Saturday, 29 September 2012

Chilling With Chilling Tales (Selective Shorts Series)

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion how much I enjoy reading short fiction, whether in the form of a collection or in singular format, in magazines, both hard copy and online.  Given this, I wanted to contribute a review or two concentrating on specific stories I’ve come across during my random readings (hence the reference to the “Selective Shorts Series”), purely on an ad hoc, as and when basis.

First up is Barbara Roden's contribution to the Canadian horror fiction collection, Chilling Tales – 404.  Essentially, at its most basic level, the story is one concerning office workers under pressure within a corporate environment.  So far, so familiar, in terms of its premise.  The initial dialogue confirms a colleague’s office is empty, save for the remaining desk and chair, even though neither of the two workers conversing had been aware he was due to leave.  Wilson, one of the two, appears to have been allocated a number of the files which had been being dealt with by the now absent Dwight; files which have simply appeared on his desk overnight without an explanation or accompanying note.  The “404” of the title refers to the white screen confirming “file not found” which is pulled up by a search for Dwight’s profile on the company website after his somewhat mysterious disappearance.

From this set up, we gradually become aware that it is not only Dwight who has become absent from the office and paranoia sets in amongst the workforce, who are under the supervision of a seemingly increasingly sinister supervisor intent upon enforcing the stringent regulations put in place by the company.  Ultimately, this causes them to question their sanity and sense of self.

A fun and slightly tongue in cheek tale about the office environment, as well as a brief commentary upon the malleability of words and documentation, subject to the interpretation placed upon them.

A Couple of Other Things:

Those wishing to sample Roden’s work can find an example of one her short stories, The Appointed Time, freely available on her website here.   

Also – a couple of blog entries concerning the editing process for those interested in the structural aspects of writing:- here and here.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Freaking Out Over Freax and Rejex

Freax and Rejex marks Jarvis' return to the realm of Dancing Jax, a world within which the book of the same name has lulled the vast majority of the British population into a state almost demonic possession where they are convinced of their “true” identity within the sinister fairy tale realm of Mooncaster.  Those who submit to the influence of Austerly Fellows’ occultist text become part of his “magickal Kingdom” and a member of its playing card-based Court.  As a result of this, they also become devoted and submissive to his proclaimed figurehead in our “real” world (which they consider to be a pale imitation of that which they inhabit when in Mooncaster), the Ismus.

Where Dancing Jax concentrated predominantly upon setting up the Court itinerary, Freax and Rejex has its focus firmly upon those teenagers upon whom the lure of the text has no effect – the so-called “Aberrants” who find themselves persecuted, both for being different to what has become established as the “norm” and for what is deemed as resistance to the new British regime and, thus, subversive and dangerous. 

By the outset of the second book within the Dancing Jax trilogy, the text has been published on a wide-scale basis and we are made aware via the “Baxter Blog”, a singular website of resistance hosted via a Dutch server (and scrambled via other channels), that the vast majority of those who sought to protest against the hostile takeover of the Jax regime have been silenced and force fed sections of the text.  As a result, they have become one of the mass of “brainwashed sheep” who now populate the British Empire.  There remain a “scant few” who still resist, whether simply via avoidance of the book or natural immunity.  Martin Baxter, writer of the many times re-established “Baxter blog” and one of the few resistant individuals remaining by the conclusion of the first book in the trilogy, urges those few resistant individuals to abandon Britain, a “finished” country, via his escape route, suitably protected by safeguards put in place to ensure those who have fled are not discovered.

By ensuring his audience is reminded of the risks of resistance in this manner, Jarvis establishes a clear sense of threat at an early stage.  Further, we see the first death before the conclusion of the first chapter, meaning we are aware nothing is certain and the security of characters to whom we have been introduced is not guaranteed.  Without giving away the fate of specific characters, this is something which continues throughout the narrative.

