Letters from the Devil by Anton Szandor LaVey

laveyas-lettersfromthedevilAnton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, wrote five books over the course of his life, expounding his philosophy of essentially atheistic Satanism – where the mythical character Satan is used as a potent and meaningful symbol for individualism and rebellion against common religion. I’ve read and reviewed all of LaVey’s works on this blog, and I found parts of his philosophy very useful for my own life. I consider him something of a visionary, having a penetrating insight on what it means to be human. Sadly, he died in 1997, and I had to content myself with the knowledge that Satan Speaks! (an essay collection published posthumously, not long after his death) would be the last words of Anton LaVey.

Not quite! In the very early days of the Church of Satan (the late 1960s and early 1970s), LaVey wrote a weekly column for the newspaper The National Insider and later The Exploiter. It was called Letters from the Devil. The public was invited to write letters to the infamous Black Pope. The most interesting ones were published, accompanied by LaVey’s responses.

Despite the dubious reputations of these tabloid publications, it appears that LaVey took his job seriously. His responses have all the insight and wit of his books. Some of the letters are hilarious, often assuming LaVey to be a devil worshipper, or treating him like a genie in a bottle, able to dispense wishes. LaVey’s responses were equally funny, as he exposes the letter writers’ shortcomings to them. There are also more serious letters, genuinely asking for advice with a difficult life situation. LaVey gives respect where it is due and provides his unique perspective.

When the book arrived in the mail, I was surprised to see that it was roughly A4 in size. This is because the editor has chosen to reproduce scanned images of the original newspaper pages, rather than reformat the text to suit a typical paperback book. I like the authenticity of this approach. The only drawback is that A4 is smaller than the original newspapers, and the originals have had to be shrunk to fit. The text is extremely small. It didn’t irritate me too much, because I wasn’t intending to read for extended periods (I wanted to draw out the experience of having new Anton LaVey material), but I think some readers might find it annoying.

There are just under 70 articles in the volume. They are chronologically organised, but sadly there are gaps. Since most people throw newspapers out, I imagine this small collection took a lot of time and effort to compile. It’s nice to think that some more gems from the mind of Anton LaVey might still be waiting out there, stored away in someone’s attic. One small gripe: most of the pages in the volume feature the name and date of the newspaper, but some do not. This makes life slightly difficult for anyone wishing to track down missing issues on eBay.

My thanks to Kevin Slaughter (and Chris X, who collected the issues) for putting this volume together. It was a most welcome surprise.

Blake’s 7: Lucifer by Paul Darrow

The closing scene of the last ever episode of the British television series Blake’s 7 was so shocking that it forever imprinted itself on my nine-year-old brain back in 1981. Be warned, this review contains spoilers, but my guess is, if you’re interested in the new Blake’s 7 novels, then you’ve already watched the series. In the dramatic finale, Blake finally comes back into the picture after being absent for the best part of two seasons, only to be shot dead by Avon in a tragic misunderstanding. Literally seconds later, the Federation troops arrive and gun down every member of Avon’s crew: Vila, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin. The series concludes with Avon standing over Blake’s body, gun in hand, surrounded by troopers, all with their blasters held really. Avon raises his weapon, smiles. Credits roll over the sound of blasters. It was almost Shakespearean. When the series was eventually released on videotape in the early 1990s, I had forgotten so much about it, including many of the main characters. But I could never forget Avon and that final scene.

Imagine my delight when I learn, in 2012, that Big Finish are planning to publish brand new Blake’s 7 novels. Even better, one of them is written by the very actor who played Avon: Paul Darrow. Lucifer is set in two different time periods. One of these tells the story of how Avon escaped death in the final episode. The other is set twenty years later.

