Archive for the ‘horror’ Category

Nope

Posted: September 3, 2022 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott and Brandon Perea

Seen in August

After the inexplicable death of their father (always nice to see Keith David, however briefly) the Californian ranch he owned passes to Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Palmer). OJ tries to keep the ranch running, working as a horse wrangler for Hollywood, while his sister tries to make it in tinsel town anyway she can.

With money tight OJ is forced to sell some of his horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun) a former child star who now runs a small western themed amusement park nearby.

When their electricity starts to fluctuate, and the horses get spooked, OJ and Em begin seeing what they think is a UFO. With the help of local electronics whizz Angel (Perea) and legendary Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (Wincott) they set out to capture footage of the spaceship that they can sell for millions, but is everything quite what it appears?

And so we come to Jordan Peele’s third film as a director and I went in with some trepidation. I really liked Get Out, but I really didn’t like Us, so would this be thumbs up or thumbs down?

I’m happy to report it’s thumbs up, although it took a little while to get there. Make no mistake, this is a slow burn of a film, but by lord when it kicks into gear does it kick into gear! It’s also fair to say that this is a film I expect to like even more with repeat viewings, because it’s a film that might appear a trifle confusing until you get into it, with hindsight a whole heap of things make a lot more sense, in particular the flashbacks to an incident that happened to Jupe when he was a child filming a sitcom about an intelligent chimp. No spoilers here because the first flashback is right at the start. Suffice to say that what happened with the chimp does have a huge bearing on the wider story, as does Holst’s obsession with getting the ultimate shot.

At its heart this is a film about spectacle. From OJ and Em trying to get a money shot of a UFO, to Jupe’s need to put on a show and Holst’s obsession. There’s even a deranged TMZ paparazzi just in case you don’t get the message (a trifle obvious and possibly one tiny misstep?)

There are other themes but I’m not going into them as it will give the game away, not that there’s a stunning twist, but the story does take a sharp tun and it isn’t the film you think it’s going to be.   

Kaluuya is an actor I’ve admired since I first saw him in The Fades and Black Mirror. His performance here is at once understated whilst also being intense, he’s very much a man of few words, the taciturn cowboy whose eyes speak volumes (and it should be noted that he does indeed look damn cool sitting on a horse.)

By contrast Palmer is anything but reticent, her character is bold and brash and very much in your face, she brings the spark to the story and she and Kaluuya make for engaging siblings.

At first Perea’s Angel seems like he’ll be a minor character, but he hangs around and he becomes very much part of the gang.

Wincott is spot on casting, channelling his inner Hertzog to make Holst an intense, near fanatical cinematic artist.

That leaves Yeun, another favourite actor of mine, whose portrayal of the child star still haunted by the trauma of his youth is central to the story, even if it feels he’s slightly short-changed by the turn the story takes.

There are some genuine scares, and one truly horrible moment that might be one of the most unsettling things I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve heard this film compared to Under the Skin, and I can totally relate to the comparison, even though they’re very different films.

Peele’s direction is great, and he makes good use of sprawling desert vistas, the open sky, clouds and the little amusement park (which apparently you can go visit!). He does tension very well, and this film did have me on the edge of my seat on occasion.

It won’t be for everyone, and I’ve already heard that while NOPE might stand for Not Of Planet Earth, I’ve also it’s so titled because Peele thought that would be half the audience’s reaction upon discovering what it’s actually about!

It’s maybe a trifle too long and maybe takes a little too long to warm up, but it’s also stunningly original in an era of cookie cutter films. It’s well directed and well-acted. Nope gets a Yup from me!

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.

Men

Posted: June 21, 2022 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear.

After the death of her abusive husband, Harper Marlowe (Buckley) travels to a remote village to spend some time alone. She rents a house from the affable Geoffrey (Kinnear). It’s a lovely house but when she goes for a walk in the woods she encounters a naked man (Kinnear). Striving to get away from him she finds the local churchyard where she encounters a foul mouthed child (Kinnear) and a vicar (Kinnear) who makes her feel uncomfortable.

