Grovel, Britannia

 

From wikipedia.org / © Joel Rouse / Ministry of Defence

 

A week has now passed since the Platinum Jubilee festivities – and the accompanying tsunami of media hype – that celebrated Queen Elizabeth II reaching the 70th year of her reign on the British throne.  I’ve now emerged from my bunker and feel ready to articulate my thoughts about the British Royal Family.  It’s fair to say my tolerance of the institution has waxed and waned over the years.

 

In my youth, during the 1980s and 1990s, I detested them.  They seemed a bloody awful lot and it sickened me how much the media kept ramming them down everyone’s throats, though of course, a lot of the public seemed happy to have them rammed down their throats: the aloof Queen and her grumpy husband; the weird and socially awkward Prince Charles and his vacuous-seeming wife Princess Diana who, as it turned out, was sharper than she looked; the porcine Prince Andrew who, as it turned out, was viler than he looked; and the insipid would-be thespian Prince Edward.  Princess Anne, however, I didn’t think was that bad, though that was probably only because she supported the national Scottish rugby team.

 

I knew ordinary people who were every bit as mediocre or dysfunctional as the royals, of course, but I didn’t have to hear about them every time I switched on the television or read about them every time I opened a newspaper.  It also galled me that not liking them or even not wanting to know about them was considered unpatriotic in 1980s and 1990s Britain.

 

Fast forward to 2012, the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and my opinion was more sanguine, at least of Elizabeth.  It was one of indifference tempered with a certain, grudging respect for the old biddy.  This was partly because I’d concluded that countries needed their symbolic heads of state – someone to open the supermarkets, launch the ships and sit down and sip tea with the US President or the Pope or whatever foreign dignitary happened to be in town.  This was the stuff that the prime minister didn’t have time to do because he or she had a country to run.  And the Queen had won a modicum of respect from me simply by doing her job for so long.  She grew older, greyer, smaller, but still she did her walkabouts, made her public appearances, indulged in boring chit-chat with members of women’s institutes, rotary clubs and Boy Scout troops who’d turned out to see her, and had disreputable politicians come through the doors of Buckingham Palace – Bush, Berlusconi, Sarkozy – whom she put on a smile for.

 

If someone had forced an 86-year-old relative of mine onto the street every morning and made her tramp around the neighbourhood all day long, saying hello to people, and then when she finally returned to her house, foisted a shower of crooks and chancers upon her for company, I’d have reported them to the police.  The Queen might have been one of the richest women on the planet, but what was the point of having shed-loads of money if you were subjected to torture like that every day of your life?

 

So back in 2012, I thought I could tolerate the idea of a British monarchy.  That toleration, though, came with the proviso that the thing needed to be massively scaled down.  The inhabitants of the Low Countries and Scandinavia had modestly-sized royal institutions and seemed no less respectful of their monarchs like Albert, Beatrix, Margrethe, Harald and Carl XVI Gustav, so why couldn’t that be the case in Britain?  Why did the British Royal Family have to be such a massive and costly operation, featuring as many cast-members as an opulent and labyrinthine American soap opera like Dallas or Dynasty?

 

That was then, however.  Maybe at the time I’d been infected by Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and believed that with a bit of tweaking – for instance, modifying but not removing the Royal Family – Britain could become a decent, balanced, good-humoured and modern-minded country.  Also, I was a big James Bond fan and, at the Opening Ceremony, I thought it was pretty cool when the Queen, or possibly her stunt double, parachuted out of a plane with Daniel Craig.

 

From pixabay.com / © Ben Kerckx

 

Now I just want the whole thing gone.  Abolishing the monarchy the moment the Queen dies would be fine by me.  My reversion to republicanism isn’t so much to do with the Queen herself, though she certainly hasn’t done herself any favours in recent years with the revelations about how much of her money is invested in dodgy, tax-avoiding offshore accounts or her eagerness to fund her second son’s 12-million-pound settlement with Virginia Giuffre, who claimed Andrew had sexually assaulted her while she was being trafficked as a minor by Jeffrey Epstein.  (Andrew was unable to make an appearance at last week’s Platinum Jubilee festivities because he was stricken, supposedly, with Covid-19.  Aye, right.)  It’s more to do with the state of Britain.  The place is now such a basket-case that it needs to have its Royal Family surgically removed – one of many drastic treatments required if it’s to make any sort of recovery.

 

For one thing, the Royal Family is the ultimate symbol of Britain’s neurotic obsession with the past.  Remove that symbol and you might go some way to breaking the obsession, which hobbles the country left, right and centre.

