Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

By H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s work is seminal, and he’s been a huge influence on a host of horror and science fiction writers going forward. Despite this I wasn’t that familiar with his work. Sure, I’d read one or two stories, I’d seen a few films based on his work, and I played the Call of Cthulhu role playing game while at university, but as a fan of the horror and sci-fi genres I’d been remiss in reading many of his stories.

When I saw this beautiful hardback book going cheap in Waterstones, well I couldn’t resist. I ended up starting it quicker than I expected to thanks to a bout of covid which confined me to the house.

As always with anthologies I’ll break down how I felt about individual stories. I certainly enjoyed some of them, and I probably appreciate Lovecraft’s’ influence even more now, there is something definitely unsettling about the world of dark gods and cosmic horror he created. He is also not a terrible writer.

You know there’s a but here, right?

But, his prose can be laborious, and many stories are long and arduous to read, as such the further I got into the anthology the more reading it felt like a chore, which hasn’t put me off Lovecraft, quite the reverse, but for me at least I think going forward the trick will be to approach his work in small chunks. If I’d read a few stories then gone away and read something else before returning to read another story or two, and so on, I think I’d have enjoyed this far more.

It also has to be highlighted that Lovecraft was more than a little bigoted, especially when it comes to ethnic minorities, and at times this is reflected subtly, and often not so subtly in his work. Yes, he was a product of his time but I’m not sure that completely absolves him (plenty of his contemporaries aren’t horribly racist)  and it shouldn’t be ignored, however important he is to the genres of science fiction and horror.

Anyway, onto the stories:

The Call of Cthulhu

Perhaps the story Lovecraft is most famous for and it’s a doozy. Narrated Francis Wayland Thurston who explains that he has discovered an incredible story by going through the notes left behind by his uncle, who was a prominent professor of Semitic languages. Thurstan also finds a bizarre sculpture of a creature with a tentacled head and explains that his uncle discovered it was made by a young student in Rhode Island who crafted the sculpture based on dreams he had of incredible Cyclopean cities and of the creatures that inhabit them.

Thurstan then goes onto further studies by his uncle, whereby he encountered a policeman from Louisiana who talked of a curious cult that worshipped the old God Cthulhu. The policeman and his men had broken up what they thought was a voodoo cult, but turned out to be something much darker.

The final part of his uncle’s studies features a derelict ship in the Pacific. There was one survivor onboard, a Norwegian sailor with a tale of a mysterious island where his shipmates had lost their lives.

Thurstan travels to New Zealand and Australia to find out more.

It’s an odd tale, and like several other Lovecraft stories feels almost more like a history than an actual story, but his worldbuilding is so good, and the things he’s describing so creepy, that it almost doesn’t matter. It does go on a bit and there is some rather unfortunate language, but you can see how it spawned a sub-genre in its own right.

The Whisperer in the Darkness

Another long tale and another story recounted by a single narrator, in this case Albert Wilmarth, a lecturer at the fictious Miskatonic University. When strange things are found in Vermont rivers after a flood Wilmarth sides with the sceptics against those who claim there are old monsters living in the uninhabited Vermont hills.

When he receives a letter from Henry Wentworth, who lives in an isolated farmhouse in the Vermont hills, he begins to doubt his scepticism and he and Wentworth engage in correspondence about the strange creatures who Wentworth believes are menacing him.

Eventually Wilmarth travels into the wilderness to visit Wentworth and discovers something incredible and horrific.

A slight sidestep for Lovecraft here, there are Cthulhuish vibes here, but this is more science fiction then horror, featuring aliens rather than elder gods (never forgetting that theoretically those elder gods could be aliens too).

It’s another tale that goes on too long, but again another story that’s very interesting, although you will find yourself wondering just how dense Wilmarth is at one point.

His visit to Wentworth’s house is genuinely creepy, and the final reveal is a corker.