Soon Harper finds herself under threat from all sides. She is surrounded by men, and they all appear to look like the same man!

I’ve been a fan of Alex Garland as a writer and director for some time. Ex Machina was his first film as a director (although if you believe some he at least partially directed Dredd) and it was a beautifully shot film with an intriguing story. He followed this up with the wonderful Annihilation, a joy of a film with only one flaw, it didn’t get a cinematic release in the UK so I’ve never been able to see it on the big screen. I imagine it’d be amazing. While I think it ran one or two episodes too long, I enjoyed his miniseries Devs as well. I saw the trailer for Men before I even knew Garland had written and directed it, his involvement was just icing on the cake because the trailer alone was fascinating.

The first thing to say is that I loved this film, the second thing to say is that you should see it on the biggest screen you can. It might be a more intimate story than Annihilation, but Garland’s direction and Rob Hardy’s cinematography deserve the biggest canvas possible.

The third thing to say is that when it comes to Men, you’ll either love it, or you’ll really hate it.

The central conceit of Kinnear playing (almost) every male role works surprisingly well for several reasons. The first is that Kinnear himself is such an accomplished actor that each role feels incredibly different, even before you get to the different costumes/makeup etc.  It helps that there aren’t that many of them, while he plays a good seven characters, only four are really that heavily involved in the story. It also helps that the fact that every bloke looks like Kinnear is never actively addressed. Harper never remarks upon it for example, which of course could be something about the film that riles a viewer up. What is the point? What is Garland trying to say? Are all men effectively the same, or is it merely a neat trick to distinguish this film from your more run of the mill woman in peril horrors?

Does it even matter? I’m not sure it does when a film is this mesmerising.

Kinnear is, as already stated, amazing in his multiple roles, but it’s Buckley at the centre of the film that holds it together. An actor—much like Kinnear—who I have a lot of time for, in fact part of what drew me to want to watch the film was the presence of them both. I’ve seen Buckley in many things, and I’ve yet to see her not be amazing, as she is here. She manages to make Harper both strong, yet incredibly fragile, brave yet terrified. She’s committed to the role, and, for me at least, the fact that she relates to each of Kinnear’s characters as a completely different person, is another of the reasons this works so damn well.

As stated the cinematography is just incredible, making full use of the glorious English countryside. It’s a beautiful and verdant backdrop to Harper’s terror, filmed so exquisitely that it lends the countryside a dreamlike quality. Add in the fact that one of Kinnear’s characters is clearly a representation of the mythical Green Man and this is most assuredly a folk horror.

Be warned however, there’s a slow burn and atmospheric feel to most of the film, but in its final act…well, it goes full on bonkers, and there’s some wince inducing body horror going on.

Beautifully shot and fantastically acted, this is a film that asks questions but provides few answers, and I suspect I’m going to watch it many times for just that reason.

Highly recommended, just don’t blame me if you hate it 😉  

The End of the Line

Posted: June 8, 2022 in Book reviews, horror
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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 Shining

Posted: April 1, 2022 in Book reviews, horror
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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!       

New Fears 2

Posted: October 27, 2021 in Book reviews, horror
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Edited by Mark Morris

Having read the first New Fears back in 2017, when I saw a follow up I quickly pounced. There are 21 stories so as I did with New Fears I’ll say a little about each of them. As usual with any anthology I enjoyed some stories more than others, but all were interesting and likely other readers might like some I didn’t and vice versa.

The book opens with Maw by Priya Sharma. A Shetland based folk horror, interesting environment and characters, but the horror was a little too nebulous for me.

Airport Gorilla by Stephen Volk is a trull horrific story, more so because it’s obviously based on fact (to an extent). Well written but not sure is in the best taste. The shooting down of an airplane is told from the perspective of a cuddly toy.

Thumbsucker by Robert Shearman is an unsettling tale of a character’s father’s extracurricular activities. Has the feel of Tales of the Unexpected about it, not to mention a very curious eroticism.

