The return of Rab Foster

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

I’ve always loved the idea of high fantasy and heroic fantasy fiction.  The two are slightly different, though overlapping, things – for the former, think Lord of the Rings (1954-55), for the latter, think the Conan the Barbarian stories (1932-36).

 

Therefore, I’m talking about literature set in imaginary kingdoms in medieval worlds with a total absence of modern science and technology.  Its pages are populated by kings, queens, princes, princesses, warriors, knights, witches, warlocks, elves, goblins, trolls, dragons and any number of other supernatural and mythical creatures and monsters.  Its landscapes are dotted with castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, walled towns, thatched cottages, riotous taverns, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes and foreboding mountain passes.  And its plots are animated by the casting of spells, the summoning of demons and suchlike magical shenanigans, by epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, by Machiavellian court intrigue set against backgrounds of rebellions, invasions, sieges and battles, and generally by non-stop swordplay, chases, rescues, derring-do and bloodshed.

 

Oh, and maps.  The opening pages of any high or heroic fantasy book have got to contain a map:

 

© Gnome Press / David Kyle

 

The trouble is, there hasn’t been a great deal of this literature that I’ve read and actually liked.  Much of it I’ve found either drearily pompous (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson) or badly written (e.g. Lin Carter).  I quite like some of the Conan the Barbarian tales written by Robert E. Howard, somebody who knew how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the titular barbarian’s swaggering sexism and the undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

But there are a few items that I’ve unreservedly liked.  There’s the Jirel of Joiry stories, a heroic fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (C. L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes, Howard’s Conan stories.  There’s the Earthsea books (1968-2001) by another woman, Ursula K. Le Guin.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rips the piss out of the genre.  And there’s the Kane novels and short stories (1970-1985) written by the underrated Karl Edward Wagner, which feature an immortal and immoral swordsman roaming a fantasy world, selling his fighting services to mortal but equally-immoral humans and getting involved in all sorts of violent skulduggery.

 

I haven’t read the Game of Thrones books (1996-present) by George R. R. Martin or watched the TV show based on them, but from what I’ve heard about their cynical and nihilistic tone I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin had been influenced by Karl Edward Wagner’s work in his younger days.

 

Over the years I’ve tried my hand at writing high and heroic fantasy short stories, but there never seemed to be many outlets for getting them published.  I got one into the pages of a hard-copy British magazine called Legend in the early 2000s, but that publication, alas, was short-lived; and later another of my stories appeared in an American webzine called Sorcerous Signals, which is no longer on the go, either.  Meanwhile, a folder on my computer hard-drive titled ‘Fantasy Stories’ gradually turned into the literary equivalent of a breaker’s yard, filled with unpublished stories rather than decommissioned ships.

 

Happily, I have managed to dust down one of those fantasy stories, The Trap Master, and get it published this month in the webzine Aphelion.  Although this year already Aphelion has published two stories that I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, The Trap Master sports a different pen-name: Rab Foster, the name I’ve put on my published fantasy output, meagre though it is.  For the next few weeks, the October 2018 edition of Aphelion should be accessible here and the story itself accessible here.

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

Although it belongs to the tradition of high and heroic fantasy, don’t expect The Trap Master to be about royalty or members of the nobility, or indeed, about muscular superhuman swordsmen.  I’ve always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to be an ordinary, unremarkable blue-collar worker in one of these fantasy worlds, and the characters in The Trap Master are representative of that economic sector.

 

Incidentally, the story is inspired too by my interest in mythological and folkloric creatures, something I suspect comes from the Sinbad-the-Sailor movies I watched as an impressionable kid: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).  These films were devised as unashamed showcases for legendary special-effects man Ray Harryhausen and his artistry with stop-motion-animation puppets, which still looks impressive today and, unlike slick modern CGI technology, possesses a dreamy unreal charm.

 

Cheerfully ignoring the fact that the literary Sinbad came from Bagdad during the reign of the 8th / 9th century AD Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Harryhausen had the movie version of him dodging creatures drawn from Greek mythology, prehistory and elsewhere: cyclopes, centaurs, dragons, homunculi, minotaurs, sabre-tooth tigers, troglodytes and even a six-armed statue of the Hindu Goddess Kali that’d come to life.

