A Planet Named Shayol – Cordwainer Smith

Taken from Spectrum 4 – Edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest

A Planet Named Shayol is a short story within an anthology of other very good short stories. This one stands out for me in particular, as I although I have read the entire collection before, this is the only that has stayed in my brain, so I consider it especially worthy of a revisit.

Mercer has committed the ‘crime without a name’ (which I will have to be eternally curious about, as it is never explained further), and as such has been sentenced to punishment on Shayol. He has heard the screams broadcast from the planet’s surface, as have his leering guards, but no one knows exactly what happens there. As he is prepared for his ordeal by doctors, his skin and nails are toughened, and he is offered to have his mind and eyes removed for his own sanity. Puzzled by what could possibly be down there, and relaxed by the pleasure cap given to calm him, he declines.

Arriving in a laboratory on the planet’s surface, he is met by B’dikkat, a cow-like creature who feeds him scrambled eggs and asks to be called Friend. He is the one who will dispense the super-condamine, a narcotic so powerful it must never be mentioned to anyone off Shayol. Mercer will need it where he’s going…

Stepping outside, he is soon stung by one of the resident dromozoa, and the agony “was as though the sky fell in”. The agony starts again when the well-meaning dromozoa return to “fill his stomach, put water in his blood, draw water from his kidneys and bladder, massage his heart, move his lungs for him… And every single action hurt.” When he finally stops screaming, and when his voice returns from a caw back to his speaking voice, he talks to the other pink creatures he sees around him. They are people, but people with the most grotesque disfigurements; “The man looked normal enough, except for having two noses side by side. The woman was a caricature beyond belief. She had grown a breast on each cheek and a cluster of naked baby-like fingers hung limply from her forehead.” He sees another man; “There was a spike sticking through his head. The skin had healed around it on both sides… ‘You can’t kill yourself,’ said the man with the spike through his head.”

And so this is the punishment of Shayol, a living hell, unable to escape through suicide, of agony and deformity, only made bearable by B’dikkat and his needle when he comes to harvest the spare parts. They never need to eat or move, and the years go on unmarked. Mercer asks B’dikkat how long he has been here; “’eighty-four years, seven months, three days, two hours, eleven and one half minutes. Good luck, fellow.’”

The story ends when one day B’dikkat comes to get Mercer and another woman, who are still the most human. Instead of a convict, he has been sent four children, their brains and eyes removed. Shocked and disbelieving, they contact the outside world and demand a stop be put to this. The Instrumentality are reached, and after initial shock the situation is explained. The original Empire that convicted them all has now fallen, and the children were the last of the line, sent to Shayol so they could never commit treason in later life. The remaining people with any mind left will be taken to another planet without the dromozoa, and all given the pleasure cap for the rest of their lives. Those too far gone will be killed humanely. B’dikkat hurries to give a last huge needle dose to his favourite inmate, the first to arrive on Shayol, a man named Alvarez who has become so deformed he is the size of a mountain.

I think A Planet Named Shayol has stayed with me all this time because it is so enjoyably horrible.

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City – Clifford Simak

This week, I am at my parent’s house. Which means only one thing: my Dad’s old sci-fi paperbacks! The first of which is City

This book is written by dogs for dogs. Rather than one book, it is a collection of eight tales, which are passed down from generation to generation and told to pups around the campfires; old myths and legends generally considered to be nothing more than stories. The book is presented as a historical literary text, each of the eight chapters are prefaced with their own set of notes describing their literary merits and competing theories of origin amongst scholars. Each chapter documents a further breakdown in human society, and introduces a new member of the Webster family, slowly going down the generations. Due to the advances in hydroponics leading to farmland no longer being required, and the use of family planes meaning transport is no longer a problem, people can now live on large private estates in the country instead of in cities. This has also led to world peace, because without cities there is nothing for anyone to aim weapons at.