The Thing on the Doorstep

Daniel Upton, the narrator begins the story by explaining that he has murdered his best friend, Edward Derby, and then goes on to explain why he did. As a young man Derby had been reliant on his parents, and interested in the occult, after his parents’ death he marries a fellow student from Miskatonic University Asenath Waite. She too has an interest in the occult and moves into Derby’s home, brining with her three servants from her home in Innsmouth, a mysterious coastal town. As the years pass Daniel begins to notice changes in Derby’s personality, almost as if he was someone else. Is Asenath the villain of the piece, or curiously, is it her aged and infirm father Ephraim?

Another story that goes on far too long, but the central conceit is imaginative, and the story is genuinely unsettling.

The Lurking Fear

An unnamed reporter travels to the Catskills Mountain range to investigate reports of attacks by unidentified creatures. The attacks seem to be linked to violent thunderstorms, and also seem tied to the foreboding, deserted Martense mansion.

There’s a kernel of an interesting story here but this one just didn’t grab me, the first clunker of the collection, though it does feature a great jump scare midway.

The Shadow over Innsmouth

The unnamed narrator explains how he came to instigate a secret government investigation of the isolated, and partially deserted, seaport of Innsmouth.

Intrigued by superstitious tales about the town, including reference to an epidemic that killed off half the populace, and the rise of a pagan cult that became the town’s main religion, the narrator takes a bus ride to Innsmouth and discovers a brooding, near abandoned town, where many buildings lie empty and the locals show signs of inbreeding. A talk with a local drunk reveals a fantastical tale of old Gods and interbreeding with aquatic creatures. When the bus breaks down the narrator is forced to take a room for the night in the local hotel, and that’s when his nightmare really begins.

Another disquieting tale, and perhaps the one where I wish I’d taken a break after some of the earlier stories because I think I’d have liked it more. The history of Innsmouth is interesting, as is the narrator’s night-time adventures in trying to escape from it. It links neatly to the wider Cthulhu mythos and features a disturbing twist in the tale. It does take an age for anything to happen however!

The Shunned House

For many years the narrator and his uncle, Whipple, have been fascinated by an abandoned house in Providence. Dr Whipple has done a large amount of research tracking the mysterious, yet seeming unconnected, incidences of sickness and death that have cursed the various occupants of the house, to the point where no one will live there. There is curious fungus growing in the basement, and a strange mouldy outline on the floor that looks like a man curled up, there’s also a strange yellow vapour from time to time. The narrator and his uncle decide to spend the night in the basement, with horrific results.

There’s an interesting story here, and the title is great. As with many of Lovecraft’s works it is too long, but the way he explains the history of the house is really nicely done. I also like the way that for the most part he leaves it vague as to whether the cause is something supernatural or something more prosaic. It does go on way too long though, and the eventual resolution seems somewhat lacking.

From Beyond

An unnamed narrator details his experiences with a scientist named Crawford Tillinghast who creates a device that stimulates a person pineal gland, allowing them to see other realities and the creatures that live in them.

A short, sharp inventive tale that demonstrates one of Lovecraft’s  recurring themes, of things existing on other planes of reality.

Pickman’s Model

The story involves an artist named Richard Pickman whose work, whilst brilliant, is so horrifying that he is shunned by most in the artworld. The narrator is his friend, who Pickman takes to show his studio/gallery, squirreled away in a slum area of the city. There the narrator discovers how Pickman is able to paint such vivid monsters!

Another fairly short tale. It has a nice sting at the end and some unsettling moments throughout.  

The Nameless City

A(nother) nameless narrator discovers a lost and abandoned city in the middle of the Arabian peninsula. Whilst exploring the ruins he finds low ceilings buildings that doesn’t seem to have been designed for humans, and upon discovering a staircase leading down he descends into a bizarre necropolis where the bodies reserved are not remotely human.

I really liked this one. The decent into the lower regions of the city was incredibly unsettling (and did have me screaming for him to turn back at several points) and I enjoyed the dreamlike quality to it. It could be argued it doesn’t really go anywhere, but on the plus side it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome either. Probably the best story in the latter half of the book.