 

At the end of the 1990s, I got a chance to briefly speak to Harryhausen while he was visiting Edinburgh and just after he’d given a talk at the city’s (now sadly defunct) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  I mentioned that I was a fan of the Sinbad movies.  He looked me in the eye, chuckled and commented, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

Made my year, that did…

 

From godzilla.wiki.com

 

The father of Dredd is dead

 

From Bleeding Cool / © Javier Mediavilla Ezquibela

 

I find myself reading the news less and less these days.  That’s not just because of the apocalyptic way the world seems to be heading, with a loudmouthed Nazi-facilitating nincompoop in the White House and with the UK locked in a Boris Johnson-inspired Brexiting death-spiral.  It’s also because every week, seemingly, I discover that somebody who was a cultural hero to me during my youth has passed away.  Last week it was the turn of comic-book artist Carlos Ezquerra – born in Zaragoza in Spain, although he was latterly a resident of the microstate of Andorra on the French / Spanish border – to shuffle off this mortal coil, the victim of lung cancer.

 

As a kid, I often encountered Ezquerra’s work from the mid-1970s onwards and it had a big impact on me.  After drawing war stories and Westerns in Spain, Ezquerra began to get commissions in Britain’s mainstream comic-book industry, which, though it’s next to non-existent today, was immense at the time.  I first stumbled across his artwork when I read the war comic Battle Picture Weekly, which seemed special because it was leaner and meaner than the multitudinous other war titles that filled the boys’ comics market at the time: Warlord, Victor, Valiant and the pocket-sized Commando Comic (which somehow remains on the go today, although in 2013 it was announced that its printing operations were being moved to – ha-ha! – Germany).

 

Responsible for drawing two of its most popular strips, both set during World War II, Ezquerra helped make Battle stand out.  Rat Pack was a British version of the 1967 war movie The Dirty Dozen, although the convicts-turned-commandos here numbered less than half-a-dozen: violent simpleton Kabul ‘the Turk’ Hassan, the blade-wielding Matthew Dancer, thuggish Scotsman Ian ‘Scarface’ Rogan and the cowardly and aptly-named Ronald Weasel, plus their commander, Major Taggart, who was a proper, dutiful soldier (and whom they detested).  Major Eazy was about an unconventionally laid-back and laconic soldier who spent his time smoking cigars and getting up his superiors’ noses – I’d always assumed the character was inspired by the type Clint Eastwood had played in countless movies, although I read on Wikipedia recently that the inspiration actually came from James Coburn.

 

© IPC Publications

 

Ezquerra’s artwork was simultaneously grubby and graceful, hungry-looking and intense.  Unlike the solid, square-jawed heroes who populated other British war strips, the characters in it looked like they’d been fighting a long time at the front.  Fittingly, Battle marked its 100th issue with an Ezquerra team-up: it featured a new story wherein Major Eazy becomes the commander of the Rat Pack after Taggart is injured and hospitalised.  (His new charges hate him even more than they hated Taggart.)

 

Battle was founded by comic writers Pat Mills and John Wagner and when they moved on to a new project, 2000 AD – which became the most important and influential British comic of the late 20th century and which, with some justification, proclaimed itself ‘the galaxy’s greatest comic’ – it was inevitable that Ezquerra would find work there.  With Wagner, he created 2000 AD’s most famous character, the lumbering fascistic lawman of the future, Judge Dredd.  Though he wasn’t the first artist to draw the Judge Dredd strip itself, an honour that belongs to Mike McMahon, he did design the character originally.

 

Imagined by Ezquerra, Dredd’s appearance is epic – and troubling.  The immense, sculpted shoulder pads, the huge, engraved badge and the eagle-shaped, flag-emblazoned belt-buckle recall the baroque and ludicrous ornamentation you’d see on uniforms during a parade in a fascist state.  Meanwhile, Dredd’s other accessories, the helmet, visor, gauntlets, chains, utility belt and boots evoke a less ceremonial side of fascism, i.e. the side that’s regularly breaking protestors’ heads out on the streets.  No doubt Ezquerra drew on his memories of growing up in Franco-era Spain, though it’s said his design was influenced too by Frankenstein, the character played by David Carradine in the Roger Corman sci-fi / exploitation movie Death Race 2000 (1975).

