Friday, 16 April 2021

Birds of Paradise: Oliver K. Langmead Interview


After reading the new novel Birds of Paradise I spoke to author Oliver K. Langmead and asked him a few questions about the project. The full review for Birds of Paradise can be found here.

Birds of Paradise could probably fall into the Urban Fantasy genre, as it sees readers discovering a world of magic or the fantastical inserted into our own, but it feels very different to that, as it seems to be a story where these immortal beings who have had to deal with humanity taking over their world. Did it ever feel like you were creating something unique when you were writing it, that you were going to be challenging expectations and conventions?

A few folk have described Birds of Paradise as “mythical fantasy”, and I think it would probably be intrusive fantasy under Mendelsohn's classifications, as well – but I always feel as if genre is more for publishers, critics and readers than writers. There are genre conventions to play with, certainly – but more often than not, I think that writers just want to be able to tell the stories they want to tell without worrying about where it fits into the broader literary world.

Still - no book is written in a vacuum, and all books are written in conversation with other books, which is probably where the emergence of genre comes from. I think Birds is in conversation with the likes of American Gods, and The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Vorrh trilogy – and if there's anything in it that challenges genre, then it comes from the way that it thinks about the themes those books address.

The book chiefly follows Adam, the First Man, a character that has been depicted a lot in various incarnations. Despite this your Adam felt incredibly fresh and original. I felt this was in part down to the way that he seemed to walk a fine line between incredibly violent and destructive and deeply sensitive and caring. Was this a difficult character to balance?

That's very kind of you! Adam was difficult to write because he is the sum of his experiences – all the things he must have seen and done over thousands of years of existence. He's effectively lived hundreds of different lives, through so many different eras in so many different cultures. If he succeeds at all, it's because I wrote him largely at the scene level – making sure that the character felt right in each interaction he had – instead of thinking about him from a broad perspective (which would, I think, have been overwhelming and unworkable).

Most depictions of Adam and Eve are shaped by Western Christianity, and they’re often portrayed as white, yet you chose to have them be Black people, a decision that I thought was the most realistic way for the characters to be depicted. What was your reasoning for breaking from conventional depictions of them, and have you experienced any pushback on that?

Birds of Paradise is an exercise in literalising a myth. As a part of that process, I had to address the fact that white skin only became a dominant feature in Europe at around 3000B.C. Obviously, there were thousands upon thousands of years of human history before then, which Adam will have been a part of. It felt absolutely right to give him dark skin, and I like that it challenges conventional ideas about what the first man should look like, especially when those conventions come from institutions that have a history of racial oppression. So far, I haven't experienced any pushback.

Oliver's Dark Star was amongst the Guardian’s
Best Books of 2015

The book features several characters other than Adam and Eve who were present in Eden, as you’ve given human form to the various animals that lived there. Were there any of these animal beings you were interesting in using who didn’t quite make the cut, or ideas of interesting character that you never got to use?

Absolutely! In early drafts, Butterfly had a sister – gentle, near-sighted Moth. And I did, at one point, script a spin-off comic about Barracuda – sharp, quick and cold. I had a lot of fun with Barracuda. The script was called Barracuda Smile, and it was about his poor attempts at setting up a private detective agency (with the help of Rook, of course). It's something I hope to revisit some day. There's something really fun about the idea of an immortal fish private investigator.

You’ve mentioned in the past, with your work like Dark Star and Metronome, that you like writing broken people, was it always your intention to make Adam such a broken man or was it something that happened naturally as you were developing things?

When I start writing a book, I begin by writing a keystone scene – a scene that will inform the rest of the book with its style and form and pacing and character. It's always a scene I can return to when I'm feeling a bit lost, to tell me what the book should be. For Birds of Paradise, that scene is the opening to the first chapter, and it took a couple of months to emerge. But as soon as it did, I knew that that was what I wanted the book to be – I knew that that was what I wanted Adam to be. In that scene, Adam has trouble connecting with the world he finds himself in, and he's clearly disconnected from his descendants. I wanted to explore that disconnection, discover the reasons behind it, and find out what Adam was still connected to.

Metronome is available from
Unsung Stories.

Adam goes through a journey of healing over the course of the book, after going through some incredibly traumatic and harmful things. Do you see this as the beginning of a happy ending for him, or do you think he would end up going through similar cycles of apathy and the finding of small comforts in the rest of his life?

I'm not sure that a happy ending would ever have worked for Birds of Paradise. I like a good happy ending – don't get me wrong – but I'm not sure that happy endings are quite reflective of the reality we live in, and it was important to me that Adam feels as if he lives in our world. I think that a core part of the human experience is the way that everything is fleeting – the good and bad both – and it's easy to imagine Adam continuing much along the same lines. Good days and bad days, good months and bad months, good years and bad years, just like his descendants.

At the end of the book you say that it took you a decade to write it, what was it about this story that kept you going on it for so long, that you felt you needed to come back to over such a long period and finish?

The book comes from a short story I wrote in about 2005, about a man who sells his soul to the devil for a flower from Eden. Since then, the idea stuck with me and developed, producing some really wonderful characters. The problem, since I started writing the first version of Birds back in 2009, was that I just wasn't doing justice to the idea behind the book. The idea was great – what if the first man was still alive today? What if pieces of Eden were scattered all across the world? How far would Adam go to recover them? But it would take another decade before I was skilled enough to produce a book worthy of it. The Birds of Paradise out today was a labour of love, and I can tell you that it was worth every second of work I put into it – I am proud of what it is.

The book has a strong message about environmentalism in it, as you depict a Britain where massive floods and extreme weather affect the country. I know you’ve studied terraforming and ecological philosophy in the past, as well as working with the European Space Agency. Is environmentalism and the preservation of the planet something that you feel informs your work?

