Review: “More Tales Of The City” By Armistead Maupin (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and review a comedy novel today. This is mostly because, a week or two before I wrote this review, I was reminded of Armistead Maupin’s brilliant “Tales Of The City” series 🙂 Although I read the first novel in this series during the mid-late 2000s, I couldn’t remember if I’d read any more of them.

So, I found a cheap second-hand copy of Maupin’s 1980 novel “More Tales Of The City” online and decided to take a look at it. Although this novel is a sequel to “Tales Of The City”, it works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel (thanks to a few recaps). However, having some vague memories of the characters from “Tales Of The City” will help you get into the story a lot more easily.

So, let’s take a look at “More Tales Of The City”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the [2007-10?] Black Swan (UK) paperback reprint of “More Tales Of The City” that I read.

The novel takes place in San Francisco in 1977 and follows the inhabitants of a boarding house run by an old hippie called Mrs. Madrigal. It is Valentine’s day, so Mary Ann Singleton and her GBF Michael Tolliver are making hilariously irreverent Valentine’s day resolutions. After the events of the previous novel, Mary Ann has inherited $5000 from her previous boss. So, the two of them decide to go on a cruise to Mexico. Of course, after they spot a mysterious handsome man by the pool, they aren’t sure who should ask him out…

Meanwhile, Mona Ramsay decides to leave San Francisco. On the way, she meets a kindly old woman who is travelling to Winnemucca, Nevada and decides to travel with her. Of course, things take a slightly unexpected turn when Mona learns more about her travelling companion.

Meanwhile, Brian Hawkins is looking for a girlfriend and finds himself both spying on and being spied upon by a mysterious woman living in a nearby tower block. Plus, following the events of the previous novel, DeDe is several months pregnant with twins and her husband Beauchamp isn’t particularly happy about it, given that he isn’t the father….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is amazing 🙂 It’s a complex, relaxing and gleefully hedonistic comedy novel that is so much fun to read 🙂 In addition to having a wonderful atmosphere, amazing writing and brilliant characters, this is the kind of novel that has a level of personality and humanity to it that is comparable to Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics. In other words, this is a wonderfully quirky novel that will make you laugh out loud and cry with joy. It’s also an utterly brilliant piece of classic LGBT fiction too.

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s comedy elements. This novel contains a really good mixture of irreverent humour, character-based humour, cynical humour, social satire, complex humour, farce, parody (eg: the soap opera style storyline with DeDe) and eccentric humour. In addition to several laugh out loud moments, a lot of the novel’s humour tends to be more of a constant background thing that really helps to keep the story amusingly compelling throughout. Not to mention that some of the comedy comes from how all of the story’s various sub-plots connect with each other too.

And, yes, I should probably talk about this novel’s plot. Although the story does have one, it’s more like a collection of lots of sub-plots which are expertly interwoven throughout the novel (kind of like in a good sitcom episode). Although you may have to take notes at first, the juggling of several plotlines works really well and gives the story a level of realism and complexity that contrasts perfectly with the hilariously random, bizarre and occasionally contrived events of the story.

In addition to this, the novel’s plot also contains some more serious elements – like a detective thriller sub-plot later in the story, a sub-plot about Mona’s parents, a sub-plot about Michael’s ex and a medical sub-plot. These elements of the story contrast really well with the novel’s comedy elements and really help to add some extra warmth and humanity to the story too (and, yes, expect to cry during a few moments).

The novel’s characters are, in a word, superb. They’re an absolutely wonderful group of quirky, realistic individuals who I really enjoyed hanging out with whilst writing the novel. I could spend ages talking about the characters in this novel but they are certainly one of the story’s greatest strengths. Likewise, the friendships and relationships between the characters are also another major strength of this story too.

This novel is also an utterly stellar work of LGBT fiction too 🙂 In addition to lots of retro LGBT humour/in-jokes, this novel also includes lots of romance, a fairly realistic depiction of coming out (eg: something that has to be done multiple times in multiple situations), some brilliant dialogue segments (such as a letter that Michael writes to his conservative parents) and – for the time it was written – a surprisingly well-written transgender character too.

The atmosphere of this novel is brilliant too – in addition to the kind of locations that you’ll really want to visit, this novel has the kind of irreverently countercultural attitude and quirky atmosphere that really makes it feel like the story is taking place a mere 7-8 years after the 1960s ended.