The Dreams in the Witch House

Walter Gilman, a student at Miskatonic university, rents a room in the Witch House, a place rumoured to be haunted by the spirits of Keziah Mason, an accused witch who somehow manged to escape execution, and her familiar, Brown Jenkins, a creature with the body of a rat but the face of a man. Gilman begins having terrible nightmares that feature both of them, and lead him to become obsessed with understanding a new form of geometry that would allow for the existence of other universes to be perceived.

I really struggled with this one, in part because again it’s too long, but also because of its placing at the end of the book and I was just so ready to finish it. It feels like a smorgasbord of Lovecraft’s obsessions. In some respects this makes the central story interesting, but it also makes it confused. We have the supernatural, human sacrifices, witchcraft and devilish creatures, but there’s also a huge portion of cosmic horror and science fiction given Gilman’s fascination with unearthly geometry which seems to promise the ability to teleport between worlds.

I suspect I would have liked this more if I’d read it earlier in the book.

Slow Bullets

Posted: July 29, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction

By Alastair Reynolds

It is the far future and a huge conflict encompassing hundreds of worlds is coming to an end. Scur is a conscripted soldier fighting for one of the factions. She is relieved that war is ending, but then she’s captured by Orvin, a vicious renegade fighting for the other side who intends for her a slow, painful death.

She escapes this fate and wakes up aboard an unfamiliar ship, lightyears from any recognisable world. It soon becomes clear that the ship is filled with war criminals from both sides of the conflict, plus a large number of civilians. It also soon becomes clear that something has gone very wrong with this ship, and the worlds they left behind may no longer exist. In the midst of this chaos Scur then discovers that she knows one of the other passengers It’s Orvin. Can she overcome her desire for revenge when an uncertain future faces the mismatched crew of this ship?

As anyone who’s a regular reader of my blog will know, I’m a huge fan of Reynolds, and when I earned from free money via my Waterstones’ card, I decided to spend it on Slow Bullets, because the price had always put me off given it’s only a novella.

Whilst I’m not sorry I bought this, and it is an interesting read, it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t put this in the upper tier of Reynolds’ work. Lacking the punchiness of a short story, and the room to breathe that a full novel would have provided, Slow Bullets falls between two stools. At times it feels too long, but mostly it feels way too short.

There’s an interesting premise here and I think Reynolds should have either written it as a short story, or gone all in and made it a novel, which would have allowed him to expand on a lot of elements and flesh out the characters, most of whom, including Orvin, are quite two dimensional. Scur is interesting, as is her friend Prad, one of the ship’s original crew, but even so it would have been interesting to find out more about both of them.

The concept of the Slow Bullets themselves is intriguing (they’re not remotely what you might think) and like I said there the basis of a great novel here about survival against the odds and about the possibility of rebooting civilisation, and I did enjoy it, it just left me wanting a lot more. That being said, as a gateway into Reynold’s work this might make for a good start.

Roadside Picnic

Posted: June 18, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction

By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

It is the near future, and the world is living in the aftermath of what’s called The Visitation. Over a period of two days alien visitors landed at six locations around the Earth. No one saw the visitors, or even their means of arrival or departure. Within the six zones, each covering just a few kilometres, strange and dangerous phenomena are observed, and curious artefacts of great power have been left behind.

A subculture of scavengers, termed Stalkers, has grown up. These Stalkers illegally venture into the zones to forage for powerful artefacts which they then sell on the black-market. Meanwhile the government try to prevent the Stalkers entering the zones, while exploring them themselves to gain a technological advantage.

Redrick “Red” Schuhart is one of the Stalkers who keeps returning to the Zone, even though he knows each trip might be his last.

An intriguing book, written in 1971 by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and the version of the book I had not only features a new translation, but also information about how the original story was heavily censored by the Soviet government.

It’s an interesting book, one I’d heard of in relation to the film version, Stalker, which was directed by Andrei ‘Solaris’ Tarkovsky. It’s a book that at once deals with weighty ideas, while at the same time retains a pulpy edge. The idea of the Visitations is a novel one, and where the titular notion of the roadside picnic comes from. One character theorises that the aliens had no grand plan, and didn’t even know humanity existed, they merely stopped for a rest, perhaps for a bite to eat, and left without knowing humanity even existed, leaving their litter and junk in their wake that humans chance upon like so many insects chancing upon discarded sweet wrappers and soda cans.