Bulb by Gemma Files has an interesting concept around technology and electricity but after a good start it didn’t really work for me.

Fish Hooks by Kit Power is a genuinely disconcerting story about a woman who starts seeing horrors in everyday life. Good story with a great dénouement

Emergence by Tim Lebbon is one of my favourites in the book, an excellent story involving a man who travels through a tunnel to what appears to be an alternate earth. Grim tale about inevitability, time travel and paradoxes.

On Cutler Street by Benjamin Percy,  a very brief story that didn’t make much of an impact on me.

Letters from Elodie by Laura Mauro, a young woman grieves for a woman she loved, it begins as one thing but by the end has morphed into something much more interesting than it initially appeared.

 Steel Bodies by Ray Cluley, this has an interesting premise about a ship graveyard in Africa but it didn’t grab me for some reason

Migrants by Tim Lewis, a story that intrigued, even though I’m not entirely sure what occurred. In an ordinary housing estate, a man is approached to escort a mysterious person from one house to another, apparently his neighbours have been doing this for a while.

Rut Seasons by Brian Hodge. A good story about a woman’s relationship with her aging parents, particularly her mother with whom she has a very fractious relationship.

Sentinel by Catriona Ward. Another aging mother, this time one determined to protect her daughter and granddaughter from a vengeful entity from the old country that’s followed them to America. An interesting story albeit one that didn’t deviate from an obvious conclusion.

Almost Aureate by V.H Leslie. A young father on holiday abroad becomes obsessed with a heavily tanned man he sees watching him from atop the hotel they’re staying at. An odd yet certainly unnerving tale.

The Typewriter by Rio Youers. A man buys an old typewriter with the intention of renovating it but he finds himself possessed by the spirit of it’s former owner. A well-worn tale but handled well which made it an interesting read.

Leaking Out by Brian Evenson.  A homeless man breaks into what he thinks is an empty house but finds someone is home after all, or rather something.

Thanatrauma by Steve Rasnic Tem. An old widower grieves for his lost wife while struggling to find meaning in life. Well written but another that didn’t grab me.

Pack Your Coat by Aliya Whiteley. A tale about viral stories, in particular an urban legend and the affect it has on one woman. A very interesting and well written tale, though I have to admit the ending let me down somewhat.

Haak by John Langan. Probably my favourite story in the entire collection and a great example of a story within a story (within a story?). A teacher recounts a tale to his students of how the writer Joseph Conrad encounters a mythical land after befriending a steamboat captain on a Swiss lake. An incredibly imaginative, fantastical tale that merges fact and fiction, mythology and horror, and the moment when I realised just where the mythical land was, was joyous. The book is worth if for this story alone.  

The Dead Thing by Paul Tremblay. There’s probably a decent story in here somewhere, but the stream of consciousness format with no paragraphs just several long unbroken blocks of text   interspersed with occasional text conversations, put me right off. A young girl struggles to protect her younger brother from a mysterious box he’s found

The sketch by Alison Moore. A woman in an unhappy marriage, possibly suffering from post-natal depression finds escape in an old sketch book from her teenage years before she gave up on her dreams.

Pigs Don’t Squeal in Tigertown by Bracken MacLeod, it’s debatable whether this is horror or thriller, but this story of a biker gang member travelling to a poorly maintained tiger park is certainly a fun read.

All in all a decent anthology with something for everyone…well, so long as they like horror.

Directed by John Krasinski. Starring Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou and John Krasinski.

Another in my irregular series of films I would have seen at the cinema. Please note, while I won’t be including spoilers for this film, discussing it will involve spoilers for the original Quiet Place so be warned!

In an opening flashback we see the arrival of the aliens that will soon ravage the Earth and view how the Abbott family (including Krasinski as dad, Lee) survive the initial assault.