First, let’s talk about how Darrow tackles the escape. I was glad that the author stuck to the idea that his crewmates really are stone cold dead. Some fans have speculated that they were merely stunned, since there was no blood. But those are clearly Federation blasters going off, and they’ve never had a stun setting. Avon gets away in the only manner I’ve ever been able to imagine him getting away; the scene is interupped by intuders. Predictable, but necessary. However, what is truly disconcerting is the manner in which Avon leaves without a single acknowledgement of his fallen comrades. I don’t think he even glances at the bodies. We know that Avon is emotionally disconnected and borderline sociopathic. Even so, I expected something. Maybe not grief, but just something. If anything, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the illusion of invincibility. But no, Avon just moves forward with his usual bravado.

At least fifty percent of the novel concerns itself with Federation politics. Servalan is there, along with a complement of new characters, none of whom come in contact with Avon. There seem to be two stories, told in tandem, which only intersect peripherally. One is the restructuring of the Federation after it is decimated by enemies that attack from something called the “Beyond”. The other is Avon trying to get off a planet. The Avon story is fairly simplistic. After surviving Gauda Prime, Avon is deposited on an earthlike planet, where he is marooned for two decades and makes a couple of friends. When the Federation gets wind of his presence, he plays cat and mouse with them until he can steal one of their ships. Avon then heads back to Gauda Prime and fetches Orac. Most of the political stuff in the background struck me as highly irrelevant. It’s possible, I suppose, that it will be developed further in Darrow’s next book (Lucifer is the first in a planned trilogy).

With any space opera, you have to suspend disbelief to an extent. We don’t worry about weapons that make sounds in space, or spacecraft that have artifical gravity. But there is a limit. When I said Avon was marooned on a planet, I was being too kind. It’s actually something the author calls an “island planet” (see the book jacket illustration). A fragment of a larger planet that somehow “fell away” but retained full gravity, atmosphere, and population.

The politics are also a little unconvincing. Somehow, on Earth there exists a Chinese empire called Eastern Earth. I find it hard to believe that the Terran Federation can’t take control of a rogue nation on their home turf when they’ve taken ownership of countless planets throughout the galaxy. Another bizarre inclusion was the continual references to present-day weaponry, such as napalm and machine guns. It was a strange choice for the author to make and it causes the novel to feel inauthentic as a Blake’s 7 story.

The Avon character is written convincingly, but lacks a lot of the dry humour he came out with in the series. I don’t think we can blame Darrow for that, since the humour was usually centred around mocking the now deceased Vila. Sadly, when Avon and Orac finally get together, the exchange is unconvincing. When Avon says, “I’ll be damned,” Orac replies, “You were damned a long time ago.” This is simply not a sentiment that I can picture the computer ever making.

What can I say? I was disappointed. I really wanted this to be great, because I love Darrow’s character in the series. And having seen the actor in interviews and read his autobiography, You’re Him, Aren’t You?, I also really like the man himself. In a sense, I don’t wish to be too hard, because when you’re writing a story that begins at the point where much of what made Blake’s 7 entertaining has just been killed off, you don’t have a lot left to work with. Maybe this was a tale best left untold.

Blake’s 7: Warship by Peter Anghelides

anghelidesp-warshipSeason 2 of the BBC television series Blake’s 7 culminates in the fulfilment of Blake’s quest to find and destroy the hub of Federation communications, known as Star One, located just off the edge of our galaxy. Whilst this has the intended effect of crippling the Federation’s totalitarian grip on the colonized worlds, it has the unfortunate side-effect of disabling a minefield laid down by the Federation to separate our galaxy from the next – a minefield beyond which an alien invasion fleet has been waiting for entry. (Of course, why the ships can’t simply go around the minefield is never explained, but one learns to accept such silliness when revisiting much loved TV from one’s childhood.) The final episode of the season concludes with Blake’s ship, the Liberator about to embark on a near-suicidal war against the alien invaders. Avon, at the helm, shouts “Fire!” presses a button on the console, and the end credits roll.

Season 3, televised the following year, commences with the tail end of a fierce battle. The Liberator crew is forced to abandon ship using lifepods, while Zen, the ship’s computer, tries to effect repairs. Warship is the untold story of what happens during the inter-season battle. It’s the perfect place to insert a “missing” episode, and indeed the novel reads just like that. The characters are all portrayed authentically, and fans will get a nostalgic thrill from seeing new life breathed into old friends.

