REVIEW: Ladies’ Night by Jack Ketchum

First published in 1997, Ladies’ Night was the tenth Jack Ketchum novel to see print but the second to be written. Ketchum’s introduction mentions that the original form of the novel was far longer than the 166-odd pages that would eventually see print nearly two decades after it was originally written. While I assumed this meant that Ketchum had written the novel and stuck it in a drawer, his Wikipedia page alludes to the shorter version of the story being a re-working of an unreleased Balantine Press manuscript. This suggests that the decision to stick this novel in a drawer might have come from the publishers rather than the author himself.

While the fate of the original version of Ladies’ Night is ultimately both immaterial and ancient history, it is interesting to think that Balantine Press might wave through a novel as gloriously violent as Ketchum’s debut Off Season only to draw the line at Ladies’ Night. Maybe the original form of the narrative was too long and maybe 1980s Ketchum was too prideful to make the sorts of cuts that he would eventually wind-up making prior to the release of this much truncated version. These are both distinct possibilities… Or maybe Balantine Press flinched from the choice of subject matter as Ladies’ Night is essentially a version of Night of the Living Dead in which only women are affected and men are forced to violently put them down.

Continue reading →

REVIEW: Evil Archaeology by Heather Lynn

I’ve written before about the way that certain cultural spaces back-onto each other and how the varying proximities of different cultural scenes results in changes to the scenes themselves.

In the case of roleplaying-games, the scene started out backing-onto the world of wargames before drifting a lot closer to the world of literary SFF before moving closer to the world of computer RPGs and board-games. Each set of proximities shaped the internal culture of the RPG scene and each change in cultural proximities resulted in changes to how people made games, thought about games, and experienced games.

Similarly, science-fiction started out as adjacent to scientific non-fiction magazines before drifting closer to mainstream literature and then much closer first to Young Adult fiction and then to Romance. This isn’t to say that entire genres and marketplaces change overnight, just that smaller, less-stable marketplaces will often find themselves trapped in the gravity well of much larger cultural scenes that will inevitably result in people from the larger scenes crossing over as well as people from the smaller scene trying to connect with the larger marketplace.

The same dynamic is also at work in the world of what might be called paranormal non-fiction. Anyone who visited Forbidden Planet in the 1990s and 00s will remember that, despite focusing on SFF, comics, and nerd tat, Forbidden Planet also used to have a section devoted to books about UFOs.  That section was a product of a time when stuff like The X-Files saw the worlds of genre media and SFF drifting closer to the world of UFO literature.

While UFO literature has flirted with the mainstream a number of times (most recently in the 1990s), it tends to orbit a gravity well best referred to as ‘woo-woo bullshit’. The thing about woo-woo bullshit is that the gravity curve is very steep: You start with books about UFO sightings, then you start speculating about what these UFOs might be, then you start suggesting that the government is lying about the existence of aliens, and then you’re off to the races with the idea that the Earth was actually colonised by aliens and their cities are buried under the ice of the Antarctic. Venture any further down that particular slope and you get into talk of new age magic, and conspiracy theories involving lizard overlords. It’s all good fun but if you’re not careful you’ll start out reading works of speculative history like Fingerprints of the Gods and wind up reading about creationists debunking the fossil record. One of the best things about John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies is that it starts out as a book about a series of cryptid sightings and then descends into what can only be called paranoid woo-woo bullshit.

Heather Lynn’s Evil Archaeology is like the creepy space station at the beginning of the 1970s science-fiction film The Black Hole in that it seems to sit far enough from the event horizon that you feel like you can engage with it without getting sucked into the swirling vortex of bullshit that lies just beyond. You might even read the first few chapters and start to feel that this is a pretty solid work of popular scholarship but then the standards start to slip, the subject matter starts to drift and the book gets progressively sillier until you find yourself hip-deep in weird Christian nonsense.

Continue reading →

REVIEW: The Dark between the Trees by Fiona Barnett

A French literary critic whose name currently escapes me once argued that all genre storytelling resembles a jewel necklace in so far as it can be seen as a series of eye-catching jewels held together by a tiny thread. There are no structural differences between genres; the only things that change are the colour of the jewels.

Under this view, the character of each genre is determined by the appetites to which the various jewels appeal: A work of erotic fiction is a series of sex-scenes strung together to create a story. A work of science-fiction is a series of speculative set-pieces strung together to create a story. A work of horror is a series of terrifying interludes strung together to produce a story. A work of traditional literary fiction is a series of psychological interludes strung together to produce a story.

If we accept this characterisation of genre story-telling, then it makes sense to distinguish between a story’s affective payload and the technical proficiency with which it is delivered. It follows from this that there are two primary failure modes for genre story-telling: Firstly, there are stories that have the wrong affective payload for their designated genre. Secondly, there are stories that are so technically flawed that the audience never gets to connect with whatever it is that the author wants to show us.

While Fiona Barnett’s debut novel The Dark between the Trees is too well-structured to be an example of the latter, I do have serious questions as to the nature of its affective payload. Which jewels are supposed to be catching our eye? The publishers seem unsure as despite its dark cover and a blurb that speaks of witches and sinister forests, the book is not being marketed as horror. Instead, much like Francis Toon’s excellent Pine, The Dark between the Trees is being marketed as something called a Gothic Thriller.

Continue reading →