2002 SFX Reviews

Mike Ashley: Starlight Man

(Constable, 395pp, £20.00, ISBN: 1-84119-417-4)

What does anyone remember about Algernon Blackwood? One terrific supernatural story of wind elementals, "The Wendigo". Perhaps a few others like "The Willows", and the fine collection John Silence: Physician Extraordinary, the casebook of that distinguished occult detective. That's about it.

Mike Ashley is fascinated by Blackwood, and worked for 23 years on this biography of one of the oddest characters ever to tell ghost stories. Our man's outdoorsy backgrounds were researched all over the world. Nasty monks in the Silence episode "Secret Worship" were based on the German order that educated him in the 1880s, while Canadian forests and wildernesses feature in "The Wendigo"; further powerful tales were inspired by Egypt.

Blackwood also investigated haunted houses for the Society for Psychical Research, joined the 1894 Ontario gold rush, worked as a New York reporter (interviewing the notorious Lizzie Borden and meeting Bram Stoker before Dracula was written), was encouraged by W.B. Yeats to enter the esoteric Order of the Golden Dawn soon after Aleister Crowley was kicked out, and spent much of World War I running British intelligence in Switzerland.

Famous names keep cropping up: John Buchan, C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, the mystic Gurdjieff ... Blackwood even collaborated on a musical play with Sir Edward Elgar of "Land of Hope and Glory" fame, and they stayed friends. A new career in TV opened after World War II, and until his death in 1951 he hypnotised BBC audiences with his own eerie fiction.

Ashley provides useful commentary on the fiction, linking it to Blackwood's travels, friendships, and continuing mysticism about nature elementals, reincarnation, etc. Though a devoted fan, he frankly admits that the novels can drag on a bit. They're now virtually forgotten, but Ashley has read and summarized them for us. Blackwood's shorter work remains his best.

A brave attempt to capture a strange character who's always a little too elusive and secretive to pin down in words.


The Algernon Blackwood fantasy play with music by Elgar was The Starlight Express (1915) – too good a title to waste, and borrowed without credit for Andrew Lloyd-Webber's 1984 musical production of a completely different story.

Steve Aylett: Only an Alligator

(Gollancz, 133pp, £9.99, ISBN: 0-57506-906-6)

Steve Aylett is acclaimed for his pyrotechnic stories set in Beerlight, a surreal city of ultra-weird crime capers with heavily armed police always lagging well behind. Only an Alligator switches the dotty action to an even dafter town called Accomplice.

Accomplice feels like the aftermath of a dozen SF disaster scenarios featuring nanotech and bioengineering. There's a whole mountain range of bone to the west, "Skeleton Coast", grown from one ghastly accident. Aylett throws in cyberpunk trimmings, dimensional vortices, and a demonic subworld for luck. Don't expect the laws of physics to apply.

When animal-loving hero Barny Juno rescues the alligator reserved for the major demon Sweeney's lunch, he's clearly doomed. The furies of hell are unleashed, but either they're very inept or Barny has a charmed life. Meanwhile, with a particularly silly map for guidance, we tour the sights of Accomplice ...

Floor lobsters. A bald man haunted by ectoplasmic hair. Another chap whose head is the chrysalis for a large disgusting bug. Exploding sloths. Zombies. External brains. Door-to-door assassins. Del's Fright Foundry. Scardummy Garden with its voodoo statues of everyone in town: if someone's image is smashed, they die. Attempted sex with dinosaur skeletons. The town's moral fibre, carefully guarded in a tower. There's something new and odd every few pages.

Maybe it's a little too odd. For all his grotesque characters, offbeat dialogue, and sometimes brilliant visual and verbal inventiveness, Aylett doesn't offer much in the way of story. The action's so whimsical and arbitrary, and the people so zanily implausible (apart from the alligator), that you keep turning the pages for incidental fireworks, smoke and mirrors rather than narrative tension.

To be fair, some of those fireworks are impressive – unexpected airbursts, dazzling set-pieces. But there's a nagging sense that they could have appeared in almost any order with similar effect. Half an hour later you'll be hungry again.


