Today’s Art (15th June 2019)

Well, I’m still taking a bit of a break from painting realistic landscapes (with a plan to have a better slightly balance between landscapes and other types of paintings). So, today’s digitally-edited painting is a gothic cyberpunk painting 🙂

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

“Dereliction” By C. A. Brown

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Review: “The Ectoplasmic Man” By Daniel Stashower (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read anything Sherlock Holmes-related. And, after a family member found three modern Sherlock Holmes novels in a charity shop and thought that I might be interested in them, I was spoilt for choice.

Since the weather was still fairly hot, I decided to go for the shortest book in the pile – Daniel Stashower’s 1985 novel “The Ectoplasmic Man”. Although this novel can be enjoyed without reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you read at least a few of them first.

So, let’s take a look at “The Ectoplasmic Man”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (but I won’t give away the solution to the mystery).

This is the 2009 Titan Books (UK) paperback reprint of “The Ectoplasmic Man” that I read.

The novel begins, like most modern Holmes novels, with the author’s account of how he “discovered” a lost manuscript by Doctor Watson, detailing a meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini in 1910.

Then, we are taken to 221b Baker Street, where Inspector Lestrade makes a sudden arrival after dashing across town. Lestrade tells Holmes that he suspects a visiting American escapologist called Harry Houdini of carrying out a terrible crime. Yet, much to Holmes’ annoyance, Lestrade also tells Holmes that he has been ordered not to reveal the details of the crime.

Naturally, Holmes is curious and decides to meet Houdini. The two don’t get along well, and part on angry terms. But, later that evening, Houdini’s wife Bess shows up at Baker Street, imploring Holmes to attend Houdini’s show because Houdini has received a threatening note from an old rival called Kleppini and she fears he may be in danger. Holmes scoffs at this and points out that he is not a praetorian guard. Out of honour, Watson decides to attend the show to keep watch for any danger.

During the show, Houdini spots Watson in the audience and asks him to help out with one of his tricks – an escape from a glass box filled with water. After a bit of a mishap, where Watson takes the act too seriously and smashes the glass box with a fire axe, Lestrade shows up and arrests Houdini for the theft of sensitive royal documents. But, before Lestrade begins to take Houdini to the police station, Holmes emerges from the audience and declares that Houdini is innocent and that he shall prove it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it is brilliantly theatrical 🙂 Although the actual mystery at the heart of the story is fairly compelling, the main attraction of this story is probably the humour, the atmosphere and the characters. If you love the moments in Conan Doyle’s original stories where Holmes indulges in tricks, disguises and witticisms, then you’ll love this novel 🙂 It is delightfully amusing 🙂

Seriously, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that this novel was theatrical. Not only does this novel focus on the themes of magic tricks and escapology, but both Holmes and Houdini also get so many wonderfully theatrical moments too, much to the consternation of poor Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade.

Seriously, if you’re fascinated by things like stage magic, “impossible” feats, escapology, lock-picking, disguises etc… then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. It has a gleeful theatrical flair to it that perfectly mirrors the themes of the story.

And, as I mentioned earlier, it is also a comedic novel too 🙂 A lot of the novel’s humour is, like in Conan Doyle’s original stories, kept reasonably subtle – with most of it being found within the narration, footnotes, references and dialogue. However, this novel also includes some brilliantly vaudevillian moments of traditional comedy, such as a hilariously over-dramatic phoney seance.

The mystery at the heart of the story is fairly interesting and it includes a couple of dramatic plot twists, an intriguingly “impossible” crime and the drama of Houdini being falsely accused of it. But, even though the reader is given a few clues (which are explained by Holmes at the end) and the case itself is certainly worthy of Sherlock Holmes, this is one of those stories which is slightly more of a thriller than a traditional detective story.

In other words, it is one of those stories where the main focus is on how the crime was carried out, rather than the identity of the criminal. Even so, this allows the novel to include some wonderfully thrilling and gloriously melodramatic (if a little contrived) chase sequences, a daring prison escape and a vaguely “Charles Augustus Milverton“-style scene where Holmes and Watson break into a theatre.

In terms of the characters, they are brilliant. Not only are Holmes and Watson fairly faithful to the original stories (although Holmes’ attitudes towards women are a little bit cartoonish/two-dimensional in this story), but one of the best parts of this story is the interactions between Holmes and Houdini.

At first, the two are very much rivals – with Holmes’ scepticism and Houdini’s brash confidence putting them at odds (and leading to some hilarious dialogue exchanges) but, as the story progresses, they end up becoming quite the team. Seriously, since both Holmes and Houdini are masters of trickery, logic and theatricality, it is an absolute joy to see both of them in the same novel 🙂

Likewise, if you enjoy the definitive ITV adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes” starring Jeremy Brett, then you’ll enjoy this novel even more 🙂 Seriously, the version of Holmes in this novel is more like Brett’s interpretation of the character (eg: disguises, caustic wit, theatricality, eccentricity, Latin quotes, practical jokes etc…) than either Basil Rathbone’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretations of the character.

