Review: Consumed

Consumed
Consumed by David Cronenberg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book so much. I really tried, if only out of service to my admiration for Cronenberg’s incredible back-catalogue of films. I’m a big fan of the guy’s work and so it seemed a given that I’d equally enjoy his debut novel, but it was not to be. It’s not that Consumed is an unmitigated piece of shit – there are some great ideas in there, some nice Cronenbergian body horror, and some hilarious, subversive moments. It’s just that these things, for me, felt buried beneath the endless philosophical ramblings and itemised breakdowns of technology that seemed to make up most of the book. I almost stopped reading this so many times. I know the emotional disconnect of the characters here is probably part of the point, that I’m supposed to feel like I’m observing the narrative on a laptop screen or through a camera lens, but the whole experience left me floating in a void of frustration and indifference. Having finished the novel, I feel like maybe I missed the point, that my reaction to it is wrong somehow, that maybe the story doesn’t really flounder in its own self-aggrandising philosophical wank, but who knows? I guess I’m torn because of the potential the book had for me. For every dull, esoteric moment there are glimmers of intrigue and horror, but being caught in this good/bad see-saw isn’t exactly what I’d call a good time. Even the book’s final scene feels both absurdly abrupt and actually quite clever. In the end, though, I was left dissatisfied and underwhelmed for a book with so many supposedly shocking and weird moments.

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Review: The Tired Sounds, A Wake

The Tired Sounds, A Wake
The Tired Sounds, A Wake by Michael Wehunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quiet, creeping kind of horror that’s soaking in Wehunt’s trademark human melancholy, The Tired Sounds, A Wake is a beautiful, dreamlike novella that left me feeling simultaneously disjointed, broken, and uplifted. Wehunt is a magnificent purveyor of weird fiction, but those elements of his work always ebb and flow around the shape of the human; with his slow and poetic prose, he captures the agonising minutiae of his characters’ thoughts and actions, their motivations, their fallibility on raw, vibrant display. Although personally I preferred the stories in his recent debut collection, Greener Pastures, this is a wonderful, quietly creepy and immensely beautiful novella. Another great publication from the consistently brilliant Dim Shores, and featuring breathtaking cover and interior art from Justine Jones.

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Review: Hunters & Collectors

Hunters & Collectors
Hunters & Collectors by Matt Suddain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This chunky novel is a busy fever dream of black comedy and violent, clever sci-fi that balances its batshit crazy moments with a surprisingly tender, human heart. There is so much going on here; the world Suddain creates feels well established and worn-in, crafted as much from what he does say, as what he doesn’t. He has a way of disguising exposition with clever scenes and devices, and in fact his skills at narrative subterfuge overall are a big part of what makes Hunters and Collectors one of the most intelligent and enormously fun books I’ve read in years.

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Bait Hides the Hook: Laird Barron’s Swift to Chase (Review)

swift_to_chase

Part of me wondered whether I should post anything about the latest Laird Barron because for a moment I thought, what else is there really left to say about the guy that hasn’t already been said, that I haven’t already said, that we don’t already know? He’s a visceral, commanding, awe-inspiring writer who just keeps pushing the boundaries of genre writing. So far, so Barron. Anyone familiar with his name or work knows this already.

But I wrote this review anyway, and I’m posting it, and, sure, it might fall into that pattern I seem to have established where I read a book I love and then extol its virtues in a thousand-odd-word post – which, in my more self-loathing moments, feels like it probably comes across as just an exercise in how many adoring adjectives I can fit into a sentence. But it’s not that at all. Those adoring adjectives aren’t an exercise in anything except how I honestly feel about the noun I’m attaching them to.

Also, fuck all that doubt. If you like something, if you love something, if it fills you with joy or wonder or awe or terror or adrenaline, and if it makes you feel like there are still new things to be discovered in the world and new ways and angles to look at it, then you need to shout about that and share it with as many people who will listen. Plus, if this review compels just one person to pick up Barron’s – and any of his vast number of brilliant contemporaries’ – work for the first time, then all that seemingly redundant gushing is worth it.

But enough about that. Adoring adjectives await…

If you thought you knew what to expect from Laird Barron, his latest (fourth) collection – and sixth major publication – Swift to Chase, tears down all those preconceptions. He breaks a lot of new ground here, especially in terms of technique, structure and style. His Old Leech Mythos – which makes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos look like the Teletubbies – is present and accounted for, but Barron attacks it from some unexpected angles. He seems to be going out on an experimental limb both with the individual stories as well as the larger picture that’s pieced together as you move through the collection.