Not content with the chilling effect produced by the first book’s cult-style parallels and premise, Jarvis seeks to up the ante within the second.  A weekend of “glorious Mooncaster-themed fun” has been organised for children aged between seven and sixteen who have not yet “found their way” into the Realm of the Dawn Prince, otherwise also known as Mooncaster.  As might be expected, the Ismus intends for this to form part of a global publicity campaign aimed at “damage limitation” in light of the rumours circulating concerning his bid for the minds of the populace, whilst also ultimately serving his own means and ends.

The “weekend” camp is filled with a hot potch of characters from across the nation and for whom, similarly to a Big Brother style situation, close proximity, coupled with the stresses of the growing realisation that there is no intention to release them from the confines of the camp once they have crossed the threshold, prove too much.  The initial games and feasts give way rapidly to enforced reading of the “hallowed” text and declaration that the teenagers are to be deemed “internees” of the camp, subject to supervision by guards and capable of punishment in the event of disobedience.  By this stage, the holocaust parallels are obvious.  Sure enough, those who have travelled to what has been specified as a “holiday camp” are set to physical labour, forced to “earn” their place within the facility.  At sixteen, they are advised they will be relocated to an adult camp.

Jarvis cleverly subverts our expectations in connection with the teenage “interns”, by ensuring the stereotypical views we might hold of “chavvy” Charm and the arrogant Marcus, for example, do not ultimately prove to be sure-fire.  Once again, as with Jax, his skill in ensuring his characters’ dialogue rings true and in demonstrating regional accents simply via his choice of words and sentence construction adds to the equation.  Ultimately, a number of the characters who appear weaker at the outset or less likely to succeed are those we find ourselves rooting for as they attempt to pit themselves against the will and control of the Ismus and his itinerary.

Whilst we see some of the creatures known to frequent Mooncaster within the camp’s bounds during the course of the narrative, arguably, it is not as a result of these threats that we are subject to the greatest sense of horror.  Frequently, the treatment to which the children are subject makes for extremely uncomfortable reading, whether or not blood is shed and there is one specific example towards the conclusion of the narrative which provides a particularly harsh psychological blow and gut wrenching moment, for the reader and characters alike. The more susceptible might find themselves looking away from the page for a moment, as this is definitely not a read for the faint hearted.   Here, Jarvis also provides a clever contrast between the manner in which Ismus’s Lockpick treats the children, toying with them whilst doing so and the more obvious cruelty of the Punchinello guards. 

Ultimately, it is the manner in which the children see their personal identity eroded and the frequent sense of a lack of control over events which comes across particularly clearly via the events and this which is especially disconcerting.  The immediacy with which social media and the reach of the internet is both able to aid and hinder the spread of the “Jax” manuscript is also an aspect which is hinted at by the author and thus proves itself interesting to speculate upon.  It appears fitting that this is something which is alluded to but that throughout the bulk of the novel that Jarvis concerns himself predominantly with maintaining his overreaching focus upon the fates of the children within the camp.  By the conclusion, however, this is something which once again comes to the forefront for reasons which will become clear to those who avail themselves of a copy of the book.  In bringing things full circle, Jarvis thus places events in a position so as to leave them ready for the conclusion of the trilogy.  In Fighting Pax the Ismus envisages extending his reach even further than has previously been the case…

Freax and Rejex is, once again, both dark and disturbing and, as such, remains with the reader after the conclusion of the narrative.  The writing is tight and events well-paced, whilst also allowing for satisfying character development.  Pleasingly, the second of the three book story arc also has the clout to stand alone on its own merits, whilst slotting neatly into place for the purposes of the trilogy.  Taken together, this is one trilogy it’s easy to find oneself lured towards reading.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Casting The Net

Dropping in to highlight a few of the things I’ve found during my internet travels on the writing or creative front:


Insights from Cheryl Klein into timescales within publishing

Susan Morris on how to deal with editors

Writing Tips

Justine Larbelestier on what to study to become a writer

Websites/Other Entries

Date a Girl Who Reads via Blitzkriegkate (highlighted by The Book Smugglers Tumblr)