The town Mayor shares his vision: "... Transport moving the bare necessities. Wrinkled mouths tearing at children. Flames wrecking the bales of hats. Hunchbacks ordering pizza. Bilge spurting out of necks. Bees fill the cake ..." And so on.

Jonathan Carroll: Voice of Our Shadow

(Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 189pp, £6.99, ISBN: 0-575-07367-5)

Jonathan Carroll's twisted debut novel The Land of Laughs featured earlier in the Fantasy Masterworks sequence. Now it's joined by Voice of Our Shadow, his second book – typically bright and exuberant on the surface, but threaded with disquiet that deepens into horror.

Our hero Joe Lennox carries a load of childhood guilt about the death of his charming, unnervingly psychotic brother. But that's all behind him now ... he thinks. A lucky break sees him coining money from stage and movie adaptations of a story he wrote. He's a happy young ex-pat American living, like Carroll, in Vienna.

Soon Joe bumps into an older married couple, India and Paul Tate, and a wonderful friendship develops as he shows them Vienna's sights. Life fills up with surprises, parties and treats. It all seems too heart-warmingly good to be true. It is. The first worrying note is Paul's occasional hobby of conjuring. In white gloves and top hat he assumes another personality as "Little Boy", performing impossible tricks with a sadistic edge. A live bird appears from the hat, ablaze and screeching in pain....

Meanwhile our hero is falling for the lovely India. "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," Paul tells him mysteriously, quoting Oscar Wilde. Then – "out of the blue" – Paul leaves Vienna on a two-week business trip. It's as though he's setting up his own wife for a quick fling. What's going on here?

Of course young Joe can't resist temptation, especially when he finds that India fancies him too. So what will Paul do next? The darker question is what Little Boy and his magical talents might do. Even when Paul conveniently dies of natural causes, it doesn't seem to slow down his other personality at all. Top hats and white gloves become images of fear. Likewise toy birds and porn magazines.

The skilfully evoked dread in Voice of Our Shadow has nothing to do with blood and guts. It's the terror of helplessness, of having your inmost guilty secrets exposed, of being manipulated (as in John Fowles's The Magus) by a smiling player of godgames who knows the painful places in your soul and targets them expertly.

Near the end, after running and failing to hide, Joe seems to win forgiveness. Then the final, shocking trapdoor opens beneath him. Read it and wince.

Small Press Gang

Time for another round-up of small press books....

Bruce Durie's The High History of the Holy Quail is a loving UK recreation of that US phenomenon, the Unfunny Comic Fantasy. The moment a black-armoured figure appears to allow the rib-tickling opening line "It was a dark and stormy Knight," we know we're in unsafe hands.

Soon naive young hero Slouch becomes a wizard's apprentice fated to seek the Holy Quail (closely resembling the Maltese Falcon). In this genre the jokes should either amuse or advance the action, preferably both. Too often, though, everything stops for a build-up whose only point is some hysterical punchline like a magical supplier being a Mage-order business. Mail-order, geddit?

Things cheer up slightly as the quest proceeds, despite clumsinesses like the story continuing in identical style when first-person narrator Slouch is offstage in bed. Some of the jokes are OK, some are familiar friends: "I had that Gandalf in the back of me cart once ..." All ends confusedly, just as Durie seems to be getting interested in his characters. Sequels follow.

Iy Correction by Jonathan D. Lindley looks like fantasy and sounds like a saga of dyslexic opticians, but is in fact SF. A chap on Earth discovers he's really one of the secret masters from planet Iy who control time and run the universe. Meanwhile a gloating arch-villain (recognizable by "eyes aflame with venom") grabs power on Iy. The entangled destinies of two worlds lead to inordinately many pursuits, captures, escapes, punch-ups, shoot-outs, car chases, etc.

Despite these exciting ingredients, the book desperately needs an editor. Leaden slabs of information and needless historical detail clog the text. Even a routine boat trip features a technical description of the propulsion unit. This should have been a fast-paced adventure, but silly names (Torfon Sonnoclysteral is my favourite), wooden characters, stilted dialogue and murky technological handwaving make it a chore to read.