The opening story, “Screaming Elk, MT”, introduces recurring badass Jessica Mace, and there’s nary a mention of Old Leech and Co., though it’s not exactly devoid of mortal harm, scheming sleazebags and otherworldly terror. It’s a great, compact piece of writing that cuts to the bone, and to the chase.

If I have a complaint about this story, it’s that this is (spoiler alert) one of the few Barron tales where the protagonist escapes largely unharmed, and the monster seems to be vanquished a little too easily, let alone at all. More often than not, Barron’s antagonists are as insurmountable and eternal as the universe from which they spring, and there isn’t a sliver of hope to be glimpsed for the human characters, alive or not. Jessica Mace, on the other hand, seems to unpick that weave, and although she’s not without her share of suffering and madness, there’s still something of her left to keep going.

In a lot of ways, Screaming Elk sets the tone for the rest of the collection inasmuch as it’s a character-driven piece with great pacing and a fast, canny narration. Regarding the latter, Barron doesn’t waste his words, but his prose is far from frugal. It’s lean, dangerous, whip-smart and prison-hard.

Barron’s use of language has always been one of his best assets, but here there’s a sense of . . . snazziness and wit, which I won’t say was absent from his previous work, but has certainly evolved into something more complex in Swift to Chase. His antagonists, particularly the prolific Children of Old Leech, have always possessed a certain black wit, a predatory playfulness that seems inherent to their immortal, hedonistic race. His human characters aren’t exactly dead-eyed chumps either, but the black humour is on much more prominent display in this collection than I’ve noticed in Barron’s work before.

I laughed out loud more than once at the acerbic one-liners scattered throughout these stories, their deadpan delivery an organic part of the narration rather than an overt joke or attempt at humour. Which I guess is another of Barron’s strengths; marbling his stories with so many elements that work with a beautiful synchronicity but never overpower the narrative’s momentum.

For me, the part of any Laird Barron story that sticks in the mind is usually the scare, the moment of alien horror, the big monster scene and the skin-crawl that leads to it. But what stayed with me here was the people and their electric interactions. The horror elements are as chilling as always, but the most memorable parts of Swift to Chase are its moments of human nuance, of bonding or treachery or tension. Dialogue and body language fizz off each other with an amazing energy few writers can equal.

This definitely isn’t to say that there are no moments of sheer awesome weirdness on display here, though. There’s a glorious B-movie ambience to “the worms crawl in,”, a story whose several twists and turns aren’t even the coolest things about it. A reimagining of the mythic Wild Hunt that knocks that last Witcher game’s version on its arse, “Frontier Death Song” is just begging (in my head, anyway) for a blood-soaked film adaptation. “Ardor” goes more traditional Barron, with a noir-flavoured story about the hunt for an obscure old movie star and a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, although its nonlinear structure throws both protagonist and reader around a timeline that never does any favours for the former. “Ears Prick Up” is perhaps the wildest of all, a straight-up pulp sci-fi adventure eloquently narrated by, as the blurb has it, “an atomic-powered cyborg war dog” cutting down enemies with his master in a dark, Warhammer 40,000-esque future.

But what really sets Swift to Chase apart from Barron’s previous work is its structure, the way he experiments with form and style and interconnected narratives on a level we haven’t seen from him before. A shared universe and intersecting characters have certainly been present in Barron’s previous three collections and two novels (and that lightbulb moment when you discover some reference or connective tissue is magical), but aside from the overarching mythos, these have been smaller nods or clues for the more canny reader to pick up on. In Swift to Chase, the connections are impossible to miss – in fact, some stories seem to rely quite heavily on the context built up by earlier works in the collection. Dead characters reappear, minor players take on larger roles, and genealogies are filled in as the book progresses. It’s a masterful structure, and must have required one hell of a flowchart to keep track of. I wonder if Barron plans out this web of complexity or if it just comes together as he writes. Either way, wow.

For a collection that fits together so well, there’s a nice variety of stories on offer here; even those that revolve around certain incidents and characters play around with structure and point of view enough to have a unique flavour.