The concept that we don’t understand these artefacts, even the ones that are useful, is an intriguing one, and the effect the Zone has on those who enter it; mutating the children of Stalkers, bringing the dead back to life is also curious.

In the end the story doesn’t really go anywhere, because there isn’t really anywhere to go. There are no grand revelations, we don’t understand the aliens, and possibly never will, and that, I’m guessing, is the point.

An enjoyable read, and it’s always nice to try out new authors and I may try these brothers again.

The End of the Line

Posted: June 8, 2022 in Book reviews, horror

Edited by Jonathan Oliver

Another day another horror anthology, but this one comes with a novel twist, a collection of 18 stories all set on and around the London Underground, the New York Subway and other places below ground.

As with all anthologies the content was variable, some stories I really liked, some I didn’t so much, here’s a potted review of each particular tale, remember just because I didn’t gel with a story doesn’t mean it’s rubbish!

Bullroarer by Paul Meloy is an interesting story, although it goes off the rails somewhat (pardon the pun) late on. An intriguing deep dive into the psyche of a damaged man who’s hidden from his true nature for far too long.

The Girl in the Glass by Paul Llewellyn Probert is one of the highlights of the collection. An unsettling and original ghost story about a man stalked by a girl’s reflection. Has a great EC Comics twist of an ending.

The Lure by Nicholas Royle. I liked the feel of this story, set in Paris, but I felt like it didn’t really go anywhere.

23:45 Morden (via Bank) by Rebecca Levene. There are several tales in this anthology that deal with someone getting off at the wrong stop, or on the wrong side of the train, and somehow winding up in a parallel universe. Levene’s is the first, and possibly the best, in the book. A creepy tale with a wonderful (or horrifying) twist in the tale worthy of the Twilight Zone.

End of the Line by Jasper Bark This one sort of deals with parallel worlds as well, although it’s more of a time travel tale really. Nicely done but I don’t think its placing in the anthology really does it justice

The Sons of the City by Simon Bestwick A quite inventive story set around the concept of a proposed underground system being built in Manchester. There’s more than a hint of the films Death Line and The Descent in this, but it’s a neat folk horror inflected tale and features interesting characters.

The Roses that Bloom Underground by Al Ewing is a near future take where the London underground undergoes a radical refurbishment in surprisingly quick time. The new trains are clean, efficient, and quite possibly paid for in blood. There’s an icky feeling to the story, and the presence of a buffoonish London mayor feels all the more relevant today given our Prime Minister.

Exit Sounds by Conrad Williams is only tangentially underground related, and other aspects of this story, an abandoned cinema where the dead get to watch movies and an expert sound recordist sent to record people leaving the cinema, promise more than they deliver.

Funny Things by Pat Cardigan is another alternate universe inflected tale focusing on grief. After her husband dies on the New York Subway a woman can’t shake the feeling that the man who died wasn’t her husband, and that her husband is still alive having been nabbed by another her to replace the man she lost. A globe trotting story that’s as much about grief as it is about other universes and mysterious the staff who seem determined to ensure the various universes shouldn’t interact.

On All London Underground Lines by Adam L. G. Nevill is an affecting story whose protagonist finds himself trapped in an horrendous underground purgatory where all of the trains seem delayed, he travels between packed platforms encountering other commuters, some of whom seem to have been waiting for a very long time. An unsettling take of terror.

Fallen Boys by Mark Morris. In a book chock full of takes set in the London underground this ghost story set in a former Cornish mine featuring a dark history and an ill-fated school trip stands out

In the Colosseum by Stephen Volk. A television editor is invited to a lavish party thrown by a big name producer, but things take a dark turn when the partygoers are inexplicably led to a CCTV control room covering the London underground. One of the best stories in the collection, but not an easy read. Explicit, violent and the fact that the horror isn’t supernatural makes it all the more disturbing.