Onward! Stephen William Theaker's Quiet, the Tin Can Brains are Hunting! is a distant sequel to his Professor Challenger in Space. Conan Doyle's Professor appears only briefly, but his wife runs the Interstellar Bureau of Investigation and Skulduggery whose minions must thwart the dread tin can brains (Daleks with legs). After all, "the major thrust of their plan was the destruction of the universe."

It's all manic silliness verging on surrealism, like a Stainless Steel Rat adventure with important organs missing: "there is no reason why I should inflict such a dull conversation on my readers, so I shall not." At one point the indefensible plot runs into a brick wall, and several brand-new characters are conscripted to restart it with a deus ex machina. Mercifully short, refreshingly pointless, memorably forgettable.

Finally, Scorch by A.D. Nauman is the best-written of this whole batch, which doesn't prevent it from being utterly depressing. Vast monolithic corporations controlling absolutely everything are one of SF's standard nightmares, and this particular version – with fiction and the arts replaced by 24/7 advertising – was done as black comedy long ago in Frederik Pohl's and Cyril Kornbluth's classic The Space Merchants (1953).

Scorch opens on a gloomy note, makes some of its points a little plonkingly (people used to get paid holidays!), and plants its heroine firmly on the down escalator to jobless despair. She's made the fatal mistake of reading old books and getting ideas. Despite satirical touches, her fall is charted with a grey remorseless that's enough to make you give up and reach for something cheerier, even direness like Tin Can Brains or The Holy Quail.

Caiseal Mór: Carolan's Concerto

(Earthlight, 491pp, £6.99, ISBN: 0-7434-2901-X)

There's something chilling about a book blurb that promises a fantasy full of heartwarming Irishness, well laced with whiskey and fairies, and probably oozing deadly blarney from every pore. You hardly dare open it for fear of cute leprechauns.

Don't worry. Carolan's Concerto is an enjoyable and plausibly Irish story that contains no leprechauns. Instead there's a framing narrative set in 1788 Ireland, where young rebel Edward has shot an officer of the hated English redcoats. A farmer rescues him from pursuers, mainly to avoid sharing the £10 bounty on his head. But perhaps the lad may have other uses ...

There follows a long night of boozing, story-telling by the ancient, blind distiller O'Connor, and music from his equally blind old harpist friend Hempson. Edward's mind reels with illicit whiskey, raw facts of economics (shooting that Major will be expensive for others), and melting glances from the young lady of the house.

Magic is restricted to inset stories of the legendary Turlough O'Carolan, who in 1688 wishes aloud to become a great harpist and is overheard. The Gentry, the fairy folk, give him what he needs to focus on music: smallpox, leading to blindness. Be careful what you ask for.

Tales of Turlough's life and wanderings include his part in a wildly violent hurling match between fairy teams, his witty trick to reconcile estranged Catholic and Protestant villages, several meetings with the sodden and later insane Dean Jonathan Swift, and a duel of music against an Italian maestro. As with all life histories, he dies in the end. That's another story.

Meanwhile in "modern" 1788, the machinery of English justice is busy tracking down illegal stills and fugitive murderers. Leaving fantasy behind, Carolan's Concerto finishes as historical melodrama, with a flourish of sometimes comic twists and reversals. Some of the characters even get what they asked for.

Not an ambitious blockbuster, just a pleasant read. Unless you insist on leprechauns.


Caiseal Mór writes well enough but is over-fond of elegant alternatives to "said". Instead characters reply, observe, dismiss, exclaim, sigh, assure, soothe, nod, huff, question, confirm, smile, offer, counter, snap, remind ... it's a distraction. You find yourself counting them.

Small Press Roundup

Will no one rid me of this turbulent SFX Deputy Editor, and his perverse craving for small-press book reviews?

Faster Than Light by John Lucas is an interstellar SF romp in familar vein. "Many critics will see John Lucas as the new Douglas Adams," says the PR sheet, perhaps unwisely. With that broad hint, you can't help noting the hapless, booze-sodden Earthlings who suddenly become galactic vagabonds, the nasty Vogonish bureaucrats, the vast demolition plans (entire universe, not just Earth), the celebrity criminal who covets the galaxy's only FTL ship, the lethally exotic drinks, the coinages like "ultra-chess" and "micro-dollar", the messianic AI, the gloomy robot with a philosophy of despair ...

