Thursday 27 August 2020

Book review in Phantasmagoria - Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

My third book review in the latest issue of Phantasmagoria magazine is of Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay.

By Paul Tremblay
Titan Books 2020 Paperback

Most of the action in Survivor Song unfolds within one day – but what an incredibly stressful, terrifying day this is, with the main characters undergoing violent attacks while trying to avoid contracting a deadly, mind-destroying sickness.

The world in Survivor Song, just like our own, is suffering from a pandemic, though in this story it is a rabies-based virus that has mutated so that it takes less than a day for its victims to become homicidal, hydrophobic maniacs, a variation on the zombie trope familiar to all of us, except the victims of this virus don’t lumber on as brain-dead monsters but die soon after the disease has warped their minds.  

Natalie is the first of the two main characters we meet. Heavily pregnant, she is at home with her husband Paul when a stranger forces his way into their home and attacks them. Although they already know about the virus this is the first time either of them has come into contact with anyone affected by it and are unprepared for the mindlessly vicious violence the man uses against them. Paul tries to fight him off but is no match for either the size or the determination of the man, who has passed beyond reason. Shockingly vivid, this fight is perhaps the most horrific scene in the book, especially coming so soon in the story. Despite her condition, Natalie attacks the intruder with a kitchen knife in an attempt to save her husband but is herself bitten. Knowing this could have life-threatening consequences, she telephones her best friend Ramola, who is a doctor at a local hospital. She desperately needs her help to save her and her unborn baby, and most of the rest of the story is about the struggle the two women go through as the infrastructure of society collapses all around them.

Though determined to help her friend as much as she can Ramola is often torn between her responsibilities as a doctor and the necessities the pandemic and the needs of her friend force upon her. Unflinchingly graphic Survivor Song is a remorseless tale of suffering, courage, and the fragility of life, with no one immune to what is happening. Illustrative of this are two likeable teenagers, Josh and Luis, who naively see everything that is going on as if it is nothing more than an apocalyptic film in which they are the heroes, not realising reality has no interest in their fantasies. Their disillusionment is tragic and sad. And in the end, desperately reluctant to give up their illusions, they impose their own climax to it.  

Written and published in hardcover before the corona pandemic started, parts of this book are surprisingly prophetic. But this is as not as important as the incredibly detailed human drama that unfolds within its pages, with its unremitting tension and edge of the seat scares. It is not an easy read, and Tremblay does not spare us as the tale progresses on its inexorable path towards what we know is not going to be, in his own words, a fairy tale ending. Modern horror at its best.

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Book review in Phantasmagoria - The Assaults of Chaos by S. T. Joshi

My second review in the latest issue of Phantasmagoria magazine is of S. T. Joshi's 2013 Lovecraftian novel The Assaults of Chaos.
A Novel About H. P. Lovecraft
By S. T. Joshi
Hippocampus Press, New York

The Assaults of Chaos is something of an oddity, a fictionalised account of Lovecraft’s adventures in 1914 in which he meets and works with weird fiction luminaries Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Montague Rhodes James, Arthur Machen, and William Hope Hodgson, plus a certain Kathleen Banigan, the one character who is entirely fictitious - and possibly the most problematic. Although Joshi undoubtedly knows more about Lovecraft’s life than anyone today, for some strange reason he decided to inject a romantic love affair between Lovecraft and Miss Banigan in this novel – a romance, furthermore, which includes some explicit scenes! I must admit I struggled to get my head around this. For a novel involving enemies like Nyarlathotep, and a hitherto unknown trip by Lovecraft across the Atlantic to England on the eve of the Great War, this is perhaps one step too far. Still, despite this Joshi does a skilful job of portraying Kathleen Banigan and making her presence integral to the story, however unlikely her affair with Lovecraft really is.

The other writers are introduced individually over a series of days and are given ample space for some interesting if sometimes stilted conversation, in which they talk about their stories and something of their philosophy as regards weird fiction. It did seem a bit strange that, although we now know how important Lovecraft became as a horror fiction writer, at this stage he was totally unknown and had only penned some juvenilia, most of which he destroyed. It would be some time yet before he would ascend to the same heights as any of the writers he meets, and although a certain person in the story somehow knows his potential and perhaps has an insight into his future, it does seem a bit contrived to involve him in this gathering, formed as it is to channel all the imaginative powers of the then greatest writers in the weird fiction field to aid Great Britain in its fight against Imperial Germany.

Despite its peculiarities and a plot that stretches suspension of belief to beyond its breaking point, it is an enjoyable romp. The conversations in particular between the writers do bring them to life, with some interesting glimpses into their strengths, mannerisms, and peculiarities. And, although the plot is quite absurd, Joshi can certainly write. And it is fascinating to see the horrific literary creations of all these various masters brought into a semblance of life in a lengthy battle for mankind’s future.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

My review of Elak: King of Atlantis in Phantasmagoria magazine


Pulp Hero Press, 2020

Elak was originally created by the late Henry Kuttner as a replacement for the massively popular Conan in the pages of Weird Tales after the Cimmerian’s creator took his own life in 1936. Though Kuttner only wrote a handful of the original stories, many years down the line Adrian Cole has continued Elak’s adventures and produced an impressive saga in the five long stories included in this collection. Together with his Falstaffian comrade at arms, the redoubtable Lycon, and the ancient druid, Dalan, Elak’s adventures often involve fighting to secure the safety of his newly won kingdom of Atlantis. Very much a hands-on ruler, Elak glories in personally grasping danger by the throat, much to the displeasure of his royal council, who would prefer him to let others risk their necks on his behalf. But that isn’t Elak’s way, always leading from the front when he can, knowing that his best friend, Lycon, will almost always be there to support him, whatever supernatural or sorcerous threats they have to face. And these threats are there by the score, from powerful sorcerers, incredibly monstrous demons and gods, and ancient pre-human reptilian races who seek to destroy humanity, though sometimes threats come from closer at home, from traitors and would-be usurpers. Atlantis is a dangerous place, to say the least!

Though each of the stories in this volume is stand-alone, there is a common thread running through these colourful tales, culminating in Sky Warriors of Atlantis, a magnificent 90-page epic, full of savage battles, world-shattering evil forces and empire-spanning intrigues, a memorable climax to a memorable collection.

Though I don’t recall ever reading any of the original tales by Henry Kuttner, Adrian Cole’s soon grew on me, as did some of the subtle humour the author manages to insert between the daring-do.

I must also add that the stories are wonderfully complemented by a series of highly detailed black and white illustrations by award-winning artist Jim Pitts. My only regret was that the publisher chose to block them in beneath seven or eight lines of text rather than give each illustration a full page to itself.

Regardless, this is one of the best sword and sorcery collections I have come across for many a long year. And I look forward to Adrian Cole giving us more tales of Elak, King of Atlantis at some time in the not too distant future. Long may he reign!

Elak: King of Atlantis is available from Amazon.

Review by David A. Riley in Phantasmagoria magazine
I am especially pleased now that a brand new Elak story was sent to me by Adrian Cole and is now included in the latest volume of Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy Volume 3