Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

Ah, Black Summer. A balm to ease my zombie needs. If you’ve read my post on why I stopped watching The Walking Dead, you’ll know just how bitterly disappointed I was that my love affair with the series came to an end. Yet, here comes Black Summer, strutting it’s gory stuff all over Netflix and getting my heart racing as zombies chase down their hapless prey.

Set (apparently – but only because I haven’t done my research) in the same universe as Z Nation, Black Summer is very different. There’s little in the way of humour nor any of the tongue-in-cheek nods given to the tropes of the genre that Z Nation manages to play with. Instead, what we are left with is a gritty, breathless start to the zombie apocalypse where no-one is safe.

What begins with a family trying to find passage with a retreating military, soon devolves into a frantic fight for survival. The father is tagged as infected, the daughter is whisked away on another truck whilst her mother is torn between the two. When her husband turns, it’s all she can do to stay ahead of him. In amongst the madness, set in a housing estate, as people are attacked and reanimate, storylines unfold. A gangster is held at gunpoint by soldiers looking for loot; a boyfriend abandons his other half; a woman looking for her family is carjacked and then saved yet only for a while.

It’s brilliantly executed, breakneck speed action that unfolds and twists back on itself within the same set of streets, and told from multiple angles. And, soon, some of these survivors migrate together. The gangster saves the mother who both help another lost soul. The carjacked woman and her saviour take in a young Asian lady who speaks little English. These strange, fractured and desperate relationships are intense yet unexplored as, just like reality, there is no time to dwell and ponder and give monologues. It’s about staying alive and staying ahead of the pack; both zombie and human.

Black Summer, is relentless and there’s little plot armour for the cast. Things happen and they happen fast. Feral kids; hedonistic-drug fuelled underground raves; kind strangers; and all out terror. I’m hoping there’s another season as I thoroughly enjoyed the first one. The no frills, all action, the ‘apocalypse is happening right now’ style to the story telling and camera work was excellent and hooked me from the get-go.

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Comparisons to World War Z by Max Brooks might be apt but only in so much as this is a complete, and I do mean complete, history of a supernatural change in (fictional) human history. Where Brooks uses verbal accounts and different perspectives, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising goes further and deeper into what it would mean for vampires to appear in modern society. The author does a great job at looking at how law enforcement, the press, politics, religion and all the institutes in between would address such a person; a person who is suddenly more powerful physically and psychologically; who is now capable of living for hundreds of years; a person whose moral and ethical compass is drastically different.

Whilst the book is a history, and an exhaustive one at that, it is a narrative; a story told from numerous perspectives that overlap and, eventually, dovetail into each other. Told through the eyes of an FBI agent, a research doctor, a priest in the Catholic Church and a political campaign manager, the novel manages to iron out so many details that the ‘history’ takes on the feel of being real. Political wrangling and amendments to the law sit neatly next to creepy house raids and the worrying spread of vampire fandom. What starts with a body disappearing from a small town morgue turns into numerous threads, all chasing the idea of a vampire in its various forms: as a blood-sucking drifter, as a disease, as a supernatural force, as an ideal.

For some it’s an issue of law; clearly draining people of their blood is a crime but where is the line drawn when it comes to turning another person into a vampire? Ethically, what rights do these people have as citizens and active members of society. For others, what and how does vampirism occur; is it a disease that’s controlable or reversible? Are any of those things right to pursue? All the while the author poses and explores these questions, the book is also considering the darker side of vampirism and what a new species of superhuman wants. Heists and strange kidnappings, underground networks and nefarious doings abound. Not only on the vampire side but also from humans. Humans who morally or otherwise decide to take the fight to the vampires.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is intriguing. It’s not an apocalyptic event but rather a slow, steady burn as society is infiltrated and changed from within. The depth of consideration into all aspects of the idea is impressive in itself, but how the author has woven it all together into a bizarre tapestry of a story is even more admirable. There’s a creeping darkness underneath it all, lurking under the surface, making all the machinations above seem off centre and, in that sense, truly capturing the essence of human history.

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Published by Titan Books

It seems, by writing these posts, that I’ve been watching more media than I’ve been reading. However, I’ve also quit on a few shows as well and I wanted to briefly discuss why…

First up, The Walking Dead. I was a big fan of this series; I’ve re-watched the seasons 1-5 quite a few times and, it’s fair to say, I was slightly obsessed with it when it first came out. It made me more of a fan of the genre due to its internally consistent logic, it’s great world-building and some very decent acting. The human element was intriguing and the threats were real. That the zombies became a secondary danger compared to other survivors was well played initially but, for me at least, things began to unravel somewhere around season 6.

