Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews: “The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse” by Fredrik Brounéus

29 06 2012

via Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews: “The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse” by Fredrik Brounéus.

(Thanks to Mihai Adascalitei for allowing us to use this review)





’52 Stitches 2′ edited by Aaron Polson

16 06 2011
52 Stitches 2

'52 Stitches 2' edited by Aaron Polson, Strange Publications, ISBN-13: 9780982026656, $8.99

[Reviewed by KV Taylor]

As was the first volume of 52 Stitches, this second installment is a series of dark flash tales, originally posted for free at the 52 Stitches website run by Strange Publications’ Aaron Polson, one a week for an entire year. Why, then would one pay for a paperback — apart from the marvelous cover?

One very good reason I came up with while reading it was that these sharp little stories, none of them more than three pages long, could easily bring the bedtime story back into fashion for grown-ups. Ideally one would read one a night and it’d last a few months, but the problem there is that it’s like candy. You finish one and think, “Oh, that was good — one more won’t hurt”, and pretty soon you’re stuffed.

Fans of dark fiction on the fence about the flash phenomenon might find this a good starting point as well. The theme is just that, short and dark, which covers a lot of territory. Sometimes that can be disorienting and ends up feeling slapdash in an anthology, but these stories have something deeper in common that makes it work on another level: it might be called 52 Sucker Punches for the way it operates on a reader. If the writer’s job is to evoke emotion, it’s pretty impressive to land a jab in 500 words. Particularly when so many of them still hurt the morning after, as in this collection.

A few stories fall flat, but with the minimal time investment there’s not much disappointment — and there’s enough to delight in that it’s easy not to dwell. There’s dark, delicious humor (Michael Stone’s “The Rise of Azaliel and Lorcas”, Jonathan Pinnock’s “The Wrong Thing to Say”); mini descriptive tour de force (K. Allen Wood’s “By the Firelight”, Joe Nazare’s “Beside Himself”); small town horror and silence (Doug Murano’s “Fireboomers”, Alan Davidson’s “Thor’s Hammer”, Kent Alyn’s “The Slough”); intense gut-wrenchers that run the gamut from childhood innocence (Michael Colangelo’s “The Chronicles of Blackbriar”) to dystopian futures (Cate Gardner’s “Edible Flowers Perched Above a Dying Landscape”). Madness, hunger, paranoia, loneliness, love, war, holidays, and, as the chilling cover might imply, even dolls with bad intent.

Familiar themes, but each reworked into something quick, clever, yet lasting. Some of the stories are almost poetry, they are so prettily but exactly written. It’s a bedside table book, for sure — though there’s always the issue of what dreams may come to deal with, after this one.

(As an important note, 52 Stitches 2 is dedicated to the memory of one of the contributors, Jamie Eyberg. All proceeds from its sale go to the Kennedy and Brendan Eyberg fund.)





‘Disciple of a Dark God’ review

10 12 2010

'Disciple of a Dark God', by Edmund Glasby, 606pp, Matador, ISBN: 9781848763708, £7.99 PB

Review by Sam Kelly

Matador, it turns out, is Picador’s self-publishing imprint. I was quite surprised to find that out, since Disciple of a Dark God is one of the nicest paperbacks, physically, that I’ve handled in a long time – it’s solidly made, with a slightly heavier weight paper than most, and the cover art & design were very clearly done by someone with a real understanding of genre trends. Less so of swords, but impractical weaponry is also a long-standing fantasy tradition.

The book itself is very definitely the kind of swords & sorcery that everybody used to write (Leiber, Vance, early Moorcock, Howard…), and in general it’s energetically & atmospherically done. Our protagonist, Everus Dragonbanner (the last thing you could call him would be “hero”) is a historian turned assassin in the service of Xethorn, god of murder. This profession requires crypt-robbing, drinking in dodgy pubs, wearing a cool trenchcoat, investigating long-disused temples to chthonic deities, and long strenuous journeys to exotic locations. It could easily be a novelization of someone’s old school D&D campaign, and I’m sure I’ve seen stat blocks for death squirrels, the Eye of Evil, and that thing in Chapter 13 (whatever in Juiblex’s name it is) before. The plot structure is a classic bracelet fantasy; it consists of a sequence of plot coupons, each one at the end of its own quest, and intervening FedEx quests (“I won’t help you find the artifact you seek unless you go to this dangerous location and collect a randomly generated item for me”) to break them up. There are two main characters, Everus and his sidekick “Creeps”; others accompany them for a quest or two, until they meet some gruesome end, often at the hands of the main characters.

