Today’s Art (30th April 2020)

Well, today’s digitally-edited painting is based on this photo I took during a visit to Fareham Creek last May.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Fareham Creek – Gap” By C. A. Brown

Top Ten Articles – April 2020

Well, due to a scheduling mix-up, this monthly round-up article is appearing on the same day as a book review I’d already scheduled (this, by the way, will also mean that I’ll have to break my “don’t post reviews on consecutive days” rule yet again, because I’ve got a “Duke Nukem 3D” mod review prepared for tomorrow).

Although the quality of this month’s articles was a bit variable, they were quite fun to write. However – like with the last couple of months – it took me more than a month to actually write them (seriously, I’m so glad I have a pre-made “buffer” of articles) due to a combination of being busy, hot weather at the time of writing and also taking things a bit slower to avoid burnout.

On the plus side, this blog celebrated it’s seventh anniversary this month 🙂

In terms of reviews, I reviewed fourteen thirteen books this month. Although there will probably be slightly fewer book reviews next month, my favourite books this month were: “A Canticle For Liebowitz” By Walter M. Miller Jr., “Vittorio, The Vampire” by Anne Rice, “The Rules Of Magic” by Alice Hoffman, “Star Trek: Voyager – Bless The Beasts” by Karen Haber and “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” by Tim Lebbon.

Plus, to my surprise, I also ended up reviewing this horror game demo too (although this was kind of a last-minute replacement for a failed article).

Anyway, here are my ten favourite articles about writing, making art, reading etc.. I posted here this month (however, since I can only find ten that seem good enough for this list, there won’t be any honourable mentions this month):

Top Ten Articles – April 2020:

– “Three Ways To Make Vampires Scary
– “Five Tips For Painting Realistic Landscapes In MS Paint 5.1
– “Three Totally Rad RGB-lit Tips For Reading Novels At ’90 FPS’[APRIL FOOL]
– “How Important Are Novel Titles?
– “How To Wait For Creative Inspiration
– “Three Thoughts About Writing Sci-Fi Horror
– “Three Tips For Building Up A “To Read” Pile That You’ll Actually Read
– “Four Things I’ve Learnt From Running A Blog For Seven Years
– “Two Thoughts About What Makes A Novel ‘So Bad That It’s Good’
– “Do Plot Spoilers Really Matter? – A Ramble

Review: “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” By Tim Lebbon (Novel)

[Edit: Ooops! I’ve just remembered that April is only 30 days long. I’ll post this month’s “Top Ten Articles” article here in about an hour’s time (and I’ll also have to break my rule about posting reviews on consecutive days too). Sorry about this.]

Well, it has been quite a while since I last read anything “Alien”-related, so I thought that I’d finally take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

I am, of course, talking about the second-hand copy of Tim Lebbon’s 2014 novel “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” that I found online when I rediscovered the spin-off novels based on the “Aliens” movies last year. Somehow, this novel ended up languishing on my “to read” pile for almost a year and had actually gained a rather impressive-looking layer of dust before I actually started reading it.

Unlike the “Aliens” spin-off novels that I’ve reviewed in the past, the events of this novel take place between the very first film in the series and the events of “Aliens”. Although this novel can probably theoretically be read as a stand-alone, the story will have a lot more depth and some elements will make more sense if – at the very least – you have seen “Alien” first. Plus, although this novel is technically the first part of a trilogy written by multiple authors, it works really well as a self-contained spin-off novel too.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Alien: Out Of The Shadows”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Alien: Out Of The Shadows” that I read.

The novel begins on the deep-space ship Marion, in orbit around a mining base on a desert planet called LV-178 that contains deposits of a rare mineral called Trimonite. Chief Engineer Chris “Hoop” Hooper has finished his shift and is planning to play some pool with Captain Lucy Jordan in the ship’s improvised bar. However, before they can start playing, they receive a distress call from the dropship Samson, which is travelling back up from the surface along with another dropship called Delilah.