Many generations later, Jerome A. Webster is still living in the house built by his great great grandfather; John J. Webster from the first chapter. There is no longer any reason to leave due to technology that allows you to talk to anyone anywhere and feel as if you are anywhere – a bit like a holodeck. Surrounded by an army of household servant robots, he is an expert in Martian medicine and great friends with Juwain, a Martian philosopher on the brink of a great discovery to aid mankind. When he learns that Juwain is very ill on Mars, and requires an operation only he can perform, he suffers a major attack ofagoraphobia, and Juwain dies, his discovery dying with him.

Many generations later, both men and dogs have started to mutate. Grant arrives at the Webster estate to take a census of the mutant men, and also finds talking dogs that the latest Webster has engineered. He learns that there is one particular mutant, Joe, who helped point out the flaws in a design for interstellar flight and then disappeared into the woods. Grant finds Joe when his own atomic gun goes wrong, and Joe fixes it before disappearing again. Eventually hunting him down, it turns out that Joe has been helping the ants. By providing them with food and heating, he has allowed them to concentrate on construction, and they have begun to use carts and build their own cities. Grant gives Joe the unfinished Juwain philosophy, and instead of helping him complete it, he steals it and disappears.

Many generations later, men are tying to colonise Jupiter. The harsh conditions on the planet’s surface mean they must convert their bodies to those of the native creatures to survive. But though they keep sending men out in this state, none return. It turns out that they can’t bring themselves to come back to the rubbishness of being men after the paradise of being on Jupiter. Their senses are heightened, their understanding in increased, they develop telepathy, and it’s basically so wonderful they never want to return. Finally one man reluctantly brings himself back, and shares this amazing secret. The latest Webster is now in charge, and he realises that if humanity finds out about this, they will all go to Jupiter and be converted, and there will be no humans left. Just at this moment, Joe reappears with the finished Juwain philosophy: it reveals a way for humans to communicate telepathically in a way which would make any arguments obsolete due to universal understanding. This means that everyone will be instantly convinced that Jupiter is the best place to go, and humanity is in decline.

Many generations later, there are only a few people left on earth, all living together in Geneva. Another Webster has written a book, but he realises no-one will ever bother to read it. Human endeavour has declined, no one has any interest in furthering the race, or anything at all other than relaxing. Currency and commerce are unnecessary. Everything is unnecessary, and people are only left with meaningless hobbies. One by one, the remaining humans on earth enter a sleep state, and Webster seals off Geneva, allowing the dogs and robots to take over and civilise all the other animals.

However, a few people were left outside Geneva, and many generations later, they have just invented the bow and arrow. The dogs have also developed, and are now able to detect parallel worlds, which are populated with what they call the cobblies. One cobbly comes through, and kills a wolf. When a man finds out about this, he is prepared to kill the cobbly, although killing is forbidden and nothing has been killed for years. Jenkins, the seven thousand year old Webster family robot, witnesses this, and takes it upon himself to remove all the remaining men from this world to a cobbly world, thus leaving the dogs to develop without man’s violent influence.

The eighth and final chapter brings another threat against the dogs’ way of life: the ants. By now they have built a huge sprawling city, and developed tiny ant robots which infect the dogs’ robots and recruit them to build the city further.  By this time, men are already becoming forgotten amongst the dogs, and they refer to all men as websters. Jenkins goes to Geneva and wakes the last Webster to ask how to kill ants. But poison doesn’t exist, and killing never happens, so Jenkins takes all the dogs to another world, and leaves the original one to the ants.

Although City shows the decline of humanity due to the rise of technology, and man’s inherent violent tendencies, because of the charming way it is told by dogs of the future, it is a far from bleak story.

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Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Set in Nigeria the 60s, Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of three characters; Olanna, a middle-class Nigerian; Richard, her twin sister’s white boyfriend; and Ugwu, her husband’s houseboy from a rural village. The book moves between n the early and late 60s, starting off in peace-time and progressing into the civil war. As tension mounts between northern Nigerians, and the Igbo people in the south, the new nation of Biafra is born as the south tries to split away from the rest of the country. The title refers to the emblem of a rising sun on the Biafran flag.