The Rounds by Ramsey Campbell. Another story with hints of time travel, this time set on the Liverpool underground and riffing on Islamic panic and paranoia.

Missed Connection by Michael Marshall Smith. A commuter gets off the tube to find a strangely derelict station, and things only get worse from there. Another tale of other worlds accessed by accident, as a standalone this is good, but in relation to the anthology it feels like a story we’ve read before, though its dreamlike quality is disconcerting.

Siding 13 by James Lovegrove. A busy tube train gets busier and busier and busier as more and more people get on and no one seems able to get off. Another highlight, a horrible tale of oppression and claustrophobia.  The tube will never feel rammed again. A nightmarish tale with more than a nod to a certain short Spanish film from the 70s!

Diving Deep by Gary McMahon. Another one of my favourites. A story that takes the prompt of an underground transpiration system and does something very unexpected with it. In the Arctic a diver ventures into a tunnel in the ice and discovers something beyond comprehension. A story that balances the fear of claustrophobia with the vast emptiness of cosmic horror and is thus affecting on myriad levels.

Crazy Train by Natasha Rhodes. A crazy rock and roll horror story riffing on the untimely deaths of rock stars down the ages and how they all might wind up in some underground purgatory. It goes in a very unexpected direction and has a neat twist.

All the Dead Years by Joel Lane. A psychiatrist tries to deal with a woman’s fear of the underground which seems connected to a visit to Parisian catacombs and another incident that happened miles from any tunnel. Started well but meandered to an unsatisfactory ending.

Down by Christopher Fowler. The anthology is rounded off with a melancholy ghost story. A maintenance worker alone in the tunnels comes across spirits of the dead, but there’s more to the story than first appears and the worker isn’t who he claims to be. A strong and oddly t uplifting end to the anthology.

All in all I think if you like horror you’re bound to find something you like in here. It’s a mostly great selection of tales, although some themes do get a little repetitive by the time you’re nearing the end.

The Armchair General

Posted: May 21, 2022 in Book reviews
Tags: ,

By John Buckley

Can you defeat the Nazis? And so reads the subtitle of this great book, though it’s not quite the whole story because what it should say is; can you defeat the Nazis? Oh and the Japanese as well!

Written by John Buckley, a professor of military history, The Armchair General is a book that combines three of my favourite things.

  1. History.
  2. Alternative history.
  3. Choose you own adventure books!

What Buckley has written here is a wonderful book that not only teaches you history, it also gives you a sense of what might have been, and it allows you to have fun while you’re reading it.

Buckley provides 8 scenarios, from the choice between Churchill or Halifax to replace Chamberlain, to the decision whether or not to develop and use the atom bomb.

Buckley’s writing is clear and concise, he explains complex situations coherently without ever patronising his audience. It did take me a little while to get into the book it’s true, but that was down to A/Getting used to the structure and B/Because the first scenario seems too obvious (and it is, whatever your views of the man, Churchill was always the best option, in any universe.)

The book definitely gets more interesting the further you get into it, and the less you know about some areas the more enjoyable it is. I made very logical decisions with regard to factors that led up to the battle of Midway, but these were totally the wrong things to do. Midway was an especially interesting segment, as was North Africa. The potential of seeing Stalin overthrown is intriguing, and the most interesting part was probably that in relation to Bomber Command, and Buckley has a very interesting view on how things might have gone very differently on the heavy bomber front.

What is fascinating is how, in most cases, the decision doesn’t change the eventual outcome. The Germans and Japanese always lose, it’s the timing of victory and the cost in lives that varies.

An enjoyable and intriguing way to teach history, the only caution is that you need to be very careful not to get real history mixed up with the might have been history!  