Birds of Paradise was definitely written in part to express how I've been feeling about the climate crisis. We're at the point, as a species, where we really need be rethinking our place in the world. My villains may feel a little bold in their assertions of dominion and dominance over non-humans, but this is exactly how we're still acting as a species; as if all the world is ours to plunder, instead of care for. Anthropocentrism is ruining our planet, and destroying so many beautiful things, and it is rooted in religious ideas about the world being created for us to rule over. It felt good to have Adam, the first man, summarily reject that notion.

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Thursday, 15 April 2021

Such Pretty Things by Lisa Heathfield - Book Review


'A terrifying story of ghosts and grief, perfect for fans of Shirley Jackon's The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James The Turn of the Screw, in award-winning author Lisa Heathfield s first adult novel.

'Clara and her younger brother Stephen are taken by their father to stay with their aunt and uncle in a remote house in the hills as their mother recovers from an accident. At first, they see it as a summer to explore. There's the train set in the basement, the walled garden with its secret graves and beyond it all the silent loch, steady and waiting.

'Auntie has wanted them for so long - real children with hair to brush and arms to slip into the clothes made just for them. All those hours washing, polishing, preparing beds and pickling fruit and now Clara and Stephen are here, like a miracle, on her doorstep.

'But the reality of two children their noise, their mess, their casual cruelties begins to overwhelm Auntie. The children begin to uncover things Auntie had thought left buried, and Clara can feel her brother slipping away from her. This hastily created new family finds itself falling apart, with terrifying consequences for them all.'

Such Pretty Things tells the story of two siblings, Clara and Stephen, who are taken to stay in a remote house with their aunt and uncle after their mother becomes hospitalised. Unable to juggle the responsibilities of a sick wife, work, and two children, their father decides that it's best for the two children to spend a few weeks in the country, even though they've never met their mothers sister before.

Straight away there's a sense that there's something wrong in the house as soon as they get there, though this seems to be down to the fact that their aunt is a woman that whilst clearly very loving is very much set in her ways, and doesn't know how to interact with children. And this becomes the primary focus of the book, Clara and Stephen butting heads with their aunt repeatedly.

The blurb for the book book describes it as a story about ghosts, and whilst I don't want to spoil too much about the book I have to tell people that it's not; or at least not in the way that I was expecting. I was waiting for things to start going bump in the night, for strange presences to make themselves known, and otherworldly visions to appear. The book has none of these, and there's never really any involvement with the supernatural in this book at all. Instead, the ghosts of the blurb are definitely referring to the ghosts of the aunt's past, and how her own experiences are haunting her.

The book isn't dealing with spirits or spectres, but is instead a character study about a lonely and troubled woman and the madness that lies within her, caused by years of grief and loss. I would say that the book shows her descent into madness, but looking back at everything it's quite clear that the aunt was never fully sane, and the small 'eccentricities' from the first time we meet her were hinting at bigger things to come. 

The horror of Such Pretty Things comes from people, it's horror that takes a look at the evil that people are capable of, even when they think that they're acting in a place of love. The book has some heavy themes of abuse and childhood trauma, and readers who have lived through an abusive childhood may find some of the events of the book upsetting; especially as the aunt unravels more and more over the course of events.

There are things that happen in Such Pretty Things that really put me on edge, and I found myself worried about the children more than once; and I kept urging Clara to try and do something, anything, to get out of the place. I wanted her to strike out, to physically fight back because I just somehow knew that things would get worse for them the longer they went on. I got really invested in these characters, and desperately wanted them to okay by the end.

I've not read any of Lisa Heathfield's other books before, but I'm aware that she normally writes in the Young Adult field, and that Such Pretty Things is her first foray into adult literature, and horror. For a first time writing in this field it's an impressively subtle horror. It's a book that doesn't rely on scares or the spooky to get under your skin, but instead relies on complex human characters to drive the horror. 

Such Pretty Things is a book that creeped me out a lot, one that made me uncomfortable in a lot of ways, and that kept me on the edge of my seat. A very subtle and complex horror story.

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Birds of Paradise by Oliver K. Langmead – Book Review


Originally published on Set The Tape

'American Gods meets The Chronicles of Narnia in this adult fantasy about the Biblical Adam recovering the lost pieces of the Garden of Eden.

'Many millennia after the fall of Eden, Adam, the first man in creation, still walks the Earth - exhausted by the endless death and destruction, he is a shadow of his former hope and glory. And he is not the only one. The Garden was deconstructed, its pieces scattered across the world and its inhabitants condemned to live out immortal lives, hiding in plain sight from generations of mankind.

'But now pieces of the Garden are turning up on the Earth. After centuries of loneliness, Adam, haunted by the golden time at the beginning of Creation, is determined to save the pieces of his long lost home. With the help of Eden's undying exiles, he must stop Eden becoming the plaything of mankind.

'Adam journeys across America and the British Isles with Magpie, Owl, and other animals, gathering the scattered pieces of Paradise. As the country floods once more, Adam must risk it all to rescue his friends and his home - because rebuilding the Garden might be the key to rebuilding his life.'

Birds of Paradise introduces readers to Adam, the first human ever created, made long ago in the Garden of Eden. Having been alive for so long Adam is not the figure as depicted in the Bible, and seems to be coasting through life, living through one identity after another with no real aim or focus. This all changes, however, when Adam seems to snap one day and beats a film writer to death. Facing prison, Adam is approached by Raven, the first raven to ever exist; who like Adam was thrown out of Eden and now faces an immortal existence, able to change from animal to human at will.

Raven is able to arrange for Adam to avoid prison, but in return Adam will have to travel across the Atlantic to Scotland to help track down Raven’s elusive brother, Magpie, who’s been spending millions of his brothers money. Adam has to find Magpie and discover what he’s been doing with Raven’s money. Along the way Adam will meet up with some of the other former inhabitants of Eden, and discover a secret that will change things for them all forever.