 

There’s the dire state of its governing institutions, where more attention is paid to witless Ruritanian flummery like the State Opening of Parliament (the crown getting transported to the Houses of Parliament in a carriage of its own, the ridiculously ruffed Black Rod getting Parliament’s door slammed in his or her face) than to the constitution, which is unwritten and open to abuse by unscrupulous politicians, like the shower we have in office at the moment.  The argument is that Britain’s constitution is protected by some absurd, Boy’s Own Paper-style, ‘good chaps’ theory of government.  I’d struggle to describe the grinning war criminal Tony Blair, or the squish-faced posho David Cameron, or the Mother of Tears herself Margaret Thatcher as ‘good chaps’; but surely not even the most naïve person in the universe would bestow that term on the current incumbent of No 10 Downing Street.

 

There’s also the embarrassing preoccupation many Britons have with the Second World War and everything that goes with it (Churchill, the Blitz, Spitfires, Dame Vera Lynn), although to have even childhood memories about the conflict now you’d need to be in your 80s.  In 2016, that finest-hour, standing-alone, ourselves-against-the-world narrative was exploited by self-serving ratbags like Nigel Farage, who managed to conflate the European Union with the Third Reich in some people’s minds and got them to vote for the economic and political disaster of Brexit.

 

Predictably, Britain’s obsession with the past is focused on the nice bits of history – pomp, pageantry, Ladybird Adventure from History books, stiff-upper-lipped World War II movies.  There’s not much focus on the misery, poverty and injustices that the British Empire inflicted on millions of its ‘subjects’.  Meanwhile, with this mentality, Britain is never to going to have a scaled-down monarchy like the Swedes, Dutch, Belgians, etc., have.  It’s always going to be the full-on, super-expensive deal with parades, carriages, horses, bands, guardsmen and so on.  It’s like some balding, beer-gutted, 50-something football hooligan covering himself in bling and believing he still looks ‘hard’.

 

I’d do away with the monarchy too because of the depressing sycophancy it engenders in British society.  Everyone who comes into contact with the royals, and with the Establishment generally, seems to immediately de-evolve into a mollusc, apparently on the assumption that the more obsequious you are, the better your chances are of securing a CBE, OBE, knighthood or whatever.  This is never more obvious than in the country’s press.  British journalists do so much brown-nosing – presumably hoping that one day Her Majesty will reward them with an honour for services to toadying – that their pages, or webpages, seem to turn the colour of shite while you read them.

 

Inevitably, this brown-nosing was at its brownest during last week’s Platinum Jubilee. And it wasn’t done just by right-wing journalists and politicians wanting to use the Queen as a Culture War ruse to distract attention from the fact that under the current Conservative government there’s a lying sleazeball as Prime Minister, the country’s economic growth is on track to be second-worst in the G20 (after Putin’s pariah-status Russia), and nearly 180,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the last two years.

 

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party and someone whom you’d expect to be at least a teensy-weensy bit socialist, wrote in the swivel-eyed, reactionary Daily Telegraph that it was our ‘patriotic duty’ to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee.  There it is again – you’re not patriotic if you don’t like the Queen.  Meanwhile, former Liberal Democratic leader Tim Farron tweeted: “You don’t need to think that everything about Britain is wonderful, just that being British is wonderful and that the Queen’s reign has been remarkable.”  No, Tim, the Queen doesn’t know who you are.  She isn’t going to give you a knighthood.

 

So yes, I just want the monarchy gone.  Goodbye Queen, goodbye Prince Charles, goodbye William, Kate and the kids, goodbye all of them.  But obviously, that isn’t going to happen.  The British Royal Family will endure, undeservedly.  And as for the country they’re supposed to represent…  Well, I now think it’s beyond all hope.

 

From pixabay.com / © Sabine Lang

Daniel Craig’s Swann song

 

© Eon Productions

 

At last!  Two years after its first scheduled release in November 2019 (abandoned when Danny Boyle, originally lined up to be director, departed from the project), and a year-and-a-half after its next scheduled release in April 2020 (abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic), and a couple of months after it went on release in the UK, the 25th James Bond movie No Time to Die has made it to Sri Lanka and I’ve been able to watch it on a big screen.

 

It was odd to finally see the movie in its 163-minute entirety.  I’d become accustomed to seeing it as a two-and-a-half-minute trailer during my infrequent trips to the cinema during the past two years.  Up it popped before Tenet (2020) last summer, up it popped again before Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) in May this year…  And when the No Time to Die trailer popped up yet again before I started watching Dune (2021) in a cinema a few weeks ago, I thought, ‘My God, am I ever going to see this thing as a film?’