In terms of the writing, Maupin’s third-person narration has a brilliantly unique voice and style. Maupin’s narration is a gloriously impish mixture of more formal, descriptive narration and much more irreverent informal narration. This is one of those novels that is worth reading for the writing alone 🙂

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 288 pages in length, it is concise enough to remain compelling throughout. Likewise, although most of the story is rather moderately paced, the humour and the many sub-plots keep the story compelling throughout and this is one of those novels that you’ll probably want to savour. Not to mention that a few mildly suspenseful thriller elements also appear in the later parts of the story too 🙂

As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, there are a few dated descriptions and story elements that will probably seem “politically incorrect” these days but, for the most part, this novel holds up surprisingly well when read today. A lot of the novel’s irreverent humour seems slightly ahead of it’s time (eg: I can’t believe this wasn’t written during the 1990s!) and is still brilliantly funny when read today. Plus, this novel shows a much more open-minded side of the 1970s too, whilst still having a charmingly “retro” atmosphere too. Seriously, this novel was ahead of it’s time!

All in all, this novel is brilliant 🙂 If you want the kind of novel which is not only fun, funny and compelling but also has an atmosphere, warmth and humanity to it that can sometimes be difficult to find in fiction, then read this novel. It was an absolute joy to read 🙂

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

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Review: “Plasmid” By Jo Gannon & Robert Knight (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read a 1980s horror novel. So, for today, I thought that I’d re-read one that I bought in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton about a decade ago (mostly on account of the awesome cover art) called “Plasmid” By Jo Gannon & Robert Knight.

Surprisingly, this book seems to have had a rather interesting history. Although Gannon’s name is the only one on the cover, a note inside the book explains that it was written by Knight based on a (seemingly unproduced) screenplay by Gannon. So, this book seems to be that fascinatingly rare thing – a novelisation of a film that was never made.

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

This is the 1980 Star Books (UK) paperback edition of “Plasmid” that I read. *Sigh* I wish books still had cover art like this…

“Plasmid” begins on the south coast of England (seriously, it’s always awesome to see books set here 🙂 ), in the fictional seaside town of Oakhaven. Near the town, there is a problem with one of the test subjects at the Fairfield Institute – a government-sponsored laboratory. When a couple of the scientists go to investigate, they are brutally murdered by a mutated man with superhuman strength. The mutant then escapes into the sewers.

A while later, an investigative reporter at the local radio station called Paula Scott is about to get a few stern words from her boss because of complaints about a rather daring investigative report on some important local people. However, she produces a secret recording that proves the facts in her report. After this, she is sent to a press conference about the deaths at the Fairfield Institute – but she soon suspects that there might be a cover-up……

One of the first things that I will say about “Plasmid” is that, despite the gnarly cover art and the fact that it was published by Star Books, this is not really a splatterpunk novel.

Yes, it follows the same “disaster and government response” plot template as 1980s splatterpunk novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” do. Yes, it even uses the splatterpunk technique of introducing many (short-lived) side characters and it also contains a typical splatterpunk-style “shock” ending too. But, if you are expecting the gallons of gore that you’d expect from a proper 1980s splatterpunk novel, you’re going to be disappointed.

Apart from a surprisingly small number of mildly to moderately grisly (by splatterpunk standards) moments, this novel is remarkably tame. A lot of the story’s gruesome and risque moments are either described in a relatively undetailed and brief way or are left “off screen”. The story also mostly focuses on other types of horror than gory horror (eg: suspense, tragic horror, moral horror, political horror, bleak horror, scientific horror etc..) too.

All of this stuff is probably a hangover from the fact that this novel was originally a film script, and would have had to pass the BBFC censors (who were notoriously stricter during the 1980s) if it was produced. So, the style of horror in this novel is more “horror movie” than “splatterpunk novel”.

Even so, this novel is a rather compelling and gloriously cheesy story that could have only have come from the 1980s. If anything, this novel almost reads more like a vaguely splatterpunk-influenced thriller than a horror novel. Most of the story is taken up with Paula trying to investigate what is going on and the scientists trying to deal with the fanatical Dr.Fraser who is behind the evil experiments. Likewise, this story also contains a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia about the government, press censorship etc.. too.