There’s one other characteristic of sword & sorcery novels that Glasby has kept (and exaggerated), however, and that’s the deal-breaker for me: this is the most toxically misogynist book I’ve read in a very long time, and if I hadn’t promised to review it I’d have put it down halfway through, washed my hands, and gone to read some Joanna Russ instead. For more than half the book, every single reference to women is a joke about prostitutes, or a derisive simile; the first woman with a speaking part appears on page 368, and I can do no better than quote her first appearance.

The door was opened by a tall, curvaceous beauty.  She was outstandingly pretty; from her long, rippled hair which was a striking blend of rich lilacy-purple with flaming red highlights, to her eye-catching figure and modest but close-fitting clothes – all contributing to make Everus think she was a classy and highly expensive courtesan.  She looked about his age.

“You look a little surprised,” she said, her voice a little husky.

“I…I was expecting someone else.” Tilting his head, Everus glanced over her left shoulder, checking that there was no one else with her. It was then that he was pleasantly struck by the mild scent of exotic perfume. The aroma was delightful and highly arousing.

I would like to assure you that – unlike the author, I feel – I was typing that quotation with both hands and without suggestive music playing on the soundtrack. Carrie (and if you feel that’s an odd name for a fantasy character, you’re not the only one) is a sorceress, of course, rather than a warrior, and serves as a support character and rescue object.  Everus (inevitably) sternly refrains from sleeping with her even though she obviously wants it, and then his suspicions about her beauty are proved entirely justified when she turns on him and is revealed to have been a horrendously ugly succubus all along.

There is a second female character later on: Gwennifer Jannson, a competent and sensibly dressed general (though still described as a “slim brunette with long braided hair”) and it’s presented as entirely unexceptional for women to be officers; this would be a definite step forwards, if she weren’t there purely for Everus to impress, and if she survived longer than four pages.

I don’t want to risk giving the impression that the horrendous misogyny is this book’s only bad feature; it’s also rather classist and extremely fat-phobic. Glasby’s prose is faintly purple and occasionally rather clumsy, with sporadic outbreaks of passive voice. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book to women, anyone with female friends, or anyone else.





Pegasus Expansion – Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game

26 11 2010

[Reviewed by P.G. Bell]

Pegasus Expansion - Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game. Designer: Corey Konieczka. Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games. Price: £25

Pegasus is the first extension for Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game, adding new rules, characters and playing boards to the original game. The Colonial fleet is no longer alone in its quest for Earth – the redoubtable Battlestar Pegasus is on hand to lend additional firepower and facilities. Nor is the action confined to the fleet, as players must endure the oppressive Cylon regime of New Caprica and make good their escape to claim victory.

Fantasy Flight Games have once more succeeded in capturing the tone and narrative structure of the TV series and fans of the second and third seasons in particular will find a lot to enjoy here.

In defiance of the extensions’ title, the addition of the Pegasus has very little impact on proceedings and is mostly used to maximise the human players’ defensive abilities during combat. It’s the additional characters and amended rules that alter the game’s structure, albeit subtly, encouraging players to be more ruthless in pursuit of short term goals whilst jeopardising the broader sweep of play. Admiral Caine can force a faster-than-light jump whenever she pleases, for instance, but should expect to lose civilian ships (and the valuable resources they carry) in the process.

More drastically, characters suspected of being Cylon infiltrators can now be executed. This is treated in the same way as a Crisis card, with players contributing their various skills to beat a target score. If a character is put to death, that player must reveal their Loyalty cards – if they are indeed a Cylon, they are banished from the fleet and must continue the game without any of the special abilities usually afforded revealed Cylons. If they are human, the fleet loses precious morale points and the player chooses a new character to play with.

Most striking is the addition of an entirely new character group: Cylon leaders. Operating unlike any other character in the game, they make no secret of their origin and must fulfil an independent (and secret) agenda in order to win. That agenda could depend on either the humans or Cylons eventually winning but will usually demand sacrifices from both sides. For example, the player’s Agenda card could call for the humans to win, but with the bare minimum of morale points remaining. Or it may cite a Cylon victory, on the condition that any hidden Cylon players are uncovered and their characters executed. Diplomacy and a good poker face are both essential.

These new features all serve as interesting embellishments to the existing gameplay but it’s the New Caprica phase, which now closes the game, that is the real “format breaker”.

Abandoned on the struggling colony world, the players must liberate the stock of surviving civilian ships from Cylon hands, readying them for evacuation before the Galactica returns to mount a rescue. It’s a short, sharp race against time as the Cylon occupation – in the form of a new deck of Crisis cards – moves to destroy the ships and incarcerate the players.