From the bridge, the Marion‘s skeleton crew watch a disturbing emergency video broadcast from the Samson showing nothing but death, chaos and something. Something alive inside the ship. Something that isn’t human. When the Samson auto-docks, the crew wisely decide to quarantine it behind several blast doors and a vacuum-filled airlock. However, there are problems with the Delilah. It crashes into the side of the Marion, killing several crew members and knocking the Marion into a slowly-decaying orbit towards the planet. The remaining crew try to send out a distress signal, but the antennae has been damaged in the crash.

Ellen Ripley – last survivor of the disaster on the spaceship Nostromo thirty-seven years earlier – remains in hypersleep as her escape shuttle drifts through space. She is plagued by endless nightmares of alien creatures and the memories of her former crew members. Then, her shuttle’s computer picks up a signal and begins auto-docking. She wakes up to find herself on board another ship. It is the Marion. It has been several weeks since the crash and, according to the crew’s calculations, the ship only has about another fifteen days to go until it crashes into LV-178…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW 🙂 This novel is an absolutely perfect blend of both the claustrophobic, suspenseful sci-fi horror of the first “Alien” film and the more action-packed drama of the second “Alien” film. Seriously, this novel is as good as – or even better – than the films that it takes inspiration from 🙂 If you enjoy well-written sci-fi horror or if you preferred the first “Alien” film to the second one, then this novel is absolutely worth reading 🙂

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s excellent horror elements 🙂 Although pretty much everyone knows what the monsters from “Alien” look like, this novel still manages to create a real feeling of mystery and foreboding during the early-mid parts of the novel by leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination. Like in the original film, we’re shown enough to know that something horrible is out there, but enough is left mysterious to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. Seriously, it is so good to see an “Alien”-related novel that takes as much (or more) inspiration from the horror elements of the first film in the series as it does from the action elements of the second film.

All of this suspense, claustrophobia and ominous mystery is also backed up by several other expertly-handled types of horror too 🙂 In addition to well-placed moments of gory horror that show enough to gross the reader out whilst leaving even worse details to the imagination, this novel also makes expert use of psychological horror, tragic horror, creepy places and – like in the original film – lots of bleak Lovecraftian cosmic horror too 🙂 Seriously, I cannot praise the novel’s horror elements highly enough 🙂

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, it absolutely excels 🙂 The novel’s heavy focus on suspenseful situations not only adds a lot of gripping tension to the story, but it also means that the story’s occasional action-packed moments feel a lot more intense and vivid in contrast.

Unlike most of the “Aliens” spin-off novels I’ve read, the main characters aren’t heavily-armed space marines 🙂 What this means is that they often have to rely on their brains in order to survive and, because they are only armed with improvised weapons cobbled together from mining equipment, every encounter with the alien monsters feels a lot more intense, dangerous and brutal than you might expect. Far from being an action movie in book form, this novel is primarily a harsh, suspenseful survival drama – which also lends the intense action sequences a lot more impact and gravitas than you might expect 🙂

As for the novel’s sci-fi elements, it absolutely nails the grimy “used future” atmosphere of the first “Alien” film 🙂 Not only do the spaceships all feel like realistic, utilitarian places, but the story also makes excellent use of technology (eg: A.I, incompatibilities between systems etc..) to add extra suspense to the story. This feeling of realism is also enhanced by the fact that the Marion’s crew are competent and intelligent astronauts who, unlike typical horror movie characters, actually make sensible decisions about what to do when faced with danger.

Although the novel’s alien monsters are what you would expect them to be, this novel makes excellent use of both mystery and cosmic horror during a brilliantly haunting scene where the characters stumble across the ruins of another alien civilisation that has been destroyed by these creatures. We see enough detail to marvel at the beauty and sophistication of their civilisation, but enough is left intriguingly mysterious to fill us with a haunting sense of death, loss and cosmic insignificance. Seriously, this is both science fiction and horror at their very best 🙂

On a side-note, one intriguing thing about this novel is that it also takes a little bit of inspiration from “Prometheus” too. Whether it is a subtle “Blade Runner” reference (eg: a mention of combat androids with expiry dates), other android-based stuff, long-forgotten civilisations, an automated medical pod or even some of the scenes set on the planet, this novel really feels like a good blend of old-school and modern “Alien” 🙂

As I hinted earlier, the novel’s characters are absolutely excellent 🙂 They all come across as realistic, intelligent people who have to use their wits in order to survive. This novel also gets the balance between showing their courage and showing their emotions absolutely right. Although they are well-trained, knowledgeable and tough enough to keep going, they are far from emotionless. Not only are they all suffering from various personal tragedies, but their determination to persevere in the face of almost certain doom is absolutely heartwarming too.

