“I felt like I needed to be deloused.” – THE MALIGNANT DEAD by CL Raven reviewed

McCrae stalks the streets of his city in a creepy beaked mask and a hooded cloak, looking for all the damned world like a demonic crow. The downtrodden denizens call him ‘Doctor Death’, but instead of taking lives he is actually trying to save them, for he is a plague doctor. His lover Katrein is a nurse, tending to the sick and the dying. Her cousin and his friend is Hamish, who transports the dead to the mass grave in his horse-drawn cart and also sees ghosts.

This colourful trio are the heart and soul of this brutal novel, The Malignant Dead, the setting of which is the plague-ravaged Edinburgh of 1645, when infection meant death and all hope seemed lost. McCrae has been tasked with finding a cure for the dreaded disease, or at the very least containing it, before it wipes the city clean of human life. However, the city ‘council’, whose principals could generously be described as dubious, have banked on him dying before they have to pay him his promised fee.

But McCrae is not only stubbornly refusing to die but also seems to be making headway against the epidemic. What the council don’t know is that he has a secret weapon; his friend James, with whom he has a highly flirtatious relationship. James is a scientist and is convinced he can concoct a potion that will cure the dastardly disease, or perhaps even death itself.

And so the stage is set, and what a gruesome stage it is. The horrors of plague-ridden Scotland are vividly evoked by the authors, with not a single ghoulish detail spared, from McCrae lancing and then cauterising patients’ ‘buboes’ to householders hurling human waste from their windows.

But there’s something else going on here, another layer of perspective that has been thrown into the noxious mix, courtesy of recent events. The Malignant Dead takes place in a city under viral siege, with people confined to their homes lest they should spread it to their friends, families and neighbours, and punishments waiting for any who dare venture out without good reason.

Sound familiar?

Yes, it’s impossible to read this book now without digesting it through the prism of the coronavirus pandemic. And while we weren’t locked down in houses full of rats and fleas, with our dead relatives laid out on the dining table awaiting collection, it certainly does all sound uncomfortably familiar.             This is a unique, compelling and immersive novel, so immersive in fact that I could feel my flesh itching while reading it. By the time I finished it I felt like I needed to be deloused. On the strength of this tome I will be gleefully seeking out others by CL Raven.

And on the subject of CL Raven, you may have noticed that I earlier referred to ‘them’ in the plural, and that’s because CL Raven is not a single unit. Cat and Lynx are animal loving, pole dancing, ghost hunting, horror fixated identical twins from Cardiff with an impressive track record of literary accomplishments to their shared name.

They write as one, and the results are stupendous.

If you’d like to get to know them better, then they will most likely be appearing at a comic con near you sometime soon. That’s how I met them, and like most weavers of the macabre, they’re very nice indeed. So, do yourself a favour and give The Malignant Dead a shot. If you dig all things macabre and supernatural, then you won’t be sorry.

The Malignant Dead by CL Raven is available from Amazon, obvs.

“Filmmaking. It’s a dirty business. Who knew?” – FORSAKEN by William Nesbitt reviewed

Alright, I admit it. I have a problem. I just can’t let this damn movie go. I’m talking of course of the 1994 unreleased adaption of Marvel’s The Fantastic Four, produced by legendary B-movie filmmaker Roger Corman.

Regular visitors to this blog will be familiar with this production. I have in the not too distant past posted reviews of the movie itself, the documentary about the movie and the book about the documentary. And now I’ve reviewed a book about the movie.

When will this end?

So, anyway. For the uninitiated, The Fantastic Four went into production in December 1992 with a shoestring budget and a tight deadline. Knowing that they had a much-loved property on their hands, and that it could be a springboard to bigger and better things, the cast and crew put their hearts, souls and, yes, own money into it, giving it everything they had and stretching that miniscule budget to its limit. Corman himself even started preparing the ground for a cinematic release, cutting a trailer and commissioning promotional materials.

And then the movie was shelved.