Ugwu is recruited from his village to the town of Nsukka to work for Odenigbo, a lecturer at the university. Olanna comes to live with them when she marries Odenigbo. They live happily together, entertaining their intellectual friends, including Richard, an English writer who now lives in Nigeria. But Olanna does not get on with her mother-in-law, and when Olanna is away, she gets her son drunk and delivers her housegirl, Amala, to his bedroom with the help of dibia, a type of local magic. Olanna later sleeps with Richard, and when her sister Kainene finds out, it creates a huge rift between them. Kainene burns Richard’s manuscript, but they stay together. It turns out that Amala became pregnant with Odenigbo’s child, and as she is reluctant to have anything to do with it, Olanna adopts Baby instead.

As war spreads through the country, the lives of Olanna, Odenigbo and Ugwu start to crumble. They are forced to move to increasingly small and squalid accomodation, and eventually end up living with Richard and Kainene in their flat. Shifted from job to job, Odenigbo develops a drinking problem. Ugwu is conscripted and forced to serve in the Biafran army, where he is made to commit horrendous acts of war. Kainene disappears on a mission to find supplies over the border. Throughout these and other awful events, Olanna remains strong and as dignified as possible.

There are wonderful descriptions of food throughout the book, as Ugwu learns to cook feasts for Olanna and Odenigbo and their friends. One memorable dish for Richard is the spicy pepper soup; “His nose was running, there was a delicious burning on his tongue, and he knew his face was red… ‘It’s fantastic’ he said. ‘It clears one up.’” Richard’s own servant, Harrison, cooks up far more English fare, such as roast beef, rhubarb crumble and lemon tarts. His menus hint at a colonial past, and whilst his canapés of stuffed eggs and sausage rolls are admired by the guests at Odenigbo’s house, they are left uneaten in favour of more traditional dishes. The elaborate pre-war menus are in stark contrast to the steady decline into starvation as the war continues. At one point, Olanna is given a tin of corned beef by an official she knows at the aid centre. As she leaves, she is followed by jealous soldiers who surround her and steal the corned beef back. As her initial gratitude and joy at the gift plummets to despair its loss, the importance of even the slightest morsel of food is dramatically highlighted. As the children around her become malnourished, Olanna frantically checks Baby for symptoms, initially relieved that she is not like them, only to eventually find her once black hair turned yellow and coming out in clumps. It is on the day that she comes home to find there is nothing to eat that the war is finally declared over.

The extracts of the book within this book, The World Was Silent When We Died, tell the story of the civil war and its root causes in colonialism from the Biafran point of view. We are led to believe it is Richard writing it, but it turns out that Ugwu’s education from Odenigbo and from his own experiences of the war have made him into the author.

The book mentions that Biafra was the first time the world really saw the horrific pictures of starving Africans, and since then it has almost become a terrible stereotype of an entire war-torn third-world continent. So for me, this book gave a very balancing viewpoint of normal middle-class people in what is usually portrayed as an alien world of violence and poverty, and this was especially highlighted by Olanna’s strength and lack of self-pity.

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Sacred – Eliette Abecassis (translated by Karen Newby)

Sacred is not a nice story. Made even less nice by the fact that it’s probably entirely true for someone somewhere in the world.

Rachel is married to Nathan, and they live in Jerusalem as orthodox Jews. They are very much in love and have been married for ten years, but they have not had children. Disobeying Jewish law, Rachel has even been to a doctor who has confirmed that she is not infertile, therefore their lack of children is down to Nathan. However, under the same Jewish law, after ten years with no children, Nathan has the right to divorce his wife. So, even though they’re in love, and even though it’s not her fault, he gives in to the entire community’s expectations, and hands her the divorce paper. She has to go back to her mother’s house, and he remarries another woman. Bereft and heartbroken, Rachel kills herself for love.

