20 years of Buffy: top 10 vampire novels

Ooh, there’s a bandwagon passing by, may as well hitch a ride…It’s been 20 years since one of my favourite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired in the US (March 10, 1997), so in tribute to all things vampire-y, here are my top 10 novels on said creatures of the night . . .

  1. I am legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

I am legendOK, so not your traditional vampire novel, Matheson’s classic is a post-apocalyptic survival tale. The ‘survivors’ are vampires however; only coming out at night and hoping to feed on the last man alive’s blood. Matheson is such a terrific story-teller and this book really captures the isolation and terror of being the prey. There was also very little like it before!

 

  1. Night Watch by Sergie Lukyanenko (1998)The Night Watch

There’s something oddly enjoyable and readable about this Russian clichéd-ridden nonsense. The dark and the light battle it out in and around Moscow, starring Anton on the light side, reluctantly protecting the ordinaries from vampires and other demons.  I read this for some fluff, but found it very engaging. Oh, there’s also a chosen one motif!

  1. Anno Dracula by Kim Newman (1992)

Anno DraculaApparently, Queen Victoria has married Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Count Dracula. Newman chucks everything into this historical re-imagining of vampire and Dickensian classics, as ‘almost’ good vampire Geneviève Dieudonné investigates the so-called Ripper murders. This a rollicking tale with plenty of nods and winks.

 

  1. Already Dead by Charlie Huston (2005)Already Dead

And talking of almost good vampires, Already Dead constantly reminded me of Blade. Huston’s series of vampire novels is a horror/detective noir mash-up, featuring vampire detective Joe Pitt. Pitt solves cases using extreme violence and Hollywood sardonicism. Manhattan is as much a character in this novel as the humans and supernaturals, as Pitt battles against the various clans of New York.

  1. Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite (1992)

Lost SoulsClassic gothic vampires here, set in the American south. These tortured souls hang out in the Missing Mile club all dressed in black and moping around looking for meaning. Brite’s evocative prose and stark outlook lead to a fascinating and horrific road trip to New Orleans. You can feel the heat in the night.

 

  1. Salem’s Lot by Steven King (1975)Salem_s Lot

It would be remiss of the universe if Steven King hadn’t written a brilliant book on vampires. In only his second novel, King manages to put moments of vampire into everyday cultural context, such as the idea of a vampire floating outside the bedroom window. The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is being infected with vampires. A writer returns to confront his childhood memories. Terror ensues!

  1. The Radleys by Matt Haig (2010)

The RadleysA different kind of vampire story here. The Radleys just want to be a normal family. Left alone. They are vampires but they abstain from feeding. However, the kids don’t know what they are. Yet. Haig really taps into what makes people normal in this increasingly bloody novel. Touching, but great fun too.

 

  1. Fevre Dream by George RR Martin (1982)Fevre Dream

Who knew Martin wrote one of the best vampire novels of all time? Another one set in the American south, this novel features life on riverboats on the Mississippi in 1857. Martin also writes about the idea of a good vampire, but in this case, a quest to unite the vampire race with humanity, which is against the odds of the bad guys. Fevre Dream is a brutal description of vampirism during one of America’s most romantic eras.

  1. Let the right one in by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004)

Let the right one inWhat might it be like to really exist as a vampire? To be trapped in a 12 year old’s body but to live for decades? In Sweden? Lindqvist captures 80s life and the terror of changing from a child to something more in this classic. And what of being bullied for being different? And what if you could take revenge? This is an utterly brilliant book about so much more than supernatural creatures that only come out at night. Just like Buffy isn’t about a teenager who slays vampires at High School.

  1. Sunshine by Robin Mckinley (2003)Sunshine

I’ve already said a lot about Sunshine over here. I simply love this book. Mckinley’s writing and characters are evocative, awesome, fun to spend time with, intriguingly damaged and beautiful. Sunshine is a magical baker, but maybe something more supernatural too? When she’s imprisoned with the enigmatic vampire Constantine, she learns so much her life will change forever. Has the vampire fallen for her? Is this Buffy and Angel all over again . . . ?

And no, I haven’t read every vampire book so your favourite probably isn’t on my list and yes, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is intolerably dull and I didn’t like it.

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Favourite 7 literary monsters

I’ve only read one piece of fiction, if memory serves, about a Mummy. Interestingly, it was called The Mummy, and it wasn’t very good. By Jane Loudon, it was originally published in 1827, and set in the future, which is at odds with many concepts of the Mummy as a horror icon. I mention this only in passing as momentum starts to build towards to the new Universal Monster share universe. I’m a huge fan of some of the original Universal movies, especially Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (which of course, as everyone knows, should be called Bride of the Monster), and the later Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – sadly I’ve never read a book featuring a gill-man.

FrankensteinSo, as news trickles through of these films, I got to thinking about what were my favourite monsters in literature – the classical kind, that is. So here I present, the forgottengeek guide to monsters that I’ve read. So not at all comprehensive then!

We will start, naturally, with one of my all-time favourite books and winner in the category of man-made monster. Not much more can be said about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). My original review is here. What many people don’t realise (those fools that haven’t read it), is that much of the classic cinematic imagery of the good doctor in his laboratory building the creature isn’t at all in the book. The monster is a fairly sympathetic character until his encounters with people make him a monster.