By Lawrence Block

Ex-cop come unlicensed private eye Matt Scudder is out drinking, he’s always out drinking, but on this particular night he’s at an after hours drinking establishment called Morrisey’s, run by Irishmen with links to the IRA. When two gunmen stick up the join the owners hand over the cash without a fuss, but later they ask Matt to help them track down the culprits. Matt refuses, but soon finds himself working several other cases. One of his drinking buddies, Skip who co-owns one of the many bars Matt frequents, has his clean set of books stolen and is now being blackmailed for their return, meanwhile a drinking acquaintance named Tommy is arrested for the murder of his wife and his lawyer hires Matt to dig into the killers.

Matt takes on both cases, though he isn’t confident he can be much help in either one. What’s for sure is that he’ll walk a lot of miles, talk to a lot of people and drink a whole lot of booze before he comes to realise that certain events are more closely tied together than he might have imagined.

As I’ve intimated before, this is one of the first, maybe even the first, Matt Scudder novel I ever read thirty odd years ago. This book, along with Eight Million Ways to Die, which preceded it, marked a shift in the Scudder novels (in fact Block had intended Eight Million Ways to Die to be the last Scudder novel, instead he talked himself into writing a short story to finish Scudder’s story off and liked it so much that he turned it into this novel and he liked that so much that he wrote a whole heap more novels!).

The big shift is that this novel is clearly being told in flashback by a now sober Scudder, ten years in the future. Hence it’s gritty 70s setting and the fact Matt is still drinking like a fish. Now I’ll be honest, reading the opening chapter and I did struggle a bit, I think it’s because Block introduces so many characters all at once, but soon the story settles down and it’s a doozey. A robbery, a blackmail plot and a murder, and Scudder is embroiled in all three. More than this though, it’s a meditation of drinking. Scudder isn’t the only character who drinks to excess, there’ Skip for starters, and others too, and even as Scudder trudges the mean streets of New York booze is never far from his thoughts or his actions and there’s a horrible inevitability to his life, and the lives of those around him that’s really quite poignant. It’s incredible to think Block almost cut the character loose right before he became so much more interesting.

As always Block’s prose is fantastic, and the cast of characters he creates is incredible. Even people who wander into a single scene seem fully formed. As for the mysteries, as is usually the case Scudder solves the crimes not through some Holmesian deductive reasoning, but via solid detective work, asking questions over and over again until something shifts, and the ending, though kinda depressing in a lot of ways, is also incredibly satisfying.

As a final point, you have to love the title, taken from a song by American folk singer Dave Van Ronk. Not only is it an incredible poetic line on its own, but taken in context with the rest of the song’s lyrics it serves as a philosophical theme for the whole book, especially the scene were Scudder and another character listen to the song (and relisten to it) while drinking another night away.

And so we’ve had another night
of poetry and poses,
and each man knows he’ll be alone
when the sacred ginmill closes.

Anyway, an excellent book and highly recommended.

by Mark Salisbury (with contributions by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith.)

Since it began in 2014 Inside No. 9 has surprised and thrilled viewers. Each episode if a self-contained 30 minute story, with the only the number nine (and a small brass hare) as linking features. The seventh series is about to start and Pemberton and Shearsmith show no signs of running out of ideas, the breadth of what they do with the format is amazing, from murder mysteries to kitchen sink dramas, gothic horror to corruption in football.

I already own the scripts for the first three series (reviewed here) and was lucky enough to get this book for Christmas and what a wonderful book it is too. Jam packed full of gossip and info on every episode from the first five series, this is a book for fans of Inside No. 9, but also for anyone interested in the process of making a tv series. Full of behind the scenes photos, interviews with cast and crew and analyses of every episode. Dealing with everything from how Shearsmith and Pemberton get from an original idea scrawled in a notebook to an award winning script, to how the production crew built a multitude of sets, from a French couchette to a 17th century barn, a call centre to a gothic mansion.

A fantastic read. There’s really only one problem, it only covers the first five seasons! Hopefully we’ll eventually get a follow up covering the next five (or maybe the next four as I have a feeling the guys might see nine series as an appropriate place to finish.)