Meanwhile, Rachel’s sister, Naomi is in love with Yacov and has been for six years. But because he left to become a soldier, the community has rejected him, and they are forbidden to marry. Instead, Naomi is promised to Yossef, although she doesn’t even like him. On her wedding day, she misses the wedding and arranges to meet Yacov, and they run off together instead.

This is a horrible story of female oppression and patriarchal control with a religious label stuck on it. I did not like it, and I do not like that this happens in the world today.

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A Tale of Love and Darkness – Amos Oz

Call me an uncultured moron, but I could not be bothered to read this book. I got as far as page 25 and made the rare decision that, actually, I don’t have to read this. It’s all serious and Jewish and intellectual and basically boring. I don’t usually like memoirs or autobiographies, and I only have this because it was being given away free in a cardboard box on the side of the road. I can see why the previous owner put it there, and I think I’ll do the same and drop it off in the charity shop next time I’m passing. A Tale of Love and Darkness is just not for me.

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The Black Tower – P.D. James

I have never read anything by P.D. James before, detective fiction is not generally my cup of tea. But I understand she is extremely popular, and having just finished The Black Tower, I can see why. I tend to write these reviews of mine by explaining everything that happens in the book. In The Black Tower, however, not a huge amount happens, and it’s not about that. This isn’t an action thriller, this is a slowly creeping story where atmosphere and character are more important than the events which take place.

Adam Dalgliesh (who I understand is our recurring hero) is recovering from a mis-diagnosis of leukaemia which was actually glandular fever (I’d be really annoyed with the doctors if I was him) when he received a postcard from his old friend, Father Baddeley, asking him to come and stay with him at Toynton Grange care home in Dorset. Dalgliesh takes him up on the offer of the holiday, but arrives to find he has just missed the Father. He was cremated and buried several days ago. Although he died of natural causes, the coincidental death of Victor Holroyd, a patient at the Grange, a few weeks before, raises Dalgliesh’s suspicions, and he goes clue-hunting.

Various clues and leads present themselves, but the local police have done their job and Father Baddeley’s death is ruled as natural causes, and Holroyd’s ruled as suicide, witnessed by two people, Julius Court who lives in a nearby cottage, and Dennis Lerner, the nurse looking after Holroyd. Then another patient, Grace Willison dies, and the doctor’s wife Maggie Hewson is found hanged. Dalgliesh cannot let it lie, and after lots of poking about and adding 2 and 2 together to get various results, he figures out that Court is running a heroin smuggling business, using the patients biannual pilgrimage to Lourdes as a perfect cover to get drugs into the country, and the home’s newsletter as a way to inform his clients of supplies. He killed all four victims to cover his tracks. Realising he’s busted, Court tries to kill Dalgliesh, Dalgliesh manages to leave vital clues leading the local police to save the day just in time. Hurrah.

(On a personal note; I was particularly taken with Julius Court’s take on life – he has to be rich or it’s not worth it, and he has a loaded gun just in case.

“’I prepare my own defences… Money and the solace it can buy. Leisure, friends, beauty, travel. And when they fail… as they inevitably will… three bullets in a Luger.’”

“’I can’t be poor again. I need money as I need oxygen. Not just enough; more than enough. Much more. Poverty kills. I don’t fear death but I fear that particular slow and corrosive process of dying… I fear; the pathetic elderly queens managing on their pensions. Or not managing. And they, poor sods, haven’t even been used to having money. I have. I’m not ashamed of my nature. But if I’m to live at all, I have to be rich.’”

Being concerned with my own sea of troubles, I’m surprised to find some of my own thoughts echoed in this fictional egotistical villain.)