We, as a species, are good at making monsters. In fiction at least. There are supernatural and there are man-made zombies. My recommendation for the latter type is Feed (2010) by Mira Grant. The first book in her ‘Newsflesh’ books, the zombies Grant creates are a result of the mixing of two initially beneficial viruses. Set in the future, the story of the apocalypse and how it came about is told via media-savvy bloggers. The zombies themselves are fairly peripheral characters – attacks are rare. As in the best horror, the humans are worse monsters…Plus it has a character called Buffy! What’s not to love.

kalixI’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but there is no better depiction of the werewolf than Kalix and her clan in Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl (2007) and sequels. Kalix is a loner but is surrounded by an absolute menagerie of colourful characters. Millar’s imagination and skill as an author are formidable, and Kalix is a werewolf everyone should spend time with. There is plenty of horror in this series as well. Werewolves, hunters and others regularly destroy each other. Kalix is a lot more complex that you might think. She’s not just a miserable teen goth, but a unique and special person trying to understand her place in the world.

Again, there are elements of both horror and humanity in Sunshine (2003) by Robin McKinley. This novel is my favourite vampire book and features the enigmatic Constantine as the vampire who comes to find a connection with Sunshine; a baker and magician who narrates this tale. There is an ethereal darkness and a surreal brightness to Sunshine that might be seen as an exemplar for vampire tales. Constantine can be interpreted as a sympathetic vampire – a bit like Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer perhaps? But that’s how the reader can relate, and how Sunshine becomes his friend. And by the way, Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is boring!

The Golem and the DjinniI’ve only read one work of fiction featuring a Golem/Gollum. I talked about Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Djinni (2014) before over here. Of course it also features a djinni, another classic horror monster.           There is little horror here at all; only fear of loneliness and of being a migrant in a strange city. Like Kalix, both the golem and the djinni are finding their way in a strange world. Wecker’s depiction of the golem having to hide its inherent golem-ness even though it would mean an easier life is poignant. The djinni is a creative character who again must come to terms with being different.

Are ghosts monsters? Any more than a golem, for example? In The Haunting Of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, you might ask, are there even ghosts? Is the house itself evil and malevolent? Too many questions. What I love about Jackson’s short novel is that the tension and creepiness is palpable. Whether or not Eleanor is being haunted by a ghost, a house, or whether it’s all in her mind are irrelevant. It is the power of Jackson’s writing that sends shivers down your spine and means you sleep with the lights on.

Again, I’ve not read too many books with a witch as a monster but Hex (2015) by Thomas Olde Heuvelt stands out. The witch in this Kingian tale of small town America is a human creation – a woman persecuted back in the day, and now taunted by bored teens. Like many of the monsters here, you side with her at times, or at least understand her motivations. Humans are the bad guys once more. Olde Heuvelt’s writing is enjoyable. A proper horror page-turner in tune with the modern age. As all good horror fiction should be.

Monsters of a less tangible nature that get the nod in this list are The Stand (1990) by Stephen King, of course. Man makes the plague that wipes out most of humanity, and evil comes to town in the undefinable presence of Randall Flagg. A demon, a man, an evil wizard, or something else? Perhaps a little like Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, and Steven King’s The Shining (1980) – ok, a hotel but still a building – it is the house itself (maybe) that is the monster in Mark Z Danielewski’s remarkable House of Leaves (2000). Hard to describe, it is a work of metafictional genius that creeps the hell out of me! Read it. A nod of course must go to another Universal monster, the classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is much weirder than you might imagine and although short, highlights the inner struggle between good and evil, and the external struggle between classes in Victorian Britain.

Interest in horror has always been high and there appears to be a resurgence of interest in the classics. Read these books as a starting point, then go and explore.

Ripley: “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”. Aliens (1986).

I must read Cabal (1988) by Clive Barker at some point – Midian sounds like a fun place!

Top 10 women in modern fantasy worlds

I like my fantasy not so much swords and sorcery and a tad more modern, but I do like magic and mystery, monsters and mirth. For me, fantasy is not some wish fulfilment or quest to obtain the all-problem solving doodad or girl’s (or boy’s) heart. Which is odd, as I grew up with the Hobbit and Greek myths. Maybe it was my love for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… The magical in the mundane, the unreal in the real. Fantasy is an exploration of those things outside of science and reason (although not always, clearly). Fantasy doesn’t always need magic but it definitely needs spirit and soul. It needs something that can’t easily be explained by rationality and evidence.

Books explain personalities that I don’t readily have access to. Books are my windows on how other people think. However, I’ve been alone in London, as Kalis is. I’ve been lost in a good book – see Thursday next. Of course I haven’t been trapped a mansion with a vampire or battling my ex-friend the mad scientist as the end-of-the-world approaches, but these are all women I’ve learned something from.

As I am who I am, I find myself drawn to these characters, written mostly by men, which probably says something, although I’m not sure what.

So, not in any particular order here are my top 10 female characters in modern fantasy fiction (I’ve taken modern to be any time since I’ve been alive).

Bellis Coldwine from The Scar (2002, China Miéville)

TheScar(1stEd)

Defining quality: Fortitude, plus she’s a librarian (albeit reluctantly, and she destroys a book…hang on…)

Kalix MacRinnalch from Lonely Werewolf Girl and sequels (2007, 2010, 2013, Martin Millar)

Kalix

Defining quality: Independence (and reluctant tolerance) but oh so much more. I love Kalix!

Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials (1995–2000, Philip Pullman)

Amber Spyglass

Defining quality: Moral compass (and curiosity and loyalty and…and…everything)

Tara Martin from Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012, Graham Joyce)

Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Defining quality: Faith in the magical.