Being fond of stop motion animation, this video recently caught my eye and reminds me of what I like to see in my mind’s eye via words

Neil Gaiman’s suggestion that, above all, one should strive to make good art

Finally - Holly Black providing us with an example of her writing as a teenager (at this year’s Leaky Con)

Friday, 7 September 2012

Developing Love For Lovecraft (Graphic Illustrations Series)

For those already initiated into the Hill/Rodriquez realm of Locke and Key, Clockworks, the fifth volume within the saga will need little introduction.  For the previously uninitiated, Locke and Key is centred around Keyhouse, a New England mansion containing doors which transform those who pass through them and which also houses a malevolent creature bent upon opening the most dangerous door of all… 

As is suggested by the title, the “doors” are opened by a succession of keys, capable of everything from transforming an individual into a ghost, to letting one open one’s own head to glimpse the memories it contains within it.

Having relocated to Keyhouse after the murder of their father at the outset of Welcome to LovecraftClockworks sees the Locke family brought full circle, back to the events which precede their arrival at the Keyhouse premises in Massachussetts and which have shaped their nemesis, Lucas “Dodge” Caravaggio prior to his descent into the merciless killer the children are faced with in the present day.  Harking back to past events is of course a pattern which has been seen on a number of occasions throughout the course of the narrative arc.  Clockworks, however, is an opportunity for this aspect to be explored in detail prior to the denouement we are already aware will follow within the forthcoming Omega.

The instalment is timely, given the reader is fully invested within the fate of the Locke children by this stage - and the stakes are high.  Dodge already has control of the youngest Locke sibling Bode's body; something neither Tyler nor Kinsey, his elder brother and sister are aware of.  This grants him unrestricted access to Keyhouse in his search to find the Omega key which will allow him to open the Black Door and release what is contained beyond it.

The timing of Clockworks' explanations is clever.  By holding back on the action and presenting us with an explanation as to how the characters have found themselves in the present position, the conclusion itself is guaranteed additional impact and resonance.  Having already seen the children in the aftermath of their father's death and the manner in which they are forced to cope with it, whilst simultaneously finding their feet at a new school and establishing new social circles, we now see the manner in which the death itself will come to pass, given we are privy to Dodge's transformation from friend to foe.  Thus pre-prepared for the way in which the death will ultimately affect the children, the foreshadowing of it via flashback hits home more sharply than if the chronology had been reversed.

Further, the exploration of the relationship between Rendell, the Locke children's father, and the boy who will subsequently become Dodge renders the character much more than simply a cardboard cut-out villain bound upon a course of evil from which he cannot deviate simply for plot purposes.

Sacrifice and the extent to which this is necessary for Dodge to be successfully defeated is a key theme (no pun intended) within Clockworks.  This applies not only to Rendell, the children's father but also a number of the members of his original band of friends.  Thus, there are echoes of the Spiderman motto concerning the great power accompanying great responsibility here.  Ultimately, this is shadowed by regret at its misuse by the time we have explored the manner in which Dodge becomes evil and origins of the keys we have seen the children utilise throughout the story arc.

In amongst the question answering we also see exactly how Erin lost her memories, what lies behind the door Dodge seeks to open and even how Dodge became the girl first encountered in Welcome to Lovecraft, all of which is dealt with in a suitably satisfying manner, as opposed to simply feeling like loose ends being tied with haste.  Again, this is another example of the manner in which the narrative has come full circle for the purposes of the present volume.

Neither narrative nor illustrations pull any punches and Dodge's anticipation of his first killing spree is provided in a gory two page spread towards the conclusion of the volume well deserving of its multiple Eisner nominations.  Both are equally apt (if not for the faint hearted) and provide a clear example of the extent to which the storytelling abilities of both writer and illustrator mesh so successfully throughout Locke and Key.  Possibly, therefore, the only negative aspect of Locke and Key is that Omega marks the final chronological volume of our journey within the original world of Keyhouse and its inhabitants.