Every story here, bar the last, was originally published elsewhere, in anthologies or literary magazines. Given that so many of the stories here go hand in hand, mostly revolving in some way around a handful of bloody events and characters, it seems to me much more beneficial to have them all together in the one collection, providing that larger context and filling in the dark puzzle of their circumstances in a way that individual publication just couldn’t achieve. So tightly knit are they that some of this book comes pretty close to looking like a mosaic novel.

Sure, a lot of pieces work well on their lonesome, but these – especially stories like “Ears Prick Up”, “Frontier Death Song”, “Ardor”, “the worms crawl in,”, and “Black Dog” – are either vaguely linked to the collection’s major arc, or are present by way of their Alaskan heritage, a setting which is one of the uniting factors for the collection as a whole.

Personally, nothing’s ever going to beat the sheer terror and awe of my favourite of Barron’s previous collections, Occultation, and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, but that’s not a slight against Swift to Chase by any means. This is a bold and exciting family of work that subverted all my expectations and surprised me at every turn. Barron’s narrative choices are always interesting, and the tricks he pulls off here are clever enough to be innovative, but never feel like empty illusions engineered for nothing but their shock value. Honestly, I’m such a fan of this guy’s work that when he releases a new book, everything else on my to-read list has to wait it out as I devour his scrumptious prose, and then find myself hungry and pining for more once it’s over. That said, my love for all things Barron isn’t a blind love, but one built on the talent and hard work that shines through in his writing, and, at risk of sounding like a cheap salesman on a late night TV commercial, it’s a love you too can nurture and enjoy for five easy monthly payments of sanity, and maybe your soul, and—

Okay, I’ll stop. Just go read Swift to Chase. Or anything else by Barron. Please. Do it. I’ll love you if you do, but I’ll know if you don’t.

Assassin’s Creed (Review)

I’m a fan of the prolific Assassin’s Creed video game series (I’ve played about five-and-a-half out of the nine games so far), but I wasn’t all that excited about the announced film adaptation, not least because video game properties translated into films have an unfortunate – and seemingly unbreakable – pattern of being utter shit, bar maybe the first Silent Hill.

There’s also the problem that the Creed games’ primary narrative quirk – that whatever historical time period we’re playing in is being experienced as a genetic memory by a character in the modern world delving into their ancestors’ assassin history in order to unlock clues and find macguffins left to us by an ancient, technologically advanced race of god-like beings, while fighting off their sworn enemies, the evil Templars, and try reading that aloud without taking a breath or giggling – is both ridiculous, and works more as a franchise-perpetuating plot device than an engaging narrative catalyst. This kind of thing works in a video game because we’re so engaged in Renaissance Italy or Colonial America or Victorian London that we don’t have to dwell on what got us there, or the vapid modern interludes (more on that later).

But then they hired Aussie Justin Kurzel to direct, Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Top of the Lake, Snowtown, Macbeth) as Directory of Photography, the director’s brother Jed Kurzel as composer, and a cast that included Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael K Williams and Brendan Gleeson, and suddenly, on the strength of all this unflappable talent, here was a film I couldn’t wait to see.

Kurzel’s debut, Snowtown, based on the real-life Snowtown (aka bodies-in-the-barrels) murders in South Australia, is one of the most disturbing and beautiful films I’ve seen in the last decade. His follow-up, a grimy period piece adaptation of Macbeth that, like Snowtown, is equal parts dark, violent, and just incredible to look at, ranks as one of the better cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare to date. So it stands to reason that his take on the popular video game franchise (which borrowed Macbeth’s lead couple in Fassbender and Cotillard) would also be pretty damn good, right?

…Right?

Well, maybe not.

It’s not an infuriating, offensive, Suicide Squad-level disaster by any means, but it’s a bit of a flop considering the talent involved.

Assassin’s Creed takes an interesting tangent from the video game series by giving us both a new historical setting and a new assassin character: 15th century Spain, and Aguilar de Nerha (Michael Fassbender), respectively. As the film opens, Aguilar is initiated into the Brotherhood of Assassins and their fight against the Templars during, in this case, the Spanish Inquisition. The problem is, we learn virtually nothing about Aguilar as a person, his motivations or reasons for becoming an assassin, even the hint of a backstory. He just runs around a lot and stabs/fights the bad guys.