Ripley and Hoop get the bulk of the novel’s characterisation, with Ripley shown to be seriously affected by the events of the first “Alien” film and suffering from repeated PTSD hallucinations. Yet, despite this, she still manages to be the tough-as-nails badass that you’d expect her to be 🙂 Likewise, Hoop actually comes across as a realistic member of a long-distance spaceship crew. Not only is he plagued with worries about his own family, but he actually has a level of practical common sense, courage and technological knowledge that you’d actually expect someone on a spaceship to have 🙂

In terms of the writing, this novel is excellent 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is written in a reasonably “matter of fact” style that is fast-paced enough to add suspense to the story, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere and suspense to the novel. I cannot praise the narrative voice here enough, reading this novel literally feels like watching a higher-budget and slightly more modern version of the original “Alien” film 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is brilliant 🙂 At an efficient 298 pages in length, not a single page is wasted here. To give you an example, the first sixty pages of this novel tell as much story as most other novels do in 100-150 pages 🙂 Likewise, this novel makes absolutely excellent use of suspense to keep the story moving at a decent pace, whilst also contrasting this with enough faster-paced action sequences to make both elements of the novel feel fresh and gripping in comparison to each other. Seriously, if you want a good example of how to blend horror with thriller-style pacing, then read this novel 🙂

All in all, this novel was a lot better than I’d initially expected it to be 🙂 It is a spin-off novel that is easily as good as – or better- than the source material it is based on 🙂 If you want an atmospheric sci-fi horror novel with both excellent characters and a perfect blend between suspense and fast-paced drama, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five 🙂

Three Thoughts About Writing Sci-Fi Horror

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the sci-fi horror genre today. This is mostly because I’m currently reading a sci-fi horror novel (“Alien: Out Of The Shadows” by Tim Lebbon) that not only blends these two genres really well, but also helped me to see a few general themes and techniques I’ve noticed in other sci-fi horror novels (such as Nick Cutter’s terrifying “The Deep“) but hadn’t really thought about in depth before.

So, here are a few thoughts about writing sci-fi horror.

1) Mystery: When science fiction is at it’s best, it fills the reader with a feeling of awe and curiousity. It gives the reader a feeling of either exploring new planets, using new technology and/or visiting a fascinating futuristic world. It usually doesn’t explain literally everything about the story’s “world”, instead giving the reader just enough details to make them feel curious, but keeping things mysterious enough to give their imagination room to come up with the rest. Not only does this make these stories compelling, but it also allows the stories to seem much larger than they actually are.

Needless to say, this can also be used as a brilliantly chilling source of horror too. After all, the fear of the unknown is one of humanity’s strongest fears.

A lot of the best sci-fi horror stories rely heavily on mystery and uncertainty. In other words, they hint at more than they actually show. They provide enough horrifying details to let the reader know what could await them, and then they let the reader scare themselves with their own imagination. After all, the universe is a large place and most of it is unknown to science…. So, who knows what could lurk out there?

Plus, like in the classic sci-fi horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, there’s also the possibility that whatever the characters discover could be so strange and unworldly that it isn’t even possible to understand it. That trying to understand something so incredibly, terrifyingly inhuman could actually cause psychological damage to the characters. This, again, only works when there is a strong element of mystery in the story and when lots of details are left to the reader’s imagination.

This focus on mystery and implication also allows for a lot of extra tension and suspense too, because science is all about uncovering and studying the unknown. However, if the “unknown” is dangerous, then there’s tension between scientific curiousity and the basic instinct for self-preservation. By putting these two things in conflict with each other, you can really make your reader feel extremely nervous 🙂

2) Competent characters: One of the main differences between scary sci-fi horror and fun, but not frightening, sci-fi horror is what the main characters’ skills are.