Complicating matters further is the fact that revealed Cylon players have a more direct and powerful influence on New Caprica than in the fleet, with as broad a range of actions and movement as their human counterparts. It’s also easier to execute characters during this phase of the game.

All hell breaks loose when the Galactica returns. Civilian ships are moved back to the main board one turn at a time, and must survive the massive Cylon fleet surrounding Galactica. Any characters or ships still on New Caprica once the game ends are automatically destroyed, and any subsequent resource points deducted from the humans’ total. To make matters worse, the Admiral can order the end of play at any time, so it pays to be absolutely certain of their loyalty to avoid an embarrassing last minute rout.

The Pegasus expansion is quite versatile and can be played in several combinations with the original game. On the downside, the extension modifies many sections of the original rule book, meaning you now have two manuals to consult as you play. It also increases the set-up and playing time; our session clocked in at over four hours.

Physically, it’s a shame the Pegasus board is so small (less than half the size of Galactica) but this is offset by the arrival of two moulded plastic Basestars, replacing the cardboard cutouts supplied with the first game.

Pegasus is a well judged addition to an already engaging game. And with Exodus, the second extension, due out soon, the Battlestar Galactica board game family looks set to go from strength to strength. It may be time to invest in a bigger table.





Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game

24 11 2010

Review by P.G. Bell

'Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game' by Corey Konieczka, Fantasy Flight Games, £30

Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game sets itself the seemingly impossible task of recreating the tension, intrigue and action of the Emmy award winning series on a humble square of cardboard. Remarkably, it succeeds.

Players take on the role of the beleaguered Colonial survivors, fleeing the destruction of their homeworlds at the hands of the robotic Cylons and working together to pilot the Galactica and its fleet to the safe haven of Earth. But all is not what it seems; at least one of your number is a Cylon infiltrator, bent on bringing the fleet to ruin. Crucially, you could be a Cylon yourself and not even realise it.

Fans of the show are at a definite advantage when it comes to the board game, as it mirrors the series’ central concepts very closely. The game begins with players selecting a character from one of several classifications; political, military, pilot and technical support. They also receive a Loyalty card, kept secret from the other players, denoting whether they are human or Cylon.

Each character has access to different combinations of skill sets (represented by cards), allowing them to perform vital functions within the fleet, from dispatching scouts to chart upcoming dangers, to repairing areas of Galactica damaged during combat. These skills are also vital in overcoming the Crisis cards that are drawn every turn. These outline the latest disaster to befall Galactica, from Cylon witch hunts that can confine players to the brig (where they will be powerless to help overcome future disasters) to sneak attacks by the pursuing Cylon armada. A specific combination of skills is needed to overcome each crisis and players contribute their cards anonymously, allowing Cylon players to sneak counterproductive cards into the mix, deducting from the humans’ total. Failure to beat the target score on a Crisis card can quickly spell disaster for the humans, usually through the depletion of their essential resources; food, fuel, population and morale. If any of these is exhausted, the Cylons claim victory. Crisis cards also allow the fleet to prepare for faster-than-light jumps however, bringing it one step closer to Earth.

In a stroke of sly genius, the game deals a second round of Loyalty cards once the fleet has made it half way to Earth, meaning players who were previously human could suddenly be “activated” and switch allegiance. Certain characters receive a third loyalty card, meaning those players must fight even harder to win their comrades’ trust.

In fact, some of the most entertaining elements of the game take place off the board, between the players themselves. It certainly pays to know who your friends are; suspicions mount as the stakes are raised, resulting in ill-founded accusations and bids for power. If the President, with her suite of additional powers, isn’t seen to be effective enough in protecting the fleet’s interests, she may find herself voted out of office by her fellows. Similarly, the Admiral can be deposed in a coup and the Galactica’s nuclear deterrent placed in “safer” hands.

The political tugs of war only stop when the Cylon fleet appears. Then it’s all hands to the guns, in an effort to keep the enemy Raiders from destroying precious civilian ships. Combat is dealt with in time honoured tabletop fashion – with the die and miniature figures; in this case, lovingly detailed recreations of Colonial Vipers and Cylon Raiders. It’s a stronger will than mine that can resist staging miniature dogfights between turns.

In fact, all the physical elements of the game are of very high quality. The show’s aesthetic is present throughout, from typefaces to underlying designs and every card carries an appropriate image from the series.

Tying itself so closely to the show does mean the game limits its audience, however. I’ve played several times with people who didn’t know the series and, although they got to grips with the game’s structure, they struggled to understand the relevance of the characters, ships and situations.

The game is also quite a complex affair, requiring a lot of fiddly set-up before you can get started. It takes several rounds of play to fully master and, even then, you’ll find yourself constantly leafing through the rule book, checking minor details.