The blurb on the back of Birds of Paradise compares the book to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and whilst I’ve yet to read it (I know, I really should) from what I know of the book it’s a really good comparison. The story feels strangely timeless, full of history and age, yet so steeped in the modern world. It feels like myth meeting everyday life, where the fantastical and wondrous can be hiding behind any corner, where any person could be something ancient and powerful.

Whilst there have been a lot of Adam and Eve re-tellings or re-imaginings over the years this is one really stands out because it gives life to the entirety of Eden, not just the human inhabitants. The story is as much about the animals, the beings that have existed through all of time and become part of the human world. It’s them who really drive the story forward, who make things happen; Adam feels less of a protagonist, and more of a reactor, simply going along and seeing what happens.

But this isn’t a bad thing, and certainly not a weakness for the book. Readers very quickly learn that Adam has lived so long, seen so much, loved and lost time and time again that he’s almost given up. Nothing much really surprises him any more. He hardly feels passion, he struggles to make connections with the humans that populate the world, and sees little reason to. The book is as much about Adam learning to recapture some of his old life, the things that gave him purpose and joy before, as much as it is about unravelling the mystery of what Magpie is up to.

Birds of Paradise doesn’t take a kind view of immortality. It presents the idea of living forever as as much a curse as anything else. The inhabitants of Eden don’t age, they don’t get sick, but they can be killed. If someone hurts them enough, uses such brutal force, they can be killed. The only way for them to find an end to their long existence is to go through a brutal death. So we have characters who are seeking out little joys in life, things that can give them happiness, but it doesn’t always seem to work. There are characters who are barely holding on to their humanity, existing as almost feral creatures, because they just don’t know what else to do with themselves.

Because of this the book has a kind of melencholy feel to it at times, it has such beauty and wonder, yet can leave you feeling like you’ve witnessed something awful and heartbreaking too. The characters in this book might be immortal, might be god-like to us, but they can hurt and suffer as much as anyone; and that, like them, can last forever.

Birds of Paradise is a book that I was very interested in, but wasn’t expecting to grab me as much as this one did. It had so much depth to it, so much heart. Oliver K. Langmead talks about how the book took over a decade to write, and I can believe that, I can believe that a story this complex, layered, and beautiful took so long to create, and was such a passion project that he refused to give up on it for so long. A truly amazing piece of writing.

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Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Arkham Horror: Litany of Dreams: Ari Marmell Interview


After reading the new novel Arkham Horror: Litany of Dreams I spoke to author Ari Marmell and asked him a few questions about the project. The full review for Arkham Horror: Litany of Dreams can be found here.

How did you first get into horror?

That’s... actually a really good question. I’m not entirely sure. As a kid, I was always into speculative fiction—sci-fi, fantasy, all that—but I didn’t much care for horror. In fact, I was pretty easily scared. I want to say it began to change in my teens, as I was exposed to more horror by my friends - Evil Dead and the like. But also, there are a number of fantasy authors who tend to work a lot of horrific imagery into their books. Simon Green is the first author I remember seeing that from, though I’m sure there were others, and I think that’s what really hooked me.

That and playing Vampire: the Masquerade a lot.

There’s a lot of stories in the Lovecraft catalogue, are there any that stick out to you as particularly memorable, or that helped to inspire Litany of Dreams?

I don’t think any of his specific stories inspired Litany, except possibly in the negative. (I’ll talk more about that in a bit.) As far as the ones that stand out... Well, at the risk of giving the boring answer, I’ll say mostly the famous ones/the classics. “The Call of Cthulhu.” “Pickman’s Model.” And of course “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” (When I was doing a lot of role-playing game work for Wizards of the Coast, I wrote an entire D&D adventure heavily inspired by that one.)

What is it about Lovecraft’s work and the universe he created that you think makes it such an enduring thing?

Lovecraft is pretty close to synonymous with “cosmic horror,” and it’s a sub-genre that... I hesitate to give him full credit for creating it, just because I know he had his own influences and there were other writers of the time who might’ve technically come before him but who never achieved his fame. But he effectively created that sub-genre, and he certainly popularised it. He captured both a style of story and a certain variety of human fear that I think really resonate. It’s almost endlessly fascinating, and very different from other forms of horror.

Hot Lead, Cold Iron is the first book
in Ari's Mick Oberon series.

The book had some really strong characters in it, and I loved how most of them were people who wouldn’t have been in positions of power at the time it was set, such as women, queer people, and people of colour. Was it a conscious decision to make your lead characters outsiders like that?

It very much was, not just for story purposes but—and I’m sure some people will roll their eyes at this, but whatever—also as a deliberate statement. It’s no secret that Lovecraft was deeply racist and xenophobic, even for his day. Unfortunately, you can find those attitudes in a lot of his work as well, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes pretty well on the surface. I very specifically wanted to flip the script, to focus on characters he never would have, to take someone he would have portrayed as a “savage” and instead make them the one on the journey of discovery and retrieval in the midst of an ethically questionable “civilised” society. (Had I not been writing for someone else’s IP, with an existing audience that includes younger readers, I’d actually have taken some elements of that, and of the horror, a lot farther. I don’t mention that as a complaint or anything—this is a great audience to write for and a great team to work with—merely a comment.)

It’s something I’d wanted to do for a while, for both the statement and for the almost limitless story potential, even before I ever got involved with Aconyte. I’m delighted they offered me the opportunity to do it.

Other books in the Arkham Horror series seem to focus on the elites of the city, with those in high society, but you chose average people for the most part. Were you ever tempted to set the book more in high society?

Not really, no. Pretty much as soon as the concept began coming together, I knew it was going to involve students and staff at Miskatonic, and an outsider to the city. It never felt like it wanted to be anything else.

Ari's Widdershins series of fantasy book.

Your story deals with a litany that gets inside people’s heads and infects them, changing them into essentially drones to a higher power, which was incredibly creepy. What inspired this idea of infection spread through sound, as it’s such a brilliant concept?