Rick’s character lost that thing that made him, him. He made choices that weren’t consistent with who he had become. Choices which, whilst obviously plot driven, seemed contrived. The introduction of yet another war-lord/cult leader with (again) a more equipped army and (again) a better suited stronghold who (again) has megalomaniacal ideas of control and domination felt… tired. Negan wasn’t the character he was promised to be and his Jim Carey-lite portrayal didn’t really work for me; he was neither unhinged enough to be scary and nor was he imposing or brutal enough to fear.

And then we came to ‘the scavengers’. It was this group that ended my love affair with the show. Whilst my wife bailed after season 6, I powered on, hoping the series would find itself again and reaffirm it’s gritty, realistic style, and get back to its roots. But, no. What we got was a group of post-40 year old emo/goths living in a scrap yard talking in a type of slang that had little to zero bearing on anything. The internal logic was gone. The Walking Dead had finally lost that thing that made me relate and had fallen into a feedback loop.

I couldn’t shake it off. In the world of Rick and the others, the apocalypse had been, at most, going on for three years (?). How on Earth had these scavengers devolved into a bunch of mute, Mad Max cosplaying, pidgin- talking weirdos in that space of time? It grated at me until I realised I’d lost the desire to know, to understand, to watch along anymore. I no longer cared if Carl stayed in the house; I no longer worried if Maggie or Carol would find their inner strength again (and speaking of Carol, her character arc was another massive sense of annoyance best left unpacked).

I loved The Walking Dead for a long time but, sometimes, it’s best to just delete that season you’ve been saving just in case and move on.

Review – Life

Posted: March 5, 2019 in Film, Horror, Sci-Fi
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I caught this film on Netflix recently and, as a sucker for space horror, loaded it up and went in blind, not knowing what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. The cast were headed up by two very talented actors with Ryan Reynolds doing his patented brand of goofy yet heroic and Jake Gyllenhaal giving another solid, emotional performance. The rest of the ensemble were equally restrained and believable in their roles as scientist/astronauts tasked with researching samples taken from Mars that showed signs of life.

From the tense opening scene where the samples might’ve been lost if not for Reynolds bravery to the consequential astonishment at the discovery of an alien organism, albeit a very simple cell, the film had an undeniable quality. The research and its consequences are astounding yet, as the scientists continue their observations, that simple cell begins to transform, displaying an intelligence beyond anything they’ve ever seen before.

The film captures the tension and claustrophobia of a space station brilliantly, and the special effects are on point. As things take a turn and the cell (miraculously and suddenly) begins to evolve into a creature, that sense of knife-edge existence which comes from living inside a space station comes to the fore. The fragility of the human body, the desperation to survive is, in Life, viscerally portrayed – none more so than with Reynolds’ self- sacrifice.

As the cell turned creature turned monster begins to pick off the crew and desperation replaces logic, the true horror of the astronauts choices are revealed; there is no exit strategy. The last ‘firewall’ is for the station to be ejected into outer space. The scientists try everything but the creature is smarter, more suited to the environment and, basically, unkillable.

It’s solid horror. The atmosphere was well wrought and the acting well done. For me the annoyance came in how the creature managed to evolve from a single cell into a fully-fledged vampiric octopus so quickly. But, accepting the suspension of disbelief, it is a badass monster. Yes, the ending was predictable. However, it was an entertaining movie that hit all the right space horror tropes and made for a fun watch.

Review – Bone Tomahawk

Posted: July 8, 2018 in Film, Horror, western
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Left to my own devices, my choice in films can be questionable (80’s action, anyone?). Whilst my wife has a gift for picking great movies that are either funny or feel-good, I end up watching stuff that,often, goes to dark places. Bone Tomahawk went there and went there hard.

It has a great cast, led by Kurt Russel as a no nonsense sheriff in a hardscrabble but tight knit frontier town. Opening proceedings with a pair of nefarious robbers murdering some sleeping travellers, the tension that runs through the core of the film begins to build. The bandits find themselves needing to escape a posse and stumble into a sacred burial ground, desicrating it in the process, setting in motion a tale of horror, sacrifice and survival.

One of the robbers shows up in the sheriff’s town and quickly finds himself in jail. Left under guard and with a local woman attending his wounds, the tale takes a sudden turn. In the morning all three have disappeared; the only clue an arrow.