It’s well worth persevering though as Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game will reward you with challenging, immersive and constantly changing gameplay. Grab some fellow fans, slip a soundtrack CD into the stereo and take the fight to the toasters. So say we all!





‘Sourdough and Other Stories’ by Angela Slatter

3 11 2010

 


'Sourdough and Other Stories' by Angela Slatter, 238+viiipp, Tartarus Press, ISBN: 978-1-905784-25-7, £30 hb

 

Review by Simon Marshall-Jones

It’s very difficult not to be enthusiastic about this book – not just about the writer and her stories but also about the physical book itself. And, it has to be said that, from this particular bibliophile’s point of view, what Tartarus Press have put together here is nothing short of superb and fully justifies the asking price. Sourdough and Other Stories is a lushly-produced hardback, with clear printing and a silk ribbon marker, and includes a full-colour frontispiece and decorated boards and spine – just the perfect thing to display on a shelf. It’s the sort of thing to stroke and make a complete fetish of.

But it wouldn’t be a complete package without the quality of literature within – otherwise it would be nothing more than mere distraction. Luckily, there are gems hidden between those beautifully-gilded covers. I’ve reviewed Angela Slatter before for Beyond Fiction (The Girl with No Hands – Ticonderoga Publications) and I came away highly impressed, both with the way in which she tells her stories but also by her erudition. The sixteen stories contained within this collection attests to both Slatter’s storytelling and her consistency in creating entertaining tales with deep, almost primeval, resonances. And she does this time after time.

The traditional fairytale is her starting point or, rather, what we have come to think of as fairytales. As I observed in my previous review, many of the most famous tales that have been handed down to us, transmitted by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, were corrupted and sanitised by a Christian, Victorian and patriarchal-oriented agenda, where women were often portrayed as not only being fallen but the begetter of evil deeds. The dangers were still there, but they were meant to show the child their rightful place,  as well as to educate and prepare them for their roles in adult life, through moral instruction.

Here, Slatter tears those outdated notions apart, reaffirming and restoring the power of the feminine and the pagan. All her female characters display strength of one kind or another, whether it be a refusal to bow down to the dictates of the patriarchal stage on which these tales are played out (Gallowberries, for instance), or the willingness of a young girl to sacrifice herself to atone for a wrong or in a time of need (The Navigator, A Porcelain Soul), or the power of a woman to transform and renew (The Angel Wood, Little Radish). Conversely, the men in Slatter’s fictional locale of Lodellan are often portrayed as the epitome of stupidity: greedy (the Robber Bridegroom in The Story of Ink), cruel and warlike (the Duke and Dante Velatt in A Porcelain Soul), weak (the king in Sister, Sister) and ultimately afraid of the innate power of women, hence their need to subjugate them (the town council and judge in Gallowberries).

Before you imagine otherwise, not all the women are saintly, however – there’s Gwenllian, the rich mistress who asked Blodwen to heal her horrific burns, giving her young child away as payment for her services. Through Blodwen, we learn of the consequences of going against nature, of denying the bond every woman should have with her child and that doing so without thought can sometimes have dire consequences. Then we meet the cruel, spoilt little rich girl fiancée in Sourdough, who, through her arts with potions, causes her husband-to-be Peregrine’s true love to lose their child. That dead child then turns up in a later tale, Lavender & Lychgates, a wonderful story of the scheming ghost of the spoilt girl to bring him back to life, in order to exact revenge against Emmeline (his mother and the girl who did go on to marry Peregrine) and her daughter. Slatter’s women are also more than capable of a darker magic, too, as is evidenced in the bloody The Bones Remember Everything, a decidedly hallucinatory tale. Additionally, they can also be viciously poisonous, like Polly using malign whispers to usurp her sister Theodora’s place as the king’s wife in Sister, Sister.

Ultimately, however, the wrongs that are perpetrated by these bad apples are corrected by other, stronger (in the moral sense) females. Women are portrayed as the real runners of the show, the glue holding society together and the life-givers (and life-takers in dire need, too). They may be downtrodden, vilified, rejected and outcast, but each possesses an inner strength, an inner conviction to go on and do what’s absolutely necessary. Just like the fairy-tales we grew up with, the ones given to us by our Victorian forefathers, these stories deal in archetypes; however, the difference here is that Slatter’s characters are not the stiff, cardboard cut-outs created to make a moralistic point – they are eminently believable and well rounded, thus enabling us much more easily to identify with them and their plight(s).