 

It’s just a pity that Ezquerra never got a chance to work on Action, the wildly controversial comic created by Mills during the period between Battle and 2000 AD.  I would have loved to see him take on such key Action strips as Hook Jaw or Hellman of Hammer Force.

 

© Rebellion Developments Ltd

 

One comic Ezquerra did work on was Starlord, a title that appeared in 1978.  Intended as a sister publication to 2000 AD, it was similarly devoted to science fiction stories.  Starlord had high production costs, which quickly made it unprofitable and it was merged with 2000 AD.  In the British comic world of the time, ‘mergers’ usually meant that the less successful title soon disappeared without trace within the pages of the more successful one.  Gratifyingly, though, Strontium Dog, a Starlord strip Ezquerra created with John Wagner, survived and became a staple of 1980s-era 2000 AD.

 

Strontium Dog is set in a bleak, violent and racist future where radiation from the Great Nuclear War of 2150 has created an underclass of mutants.  Oppressed and mistreated by ‘normal’ humans, the mutants are permitted to do only a few, dangerous jobs, which includes being bounty hunters.  Johnny Alpha – ‘Strontium Dog’ is the racist nickname he has to put up with – is one such bounty hunter, tracking down criminals throughout the galaxy on behalf of the Search / Destroy agency.  Again, Ezquerra’s artwork creates a cast of characters who look wolfish, brooding and lethal and the strip often feels more like a spaghetti western rather than a sci-fi story.  I particularly liked the supporting character Middenface McNulty, a Scottish mutant with a carbuncled cranium from a ghetto called Shytehill, which is presumably a radioactive district of post-apocalypse Edinburgh.

 

Ezquerra is said to have preferred Johnny Alpha to Judge Dredd, no doubt because, mutant though he was, the melancholic, introspective Alpha was more human than the cold-blooded judge-jury-and-executioner that was Dredd.  Accordingly, he was unhappy with 2000 AD’s decision in 1988 to kill off Alpha and he refused to draw what was to be the character’s final story, so that the job of illustrating his demise fell to Simon Harrison and Colin MacNeil instead.  Alpha’s death was a traumatic event for British comic-book fans – no wonder the geekish 1999-2002 TV series Spaced contains a line where the Nick Frost character reminds the Simon Pegg one that he gave him a shoulder to cry on “when Johnny Alpha got killed by that big flying monster in 2000 AD.”  Happily, Ezquerra got to resurrect Strontium Dog in 1999.  Rather than figure out a way of reviving Alpha from the dead, the new strip simply pretended that he hadn’t died in the first place.

 

Over the years, Ezquerra’s other work for 2000 AD included ABC Warriors, which featured another survivor from the Starlord days, the hulking robot Hammerstein; wartime vampire story Fiends of the Western Front; and adaptations of three of Harry Harrison’s satirical Stainless Steel Rat books.  With all this, plus Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog, it’s no surprise that 2000 AD tweeted a tribute to Ezquerra the other day describing him as ‘the heart and soul’ of the comic.

 

And for a comic-book artist, to be the heart and soul of the galaxy’s greatest comic…  Well, you couldn’t ask for anything better than that.

 

© Rebellion Developments Ltd

 

Colombo International Book Fair 2018

 

 

Last week, the 2018 Colombo International Book Fair was held at the Sri Lankan capital’s Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, or the BMICH as it’s known for short – an impressively glassy, airy-looking building whose shape has always reminded me of a graduating student’s mortarboard, although the slab of roofing that extends over it is eight-sided rather than four-sided.

 

 

The avenue that leads from nearby Bauddhaloka Mawatha to the steps of the conference building was picturesquely lined with flags advertising the fair, but the event wasn’t held in the building itself.  Instead, visitors were directed towards a hodgepodge of smaller exhibition buildings and pavilions around to the side of and behind the main structure, paying an entrance fee of 20 rupees along the way.  Crammed into these buildings and pavilions were stalls and compartments representing more than 250 bookshops, booksellers, publishers and book-related institutions (ranging from the British Council to the Iran Cultural Centre), plus stationers, arts-and-crafts suppliers and anyone else who thought they had a product they could profitably sell to Sri Lanka’s reading public.

