Thursday, September 3, 2009

Bloody Pages Book Reviews

Review by Steve Jensen

Official Summary: 'Leaving behind his father's tragic failures, Gabriel Swift arrives in London in 1826 to study with Edwin Poll, the great anatomist. But he finds himself drawn to his master's nemesis, Lucan, the most powerful of the city's resurrectionists and governor of its trade in stolen bodies.'
'Dismissed by Poll, Gabriel is pulled into the sinister and mysterious underworld of Georgian London - and must make a journey that will change his life forever.'
James Bradley refuses to play it safe. He presents us with an unsympathetic protagonist, an emotional nihilist; villains who are only vaguely sinister (despite their misdemeanours); 'love stories' which wither into wilful loneliness; a disjointed novel of two halves, each dry and brittle despite the glittering promise of its premise. For these 'faults', the book has received many negative reviews; for failing to deliver what was expected, James Bradley has been widely criticised.
The author should be applauded for not giving the public what they want & expect. All too often, writers use Nineteenth-century London (the 'sinister' fog, the romanticised poverty, the sleazy, slumming gentlemen, the kind-hearted prostitutes etc) as a ready-made atmospheric backdrop in lieu of creating their own gripping atmosphere, through the 'strength' of their writing. In a similar fashion, romance writers often cast their love stories against the backdrop of war, an irresistible metaphor for the fragility, turbulence and uncertainty of love.
Bradley refuses to play this cheap game, and instead gently encourages his readers to look inside themselves. Casual readers, hoping for the stereotypical, hackneyed trappings of Georgian/Victorian London - the overuse of fog akin to the 'dry ice' surrounding our pop stars, the stock characters with ludicrous, Dickensian names - come away disappointed, feeling cheated somehow. These are not the readers James Bradley seeks; the loss is theirs...
Perhaps these readers anticipated a 'romp', or a gruelling and gruesome tale of body-snatchers bound for hell in a hansom cab. And although there are villains to be met, up to their elbows in blood and grime, Bradley does not dress them up as the incarnation of Lucifer - there is no-one to rival, say, The Flesh and the Fiends' portrayal of the notorious resurrectionists Burke and Hare. Each of the ne'er-do-wells have their vulnerabilities and none are truly 'larger than life'; even Lucan's demise is merely a reflection of Gabriel's descent into himself. Grand Guignol-style horror The Resurrectionist is not, despite its cast, subject matter and setting.
There is a heart of darkness at the centre of The Resurrectionist, or rather, a hollow heart. Gabriel Swift is a natural loner, and even in his love affairs one never feels that he will sacrifice or compromise all to secure the lasting affection of his women. This is not merely indicative of his resignation to a lonely fate; Swift actually dislikes the company of others - the reader senses this even when he is in his cups, surrounded by friends and associates.
No doubt I've made this novel sound very unappealing but, in spite of all the above 'faults', The Resurrectionist is a wonderful book, for those with eyes to see. Or rather, for those with the patience and temperament suited to deeper things than mere 'entertainment'. For Gabriel Swift tells his life story in delicate, stark and beautiful words; also, the tale is not without its philosophy, dispensed sparingly but nonetheless unforgettably throughout:
It is a strange thing, tenderness, how near to pain it is, as if it were itself a sort of loss, a longing for a closeness we can never know.
They are such thin things, these lives of ours; cheap got, cheap lost, mere flickers against the ever dark, brief shadows on a wall. This life no more substantial than breath, a light which fills the chambers of our bodies, and is gone...
This idea of light and its counterpoint darkness, so often remarked upon in the story, reminded me at once of the Eighteenth-century artist Joseph Wright's chiaroscuro paintings. Likewise, Gabriel's penchant for sketching birds (and his habit of contrasting and comparing human life to that of birds) put me in mind of Wright's famous An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump:
Coincidentally (or not, as the case may be), this masterpiece contains virtually every human aspect
Bradley has noted in The Resurrectionist: science, cruelty in the name of science, despair, enlightenment, curiosity, intellectual rumination, affection. All human life is here, hidden by darkness, brought into light...another of the novel's themes - death and rebirth - can be viewed through the prism of our minds; we reflect on the meaning of our existence.
Another painting, The Hermit Studying Anatomy, is of course more atuned to the subject matter of The Resurrectionist, but that is just its surface meaning.
Look closer, and we see that scientific enquiry is just folly, for Man is essentially unknowable; the hermit (and surely Gabriel Swift is a hermit, by inclination and as a result of circumstance) idly toys with those bare, lifeless bones, searching for the Man within. It seems that philosophical enquiry is the best we can hope for. I wonder if James Bradley was influenced by Joseph Wright's work? I wonder if it's just a coincidence that Bradley named his protagonist Swift, the maiden name of Wright's wife Ann...
There must be a place in our literature, on our bookshelves, for luminous works such as The Resurrectionist. Disregard the negative reviews; look within the novel and perhaps you will find yourself. But, regardless of the outcome, the enquiry itself will be your reward.

