Nightflyers by George R R Martin

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Banner by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More; image by Sebastien Decoret from 123RF.com

Originally published back in 1980, Nightflyers is a novella-length story that was recently repackaged and turned up on the shelves at work. I wouldn’t have picked it up but for the fact that this new edition is illustrated by David Palumbo (the man responsible for those gorgeous painterly Binti novella covers *all the hearts*) and I really love his stuff. And, yeah, it’s a short, quick scifi read and my month is going to hell in a handcart so I’ve had to restack a couple of bigger tomes I intended to read. Ugh, life gets in the way sometimes, you know?

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A group of scientists have been drawn together by Karoly d’Branin, a man obsessed with the as yet unseen alien volcryn, who is determined to intercept this mythical race out in deep space and study them. For this purpose d’Branin has chartered a Nightflyer and her captain Royd Eris, an eccentric individual who will only interact with the group via his hologrammatic self. Things go south quickly. The powerful telepath d’Branin has employed is convinced that the crew are in danger from the get-go and only becomes more distressed as the journey continues …

This is a horror story in space (did you guess?). I’d have paid good money to read more of the secondary story about the mythical volcryn, but the plot mostly concerns itself with the extermination of the small academic crew aboard the Nightflyer and the mysterious Royd Eris. A couple of the deaths are pretty spectacular, but I suspect that may be all I take away from this book.

Martin certainly has a talent for writing compelling, if not necessarily likeable, characters though, and he puts it to good use here. Of the ten characters in this story, only one is anywhere near pleasant, but they are all interesting. For a future in which the “Academy of Human Knowledge” appears to be the highest power, this motley group aren’t very Star Trek and they fall prey to suspicion and paranoia in record time, (because humanity will always be its own worst enemy, I guess). That just made watching them die one by one more fun than scary, however.

It’s definitely something that would translate to the screen well (all that blood!), or so I thought while I was reading it. Then I found out that it had already been made into a TV series for the SyFy channel, and the general consensus on the interweb was that it wasn’t very good. Which is a shame because I feel that it was written very much with an eye to the visual, something Palumbo is able to take full advantage of in his gorgeous full-page illustrations. I really like Palumbo’s style anyway, but here he does a great job of creating dark, moody images that made me feel almost claustrophobic. (As an added bonus, the artist’s Instagram account was mentioned at the end of the book and there you can find an extra handful of paintings that didn’t make the cut for the book – very cool).

There were a couple of things I didn’t like so much in the story. There were some weird manners of speech that I found a bit jarring, particularly d’Branin’s oddly old-fashioned chatter and his frequent use of the term “my friend” (‘friend’, ‘love’ and ‘mate’ from people who are not any of those things to me is a pet hate of mine); and Melantha’s need to repeatedly remind everyone that she is an “improved model” also grated a bit.

And there was quite a lot that I’d have liked Martin to expand on: Royd and Melantha’s relationship was quite interesting and had either one been in the slightest bit sympathetic I’d have enjoyed more of that; Royd’s backstory, too, was fascinating and could have made a book on it’s own especially if his mother had been given a bit more room. The volcryn were awesome too (I particularly loved Palumbo’s illustration of them), and I felt they were another potentially much richer storyline given too little room. In fact, I think that may be my main complaint with Nightflyers: there were a ton of great ideas in here, enough for three books, but none of them were explored in any great depth because, in the end, only the body count really seemed to matter.

So, yeah, a bit of a mixed bag this one. With a bit more space and one or two redeeming features in the cast I think this would have been a much cooler novel. As it is, it was a fairly satisfying series of deaths and some interesting ideas. Must try harder. (which, of course, Martin did, didn’t he?!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Banner by Lisa @deargeekplace; photo: Kenai Fjords National Park, United States by Daniel H. Tong on Unsplash

I enjoy that moment, when you start to read a little more by an author, and get a feel for the characteristics of their writing or the themes that preoccupy them. Having only read Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle previous to this (my thoughts here if you’re interested) I didn’t know quite what to expect going in, although I had hopes. On finishing The Haunting of Hill House I desperately want to go scoop up everything Jackson has written and anything that has been written about her and greedily gobble it all down, because I really like her writing style, her characters and her preoccupations.