 

 

My partner and I went on the first day of the fair, a Sunday.  Because many Colombo-ites were unable to make it there on a weekday, the event that day was extremely busy.  The spaces outside the buildings were mobbed.  And the interiors were packed – the many narrow, twisting passageways between the stalls, and the even narrower passageways between the tables and shelves inside the stalls, were jammed with bodies.  A couple of times when the congestion became uncomfortable, we wondered what would happen if a fire alarm suddenly went off.  There’d be carnage, surely.  Western notions of Health and Safety seemed not to apply here.

 

 

Still, in an era when the media never seems to stop peddling horror stories about children not reading books anymore and spending all their leisure time online or playing computer games, it was heartening to see how many kids were in the crowds here (most of them, admittedly, being herded along by their beleaguered-looking parents).

 

 

As we explored the fair, we’d find tucked away among the multitudinous stalls an occasional second-hand bookshop trying to sell some of its yellowy wares.  I was especially happy to discover the Dehiwala-based Priyankara Bookshop, which was flogging hundreds of old, battered, liver-spotted paperbacks from yesteryear.  These included fat bestsellers by the likes of once wildly-popular authors like Arthur Hailey, Hammond Innes, Thomas Tryon, Dick Francis and Wilbur Smith (well, those last two still are popular, I suppose); more so-called ‘literary’ stuff by such scribblers as Anthony Burgess, J.B. Priestly, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Graham Greene; and sci-fi and fantasy novels by the likes of Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg and William F. Nolan.  I was delighted to pick up a 1974 paperback edition of M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City, which has this wonderfully evocative cover by the artist Bruce Pennington.

 

© New English Library / Bruce Pennington

 

Needless to say, I walked away from the Priyankara Bookshop stall with an armful of stuff.

 

Lastly, I saw these three books, written in Sinhala, on display outside a stall.  One book sported a portrait of Kim Jong-Il, another sported one of Vladimir Putin and a third sported one of Donald Trump.  What were these?  Three political biographies or three horror novels – a Trilogy of Terror?

 

 

Ghostly, but could be ghostlier

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

I’ve finally had a chance to watch the movie Ghost Stories, which was written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, had a cinematic release in the UK in April this year and went on sale last month on DVD.  I don’t think a new British horror film has been unveiled with such fanfare since The Woman in Black in 2012.  In Ghost Stories’ case, the hype came from the fact that it was based on a very successful stage play, also called Ghost Stories and also written by Dyson and Nyman, which ran in London from 2010 to 2011 and 2014 to 2015.   The play earned some breathless reviews from critics who claimed it was terrifying.  (That said, certain people whose opinions I respect, like the novelist Christopher Fowler and the film-writer Ben Bussey, weren’t impressed by it.)

 

I haven’t seen the play, but my expectations for the movie version of Ghost Stories were high because of the talent behind it.  Jeremy Dyson is an accomplished writer as well as a member of black-comedy specialists the League of Gentlemen.  Nyman is both an acclaimed stage magician and an actor who’s appeared in several things I really like: Charlie Brooker’s zombie satire Dead Set (2008) and two films directed by Chris Smith, Severance (2006) and Black Death (2010).

 

I was also interested in seeing Ghost Stories because it continues a long-standing British film tradition, the portmanteau horror movie – one that doesn’t consist of a single long, scary story but of several short, scary ones.  This tradition began in 1945 with Ealing Studios’ classic Dead of Night, consisting of five tales made by four different directors, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer; and it later flourished in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to Amicus Productions, a company that churned out seven horror-anthology films between 1965 and 1974.  The bulk of the 31 tales in those seven Amicus movies were based either on the short fiction of horror writer Robert Bloch or on strips in horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, which were published by EC Comics and had generated much notoriety in the 1950s.

 

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of those Amicus anthology movies.  There’s only one that I think is a bona fide classic, 1974’s From Beyond the Grave, and only two others, Asylum and Tales from the Crypt, both made in 1972, which I’d even put in the category of ‘enjoyable hokum’.  Their problem, apart from the fact that the quality of the stories in them varied wildly, was that the filmmakers were rarely able to tie the stories together with a framing device that made them seem believable.  Usually, that framing device brought together four or five strangers in a situation where they’d recount their pasts or have their futures predicted and it’d turn out that they’d fallen foul, or would fall foul, of some supernatural agency (usually as punishment for wrongdoing).  A typical example of this scenario is 1973’s Vault of Horror, where five men trapped in an underground chamber tell each other about recurrent nightmares they’ve had – nightmares that eventually prove to have really happened.  These involve a restaurant full of vampires, a housewife psychotically obsessed with neatness, a premature burial, some dabbling in voodoo and a deadly variation on the Indian rope trick.