In short, if your main characters are scientists, programmers, engineers etc.. then your sci-fi horror story will be scary, because they will have to rely on their minds in order to survive whatever dangers they face. If your main characters are burly, heavily-armed space marines, then your sci-fi horror story will be a lot of fun to read, but not that scary because your characters have both the skills and means to directly fight whatever they encounter.

But, more than anything else, your characters have to be competent, skilled and intelligent people. Since your story is a sci-fi horror story, they need to have a good practical understanding of science and technology. They also need to have a good level of general intelligence and resourcefulness too. Yes, they obviously still need to have emotions and the ability to feel fear, but it is very important that the reader gets the sense that they know what they are doing.

Why? Well, it is all to do with suspense. In short, if a character only has the intelligence of the average slasher movie background character, then the reader will probably expect them to make some foolish mistake that will result in their grisly demise. But, if the characters are a bit smarter, then the reader will have more of an expectation that they will survive – allowing for a lot more suspense and tension. Likewise, because the characters have to rely on their minds (rather than on weapons, physical strength etc…) to stay alive, then the story will be a lot less predictable too.

You can also use this as a source of character-based horror too. If a character has an over-inflated sense of their intelligence or focuses too much on scientific/technological intelligence at the expense of their emotional, social, moral etc.. development, then you’ve got the basis for a really creepy villain character. Just remember to write these types of characters in a subtle, realistic way if you want them to actually be scary, rather than hilariously cartoonish.

3) Social satire: I can’t remember who first said it, but there’s a brilliant quote that points out that science fiction is actually about the present day rather than about the future. In other words, it is a genre that allows writers to comment about current topics and issues in a more imaginative and complex way than realistic journalism can.

Needless to say, this can also be used as a source of horror too. A lot of the creepiest works of sci-fi horror will often include some level of social satire or critique, warning the reader about the horrifying direction that the world could go in if current problems aren’t resolved.

To use a famous example, George Orwell’s chillingly dystopian sci-fi novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was first published in 1949. This was a time when the horrors of fascism were still fresh in people’s memories and anxieties about Soviet communism were also starting to grow too. By focusing on the chilling similarities between these two political extremes (eg: surveillance, cruelty, propaganda, ideological rigidity etc…), Orwell imagined a nightmarishly bleak future that made a lot of points about this stuff whilst also being inherently creepy in its own right.

And this is probably a good thing to remember. Although social satire can make a sci-fi horror novel creepier, you must never forget that you are writing a horror novel. In other words, you need to write your story in a way that – even if the reader doesn’t care about the issues you’re talking about – they will still be disturbed by the actual events of the story.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a good example of this. Even if you don’t think about 1940s politics or modern mass surveillance, the novel is still very chilling thanks to the setting and characters. It is set in a stark, utilitarian world that is racked with poverty and in a constant state of war. It is a world where the highlight of every day is either drinking cheap gin or spending two minutes screaming in fury at a cinema screen. A cruel secret police force constantly lurks in the background, ready to drag anyone who thinks for themselves away to face the cruel tortures of Room 101. Even without the political subtext, it is a horrifying place.

————

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Strange Practice” By Vivian Shaw (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read anything horror-related. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Vivian Shaw’s 2017 novel “Strange Practice”. This is a novel I found a couple of months earlier when shopping online for second-hand books. Intrigued by the plot summary, I ordered a copy there and then. Then, I got distracted by other books for a couple of months. So, this review has been a while in the making.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Strange Practice”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Strange Practice” that I read.

The novel begins in modern London with Dr. Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead, visiting her vampire friend Edmund Ruthven. He has called her over because another friend of his, Sir Francis Varney (of “Varney The Vampire” fame), is in trouble. Fanatical garlic-spraying monks have broken into Varney’s house and stabbed him with a cross-shaped blade. He barely managed to escape alive.