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I spent a lot of time with my Nana growing up and, as we both loved to read, a lot of that time was taken up with talking about stories. We had a small blue hardback book of short stories in particular that we would read from and then discuss at the kitchen table early on Sunday mornings. That book was my favourite because most of the stories seemed quite ambiguous and from one week to the next we could make up whole new reinterpretations of what they meant. I enjoyed having to puzzle over word choices and imagery as though the various authors had set conundrums for us, their readers. And I think that’s one of the attractions of Jackson’s writing for me. Her style is economical and clear (the book is only 246 pages long) and yet there is always this underlying ambiguity. Specifically, there is a disparity between what her protagonists think is happening and what is actually going on. Both Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House have rich interior lives that colour their perceptions and, because we see through their eyes, ours too.

Eleanor Vance is, for me at least, an incredibly sympathetic character. A woman who has spent her life so far nursing an ailing (now dead) mother and being belittled by her sister and brother-in-law, she steals/borrows the family car and runs away to Hill House at the invitation of Doctor Montague, who wants to study the phenomena of the haunted house scientifically with the aid of a few assistants who are open to “psychic manifestation”. Throughout the book she is repeatedly infantilized by others because, despite being 32 years of age, she has led such a sheltered existence up to now that “she could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life”. She spends much of the book struggling with the concept of being an individual, capable of her own decisions, and lives quite firmly in her own interior world. She is an incredibly lonely character who moves constantly between states of not-quite-smothered-rage and bubbling excitement, never quite understanding what is going on within the small group she finds herself in, having no real experience of people or relationships.

The rest of Doctor Montague’s research group are made up by Theodora, a capricious, free-spirited sort; the liar, thief and member of the family that owns Hill House, Luke Sanderson; and Doctor Montague himself. None of them are quite as interesting as Eleanor, but they are all distinct characters with their own baggage, and the group dynamics over the course of the story are as fascinating as the paranormal events which have brought them together. In the end, Hill House agrees with me on this though: Eleanor is the most desirable of the bunch.

I almost don’t want to talk about the house itself for fear of inadvertently spoiling something for the would-be reader. I’ll tread as carefully as I can. Hill House is a massive, dark presence throughout the book. Once we’ve glimpsed it for the first time with Eleanor, and thought “Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once” at the end of chapter one, it is with us for the rest of the book, deeply oppressive and insistent. It is a place characterised by claustrophobia and tension, a house standing apart and alone and always watchful. Something I loved in We Have Always Lived in the Castle that I didn’t expect to find again in Jackson’s writing is her habit of giving life and personality to the inanimate. It charmed me so completely I think because it’s such a human quirk, to give personality to our things, to imagine that our shoes don’t feel like dancing today, or that the kettle is in a grump because it hasn’t had a holiday. And here Jackson uses it to spook the heck out of her readers. Yes, the fronts of houses do look like faces, but this one is a malevolent face, defined by ill-will, and hardly anything more is needed to convince us and the little party who have come to stay that Bad Things will happen in Hill House.

In fact, the history of the house, as recounted by Doctor Montague, isn’t particularly spectacular (it’s not built on an Indian burial ground, there haven’t been any murders within its grounds and no nuns were bricked into the walls alive during its construction). Even the scary bits that we and the characters witness are typified by restraint, Jackson doesn’t overegg her scenes and there’s a lovely questionable quality to it all – is it the house? Or is it a shared delusion? Or is it in some way caused by one or more members of the group? She layers unsettling details with an artist’s skill, doesn’t attempt to explain everything witnessed, and leaves it all to brew in her characters’ subconscious and in ours.