 

In a world where people have spent lifetimes searching unsuccessfully for evidence that the supernatural exists, the idea that a group of strangers who’ve all had devastating supernatural experiences could just turn up together at the same time and place was stretching credibility more than a bit.  Even as a kid, when I saw those movies on late-night TV, I wondered to myself: wow, what are the odds?

 

Ghost Stories has as its linking device a person who’s utterly sceptical about the supernatural.  Nyman plays Phillip Goodman, a paranormal investigator dedicated to exposing frauds who claim to have supernatural powers and prey on gullible people.  Partly, Goodman does this because he was inspired by a debunker called Charles Cameron, whose exposes were shown on TV when he was a boy.  But it’s clear he’s also reacting against the mysticism of religion, which in his boyhood was shoved down his throat by a strict Orthodox Jewish father.  One day Goodman is summoned to meet a now-elderly Cameron, who gives him details of three supposedly supernatural incidents that even he wasn’t able to explain.  He challenges Goodman to investigate and explain them.  This leads us into Ghost Stories’ triptych of creepy tales, which are told to Goodman, as flashbacks, by their three unhappy protagonists.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films

 

The first case involves a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) who was tormented by the ghost of a girl whilst doing his rounds in a building that was once a woman’s asylum.  The second involves a youth (Alex Lawther) who had a harrowing experience after running down a mysterious something in his car one night in the middle of some woods.  And the third involves a banker (Martin Freeman) who was troubled by a poltergeist while his wife was in childbirth.

 

Now I really liked the framing device here.  Unlike in those hokey old Amicus movies, the stories’ protagonists don’t just congregate by some mad coincidence in one place but Nyman’s character has to go and actively seek them out.  Also, the fact that he’s portrayed as such a hardened disbeliever at the start suggests that the film will try to make the events that follow appear as credible as possible.  But once the three stories get underway, the film begins to sag.  These aren’t self-contained stories with beginnings, middles and endings so much as brief, unexplained anecdotes.  Some weird stuff happens, it’s creepy, and then… that’s it.  I found this rather thin.

 

Worse, once Whitehouse, Lawther and Freeman’s narratives are finished, the film still has a fair amount of running time left.  It spends this time trying to tie all the strands together.  Everything we’ve seen, it transpires, relates back to Goodman himself, to his own past experiences and current state of mind.  There’s even a section where the film goes off on a tangent and shows a particularly traumatic episode from Goodman’s childhood.  Thus, you start watching Ghost Stories expecting it to be like a triple-decker sandwich with the three stories providing the fillings in the three decks.  But in fact, they’re more like three currants in a big doughy bun – the dough being all the material about Goodman.  Which wasn’t what I’d really wanted to see.

 

The film closes with a twist that I found unsatisfying too.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it reminded me of the ending of another movie on Jeremy Dyson’s CV, the film version of the League of Gentlemen’s TV show, The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005).

 

That said, the film creates a few wonderful frissons.  There’s a sequence where Goodman ascends a dark staircase to meet the Alex Lawther character and glimpses something that leaves the audience wondering, what the hell did we just see?  And a moment where Goodman and Martin Freeman’s character are seen walking along the horizon of a bleak moor, unaware that a spectral figure has loomed into view a little way behind them, calls to mind M.R. James’ chilling story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  But again, the stories are too brief and inconsequential to have much impact.

 

I know Dyson is a fan of and has probably been influenced by the ghost-story writer Robert Aickman, whose fiction was disquieting because it avoided giving explanations or neat denouements – in his writings, uncanny things happened without rhyme and reason and all the characters could do was experience them.  Though I doubt if the prim, conservative Aickman would appreciate the visual treatment that the stories get here, with flashy, modish jump-cuts and nods to contemporary Japanese horror cinema.

 

So I found myself disappointed by Ghost Stories, though that’s not because it’s a bad movie.  It has some memorable moments and it’s been made with considerable thought and skill.  But alas, it feels like a lesser version of the masterly, ultra-frightening horror film that it could have been.

 

© Altitude Film Entertainment / Warp Films / Lionsgate Films