But much better than the clever plot is the unsettling atmosphere of this book. Broken locks, missing diaries, poison pen letters, jilted wives, secret lovers, sinister monk’s robes, and of course, the looming black tower itself, are all combined to produce a brooding backdrop to the patients and staff of Toynton Grange. Much is made of the grotesqueness of the patient’s disabilities, (perhaps not so PC these days) and of the manager’s smug pseudo-religious attitudes, and the staff’s slightly grubby track records. Played out in this windswept Dorset countryside on the brink of seaside cliffs, the characters all take on a slightly weird quality in the shadow of The Black Tower. I found this book a brilliantly written, unsettling tale that left me wanting more.

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Monster Island – David Wellington

I love zombie stories. I love anything post-apocalyptic, but zombies in particular are just ace. I love planning for the time when the zombies come. I love watching or reading about what other people do when they come. And I really love shouting at them for doing it wrong. So it’ll come as no surprise that I loved Monster Island. What did come as a surprise was the lack of shouting it provoked.

Dekalb is a UN weapons inspector. A useful man to have around in the case of a zombie apocalypse, and the Glorious Girl Army of the Free Women’s Republic of Somaliland think so too. Their leader, Mama Halima, has AIDS, and apparently they can find no AIDS medication in the whole of Africa. As Mama Halima saved most of the Glorious Girl Army from the horrors of female circumcision and the horrors of a zombie apocalypse, they’re prepared to do pretty much anything for her. And it turns out that what they need to do is sail half way round the world to look for AIDS medication in the UN headquarters in Manhattan. Dekalb is the only one who knows how to find them once they get there, and they’re offering him safety for his young daughter Sarah, so off they all go. Slightly far-fetched, I’m not quite sure why they couldn’t have checked in Europe first, but since the rest of the story is so promising, I just went along with it. And the arrival in New York is quite poetically done, with a version of The New Colossus for the zombie age;

“Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched refuse… Give me your huddled masses. Huddled masses yearning to breathe… Give me your tired, your so very, very tired… Your huddled masses. Give me your dead, I thought… Give me your wretched dead, yearning to devour, your shambling masses. Give me. That was what they were thinking, wasn’t it?… give me. Give me. Give me your life, your warmth, your flesh. Give me.”

Also lovely about their arrival is an image of a singular zombie who has fallen into the sea in her desperation to reach food. Trying to doggy-paddle towards the boat, she is “hindered by the fact that she kept reaching up, reaching up one bluish hand to try to grab at us. She wanted us so badly.” I like zombies, even if they are meant to be evil flesh eating monsters, and I always feel sorry for them when they can’t get any braaaains. They’re all pathetic and funny. Aw.

Gary is a med-student. He saw the zombies coming and figured that he couldn’t beat them, so he’d join them. Realising that the zombies are only stupid because their brains are deprived of oxygen between death and resurrection, he hooks himself up to a ventilator and a dialysis machine, jumps in a bath of ice, and wakes up as the smartest zombie ever. I LOVE THIS. I love that someone has thought about how zombies might actually work medically. It’s so often left unexplained, and the fact that David Wellington has pinned down how his zombies are going to function really makes this stand out from the crowd. It’s also very necessary for the plot.

