Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham

This volume contains two novellas and four short stories. The first novella is the titular “Consider Her Ways,” concerning a woman who accidentally trades minds with another woman who lives in the future, a bizarre future in which there are no more men. The other novella is “Random Quest,” concerning a man who winds up in an alternate universe for a spell, falls in love with a woman from that universe, then later attempts to find the same woman in his own universe. I happened to catch a modern made-for-TV movie of this novella a couple of years ago, which, for me at least, failed to capture the spirit of the original.

The remaining four stories were, for the most part, weaker than the novellas, with the exception of “A Long Spoon,” in which a man editing a film accidentally evokes a demon. Strips of film just happened to be lying on the cutting-room floor in the vague shape of a pentacle, while a piece of film played backwards at a slower pace caused a “word of power” to be uttered from the speakers. This story trumps all others by simply being a lot more fun.

Overall I was disappointed with this volume. The stories were too domestic, dialogue-heavy and drama-scarce, making them somewhat of a chore at times. And the punchlines often failed to reward the monotonous build-up. John Wyndham has much, much better works in print.

Uncovered! by Paul Jennings

There are quite a number of short story collections in the “Un-” series by Paul Jennings: Unreal!, Unbelievable!, Uncanny!, etc. After reading the first one, I could have picked another at random, but the title of one story in the volume Uncovered! caught my attention. It was called “Pubic Hare.” Recognising Jennings’s brand of slightly risque humour for kids, I plunged ahead.

Imagine my surprise when the first story, “For Ever,” turned out to be a deliberately humourless melancholic drama about a boy who’s terminally ill. I have no problem with being surprised, but the story was too sentimental for my taste. There are a couple more stories (of the ten in total) that are semi-serious. The rest are in keeping with Jenning’s usual brand of wacky comedy, covering such topics as seing ghosts, bed-wetting, growing pubic hair, and even eating a cat-turd!

My favourite was one of the more serious stories: a time-travel tale called “Backward Step.” The majority of the others I found a bit, well, lacking in imagination.

Jennings’s Wikipedia page shows that several of his “Un-” books have picked up multiple awards. I couldn’t help but notice that, in contrast, Uncovered! only picked up one single award. I haven’t read enough of Jennings’s books to make an objective comparison, but my suspicion is that this is one of his weaker efforts.

Unreal! by Paul Jennings

I became interested in Paul Jennings recently as a result of revisiting an old TV series called Round the Twist on DVD. The series is about a family that lives in a lighthouse around which all manner of weird things happen. The episodes are often hilarious, especially when the humour gets a bit, well, filthy. And by that I mean, for example, losing your false teeth down the toilet and having to collect them at the sewage works, then having the clean and wear them. Ugh! This is typical Jennings story material, and it’s a lot of fun.

I believe Unreal! is the author’s first published book. It contains eight stories, five of which I recognise as episode of Round the Twist from seasons one and two, although the television versions have been significantly reworked to revolve around the Twist family. The versions in the book are stand-alone tales. I heard that seasons three and four of Round the Twist weren’t as highly appreciated as the first two, due to Jennings leaving the show. Having just watched season three, I can attest to that. There were a few excellent episodes, but most of them lacked the imagination Jennings brought to the show.

The first story, “Without a Shirt,” is about a boy who can’t help himself adding the words “without a shirt” to the end of every sentence he speaks. Filmed as “Without My Pants” in the TV series.

“The Strap-Box Flyer” is about a travelling con man selling glue that sticks anything … but stops working after four hours.

“Skeleton on the Dunny” is about a boy who uses an outdoor toilet cubicle on which he sometimes finds a ghostly skeleton sitting. Filmed as the pilot episode of the TV series.

“Lucky Lips” is about colourless lipstick that will make any girl kiss you. As you can imagine, it will not be a smooth ride for the wearer. Another one of the TV episodes.

And so on. I enjoyed this book to the degree that it motivated me to attempt writing my own children’s stories. Full of outrageous fun. As an adult, it occasionally made me think, “I can’t believe he just wrote that,” but always with a smirk.

Different Kinds of Darkness by David Langford

I first heard of David Langford in my late teens, as a reader of the science fiction magazine Interzone. If there’s one story from that period that sticks in my mind more than any other it’s Langford’s story “BLIT,” which is weird because I don’t think I even properly understood it at the time. I haven’t read a single Langford story since (for no reason other than I don’t buy many mags), but the memory of “BLIT” was potent enough to move me to select this collection of thirty-six stories for review.