The book is published by Big Finish, and is the third in the series. While books 1 and 2 (The Forgotten and Archangel) are lavishly produced hardcovers, sadly Warship is confined to ebook only. The reason for this is possibly because it is significantly shorter than the other volumes. Judging by time time it took to read on my Kindle, I’m guessing it would span not much more than 100 physical book pages. Still, it’s a shame that it couldn’t be included as part of the forthcoming Blake’s 7 anthology. Another reason for not producing a hardcover might be because Warship is actually the novelization of an audiodrama, and as such, may be more of an afterthought to the main product. I haven’t got hold of this yet, but am looking forward to listening to it, as it is acted by the original cast members, with the exception of Peter Tuddenham (Zen), who has passed away. It’s pretty amazing to be able to get almost all the significant cast back thirty years after the original programme.

The story of Warship is rather good. There’s a lot more going on than merely “Liberator engages in space battle until defeated.” Blake and Cally teleport off to a nearby planetoid in the hope of finding aid, only to discover a new threat; meanwhile the crew are having to contend with an alien close encounter – aboard ship. The only part of the story that suffers slightly (and this is inevitable) is its ending, as the plot is forced to join up precisely with the opening of season 3.

Peter Anghelides is a competent writer. There were a few faux pas, as is common with small press fiction, but a forgiveable amount – think of this like the literary equivalient of the shaky sets and dodgy effects of the original series. Of the Blake’s 7 fiction released so far, Warship is definitely a high point, and somewhat restores my faith in the saga, after the slightly disappointing effort that was Archangel.

Blake’s 7: Archangel by Scott Harrison

harrisons-archangelThis is the second novel published in Big Finish’s range of Blake’s 7 original stories. Like the preceding book, it takes the form of a missing episode, set between the season two episodes Trial and Killer. Fans of the television series will know that this places the novel right after the death of crew member Olag Gan. Author Scott Harrison fleshes out some drama between Blake and his crew, as they deal with the tragedy. Blake comes under fire for his reckless idealism and lack of concern for the safety of those who accompany him.

The thrust of the story concerns Blake’s investigation into a secret Federation project called Archangel. It was once abandoned, but now there are rumours of it starting up again. But no one knows what it is. Blake’s only lead is Kodyn Tam, an old friend from Earth. After a bit of action here and a bit of action there (action that feels very much like padding), the crew of the Liberator eventually arrive at Project Archangel, which turns out to be … no spoilers, but it’s nothing terribly exciting.

The characters have always been the high point of Blake’s 7, and for the most part the dialogue penned by Harrison rings true to the original series. There are many sarcastic quips from Avon. This would normally be very enjoyable, except the author is a little over-enthusiastic, turning Avon into a walking bag of dry jokes. Harrison would have been better to pick the best ones, instead of saturating the reader.

Harrison’s writing is, unfortunately, distinctly amateur. There were numerous grammatical errors. He also has an irritating habit of cutting away from a scene to another scene, then cutting back to the original scene after the action has finished. At times, there was something awkward about the prose that made me struggle to get a proper mental picture of what was happening.

The novel is a mish-mash of familiar sci-fi themes, with no original spin, and the story moves from A to Z via a route that could easily have been shortened, but probably needed to be padded out for the sake of a required length. On a plus note, Harrison is fairly successful at capturing the authentic feel of Blake’s 7. But as a missing episode, Archangel is merely average. There are probably worse episodes in the television series itself, but I had hoped for something better here.

Blake’s 7: The Forgotten by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright

scottc-forgottenBlake’s 7 was a British science fiction television series that began in the late 1970s. The special effects were very low budget, but this was more than made up for by the memorable characters and interesting stories. It was far grittier than Star Trek, Buck Rogers, or Space: 1999. The series creator Terry Nation described it as The Dirty Dozen in space. The heroes were a bunch of thieves, swindlers and soundrels who managed to get hold of the most powerful spacecraft in the galaxy. Led by Blake, a political activist framed by a corrupt galactic government, they take their ship, the Liberator, on a crusade against the might of the Federation.