The cast and crew were blindsided. It turned out that co-executive producer Bernd Eichinger had only gone into production with this ultra low budget production to satisfy a clause in a contract that would allow him to hang onto the rights. This way, he could hold out for a bigger deal from a major studio further on down the line.

Filmmaking. It’s a dirty business. Who knew?

I was hoping this book, Forsaken – the Making and Aftermath of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four by William Nesbitt would be the definitive literary account of this whole sorry episode, but I was disappointed. Instead of spelling out the story for us, it is instead a book of interviews with most of the people involved, including the stars, the crew and Corman himself. In this respect, it’s a book for the die hards only.

Luckily for me, I’m one of them.

It’s s shame Nesbitt didn’t take a more journalistic approach with Forsaken. Had he done so, it would be of interest not just to fans of the property, but also anyone fascinated by the machinations of Hollywood. That said, there is much to be gleaned from the interviewees, like who knew what and when. It also gives an intriguing insight into the inner workings of Corman’s studio. Honestly, it really is jaw dropping how many corners were cut on this film to keep it within budget, such as the actors wearing their own clothes on screen.

So, if you’re interested in Corman’s production of The Fantastic Four, or in Corman himself, you will enjoy Forsaken. But if not, the last word on this notorious film remains Mark Sikes and Marty Langford’s 2016 documentary Doomed: the Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.

“I even love the cover!” WE NEVER MAKE MISTAKES by Alexander Solzhenitsyn reviewed

We Never Make Mistakes is a collection of two novellas by one of Russia’s greatest ever novelists. The first story, An Incident at Krechetovka Station, concerns an officious and somewhat lonely Red Army Lieutenant called Vasili Vasilitch Kotov who is overseeing the day to day running of a busy railway station during WWII.

The author paints a chaotic picture of a junction through which pass a great many ‘echelons’ of troops and supplies every single day, all of which have to be either refuelled, resupplied, fed or redirected, or all of the above. Weighing on his mind is the fact that a similar such rail junction was recently attacked by German aircraft.

Into this maelstrom wanders a straggler, a former actor/now soldier, who is trying to catch up with his unit. Kotov offers him a cigarette and engages him in conversation, only to suspect that this seemingly pleasant young man may in fact be a spy. The Lieutenant finds himself torn between his duty to alert the NKVD (the secret police), and the devastating consequences this could have on the poor man’s life if he is in fact innocent.

Story number two, Matryona’s House, centres on a man who has served time in both the army and prison, and now wishes to return to normal life in the heart of Russia. It’s worth noting that just because he spent time in prison doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a criminal. A great many people, millions upon millions, passed through the prison system during the reign of Stalin. Victims of his rampant paranoia.

He takes a job as a teacher in a village and lodges with an old spinster, the Matryona of the title. But all spinsters have their own story, of course, and soon our hero grows to understand the pains she has endured and the burdens she has carried.

Meanwhile, her greedy relatives circle like vultures and it’s not long before tragedy strikes.

Solzhenitsyn, author of the formidable gulag novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, is a master of filtering huge events through the eyes of lowly participants. In story number one the chaos, uncertainty, threat and paranoia of a global conflict is filtered through a single incident at a busy railway junction, where an unassuming Lieutenant is forced to make a choice that could have terrible repercussions. But it is story number two that I found the most affecting. Here, the author paints a vivid picture of the life of this lonely and betrayed old woman, and the friendship she finds with her new lodger is genuinely heart warming.

The title of the book comes from a line delivered by an NKVD agent in the first story and is symbolic of the hubris reached by any country when it believes that it is infallible, that it is incapable of error. There is, of course, a lesson to be learned here for the present day.

I read this book in just two sittings as it is both compelling and beautifully written, and, dammit, I even love the cover!

“A downward spiral of madness, violence and sleaze.” SEEKING THE DARK by Paula R.C. Readman reviewed

Hard boiled journalist Jake Eldritch is embroiled in an on/off relationship with Mariana, the tough but sympathetic proprietor of a nightclub. It’s in this nightclub that Jake first spots Amanita, the white haired siren who may or may not be responsible for the spate of mysterious deaths known as ‘Dead Men Sleeping’.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, we’re deep into the seedy alleyways of noir in this crime/horror mash-up by the rather wonderful Paula R.C. Readman; full-time writer, part-time painter, full-on goth and all-round lovely human being.