The book is divided into four sections: 1. Gadgets and Glitches; 2. The Questing Beast; 3. Irrational Numbers; and 4. Basilisks. Those roughly translate as 1. Sci-fi; 2. Fantasy; 3. Horror; and we’ll talk about 4 in a minute.

The sci-fi section is the most enjoyable. The stories are for the most part short. Langford’s prose is generally non-descriptive, and he wastes no time on characterisation. He’ll start a story with two characters talking, and the reader might be left to guess their appearance, their ages, and even where the conversation is taking place. Believe it or not, this is not a criticism; it’s just how he does things. Langford’s fiction is one hundred percent ideas-driven. I have never before read so much variety of original thought packed into 280 pages. This is partly due to the fact that this volume spans almost thirty years of Langford’s career, but it’s also because the stories are very concisely written. There are no wasted words, and if you’re not concentrating properly you can easily find yourself confused. The main reason why this book took so long for me to review is because I enjoy reading in bed at the close of the evening, and with Different Kinds of Darkness I just couldn’t manage it. You have to be fully alert to read Langford.

The only part of the book I didn’t enjoy very much was the fantasy section. The fantasy genre lends itself to description more than any other, and when Langford just kept skimping on detail, the stories failed for me. More often than not I found myself confused, grappling to understand the strange worlds Langford was painting. A few more brush strokes would have taken away the confusion. Thankfully there are only four fantasy stories in the volume.

The sci-fi section occupies an entire half of the book’s pages, and it’s here that you’ll find the best stories. But be warned, to appreciate Langford you have to like your sci-fi wild and wacky. The author is quite liberal with his manipulation of physics, and if you’re prepared to accept that, you’ll be amazed at the unexpected places some of these stories take you. And quite often there’s a lot of humour thrown in. One of my favourites is called “Leaks,” a story about a man with a minor super-power: the ability to transfer liquid from one container to another by sheer will-power. Nice trick if you want a free refill at the bar, but not much use for fighting crime. If that’s not a wacky idea, what is? But trust me, you’ll never guess where a story like this is taking you, and you’ll be delighted when you get there.

I have nothing much to comment about the horror stories, except that they were above average on the whole. I should say that the categorization of all the stories should be viewed loosely, as sci-fi elements tend to crop into most of Langford’s tales, even his attempt at a Lovecraftian one!

The last section collects together four stories which are linked by a common theme. Here we have “BLIT” and its three sequels. These are stories about visual images affecting the brain; i.e. data enters the brain through the eyes, and some data the brain just can’t handle. A BLIT image is a pictures which can kill you if you look at it. The final story, “Different Kinds of Darkness,” is a tale about extreme measures taken to protect the young from exposure BLIT images in public places. I loved this story, and the whole volume is deservedly named after it (and it won the Hugo in 2001!).

Father to the Man by Adrian Plass

Somehow it feels as if there should be a drum-roll or something to precede this review, as it happens to be the first ever piece of Christian literature I’ve included. Quite odd to have it sandwiched between a load of horror novels, perhaps, but this reviews section was started with a view to reporting on everything I read, so why break the habit?

Father to the Man is a collection of seven stories, most of which feature an aspect of the parent-child relationship in one way or another, whether the child be of primary school age or grown up and coping with a parent’s death.

The first story, “Nothing but the Truth” begins with the enigmatic line Dying was a doddle. And so we have the story of a dead man walking around in spirit form, waiting to see what happens next. Rather than treating us to some elaborate effects-driven What Dreams May Come-type experience, Plass takes the reader to a very ordinary interview situation, where the protagonist is asked to talk about some key moments from his past. As I write this, I realise how boring the concept sounds; but let me tell you it was rivetting. The protagonist reveals his innermost feelings about the death of his father; expressing his heightened fear that death is the end of existence, despite all he believes about God. There is a raw honesty running through this story, and the others, that is a rare find in literature.

“Stanley Morgan’s Minor Misdemeanour”, the third tale in the volume, is another favourite. It concerns a Christian man who, although married with kids, has never quite come to terms with his own sexuality. A brief encounter with a pornographic magazine when he was sixteen has haunted him ever since. The “quiet compatibility” he has with his wife has never seemed to satisfy the hunger for some kind paradise glimpsed elsewhere. Without wanting to spoil the rest of the story, I’ll just say that it’s essentially about seeing through illusions. And if you read between the lines, you might think differently about the use of sex in the media today; through TV adverts and pop videos, etc., we’re all being encouraged to take fantasy a little too seriously, and I reckon it’s anything but healthy for the human mind.