Thursday Next from The Eyre Affair and sequels (2001-2012, Jasper Fforde)

EyreAffair

Defining quality: Love (of books, of her family, etc)

Ariel Manto from The End of Mr. Y (2006, Scarlett Thomas)

The End of Mr. Y

Defining quality: Scholarly fascination.

Sunshine from Sunshine (2003, Robin McKinley)

Sunshine

Defining quality: Bravery (and loyalty and magic…)I love Sunshine as much as Kalix.

Zinzi December from Zoo City (2010, Lauren Beukes)

ZooCity

Defining quality: Determination

Nao from A Tale for the Time Being (2013, Ruth Ozeki)

Tale for the Time Being

Defining quality: Beautiful solitude.

Patricia Delfine from All the Birds in the Sky (2016, Charlie Jane Anders)

All the birds in the sky

Defining quality: Empathy with the natural.

All these women bring something to my table. Who else should I seek out?

Tell not show – Favourite re-reads: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

SunshineI’m always surprised, on reflection, that Sunshine by Robin McKinley isn’t as well known and well-loved as it should be! Originally published in 2003 it could have ridden on the back of the Buffy wave and came two years before Twilight. I think that fans of vampire novels and fans of fiction generally who haven’t read this book are seriously missing out on something which is (almost) very special.

Sunshine by name and sunshine by nature, our sun-loving protagonist slowly tells us the story of her post-Voodoo Wars life. It is from the outset, a fairly mundane life – of which she’s glad – but after a trip to her childhood lake house, well, everything changes. Sunshine is captured by a vampire gang and offered as a kind of prize to a chained-up vampire, revealed to be called Constantine – the enemy of this gang’s leader, Bo.

I picked this up again because I’ve not come across a decent vampire or original horror lately. I’d remember that Sunshine had a weird quality to it but forgotten that supernatural was common and integrated into society; integrated except for the vampires of course. The eternal enemies. There is a Global council and global information network similar to the internet. This is very much not our world, despite the occasional cultural reference (a mention of Einstein and The Borg as examples). And Sunshine talks about it a lot.

There is the famous maxim in writing of show don’t tell. Give the reader insights into the plot and the characters by their actions and relationships. McKinley spins this concept on its head. Sunshine narrates most of the plot and character development in the first person. This is how she perceives the world and the events that are happening to her. She tells us about the plot and the characters she comes across. She is our window. This storytelling device is perhaps the only way that the otherworldly weird quality of book can work. Sunshine’s world is revealed to the reader very slowly. It is only on page 67 of my edition (476 glorious, smelly pages) that we learn Sunshine’s name – Rae is her name, Sunshine is a nickname. And even towards to coda, we still learn new things about the world she lives in.

What of that world? It is a very interesting one. Sunshine is a baker. Her existence revolves around a coffeehouse and the people who orbit it. Her boss is married to her mother. Her father is estranged. Her boyfriend is the chef. Her best friend is the librarian over the road. The world is full of Others – demons, weres, vampires, ghouls, magic and such-like. But in other respects, it is like our own. People have lives and jobs and hangovers and rubbish cars. It is this mundanity that makes Sunshine’s life so fascinating.

The vampires in Sunshine are fairly typical in how they move, exist and can be killed. They do have some interesting features for the reader to discover…However, you completely buy into Con’s character, as it is from Sunshine’s perspective, and her internal monologue. McKinley cleverly makes the book about us, the reader. It is probably how we’d react in these situations.

The clash of the ordinary and fantastical are of course well-worn tropes but McKinley delivers them with brilliantly heartfelt writing and some pretty awesome characters. The prose is full of wit and verve, even though it is mostly exposition. I love how Sunshine finds out who she really is. And she’s not Buffy, suddenly becoming a superhero. She’s always vulnerable and unsure. Even at the end, she’s horrified by what she has done. I felt a little sorry for Mel, her boyfriend. Out of all the characters, he is short-changed the most. Hints at something deeper are offered but in the finale, he his left by the wayside. All the other characters are great. And there’s a lovely section – when Sunshine meets an old woman called Maud in a park – about the kindness of strangers that has no real relevance to the plot, but is just really, really nice.

I really love the way that this is a standalone book. There’s nothing else which can diminish the magic of Sunshine and her relationship with Con and the patrons and workers of Charlie’s Coffeehouse. It’s a place I’d love to visit and the people are people I’d be glad to know. But not in the diminishing pages of book 7 or whatever. So maybe I should be glad that Sunshine is not so well known. Maybe it’s my secret. But what a secret!

On reading without reading: The Dark Tower series

The Dark Tower 7 - Listening not readingI’ve spent most of 2014 in the company of Roland Deschain of Gilead, his quest and his loves and his enemies. Eddie Dean. Susannah Dean. Jake Chambers. Oy. Cuthbert, Alain, Jamie, Susan. Sheemie. Poor Sheemie. Pere, Ted, Dinkie, Patrick. Flagg, Rhea, Mia, Mordred. Blaine. Dandelo. The Crimson King. And Stephen King.

Seven books. Thousands of pages. Almost 4,000 (edition dependent of course). But I spent the time with George Guidall and Frank Muller. Hours and hours and hours. I started in January 2014 with 1982’s The Gunslinger. I listened most days on my way to and from work (about 30 minutes each way). In the summer I listened at my allotment and in the park. I didn’t listen every day and I went about a week in between each book. I finished 2004’s The Dark Tower in late October. I’d only ever read the first two in the series previously, so had no idea how the story progressed.