 

Anyway, here are my thoughts on No Time to Die, which marks Daniel Craig’s final appearance as James Bond.  I’ll start by listing what I didn’t like about it, then what I did like about it, and then I’ll give my overall verdict.  I will, as much as I can, try to avoid spoilers.  But be warned that some spoilers will inevitably appear.

 

DIDN’T LIKE…

Rami Malek’s character

I’m not dissing Malek’s performance as the film’s big villain Lyutsifer Safin.  It’s just that he doesn’t get enough time to establish Safin as a character or a threat.  Yes, he’s effective in No Time to Die’s opening sequence, which with its arty snowbound setting, violence and jump-scares resembles something from an especially stylish 1970s giallo movie.  But after that we hardly see him again until the film’s final reel.  Also, while a twisted and unsettling connection clearly exists between him and Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann character, the love of Bond’s life, we frustratingly never learn much about it.  Contrast that with 1999’s The World is Not Enough, which was a generally clunky Bond entry.  But at least it was more disturbing in how it depicted the warped relationship between Bond’s nominal love interest Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) and psychotic bad guy Renard (Robert Carlisle).

 

© Eon Productions

 

Rami Malek’s character’s age

Also, Rami Malek looks too young to be the same character who menaced Madeleine Swann when she was a child, as seen in that opening sequence, and who menaces her again as an adult.  My partner watched the film with me and speculated that, because he’s disfigured, his damaged facial skin might have slowed the development of wrinkles…  But no, I’m not buying it.

 

While we’re on the subject of age, I was perturbed that when Bond goes to mourn at the tomb of Vespa Lynd (Eva Green), his late and much-lamented love interest in Casino Royale (2006), a plaque on the tomb-door informs us that she was 23 years old when she died.  What?  In Casino Royale she was working as an agent with the British Treasury’s Financial Action Task Force.  I know her character was young and something of a whizz-kid, but surely she wasn’t that whizz-kiddish to have landed such a job and such responsibilities at the age of 23?

 

Blofeld’s bionic eye

Despite having been banged up in Belmarsh Prison since the events of 2015’s Spectre, it transpires that Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) has been secretly running his Spectre organisation from his cell with the use of a sneaky high-tech bionic eye (replacing the eye he lost in the helicopter crash at Spectre’s finale).  We even get a daft scene where, during a Spectre party, Blofeld manages to orchestrate and comment on events via a bionic-eye-receiver that a minion is carrying around on a tray.  Where did this bionic eye come from?  How did Spectre smuggle it into him at Belmarsh?  Was it Blofeld’s birthday, and a visitor managed to get it to him hidden inside a birthday cake?  And why didn’t the prison’s security systems – which seem pretty thorough, considering that Blofeld only gets to meet visitors inside a mobile metal cage, which is shuttled along tramlines to the meeting area – let this past them?  No, it’s a total failure of plot-logic.

 

How You Only Live Twice’s ‘Garden of Death’ gets shoehorned in

Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice is one of my favourite Bond books, largely because of its bizarre plot.  This has Blofeld retiring to Japan, acquiring a castle and taking up gardening.  Blofeld being Blofeld, though, the garden he cultivates around his castle is a Garden of Death.  It’s infested with poisonous vegetation and wildlife and dotted with boiling, sulphurous mud-pools.  Perversely, the garden’s lethal features begin to draw visitors – Japanese people who want to commit suicide head there to die.  I’d always hoped one day the Garden of Death would feature in a Bond film and it does, finally, in No Time to Die.  But it appears only for a couple of minutes while Safin gives the kidnapped Madeleine a tour of his headquarters and, as a setting, its potential is wasted.

 

The action finale

No Time to Die’s ending has proved controversial.  I have no problem with the events that occur in the last 20 minutes or so.  But I’m annoyed that the finale is rather fragmented and isn’t the big sustained rush of excitement I’d wanted for the end of Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond.  There’s a bit of action, then things stop for a while, then there’s another bit of action, then things stop again, then a bit more action, then another pause…  It isn’t so much Craig going out with a bang as with a stuttering series of pops.

 

Lashana Lynch’s excellent Nomi character features here but isn’t given enough to do.  Come to think of it, instead of just her and Bond being sent to infiltrate Safin’s lair, wouldn’t it have been better if they’d led an army of commandoes to attack the place?  That way, the action might have been more sustained, widespread and exciting.