But before anyone starts to think that Seeking the Dark may be just another serial killer thriller, the whiff of the supernatural enters the story as it dawns that these deaths may have been occurring for a very long time indeed, perhaps even hundreds of years.

Why do all the victims have bite marks on their necks? What’s the connection with the website used by women to expose their love rat lovers? Why do the mysterious deaths of Jake’s parents in Albania resurface now, of all times?

Enter slippery detective Bard Walker, assigned to catch the killer and wrap the case up, and Dog, the ferociously unpleasant dealer of hard drugs, and you have all the ingredients needed for a rain-soaked, gutter level, darkly erotic horror-thriller that is best read after dark.

Everyone who enters the orbit of Jake and Amanita, it seems, gets drawn into their downward spiral of madness, violence sand sleaze. And questions circle like hungry vultures. All this is pulled together for a tight and exciting denouement that will leave you feeling hungry for more.

Readman is an author who doesn’t shy away from graphic scenes and perhaps even relishes dragging her characters through the mire. Seeking the Dark is an unsettling, immersive experience that will leave you feeling like you need a good bath to scrub away all the sin. And that’s a compliment by the way. Seek it out if you dare.

https://mybook.to/seekingthedark

“It’s a meta experience.” THE DOOMED JOURNAL by Mark Sikes reviewed

In the interests of full disclosure, I feel I must begin this book review by stating that I have a borderline obsession with the movie it deals with.

If you don’t know the story by now, The Fantastic Four was a low budget adaption of the popular Marvel comic produced by b-movie legend Roger Corman in 1994. Upon completion, to the shock of the cast and crew who worked damn hard on it with next to no resources, it was shelved and never officially released.

The movie is a delight to behold, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The script is clunky, the performances hammy, the sets wobbly and the FX cartoonish. On the other hand, to this day it remains the only FF adaption that is even remotely faithful to the source material. Also, there is a fascination in its awfulness that can’t be denied.

It’s not a film that can be judged against others of its type or genre. It exists on its own terms, offering a different kind of experience. Or, at least, that’s what I keep telling myself. But I digress.

The Doomed Journal is not an account of the making of the movie, but an account of the making of the documentary about the movie. As I said earlier: obsessed. Doomed: the Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four was released in 2015 to much acclaim, featuring behind the scenes footage from the production and interviews with all the key players. It really is a superb doc and well worth seeking out. But getting it made, as this book attests, was an endeavour of almost superhero proportions in its own right.

Author Mark Sikes has the benefit of an insider’s perspective. He was a lowly receptionist at Corman’s production company when the movie was being made. But, in typical Corman fashion, he was called upon to do many other things outside and around his contracted duties, such as donning the Thing’s costume for one scene shot on the hoof in downtown LA! Sikes has since gone on to become a successful Hollywood casting director. This doc was a labour of love for him.

His co-conspirator is his friend, filmmaker Marty Langford. Among other things this book chronicles is the tension that arises in their relationship due to their differing work ethics, not helped by the fact that they live thousand of miles apart and have next to no money to play with. The Doomed Journal is one for the dedicated fans only, offering up a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the production of the doc. For a while it gets bogged down in the chase for Facebook ‘likes’ (one of which was mine) and the disastrous crowd funding campaign. But it eventually delivers rich rewards when the author and his friend/colleague finally get to interview the cast and crew and unearth some truly delish nuggets of behind the scenes insight (Mark Ruffalo auditioning for Dr Doom, anyone?).

Reading The Doomed Journal can be seen as meta experience. It’s a book about making a film with zero budget about the making of a film with zero budget. Far out, man. But, ultimately, Doomed the actual documentary isn’t just of interest to fans of Marvel or the Fantastic Four, it’s a film for anyone who’s interested in the more duplicitous side of Hollywood. How often do movies get made and then shelved, never to be seen in public?