In terms of the writing and narration, Watson’s first-person narration is reasonably true to the original stories. However, it has been very subtly streamlined for slightly more modern audiences. Even so, expect lots of wonderfully formal and dramatic narration. In other words, this novel uses a reasonably good imitation of Conan Doyle’s style that really helps to add some atmosphere and authenticity to the story 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At a brilliantly efficient 203 pages in length, this novel stays true to the focused brevity of Conan Doyle’s original novels and short stories 🙂

Likewise, the pacing is mostly good – with the story moving along at a decent pace most of the time, although there’s a slightly slow part (eg: when Watson spends a while describing an aeroplane) during what should be a fast-paced scene. Even so, the pacing of this novel is really good and it is as gripping as the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Thanks to the historical setting, the vintage-style narration and the recognisable characters, this is one of those novels that could almost have been written today.

All in all, this is a gloriously theatrical, intriguingly thrilling and wonderfully amusing novel that fans of the great detective will really enjoy 🙂 It was a lot of fun to read 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a five.

Today’s Art (14th June 2019)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from painting landscapes and make some of the type of art that I used to make regularly a few months ago. I’m kind of hoping to start posting more of a mixture of landscapes and classic-style art (time etc… permitting) in future since I really miss this type of art 🙂

So, today’s digitally-edited painting is a remake of a cyberpunk painting of mine from 2016/17 called “Architecture“, which I consider to be one of my best paintings. However, although the new remake has much better lighting, I still think that the older version has more “personality”.

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

“Architecture (II)” By C. A. Brown

Three Thoughts About Film Theory And Writing Fiction

A couple of days before I wrote this article, I found myself absolutely fascinated by videos about film theory/analysis on Youtube. Surprisingly, these videos made me think about writing fiction – of all things. But, why?

Well, here are a few thoughts on the matter.

1) Thinking about the subtle things: One of the interesting things about watching videos that analyse films by famous directors is that almost every decision seems to be a conscious one. For example, how each shot is laid out, the speed of each cut, the use of different types of lighting etc… In the best films, pretty much everything is there to subtly evoke a mood or a theme or to emphasise something.

But, what does this have to do with writing? A lot, to be precise.

Although prose fiction isn’t a visual medium, a writer has even more control over their story than a film director does. After all, a writer can control things like sentence length, chapter length, the structure of the story, themes/motifs, pacing, the narrative style/perspective, what is and isn’t described, the emotional tone of the story etc…

So, watching videos about film theory can be really interesting if you’re a writer for the simple reason that it shows you lots of subtle ways that filmmakers improve the story they are telling through things that the audience might not even consciously notice. In other words, it makes you think a little bit like a director and pay more attention to the subtle stuff.

2) It reminds you of all of the things writers can do (that director’s can’t): One of the most famous pieces of writing advice is “show, don’t tell” and there are certainly merits to this advice. When followed well, it results in dramatic storytelling that can almost be… cinematic. After all, film directors can quite literally only “show” things.

Yet, a lot of the things that make prose fiction a deeper and more immersive storytelling medium than film go completely against this advice. These are things like descriptions of a character’s thoughts and feelings, intriguing pieces of backstory added to the narrative, the distinctive personality of first-person narration etc… All of these things usually involve “telling” the reader things that cannot be represented visually. And fiction is all the better for it.

It’s also an example of one of the things that film really can’t do that well. And, seeing videos about how directors have to get around these limitations can remind you of all of the advantages that writers have over film-makers (eg: a story has no budget restrictions, time can pass at any speed in a story etc..), which can be a great source of motivation, given how cinema often seems to be a more famous and celebrated creative medium than writing these days.

3) Referencing and community: One of the interesting things about watching videos about film theory is that they sometimes mention ways that directors subtly reference and/or are influenced by the style of other directors. This is the sort of obscure stuff that is often only really noticeable to people who have studied a lot of films and understand the medium. But, from a writing perspective, it’s really interesting to see.

One of the cool things that I noticed when I got back into reading regularly is how often books will reference other books or include segments about the value of books, stories etc.. And I suddenly realised that this is basically the same thing as what I was seeing in the videos. But, why is it important? In addition to the fact that pretty much every writer has been influenced by other writers (it’s an essential part of the learning process), it’s also about creating a sense of community.

Unlike films, which are a mass medium that is experienced in the same way by large audiences, books are a more obscure medium these days. As such, it’s easily possible to find a modern book and then never meet anyone who has even heard of it, let alone read it.

So, references to other authors/books and references to books in general are a way of creating a feeling of community in what is essentially a rather solitary medium (not that this is a bad thing though, seriously, it’s one of the most awesome things about books. Even so, it can be annoying at times).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Plague Town” By Dana Fredsti (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for another zombie novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I am, of course talking about a second-hand copy of Dana Fredsti’s 2012 novel “Plague Town” that I found online a couple of weeks earlier.

Interestingly, this book seems to be the first part of a trilogy (and, yes, I’ll hopefully read the other two books at some point in the future), although it can also be enjoyed as a (mostly) stand-alone novel too.