Unfortunately I found many of the endings to these stories a little confusing or disappointing. Sometimes it’s as if Plass is dancing around the edge of something really meaningful, and just when I think I’m about to be enlightened, I end up scratching my head instead. So, whilst that does somewhat spoil things, this book still scores well above average for its brutal honesty and in-depth look at human life and relationships. And it’s pretty funny to boot.

The Lurking Fear and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft was very prolific in the short-story department. In this 180-page volume we have eleven of them, plus a novella. Some I found tiresome reading, others predictable, and a few quite enjoyable.

The stories usually revolve around rational men being confronted by hideous and terrifying sights that should exist only in nightmares. Lovecraft’s grasp of the grotesque is certainly very vivid, but I found his writing lacking on an inter-personal level. Also, the horror in Lovecraft’s fiction is somewhat narrow – usually restricted to the monster-in-the-closet variety. I can see how this might appeal to children or those of a superstitious bent, but it doesn’t do much for me personally.

My favourite story in the volume was, “The Temple” – a tale about a German U-boat captain losing control of his submarine and floating off into uncharted deep sea. Both the atmosphere and the state of mind of the captain were vividly described, and it was a fascinating journey into the unknown.

The inclusion of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is also notable. One of Lovecraft’s larger works, it occupies over a third of the book’s length, and tells the story of a man passing through a grimy, dilapidated town called Innsmouth, pausing a while to investigate some of the strange legends about the town. Although this novella takes an absolute age to get past first gear, it has a pretty hair-raising climax that is worth the wait.

Here’s the table of contents: “The Lurking Fear,” “Dagon,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The White Ship,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “From Beyond,” “The Temple,” “The Moon-Bog,” “The Hound,” “The Unnamable,” “The Outsider,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

New Traditions in Terror by various authors (edited by Bill Purcell)

The Traditions of the title refers to the scares of yesteryear: the vampires, werewolves, demons, psychopaths and other bad guys from the history of horror. And the New is a reaction against those who would claim that these monsters have said all they can possibly say, that their tales have been re-invented, imitated and expanded upon throughout the years to the degree that nothing more of interest can be said. Well, I’m still a sucker for those old B-movies, so I’m with Bill, the editor.

I dove in with great enthusiasm, and now that I’ve come out the other end, was it worth the trip? The answer is a somewhat hesitant yes. For whilst there are many good stories in here, there are many clunkers too. Here are the ones that stood out for me.

“Afraid of the Water” by Robynn Clairday. A story about a woman who is afraid of water finally reaching out and putting her trust in someone to teach her to swim.

“Cry of the Red Wolf” by Ken Goldman. Expecting werewolves? Think again. The horror in this story comes from a most unexpected angle.

“Cargo” by Sean Logan. Call me sentimental, but I just love a good zombie story.

“Hooked” by Mike Oakwood. On the surface, this is a simple tale about what it’s like to be inside a werewolf’s head. On a deeper level, it’s a story about temptation and selfishness and appetite and guilt – things which we’re all very familiar with. Hot story!

“Bottom Feeders” by Scott H. Urban. A dirty, gritty snapshot from the lives of a couple of vampires. Reads like an excerpt from a larger work. Left me wanting more.

There are no big names in this volume, which I kind of liked. It must be tempting for an editor to turn down a rubbish story by a top author, because the author’s name itself is a huge selling point. That said, we can be sure that all the stories in here made it on merit alone. But for my taste, so many of them just lacked any real punch. With seventeen tales in the volume, I had hoped for a bit more excitement per square inch.

Fiends by Richard Laymon

I approached this highly-rated horror author’s work expecting a lot, and was very disappointed. To illustrate chiefly what’s wrong with it, let me describe a scenario in the book. Picture this: you’re a young woman who was raped when she was fifteen. This rapist comes back into your life out of the blue and kidnaps you. He’s got you in his car right now. Your boyfriend may or may not be lying dead in the boot. You’re wearing nothing but a sweater and shorts, and you’re all wet because you were in the lake earlier. Okay, that’s the scene set; now here’s what happens … You ask the rapist if you can get into the back of the car and lie down, because you’re exhausted. He agrees. You climb over the seat. Your clothes are making you itch because of the water, so you pull off the sweater, bearing your breasts, and pull the shorts around your ankles, bearing pretty much everything else … Okay, folks, what’s wrong with this picture? It’s not the real world is it? Nope. In the world of Richard Laymon, girls take off their clothes at every available opportunity, regardless of how extreme the circumstances; girls hitchhike wearing skin-tight dresses that barely cover the tops of their thighs; girls are quick to put their trust in complete strangers in light of a few dodgy compliments that would make any real girl’s warning lights come on. And the same girls often end up in the sack with them by nightfall. Maybe you go for this larger-than-life stuff (after all, it’s horror, and extremities are the name of the game). Personally, I love fantastical elements in fiction, but in terms of human relationships, I want them to feel gritty and realistic. Otherwise there’s nothing I can relate to, and if I can’t relate to it, it doesn’t scare me.