You have to admit, it’s rare. So, as someone who IS interested in the source material AND into learning about the Hollywood underbelly, The Doomed Journal ticks all my boxes. That said, I will leave you with this final thought: you don’t have to be obsessed to appreciate this book, but it helps.

The Doomed Journal by Mark Sikes is available from Amazon.

REVIEW: THE LONG WALK by SLAVOMIR RAWICZ

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, an account of the gruelling and tragic escape by six men from the Siberian gulag in 1941, can be read in one of two ways; firstly, as an astounding true story of a desperate bid for freedom, and secondly, as a nail-biting adventure novel.

The reasons for this are the uncovering of documents by the BBC that suggested that the author had in fact been released from captivity in 1942 as part of an amnesty, and the later coming forward of a Polish WWII veteran who claimed that the story told in the book was in fact his, and not Rawicz’s.

The truth may never be known, but what is certain is that either way The Long Walk makes for a truly incredible read. Before we even get to the escape, we learn of the author’s hellish imprisonment by the Soviets, his farcical trial and his horrific journey to the gulag from which he would later abscond.

This would have been a harrowing enough tale on its own. Firstly, the prisoners, in their thousands, were taken by train into the frozen heart of Siberia. They were carried in carriages meant for cattle and had to stand for the entire trip, which took over three weeks. And then, if that hadn’t been torturous enough, they had to walk the rest of the way behind trucks to which they were chained. This second leg of the journey took over a month. And if they were still standing, upon reaching their destination they then had to build their own barracks.

In due course a plan was hatched and six men escaped during a blizzard. Later, they were joined by a further travelling companion, a young Romanian woman escaping torments of her own.  

This dogged party of seven hiked through a Siberian winter before crossing the border into Mongolia. There they endured the Gobi desert, crossed over the Himalayas and finally arrived in British controlled India, where they found freedom.

The journey took over a year and, needless to say, not all of the escapees made it.

Of particular interest for me was the episode in which the party encounter two yetis in the Himalayas. A stand-off ensues in which both parties try and wait the other out, neither wanting to be the first to make a move. The author describes these creatures as being around seven feet tall with reddish-brown hair. What makes this account especially noteworthy was the fact that neither the author nor his companions, at the time the incident occurred, had any inkling that such creatures were even rumoured to exist. They had simply never heard of yetis or abominable snowmen, and yet encounter them they did

So, whichever way you choose to read this book, whether as a true story or an epic adventure, you are sure to feel the travellers’ pain as you make the journey with them; you’ll share their thirst as they cross the Gobi, wince as they rub animal fat into their feet to try and ease the pain of their blisters, share in the warmth of the hospitality extended to them by the kindly strangers they encounter on the way, and shed a tear with every passing.

This is an extraordinary book, beautifully written (the author thanks Ronald Downing for his help in this department) and visceral, and it can mean different things to different people, but most of all The Long Walk stands as a testament of man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man, and the unquenchable desire for freedom that burns within so many of us.

“WHAT WAS HE EVEN DOING IN THIS MOVIE?” – WHY THE BATMAN FAILED

The Batman at gritty level 1

Before you go any further, this article contains major spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this movie, and you intend to, then don’t go any further.

Have they gone? Good.

So first of all, I will say that I initially enjoyed the experience of watching this movie on the big screen. There are some great action set pieces, good performances and spectacular visuals. And that Batmobile? Wow! That was the best looking Bat-ride since the iconic 1966 model.

It was only after sleeping on it that the shortcomings of this movie, like the morning sun, dawned on me.

And boy were there some massive shortcomings!

The Batman at gritty level 6

Shortcoming number one is the character of ‘the’ Batman himself. He didn’t actually achieve anything in this movie. Not one damn thing. I mean, what was he even doing here?