 

© Eon Productions

 

LIKED…

Madeleine Swann’s arc

Lea Seydoux isn’t my favourite Bond-lady of the Daniel Craig era.  (Four days of the week, I worship at the temple of Eva Green.  The other three days, I worship at the temple of Naomie Harris, aka Miss Moneypenny.)  But at least her character Madeleine Swann gets to develop beyond the supposedly happy ending of Spectre and explore darker territory in No Time to Die.  This is a relief, as I’d heard rumours that the movie would be a re-tread of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and I’d feared that her character’s only function would be to get bumped off early on, leaving Bond to spend the rest of the film on a simplistic revenge mission.

 

Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch

Meanwhile, the other main actresses in No Time to Die are great.  De Armas (who co-starred with Craig in Rian Johnson’s splendid 2019 whodunnit Knives Out) is a delight as Paloma, the supposedly inexperienced CIA agent who’s assigned to help Bond with some espionage-related business in Cuba.  I shudder to think how a Roger Moore-era Bond movie would have portrayed her.  She’d have been a bumbling incompetent whose klutziness was a source of slapstick gags and mocking, sexist humour.  But here, when the shit hits the fan, Paloma proves to be more than capable.  Indeed, if the character has a fault, it’s that she’s not in the film long enough.

 

© Eon Productions

 

As I’ve said, Lynch’s Nomi character – whom, Bond discovers, has been made the new 007 in his absence – could have been given more to do too.  But she still makes an impact and if producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson want to stay in this version of the Bond-verse a little longer and give Nomi her own spinoff movies, I’d happily pay money to go and see them.

 

The regulars

One of the pleasures of Craig’s stint as Bond has been seeing the gradual reintroduction of the franchise’s regular characters, rebooted and played by new but dependable actors – Jeffrey Wright debuting as Felix Leiter in Casino Royale, Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner in Quantum of Solace (2008), Ralph Fiennes as the replacement for Judi Dench as M in Skyfall (2012), and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Wishaw as Q also in Skyfall.  All are excellent again in No Time to Die.

 

I suspect the next Bond will be another reboot and we won’t be seeing these actors in these roles again – Wishaw has already remarked that this is probably his last outing as Q – which is a shame.  I haven’t enjoyed a Bond ensemble like this since Bernard Lee played M, Lois Maxwell played Moneypenny and Desmond Llewellyn played Q back in the days of Connery, Lazenby and Moore.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The fan service

As Casino Royale made clear, Craig’s Bond is a new Bond.  He’s not the same bloke as the one who encountered with Mr Kidd and Mr Wint in Diamonds are Forever (1971), or battled against Jaws in a space station in Moonraker (1980), or rampaged through downtown Moscow in a tank in Goldeneye (1995).  Still, it’s nice that No Time to Die contains references to the pre-Craig Bonds, though not so intrusively that they threaten the continuity established since 2006.  It’s cool, for example, that Bond drives the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger (1964), complete with similar gadgets, and we also see him climb into an Aston Martin V8 Advantage that Timothy Dalton drove in The Living Daylights (1987) – it’s even got the same number plate (B549 WUU)!  In MI6 headquarters, we see not only a framed portrait of Judi Dench’s M, but also one of Robert Brown, who played M during the late Roger Moore years and the Timothy Dalton ones.  Meanwhile, the title sequence echoes that of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by featuring a trident-holding Britannia figure, Union Jacks, clocks and hourglasses.

 

That said, I could have done with a little less of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s music on the No Time to Die soundtrack.  John Barry’s OHMSS theme accompanies one scene set in London and Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World plays over the end credits.  This is wonderful, timeless music, of course, but it shows up the inferiority of No Time to Die’s theme song, sung by Billie Eilish – which, while it’s way better than Sam Smith’s dire The Writing’s on the Wall from Spectre, is still no classic.

 

Bond’s arc

Daniel Craig’s Bond movies have been a daring experiment.  Since Casino Royale, we’ve seen him carry out his first mission and make his first kill, fall in love, suffer tragedy, discover some uncomfortable truths about his upbringing and fall in love again.  In No Time to Die, he falls out of and back into love and has to make some difficult, final decisions.  Things haven’t always gone smoothly – Spectre, in particularly, had to do some clumsy retconning to the story – but generally it’s been a success.  Daniel Craig’s performance in the lead role has helped hugely, of course.  So, hats off to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson for being bold and keeping their nerve.

 

Mind you, I was relieved to see the words JAMES BOND WILL RETURN at the very end.