And it gets worse. Laymon has ample opportunities to create a spooky atmosphere and to describe a breadth of emotions that his characters experience, but he skimps on detail. That would be okay if he was consistent, but he tends to pause to describe the sensation of the water cascading all over the girl’s body in the shower. I’m not even taking a moral stance here; it’s just unbalanced composition.

As for story, there’s nothing new. It’s the usual stalk-and-slash fare, with an ending that is an unpredictable but boring anticlimax. Fiends itself is a novella of 100 pages, and the rest of the book is taken up with a collection of short stories. It’s on the strength of the novella that this review is based. I read two of the stories and couldn’t be bothered reading any further.

Maybe some of Laymon’s other works are better, but I was so disappointed by this one that I doubt I’ll be back for more. In one word: overrated.

Blitz by Robert Westall

This is the shortest fiction book I’ve ever read, weighing in at just shy of eighty pages with larger-than-usual print to boot. But, there’s nothing wrong with that, is there? It’s quality we’re after, rather than quantity, and on the former Blitz delivers.

Robert Westall lived during the Second World War and has written many works of fiction based on his first-hand experience. His fiction is primarily aimed at children, but if this one’s anything to go by, his writing is serious enough to captivate an adult readership.

What we have here is a small collection of four stories about British childhood during the Blitz. The first, “The Ruined City of Kor,” is about two boys who get trapped outdoors during an air-raid and end up investigating a plane-crash. Next in line is “The Thing Upstairs,” about a girl whose father has gone to war and whose mother appears to be going slowly insane. Thirdly, “Operation Cromwell.” This one’s my favourite. It’s the funniest of the bunch. The theme is the problems encountered in black market smuggling during war-time, and the product is, of all things, butter. The fourth tale is called simply “Rosie” and is about a very strange kind of air-raid shelter.

My only disappointment with this book was that none of the stories pack any real surprises in their conclusions. However, they are very entertaining, and at the same time provide children with a vivid picture of what it must have been like to live through the Second World War. I could see a child finding war-time history lessons much more interesting as a result of reading this.

Urban Gothic: Lacuna and Other Trips by various authors (edited by David J. Howe)

This volume landed on my doorstep as a Christmas present from the British Fantasy Society. I was delighted to receive it but am sad to report that it made pretty depressing Christmas reading – and that’s not because it’s a horror book; it’s purely down to the quality of the writing.

First off, Chris Fowler immediately scores points for writing something that touched a nerve. It’s a tale of fashion modelling taken one step too far (actually make that ten steps). In this society, where personal beauty is sought after to the degree where women will have operations to modify the shape of their bodies, Fowler’s “The Look” is a tale that seemed disturbingly believable.

Debbie Bennett is next with “Lacuna,” where it becomes difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins for a couple of drug users.

I was looking forward to Graham Masterton’s offering, as I have read him before, but sadly his “The Scrawler” turns out to be a pretty lame story about a jealous husband who starts seeing secret messages addressed to him in graffiti.

If there’s one aspect of the first three stories in this volume that I didn’t like it’s this. I found it hard to care about what happened to the characters. Shallow women, druggies and jealous men didn’t do much to hold my attention. Thankfully, Simon Clark breaks the chain with “Goblin City Lights” – a cool title and an equally cool story to go with it. A man comes across some video clips on the internet of people doing bizarre things in graveyards (like eating each other’s faces whilst having sex). He decides to investigate in person, and that’s where things get truly weird. It’s a horror story in Clark’s usual raw style, with a love story thrown in. This is the one tale that drags this book out of the gutter.

Lastly, Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis have collaborated to bring us “Telling the Tale”, a story about a washed-up newspaper reporter and his agoraphobic girlfriend becoming the targets of a supernatural force. This is the longest tale in the book, and frankly I got really bored waiting for something interesting to happen.

The volume concludes with an afterword, where we are led to believe that the city of London is a very creepy place under the surface, but this bit’s just a load of drivel.