First, I need to be clear that I’m not the only person to play with the idea of “infection through sound.” There have been other stories that do so, albeit in very different ways.

I’ve long had a fascination with telling stories involving certain forms of body horror. What really made this click for me was the idea of combining those, and making them work in Lovecraft’s mythology. So it wasn’t a single specific idea that made me want to do this, so much as a confluence of several.

Hmm. I’d really like to go into this further, but I’m afraid there’s no way I can do so without some significant spoilers. So while I recognise I’ve only given a half-answer at best, I’m afraid I’m going to stop it there.

The book features an Inuit character in Billy Shiwak, was there a lot of research involved in including this character? I really liked the way that you made a point of showing how the word ‘Eskimo’ was a slur, and how much Billy hated the phrase.

A lot of research, yes. I knew from the start that it was going to be very tricky portraying such a character both accurately and respectfully. And I’ll admit straight up that a lot my initial research was incomplete—not for lack of trying, but just for lack of readily available detail. A huge amount of English writing on the culture of the Kalaallit (Greenlandic Inuit) is older and filtered through any number of problematic attitudes.

We knew from the beginning that we were going to need a sensitivity reader/fact checker. It was difficult finding one, but when we finally did, she was delightful to work with. She corrected a great many errors on my part and made my portrayal of the character so much better. (If any mistakes still slipped through, those are entirely my responsibility, not hers.)

If people enjoyed reading this book what can they hope to expect from you in the future? Are you able to tell us what you’re working on next?

If people enjoyed the setting, I’d recommend my Mick Oberon series. It’s fae-focused urban fantasy set in the 1930s, with a very period voice to it. Sam Spade meets Harry Dresden, sort of. It’s not horror, but some elements of the fantasy do get fairly dark on occasion.

At the moment, I’m working on a fantasy novel, a tie-in for an upcoming game called Bloodstone. My agent’s working on selling a near-future horror novel that makes this one look like My Little Pony. And I’ve got some people looking at some script-writing I’ve done. I’ll certainly be announcing it if anything comes of that, but you probably won’t need me to. I expect everyone within a few thousand miles to hear me screaming.

Anyone interested in seeing more of Ari's work can head over to his website to find more on his back catalogue, where they can also find out a little bit more about the author too.

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Arkham Horror: Litany of Dreams by Ari Marmell - Book Review


'Dark incantations expose the minds of Miskatonic University students to supernatural horrors, in this chilling mystery novel of Arkham Horror

'The mysterious disappearance of a gifted student at Miskatonic University spurs his troubled roommate, Elliot Raslo, into an investigation of his own. But Elliot already struggles against the maddening allure of a ceaseless chant that only he can hear… When Elliot’s search converges with that of a Greenland Inuk’s hunt for a stolen relic, they are left with yet more questions. Could there be a connection between Elliot’s litany and the broken stone stele covered in antediluvian writings that had obsessed his friend? Learning the answers will draw them into the heart of a devilish plot to rebirth an ancient horror.'

I've not played the Arkham Horror game, my only experience in this world is my knowledge of of Lovecraft's stories, and the only book in the series I've read so far, Arkham Horror: The Last Ritual. As such, when I began reading the latest release in the novel series, Arkham Horror: Litany of Dreams, I was expecting certain things; I was expecting shadowy cults, strange rituals, and mysterious relics. Whilst this book has all of these things, it also has a lot more going on in it; things that make this a definite stand-out read.

The story follows a group of people who are drawn together in the town of Arkham. There's Elliot Raslo, a young psychology student whose friend, Chester has recently disappeared. Daisy Walker, one of the librarians of the Miskatonic University, who's in charge of keeping some of the stranger and more dangerous books in the collection under lock and key. And Billy Shiwak, an Inuit who's travelled across the world to Arkham in search of a relic that was stolen from his people. At first glance there's not much to connect these three, until their separate investigations draw them together.

Our three investigators soon discover that Chester may not only have come into contact with Billy's relic, the Ujaraanni, but has found a connection between it and an ancient, mysterious monolith held deep in the bowels of the University. The three of them come to believe that Chester's investigation into these artefacts may have led directly to his disappearance, and as such Daisy and Elliot agree to help Billy try and find his missing artefact, hoping that it will also lead to Chester. Along the course of their investigation the trio will discover a seedy underbelly of Arkham that deals in the mysterious and the occult, as well as a small swamp community that has fallen victim to this strange curse; some kind of odd incantation, one that Elliot has been hearing in his head ever since Chester vanished.

One of the things that I loved about Litany of Dreams was how you never knew what to expect next. The story began with one of the Miskatonic professors searching for Chester, finding a frightening secret deep in the swamps, before the action then shifts back to the city. Here the mystery focused on our three principal players as they try to find the clues that can help them find Chester, before it takes us back to the small swamp community where something even more horrific is going on. Then the book brings you back to Arkham and introduces even more frightening stakes; ones that could mean the end of everything.

The twists and turns in the story meant that you had to be constantly on your toes. There was never a moment to feel relaxed reading the book, as there was always something happening. Even the moments of the book where there wasn't a lot of action the characters were always discovering new things, finding out secret histories or unearthing hidden connections between people. Ari Marmell never let the reader get bored, and paced the narrative wonderfully throughout.

One of the things that really stood out about the book for me though were the scenes set deep within the swamps. From reading the previous Arkham Horror novel I was expecting a story that would be mainly set within the city itself, focused on the hidden societies and cults that make up the town. So when the characters found themselves in this remote, rural location it made for a big shift in tone. The fact that the horror became more overt then too really helped. Instead of the ever present sense of unease the horror shifted and moved front and centre as people that had fallen under the spell of this strange litany became active threats.

These moments brought to mind things like Night of the Living Dead and Resident Evil 7, one because there's the horror of an infection that can turn your loved ones against you and force you to have to kill them, as well as the potential for it to linger inside you before transforming you into one of them too; and the other because of the remote setting where people are slowly changing into something else, with this outside presence controlling their actions and turning them on those they love. It was the part of the book that really got under my skin the most, and I absolutely loved it.