I was fond of this series when I was a child, and it has stuck with me through the decades, becoming a lifetime favourite. There were 52 episodes in total, over four seasons, and I know this is going to sound hokey, but when sleeping at night, I’ve actually experienced the occasional dream about the discovery of a lost episode. Now it turns out that, in a manner of speaking, I’ve had my dream fulfilled. Imagine my delight when I recently discovered that the company Big Finish were in the middle of producing a series of new novels and full-cast audiodramas (starring the original cast members!) set in the Blake’s 7 universe. Blake’s 7 lives on!

The Forgotten is the first novel release in the forthcoming series. It’s a story set between the season 1 episodes “Mission to Destiny” and “Duel.” There’s nothing blindingly original about the story, but it serves beautifully as a highly interesting missing episode. Best of all, authors Scott and Wright, pull off the characters superbly – particularly Avon and Vila, who always had the best lines in the television series.

‘I don’t know why Blake sent me down here,’ said Gan. ‘I don’t know much about computers.’

‘Think of them as complicated idiots,’ replied Avon without irony.

‘Like Vila?’ joked Gan.

‘There’s nothing complicated about Vila, he’s just an idiot.’

I could visualise the scenes perfectly, and I finished the book feeling like I had just watched a missing episode. The story itself concerns the Liberator venturing into a strange nebula cloud bordered by Federation warnings. But the crew have no choice, since they are already under attack by a horde of Federation pursuit ships. Inside, the nebula plays havoc with the ship’s electronics. Deep within, the crew find a partially destroyed space station. Blake decides to investigate, and naturally, trouble ensues.

My only criticism is that some of the writing is a little sloppy and amateurish, but that’s a small failing. I just wanted to immerse myself in the Blake’s 7 universe again, and the authors successfully captivated me. Gazing at the book on my shelf as a fan of the show, there is something marvellous about seeing the official Blake’s 7 logo appearing on something brand new, when the series has been dead and gone for three decades. I’m thoroughly looking forward to forthcoming books.

Anne Droyd and Century Lodge by Will Hadcroft

Three children, Gezz, Luke and Malcolm, are playing on some waste ground close to where they live, when they bear witness to the arrival of an old man and a startling young girl. The man is Professor Wolfgang Droyd and the girl is Anne Droyd – not his daughter, but his android creation, capable of great feats of agility, speed and ingenuity. The two are on the run from the facility where Anne Droyd was developed: The Ministry. The children are initially frightened by the duo, but it soon becomes clear that the two escapees need their help. Soon, the professor is recaptured, and it falls to the three children to take care of Anne in his absense. Whilst Anne is in many ways superhuman, she is sub-human in terms of her emotions and experience. Gezz, Luke and Malcolm arrange for Anne to attend their school, to help her learn how to be human.

On the surface, the novel is a fairly straightforward children’s story, in a similar vein to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures. But there’s also something going on underneath: a look at the human race from the quirky perspective of a non-human. For instance, if someone said to Anne, “Go back,” she might start walking backwards. Misunderstandings are part of the fun of the story, but this is also a theme close to the author’s heart. Will Hadcroft has felt a bit like an alien all his life, suffering a mild form of Asperger Syndrome. I’ve already read Will’s autobiography, The Feeling’s Unmutual (I thoroughly recommend it), and I recognised immediately that some scenes in Anne Droyd were straight out of his past experiences, for instance, his childhood fascination with smokers and a particularly bad bullying incident. The novel is currently marketed as an “Asperger Adventure,” designed to give affected readers a protagonist that they can really empathise with. Note: the novel’s first publication was not aimed at such a restricted target audience; I don’t want to convey the idea that it’s not aimed at all children, when it is.