It’s kind of perfect that my last read for Spooktastic Reads was the scariest one, (it is so very nearly Halloween, after all). It had so many little details that I loved – not just the creepy stuff, none of which I am going to give away – like the bizarrely punctual, deadpan Mrs Dudley (such a great cook?!), and the ridiculous latecomers Mrs Montague and Arthur; or all of Eleanor’s lies and daydreams, and the peculiar décor of Hill House complete with weird marble statues and plush-but-uncomfortable chairs. I loved how the house dominated the book, a character in itself, almost tragic, almost worthy of sympathy; and I loved the ending, the whole last chapter about which, again, I can say nothing.

 

Shirley Jackson has only in the last ten years or so become the subject of renewed interest, which means right now there’s quite a lot of interesting articles about her and her work kicking around the webiverse. She sounds like a fascinating woman from the little I’ve read so far, and I’m intending to buy Ruth Franklin’s biography A Rather Haunted Life to learn more. Because of this new fan-girl crush however, I feel like I’ve done a worse job than normal of saying anything coherent or useful about The Haunting of Hill House, so if you want to read some far more analytical and thorough (and spoiler-ish) thoughts on the book then I recommend the following three articles linked below, all of which I enjoyed:

Laura Miller’s brilliant introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of the book

Alison Flood’s 2018 article for the Guardian

And Brit Mandelo’s article for tor.com, which was originally published in December 2016 to mark what would have been Jackson’s 100th birthday

 

” ‘And so the old house has just been sitting here,’ Luke put out a tentative finger and touched the marble cupid gingerly. ‘Nothing in it touched, nothing used, nothing here wanted by anyone any more, just sitting here thinking.’

‘And waiting,’ Eleanor said. “

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

It’s time for something creepy, something a little bit spooky; it’s time to wonder at the things that go bump in the night. It’s time, in fact, for the Wyrd & Wonder mini event: Spooktastic Reads 2019.

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Banner by Lisa @deargeekplace; Photo: Kenai Fjords National Park, United States, by Daniel H Tong on Unsplash

 

Let’s get this out of the way first: I am a huge scaredy-cat. Horror movies terrify me and I never go to the cinema to watch one because I need the lights on and to be able to tuck my feet up on my seat and … you can snigger all you want … I need a soft toy or my blanky to cuddle. Horror books are even worse because then your brain is in collusion with the author to scare the wits out of you and you can’t turn your brain off. All that said, body horror is the least disturbing kind for me. Yes, we can be bent and broken in some extraordinarily nasty ways, but that’s just gross, not scary (unless it’s being done to me – then, obviously, it’s frigging horrifying!).

So, I knew The Murders of Molly Southbourne had body horror elements in it and I knew it was a novella, and therefore it seemed like a pretty safe option for Spooktastic Reads. Boy can I be wrong sometimes.

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This was one hundred and seventeen pages of creepy-ass, thumb-chewing tension. I was suckered in with the Nikita/Hanna vibe (movies about young women trained to kill with precision and utter detachment? I’m there before they’ve finished putting up the posters), and by then it was too late. Molly’s situation is truly scary as much for it’s inevitable repetition as for it’s being inescapable. How can someone not bleed? We bleed all the time via little bangs and scrapes, or by maybe brushing our teeth too vigorously, as well as via menstruation and nose bleeds and a hundred other ways I can’t think of or imagine. No matter how careful or mindful we are we will all bleed, it’s part of life. But when Molly bleeds a replica of her is born, identical to her in every way no matter her age. And then it tries to kill her.

Sometimes a molly will be confused for a time, or friendly, or talkative, before their murderous impulse kicks in. Sometimes it’s immediate. Either way, Molly has to always be ready and always be better than the mollies that will come for her. While she was a child her parents killed the mollies as they appeared, but they also trained their daughter: taught her how to fight and kill, how to efficiently cut up and dispose of a body, how to deal with her own blood. That her parents were also able to maintain a loving relationship both together and with Molly was a part of the horror for me – they have had to kill perfect replicas of their daughter, whom they love, again and again, from when she was tiny to when she was grown, and then hack her up and bury her. That that doesn’t destroy them is both incredible and kinda creepy.