--Steve Jensen

Shock Totem Magazine #1
Review by Nickolas Cook

I’m here to tell you: small press magazine publishing is a bitch. You’ve got the high costs of printing the magazine, paying the writers- fiction or otherwise- and then there’s the problems of distribution, overhead, storage, ad sales, subscription drives…shew!! Seriously, you’d have to be a little crazy, or a whole lot rich, to make a go of it in this tight economy.
Or you can do what Publisher/Editor K. Allen Wood has done for his debut issue of the bi-annual Shock Totem: offer 100 pages of great fiction, great artwork, insightful interviews and reviews for the discerning horror fan at the low cost of $5.99 (US) in the hopes that it will make a splash in a less than professionally run magazine market.
The high gloss trade paperback digest size and style of the first issue is impressive as hell and that artwork, by Robert Høyem, is stand at attention beautiful.
It’s easy to see there was a lot of hard work and patience put into in this debut. The stories are pro level writing (Don D’Ammassa, Kurt Newman, David Niall Wilson to name a few), the reviews sharp and honest, and interviews with likes of John Skipp and Alan Robert deeper than the usual offerings we see year in and out.
If these guys can keep up the professional level of this issue, then I foresee Shock Totem becoming the next Cemetery Dance- a magazine that readers wait for with baited breath and eager writers salivate to get their stuff into.
Keep up the fine work, guys. You give us horror fans hope for the small press magazine markets.

Sales and subscriptions for Shock Totem can be found here

Submission guidelines can be found here

--Nickolas Cook

(Scribner- 2006)
By Stephen King
Review by Nickolas Cook

Well, I’ve got to admit I never saw a cyberpunk horror novel coming from the King of Horror, but that’s exactly what we have in ‘Cell’. But relax: you won’t have to wade through tons of science lectures and inconceivable concepts to get into the novel. After all, this is Stephen King we’re talking about here, right? He knows better than any other American fiction writer how to make his writing as broadly accessible as possible. He is writing for the masses. Not Star Trek fans.
In ‘Cell’ you’ll find nods to both Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ and George Romero’s zombie apocalypse world, but it becomes more an apocalypse as filtered through the likes of J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg as the new flesh comes to the fore, a flesh ruled by an ultimately unexplained hive collective mentality.
This is an ‘end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it’ scenario that is nowhere near as expansive or complex as King’s classic ‘The Stand’-- much to the disappointment of many of his fans, by the way. To some, this is going to seem like cheat of a read, because it’s pretty narrow in its coverage of the end of the world. I won’t try to speak for King, but it’s obvious to me as a reader he’s got some serious issues with the modern world and wants us to know his general discomfort and disappointment with the seeming fall of mankind at the feet of the ever growing technogod/religion of hot wires and circuits- the school of more, faster, and now is better. One gets the sense that King sort of feels we get what we deserve in ‘Cell’.
It’s peopled with the typical cast of King characters: graphic artist Clayton Riddell, elderly Tom McCourt, and fifteen year old hope for the future Alice Maxwell. They band together to find a way out of town after what is labeled ‘The Pulse’ has turned anyone with a cell phone into a raving maniac killer. Along the way they meet other survivors and discover the ‘zombies’ or ‘phoners’ are beginning to flock like animals to certain places at certain times, as if they’re being guided by some outside force.
Well, I won’t give away much more of the story because if you haven’t read it anything beyond this is going to spoil the experience.
I will add a few other observations about ‘Cell’, however.
The first being that, to me, it seems King’s concept of how people would naturally turn to one another in such an extreme scenario has changed. Drastically. This ain’t Stu Redman and Frannie Walsh we’re talking here, folks. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe ‘Cell’ is more realistic than ‘The Stand’ in that way. It’s a hell of a depressing thought, though.
Another thing: ‘Cell’ comes to take on another meaning as the survivors form their own cells and begin to find ways to eradicate the ‘phoners’. Turning the terrorists angle on its head? Again, King owes a debt to Matheson for this concept first used in ‘I Am Legend’.
And one last observation: ‘Cell’ ultimately feels like an incomplete story. There is no true denouement, no true ending, in fact. And, again, maybe this is because King’s sense of modern man is that this is probably how it would really turn out applies here as well.

--Nickolas Cook