One of the criticisms levelled at the games is that some of them spent too much unnecessary time in the present day, particularly the earlier games, up until Assassin’s Creed III, which featured boring assassin-descended Desmond Miles going through the motions of a boring story you want to get through as fast as possible in order to return to the real fun, which is the stabby, parkour-happy ancestor. Later games dialled back on these annoying interludes, but for some reason, writers Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage decided to let the present day story dominate the film’s screenplay. Fassbender’s Callum Lynch, a death row inmate (but a good one because the guy he’s in jail for killing was a nasty pimp, okay!) whose execution is faked by the shady Jeremy Irons-run Abstergo Industries so they can exploit his genetic memories, is a much more fleshed out character than the rather dull Aguilar, but with only three sections dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition, there’s not exactly much for the latter to do. Besides, this really misses the point of the games, as well as the fun of them.

I can see why the writers chose the structure that they did, with a focus on the modern day character, but either the script needed a lot more work, or there was a lot of post-production cutting going on, or maybe even both. Either way, both parts of the story don’t quite work, and the film’s pacing is all over the place. Both the action and the quieter moments drag on for too long, and the editing needs a lot of work.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to Assassin’s Creed that’s either good or at least not shit. The action’s not exactly mindblowing but it’s competent enough for the most part, and the reliance on practical effects/stunts results in a handful of great set-pieces, including a record breaking leap of faith performed by an actual stunt man. From what I could make out, the costumes, props and sets are all particularly well done. Jed Kurzel’s score is one of the best parts of the film, both haunting and truly intense, and helps bandage over some of those pacing problems. The acting its mostly engaging, too, aside from poor Marion Cotillard being dumped with so much insipid expository dialogue. For some unfathomable reason, though, the filmmakers decided to wash all the colour out with some hideous monotone filter that made me think I’d developed cataracts in the cinema. It’s all dull and grainy and makes what otherwise seems to be a very good-looking film, incredibly ugly.

Every story element here works on its own to some extent – Cal’s Daddy issues and his struggle with the regressions, Aguilar’s sections, the father-daughter tension between Irons’ and Cotillard’s characters, the secondary characters in both timelines, who all seem much more interesting than the protagonist, particularly the charming Michael K Williams and Ariane Labed – but nothing’s ever really fleshed out and, worst of all, there’s no synchronicity (pun not intended) to the film as a whole, no rhythm that might make its other flaws that much more forgivable.

Some of the post-production choices made here, particularly characters who seemed like they should have had much more screen time, seem to stack up to studio interference/cutting – which appears to be the depressing trend with blockbusters lately – and others are just plain bizarre. I feel like if they’d just removed the grainy filter and given the story and characters some room to breathe, this could have been so much better. Assassin’s Creed seems like a good film hiding behind a script in need of editing and an awful colour filter; it’s not exactly a disaster, but it’s just not fun.

Lovemurder – Saul Black (Review)

By now, it’s common knowledge that crime writer Saul Black is actually literary chameleon Glen Duncan, author of a delightful variety of novels including Death of an Ordinary Man and I, Lucifer. He’s been edging slowly from literary novels into more “mainstream” fair, and after his more recent foray into genre territory with his werewolf/vampire trilogy (The Last Werewolf, Talulla Rising, and By Blood We Live), Duncan tried his hand at the crime thriller in 2015, adopting a pseudonym for The Killing Lessons, an as-always elegantly written serial killer novel that elevated the genre to new heights. Its protagonist, homicide detective Valerie Hart, was unique without falling into that weird/special/gifted cop cliché toilet, and the prose was mesmerising, rhythmic and simply beautiful to read, something Duncan/Black can pretty much achieve in his sleep by this point.

The next Valerie Hart novel, of which I hope/assume there will be more, is Lovemurder. Six years ago, the beautiful Katherine Glass was sent to death row for the prolonged torture and murder of several women. The man with whom she committed these crimes, and who was never caught, has now resurfaced and drawn Valerie into a complex but typical cat-and-mouse “figure out the riddle before I kill the next victim” game. These riddles and ciphers are so obscure that the best chance the cops have of cracking them is with the help of – of course – the bored, incarcerated Katherine.

It must be hard for crime writers to ever come up with anything new, or, as must be more common, to either recombine existing tropes in new ways or present them somehow from a previously unconsidered angle. To keep the blood fresh. In this way Lovemurder is full of the familiar. There’s the Hannibal Lecter-esque set-up of an intelligent, charming serial killer assisting the lead detective from prison. There’s the riddles, the antagonist’s love of art and literature, the tight, world-condensing focus between serial killer and lead cop.