One of the keys to good horror though is having characters that you care about. If people start being killed off but they're folks you don't really give a damn about it doesn't really mean much; so having characters that you can get attached to is really important. Marmell seems to understand this, and gives readers some compelling characters to follow. Daisy is a young woman who's worked hard to get in the position she has, and seems to have something of an impostor syndrome going on. There are times in the book where she expresses amazement that she has the position she has, and seems to always be worried about something causing her to lose her job and standing. It's something I think a lot of us can identify with, and it means that when she refuses to get involved with certain things, or to put herself at risk in certain ways, you completely understand it. You get why she's worried to put her job on the line and you don't hold it against her.

Billy is probably the biggest outsider in the book, being a character who's not Caucasian he's almost instantly met with distrust, if not open hostility throughout the book. Even when there are times people seem to be accepting and polite towards him it can turn and you see that there's bigotry just beneath the surface. There's one scene in particular where someone uses the phrase Eskimo, Billy tells him that he doesn't like it and prefers the term Inuit, making it quite clear that the other word isn't acceptable; but then that person immediately replies with 'Yes, I've heard that about Eskimo's' and carries on. It's not overt, but it's there. And it's there constantly. The level of restraint that Billy shows throughout the book is astonishing, and it quickly gets you on his side and you see that despite sometimes appearing to be angry or upset about things he's a man in a lot of control of his emotions, one who keeps his actions measured and carefully thought through.

Elliot is one of the the more interesting members of our little group. At first he appears to be a pretty average young man, one who's given himself over to his studies and is trying to better himself. But we soon discover that he's willing to give up a lot of the advancement he's achieved in order to help his missing friend. There are heavy hints at why there is in the early stages of the book, and it's no real surprise when it's revealed that he's in love with Chester. Making him a queer man in a time where such things were unacceptable, where he has to hide his romantic feelings behind 'just good friends' makes his mission to find Chester and save him so much more meaningful and heartbreaking. Even if he's able to find Chester and get him back safely he can never be with him, can never openly love the person who means the most to him in the world. It's perhaps one of the more tragic parts of the book.

The fact that the three leads are all outsiders, people who aren't in positions of power, who aren't able to be themselves definitely works in the books favour. Not only does it give the text something interesting to explore, as much of Lovecraft's own work was about straight white cis men, but it also flips the themes of the 'horrific outsider' that was a foundation for the original Lovecraft stories on its head. We all know that Lovecraft was a huge racist, that he hated and feared anyone who was 'different' or 'other', so to have those kinds of people be the ones to be rising it all to save everyone else, to be putting their lives on the line to stop the true darkness is an absolutely sublime choice.

As I said before, this is only my second Arkham Horror book, but it's quickly become my favourite in the series; as well as one of the better Lovecraft inspired stories I've read. It takes the expected conventions and turns them on their head. The book always keeps you guessing, always keeps you on edge. I adored every minute of reading this book, and I really hope that we get more of Ari in this world.

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Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Near The Bone by Christina Henry - Book Review

'A woman trapped on a mountain attempts to survive more than one kind of monster, in a dread-inducing horror novel from the national bestselling author Christina Henry.

'Mattie can't remember a time before she and William lived alone on a mountain together. She must never make him upset. But when Mattie discovers the mutilated body of a fox in the woods, she realizes that they're not alone after all.

'There's something in the woods that wasn't there before, something that makes strange cries in the night, something with sharp teeth and claws. When three strangers appear on the mountaintop looking for the creature in the woods, Mattie knows their presence will anger William. Terrible things happen when William is angry.'

There's something about Christina Henry's books that make them really hard to put down, and Near The Bone is no exception. From the very first page to the heart pounding final pages, the book had me hooked.

The story follows Mattie, a young woman living in a remote mountain cabin deep in the woods with her husband William. William, who's much older than Mattie, is a harsh man, one who will only have his way and beats any kind of fight out of Mattie to achieve those ends. Because of this Mattie begins the book a fairly broken person, one with little to no self esteem or belief in herself, a young woman living in constant terror that her husband will find something she does angering and will beat her.

Having been with William as long as she can remember Mattie has no sense of what the outside world is, and can barely remember ever seeing another human. She's not allowed out of the cabin unsupervised except for the occasional chore. She's not allowed to read anything but the Bible. She's a prisoner in her life.

This all changes one day when Mattie is checking the rabbit traps close to their cabin and comes across the mutilated remains of a fox. Not just that, but there are strange bear-like tracks in the snow, large tracks of a huge creature that seems to move around on its hind legs. Mattie shows this to William, and the two of them follow the trail until it mysteriously vanishes. 

The next day William decides they'll investigate some nearby caves, hoping to find the creature's lair. What they do find is more bizarre and terrifying then they ever expected, however. Things only get worse though when they run into another human, a young man in strange clothing and carrying gear that Mattie doesn't recognise. This begins a series of horrific events as more outsiders arrive on the mountain, searching for this strange creature that seems to be stalking people through the woods. Now Mattie has to not only survive this unknown monster, but her enraged husband who's determined to keep Mattie away from the outside world.

Near The Bone is told from Mattie's perspective, and she makes for an interesting narrator. Having been kept in isolation for much of her life, and raised by a vicious man, it soon becomes clear that she has a very narrow view of the world. Mattie can only relate things through her experiences, and there are times during the book that she struggles to put things into words, even to the reader. Over time we learn more about Mattie, as she begins to slowly unlock her older memories thanks to the events going on around her, and we see how she ended up the woman she is.