  • The Gunslinger (1982)
  • The Drawing of the Three (1987)
  • The Waste Lands (1991)
  • Wizard and Glass (1997)
  • Wolves of the Calla (2003)
  • Song of Susannah (2004)
  • The Dark Tower (2004)

This is not a review and this does contain spoilers.

I’d never really listened to audio books properly before. I’d listened to cast dramatisations and radio adaptations (Hitchhikers…, Neverwhere, Midwich Cuckoos and others). I didn’t know if it was a worthwhile pursuit. When Jake, Eddie and even Oy died, I felt like weeping. When Susan was murdered, I was horrified. When Benny died, I knew it was a proper story. There was good and evil, success and failure. Anyone (with the probable exception of Roland) could die.

When you’re listening to audio books whilst driving and walking to and from work, you cannot take in every word. There are times when you’re necessarily distracted. I don’t think that matters. You don’t need to hear everything to understand the story in an audio-book. I appreciate that I spent many hours getting to know the characters in the series but if listening to the books was all surface, why did I get emotional when Oy sacrificed first his love of Susannah and then his life for Roland’s? Why when I got to the end did I feel empty? Oddly, I don’t want to listen to (or read) The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012) just yet. I want to leave Jake and Eddie and Oy dead (although not in the world Susannah found herself in) and I don’t want to revisit Roland knowing as I do now that Ka’s wheel has turned again.

The Dark Tower series is without doubt a wonderful story with plenty to say about love and death and friendship. About what is good and what is destiny and what is choice. I also enjoyed the whole meta-ness of it. One of the most explicit examples I’ve come across recently (see my post on Hodderscape for more on metafiction) I don’t think I would have every given it the time if I had to read it. The process of listening, even when doing other things (driving, sitting in a park, being distracted by binmen, crossing roads), is beyond rewarding. It isn’t subliminal, but you get the bits Gunslinger - Well, listening to it, anywayyou need to get. Story isn’t about individual words and clever complex sentences. Story shouldn’t need a thesaurus or attention to every single mark on a page. With no disrespect to the author who crafted and laboured over each word, a story is not about reading sentences on a page. A story is about the ride with characters who grow and change and learn and get to where they need to go to. If I didn’t care about Roland and his ka-tet I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Dark Tower and more importantly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the audiobooks.

However, that all being said, if not for George Guidall and Frank Muller, who narrated the stories with passion and depth, again I might not have cared. An audiobook is about a story, characters and the choice of narrator. Not about the sentences or the words or the grammar. I don’t remember every detail about the story from Roland appearing in the desert in pursuit of Marten to his ascent of the tower, but I know how I felt when he loved and lost. And if that’s not the point of a story, someone tell me what is.

A Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

The strength of Mur Lafferty’s A Shambling Guide to New York City is the character of the city itself. The New York she describes is one populated by Shambling Guidethe familiar tropes and characters of horror and urban fantasy, but because of the vignettes from the fictional guide book and how she uses our protagonists, this novel feels like a fresh and fun book that you want to spend time in.

We begin with Zoe, who has moved to New York after losing her job and her lover. She is seeking employment in the publishing world, and specifically, should she find it, the travel guide sector. Fortunately, Phil is looking for someone just like her. But not quite. Phil is a vampire and tries to dissuade Zoe from applying. Despite her recent past, she’s still got balls so pursues the job until Phil finally reveals to her the dark secret of New York. Vampires and zombies and magic are real. The Public Works is the human’s monster police force, only the monsters hate being called that. They are a community of like minded but different species known collectively as coterie. (coterie, noun, a small group of people with shared interests or tastes, especially one that is exclusive of other people).

The first half of the novel is fairly plotless, as Zoe finds out about the newly opened up world about her, while getting to grips with her new job. The plan is to write a guide for the coterie who both live and visit New York; the titular travel guide. Each chapter has a snippet from the guide as a way of introducing part of this new world. They are often humorous, and are probably the most interesting part of Lafferty’s novel. So we meet Morgen and Gwen and John; a water sprite, a death goddess and an incubus respectively. There are plenty of other characters and fresh ideas too. A mentor character who is a granny-type. A baker who is a type of incubus who feeds of the appreciation of his eaten pastries. Zombies who retain their higher brain functions providing they eat plenty of fresh brains. Restaurants for the coterie serving whatever is required. All described with a certain amount of wit and imagination.

And then odd things start to happen. Zoe’s past starts to creep up on her. Only now does the book start to feel like a story, rather than simply a clever world-building exercise. By this point, however, you’re only here with the goodwill offered by the interesting characters, rather than the events that are happening to them. It almost feels like Lafferty had a great idea and a fun bunch of monsters/coterie but no tale to tell. There’s an opportunity to talk more about gangs, cults, racism, bullying and other issues associated with minorities, but these don’t get any real thought, especially when you can just turn a plane into a golem and have the showdown and big reveal in Central Park. There’s nothing wrong with Lafferty’s writing – although I wasn’t particularly bowled over by the prose – and her imagination is clearly full of cracking ideas.