A local Native American tells the sheriff that the arrow belongs to a tribe long shunned and best avoided. He, his deputy and a gunslinger decide to set off in pursuit. The woman’s husband, a tough cowboy (with a broken leg), refuses to stay behind but is soon struggling to keep up with the pace. The ensuing journey is one of hardships in a harsh environment which slowly reveals more about the ensemble cast of characters with each step. The gritty toughness of the pioneer spirit is on full display as the men push on even as the odds are stacked against them.

After their horses are stolen the cowboy re-injures his leg and is left behind, perhaps to die. The others carry on and are soon attacked by the tribe. The gunslinger is killed whilst the sheriff and his deputy are captured. The true nature of the tribe becomes clear and the horror of the situation is played out in front of them in graphic detail. It’s a scene that stuck with me for some time as the guard from town is ritually killed and consumed.

What follows is a battle of wits and determination as the sheriff, deputy and nurse fight to overcome their cannibalistic captors. The appearance of the nurse’s husband, once again displaying a show of heart and will-power, turns the tables. Bone Tomahawk is brutal at times but equally enthralling, visually and psychologically. It’s a brilliant take on the western genre taken to another level as the tension and terror that underlines the film bears impressive results.

The final instalment in this creature-feature, arachnid-apocalypse, horror series is a satisfying and entertaining read. As ‘they’ like to say – things have to get worse before they can get better; Zero Day epitomises this perfectly. The previous novels (reviewed here and here) set up this brilliant conclusion, tying in all the threads of the plot perfectly.

With the American President under immense pressure to act from her military advisers, nuclear bombs are dropped on U.S soil, the country torn apart and divided. Yet, it’s still not enough. However, a rag-tag group of survivors working in different parts of the country hone in on a way to defeat the spiders. Scientist Melanie Guyer’s research discovers ever more frightening aspects of the aptly named ‘hellspiders’ whilst backwood geniuses Shotgun and Gordo reconfigure their invention from failed weapon to arachnid tracking device.

Much like Guyer, their research doesn’t make things better. At all. The spiders in Boone’s novels just get scarier and scarier as the books go on and, in Zero Day, things really get worrying. Sprinkled in amongst all the big plays are numerous side stories adding to and painting the bigger picture perfectly. There’s great moments, some apocalyptically wild and some heartfelt and touching. But, Boone keeps the pressure rolling. A military coup, a final queen-sized hatching of new-and-improved spiders and a countdown to the end of days.

It’s a great finish to a very readable set of novels, perfectly balanced between adventure and horror.

Review copy

Published by Gollancz

Whilst re-organising my bookshelves, I spied this title nestled in amongst some older fantasy works. In the two brief steps it took to place it with my horror section on the opposite wall, I’d begun to read the opening chapter. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it before or not (I get hit in the head a lot while sparring), but it was intriguing enough that I keep in turning the pages.

It’s an excellent zombie apocalypse novel told through the eyes of an ensemble of characters divided between two locations. The leader of each group is military: General Sherman, an experienced soldier tasked with operations in Africa; and Lieutenant Colonel Anna Demilio, part of the US medical research institute for infections disease stationed in America. Demilio catches wind of the ‘Morningstar Strain’ early on before it begins to really spread, trying, helplessly, to urge her higher-ups to act. Soon enough, however, the infection is taking hold across the African continent, forcing military action to try and quarantine certain countries.

Sherman is at the forefront of this conflict, witnessing the horror of the initial effects of the virus and the consequent reanimation of its victims. Double the zombie, double the mayhem as Recht has mixed ‘sprinters’ and ‘shamblers’ into a nightmarish blend of death. It’s as great as it sounds. Sherman is the reader’s eyes into pitched battles, breathless escapes and brutal violence. Demilio portrays the political side of the problem as she tries to get the truth out only to find herself imprisoned for treason by a very scary NSA trio.

The opening book in a series, it’s a solid, action-packed read. Just the kind of thing I was looking for to accompany my morning coffee.

Published by Permutated Press

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Aside from reading my son his collection of The Little Red Train books by Benedict Blaithwayt (which are excellent for toddlers), the Dark Cities anthology has me equally enthralled.

Grit by Jonathan Maberry features that city within a city; the housing estates of the UK or the projects of the USA. The kind of places that have their own ecosystems and rules, where the locals implicitly understand the unique laws they live by. Working amongst that grim collective of hustlers, addicts, survivors and criminals is the protagonist; ostensibly a bounty hunter for two enigmatic bondsmen yet also a man who deals in things on the other side, both of the law and the natural.

Big, ugly and covered in tattoos, he’s a man who is capable of reaching through the veil. Communicating with ghosts and uncovering the identities of their murderers, he can understand the pain of the lost and wandering souls. Tasked with just such a job, Grit is a rough and violent episode into a place best avoided.