So, let’s take a look at “Plague Town”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2012 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Plague Town” that I read.

The novel begins with a short scene showing a family transforming into zombies after falling ill from a disease called “Walker’s Flu”. Then the story follows Ashley Parker, a student at a small university in the northern California town of Redwood Gove. Ashley is having a bad day.

Not only is she running late for lectures, but the lecturer’s sanctimonious assistant Gabriel berates Ashley for being late, whilst also giving annoying unsolicited dietary advice too. Once the lecture is over, Ashley meets her boyfriend Matt and both of them run into Gabriel. A hilarious scuffle between Matt and Gabriel follows, which ends with the three of them … sort of… becoming friends.

Sometime later, Ashley and Matt are having a romantic candlelit picnic on the campus grounds – when they are suddenly attacked by zombies. Ashley is bitten, but wakes up in a makeshift military hospital in the university.

Ashley’s lecturer informs her that the town has been overrun with zombies, but that she is a “wild card” – part of 0.01% of the population who are immune to the virus (and gain slightly enhanced strength, healing, senses etc.. when exposed to the virus). And, it soon becomes obvious that the military want the few immune survivors to join a secret task force dedicated to fighting the zombies….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 The best way to describe this story is “Buffy The Vampire Slayer mixed with a late-night zombie movie” and it is absolutely awesome. There’s a really good mixture of horror, dark comedy and thrilling action scenes and it is one of those novels that is, in the best way possible, like watching a gloriously cheesy B-movie 🙂

Whilst the novel’s horror elements aren’t that scary, they work really well. In addition to numerous ultra-gruesome scenes involving zombies, the novel also uses a few other types of horror too.

In addition to disease-based horror, character-based horror, suspenseful horror, tragic horror, scientific horror and post-apocalyptic horror, there’s also a brilliantly disturbing scene (involving a survivor in a cabin) that will catch you by surprise at a point where you’re just starting to think “this is turning into more of a thriller novel than a horror novel“.

Likewise, this novel is also something of an old-school zombie novel too. In other words, the zombies here are traditional slow-moving zombies (with the story even containing some sarcastic remarks about how fast zombies only exist in movies because people have short attention spans). And, whilst the story contains many familiar zombie tropes, it also does a few innovative things too… which I won’t spoil. Even so, one of the story’s zombie-related plot twists is foreshadowed so heavily that it’s fairly easy to guess.

The novel’s thriller elements are also really good too. Although the main characters have the advantages of strength and weaponry, the novel often manages to add a real sense of drama and suspense to some of the story’s many zombie battles through things like making sure that the characters are vastly outnumbered and/or have to help their wounded comrades.

Even so, at least a couple of the thrilling action scenes in this novel have all of the suspense of a superhero movie (which is to say, very little). Even so, this novel is a really enjoyable action-thriller novel.

In terms of the novel’s comedy elements, they’re absolutely brilliant. In addition to lots of amusingly sarcastic dialogue/narration and a bit of dark comedy, this is also one of those novels that is absolutely crammed with pop culture references – and most of them are really good (eg: The Evil Dead, Army Of Darkness, Tremors, Alien, Buffy, The A-Team, Romero, Fulci etc..). This novel is also a brilliantly cynical parody of a few horror/thriller tropes too – such as in a scene involving a sociopathic army general and in a segment about the value of pet cats.

The novel’s characters are surprisingly good too. Many of the characters have distinctive personalities, emotions, motivations and actual character development too (with at least a couple of unsympathetic characters becoming more sympathetic as the story progresses). Likewise, the dynamics of the zombie-fighting team and the relationships between the characters are also an important part of the story too.

Ashley is also a really cool protagonist too. Not only is she gleefully sarcastic and wonderfully badass, but she’s also the opposite of more prim and puritanical characters of this type (eg: Anita Blake, Buffy Summers etc..) too, which is really refreshing 🙂 Seriously, I love how this novel will often treat any kind of self-righteousness with the merciless sarcasm it deserves 🙂

The novel’s writing is also really good too. Most of the novel is narrated by Ashley, which not only gives the story a bit more personality but also allows for informal narration that is both hilarious and reasonably fast-paced too.

However, there are also a few random third-person segments which show how the zombie virus is affecting other parts of the town. Surprisingly, these perspective changes actually work really well – since they are both clearly signposted through the use of italic type and are short enough not to distract from the main story too much.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 350 pages in length, this novel is pretty much on par with many modern novels and didn’t feel too long. The novel’s pacing is really good too, with the story remaining reasonably fast-paced and gripping.

The novel’s more spectacular, suspenseful and thrilling moments are also balanced out with moments of comedy and character-based drama too. In addition to this, the story’s main plot is thankfully resolved in a satisfying way – with only a small last-minute cliffhanger setting up the sequel.

All in all, this was a really enjoyable and gripping novel 🙂 It contains an almost perfect mixture of horror, humour and thrills, which are backed up by good characterisation and personality-filled narration too 🙂 As I mentioned earlier, reading this novel is a bit like watching a really awesome late-night B-movie. Seriously, it is a hell of a lot of fun 🙂

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