This is one of the more fascinating parts of the book, and it's possibly more frightening than the strange creature killing people in the forest because of how human and real it is. It soon becomes clear that the events of this book aren't set a hundred year ago or more, which it first seemed to, and that Mattie is so isolated from the real world that she's essentially living in the past. Learning how Mattie went from living in our world to becoming a captive on a remote mountain is one of the biggest mysteries of the book, and is unlocked slowly as Mattie recovers the secrets of her past. These scenes are not only fascinating for the answers they provide, but are some of the most emotional moments of the book. Things like Mattie remembering what a grilled cheese sandwich is and the way it connects her to her mother, or tasting chocolate for the first time in over a decade. These tiny moments are close to heartbreaking as we see Mattie discovering these tiny parts of life that we all take for granted, but change her entire world.

There's a very human story at the heart of this book, one of a young woman living through extreme trauma and abuse, and it makes the book so much better than if it were just a group of people being picked off by this strange monster. There are times where William is the more frightening of the two monsters that are stalking Mattie, and the level of fear she has for him is not only understandable, but so terrifyingly real.

That being said, the creature in this book is so frighteningly fascinating. We never get a clear look at this thing, we never find out what it really is, and that's one of the most infuriating and brilliant parts. I wanted to know what this thing was. I wanted to know how it could be so huge but move almost silently. I wanted to know why it mutilated animals and people. I wanted to know how smart it was. And I wanted to know where it had come from. But, I also know that knowing all of that would have taken away a lot of the mystique of this thing. As such, I was more than happy to get tiny glimpses, to only see it briefly, and to be put in the same situation as the people on the mountain. The times where the creature turned up were some of the most tense, well paced moments of the book, and I loved them.

Near The Bone is a horror story where more than horror is thrown at the characters. William or the creature alone would have been enough to carry this book. Either one of them was frightening enough to be the main threat, but to throw both of them at Mattie and the reader? Well, it meant that you were never able to relax, were always on the edge of your seat, and always desperate to keep reading more.

I loved the incredibly real horror of being a captive, of being abused and broken by a human being, as well as the completely alien horror of being hunted by something otherworldly. There are few writers who'd be able to weave two very different narratives like that together so well, whilst also making Mattie's journey so engaging and emotionally resonating; but Christina Henry is able to do it with such amazing flair. This is a book that no horror fan should miss out on. Absolutely perfect.

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Originally published on Set The Tape

The Power is one of the newest British horror productions coming to Shudder, and sees a young, inexperienced nurse falling prey to dark forces.

Set in 1973, The Power shows a time in Britain where things weren’t particularly great. Thanks to a number of factors the early seventies saw restrictions on electricity, which resulted in power cuts, and the three-day week. This is where we meet Val (Rosie Williams), a young nurse fresh out of school who’s just started work at a worn down and struggling hospital. 

Val, a former orphan, knows how hard it is in the local community, and wants to work in the struggling hospital to help those in less fortunate conditions; something that she has experience with. Despite trying her best to fit in and win over some of the staff she manages to annoy the Matron, and gets herself put onto the night-shift.

Whilst this doesn’t seem like too much of a punishment, the blackouts make it a lot worse. As the majority of the patients and staff are moved out for the night Val is left to attend Intensive Care with one other nurse, Babs (Emma Rigby), whilst the rest of the hospital is left dark and empty. Unfortunately, during the night a terrifying presence makes itself known to Val.

The setting for The Power is what initially drew me to this film. Hospitals are creepy places; it’s not their fault, it’s just something that’s true. They’re places where, unless you work there, you only go if you are sick or dying, or you’re going to visit someone who’s sick or dying. Other than the occasional good thing, such a births, they’re places that have unpleasant connotations for most people, and this film acknowledges that. Add in the pitch black corridors and empty wards, and this place that’s already unsettling becomes downright scary. As one of the nurses in the film says, ‘a place people die in should never be allowed to get that dark’

The scenes where Val is having to navigate the long halls of the hospital with only a small oil lamp to light her way are some of the creepiest parts of The Power, and really help to build atmosphere, and if the film made more use of this atmosphere I think it would have done really well; unfortunately, things become a little less scary as they get more overtly spooky.

Once the dark presence starts to make itself known, grabbing Val and throwing her around, the film starts to lose a little something. The moments of quiet, of looming threat were great, but once the characters are having their clothes tugged or being possessed to do certain things the scares seem to lessen. I loved the mystery of not knowing what was in the dark with Val, or checking out every shadowy corner to see if there was something lurking there; her lashing out at people because a ghost was making her do things is not so much fun.

That being said, the film does pretty quickly introduce a mystery element once the haunting becomes more apparent, and Val finds herself having to try to get to the bottom of a dark secret in order to save herself from the evil spirit that’s tormenting her. It’s something that’s pretty standard fare in ghost films, that the spirit is lashing out to get the protagonist to do something it needs help with, and The Power doesn’t really add anything new or unique to this formula.

The Power had a pretty strong start, and benefited from a fairly unusual setting and some strong acting, particularly from lead Rose Williams, but thanks to the over reliance on jump scares over atmosphere, and a plot that didn’t push for anything new, the film never really rose above ‘okay’ for me.

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Monday, 12 April 2021

Marvel Action: Spider-Man #1 – Comic Review


Originally published on Set The Tape

Marvel Action: Spider-Man gets yet another reboot, as a brand new volume of the series launches, yet seems to lose everything that made the previous ones enjoyable.

The series began a few years ago, and saw a new continuity where Peter Parker, Gwen Stacey, and Miles Morales were students at school together, and were all secretly spider-themed heroes. Starting out on their own, the three of them came together to form a crime-fighting trio, and took on newly re-imagined versions of some of the classic Spider-Man villains. It was a pretty fun series, one that had some cool reinventions of characters, and had some good stories.