Plus, in addition to the fact that “Plasmid” is set in the kind of town that I know quite well, another surprising thing is this novel’s wonderfully cheesy, immature, groan-inducing sense of humour too. Yes, some of this hasn’t aged well – but, on the whole, it is an amusing relic of another age that includes things like a rockstar called “Big Willie”, a cat called “Fido” and this hilariously clunky attempt at political correctness when describing a group of homeless people: “Nearby another ‘citizen of the road’ was stretched out on a mouldering sofa, fast asleep.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Paula Scott is a realistic, determined reporter in the classic ’80s horror novel tradition. Likewise, many of the scientists seem like fairly realistic and ordinary characters. Plus, some of the short-lived side characters are fairly interesting too (such as a homeless aristocrat), although many of them are just the typical “ordinary people” characters you’d expect to see in a 1980s horror novel.

Likewise, the plot of the novel is reasonably good. As I mentioned earlier, it reads a lot like a thriller novel, with some splatterpunk-style plot techniques. In addition to this, some hints of the novel’s cinematic origins can be seen in things like cutaway-style flashback scenes that are printed in italics. Plus, at a lean and efficient 191 pages, this novel never really gets bloated or slow. I’ve said it many times before, but I miss the days when paperback novels could be short 🙂

In terms of Robert Knight’s writing and third-person narration, it’s reasonably ok too. This novel is written in a slightly more descriptive, but “matter of fact”, way that is pretty much par for the course in British horror novels of this vintage. It’s still very readable but people who are more used to modern novels may find it a little bit slow-paced or formal.

As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged hilariously terribly. In other words, this novel is very much a product of the 1980s (eg: the emphasis on local radio, the ominous government conspiracies etc…). But, although a few moments seem creepily sleazy when read these days, there isn’t that much shockingly dated stuff here. So, if you want to read something that is decidedly “retro”, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. Seriously, it’s always interesting to get a glimpse of the culture and imagination of this part of history.

All in all, this novel is “splatterpunk lite”. If you like the idea of splatterpunk fiction, but don’t have the stomach for too much gore or horror, then you’ll probably like it. Likewise, it’s a reasonably ok thriller novel and it is also gloriously retro too. So, if you want something that is decidedly ’80s and can be read in a small number of hours, then “Plasmid” might be worth looking at. But, honestly, you’re better off reading Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” instead – it has got most of the stuff that this novel has, but turned up to 11.

If I had to give “Plasmid” a rating out of five, it would maybe get a three.

Review: “Scorpion” By Michael R. Linaker (Novel)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, I first heard of Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” (1980) when I saw a review of it on a website about old horror novels (I used to read a lot of these novels when I was a teenager during the early-mid 2000s). Needless to say, the review made me morbidly curious enough to find a cheap second-hand copy of “Scorpion” on Amazon.

When the book arrived, it was a refreshingly slender volume (only 159 pages! If only modern books could be this concise!) whose pages had turned a warmly familiar shade of second-hand bookshop orange and also exuded the oddly reassuring aroma of old cigarette smoke. Not only that, the cover also had a perfectly-placed crease that made holding the book even more ergonomic than usual. Likewise, the back page of the book also contained a postal order form for books like James Herbert’s “The Rats” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Needless to say, I was feeling nostalgic already. You don’t get this with e-books.

So, let’s take a look at “Scorpion”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS (and some spoilers for James Herbert’s “The Rats” too).

This is the 1980 New English Library (UK) paperback edition of “Scorpion” that I read.

“Scorpion” begins in the town of Long Point in Kent. Outside the local nuclear power plant, there is an environmentalist protest that is being attended by a man called Les Mason. However, he’s got other things on his mind. Something has stung his hand!

Within minutes, Les starts to feel ill and one of the protest organisers – Chris Lane – insists on driving him home. When they get back to Les’ flat, he tells Chris to return to the protest, although she insists on calling a doctor before leaving. Once she leaves, Les looks at his hand. It looks absolutely horrifying!

Within an hour or two, he is wheeled into the emergency ward of the local hospital. Despite heavy sedation, he keeps screaming in agony. A medical researcher at the hospital, Allan Brady, decides to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is “so bad that it is good”. Everything from the occasionally corny dialogue, the descriptions of the scorpions, the ridiculous amount of sleaze, the premise of the story to Linaker’s narration just oozes low-budget cheesiness. I was torn between laughter and the sad feeling that I’d have probably enjoyed this book twice as much if I was half as old.