Actually it caused me no pain. The narrative is literate and modestly entertaining, inventive in places, yet somehow never quite as funny as promised. Lucas could go far once he's got Hitch-Hiker (and Dark Star) homage out of his system, and polished his own comic talent.

Philip Moss's SF novel Frazil is apparently self-published without benefit of a copyeditor, who might have fixed the more embarrassing lapses in punctuation: grocers apostrophe's and ungrammatical commas abound. The story lurches through bouts of cartoon-like sex and violence ("His nose exploded from the force applied to it") perpetrated by rootless characters who tend to be either unlovable or disposable. It's genuinely hard to care about these people.

A deeper problem of Frazil is why it's written as SF at all. Those mobsters' spaceships might as well be cars or planes; all their interstellar destinations are identikit cities of mean streets, low dives and criminal hangouts. Handguns have enhanced firepower but remain handguns. Yes, it's easier and more fun to invent worlds than research foreign countries – but with no SF element truly central to the plot, the result is just a poorly written noir-ish thriller sprayed with silver paint to look futuristic.

Conversely, Any Time Now by Chris Butler depends entirely on the trad SF device of time travel. The enigmatic Joe, who's secretly from the future, enters the life of young widow Kate. Since timeslips have alarming side effects on electric power in 2005 Britain, Kate's employer the Ministry of Defence is soon very interested in Joe's comings and goings.

Plot development proceeds by coincidence: Kate thwarts an irrelevant robbery, so the perp who escapes can become a psychopathic sadist determined to hurt Kate's friends, i.e. Joe. The chief MoD heavy also hams it up menacingly, like a James Bond villain cruelly deprived of his white kitten. Other characters are relatively flat, and the narrative viewpoint shifts distractingly to minor or unnecessary cast members. Ultimately, time travel fixes everything (including death) neatly if a trifle too easily. Inoffensive but less than compelling.

"Inoffensive" most definitely isn't the word for Paul Pinn's 15-story collection Idiopathic Condition Red. Gruesome and revolting imagery is constantly spewed forth in clotted, over-the-top prose: Pinn is all too fond of what Stephen King calls the gross-out. Despite a variety of exotic locations, it's rather deadening that again and again the main action consists of unengaging people coming to repulsively sticky ends. Only occasionally do the horrors rise above mere gratuitous yuck to the scarifying perversity achieved in "The Flayer" (a collaboration with Alexander Johnson – maybe raw Pinn is best diluted). Not for the weak of stomach.

Quieter, more atmospheric creepiness fills Phantoms of Venice, an anthology of ten supernatural stories set in that notoriously soggy, haunted city. Editor and contributor David Sutton, a multiple horror award-winner, has assembled a classy book of professional quality. According to his authors and doubtless to the dismay of Venice's tourist board, those stagnant canals and rotting palaces are heavily infested with sinister, vengeful spectres.

In Cherry Wilder's elusive tale the revenant is ambigously benign, and Sutton's own examples are disquietingly randy. Brian Stableford offers a particularly offbeat, sardonic confection of false eyeballs, Commedia dell'Arte carnival, and the Devil. Other eldritch contributors are Peter Tremayne, Eddy C. Bertin, Conrad Williams, Mike Chinn, Tim Lebbon, Anne Gay and Pauline Dungate. Cancel your trip to Venice before it's too late

Beyond the usual tourist circuits lie those little-known South Pacific isles the Condals, location of Dead Ground by Chris Amies. It's 1931, and the traditional British expedition arrives to probe the archaeology of enigmatic statues and abandoned temples. Of course Polynesian locals object, and when a plague of Lovecraftian transformations is duly unleashed, it doesn't merely affect "superstitious natives".

In the sunset of British empire, stiff upper lips are drooping, the islands' white Commissioner keeps a toyboy, and local politics can't be sorted out by gunfire. There's an effective sense of place, with an interesting pantheon of Polynesian gods whose conflicts are echoed on Earth – and so are the horrible shark god's far too many teeth. The young museum-conservator hero who thinks he's going to save the day for his native lady love has an extra surprise coming....

Although its horror scenario is generally familiar, Dead Ground is a smoothly competent read. This and the Venice anthology would probably have appeared from mainstream publishers if the horror market hadn't collapsed in recent years. Tough luck, authors who aren't Stephen King.