The Shining

Posted: April 1, 2022 in Book reviews, horror

By Stephen King

(Finished in March)

<Note the following may contain some mild spoilers for the book and the film>

Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy and his five-year-old son Danny move into the remote Overlook Hotel located in the Colorado Rockies. The hotel has closed for the winter and Jack has taken a job as caretaker. Jack is an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic with anger management issues. Previously he accidentally broke Danny’s arm, and more recently he lost his job as a teacher after assaulting a pupil.

Before the last of the Overlook’s staff leave, Danny meets Dick Halloran, the Overlook’s black chef. Halloran recognises a kindred spirit in Danny, Danny has ‘The Shine’, the same as he does, a psychic ability to read minds and experience premonitions.

Before he goes Dick tells Danny to avoid room 217, and tells him he might see the spirits of people who died at the hotel, but makes it clear that they can’t hurt Danny. He also says that if Danny’s ever in trouble he just needs to call out to him with his mind and Dick will come running.

At first the lonely hotel seems the perfect place for the family to reconnect, and the ideal spot for Jack to finish the play he’s been working on, but snowbound isolation, coupled with the spirits that haunt the Overlook begin to insidiously worm their way into Jack’s mind. Dick Halloran was wrong, the Overlook is dangerous, especially when it finds something it wants, and it wants Danny!

I have a curious relationship with the film of the Shining. I’ve seen it precisely twice and on neither occasion have I particularly enjoyed it. I saw it first in my teens and was left unmoved, and then saw it again a few years ago and had a similar reaction, though in part maybe this is down to how many pastiches of the film I’ve seen over the years (UK sitcom Spaced in particular riffs on it a lot). But then I watched Mike Flanagan’s excellent film version of Dr Sleep, which reawakened my interest in the story of the Overlook, and I had a friend who similarly hates the film recommend the book, so I thought, why not?

So fair warning here, I’ve not always been King’s biggest fan, especially in long form—I do love his short stories though—for every novel of his I’ve liked there’s been one that left me cold, so I began reading The Shining with some trepidation.

The first thing to say is that it’s so much better than the film on just about every level. Clearly a damaged individual, the Jack of the book is incredibly complex. Unlike Nicholson’s film Jack who’s basically nuts before he even sets foot inside the Overlook. Similarly Wendy is more than just the Kubrick demanded hysterics of Shelley Duvall, Danny comes across better too. It’s also wonderful to see that Dick Halloran doesn’t risk it all to get to the Overlook only to be murdered the moment he arrives!

All the characters and fully rounded, though at times a little too fully rounded, and the downside to seeing so deeply inside of them is that sometimes we get to see different perceptions of the same event, and sometimes you just want King to get on with it! The characters don’t even reach the Overlook for some time, and it’s some time later before anything spooky happens.

As for the supernatural stuff, some of it is very affecting, Danny’s visit to Room 217 for example. Similarly some of the imagined conversations Jack has with the guests at the perpetual party, and there is something unsettling about the whole Unmask! Unmask! thing!

Other bits aren’t as disturbing; however well he writes I couldn’t take the topiary monsters seriously.

King can write well though, and even if I wanted him to get a move on at times, I was always engaged (I found Jack’s exploration of the history of the Overlook especially fascinating) and even at a relatively early stage in his career you can see how good he is at what he does.

Could have been shorter, and could have been spookier, but I still enjoyed it and it’s a damn sight better than the film!       

Cage of Souls

Posted: February 12, 2022 in Book reviews, science fiction

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

It is the far future, the sun is swelling, and beneath its bloated gaze the earth is dying. Shadrapar is the last city on Earth. A city built upon the ruins of multiple previous societies, a civilisation where nothing new is created, where only the past is mined. Stefan Advani is a rebel, a heretic, driven to hide in the world beneath Shadrapar before being arrested and exiled to The Island, a floating prison deep in the humid jungles far from Shadrapar.

Beaten, humiliated, fearing death on a daily basis, Stefan begins to document his incredible tale of survival, but at the end of history can there still be hope for humanity, or is it time to make way for something else?