The whole plot revolves around the Riddler (terrifyingly played by Paul Dano), offing in gruesome ways various corrupt members of Gotham City’s administration. At the scene of every killing he leaves a clue for ‘the’ Batman, which ‘the’ Batman either solves or doesn’t. Either way, it makes absolutely no difference to the story, because at no point does he thwart any of the Riddler’s plans. In fact, the only reason he was captured at all was because he effectively gave himself up. And his grand scheme to flood Gotham? Well, that came off. So what was the point of this movie? To watch the hero fail at every turn? To see him get played for a sucker by the bad guy?

Also, the only reason the newly elected mayor survives an assassination attempt is because the gunman apparently misses. Not because ‘the’ Batman saves her.

So, like I say, what the hell was the point of ‘the’ Batman?

Honestly, it’s no wonder that Gotham City is overrun with criminals when its caped crusader and its police department are this inept. And oh boy, the cops in this movie are sensationally inept! How did any of these guys manage to pass the entrance exam?

Anyway, at the end of the movie ‘the’ Batman is lauded as some sort of beacon of hope, a font of inspiration, a hero, despite having resolutely failed to make any kind of dent in any of the Riddler’s plans whatsoever.

Save for one.

The Riddler intended to off Bruce Wayne, but didn’t.

Which brings me to my next gripe. Where the hell was Bruce Wayne in this movie? That’s why the Riddler couldn’t ice him. It was because he was nowhere to be seen. Wayne only gets what feels like a few minutes of screen time while his crime fighting alter ego is in it pretty much all the way through. We got no sense of how these two competing psyches are balanced, no sense of Wayne’s life outside of the Batcave. Does he even have one? What does he do all day when he’s not punching out bad guys?

The Batman at gritty level 10

One last thing, and I appreciate that this boils down to personal taste, but jeez! Did this film really have to be such an unrelenting misery-fest! It’s supposed to be a superhero movie – you know, thrills and spills – but instead plays out more like Se7en. How much bleaker can these damn movies get before we reach peak bleak?

If these Batman reboots continue to get progressively longer, darker and grittier, then the next one is destined to be nothing more than six-and-a-half solid hours of a completely black screen accompanied by incoherent mumbling.

But let me return to the reboot in question for a moment. Specifically, to the culmination of the Riddler’s aforementioned plan to blow up Gotham’s flood defences and deluge the city. Which, as I have already stated, came off.

Remember the days when the good guys in a movie would thwart the bad guys’ plans and prevent whatever apocalypse they had in mind? Indeed, that was the whole point of a movie having good guys in the first place. But these days we more often than not get to see that apocalypse unfold. And why? I suspect it’s for no other reason than we now have the SFX technology to show it.

The grand finale of a movie is no longer the down-to-the-wire scramble to save the city from destruction – perhaps that’s no longer considered spectacular enough – but the destruction itself.

So, yes, all this has left rather a sour taste in my mouth and I find myself with no particular desire to ever watch this movie again. Which is a shame, because it could have been monumental.

Hopefully, next time, ‘the’ Batman might actually make a difference to the story and even, you know, win. That would be nice.

‘HANGING WAS A VERY UNRELIABLE FORM OF EXECUTION’ – A REVIEW OF SWANSEA MIRACLE BY ANN MARIE THOMAS

Swansea Miracle by Ann Marie Thomas tells the gruesome story of one William Crach, a ‘notorious brigand and evildoer’, who was hanged in Swansea in 1290. Later that night, he started moving and breathing. After about ten days he was walking about and speaking. It was a miracle!
But if being hanged and then gawped at by curious strangers wasn’t bad enough, poor William was then made to walk barefoot all the way to Hereford on a pilgrimage!
What makes this death-defying incident so intriguing is the sheer volume of eyewitness accounts recorded at the time. Also, it was the subject of a Papal Commission no less, which meant that many of those witnesses were formerly interviewed and their accounts preserved. All of this is brought vividly to life in this book, which also features beautiful illustrations by Carrie Francis.
The top three things I learned from reading Swansea Miracle are:

  1. Hanging was a very unreliable form of execution.
  2. William was hanged in the very place I used to live!
  3. In those days there were a hell of a lot of people called William.
    You don’t have to have a connection to Swansea to enjoy this account of the hanging (and subsequent revival) of William Crach. It’s part of the ‘horrible history’ of Britain that deserves to be told, retold and never forgotten.
    Thank you, Ann Marie.