Greta treats Varney’s injuries before extracting a mysterious substance from the stab wound. Thinking that it is probably poison of some kind, she decides to get it analysed. Meanwhile, London is reeling in fear from a series of Jack The Ripper-style murders and, in a dark chamber somewhere, a badly-burned man goes through a strange initiation ritual…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it has a really cool premise and is probably one of the most original novels I’ve read recently. It’s this really interesting blend between the horror, urban fantasy, detective, thriller and medical drama genres that not only contains a good mixture between chills and comedy, but is also absolutely crammed with old-school horror fiction references too 🙂 Yes, it wasn’t quite as much of a fast-paced thriller as I’d hoped, but I really loved the style and concept behind this novel 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it is a little on the old-school side of things. In addition to a bit of gothic horror, it also contains suspense, paranormal horror, horrifying injuries, grisly murders, religious horror, character-based horror, psychological horror, gothic horror and even a few subtle hints of Lovecraftian sci-fi horror/ weird fiction too 🙂 Although this novel isn’t outright scary, the horror elements really help to add atmosphere, depth and creepiness to the story 🙂

In the classic urban fantasy fashion, the novel’s “monsters” (vampires, ghouls, demons, mummies etc..) aren’t actually the villains in this novel. Instead, Greta has to help protect them from a group of fanatical monks with glowing blue eyes. If you’ve ever played an old computer game called “Blood“, you’ll know that evil monks are one of the funniest and most gloriously melodramatic types of horror villains out there – and it is an absolute joy to see them here 🙂 Seriously, I bought this book purely on the basis that it contained evil monks 🙂 Plus, this novel also contains an adorable baby ghoul called a “ghoullet” too 🙂

And, in the classic urban fantasy fashion, this novel also has a little bit of a mythos too. Although this is slightly more of a background detail, the fact that the story makes a distinction between “vampires” and “vampyres” and also comes up with a rather clever twist on the classic “heaven and hell” thing really helps to add a bit of uniqueness, depth and atmosphere to the story 🙂

The novel’s detective and thriller elements are a little bit understated, but work reasonably well. Most of the novel is structured more like a drama and a detective story, with suspenseful thriller elements in the background. Although this suspense works well and the novel has a suitably dramatic climax, the fact that a lot of the novel takes place in Ruthven’s house means that the thriller elements weren’t always as fast-paced as I’d expected.

Even so, the fact that the house is presented as a bunker-like refuge from danger helps to build suspense and add realism to the novel, plus it makes the novel’s relatively few action-packed moments stand out more in contrast. These are reasonably good and mostly work well. However, despite being set in London, one fight scene has a very US-style moment where Greta fends off an attacker with pepper spray. Although this scene is very suspenseful and dramatic, it will probably seem a bit incongruous (given that the only people allowed to carry or use this particular weapon in the UK are the police).

The novel’s detective elements are fairly good too, with a strong focus on both scientific/library research and old-fashioned investigation. Likewise, the solution to the mystery of the monks is one of the most inventive that I’ve seen a while – containing a good mixture between psychological, paranormal and scientific horror that makes the novel feel a little bit like a Lovecraftian episode of “Doctor Who” at times 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Not only do Greta and her supernatural friends come across as complex, realistic people – but their friendship not only allows for quite a few “feel good” moments that leaven the story’s gothic gloom, but also for a few moments of drama and subtle comedy too 🙂 The villains also get a decent amount of characterisation too, which really helps to add to the horror. My only criticism of the characters is that there is slightly too much emphasis on Varney’s melancholic brooding. Yes, it adds depth to his character and even allows for a few obscure Victorian literature references too, but it happens just slightly too often.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is written in a formal enough way to add a gothic, Victorian-style flavour to the story whilst also being informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace. Not only does this writing style emphasise the glorious strangeness of Victorian vampires living in modern London, but it also helps to add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the story that really helps to set it apart from the crowd too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 353 pages in length, it doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, although you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, the novel still moves at a reasonable speed (and never really felt “slow-paced”). Likewise, the mixture of suspense, drama and mystery helps to keep the story reasonably compelling. Even so, at least half of the novel is spent inside Ruthven’s house – and, although these scenes can sometimes feel a little less thrilling than the rest of the novel, the novel as a whole is still fairly compelling.

All in all, whilst this novel isn’t always perfect, I really loved the concept behind it 🙂 Not only is it one of the most original horror/urban fantasy novels that I’ve read in a while, but it is a must-read for anyone who loves stories that revolve around gothic vampires or evil monks too 🙂 Yes, you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, but if you like suspense, horror, urban fantasy, Victorian literature and/or detective fiction, then this novel is worth reading.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.