 

VERDICT?

Well, I liked it more than Quantum of Solace and Spectre.  But due to the issues I’ve described above, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Casino Royale or Skyfall.  Which is a pity, because I’ve liked Daniel Craig’s Bond and wanted him to go out on the highest note possible.  As it stands, I think No Time to Die is pretty good, but it’s not going to alter the rankings in my top half-dozen, or possibly even my top ten, Bond movies.

 

© Eon Productions

King rat

 

From horrornews.net

 

Another slightly-updated reposting for Halloween…  I originally wrote this in 2013, just after James Herbert’s death.

 

It’s fair to say that, back in the 1970s, the English novelist James Herbert increased literacy levels substantially among young males who otherwise wouldn’t have opened a book in their entire lives.  Not that Herbert, who died in 2013, ever got any thanks from Britain’s educators.  His X-rated novels of apocalyptic horror in the shabbier parts of 1970s London were the sort of items you furtively traded with your mates in school playgrounds, away from the prying and prudish eyes of teachers.

 

I was 13 when I bought a copy of Herbert’s second novel The Fog (1975), drawn by an irresistible reviewer’s comment on its back cover: “For goodness sake don’t leave this on Aunt Edna’s chair!”  An accompanying quote from the book itself was good too:  “Out of the yellowish fog a man appeared.  His eyes were fixed straight ahead and his lips were frozen in a smile.  In his hands he carried the severed, still bleeding head of his wife.”  A few mornings later, sitting in my form class at school, I passed the book to the boy sitting next to me and instructed him to read a chapter that’d I’d read the previous evening.  This was a chapter in which a group of boys at a posh boarding school go murderously insane and start beating and torturing their teachers to death.

 

I’d actually felt sick after reading that chapter, though by the next morning I was fortified and ready for more.  Anyway, I spent the next five minutes smugly watching my classmate as the colour drained from his face.  A final exclamation of disgust – “Yeee-uuuck!” – indicated that he’d reached the chapter’s last sentence.  That would’ve been the bit where the snotty deputy headmaster gets castrated with a pair of hedge-clippers.

 

I should say at this point that it wasn’t just teenage boys who were into Herbert’s novels.  For I remember a girl in my class called Alex Stassino who once, admirably, grossed out her female friends by reading aloud the description of the mass suicide at the start of Herbert’s 1980s novel The Dark.

 

© New English Library

 

Herbert’s first book was The Rats in 1974.  Despite a hostile review in the Observer by a young Martin Amis, who considered the violence in its pages “enough to make a rodent retch… and enough to make any human pitch the book aside,” the Great British public bought it in droves.  (Before The Rats’ publication, Herbert had worked at the same advertising agency as Amis’s chum Salman Rushdie.)   Though rats certainly weren’t new in horror fiction and films, and even though, like all his work, it was essentially pulp fiction, Herbert’s novel had two major selling-points.

 

Firstly, as the son of a fruit seller in London’s East End and someone who’d grown up around the corner from Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Herbert clearly had first-hand experience of the character-types and the localities in his book.  The story reeked of gritty and seedy authenticity as the rats – a strain of giant, mutant flesh-eaters – swarmed around disused canals, derelict buildings and plots of waste ground, preying on winos, down-and-outs, grubby comprehensive school kids and Jamaican immigrants working in the London tube.  I should say that, later in the book, they graduated to eating middle-class people too.  Secondly, Herbert’s approach to horror was a different one from that used by earlier British horror writers, such as the gentlemanly and clubbable Algernon Blackwood or Dennis Wheatley.  Unlike them, he left nothing to the imagination.

 

The Rats was followed by The Fog, which recounts what happens when a vaporous and madness-inducing chemical weapon leaks out of a laboratory and floats around southern England.  By the way, I remember how in 1982, after I’d left school, I was backpacking and hitchhiking around central and northern Europe in the company of a similar-aged guy called Andy, who was from Stevenage.  At one point, Andy-from-Stevenage and I got into a furious argument about The Fog.  By then we’d spent whole days waiting around entry roads onto various Autobahns without getting lifts and we’d managed to argue furiously about everything under the sun.  Andy-from-Stevenage’s beef with The Fog was that it was silly.  Especially silly, he reckoned, was the bit in it where an airline pilot goes murderously insane and, to get revenge on his wife’s lover, flies his passenger-filled jet-plane off course and smack-bang into a London skyscraper where that lover works.

 

“Jet-planes flying into skyscrapers,” raged Andy-from-Stevenage, “that’s too far-fetched!  That’d never happen in real life!”