Review: Death & Other Dances by Carla Harvey

Death & Other Dances with Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch

The beauty of a good book is that it’s transportative. It can take you to places you have never been and may never go. It can introduce you to people you will never meet. It can share with you experiences you will never have.

In Death & Other Dances, author Carla Harvey grabs us roughly by the hand and drags us from the slushy streets of Detroit to the sun-scorched boulevards of LA. Along the way we stumble from seedy strip club to maudlin funeral home, from dingy hotel room to rock club stage. By the time I put this book down I felt as though I’d walked several miles in her (acrylic) shoes and peered with anguish, disdain and ultimately hope through her kohl-smeared eyes.

If you didn’t already know, Carla Harvey forms one half of the nuclear-lunged vocalist duo in the metal band Butcher Babies. It pretty much goes without saying that I’m a big fan. Harvey also paints and, in her own words, draws ‘naked ladies’. Creativity is the prism through which she engages with the world.

Death & Other Dances is a fictionalised biography-slash-memoir-slash-novel that’s both raw and beguiling. It’s an incredibly confident and accomplished debut book. There’s a real groove to Harvey’s writing style that had my eyes slipping across the words like they’d been greased! I started and finished it in just a couple of sittings because I absolutely could…

Not…

Put…

It…

Down.

As I said, beguiling.

You don’t have to be a fan of the Butcher Babies, or even heavy metal in general, to enjoy Death & Other Dances. You just need to be a fan of good writing, of good storytelling. I really do hope, on the strength of this novel, that Carla Harvey one day writes another. I’m sure she has many more incredible stories to tell.

Review: ANIMUS by Polly J. Mordant

In Animus we return to the anti-Dibley (aka the village of Flammark) of author Polly J. Mordant’s gruesome imagination to catch up with our traumatised hero Emma Blake, her gifted chum Abigail and her dog-collared friend, neighbour and landlord Will.

If these guys are hoping for a little downtime following their harrowing adventures in When Angels Fear, then they’re shit out of luck as Flammark is rocked by an earthquake. Then the arrival of a sceptre-sporting dean called St Saviour sets a black cat among the pigeons. There is an extremely gory murder that drives deep into the heart of one of the principal characters. And before you can even so much as cross yourself, an evil outpouring from the bowels of the earth threatens to engulf the entire county.

Phew.

There’s something very Hammer Horroresque about Animus and its aforementioned predecessor, and I’m a sucker for all that crows-cawing-and-church-bells-chiming-through-a-foggy-graveyard stuff. For me, a bit of English gothic is always a big plus. And in addition to the beguiling bats in the belfry atmosphere, what this book has in spades is good old fashioned excitement. You’ll notice that on the cover it says, ‘A supernatural thriller’. Well, it ain’t lying. There’s a strong sense of clock-ticking-down-to-doomsday here, and Mordant really knows how to twist that particular tourniquet. 

What quickly becomes clear while reading this book is that our trusty author knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff; like about the Bible, about witchcraft, about paganism. Hell, even about fracking. The detail that supports the story is intricate and fascinating, and one suspects that she knows a lot of stuff about a lot of other stuff too. By the end of it I felt not only that I had been entertained, but educated.     

The characters here are all fully-rounded and believable, and we feel their pain and share their triumphs as they lead us from opening to denouement. Also, the baddie is one of the most vile (and henceforth satisfying) that I’ve ever encountered in literature. My personal favourite character, however, is the irascible detective Westen. I love the way the f-count of Animus ratchets up every time he comes swaggering onto the page.

At the end of this book Mordant confidently teases us with the next in the Flammark series. I say bring it on!

Animus is available from Amazon. Try saying that three times.