I did enjoy A Shambling Guide to New York City, but was disappointed by lack of proper story. The blurb on the cover aims the book at fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I think there was much more depth in an average episode of Buffy, but there are similarities in tone. Of course, it is a journey of discovery for Zoe and a chance to put pay to her past, but I wanted a lightly comic urban fantasy to have a little more depth, threat and meaning. What I got was a fun monster, sorry coterie, mash.

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

15729539Much of modern horror fiction suffers from the weight of tradition. Therefore a lot of is it post-modern, or knowingly clever, or reverential, which is fine if you want a werewolf with wit or a glow-in-the-daylight vampire. Ghost stories become police procedurals and monsters become gateways into a deranged psyche.

Back in the 1980s, horror fiction tended to be more innocent, if you will. It was about the bogeyman under the bed or the rats in the cellar or the vengeful spirit in the loft. The biggest name in horror was, of course, Stephen King and he wrote some whoppers. It, The Stand and The Shining stand out. And, of course, Christine; the story of a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury. Context is everything. So, what to make of Joe Hill’s 686 page NOS4R2; a huge hardback with a glaring vintage car on the cover which looks positively evil. I had my doubts. I hoped it wasn’t just a rehash of something familiar. Only this time a vampire car? I was to be delightfully surprised.

Our story begins, after the prologue, in 1986 (a couple of years after Christine was published). Meet Vic McQueen. She’s our teenage heroine and she can ride her bike over an imaginary bridge to find lost things. One day, she finds herself in Christmasland, the creation of the bogeyman of this story; one Charlie Manx. Manx is linked to, and fuelled by, the titular car: a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith. Along with his child-like but deranged henchman, Bing Partridge, AKA The Gasmask Man, he kidnaps children and whisks them off to the place where it’s Christmas every day and you always get to play. Vic not only survives the encounter, but escapes into the arms of geek loser Lou. Meanwhile, Manx ends up in a prison hospital, diagnosed with a rare aging disorder. This section feels like proper story-telling, motivating the reader to invest in Vic and her life by focusing on the mundane as well as the grand.

We move to more recent times and Vic and Lou have a child. She is a children’s author and not exactly on best terms with Lou, or the world. Manx has died, but Vic still receives phone calls from the children trapped in Christmasland. Or is she simply insane and the victim of a more traditional child kidnap? Struggling to get by with her kid Wayne – her nightmares and realities clash as Manx comes back from the dead and takes Wayne from her. The police and FBI become involved, clearly doubting her story, but she is determined to find her way back to Christmasland. She wants to rescue her son, as well as her broken relationships along the way.

There are difficult choices to be found in this story, from a reader’s perspective. You see, the undercurrent is about child abuse. Manx genuinely believes he is saving the kids from abusive adults. We visit the Graveyard of What Might Be with Manx, which houses graves of the children he saves/kidnaps after they have died at the hands of their carers. We know he’s ‘evil’, but he doesn’t. And if he is saving children from abuse, is he not the good guy?

My main issue with the narrative, however, is with a slow middle section when the events of the kidnapping of Wayne are taken from a multitude of perspectives. These chapters don’t cohere with the rest of the story, as it is mostly from Vic’s perspective. I think this section is probably there to ratchet up the tension, but for me, it slows the story unnecessarily. What is cool though, based on my preconceived concerns, is that the car is not the main feature. Of course it is important in the way it connects with Manx and also resonates with Vic’s bikes (she moves onto a Triumph motorbike as an adult), but it is not the focus of the tale.

Hill presents some interesting characterisation, if nothing remarkable or original. Vic suffers from her choices. Wayne finds it hard to trust his mother. Lou is a proper geek (references to Firefly for example – but is that just a play to the audience?). Manx is quite an old-fashioned man-monster in appearance, but his back-story and motivations could have been fleshed out more. Bing, as the Gasmask Man, is genuinely creepy. Maggie, a librarian, is a nicely drawn character with not a cliché in sight. There are powerfully descriptive passages of the horror and nightmare imaginings. The nature of the supernatural events is never really described in detail, other than it is related to the mind, but it is a valid attempt to create a monster mythology that doesn’t rely on antecedents. I would have liked the plot to spend a little more time in Christmasland, however. The ending seemed a tad rushed, considering the time taken to get there.

The story of Vic and her family has power because it has a toll. People pay a price and not in a post-modern horror way, where the first person to have sex is the first person to die. While this is a fantasy, it is grounded in realistic decisions made by realistic people based on their tough choices.

I read a lovely hardback edition which is scattered with illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez (who worked with Hill on his comic series Locke and Key). Sadly, however, they turn up less and less as the story builds towards its conclusion.

‘Old-school and proud’ is how I’d imaging Joe Hill describing NOS4R2. Old fashioned horror. It even has creepy rhyming bad guys and malevolent children (albeit not quite themselves). Which goes some way to show that there’s nothing outstandingly different here to a lot of horror fiction from the 1980s, but it is a refreshing change to most modern horror. With its depth of storytelling, NOS4R2 is more than just throwaway horror entertainment, but entertaining it is.

8 gateway novels into speculative fiction

After reading a few lists recently concerning the kinds of books genre fans should get non-genre fans or people who might be new to science fiction and fantasy to read, I feel that people are missing the point somewhat. After reading Which science fiction book you would give to a first-time SF reader? from io9 people seem to think that just because they like a particular science fiction book, if they give it to non-genre fans, they would like it. I’ve read similar arguments elsewhere too. It’s not just that these people don’t know that The Blue Sword and A Canticle for Leibowitz exist. It’s the assumption that once they do, they’ll immediately be interested and hooked. The idea that someone who doesn’t like Science Fiction and would pick up Hyperion and love it is hilarious.