I actually bought this book about nine months before I actually got around to reading it, the curse of a large ‘to read’ pile. All I can say is that I wish I’d read it sooner because it’s superb!

As ever Tchaikovsky’s world building is off the charts. The city of Shadrapar feels very real, as does the world beneath it, but they pale into comparison next to The Island and the jungle around it. His descriptions are vivid, I saw the place in my mind’s eye, I smelt the place too, experienced the oppressive humidity of it, and felt like I was sharing a cell with poor Stefan. 

The story is told in the form of a memoir written by Stefan, and as such it bounces around in time somewhat, and there are several flashbacks to his before The Island, and despite knowing he will end up in prison, it is interesting to see how he got there, and the curious things he encountered beforehand, some of which have relevance for his new life.

There’s a bunch of interesting characters, including a sadistic marshal, a dashing duellist turned prison warden, and even a man who claims to have come from Earth’s past, and at the centre of it all is Stefan, not perfect, not a superman, he’s often weak and cowardly, and at times you might wish he had a trifle more agency, but he is a prisoner for much of the story don’t forget, and he never feels less than real.

Though there are moments of triumph, this isn’t the cheeriest of novels, there’s a melancholia that hangs over the story that’s as palpable as the mugginess that hangs over The Island, but there is perhaps some hope, even here at the end of history, even if that hope might not refer to humanity.

Tchaikovsky’s prose is always excellent, and despite its big ideas, this story rattles along at a decent pace. It might meander here and there, but the world and characters he’s created are so interesting you probably won’t mind too much.

Highly recommended.

The Thursday Murder Club

Posted: January 12, 2022 in Book reviews

By Richard Osman

(Read in 2021 I’m just really slow at updating my blog!)

The luxurious retirement village of Cooper’s Chase might seem like a place where old people go to be forgotten and to wind down before they die, but this certainly isn’t the case for the Thursday Murder Club, a foursome of pensioners who meet to discuss old murder cases (they have to meet on Thursdays because it’s the only day they can get the room). There’s Elizabeth (a former intelligence agent) Ron (an ex-trade unionist and all-around rabble rouser) Ibrahim (a psychiatrist) and newbie Joyce (a former nurse).

When people connected with Cooper’s Chase start being murdered it’s up to the Thursday Murder Club to find out whodunnit.

It’s probably fair to say from the off that the cosy is not a subgenre of crime novels that I’m that familiar with, or usually drawn to (as you’ll know if you’ve been following the kind of things I read, I lean more towards the hardboiled detective fiction) but Osman is a likeable presence on TV and this book has had phenomenal reviews. So, is it very good?

Well yes and no, and obviously my own prejudices may have counted against me enjoying it as much as others might. In simple terms I think Osman’s characterisation is top notch, his prose about average and his plotting…well that’s where it kinda falls down, in fact at times he seems so enamoured of his fearless foursome that he lets them meander around on various side quests, and the central mystery be damned.  

The premise is a doozy though, pensioners written off as old duffers prove they’re much more switched on than people think, and it’s nice to see characters in their twilight years still being shown to be useful, still being shown to be fully functional human beings rather than old dogs who can’t be taught new tricks of people with dementia. As an elevator pitch it’s great.

The four central characters are mostly well realised, as are several supporting characters, though others are pretty flimsy. You’ll have to suspend your disbelief a lot here, especially with regard to the latitude the police will give the Thursday Murder Club members, and the pensioners do manipulate the coppers quite easily. All four main characters have skills that prove useful at various points, even if in Ron’s case that just seems to come down to getting under people’s skin and organising a good protest. Elizabeth proves the most useful, her contacts from her former life give her access to information even the police don’t have. Useful.

There are plenty of red herrings, and most are fairly obvious (though fair dos to Osman there’s a moment later on where, for a moment, I thought he was about to completely pull the rug out from under me.) The murder resolutions are a little unsatisfying, but again this might just be me, certainly the huge success of the book, with a film or TV series on the way, suggests most people like it.

A lightweight, amusing and altogether cosy read, but there’s enough to enjoy that I’ll probably read the sequel at some point.