These zombies will eat anything living, not just humans. They need life force, and they don’t care where they get it. They’ll scoff cats, pigeons, flies, zoo animals, grass, and if they can’t get anything else, mould. But they only need this because their bodies are rotting, so when the preserved mummies in the museum come back to life, they form a group of super-zombies who can think and move without lurching about all over the place and constantly needing to eat. They’re also psychic. Being undead connects them to a network of all the other undead, and as Gary’s brains aren’t too mushed to be able to think, he can tap into the life force of all the other shambling zombies. When he commits a social faux-pas and eats the corpse of the leader of the Glorious Girls, he gets a bullet to the brain. Not put off by this, he uses this psychic ability to perform the neat trick of digging the bullet out of his own head and soaking up the life force of several of the ordinary zombies to keep himself alive. In doing so, he attracts the attention of Mael Mag Och, a celtic bog mummy, druid, and former human sacrifice. Apart from speaking in a slightly dodgy Scottish accent (occasional use of ‘lad’ and ‘aye’ in otherwise perfect English), Mael Mag Och is one badass zombie king, and he promptly sets about getting all the brainless zombies to build him a giant fort in the middle of Central Park. There’s quite a sweet scene where the zombies, happily carrying out their orders, scrape mortar from bricks to be re-used. As they’re lacking motor skills, some of them are reduced to doing this with their teeth. Aw. And the poor zombies who can’t move get tied to the top of the building so they can be lookouts, “Dead men climbed up on ladders to feed bits of meat to these lookouts, keeping them fresh.” Aw. That’s a dedicated (and kinda pathetically cute) army right there. Mael Mag Och’s other plan is to wipe out all the survivors, cos, you know, when you’re dead, genocide is the only fun you can get.

The chapters alternate between Gary and Dekalb, with cliff-hangers smattered throughout, and it’s interesting how the classic zombie/survivor roles are played out and reversed. A clever, thinking zombie is not something I’ve encountered before (unless you count that one at the end of I Am Legend who just wanted his girlfriend back), and it’s refreshing to see the situation from the other point of view. Gary keeps on saying, “I have a right to exist”, not something you’d normally hear from the shambling hordes as they’re mown down by the gunfire of the standard survivor.

Gary goes to flush out the survivors from their subway hideout. But the survivors have mental ex-army man Jack on their side, and he’s set up some pretty sweet anti-zombie traps. First of all, the zombies detonate a bomb on the subway platform, exploding loads of shrapnel bombs at head height. The second wave encounter strategically placed survivors armed with nail guns, and the third lot end up being electrocuted by the third rail. The survivors use these traps as distractions so they can get out at the next subway station, but Gary’s huge expendable army heads them off at the pass, and he wins in the end. Then he sees that one of the survivors is pregnant, and a lightbulb goes on above his head.

These thinking zombies really can think. Mael Mag Och is very practical with his building techniques, but Gary’s sustainable farming plan is where he really earns his extra credit. He realises that killing all the survivors is a good theory, but in reality, he’s gotta eat. Instead of massacring the survivors, he takes them back to the zombie fort in the park.  Mael Mag Och was really set on his plans for genocide, and unimpressed with Gary, tries to kill him. Gary rips his head off and eats it though, thus gaining all his knowledge and power. Then he builds a nice village for the survivors to live in, planning to farm them for “one meal a month, maybe even less if I’m careful. That’s not a lot to ask.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, or in this case, Governor’s Island, Dekalb, mental Jack, the Glorious Girls and racist survivor Kreutzer have regrouped, found some aeroplanes and weapons, and are planning to go rescue the other survivors. Gary suggests that they shouldn’t bother. He’s got a million zombies on his side, but he’s willing to let Dekalb get the drugs from the UN and leave New York, in return for “some quality time with [Ayaan’s] viscera.” Turns out he still holds a grudge for her shooting him in the head. Ayaan uses this to their advantage, and sets up a diversion on the roof of a nearby building, thus drawing all the zombies towards her. And killing shit loads of them. This gets all of Gary’s attention, allowing Jack and Dekalb to sneak inside the fort.

At this point, Jack goes really mental, and decides he’d like to go for the suicide bomber option; “I think about killing them in their sleep… We can keep them from being his lunch.” Jack’s all about ‘killing with kindness’. Dekalb isn’t so convinced, Jack tries to shoot him, but Dekalb gets in there first and stabs him. Gary hears the gunshot, and gets a few zombies to bring Dekalb and (the nearly dead) Jack to his bathroom, where he’s lounging around in some highly flammable formalin. This is particularly convenient as Dekalb throws a match into the bath, and Gary dies in a really impressively nasty way;