On top of this, Slatter is also a master world-builder, but a very subtle one with it. The central conceit is that each of the stories is connected in some way to the story(ies) that have gone before – characters, places and events turn up or are reused in some way. The connections are fluid, however: several names turn up in different stories, for instance, but sometimes their link to the first instance is tenuous and yet the connection is most definitely there nonetheless. This fluidity creates a subtly strong weave that helps us build a picture of the world where the characters live their lives and have their being in. The language used to delineate and map it out it isn’t extraneous or richly detailed – it’s precise and economical, yet is highly effective for all that.

Despite the fact that it’s all set in a fairy-tale world, there is that about Slatter’s writing that ultimately connects it to the world we live in. These are real people, the kind of people we know ourselves: they’re just dressed up in the finery (or rags) of a world that’s just beyond this one. It just as surely reflects our reality as the original fairy-tales mirrored the times when Andersen and the Brothers Grimm collated the ones that have come down the years since. Slatter, then, isn’t so much reinventing these tales as realigning them, rearranging them in effect to better fit the 21st century and the collective sensibilities we hold today. The world has moved on considerably since the triumphalist days of Queen Victoria’s Glorious Empire (of which Slatter’s native Australia was a part), but those Victorian retellings haven’t: Slatter is merely fitting them around today’s values. Another Angela (Angela Carter), as Jeff VanDermeer points out in his afterword, started that whole process of updating, re-envisioning and restoring the fairy-tale to its rightful place in our richly-embroidered cultural tapestry, and with something of its original earthy power. Slatter has confidently taken up that gentle torch and illuminated her own path through what, in lesser hands, may be considered something of a minefield – and, in this reviewer’s opinion, long may she continue to do so.





‘Ghostwatch’ review

31 10 2010

[written by author, NKKingston]

“WE DON’T WANT TO GIVE ANYONE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. WE DON’T WANT TO CAUSE A PANIC.”

On October 31st 1992, at 9:25, a seminal piece of drama was aired. For the next two decades it would regularly top ‘scariest ever’ polls. Frequently compared to Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’, it would not be shown by the BBC again, but it’s been aired by other channels around the world.

Legitimate DVD’s are so hard to get hold of these days even the show’s writer suggests you watch it on YouTube, though personally I think you lose something with all the stops and starts. If you can get hold of a DVD (LoveFilm has it, I don’t know about Netflix) watch it without pausing, rewinding, or otherwise taking advantage of the fact it’s a DVD. If you want to really relive the experience, watch it at 21:25, the original time of broadcast. It’s the 18th anniversary tonight.

Have you done so?

Good.

Are you going to sleep tonight?

I didn’t think so.

But why does it work? Well, if you’re British you’ll understand the kind of weight Michael Parkinson brings to the proceedings. If you’re American, imagine it presented by Oprah Winfrey. They’ve both interviewed Tom Cruise, after all.

Add to this the presence of well known presenters Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, married couple, and comedian Craig Charles (in his Red Dwarf heyday). Bear in mind that all those psychic shows you see now, like ‘Most Haunted’ and ‘Paranormal Investigation: Live’, didn’t exist. That very few people had satellite or cable television and thus no ‘info’ button to explain the premise of the show to them. That since it didn’t start on the hour many people missed those all important writers credits in the first few minutes.

It’s not all good casting and serendipity, of course.

“I felt someone all over me.”

In the first clip claiming to offer evidence of the ghost, you’ll note that the banging of the pipes doesn’t start until one of the girls leaves the room. For the first hour of the show the majority of phenomena can be explained as the actions of one girl or the other (usually Suzanne). There’s some false scares and a lot of larking about amongst the crew, as you’d expect from a live broadcast. Parkinson explains that other shows will come on later and Ghostwatch will offer updates between them until midnight. Except… at the hour mark the show is still running.

“Do you think Mr Pipes wants to hurt you?” “I think he wants to hurt everyone. I think he wants to do bad things.”

It’s around this point that Suzanne is caught fabricating phenomena. Parkinson becomes thoroughly convinced of the hoax while Dr Pascoe tries to explain Suzanne’s behaviour away. Dr Sylvestri (had the Americans done something to offend us recently? That’s the only explanation for such a dud performance in an otherwise sterling show), our out-and-out sceptic, has a field day with it. Meanwhile, even the most unobservant audience member has probably seen Pipes at least once. He’s actually appeared four times now.

“We thought you’d leave us. All we were is noises to you.”

The non-plot ghost stories told by audience members and the taped interviews (and even Sarah Greene’s own) are all true. Sadly, we don’t get to see as many as we’d like because Pipes strikes. The ghost is literally in the machine. Callers are getting hysterical, Parkinson has been wrong footed, and Suzanne is in a trance. Parkinson informs the viewers the next show will be late, as too much is happening.

“We have to stay. Pipes says we have to stay.”