Missing the point.

I previously wrote about 5 books that the mainstream have already embraced. What I now present are 8 titles which I’d describe as gateway novels into genre. I’ve said away from the obvious, such as Pullman, Tolkien, Meyer, Rice and Rowling. These are novels which are, in some ways, half way between genre and non-genre. They are ghost stories, alien invasions, dystopian, vampire and more. Welcome. There are the books that people who might want to venture into the mysterious waters of science fiction and fantasy should read.

The Glamour by Christopher Priest (1984)

The novel: The glamour is true invisibility, bestowed on a few people. It has always been thus, but is almost completely forgotten, until now. The story follows three people. One of these people doesn’t know it, but has lost his memory after a bomb blast. One has the ability and uses it to pursue the third, who only has a partial control of the gift. As the  Glamourcharacter with the memory loss slowly becomes aware of the glamour, the reader joins him in understanding the reality of this invisible world.

The author: To describe Priest as enigmatic is to say that the sun is a bit warm. While generally regarded as literary, he frustrates as many readers as he delights. Many of his novels deal with delusions, perceptions and as a result, seem to play games with the reader. He presents puzzles, some of which, I assume, are not meant to be solved. Most are deeply speculative yet remaining charismatic. He cites HG Wells as a strong influence, although his prose is much warmer.

Why it should be read: Priest is a master of mystery, but not so much as you might lose faith in him or his characters. The Glamour is a character driven piece. The fantastical elements are not thrust to the fore, although they are the primary motivations for the protagonists. This is a work that is genre-defying, and yet wouldn’t work without the central concept. The Glamour is as close to both mystery and literary fiction as fantasy gets.

What to read next: The Invisible Man by H G Wells

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce (2013)

The novel: Set in 1976, the protagonist tells us of his experiences of working in the long hot summer of that year. He his struggling with the ghost of his dead father – but is it a real ghost? He gets a job in a holiday camp and becomes involved with a femme fatale and also a pretty dancer. He becomes involved with the National Front and some other dodgy dealings. Will his relationships end in tragedy and will he find the truth about his Dad? Feeling both noir-ish and yet intensely bright, Joyce explores both the nature of relationships and his own history.

17976979The author: Graham Joyce writes young adult and general speculative fiction, mostly described as fantasy. He has won the British Fantasy Award a few times and the World Fantasy Award winner in 2003 for The Facts of Life. You can’t really classify him, however. His stories feature ghosts, mysticism, folklore and fairytale. His prose seems to be effortless beautiful. He is also known for strong female characters. In The Year of the Ladybird, the dancer is called Nikki. For a young woman in 1976, she is especially vibrant and headstrong. Joyce calls his style ‘Old Peculiar’.

Why it should be read: If you take the idea that this is about ghosts of the past, and not real ghosts – and there is some ambiguity in its reading anyway – then this novel is pure contemporary fiction – albeit set in the 1970s. What it does, is take a snap-shot of history – the rise of the National Front, the very real plague of ladybirds, etc – and add some fictional relationship dramas. It may be a real ghost story. After reading this, you will almost certainly want to read more of Joyce’s beautiful prose, regardless of subject matter. After reading this, you will end up reading ghost stories, contemporary fairy tales and more.

Read the full review

What to read next: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

The novel: Meet Kathy. Kathy’s life is not all it seems. Her childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school in England, has sinister overtones. The teachers are known as Guardians. TheNever curriculum has no life skills. Her friendships are all peculiar, distant. In time, Kathy becomes friends with Ruth and Tommy, before they learn their bleak but inevitable destiny.  The novel moves onto a later time, when the protagonists are in the later teens. They begin to have contact with the outside world. Romance and sexuality are explored, all with a foreboding sense of doom. The final act reveals the full horror of the dystopia.

The author: Ishiguro, as an author, is a complex beast. The Japanese-born writer has published 6 novels to date, covering many ideas and themes: family drama, post-WWII, historical class-based drama, Eastern-European dream/surrealist, historical crime and dystopian science fiction albeit set in a version of 1980s/90s England. Most of his work, however, is about human failings and how life just goes on (or doesn’t).

Why it should be read: The writing. Plain and simple. It doesn’t get much better than this. Kathy’s first person narrative is as evocative and as gripping as any you’d read elsewhere. Of course, the characters are interesting and the relationships are complex. The mood is as bleak as you could imagine but the prose is so beautiful and so well thought out, it feels like these characters could have been friends of yours (if you’re a certain age, of course). Never Let Me Go is the best example of science fiction that examines our very humanity, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

What to read next: Spares by Michael Marshal Smith

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)

The novel: Set in Scotland, Faber’s debut features protagonist Isserley, who is not exactly a local. Turns out, in fact, that she’s not even from Earth. However, she still has a job to do. Her employer is the equivalent of a multi-national corporation. Her profession is farmer. She harvests hitchhikers who are then sent to her homeworld as a delicacy. This Undersatirical piece is about big business and the environment. Most importantly, however, it is about people and identity.

The author: While living in Scotland, Faber, perhaps best known for the novel The Crimson Petal and the White, is Dutch who was raised in Australia. Like Ishiguro, he writes a variety of genres about a range of subjects. His work has been described as, at the very least, informed by feminism. He also takes inspiration from Scotland, Dickens and mythology.