This new volume seems to have started by doing completely its own thing, and has thrown the previous title’s continuity out, starting afresh. This time there’s no Gwen or Miles, and the series focuses solely on Peter, who’ a student at OCSOT, the Oscorp Charter School of Technology. This school is owned and operated by the tech company Oscorp, which fans will be aware of is the company run by Spidey villain Normal Osborne, AKA The Green Goblin. Not only that, but the school is staffed by other villains, with Principal Octavius (Doctor Octopus), and Matt Gargan (The Scorpion) as the gym teacher.

This is, honestly, a strange choice, and coupled with the decision to make Peter seem younger, and more inexperienced as Spider-Man, it makes this feel like some kind of strange middle-school drama rather than a Spider-Man comic. The art style also plays into this, with the book taking on a very stylised and Saturday Morning Cartoon look to it.

I understand that the Marvel Action comics have always been designed for younger readers, and I have nothing against that, but the previous volumes always felt like they were written for every age group; that they were books that children and adults alike would be able to pick up and enjoy. In contrast, this feels like it’s gone in a very different direction, and is catering purely to the younger readers. Whilst I’m sure that younger readers will like what’s on offer here, I wonder if the book itself might suffer a little if it’s unable to retain some of the older readers too.

Thanks to the wildly different tone and setting, one that feels a lot weaker than the previous title, I didn’t really enjoy the book that much. The characters felt less developed, even for a first issue, and I was left with the impression that as it is being geared towards the younger readers these characters are going to be broader archetypes rather than more nuanced characters with evolving personalities. The artwork is perfectly fine, but the panels look more like screenshots from an animated series than a comic, and whilst there’s nothing really wrong with the art in the book, the hyper-stylised way it’s presented feels a little strange, and a lot of the backgrounds and environments feel very flat in comparison to the characters.

Whilst this book will probably appeal to some young Spider-Man fans, those hoping to continue the adventures of Peter, Gwen, and Miles are going to be disappointed at the dramatic change presented in this book.

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Inferno Girl Red Comic Kickstarter & Interview With Mat Groom


After being teased in the back of the first issue of Radiant Black a new Tokusatsu inspired super hero comic has hit Kickstarter; Inferno Girl Red.

Penned by Mat Groom, one of the writers on Marvel's new Ultraman books, the new graphic novel introduces readers to Cássia Costa, a teenage girl who finds herself in possession of a mystical bracelet that transforms her into the magically powered hero Inferno Girl Red. Joining Groom on the book is artist Erica D'Urso who has previously worked on Captain Marvel, colourist Igor Monti, and letterer Becca Carey.

The book has been described as combining high school super-heroics drama of Into The Spider-Verse with the dynamic storytelling and world-building of Japanese tokusatsu superheroes, with the intrigue and relationship drama of Britich boarding school fiction thrown in too.

'We all need something to believe in.  Especially Cássia Costa.

'An ancient cult and their army of demons have stolen Cássia’s home, Apex City.  When a magical dragon bracelet rockets into her life and affixes itself to her arm, Cássia’s the only person equipped to stop the cult from offering the entire city to their dark lord.

'There's just one catch...

'The magical bracelet is powered by belief, and Cássia — an intensely pragmatic, rational girl – doesn’t have much to spare. She’ll have to find something to kindle her faith, though, and fast —because she has a secret legacy to live up to. Because her mother's life is on the line. And because Apex City needs Inferno Girl Red.'

The lead character of the book, Cássia, is a hero that immediately jumps off the page from a lot of other super-hero comics. Not only is she a teenage girl, she's also a person of colour, and stands out even more thanks to her vitiligo; making her one of the only super heroes with the condition.

'Cássia’s not shy– but bouncing around from city-to-city as her Mom bounced from job-to-job meant it was hard to make friends... and any friends she did make disappeared pretty quickly once they found out who Cássia’s mother was. So instead of socialising, she focused on learning– showing a particular aptitude for science.

'Now Cássia has a chance for a fresh start in Apex City. Her impressive test scores have earned her an invitation to the world-famous entrepreneur Doctor Janine Caro’s prestigious boarding school for promising young minds. There, Cássia starts to settle in. She starts to make friends. She starts to see a future for herself.

'But when a magical bracelet blasts through a window while Cássia is studying late one night, everything changes. Cássia's quickly drawn into a strange war that she previously only heard about from her mother... '

The Kickstarter was launched on March 30th, and has already reached it's goal. This means that not only is the book definitely going ahead, but those who've decided to back the project are also being treated to a number of stretch goals.

Mat has already added a bookmark ribbon to the hardcover edition, an exclusive to the Kickstarter before the book hits shops, and has also announced that an extra twenty pages of story will be added to the book, returning content to the story that was initially removed. 

Most exciting of all, however, is the newly added reward tier that offers people the chance to own a full scale, wearable replica of the Inferno Girl Red helmet. Created by the amazing folks at Starchild Props (who have produced some of the amazing new helmets from the Power Raners comics) it's a truly stunning piece. At the time of writing this there is still one of these amazing helmets left of the ten that were produced, so if you're interested you should definitely head over to the Kickstarter and grab it whilst you can.

Inferon Girl Red Kickstarter

The Kickstarter also has some brilliant behind the scenes looks at the designs of several characters, as well as a couple of preview pages that sees our new hero going up against The Griffin, the spooky new villain for the book.

Having been a fan of Mat's work since before he even began writing comics, listening to his brilliant Power Rangers podcast Ranger Danger, I reached out to Mat to ask him a little about the project, and am pleased to be able to bring you some insight into the new book.

Inferno Girl Red is being described as Tokusatsu inspired, which whilst being a very distinct area of super hero stories still has a lot of variety on offer. From the way the story is described it sounds like Inferno Girl Red is leaning more on the mystical side of Tokusatsu, would that be a correct assumption?

 Yeah! We’re going to be playing a bit with more sci-fi technology as well, in terms of the greater world around our lead character Cássia – but the inferno powers, that come from the Dragon Gauntlet, very much leaning into the mystical side of the Tokusatsu spectrum yeah. There are just so many exciting possibilities in that conception of ‘magic’, it’s so expressive and creative and so much more about fantastically expressing core ideas than rote imitation of what’s come before. So I’m very happy to have the opportunity to put our spin on that.