There are three more sightings of Pipes between now and the end of the show (four if you’re being picky, but two are so close I count them together). The ‘onion skin’ element of the haunting is revealed through phone calls. The phenomena in the house extend to bangings, breakings, and Pipes speaking through Suzanne. Even the camera man gets a glimpse of him. Parkinson’s scepticism dissolves, Dr Pascoe looks increasingly distraught, Mike interrupts repeatedly as his concern for Sarah reaches desperate levels, and Craig and the outside crew have no clue there’s anything going on. Anarchy reigns.

“What big eyes you have. What big eyes you have.”

And then all is calm. And then it’s not.

“It’s in the Machine.”

And then it gets worse.

What makes Ghostwatch work so well, I believe, are the unacknowledged appearances of Pipes. The “did you see him? did I see him?” element. That’s what gives theatrical ghost stories an edge over the literary (if you want to see a genuinely theatrical ghost story, get yourself to London and see Ghost Stories. Thank me later). By giving the audience glimpses the characters are denied Ghostwatch ramps up the tension without dissolving the suspension of disbelief.

The phenomena reported and seen can all be tied back to real world hauntings such as the Enfield Poltergeist. Circular patches of liquid, banging sounds, crude images and words, scratches, temperature changes, smells, even the tying up of phone lines…Ghostwatch hits all of them. It’s this level of research that makes it all the more believable. Unlike certain horror films, the more a viewer knows about the subject the more frightening the show become.

As well as the straight forward haunting there’s a strong sexual theme running through the show. Poltergeist activity commonly focuses on pubescent girls, making it somewhat inevitable, but this is deliberately added to with the stories of Mother Seddons taking in the babies of unwed girls, of Raymond Tunstall sexually assaulting children, and Pam Early’s experience in the glory hole. “I felt someone all over me,” she says, and you know from her tone that it wasn’t just the physical presence that was intimidating. Glory hole is, of course, a perfectly common phrase all over England used to describe the cupboard under the stairs. However, it can also mean a hole in the wall of a public toilet cubicle, made for purposes you can probably work out for yourself. Is the entendre intentional? Well, probably not, but it does add another layer to the sexual imagery.

Ghostwatch has its faults, of course. The aforementioned Dr Sylvestri is so over the top I want to apologise on his behalf to any Americans watching it. Some of the acting (especially the children’s) is decidedly ropey, though as the story progresses you notice it less and less, and a lot of viewers find the ending a bit too much.

The show has an almost mythic status in British television history. Rumours such as Sarah Greene exhorting her child-viewers to watch in during Going Live (disproved by the Ghost Watch: Behind the Curtain blog ) give the show a touch of the conspiracy theory about it, though BBC never tried to pretend it was real. Even the pre-programme trail refers to it as a ‘film’ and the presenters as ‘stars’. It’s credited as the first television show to give viewers Post Traumatic Stress.

The BBC have never reshown Ghostwatch. Shortly after its original showing, a teenager committed suicide. His parents blamed the show for his death. Though the BBC take no responsibility for his death, out of tack they have opted not to show it again. It’s a shame, but a reasonable decision.

Ghostwatch was the first film to ever really scare me. Not ‘make me jump, not ‘gross me out’, but to genuinely, seriously scare me. When you place ghosts amongst other supernatural entities they have a massive advantage. Even the toughest vampire with stagger back when hit with a chair, but a ghost can be everywhere and anywhere, untouchable but all too able to touch you. Even through your TV screen.

And make you scared of your own curtains.

“Did you believe the story of Mother Seddons? Did you? Fee Fi Fo Fum.”





‘The Orphanage’ review

31 10 2010

[written by reviewer and writer, Harry Markov]

The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is a 2007 Spanish horror film, which I overlooked, based on the fact that its choice to scare is an orphanage, which automatically means ghastly children. Personally, I have tired of demonic children. Yes, Samara (The Ring) was delightfully terrifying, but I can’t say the same about other horror movies such as Dark Water and The Antichrist. However, Mark assured me it was well worth my time and gave it a shot.

Now, what The Orphanage accomplishes is to create a truly atmospheric movie. All recent US attempts at tales of haunting pale compared to The Orphanage. The movie works to create a sense of setting, present compelling characters for me to care about and avoid the cheap scares, such as constant barrages of screeching noises, sudden bursts of movement, screaming and gore. No, the scare here creeps in, much like frost. It’s a descent into grief-induced madness and the results of human wickedness.