That it doesn’t destroy Molly (open for debate this) is equally incredible. Yes, she goes through a period of delusion, she self-harms and yes, she contemplates suicide briefly, but she has a great deal of self-discipline and a pragmatism that I really loved. Actually, I liked Molly a lot. She’s a keen reader, she’s smart and direct. She doesn’t do small talk. Her decision not to shave made me laugh. Her reason for not committing suicide says a lot about where she places value. And her calm and efficiency, passed on to her by her parents, make the book that much scarier.

She’s also extremely lonely. And perhaps this is part of The Scary as well. Think about it: in all the scary movies or books you’ve watched/read, how often do more than a couple of people survive? And that lonely figure or two at the end, having survived whatever horror they were pitted against (probably by having to do unspeakable things), what future do you envisage for them? Do you imagine they’ll reintegrate into society, make lots of new friends and lead happy, nightmare-free lives? Because I never do. Part of The Scary is being marked out as different, is having survived something terrible and being unable to talk about it with anyone. Part of The Scary is being the survivor and Molly has been the survivor all her life.

 

And then there’s all the Thoughts that come with this book:

How are the mollies different to Molly? Why do they have to die? If they are perfect copies, then they surely have the right to life just as she does? Then again, they all think they’re Molly and have the same memories as she does, so … what does that mean?

Do the mollies only want to kill Molly because that’s what her parents have taught her: “If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight”? If she’d been taught to make friends with them, would they have reacted in kind? Or, in other words, did Molly’s parents, in trying to protect their only daughter, actually create this situation in which she is in constant mortal peril?

And what the heck’s going on with Leon and James?? I want to know everything about that.

 

Finally, I want to talk about Thompson’s writing. I haven’t read anything else by him yet, although Rosewater has been ready and waiting for me on the stack for a couple of months now. Having read this, I am looking forward even more to reading that novel now. Because Thompson writes really clear, precise prose. Like Picasso’s light pen drawings (not seen them? Google them now, they’re pretty awesome) his writing is simple, immediate and incredibly evocative. I mean, he manages to pack more information into one hundred and seventeen pages than some writers do in five hundred. So if you haven’t already read this, you definitely should. It’ll take maybe an hour of your time. I read it on my bus journey home and, no word of a lie, was so engrossed I missed my stop.

 

 

 

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

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 Before I begin, thank you to Tammy for prompting me to read this – it was exactly what I needed while our house was full of plasterers and dust and mess. Good call!

 

Worst line in the book: “I told you I’d give you the moon one day. You only had to be patient with me.” (Firstly, bleugh! Secondly, epic fail! Thirdly, the most ridiculous thing to say to anyone … ever.)

Best line in the book: “Dr Lennox, release the dolphins!” (*maniacal laughter*)

 

I am a huge wimp when it comes to horror. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading or watching it, just that I have three unbendable rules: one, always in daylight; two, never in a cinema; and three, with a cuddly toy on standby. I read this only on my bus rides into work and with my smallest toy, Dink, on hand in my bag.

Into the Drowning Deep is the full-length follow up to Grant’s novella Rolling in the Deep. I didn’t know this going in, and it makes me a tad twitchy not to have read the novella first, but as the fate of the first ship, the Atargatis, is pretty neatly summarised at the beginning of the novel and I don’t have any means of getting hold of the novella I am letting it go.

In terms of pacing Drowning Deep reminded me a lot of Jaws. After a brief hint of the danger to come Grant takes her time introducing the reader to a variety of characters and manoeuvring them into place before cutting them off from civilisation and giving her Big Bad free rein. There’s also a similar reflection on humanity’s relationship with the sea – where Jaws focuses on our love of beaches and the sunny shoreline, in Drowning Deep it’s whale-watching trips and yachting, but both that movie and this book show what happens when we forget just how deep and wide the sea is and how little we know about what’s down there. I might be reading too much into it, but I felt that Grant might be suggesting that man-eating mermaids were humanity’s comeuppance for our exploitation and poisoning of the ocean. Certainly she goes to some lengths to point out just how much damage has been done to the planet by 2022, the year in which the book is set, and how that has impacted the big blue.