“burning fat seeped from his broken skin and dribbled down his limbs like candle wax… The dead don’t breathe. They don’t faint either. Gary was dying in the most excruciating way possible but he was not allowed the mercy of unconsciousness… the fire had turned his eyeballs into cooked blobs of jelly. “

I can’t help thinking David Wellington must have had so much fun writing this book. Although this is the zombie apocalypse and everyone’s dead or about to die, there are a few laughs along the way. I especially liked the name badges the survivors are using, resulting in names such as HELLO MY NAME IS fuck you, and HELLO MY NAME IS Mr President. The survivors also pass the time playing ‘famous movie scenes’, and I did actually lol when hardened killing machine Ayaan requested Speed. I smiled at Gary’s scorn at the attempts to kill him; “Was he actually trying to kill us with BBs?” and “No shit, a flare gun?  What’s next? A starter’s pistol?” and the names of his two favourite zombie henchmen, Noseless and Faceless.

Anyway, Dekalb kills Gary, all the survivors and Glorious Girls get rescued by Kreutzer in a written-for-the-movie helicopter and bus combo, they get the drugs from the UN, and everything ends fairly happily. Oh, except our hero got bitten by mental Jack (who died and came back as a zombie), and is now turning into one of the undead himself. But as he reveals in a letter to his daughter, he is in a well-stocked medical facility deep in the UN building. So what has he gone and done? Well, only hooked himself up to a ventilator and a dialysis machine, jumped in a bath of ice, and woken up as the smartest zombie ever. Cue sequel.

Monster Island is an excellent new take on the classic zombie genre, and manages to combine refreshingly plausible characters and situations with equally plausible moments of genuine human humour. The only exceptions would be the need to sail halfway round the world for AIDS drugs – which I can just about excuse as it allows there be a badass teenage girl army in New York – and the existence of a secret zombie psychic network. I will just have to read the next book in the series, Monster Nation, to find out if that one can be explained away.

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Flowers in the Attic – Virginia Andrews

For me, Flowers in the Attic was a good story, but told in a really awful way. The blurb at the front tells me this was Virginia Andrews’ first novel. It shows. Published in 1979, I almost forgave its rubbishness as just being dated. Except that other books have been written before 1979 that aren’t as stilted and unrealistic, so this has nothing to do with date, and everything to do with the author’s style. Of lack thereof.

A perfect blonde-haired blue-eyed ‘Dresden doll’ family annoyingly all have names beginning with the same letter. (It’s like they’re set up as two dimensional, almost cartoonish, characters right from the start.) Then the father of the family dies and they’re left destitute.  The accident which kills their father is amazing, and described in great detail by a seriously insensitive policeman. First of all, a drunk driver smashes into him; he still might have survived because he swerves. But then he hits a bit of debris on the road and his car overturns. He still might have survived, but then a truck smashes into him. He still might have survived, but then the car goes into a spin. He still might have survived, but then the car bursts into flame. Ridiculous.

So their home is to be repossessed because the mother can’t possibly get a job to support them. Her cunning plan is to move back to her rich parent’s mansion. They threw her out when she got married, because her husband was also her father’s half-brother. Religious zealots that they were, they decided that the marriage was unholy (so why did the church allow it – they do check that kind of stuff), and that any children would be born with horns and tails and be the children of sin. So she can’t tell her father that the children exist. But she does tell her mother, who – although not overly impressed – lets them live in the attic of the huge house. Ridiculous.

The grandmother is an evil maniac, and furnishes their attic with pictures of hell. She tells the children that if they ever see each other naked or go in the bathroom together at the same time, they are committing a sin and she will punish them. How many 14 year old boys share the bathroom with their younger sister anyway? How many 12 year old girls would let them? I never shared the bathroom or was naked in front of my two sisters after the age of about 8. Apparently these two do it all the time. Ridiculous.