The plot follows Laura (Belen Rueda), a woman who returns home, to an orphanage with plans to restore it into a home for disabled children. The days of preparation function as an introduction to Laura’s life, her interaction with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and son Simon (Roger Princep), the concerns she harbors for Simon’s constant use of imaginary friends as a coping mechanism, her dedication as a mother and her altruism. However, it’s not long until a mysterious woman appears and Simon befriends six more children, who, this time, are supposedly real, when things go wrong. On the day of the opening, Simon disappears after a fight with Laura and from here on the movie follows Laura’s desperate search for her son, not to mention unveiling all of the secrets surrounding the orphanage.

What utterly captivated me is how whole The Orphanage is. There is nothing in excess. Every frame, every scene, every item that passes in front of the lens plays a part later on and I’d say that this is a movie for people with a long attention span. The woman with the faked identity, the new game Simon and Laura played, a small brooch and even fallen pipes are of importance as the end nears and all these elements swarm together into an intricate puzzle, which paints a very tragic chain of events.

If I’m to discuss the plot any further, spoilers will be revealed; a big disservice to all potential viewers. Instead, I will move on to the actors’ performances. Rueda’s acting is intense and overpowering. I didn’t just watch a desperate and haunted woman reach the end of her strength, her resources to find her son even after nine months, her sanity. I wanted to help her push through it all. Her acting is all-consuming, raw and believable. Cayo felt stiff and two dimensional, but his role was limited in the first place. Princep is convincing as a sweet and emotional boy, who spends a lot of his time in his own world, which more or less leads him to his death. The surprise for me was Geraldine Chaplin, who plays the medium Aurora. It’s a brief appearance, but the scenes with her séance are some of the more memorable and hair-raising ones.

I’ll conclude with just how unusual this movie is. First, the orphanage itself was never shown as negative, gloomy or foreboding. In fact, to Laura this was home, as shown in the movie’s opening. For Laura, the orphanage is a return to her past as well as a promise for a new beginning. Second, the haunting transcends the characteristic ‘a few days to a few weeks’ time frame. I’m talking about nine months of subtle accumulation of events, which also doubles as the deconstruction of Laura’s psyche. Third, the ending is more than bitter, but sweet in its own way as well.

The Orphanage may not have hostile ghosts erupting into violent acts of bizarre property damage and its ghosts may seem passive, but director Juan Bayona and Fernando Velazquez (the man behind the soundtrack) know how to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats.





‘The Winter Ghosts’ review

30 10 2010

[written by writer, reviewer and blogger, Liz de Jager]

Kate Mosse’s writing really does cross genres, managing to be both literary, beautiful, eerie and haunting.

In both her previous novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, there had been underlying hints of the paranormal/supernatural.  But what worked so well for me in these novels is how restrained these elements were – they were never in your face or over the top. And that, on a personal level, is something I could get behind.  Yes, there  is a place and time for in your face howling demons, but my type of ghost or horror story is a lot more subtle.

Ms. Mosse has subsequently given us The Winter Ghosts which is an expansion on her The Cave short story she wrote for Quick Reads and is therefore not a full sized novel but nevertheless a fully contained, albeit brief story.

Here then is the write-up:

From the bestselling author of LABYRINTH and SEPULCHRE – a compelling story of ghosts and remembrance. Illustrated throughout by Brian Gallagher. The Great War took much more than lives. It robbed a generation of friends, lovers and futures. In Freddie Watson’s case, it took his beloved brother and, at times, his peace of mind. In the winter of 1928, still seeking resolution, Freddie is travelling through the French Pyrenees. During a snowstorm, his car spins off the mountain road. He stumbles through woods, emerging in a tiny village. There he meets Fabrissa, a beautiful woman also mourning a lost generation. Over the course of one night, Fabrissa and Freddie share their stories. By the time dawn breaks, he will have stumbled across a tragic mystery that goes back through the centuries. By turns thrilling, poignant and haunting, this is a story of two lives touched by war and transformed by courage. THE WINTER GHOSTS is a gorgeous illustrated novel inspired by The Cave, Kate Mosse’s short story written for the Quick Reads Initiative for adult emergent readers.

Ms. Mosse’s skill lays in placing the reader within her setting, which is important in any kind of spooky/horror/genre novel. When Freddie meets Fabrissa and they settle in to talk about what has gone before, your campfire-gene immediately responds to that. You want somewhere warm and snug to sit quietly and listen to this conversation. Freddie is a deeply thoughtful and unhappy person, haunted by the loss of his brother and his own distancing of himself from friends and family. His isolation leaves him vulnerable and sensitive, allowing Freddie to unwittingly perhaps, pick up on the sensations of long past memories of death, war and destruction in this very old haunted area.