If I have any criticism to make it’s that perhaps the set-up was a smidge overlong. Grant’s a good writer and I was interested enough in everything she had to say, but as it went on I did begin to get confused about what was relevant information and what was just scene setting. That said, I was both amused and impressed by how many times she managed to work sea-related things into her descriptions of the characters during this introductory section. (I wish I’d written them all down now because I’ve just tried to skim through the first few chapters to find some examples and can’t see any … grrr).

Once the Melusine gets underway however, the long wait proves totally worth it. The first sighting of a mermaid is so perfectly done I was holding my breath while reading it. I’m happier than most to suspend my disbelief in the interests of hearing a good story (I mean, that goes with the SFF territory, no?), and I was really into Grant’s grey-skinned, saucer-eyed, eel-like mermaids. For the duration of the novel they felt like something that could be real. And Thumbs and I watch more than our fair share of documentaries on sea life and there’s some pretty weird stuff out there already, so heck, why not mermaids too? Especially Ultimate Predator we-eat-whales-for-breakfast type mermaids – so much fun!

I was less believing when it came to the passengers and the arrangements aboard of the Melusine. Even if you are an entertainment network, if you’ve previously sent out a boat to encounter mermaids that is not only lost with all hands but also leaves you with footage of creatures devouring the crew, and you then decide to send out a second course, the absolute least you would do (and maybe I’m being unreasonable here) is make sure strong, working defences were provided and that your security team was actually capable as well as good-looking. Sure, you want to prove to the world that that previous footage wasn’t a hoax, but since you already know you didn’t fake it, surely you’d do all you could to ensure the safety of the people entrusted with bringing home proof for the world to see. No? Just me then.

And I know it’s standard practice for most characters in horror scenarios to make stupid decisions that lead to their up-close-and-with-extra-blood-spatter deaths, but there are some especially stupid decisions made in Drowning Deep that made me just a little bit cross. First prize in this category goes, appropriately enough, to the first person to die in the book. I’m pretty sure a scientist with extensive experience in submersibles would know that “please remain calm and return to the surface” was not a negotiable request. But then I was also reasonably sure that in the event of an ex-boyfriend’s unexplained and clearly unusual death on a ship under attack from clearly unusual predators the ex-girlfriend wouldn’t be hauled up in front of the ship’s captain to prove her innocence – just shows what I know.

There are a couple of silly characters that feel a bit unnecessary in an otherwise pretty cool cast. Yes, Jason, Dr Lyons, I’m referring to the both of you, you spiteful and utterly selfish individuals. Maybe you’re there just to prove that not all smart people are reasonable, but I knew that already so you are superfluous, and ridiculous human beings to boot. Theo’s a bit of a jerk too, but in a much more understandable fashion, and he’s completely eclipsed by his wife Dr Jillian Toth anyhow. I want to be Dr Toth – she’s got style. A woman who’s been ridiculed for much of her professional life for her insistence on the existence of mermaids, she doesn’t once crow about it when she’s proved right. And she’s got nearly all the best lines. Tory and Olivia are the on-board romance, which I found kinda sweet and not at all over done, and they’re both cool characters in their own right, even if I remain completely unconvinced by Tory’s reasons for being on the trip. Ray was briefly awesome; Luis also and for longer; Heather, Holly and Hallie were interesting; Daryl and Gregory were bland; and Michi and Jacques downright troubling.

All in all, I enjoyed this a lot. As much for the good stuff as for the bad. After all, what’s the point of a scary story if you can’t shout ‘idiot!’ and ‘don’t open that door!’ at the oblivious, soon-to-be-dead characters doing all manner of stupid things? I get the impression that there may be a sequel. Certainly there were a couple of pretty big things not really tied up in any satisfactory way. And I wouldn’t be averse to seeing how Dr Toth, Tory, Olivia and company are doing down the line in a world that has learned that mermaids are both real and all kinds of terrifying.