We then return to the present and pick up immediately after the end of the first film, where the surviving members of the family Evelyn (Blunt) Regan (Simmonds) Marcus (Jupe) and Evelyn’s new-born baby are attempting to find more survivors. They come across Emmett (Murphy) once a family friend but now an embittered survivor reeling from the death of his family. Emmett is reluctant to let the family stay but Evelyn convinces him to give them some time to rest.

When a song comes on the radio Emmett explains that it’s been playing over and over for months. Regan deduces that it’s a message from another group of survivors and sets out to find them, hoping the discovery that her cochlear implant can disorient the aliens can be weaponized.

As Regan travels into unknown territory and into peril, those who stayed behind aren’t safe either, and there are other dangers now beyond the aliens.

A Quiet Place is one of those films that came out of nowhere, a low(ish)budget monster movie with a great hook, what if the world was invaded by monsters who, although blind, had incredibly sensitive hearing and the only way to survive was to commit to living in a world of near total silence? Despite a huge plot hole it succeeded because the script, direction and performances were all top drawer. The script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, rewritten by Krasinski, was excellent, and Krasinski’s direction was spot on, creating a tense environment where the slightest noise could mean certain death. Added to this the cast were superb, with the standout being Simmonds, deaf in real life. When the first film was a hit a sequel was inevitable, it’s just a shame we had to wait over a year from when it was supposed to come out. As with any such sequel the most important question is, is it as good as the first one?

And the answer is, almost, which I think for the majority of sequels is a ringing endorsement. It lacks the surprise factor of the first film, and the bigger budget means more action set pieces and perhaps a little less of the intimate tension of the original but it’s still a superior monster movie.

Again the cast prove one of the film’s greatest strengths. Blunt is a superb actress, and she’s not afraid to take a back seat to let others shine. For a while I worried she was taking too much of a supporting role but thankfully as the film progresses she comes into it more, though the real leads in this film are Simmonds and Jupe, who are both great once again. I love how Jupe plays Marcus as almost perpetually terrified, but who wouldn’t have PTSD in this world? He gets to develop more this time, becoming more of a hardened survivor by the end of the film. Simmonds carries on her star role from the first film, and again is the best thing about the film. Determined and willing to stride into the unknown, despite her disability—which as the film shows is exacerbated in this world because she can’t hear when she’s made a noise—yes you might call her foolhardy, but the character has agency, and drives the story onwards, and it’s great to see someone differently abled being shown as up to the task of survival as anyone else. This leaves Cillian Murphy who’s long been an actor I’ve admired and he slots into the film perfectly as Emmett. Like Blunt his American accent is spot on and he essays a man who’s lost everything perfectly, and you’re never quite sure if he’ll do the right thing. As he did so well in Peaky Blinders and Dunkirk he does a thousand-yard stare with scary authenticity, leaving you in no doubt that Emmett is a man who’s seen horrible things.

Djimon Hounsou rounds out the cast. Another actor I like but he isn’t given much to work with here, in fact his character doesn’t even get a name!

While the world is broadened somewhat it doesn’t go all globe trotting or epic on us, retaining the small scale that worked so well. Yes there’s more CGI, and yes the aliens seem a trifle familiar but coming up with truly original monster designs is a tough ask. Despite their familiarity they’re still a potent threat and in Krasinski’s hands a source of unbelievable tension at times.

Don’t shout it from the rooftops (“they” might hear) but roll on A Quiet Place Part III if it can be this good.

By Max Brooks

A (very) short anthology by Max Books, the man who gave us World War Z. Usually I wouldn’t go through each and every story in an anthology, but given this one is so brief, just four tales, it seems churlish not to, so here you go…

Closure Limited: A Story of World War Z

The titular story is an interesting tale of an organisation that provides a very unusual form of closure for those who’ve lost loved ones to the zombie apocalypse. Just try not to think about it too much.

Steve and Fred

The weakest story of the four, really less a story than two unconnected vignettes stitched together. Steve is a bad ass on a motorcycle, trying to get he and his colleague to a rescue chopper. Fred is a man trapped in the bathroom by a horde of zombies. There’s little to connect them, and both tales just peter out without going anywhere. A shame, the central conceit of Fred’s story is actually very interesting.