Where Duncan/Black really excels though, and what elevates his work above so many writers’, is his observations of human society, culture, psyche, interaction. Lovemurder is peppered with these, some of them merely passing comments and some taking root in the deeper vein of the narrative. His characters often transcend the cliché you think they’re going to embody, either by self-awareness of some fallible element that makes them all the more human. The way Duncan/Black writes, it feels like you’re the one making these discoveries about human nature, the way things work, the everyday philosophies of love and death and everything in between. He’s not telling you about these things – you’re learning them, noticing them organically.

In his earlier work he seemed to rely a little too heavily on this kind of pseudo-philosophising, and, tethered to something like I, Lucifer’s relentless amused wit and lack of narrative momentum, it had a tendency to exhaust as much as enlighten. Here though, he’s perfected it, shearing off most of the “literary” fat in favour of a pacing and tone which, even in the slower, more overtly philosophical moments, never feels slow. This is obviously in part due to the nature of the genre in which he’s currently writing, but it’s still an admirable feat; for all its intense action, Lovemurder is a surprisingly, almost deceptively introspective book, but it never felt that way when I was reading it. I devoured the whole thing in a couple of breathless, exhilarating chunks, falling into that “couldn’t put it down” cliché in a way I haven’t done for a long time.

So much of my enthralment with Lovemurder and its need to be so hastily devoured comes down to Duncan/Black’s prose, which, as always, is mesmerising. It’s not effusive or overly complicated but the syntax, the rhythm and the way he arranges his words is incredibly skilful – and powerful. There’s a subdued poetry to his language that blooms into brightness every few pages with some gorgeous sentence or line of dialogue. The pacing and construction of every moment, from quiet to unbearably tense and brutal, is near-perfect.

All that said, the book isn’t without its lazy or indulgent moments, and the climax is far more conveniently dealt with than I would have liked. I found certain twists a little too easy to spot early on, and he can get a tad repetitive at times. Most of these flaws are forgivable against the overall quality of the writing and the novel’s relentless momentum, but parts of Lovemurder do feel a little too neat, like underneath all the delightful observations Duncan/Black isn’t comfortable taking too many narrative risks. He seems entirely capable of breaking new ground, and often does, but he stays his hand on occasions when you wish he’d been far less merciful to both characters and readers.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt he had a whole lot of fun writing this, and that bleeds through – copiously – to the reading experience. Even when Duncan/Black does generic, he does it with enthusiasm and the kind of skill that would have literary critics whining about his departure – his betrayal – from highbrow fiction and his mucking down in the filthy world of genre fiction and crime thrillers and, no doubt, larger earnings. But there’s nothing wrong with trying out different kinds of stories, whether more or less commercially viable than others. Critics have said disparaging things about David Mitchell’s move into the supernatural, for example, but shouldn’t they be applauding writers like these for venturing out of their comfort zone, for trying different things? But that’s really a subject I could vent about for thousands of words more, which I’ll spare you from today.

Whatever its flaws, Lovemurder is violent, dark, beautiful and engaging as hell; I haven’t read a book this quickly in a long time, nor enjoyed one with such greedy indulgence. I feel like Duncan/Black could make a shopping list into a thrilling read – his work should be applauded not just for its subtext or its keen eye for detail or the way it gets under your skin, but also just for how much fun it is, and you should read it for any and all of those reasons.

Review: ALTAR

ALTAR
ALTAR by Philip Fracassi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What begins as a family trip to the local pool on a warm day quickly turns dark on levels both personal and cosmic, and it’s the juxtaposition of these two elements that Fracassi is so damn good at. The social ecosystem of the public pool and the mundane idiosyncrasies of each characters’ headspace make a fantastic set-piece for the action and horror that unfolds with Fracassi’s elegant rhythm. He manages to fit so much into the space of such a short work, but it never feels overfed. Every scene is precisely measured and delivers the right amount of impact-versus-anticipation before switching to a different character or scenario. The tension builds to breathless, almost painful heights as the story reaches its bleak and fragile peak. This is an absolute sucker-punch of a novella that easily ranks among this year’s best pieces of fiction.

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