Even so, the experience of reading this book made me nostalgic for the Cornish summer holidays of my youth where I’d go on shopping sprees in second-hand bookshops and binge-read old second-hand horror and sci-fi novels on car journeys. Although the novel is set in Kent rather than Cornwall, I could almost taste the clotted cream and feel the summer sun when I was reading this book.

But, anyway, this is a good old-fashioned 1980s splatterpunk novel that was also part of the “creature feature” craze of the 1970s-80s. A lot of the horror in this novel is achieved through descriptions of swarms of scorpions and through the kind of grisly over-the-top blood-soaked ultra-violent horror that the splatterpunk genre is famous for. And, whilst this novel doesn’t have quite as much gore as a Shaun Hutson novel like “Erebus“, it could still give a modern horror movie a run for it’s money.

Whilst the scenes involving the scorpions often display a reasonable amount of inventiveness and never really get that monotonous, there is at least one scene that is possibly a cool little homage to the ending to James Herbert’s “The Rats”. This is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the story where the main characters encounter two larger, but weaker, scorpions within the scorpions’ lair. These scorpions are then splattered with pickaxe handles. Although there are differences, it reminded me a little bit of the memorable scene near the end of “The Rats” where the main character encounters the giant two-headed rat.

In terms of the narration, it is gloriously low-budget. Yet, the very slight clunkiness and/or amateurishness of it is all part of the charm. You sometimes get the sense that Linaker was actually trying to tell a story, that he was trying to find a way to write the type of novel he’d like to read. Yes, he isn’t always as eloquent as his contemporaries (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..), but this is part of the fun of the story. I mean, it’s a novel that sometimes reads a bit like an episode of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace“. And this is adorable!

Although, saying all of this, the narration does get a bit sleazy at times. This isn’t to do with the subject matter being written about (regardless of author, 1980s horror novels aren’t for the prudish) but it is to do with the way that these scenes are described and what the narration chooses to focus on. These scenes sometimes feel like they were written more for the author’s private enjoyment than because they are an organic part of the story.

The novel’s characters are reasonably good. As you would expect from a 1980s horror novel, even the background characters get a fair amount of characterisation. A lot of the novel’s best character-related moments take place during arguments with unsympathetic characters. Whether it is Chris Lane’s long-standing rivalry with the nefarious Mr.Condon who guards the gates of the power station, or Allen Brady’s dealings with the patronising and overbearing Dr. Camperly – the novel’s arguments are often hilariously dramatic. The romance between Chris and Allen is also fairly understated and rather heartwarming too.

In terms of the plotting, pacing and structure, this story is really good. Not only is it split into a three-act structure but there are also a couple of plot threads which go together fairly well. Likewise, this novel also makes full use of the classic splatterpunk technique of introducing new characters (eg: a hiker, a homeless man, a nude sunbather, an amourous couple, a mechanic, wealthy American tourists etc..) only for them to die in some horrible scorpion-related way a couple of pages later.

Not only that, this novel’s short length (a lean and efficient 159 pages) means that there are barely any wasted pages here too. Seriously, I miss the days when books could be short. This book tells a complete story that can be read in 2-4 hours and feels very much like a “full-length” novel. Seriously, I wish more books were like this! Not every novel needs to be a doorstopper!

In terms of how this thirty-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged hilariously terribly. Whether it’s the earnestness of the story’s message about the dangers of nuclear power, or the “sleazy” narrative tone of many of the novel’s more risque scenes or just the general 1980s-ness of the story, it is very much a relic of another age. Even so, the underlying story remains compelling and the scenes of horror still retain their potency. Not only that, the novel also includes a bit of timeless cynicism about the right-wing tabloid press too.

All in all, this novel is “so bad that it is good”. It’s the novelistic equivalent of a low-budget horror movie. Although it is a lean, efficient story with some timelessly horrific and creepy moments (that can also be read within 2-4 hours), it is still very much a “low-budget” horror novel. It’s so bad that it’s good. Still, if you’re in the mood for retro nostalgia or you want an old splatterpunk novel that you haven’t heard of before, then “Scorpion” will probably do the job.

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