 

© New English Library

 

In 1976, Herbert penned his first novel of the paranormal, The Survivor.  This had supernatural forces unleashed in the Berkshire town of Windsor after a devastating plane-crash there.  One set-piece in the novel describes nearby Eton College, the real-life alma mater of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, succumbing to a demonically-orchestrated fire.  Along with the gory boarding-school episode in The Fog, this suggests that working-class Herbert had a low opinion of England’s private-education system.

 

Meanwhile, The Spear (1978) was an updating of those old Dennis Wheatley occult thrillers like The Haunting of Toby Jugg and They Used Dark Forces, where the Nazis dabbled in black magic to help their war effort.  For topicality, Herbert threw the Arab-Israeli conflict into the mix.  Between The Survivor and The Spear, he wrote Fluke, an atypical fantasy story narrated by a dog suffering from troubling flashbacks to a previous life in which he’d been a man.  Eventually, he meets a wise badger who explains to him that, basically, the Buddhists had got it right.  Even Fluke contains streaks of grotty Herbert realism, though, with his canine characters spending their time hanging around London junkyards, eating garbage and getting down-and-dirty with on-heat bitches.

 

Herbert was not initially popular among traditional British horror writers and fans, no doubt because he upset cosy and middle-class notions of what horror should be about.  For somebody steeped in classic British tales of the uncanny like Charles Dickens’ The Signalman (1866) or M.R. James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad (1904), being subjected to the gnawed-off faces and exploding heads of The Rats and The Fog was probably akin to how bearded, cerebral fans of progressive-rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis and Yes felt in 1977, when they first heard Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols played loud.

 

© New English Library

 

It didn’t help Herbert’s image that his books’ success spawned a wave of badly-written and even bloodier imitators.  In his wake, a whole paperback sub-genre became known in the book trade as ‘nasties’.  This was years before the term was used in relation to films, as in Britain’s ‘video-nasty’ hysteria of the early 1980s.  Among the writers cashing in were Shaun Hutson, whose breakthrough novel was Slugs (1982).  This began with the yummy line: “The slug’s eye stalks waved slowly as it moved towards the crimson lump on which several of its companions were already feeding.”  There was also Guy N Smith, who was both a tweedy pipe-smoking countryside game expert and a schlock-horror writer.  When he wasn’t writing novels about giant carnivorous crabs – Night of the Crabs (1976), Killer Crabs (1978), Crabs on the Rampage (1981) – he was penning non-fiction tomes like Ferreting and Trapping for Amateur Gamekeepers (1976) and Moles and their Control (1980). Actually, I love the idea of Guy N. Smith (who, alas, passed away from Covid-19 at the end of last year) even if I never cared much for his books.

 

It wasn’t until 1981, when Stephen King wrote Danse Macabre, his non-fiction study of the horror genre, that Herbert finally got some respect in the field.  In Danse Macabre, King said approvingly of Herbert that he “does not just write, he puts on his combat boots and goes out to assault the reader with horror.”

 

Around the early 1980s I lost interest in James Herbert, largely, I’m sure, because I was no longer a sensation-hungry teenager.  The Dark (1980) seemed merely a supernatural retread of The Fog, while Lair (1979) was a perfunctory sequel to The Rats.  I have to say, though, that his third Rats novel, Doman (1984), which was set in a near-future London after it’d been decimated by a nuclear attack, was about the bleakest and most gruelling thing I’d ever read.  Even in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the human survivors of the holocaust didn’t have to contend with giant carnivorous rodents.  And during the 1980s and 1990s, Herbert’s books became increasingly concerned with supernatural themes and lacked the lethal edge of his earlier eco-horror ones.  That said, people whose opinions I respect say that Creed (1990) and The Others (1999) are good.

 

Those 1970s novels could’ve become great films.  Indeed, they appeared during a time when directors like Gary Sherman, who made 1972’s Deathline, and Pete Walker, who made 1974’s Frightmare, were moving British horror movies away from the realm of gothic costume dramas and making them more contemporary, nihilistic and graphic, just as Herbert was doing in fiction.  But soon afterwards, the British film industry all-but-disappeared down the plughole.  John Hough, who’d directed the well-regarded Twins of Evil (1972) and Legend of Hell House (1973), hoped to make a film of The Dark, with a script by the famous horror-movie starlet Ingrid Pitt (who was a good friend of Herbert’s), but the project came to nothing.  The Rats and Fluke were eventually filmed in 1982 and 1995, but in North America, losing the working-class London ambience that’d made the books distinctive.  The Survivor was filmed in 1981 in Australia and thus it didn’t work either.