The Extinction Parade

The best story in the anthology. A tale of what another breed of supernatural monsters gets up to while the zombies are munching their way through humanity. This was great from start to finish.

Great Wall: A Story from the Zombie War

A drab first person account of the zombie apocalypse, much like the ones that made up World War Z, and if it’d been included within that larger exploration of WWZ it would have been just fine. Here it’s ok, not great though.

I really enjoyed World War Z, but this was disappointing. I bought it second hand and I doubt I’d have paid full price for it, and even if it’d contained four great stories rather than just the one it wouldn’t have been worth full price. I understand the desire to make money off the back of a successful book, but this is a lousy example of ripping people off with some deleted scenes from WWZ or hastily written stories. Brook’s prose can be decidedly average, it’s his ability to get into characters heads and show the War from multiple perspectives that made WWZ so good and it’s lacking here for the most part.

It was diverting enough, and if you can find it cheap it’s worth it for The Extinction Parade, but definitely not worth full price!

The Scarlet Gospels

Posted: August 21, 2021 in Book reviews, horror
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By Clive Barker

The magicians of the world are living in fear. They’re being picked off one by one by the Hell Priest, a demonic Cenonbite known to some as Pinhead, although he abhors that sobriquet. The Hell Priest is killing them off, taking their magic, learning all that he can learn about the dark arts as part of a plan to make himself the new ruler of Hell.

Harry D’Amour, a former cop turned occult detective, travels to New Orleans after being hired by one of the recently deceased magicians via his friend Norma. Norma is a medium. She’s blind but can see the dead, and she tries to bring them comfort in their afterlives. The magician wants Harry to erase all signs of his occult double life before his family can discover them, but it’s a trap, set by the Hell Priest himself who has need of Harry.

D’Amour has no intention of becoming the Cenobite’s servant however, and makes his escape.

However, when Pinhead kidnaps Norma and takes her to Hell, Harry has no option but to follow. He and a small group of friends must face myriad trials, and the darkest evils of the underworld if they’re to save Norma, but can Pinhead be stopped before he usurps Lucifer himself?

This is the first Barker I’ve read in a while, and I have to say I was drawn by the cover, because when I spotted it, I’d recently rewatched the first three Hellraiser films (Hellraiser > Hellraiser 3 > Hellraiser 2 if you’re interested) and so the presence of Pinhead on the cover intrigued me. I was a bit worried that I hadn’t read a whole raft of Harry D’Amour and/or Pinhead stuff but it turns out there isn’t a huge amount out there, and in any event, Barker neatly explains who the various characters are so well it hardly matters.

It’s an odd novel, and probably one I enjoyed the first half of better than the second, but Barker writes well, and I raced through it (always the sign of a good book). Oddly I preferred it before the characters venture to Hell itself, it’s always difficult trying to put down on paper a realm we have no frame of reference for, and at times Hell feels a trifle pedestrian, people seem to have jobs, there are suburbs…it felt more like a magical realm in a fantasy novel, with demons instead of orcs, but then at other points it’s suitably weird. It’s worth noting as well that at times Pinhead, sorry I mean the Hell Priest (Barker hates the Pinhead tag), is a more interesting character than Harry, or in fact any of Harry’s friends, though that’s always the problem with scene stealing villains I guess, and with Pinhead there’s the added bonus of hearing Doug Bradley’s dulcet tones in my head whenever he spoke, which likely helped bring the character to life.

Fast paced, gory, and featuring Pinhead on top demonic form, this was an enjoyably diverting read, now if you’ll excuse me, I have a puzzle box to solve.

So back in November I won a pitch competition to write a story for 2000AD (The UK premier comic book) You can find out about the competition here.

Today my story was published in prog (issue) 2245. I’ve been a huge fan of 2000AD since I was ten years old, so suffice to say this was a dream come true.

2000AD is available in all good comics stores, newsagents and can be purchased online too! Here’s a copy of the cover, and the first page of my Terror Tale.