parallel earths they could now reach with the help of an easily assembled ‘Stepper’ device.

 

Mankind has quickly spread across these new earths, with colonies springing up throughout the Long Earth, connected by dirigibles called Twains (cue the joke about a small boy who wants to be a Twain driver when he grows up). There are problems on the horizon though. The US government on the original Earth (Datum Earth) isn’t too happy when the various American colonies start rumblings of wanting to gain independence, and as part of a counterpoint to this a fleet of US Twains are sent out to patrol the Long Earth and show the flag.

 

Meanwhile the Trolls (sentient creatures who live throughout the Long Earth) have started to vanish after being mistreated by some humans. When this happens Joshua Valienté, the hero of the first book, is contacted by his former travelling companions Sally Lindsay (the abrasive defender of all things Trollish) and Lobsang (the supposed Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated as a near omnipotent AI) to try and track down where the Trolls are going. Joshua has a wife and child now, but the lure of the Long Earth is strong and he reluctantly agrees to help.

 

Ok first things first, and SPOILER ahoy!
Rarely has a book been so misnamed. There is no war, there’s barely even anything that would class as a police action. In fact at no point in the book do you really think a war is even likely. Sure the US Twains are crisscrossing the Long Earth, but if you have any hope of huge airship battles you might want to try a different book.

 

In many ways Pratchett and Baxter have created an enticing universe, the trouble is they don’t seem to know what to do with it. The Long Earth is a series of vaguely connected stories featuring a collection of characters, few of whom have any depth. Lobsang is enigmatic, Joshua is weary, Sally is angry…too many of them are basically made of cardboard. It comes to something when one of the most interesting “people” in the book is a robot cat.

 

There’s little in the way of drama. Sally and former detective Monica Janssen travel to a world next to The Gap (a reality where Earth was destroyed aeons ago) to rescue a Troll and her child, but what could have been a tense rescue mission turns out to be relatively straightforward, and as with many elements of the book the exciting stuff all seems to happen off camera.

 

There’s a mission by Chinese explorers, accompanied—for some reason—by a child genius, to travel all the way to Earth 2 million East (you can step either east or west whatever that means). The possibilities seem as endless as the Long Earths, but they get there, don’t find much, and head back, which pretty much sums up the whole book, the plot seems to be heading in interesting directions, but when it gets there it decides it can’t be bothered to do anything so things are either easily resolved, or just plain ignored.

 

And don’t even get me started on planet of the dog people or the fact that book pretty much ends the same way as the first one with a huge disaster.

 

As I said, it’s an enticing universe, but perhaps it’s too broad a canvas, when Twains step over dozens of worlds a second you can’t help feeling that there are dozens of opportunities a second being frittered away. It would be nice to have an in-depth exploration of a few worlds, and a few human communities. There is some interesting stuff here. Lobsang is still intriguing, as is Sister Agnes, and Captain Maggie Kauffman and her crew aboard the Twain USS Benjamin Franklin show potential, even if they come across as characters in a pastiche of Star Trek. At least they’re exploring, and at least they have a few dramas to deal with. I could have done with more time with them, and less with the Beagles and secret treasure troves of ancient laser pistols.

 

Maybe it’s just that the mash up of styles between Pratchett and Baxter is jarring and it’s easy to hazard a guess as to who came up with particular elements. Perhaps if the book had just been written by one or the other it would have held a more coherent narrative?
I feel like all I’ve been is negative, so I should probably add that, despite its problems, I’m still intrigued enough by the premise to want to read the next book in the series, The Long Mars, but if that one is similarly rudderless I might decide to step away from the last two books in the (supposedly) five book series.

The Waiting Game

Posted: October 9, 2014 in Regarding writing
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One thing that doesn’t often get mentioned with regards to being a writer is the amount of time you spend sitting around waiting for others to make decisions about your work.

We spend ages writing our tales of terror or romance (or terrible romance) and then send them off to agents or publishers, to editors of anthologies and magazines, and then we expect a quick response. Only it’s rare you’ll get that. Some publishers are very good, I know of quite a few who have a quick turnaround, sometimes as speedy as a few days.

Other publishers take a while longer, weeks, months…I’ve submitted several comic scripts to 2000AD and it can take up to a year to hear back from them.

This delay can seem annoying, but once you factor in just how many submissions a publisher might get sent to them in a single day, and given they have more things to do with their time than just reading through their slush pile it makes a lot of sense.

Besides, a long wait can be good sometimes. Sure it’s nice when someone responds really quickly, but nine times out of ten a quick response is a negative response, and sometimes getting that kick in the teeth so quickly after sending a story in can make the rejection all the harder to take.

Because the curious thing about waiting to hear back from a publisher or agent is that, whilst it can be a frustrating time, it can also be a hopeful one, because much like Schrodinger’s Cat whilst you’re waiting to hear back the story is neither accepted or rejected. Sometimes limbo is a good thing, no news is good news and all that!

Plus, although it would be churlish to suggest this is always true, as a rule of thumb the longer someone holds onto your story before making a decision, the more they probably like it. This is especially true of publishers who have several submission rounds.

The downside to this of course is that the longer you wait the more you might get your hopes up. It’s like a cup run in football. If you’re knocked out in the first round you might be annoyed but you can move on, but if you keep winning the closer and closer you get to Wembley the more you start to think that this might be your year, that you might lift the cup!

That’s the situation I’m in at the moment, and what prompted this post. I’ve submitted several stories to an online magazine who are a professional rates paying publisher, so to get a story published by them would be a pretty big deal. They can take several weeks to make a decision, and they make it clear that they have several submission rounds. Currently I’ve had three or four rejections from them, several of which have come with nice feedback.

The current submission has been with them longer than any others, and that means, despite my best efforts to try not to, that I’m starting to get my hopes up. If it is successful there will be a hint of irony involved given the story in question is one of the ones I mention here, namely the one I really had to force myself to write.

By the time you read this I might have already received a rejection for the story, but you never know…

Hope springs eternal for the dedicated writer!