Why it should be read: No doubt that this is an alien invasion novel, although the invasion isn’t as Hollywood as you’d imagine. It is discreet and subtle. Nevertheless, this is as science fiction as they come. The aliens are ‘people’ too, however, with motivations, flaws and desires we can relate to. The writing is easy yet subtle and to be honest, it takes a while before you even notice that Under The Skin isn’t just a character study, but instead a satirical study of corporate greed. If your idea of aliens comes from Star Trek or Independence Day, this will surprise and delight you.

What to read next: Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

The Radleys by Matt Haig (2011)

The novel: A vampire novel like no other, The Radleys is the story of a middle class family in middle England whose lives are over-turned when an outside influence is added to their mildly dysfunctional, but perfectly normal existence. The thing is, they are abstainers. The parents hide the truth from their children, but inevitably, the fact of the secret leads to inevitable chaos. While this is a novel about vampires and how they exist in England, it is really a family drama. It is about children growing up and fleeing the nest, and all the pain and trauma that brings. There are emotional truths found here that are not usually found in horror fiction.

The author: Haig is a journalist and so is well aware of human stories. His debut was published in 2005 and he’s been producing novels every couple of years since. His main theme is family life and how outside elements affect it. He doesn’t always write in speculative genres and is heavily influenced by Shakespeare. Indeed, his first and second novels are Radleysre-tellings of Henry IV, Part 1 and Hamlet.

Why it should be read: It would be easy to say that this is just like Twilight or the Sookie Stackhouse novels, but it isn’t. It’s so much more. This is a genuine novel about family and the pressures they face. It is witty and thoughtful and you think back to your own teens and relate to the situations the characters find themselves. And of course, it has elements of horror and vampire mythology, which aren’t too overblown for the novice. You start off interested about the lives of the family and end up wondering all about the lives of vampires.

What to read next: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Generosity by Richard Powers (2009)

The novel: Imagine a book about happiness. Imagine a book about tolerance and acceptance. Think about all those science fiction novels and films about post-humans and then imagine the story set just around the corner where all these begin. Professor Kurton has found the genetic key to happiness and wants to re-wire all of us. He found it in the DNA of Thassadit Amzwar, studying at Chicago University, who is otherwise known as Miss Generosity. Despite the many hardships in her life, she radiates bliss. Her writing teacher is determined to find a medical explanation. This is a witty examination of mental health, jealousy and medical ethics. It is also a work of near meta-fiction, as it examines the act of reading.Gen

The author: Wikipedia classes Powers as an exponent of literary fiction, and yet his work is intensely speculative and mysterious. A fan of the Greek classics, he trained in English literature and computer science. His novels reflect this, mixing arts and science, history and philosophy. Generosity is not his first foray into science fiction as he has previously delved into nuclear war, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. He was a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist for 2006’s The Echo Maker.

Why it should be read: This book is the beginning point to a whole section of science fiction and yet it has no such pretensions. It is an engaging and intriguing human story. Sure there is some science that takes it away from a straight relationship drama, but it is no more off-putting than, for example, a forensic crime drama. If you are interested in what will happen next in human evolution, whether that is a speculative fictional version, or a more genetic/science-based curiosity, Generosity is a great place to start. Plus it has interesting characters with depth, and of course, it’s very well written.

What to read next: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

A Matter Of Blood by Sarah Pinborough

The novel: In the not too distant future, the recession has hit hard. The world is run by a mysterious company called The Bank, who seem to control everything, including the police in London. Cass is a dodgy detective who couldn’t care less about the bigger picture. A failing marriage, a serial killer called Man of Flies, the shooting of school boys and the suicide of his loving brother are more than enough to keep him busy. And who is Mr Bright and what does he want with his family? Hints of ghosts and other, bigger, supernatural goings on weave all these plot points expertly into a gripping climax.A Matter of Blood

The author: Before the Dog-Faced Gods trilogy, Pinborough was known for straight forward horror and, young adult fiction and writing Torchwood spin-off novels. She expertly blends super-natural and the mundane. Taking only a few elements away from A Matter Of Blood would leave it to be a complex police procedural thriller. A prolific user of social media, Pinborough is clever, dark and very witty.

Why it should be read: Just read it. It’s great.

Read the full review

What to read next: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

 The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

The novel: The initial glance at this story might but it in the same bracket as AS Bryant’s The Possession as the protagonist – Ariel – is a PhD student who’s research of a 19th Century writer seems to have a direct effect on her life. Set in an (un-named Canterbury), she finds a rare copy of this writer’s titular book, which is apparently cursed. Ideas in the book come to affect Ariel’s reality as Thomas explores homeopathy and quantum physics. The themes of exploring multiple realities are common to Neal Stephenson and William Gibson.

YThe author: Previous to The End of Mr. Y, Thomas, a Creative Writing lecturer at the University of Kent, had not written anything remotely genre-esque. Her earlier books explore youth culture and her most recent, Our Tragic Universe, is an examination of the story and the writing process, and how they affect by cosmology and physics. She is clearly interested in both the bigger picture and the smaller details. How the large affects the small and vice versa.

Why it should be read: Thomas has managed to put a whole bunch of disparate ingredients into a blender and come up with something rich, flavoursome and memorable. It takes a recognisable story and moves it to an unusual place. For an authority on creative writing, the plotting and characterisation are as great as you’d expect. I love the way that, although the name of the city is never mentioned, the descriptions of it are so accurate (and sharp) that it is a delight to read.