 

© New English Library

 

Ironically, the film with the strongest flavour of his books isn’t a James Herbert adaptation at all.  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) – at least during its first half, when Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris are stalked through a deserted London by victims of a ‘rage’-inducing virus – feels like The Fog without the fog.  And during the scene in the tunnel, where Murphy, Harris and Brendan Gleason encounter a tide of scuttling rats, it’s obvious which 1970s horror paperback Boyle and his scriptwriter Alex Garland are tapping into.

 

Incredibly, considering the unsavoury things that went on in his books, the establishment saw fit to honour Herbert shortly before his death by giving him the Order of the British Empire.  Perhaps somebody in the Royal Family had accidentally left a copy of The Fog on the Queen’s chair.  And perhaps the Queen had enjoyed the bit with the hedge-clippers.

 

A while back, I read a James Herbert novel for the first time in decades.  This was after I read a piece by the Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, in which Brooker suggested that Herbert’s novel ’48 (1996) was better than James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  He was joking, of course, but knowing Brooker I suspect he was only half-joking.  My curiosity piqued, I tracked down a copy of ’48, which is set in a parallel universe in the year 1948, after London has been devastated by a ‘blood plague’ unleashed by Hitler in the final days of World War II.  A tiny band of uninfected survivors are pursued around the empty, crumbling city by a larger band of infected and vampire-like survivors, who believe that by consuming the uninfected ones’ blood they can rid themselves of the plague before it kills them.  The bad guys are led by a former associate of Oswald Mosley and style themselves on Mosley’s blackshirts.

 

Reading like a cross between Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and an Alastair Maclean war novel, I was surprised at how enjoyable ’48 turned out to be.  Admittedly, Herbert’s meat-and-two-veg prose style would never win any literary awards.  But it was hectically paced, it had just enough character development to maintain one’s interest in the players, its descriptions of a devastated 1940s London were convincing and it made shameless use of the city’s landmarks – Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge – when staging its action set-pieces.

 

It would, incidentally, make a pretty good film.  Are you reading this, Danny Boyle?

 

© HarperPrism

Zee-lanka

 

© Navin Weeraratne

 

In the old days, ‘overkill’ was a necessary, even a desirable component of a zombie-holocaust story.  There had to be a large and increasing amount of killing.  This would ensure there was a large and increasing number of dead people, who would then come back to life as zombies.  In turn, this would  ensure there was a large and increasing number of zombies posing a large and increasing threat to the small and decreasing number of human beings who were battling to survive.

 

Unfortunately, as far as zombies are concerned, ‘overkill’ has now taken on a different meaning.  These days there’s just too many movies, TV shows, books, graphic novels, comics and computer games featuring the bloody things.

 

They’re everywhere.  In the movie world alone, they’re in mega-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters, like 2013’s World War Z, and in low-budget rubbish, like last year’s ultra-opportunistic Corona Zombies.  They’re in Scottish movies, like 2008’s The Dead Outside.  They’re in high-school movies, like 2012’s Detention of the Dead.  They’re in musicals, like 2018’s Z-O-M-B-I-E-S.  They’re in Christmas movies, like 2012‘s Christmas with the Dead.  Why, they’re even in Scottish / high-school / musical / Christmas movies like 2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse.

 

Today, in other words, zombies are ubiquitous.  And they’re predictable.  And dare I say it, they’re boring.

 

But having got all that off my chest, I have to admit I enjoyed Navin Weeraratne’s 2018 novel Zeelam, which is about modern-day Sri Lanka suffering its own zombie apocalypse.  The expected story-elements are all present and correct – bites, infections, ‘conjunctivitis-red eyes’, mayhem and lots of blood, gore and grue – but the book is helped by having a strong dose of social commentary too.

 

And social commentary is something I believe all good zombie stories should have.  For example, the first three zombie movies made by George A. Romero, the visionary filmmaker who created the template for zombie holocausts, commented on the civil rights movement and Vietnam War (in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), mindless consumerism (in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead) and the stupidity of the military (in 1986’s Day of the Dead).  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflected a modern Britain where anger was an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ had entered the popular vocabulary, while its sequel, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007), was an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq.  And Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirised a twenty-something slacker generation who couldn’t tell if someone was a zombie or just pissed, hungover or stoned.  Carrying on the tradition, Zeelam takes multiple swipes at the institutional and societal shortcomings of modern Sri Lanka.  But more about that in a minute.