The setting of the winter fete in the old town of Nulle where Freddie and Fabrissa meet is finely detailed and redolent of those beautiful but stark mountain villages you see in old photographs. Wrapped in Cathar history, Fabrissa’s story leads Freddie to realise that maybe he’s not quite where he seems to be and that maybe he has travelled further than he intended to seek solace.

The Winter Ghosts is a beautifully written novel with rich characterisations that contrast with the eeriness of the settings and the stories told. It is not the usual in your face ghost story that we’ve become so inured to, but more a slow acclimatisation and an awakening of the senses, that something is just not right…if only you can figure it out, you just may make it.





Dancing with the Dead: Ghosts in “The Graveyard Book”

29 10 2010

[written by author, Louise Morgan]

That Neil Gaiman has written a book for children called The Graveyard Book should come as no surprise. His previous offerings for young readers have included a story which sees a young girl visit a parallel world where people have buttons for eyes (Coraline) and a book in which a family are driven from their home by rambunctious wolves (The Wolves In The Walls), so it’s fair to say that Gaiman is becoming a master of the mini-macabre.

The Graveyard Book opens at night, with a sleeping family–and their brutal murder at the hands of an all-too-real assailant. One of the family, however, escapes: the young son, barely even a toddler, who finds his way out of the house and through the dark to the nearby graveyard. And who should he find waiting for him but a cast of ghostly characters who will become his new family; who will protect, guide and teach him about the world–and more importantly, about life. After all, who knows more about living than someone who has already done all of theirs?

Gaiman was greatly influenced by The Jungle Book in writing this (even the title alludes to it) and, like the world Kipling created for Mowgli, little Bod (full name: Nobody Owens) is furnished with a wealth of friends and neighbours in his new home in the graveyard–from the homely and well-meaning ghosts of Mr and Mrs Owens who never had a child of their own and become his surrogate parents, to the tricky Liza Hempstock who only wants a gravestone of her own.

The mastery of The Graveyard Book is not in its plot, which follows Bod’s adventures at key points in his journey from infant to adult, nor in the sheer Gothic joy of the graveyard–but in the ghosts themselves. Gaiman knows full well that no two ghosts are the same, just as the people they once were differed. He infuses them with (ironically) life, and energy; wisdom and stubbornness, pity and pathos. Even from the comfort of the graveyard, the echoes of the world outside, the world of the living, seep inside the gates: on the night of Bod’s arrival, the sedate and settled ghosts of the cemetery contrast with the sudden appearance of the shocked ghost of Bod’s newly-dead mother as she appeals to the others to protect her son–a violent death begetting a violent-seeming apparition.

Bod is a boy between the two worlds, between the living and the dead, able to see (rather like Gaiman himself, perhaps) the things that others miss. And it is when the two worlds converge that The Graveyard Book really soars: with the “Macabray”, for instance, the Danse Macabre between the living and the dead–and at the centre of it all, the Lady on the Grey, sinister and smiling at once; one part Gaiman’s own Death of the Endless to one part Terry Pratchett’s mounted Grim Reaper mixed with something strange and new.

Not that being between the two worlds is easy, of course. Bod outgrows his first playmates, all of whom are stranded as children forever. Nor can it be straightforward trying to make friends in a world that you don’t perhaps fully understand–like school, as Bod discovers. While this could be true of a hundred, a thousand, other books about childhood, by invoking ghosts and spectres with which to people his narrative, Gaiman exaggerates the challenges of childhood and makes the real world, the adult world, the living world which must be negotiated even more alien to our hero.

There is, of course, much more to The Graveyard Book than just its ghosts. There are the humans who tumble in and out of Bod’s life; the deliciously awful ghouls who seek to carry him off; the creepy, whispering menace that lurks in the shadows and waits for its master; and Silas–the lonely figure who protects Bod from the corporeal dangers of the world.

With its graveyard that is all things to Bod: shelter, school, playground and battlefield, the message of the book is clear. Ghosts are not the enemy: the living have little to fear from the dead. The dead are dead, and as Silas tells Bod: “they are, for the most part, done with the world”. It is the living who pose the greatest threat to Bod as he grows: the man who killed his family, the school bullies, policemen, unscrupulous antiques dealers… the list goes on.

The Graveyard Book is, in so many ways, a love song to graveyards and their ghosts, separated from the living but not so different from them after all. Midway through the book, Bod is told: “You’re alive Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything.” and it is not the living who help him realise this, but the dead.

Through the graveyard–the Egyptian Walk and the unhallowed ground, the Owenses, the Lady on the Grey, the formidable Mother Slaughter and even Silas–through the dead, the ghosts, Gaiman asks us to consider what it really means to be alive… and then, simply, quietly, to go out and live.