You’ve previously brought Tokusatsu hero Ultraman to life with Kyle Higgins, after working on a pre-established character was it a difficult transition to creating something completely fresh and new? 

It’s always difficult to create an entirely new world, I think, but it’s very much the fun sort of challenge, you know? But it’s actually not entirely different to ULTRAMAN – because with that, as much as we had existing characters and ideas to use as touch-points, as a new version of that universe we did have to build a new conceptualisation of the world. We had to create a new history, re-imagine the entire cast, re-imagine the cosmological aspects... so there was a lot of world-building there, too. In many ways, it was good practice.

Despite the book being a new property it seems like there’s a lot of history to be discovered there if the preview pages are anything to go by, did you end up creating a lot of backstory to these characters, and if so how much of that will be seeing in the book?

There’s a lot of history to this world, yeah. I’ve developed a lot of backstory, some of which will come up explicitly in the story, some of which won’t—but it’s very important to me to have a firm understanding of where these characters have come from, to inform where they’re heading. And with the larger world-building stuff, I think it’s wise to build one or two layers deeper than you think you’ll actually need, if that makes sense – because though you might not need to go down to that level now, you might need to later… and you’ll be kicking yourself if you’ve written yourself into a trap because you didn’t flesh things out properly, y’know?

I love that the lead character in your book isn’t your average superhero, what with her being a young woman of colour. I think it’s great to see more representation in comics, and think that this definitely helps the book further stand out. Did you find it a difficult process writing Cassia’s story, was there added pressure knowing that you would probably get extra attention for having her as the lead? 

I certainly felt an extra level of responsibility, for sure. I think the biggest responsibility I felt was ensuring we found a female artist/co-creator for the project, because I knew we needed that perspective and lived experience for Cássia to feel at all authentic. Outside of that, I think all we can do is be mindful and empathetic and considerate, and try and tell the most compelling story possible to do the character justice.

What made you decide to work with Erica D’Urso on the book, what was it about her work that made her feel like a good fit for the project? 

I think the two key things for a superhero comics artist to have are an ability to do thrilling, dynamic action that jumps off the page, and the ability to depict genuine-feeling, affecting human emotion. You really need both ends of that spectrum to do the job right. Erica is a master of both of those elements, which is something we were looking for—but she also has this particular style that’s hard to define, but it’s just bursting with humanity. Each character has such a specific look and way of being that they instantly feel like real people, at least to me. It’s like a magic trick. Erica is incredible.

What things can people expect if they decide to take part in the Kickstarter project? 

Depending at what level they back—120 pages of thrilling and (I believe) moving storytelling, with absolutely electric art, in a premium oversized hardcover, plus art prints from some of the industry’s best talents!

If this goes well can we expect to see more from Inferno Girl Red in the future? 

We’re focused right now on providing a full, satisfying and compelling book for our Backers—but yeah, we’re all absolutely in love with this world and these characters and we’d love to return to INFERNO GIRL RED.

The Kickstarter for Inferno Girl Red is currently live now, and if this is a project that interests you I'd definitely encourage you to check it out and perhaps consider backing it (I've already secured my copy of the book!). And if you're a fan of tokusatsu inspired work you should also check out Radiant Black, Ultraman, and the Power Rangers comics too. As someone who loves these types of stories it's definitely a great time to be reading these books.

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Sunday, 11 April 2021

Star Wars Adventures: Tales of Villainy #4 – Comic Review


Originally published on Set The Tape

Issue #4 of Star Wars Adventures: Tales of Villainy concludes the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jin, as well as giving readers a brief adventure with Tobias Beckett and his crew before the events of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The first story in this issue picks up where the last issue left off, with Ob-Wan and Qui-Gon visiting the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk to celebrate the festival of Life Day with the Wookies. Unfortunately, these events were interrupted when a group of Trandoshan hunters attacked the celebration, taking several Wookies and Qui-Gon hostage. Now it’s down to the young and inexperienced Obi-Wan to come up with a way of saving the day.

Having been used to seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi as a confident and resourceful Jedi Knight, and Master, it’s interesting to go back to a time where he’s more unsure of himself, where he’s questioning what the best course of action is. It also interesting to watch Qui-Gon in a more active teaching role. There is ample opportunity for him to get out of this situation, to free himself and the Wookies, yet he chooses to take a less direct approach, to allow things to play out and allow his student to come to his own conclusions on how to handle things. It really shows how different the two are in their approaches, and kind of emphasises how things could have been different if Qui-Gon had survived the events of The Phantom Menace and was able to teach Anakin himself.

The second story shifts forwards in time to drop readers into an adventure with Tobias Beckett, the smuggler and thief that played a big part in shaping the young Han Solo. The story beings in medias res, with Beckett already having been captured and waiting for his partner, Val, to come and break him out. We soon discover that he’s gotten himself in trouble trying to get to an old friend who works for a crime syndicate, and then it’s down to him and Val to manage to make an escape with the alien.

Unfortunately, most of this story is just really one long chase sequence, where the two of them run from one piece of trouble to another, having to either flee from their enemies or shoot their way out of things. Even the small moments of inner monologue from Val fail to really flesh out the story too much, because there’s just not really anything here. Unfortunately it feels like writer Jordan Clark had an outline for a story, but just wrote that outline into the issue rather than creating any real depth or moments of interest. This felt like an opportunity to flesh out some characters we didn’t know hugely well, but it really adds nothing of any real note.

Issue #4 of Star Wars Adventures: Tales of Villainy has two very different stories within its pages, one where nothing much happens, and one where it’s non-stop but has no real substance. As such it leaves the issue feeling kind of flat and dull throughout. Hopefully things will pick up a bit in the next issue with whatever stories it brings.

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