 

Zeelam has two main characters.  One is Ruven Daniels, a member of a military response team whom we first see being sent to deal with an incident at Colombo’s posh Hilton Hotel. There, zombies – ‘zees’ as they’ve become known in Sri Lankan parlance – have suddenly appeared during a children’s birthday party attended by rich ‘Colombo 7’ housewives and their pampered offspring.  The ensuing carnage takes place under a PA system blasting out Bryan Adams’ The Summer of 69.  (“I love this song!” enthuses one of Ruven’s comrades.)  The other is Dinuka Fernando, a woman working for an NGO trying to prevent the zombie infections, which are caused by a virus being spread by mosquitoes.  Dinuka is a kick-ass character who goes about her duties armed with a Japanese katana.  Unsurprisingly, that katana is deployed with increasing frequency as the novel approaches its climax.

 

The zombies in Zeelam aren’t the dead-come-back-to-life ones portrayed in Romero’s films.  They’re more in the style of 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, people infected by a virus that sends them into a terrifying, murderous, red-eyed frenzy.  Weeraratne has his characters hypothesise that the virus was present in Sri Lanka for decades already in a less aggressive form.  Originally, it manifested itself in the country’s high levels of domestic violence, which didn’t receive much coverage because attentions were focused on the Sri Lankan Civil War from 1983 to 2009 – which itself became an outlet for the violence caused by the virus.  But now it’s mutated into something more devastating and its effects can no longer be concealed behind the walls of peoples’ homes or camouflaged by the mayhem of the battlefield.

 

Thus, though Weeraratne’s zombie scenario is imaginary, the context that gave rise to it isn’t.  Indeed, the text is peppered with superscript numbers that refer the reader to a lengthy appendix of endnotes.  Here, Weeraratne provides links to real-life studies, reports and news items about Sri Lanka and its relationship with violence, showing that he’s grounded his ideas in depressing reality.

 

Zeelam is also interesting because the virus is shown to create different types of infections.  These range from fully fledged, ‘berserker’ zombies to asymptomatic people who merely carry the virus around in them.  Most intriguingly, there’s a category called ‘sleepers’, who only show their zombie tendencies at night and are perfectly human-like during the day.  Indeed, among the book’s supporting cast is a character, a government inspector called Siripala Fonesaka, who spends his days desperately trying to cover up the monstrous things he’s done at night.

 

This diversity makes the threat posed by the zombies more hydra-like and difficult to deal with.  Also, it helps Zeelam to dodge the criticism I made at the start of this entry, that zombie stories have become too dull and predictable.  However, I have to say the pedant in me wished Weeraratne had explained these variations in the virus’s effects with the same scientific rigour with which he described the virus’s origins.  How, for example, does sunlight temporarily neutralise the virus in the sleepers?

 

As I’ve said, just as George A. Romero’s zombie movies highlighted the shortcomings of American society, and just as Danny Boyle painted an unflattering portrait of modern-day Britain in 28 Days Later, so Weeraratne spends much of Zeelam taking potshots at the frustrations and annoyances of 21st century Sri Lanka.  These include venal and corrupt politicians – the outbreak at the Hilton Hotel in the novel’s opening pages is the consequence of a seedy MP booking in there with a prostitute – and bungling, incalcitrant bureaucrats, and elements of the armed forces who in their minds have never stopped fighting the Civil War and pose as a big a threat to the public as the zombies do.

 

Then there’s the country’s class system.  Weeraratne doesn’t show the people at the top of the pile in a particularly sympathetic light.  When Ruven’s men cordon off a neighbourhood where an outbreak is in progress, one privileged young asshole rolls up in a fancy car and demands to be allowed to drive through because his father is ‘a judge’.  In a corresponding endnote, Weeraratne describes how he once heard someone say the exact same thing when people objected to him parking on a double-yellow line in Havelock Town.

 

Later, an alumnus of one of Colombo’s prestigious private schools, and thus an entitled member of the city’s ‘old-school-tie’ network, meets a humiliating end at the blade of Dinuka’s katana.  Described by Weeraratne with obvious relish, his death involves, shall we say, the relaxation of sphincter muscles.  This amused me because in the real world the school in question is at the top of my street.

 

114 pages long, Zeelam is a slim volume, and its impact is slightly lessened by a number of typos.  You sometimes wonder what was distracting the proof-reader from their duties — were they struggling against an encroaching zombie infection at the time?  But as an enjoyably gory piece of entertainment that doesn’t pull its satirical punches, it’s still pretty tasty.

 

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