Interest declared: the present reviewer has also been published by Big Engine, Cosmos, Dedalus, and (like Messrs Moss, Pinn and Sutton) Himself.

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen: The Science of Discworld II: The Globe

(Ebury Press, 384pp, £16.99, ISBN: 0091882737)

The first Science of Discworld explored the universe of Roundworld (Earth) from the Big Bang to a deep future when humanity has abandoned its planet. What's left to tell? Well, the authors did carefully skip over the actual evolution of human intelligence ...

Again Pratchett provides a short Discworld fable while the pop-science experts offer light-heartedly serious commentary in alternate chapters. This time the Unseen University wizards are physically dumped into magicless Roundworld, where elves – established in Discworld as bad guys from a chilly Outside – are tormenting our ancestors with superstition and fear.

Much time travel follows as Rincewind & Co struggle to cure mankind of irrational belief in magic that doesn't work on Earth. Their attempts to rearrange history in obvious, simple ways lead to disasters and comic pratfalls. Bizarrely, it seems that humans need fictionalized versions of reality, refusing to let facts get in the way of a good story.

Stewart and Cohen love to shock us by describing most pop science and school science as oversimplified "lies-to-children". Meshing with the Discworld theme of stories that have built-in momentum and shaping power, they argue that human thought is genuinely moulded by stories. We call them metaphors, creeds, theorems, memes, but in part they're all lies-to-children.

From this basis, the racy nonfiction chapters spin off many neat anecdotes and nifty insights about how people think and believe. Meanwhile the Discworld story homes in on the symbolic importance of one master of fiction, William Shakespeare. If only he gets born, and writes and stages A Midsummer Night's Dream, the elves who feed on fear will dwindle into children's fairy stories. Naturally the elf queen objects, and the first night sees much comic stage business that wasn't in the script.

Some Discworld chapters seem too short, but the mixture works well and sustains interest more effectively than book one. Mind-stretching stuff.


After a heavy pub night with the wizards, Bill the Bard writes: "You spotted snakes, with double tongue; thorny hedgehogs, be not seen." The Dean is aghast. "Please tell me no one sang him the Hedgehog Song ..."

Michael de Larrabeiti: The Borrible Trilogy

(Macmillan, 726pp, £12.99, ISBN: 0333908619)

Borribles are wily, feral, London street children who never grow old – unless the police Special Borrible Group (SBG) catches them and clips their pointed ears, condemning them to human adulthood. Borribles are violent, foul-mouthed and politically incorrect ...

When The Borribles appeared in 1976, readers recognized its bad guys with evil delight. Elisabeth Beresford's "Wombles of Wimbledon" – then highly popular in books and on TV – were cute, furry, eco-friendly creatures who loved to gather litter. Michael de Larrabeiti transformed them into the monstrous, ratlike Rumbles of Rumbledom, a menace so appalling that Borrible kids plan a punitive expedition to slaughter the lot. Rather like murdering the Teletubbies.

The assassination squad's trek from Battersea to Wimbledon becomes an epic quest through evil places like the Thames at Wandsworth, making the desolation of Mordor seem positively cosy. Meanwhile, Borrible tribes distrust one another; there's treachery in high places. Amid the gleefully exuberant carnage, several sympathetic characters die futile deaths. Nobody said being a Borrible was easy.

Following the Great Rumble Hunt, The Borribles Go For Broke features further vicious feuding between the tribes, with much memorable smelliness contributed by gob-happy Ben the Tramp, the rich aroma of London sewers, and loose-bowelled horses whose droppings end up all over the SBG's fanatically clean Inspector Sussworth.

Finally, Across the Dark Metropolis involves desperate flight from the SBG itself, whose Sergeant Hanks is another grotesquely Dickensian character, one finger forever exploring his uncharted nostrils: "First class that one, looks like a well-fed whelk." Gory battle at a Camden slaughterhouse leads to a showdown with a high death toll in Swiss Cottage tube tunnel, where the live rail has a part to play. Truly hair-raising.