I sense a three-act structure to the novel. First, the story charts Gezz, Luke and Malcolm’s experiences of getting to know Anne, followed by Anne’s impact on life at school, and finally a showdown with the bad guys from The Ministry. When reading, I couldn’t help thinking about those multi-part dramas that I used to see on Children’s BBC when I was a kid – often adaptations of novels. Anne Droyd and Century Lodge would make a pretty good one.

The novel is not without a few problems. I felt the pacing was rather slow; some of the more mundane and domestic scenes in the novel were over-developed and took up too much reading time. Sometimes, characters made incredulous decisions, like the police apprehending Professor Droyd at Gezz’s house, then failing to search the property for Anne just because the professor told them she wasn’t there. Kids won’t care about that, of course, but this kind of faux pas does hinder the novel from being appreciated beyond its target audience. Quibbles aside, the author demonstrates a good writing ability that shows a lot of promise. I have to confess, also, that I’m reading well outside my preferred genres on this one. Any children’s literature I do read tends to be the more gritty “young adult” stuff. I think kids will enjoy Anne Droyd.

A sequel, Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows, is due to be published in 2008. Keep up to date with news on the author’s blog.

Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of zombie novels around these days. Most of them are of the small press or self-published variety. Why is this? Well, I can speak from personal experience and say that zombies sell. Back in the early 1990s, in my late teens, I co-directed and starred in a no-budget zombie flick, Zombie Genocide. This movie simply will not die. Regularly, I get requests for DVDs, while the other – and arguably better – movies I’ve made since then simply sit there and stagnate.

Even though zombies are my favourite movie monster, I’m loathe to jump too far into this sea of fiction, for fear that I will be drowed by waves of poorly written cash-ins on a tried-and-tested formula. Dying to Live, however, piqued my interest more than the others, because the author, Kim Paffenroth, has a degree in Theology (to the unfamiliar, that’s the study of God). Zombie scenarios, to me, have always seemed like the perfect vehicle for discussing life and death, the existence of God, heaven and hell, etc. I was very interested to hear another author’s thoughts on something I had already mused upon.

Dying to Live fits snugly into the mythology created by George Romero. The zombies are slow-moving, hungry for warm flesh, and they go down with a bullet in the head. There’s nothing new about the creatures themselves, and I personally don’t think there needs to be. We begin the story many months post apocalypse, with a solitary man, Jonah Caine, who spends his days wandering from place to place, scavenging for food and hiding from the dead. Right at the start, we see him waking up one morning in a tree-hut to the sound of a lone zombie groaning up at him from ground level. After dispatching this irritation, the neverending quest for food takes Jonah dangerously far into a nearby city, where he ends up surrounded by an army of the dead. He is rescued by the skin of his teeth by a band of survivors who have made a home for themselves inside a museum. Most of the rest of the story revolves around this place: who the survivors are, how they came to be there, and their unusual way of life within those walls.

The book contains various thrills and spills regarding zombies, but doesn’t get down to anything really high octane until about three quarters of the way through. I hesitate to raise this point as a criticism, because I have to remember how much I love the old 1970s Dawn of the Dead, and the 1980s Day of the Dead, both of which had a similar story structure. And like those two films, the real threat in Dying to Live comes not from the zombies but from man’s own wickedness, and we end up with frenzied battle involving the good, the bad and the putrifying.

The book is vey well written. There were times that I paused and thought, “Wow,” at a particular description or observation. I wish I had noted down a few references to share with you now, but take it from me, the whole book exudes an atmosphere that makes you mentally say to the author, “Dude, you have been spending way too much time thinking about this stuff.” Paffenroth has no doubt enjoyed many, many daydreams in the land of the dead – which is, of course, exactly what we want! Consequently, the prose is rich, and you can’t help but think, “If I were Jonah, this is exactly how I would feel in his shoes.”

As well as the philosophical observations, the book will also appeal to those who like a more straightforward horror story. There is plenty of zombie blasting of offer, and when it’s human versus human, the author is not afraid to be mean and nasty to the good guys.

Overall, a worthwhile read, written by an author who is passionate about his subject matter.