What to read next: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Honourable mentioned: On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall.

Full time report – a reflection on the past twelve months

There are always ‘best of’ lists this time of year. Interestingly – well to me at least – is that I’ve not read the majority of the fiction mentioned in most of them. Check out this list, as an example: 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson; The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter; Intrusion, by Ken MacLeod; Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson; The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun (Dreamblood Duology), by NK Jemisin; Wonders of the Invisible World, by Patricia McKillip; Redshirts, by John Scalzi, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan; vN, by Madeline Ashby; Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed and The Dog Stars, by Peter Hiller (from io9). Not read any of them. Shocking, I know. However, most are on my To Read list on Goodreads. I’m just a bit slow in getting around to these things.

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So, these are the books I did read in the last twelve months, in no particular order:

Three short story collections:

I also read the eponymous short story and a couple other others, but not all of Micromegas by Voltaire.

Thirteen non-fiction books:

  • In Glorious Technicolor: A Century of Film and How it has Shaped Us by Stock, Francine
  • Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Sample, Ian
  • Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Demick, Barbara
  • The Geek Manifesto: Why science matters by Henderson, Mark
  • Beware Invisible Cows: My Search For The Soul Of The Universe by Martin, Andy
  • The Edge of Science: Mysteries of Mind, Space and Time by Baker, Alan
  • In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Atwood, Margaret
  • Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Zinoman, Jason
  • Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Botton, Alain de
  • The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals: The Evil Monkey Dialogues by VanderMeer, Ann
  • The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex: What’s Wrong with Modern Movies? by Kermode, Mark
  • On Writing by King, Stephen
  • Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Yarm, Mark

Thirty five novels:

  • Life of Pi by Martel, Yann
  • Stray Souls (Magicals Anonymous, #1) by Griffin, Kate
  • Frankenstein by Shelley, Mary
  • Trust by Moody, David
  • The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Raspe, Rudolf Erich
  • The Magician King (The Magicians, #2) by Grossman, Lev
  • Breed by Novak, Chase
  • Ready Player One by Cline, Ernest
  • The Apocalypse Codex (Laundry Files, #4) by Stross, Charles
  • A Matter Of Blood (The Dog Faced Gods #1) by Pinborough, Sarah
  • Asbury Park by Scott, Rob
  • Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Joyce, Graham
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Swift, Jonathan
  • One of Our Thursdays Is Missing (Thursday Next, #6) by Fforde, Jasper
  • The Minority Council by Griffin, Kate
  • Rule 34 (Halting State #2) by Stross, Charles
  • The Coincidence Engine by Leith, Sam
  • Anno Dracula by Newman, Kim
  • Zone One by Whitehead, Colson
  • Curse of the Wolf Girl (Kalix MacRinnalch, #2) by Millar, Martin
  • By Light Alone by Roberts, Adam
  • Lonely Werewolf Girl (Kalix MacRinnalch, #1) by Millar, Martin
  • Shadow’s Son (Shadow Saga, #1) by Sprunk, Jon
  • Anagrams by Moore, Lorrie
  • Embassytown by Miéville, China
  • Allison Hewitt Is Trapped (Zombie, #1) by Roux, Madeleine
  • Sadie Walker is Stranded (Zombie, #2) by Roux, Madeleine
  • Pure by Baggott, Julianna
  • The Hobbit by Tolkein, JRR
  • Heroes and Villains by Carter, Angela
  • The Radleys by Haig, Matt
  • The Last Werewolf by Duncan, Glen
  • The Black Lung Captain (Tales of the Ketty Jay, #2) by Wooding, Chris
  • The End Specialist by Magary, Drew
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1) by Scott Lynch

So for the novels alone, that is 6 classic fantasy, 4 urban fantasy and a single modern fantasy, a couple of literary fiction (assuming Life of Pi isn’t fantasy or magic realism), 12 science fiction and 10 horror, which includes 3 werewolf and 3 zombie and 2 vampire. It would appear I don’t have a favourite genre as such, as I gave roughly equal weight to fantasy, science fiction and horror, although modern fantasy/supernatural/horror and near future science fiction would be my stated choices, followed by apocalyptic science fiction. Several authors had a couple of books each and it appears I like series, although I would deny it flat out if you asked me.

And now to the awards:

  • Top 5 novels in no particular order: Frankenstein, Life of Pi, Trust, Some Kind of Fairy Tale & The Apocalypse Codex
  • Surprisingly enjoyable: A Matter of Blood
  • Most unputdownable: Lonely Werewolf Girl
  • Most disappointing: Embassytown
  • Dullest/overhyped: Zone One
  • Worst read: The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen
  • Special award for the most palpable physical response to reading it: Rule 34

On the whole, a good year, but not a great year for reading. I enjoyed more than I didn’t which is the important thing. Of the novels I’d not read before, not many would make my all time favourites list, which is a shame. Authors I want to read more of include Millar, Cline, Pinborough, Lynch and Duncan. I will also try to read a few newer books this year. The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge will continue. At the very least, I will read:

  • Mary Shelley – The Last Man
  • Jane Loudon – The Mummy
  • John L Riddell – Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Ariel Navigation
  • Jules Verne – Voyage to the Centre of the Earth
  • Samuel Butler – Erewhon

The next books I’ll be reading are Fated by Benedict Jacka, London Falling by Paul Cornell and The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar. And who knows where we’ll be in twelve months time?