With regards to both my reading and writing, it’s been a couple of months of sci-fi, horror, and sci-fi-horror. And with Cymera Festival coming up next month, that seems unlikely to change soon!
Thin Air by Michelle Paver (2016)
Told in the style of a classic ghost story, Michelle Paver’s Thin Air takes us up to the peak of the world’s third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga, with a group of posh stiff-upper-lip Brits in 1935. However, it’s not just the sub-zero temperatures, hypoxia, and avalanches out to get them, there’s something spooky going on too. The aesthetic may be classic but Paver’s approach is unmistakably modern, told in present tense, well-researched, and fully aware of the racism with which her characters treat their local mountain guides. Said characters are well-drawn and as the story progresses, the cheerfully macho English-gentleman mask starts to fall away from each of them – an effect that works particularly well for the expedition’s leader, Major Cotterrell, who is haunted by his time in the trenches. This is an adventure you can get lost in. The setting is wonderfully vivid, but while Paver creates some tense moments, it never really feels all that scary.
William Gibson’s Alien 3 by William Gibson, Johnnie Christmas & Tamra Bonvillain (2018-19)
Floundering in development hell for years before its release in 1992, the script for Alien 3 was rewritten several times, with major changes being made right down to the wire. Interestingly, the original screenplay – nothing of which made it to the final cut – was written by nonother than cyberpunk legend William Gibson. I’m a huge Gibson fan, so when it was announced his screenplay would finally see the light of day in the form of a comic written and drawn by the excellent Johnnie Christmas (with colours by Tamra Bonvillain), I was more than intrigued. Featuring Hicks, Newt and Bishop – spared their off-screen demise in the films – and spanning five issues, the comic brings to life Gibson’s gory and intelligent tale about an escalating arms race between the Weyland-Yutani corporation and a socialist resistance group, with the alien serving as the weapon of mutually assured destruction. While the pacing of the script doesn’t quite fit the episodic template of a comics run, and it certainly misses Ripley, it’s a hugely enjoyable look at what could have been with an interesting twist on the standard alien formula.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)
A real classic ghost story this time. I’ll be honest, I decided to pick this up when I heard the sequel to the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House – adapted from the excellent Shirley Jackson novel of the same name – would be an adaptation of Henry James’s tale of spooky kids who can see ghosts. (None of the narrator’s many assurances about how wonderful the two children are can convince me that they aren’t a couple of creepy wee bastards.) It’s comforting in the way most gothic ghost stories are – you can imagine reading it by the fire, safe from the cold and dark outside – yet it’s just unsettling enough that you won’t be keen to go peering out the windows before you go to bed. For pure fear-factor, it’s unfair to compare horror from the 19th century to horror from the 21st, because the tropes created by the likes of James have been repeated and repurposed so often in the intervening time that they’ve lost their shock value, but the atmosphere conjured up by gothic fiction, as it is here in the galleries and towers of Bly Manor, is something that never fades.
Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes (2016)
A nameless police inspector investigates the case of a missing person and things get… weird. If the recommendations on the cover from Jeff VanderMeer and Graeme Macrae Burnet aren’t clue enough, Infinite Ground, the debut novel by Scots author Martin MacInnes, isn’t a straight-forward crime story. It’s experimental, post-modern, and arty. If you’re not into that sort of thing it won’t change your mind, but if you’re open to it, you’ll find something both wonderful and maddening that will swirl around in your head for a long time after. Streets that duplicate themselves, actors employed to play everyday people, and chapters of meta-fiction that deconstruct the plot are all classic po-mo schtick but the section where the inspector loses himself in the jungle is something approaching pure genius.
Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (1938)
A team of scientists at an Antarctic research base discover a deadly alien frozen in the ice that can shapeshift into anything or anyone, turning the isolated station into a bubbling cauldron of fear and paranoia as the men start to turn on one another. Sound familiar? It should. John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? is of course best known as The Thing, the 1982 horror film directed by John Carpenter. While the basic plot is the same – barring some out-there stuff about zero gravity flying machines towards the end – and you can see how the story would transform well to the screen, the writing is unfortunately clunky and hasn’t dated well. An excellent premise underserved by the prose; this one is for dedicated fans of the film curious about its origins.