The Borribles dramatically pushed back the boundaries of what "children's" fiction could get away with, opening the way for Philip Pullman and others. Classic urban grue. And, according to this edition, a formative influence on China Miéville.

Mick Farren: The DNA Cowboys Trilogy

(The Do-Not Press, 532pp, £10.00, ISBN: 1899344934)

Mick Farren's "cult classic" SF trilogy of sex, drugs and genocide was written all too quickly, as copyright dates show: The Quest of the DNA Cowboys and Synaptic Manhunt appeared in 1976, The Neural Atrocity in 1977.

As in various Moorcock fantasies, the world has gone chaotic, with stable communities separated by deadly, matter-consuming "nothings". Foreshadowing cyberpunk, the title characters are drifters whose goals consist of getting drunk, getting high and getting laid in the coolest possible way. Despite cool names like Billy Oblivion and Minstrel Boy, they're losers, lucky even to survive.

The quest begins with wannabe cowboys Billy and Reave escaping terminally boring Pleasant Gap in search of fun. They tour a handful of sleazy townships, mainly hostile, one run by a Tolkienian dark lord whose evil armies include subtly named "Uruks". There's some mildly kinky sex and decadence, shading into soft porn. Despite much random violence, it's all strangely inconsequential.

Book two introduces a trace of plot, with martial-arts monk Jeb Stuart Ho commanded to save the world from wicked dominatrix AA Catto – a girl old in sin but physically frozen at age 13, who provided most of book one's decadence. Unsurprisingly, despite a high body count, the terribly earnest Ho's assassination attempts have entirely the wrong effect.

In book three, Catto sets about conquering the world, pausing for displays of girlish sadism and paranoia that make Nero and Caligula seem models of diplomatic restraint. Meanwhile the real villain emerges – a mad computer! Farren teases readers by setting up several possible Saviours of the World (including a never-explained triple being who drifted enigmatically through the first volume) and gleefully killing them off one by one. Fortunately there's this emergency deus ex machina from Manhunt ...

Sloppy, freewheeling, nihilistic nonsense, with entertaining flashes when Farren presumably hit just the right mix in his writing fuel of "hashish, Coca-Cola and chain-smoked Rothmans". That Coca-Cola sounds bad.

Ian Graham: Monument

(Orbit, 373pp, £10.00, ISBN: 1841491020)

This fantasy debut features the least lovable warrior hero in many years. Anhaga Ballas is a huge man, well past his prime, vast-bellied, alcoholic, a slob and a petty thief. In chapter one his stupid, short-term opportunism gets him justly beaten to death – well, nearly.

But Ballas's ungrateful theft of a kind of magic amulet has strange effects. Though totally selfish and casually murderous, he develops an almost mystic longing for the unknown country of Belthirran somewhere beyond the mountains. "He craved Belthirran more than life itself." Gosh!

His trek through a more or less standard medieval Fantasyland is violent and hazardous. For some reason this world's horrible, oppressive Church is terrified of Ballas, sends countless fanatical Papal Wardens to kill him, and papers the villages with a Decree of Annihilation which makes Ballas-murder a holy act.

The odd thing about this awful man is that he continually survives, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. One impossible escape follows another. Whole battalions of Wardens and their allies are punched out, stabbed, dismembered, head-butted, riddled with arrows, set on fire, flung off cliffs. Virtually everyone who helps Ballas also comes to a sticky end, often with his personal assistance. The death toll is numbing.

Ian Graham writes with energy and nasty inventiveness. The Church's nonhuman mage-assassin and favourite mode of ritual execution are both impressively unpleasant. Familiar routines like escaping from a sealed, walled city through spider- and lizard-infested sewers are handled with pace and colour. Even the traditional mountaineering sequence offers fresh twists.

Clearly Ballas is more than he seems, although his back-story proves less interesting than the build-up. After all those prolonged, gory adventures, the surprise revelations and reversals are crammed into a 26-page final chapter. What felt like the opening of a trilogy suddenly crashes at speed into a brick wall. Adrenalin-charged and curiously exhausting.


Antihero Ballas, six-foot-eight and obese, is highly recognizable: "His features are broken, the nose naught but disfigured gristle, his face scarred upon the cheeks ..." But he's somehow good at being unobtrusive.