The horror contained in Simon R. Green’s Happy Forever is an enigmatic one. A thief of unusual and exceptional items is contacted by the father of his ex-girlfriend a decade after her disappearance. Though he claims to be free of any attachments, even to his own name, this request immediately draws him in as he seeks to save her and thereby show his true feelings.

Her ‘prison’ is an unassuming suburban house where time has stopped. The thief appears to be in control and on route to fulfilling his task. The darkness of this tale comes in the last few paragraphs and leaves and unsettling feeling.

Paul Tremblay does an amazing trade in dealing out dualities; stories full of more questions than answers and answers with no clear meanings. The Society of The Monsterhood is told from the perspective of a neighbourhood regular, witnessing events from his front porch. Four kid are given the opportunity to attend a good school on a scholarship. This immediately makes them a target for the other residents in the hood where they live.

Verbal and physical abuse ensues. The kids become teens and then something changes. They issue a threat, one which has dire consequences for those who don’t leave the four of them alone. It’s here that Paul Tremblay interjects uncertainty, giving the story numerous facets and a heavy degree of weirdness.

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Published by Titan books

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Helen Marshall’s The Way She Is With Strangers is a wonderfully poetic, musically written short story. It’s a strange but engaging tale of Mercy, a women who has moved away from her place of birth to a new city and a new existence where her daughter regularly visits and where she seems to have found happiness amidst the difference. But, as the story progresses the rhythm alters. Oddities occur and suddenly strange clues are left to be unthreaded.

The Way She is With Strangers is strangely beautiful. Pathways and boundaries, maps and geographies all hint at something beyond as Mercy tries to help those looking to find a way out of the city; a way only ghosts can walk. It’s a wonderful story.

Coming at the idea of a ghost story from the polar opposite direction, Good Night, Prison Kings by Cherie Priest is a grim and gritty tale of vengeance. The story is a slowly revealed by the protagonist, Holly, as she finds herself remembering the circumstances of her current existence. Sat in a mundane interview, Holly realises that she is dead and that her interviewer is offering her the chance to conclude some unfinished business.

That ‘business’ turns out to be the opportunity to avenge her own death. To bring retribution to those who have wronged her and the elderly family members she was looking after. Holly turns out to be a violent conduit for justice but it’s the targets of her anger that add such a grim taint to the tale.

What I’ve Always Done by Amber Benson is an engaging yet odd snap shot of a strange life. Told with few details but in with exceptional style, this is one of those short stories that has the immense ability to pull the reader into a world using but a few sentences. It’s violent and dark, hitting the brief perfectly.

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Published by Titan Books

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The strap line for this anthology reads ‘all-new masterpieces of urban terror’ and with an impressive list of authors to boot, it’s a collection I’ve been keen to read. Premised on the idea of the city, each writer has scraped back the veneer of metropolitan living to reveal the horror lying beneath.

First up and making an immediate impression was Scott Smith’s The Dogs. A mix of supernatural and bizzare properties, it’s the kind of tale where once it’s stall has been laid out you kind of know where it’s going. But, that doesn’t diminish its power or ability to unsettle. A young women who enjoys meeting men on Craigslist, suddenly finds herself in a situation that is
only ever going to end badly. However, it’s not the normal ‘met a guy who turned out to be a serial killer’ type bad; somehow it’s worse yet also pleasantly mundane. A mysteriously magical flat; murderous, talking canines; and the choice between killing or being killed. Superbly written and brilliantly paced, The Dogs is understated horror at its finest.

In Stone by Tim Lebbon definitely added some welcome chills to this week’s epic heatwave. It’s a story that manages to do so much with mere suggestions and hints rather than outright horror but the effect is exceptional. An insomniac narrator, troubled by the death of his closest friend, begins walking the streets of his home city in the early morning hours. During these meandering wanderings, he sees a woman strolling down alleyways and sidestreets, and he follows her. Curiosity peeked because she seems so out of place, so elsewhere, the woman disappears.

It’s a mystery that leaves the narrator unsettled and he investigates the spot again the next day. However, what he finds inexplicably intrigues yet deeply frightens him. Soon he begins seeing signs of further offkilter happenings around the city and can’t help but look for more. In Stone never explicitly shocks but the creeping sensation it produces is impressive.

Both stories have found intriguing interpretations of the brief for this anthology and I’m definitely hooked. Featuring so many good writers, such as Jonathon Maberry, Paul Tremblay, Ramsey Campbell and others, I’ll be posting up more reviews soon.

Review copy
Published by Titan Books