If I was marking this on the strength of Simon Clark’s story, I might give it four out of five. But sadly the other voices drag it down.

Everything’s Eventual by Stephen King

This is King’s fourth short story collection. Many of the stories herein were published in various anthologies between 1995 and the present day. I always hate it when I pick up an anthology in a bookshop, and the only thing I’m interested in reading within it is King’s contribution. So, a collection like Everything’s Eventual is always a welcome purchase.

The first thing I liked about this collection was the inclusion of fourteen stories, as opposed to the stereotypical thirteen. That old superstition has become rather tired in today’s overpopulated market, and I hoped this was a sign that I wouldn’t be treated to a bunch of tired old stories.

“Autopsy Room Four” gets the book off to a brilliant start. Imagine lying on an autopsy table, fully conscious but unable to move, suffering from some kind of poison that has made everyone think you are dead. Along comes the surgeon with her trusty scalpel. Horror story veterans may yawn and say, “We’ve been here before,” and that may be true to a certain extent. But wait till you get to the ending. This is the most hilarious horror yarn I have ever read.

Moving swiftly on to “The Man in the Black Suit”. A young boy fishing in the woods encounters a strange man who doesn’t seem entirely human … or friendly. It’s a very basic story, tapping into that old childhood fear of monsters, but it works wonderfully.

“In the Deathroom” is a tense tale about a man being interrogated for information, with the threat of torture looming nearby.

Being a Dark Tower junkie, I was really looking forward to reading “The Little Sisters of Eluria”. The story (which is almost a novella in itself) takes place not long before the events at the beginning of The Dark Tower Volume 1: The Gunslinger. A tale about female vampires, and a welcome addition to the mythology.

“Everything’s Eventual” – a young man with a supernatural gift becomes the focus of a government agency eager to recruit him … but to what sort of employment?

“1408” – a haunted room in a hotel. Add up the digits and what do you get? Damn it, Stevie, you just couldn’t resist, could you? Nevertheless, this one’s pretty good.

“Riding the Bullet” – a university student hitch-hikes his way across the country to visit his ill mother in hospital. Between rides, wandering through a graveyard, he spots an impossible message on a headstone. But stranger things are yet to happen when the next car picks him up.

OK, that’s seven good ones for you. The other seven which I haven’t talked about struck me as, well, average to mediocre. Many of the stories contained brilliant characterisation ( describing the human condition is something that King has always had a knack for) but many didn’t have much of a punchline.

Overall, a collection that’s worth reading – one which would have scored higher had it been smaller, with the poorer stories omitted.

The Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

I bought this novel many year ago, not knowing who Orson Scott Scott was, nor having read his excellent Ender’s Game. I found The Folk of the Fringe in a bargain bucket at my newsagents, and purchased it because I was in the mood for an end-of-the-world story. The cover illustration showed a band of scruffy travellers walking along a path towards a ruined city – right up my street. Expecting a decent read, little did I know that this would turn out to be an absolute gem of a book. And, having re-read the book recently, I enjoyed it even more the second time round.

This is a collection of five tales – technicially two novellas and three stories. They take place in a slightly future America in the aftermath of a limited nuclear strike. Limited is the important word, because there are still survivors. They fall into two categories: those who wish to rebuild civilization and those who wish to fill their own pockets. I won’t give you synopses of the stories, but I will say that they are all about the theme of belonging – about the bonds we form with other people and about what we suffer without those bonds. Jamie Teague, the protagonist from the first story, is a loner who makes a living by travelling all across the country and scavenging for items to trade. Everything changes for him when he encounters a group of naive travelling Mormons; he decides to help them before some mobbers arrive and help themselves. Deaver, the protagonist of the second story, is a non-Mormon coping with live in a society of Mormons. Carpenter is a man who feels like an outsider, not because of personal choice or location, but because he has cerebral palsy. These are stories about people who live on the “fringe,” whether literally or figuratively.

These stories are only loosely termed science fiction. They are strongly character-driven tales. In fact, they contain some of the richest depictions of characters I have ever read. The author himself is a Mormon and he mentions his religion a lot. This might be off-putting to the potential reader, but you should persevere. It’s clear the author is not out looking for converts, and the characters in the stories are made all the richer because Card is drawing from his own understanding of life. As a Christian, I related to the mind-set of many of the characters.

I can see how people might dislike this book – an athiest who likes ideas-driven fiction, for instance. For me, The Folk of the Fringe is the strangest, most beautiful, collection of post-apocalyptic stories I’m ever likely to find. They are full of heart.