So the four children live in the attic for years. It’s absolutely massive, has a separate bathroom, they can get out onto the roof, they have a tv, rooms of books to read, chests of junk to play with, they’re given loads of toys and new clothes, fresh food is brought to them every day. (It doesn’t actually sound that horrific. I’m sure there are plenty of people who live like that quite happily through their own choice.) Until the evil grandmother catches Chris staring at Cathy whilst she’s prancing about naked in front of the mirror. She demands that Cathy either cut off all her hair, or she’ll stop bringing food. Even after she covers Cathy’s hair in tar and she loses most of it, they still go for the starvation option. After a couple of weeks, food starts showing up again, with the addition of sugar coated doughnuts. The children decide these show that the evil grandmother is obviously not as evil as they thought. Even though she’s starved them and hates them and tells them they’re evil, they decide to happily eat the lovely doughnuts. Ridiculous.

It is only after this, months after they’re imprisoned, that Chris and Cathy decide to go outside. They descend a ladder made of sheets to go swimming in a nearby lake one night. On their return, Cathy has some difficulty climbing back up. So they decide never to do that ever again under any circumstances no matter what. Even though Chris has no problems with the rope, and could very easily go down and go and get help. Or go round from the other side and let them out. Ridiculous.

Apparently, at the time, this book caused huge controversy because of the scenes of incest between Cathy and her brother Chris. The incest is ridiculous and so unrealistic I’m surprised anyone found it believable enough to be offensive. Cathy steals down from her attic prison dressed only in a sheer blue babydoll nightie and knickers. She goes into her mother’s bedroom and finds her new husband asleep in a chair. Being the typical blonde she is, she decides the best course of action is to kiss him before she leaves. When he wakes up he thinks he’s had a lovely dream, and goes on about how nice it was to his new wife. At this point in the story, Cathy is 16. Even accounting for how young Bart is, he still has to be at least 25. Nice. Anyway, Chris overhears Bart telling Corinne how much he loves the younger ladies kissing him in his sleep, and works out it was Cathy he was letching over. Chris is not just enraged at her stupidity, but also jealous that she’d think of touching any other man. So he gives into ‘something hot, swollen and demanding, so much it stole reasoning and sanity from him’, and has sex with her. And she’s alright with that. Ricockulous.

The arsenic laced doughnuts finally kick in, and the boy twin dies. (Did I not mention the arsenic? It’s so obvious there’s something up with those doughnuts and their ‘sugar coating’ because they get mentioned so many times. It’s as if there’s a big arrow pointing to them with ‘suspicious’ flashing in neon lights). The mother and grandmother don’t care very much, so the older children FINALLY get round to escaping (only took three and half years). They brilliantly steal a key, press it into a bar of soap, and carve a wooden replica. Then they spend ages going into their mother’s bedroom and slowly stealing her money, little bit by bit. When they get bored of this, they eventually decide to steal loads of jewellery all in one go and just make a run for it. Took long enough. Ridiculous.

The ‘fateful conclusion’ comes to a head; when Chris goes to rob their mother, all her stuff is gone and she’s done a runner with her new shiny husband. When he tells Cathy, she’s so dopey doesn’t seem to realise, and just thinks she’s gone on holiday. Chris also overhears two servants conveniently talking about the evil grandfather. Remember, their mother promised to let them out as soon as he died. Turns out, he’s been dead for months. Again, Cathy’s not too bothered by this massive betrayal on the part of her mother (which might explain her decision making later, but I’ll get to that), and thinks “this was stunning good news!” Finally she gets it, they figure out the poison bit, and they leave. Those conveniently chatty servants also happened to mention that there was a clause in the grandfather’s will stating that if it turned out that by any chance their mother had had children by her first husband, or if she ever has children by her second husband, she has to give back all of her inheritance. (Being so thorough, I wonder he didn’t go on to mention any children by subsequent marriages. Seems he thought children are ok once you’re on the third husband). This suggests it was their own mother poisoning them for months. Ridiculous.

So now they go to the police and get their poisoning, child-abusing mother and grandmother in the shit, right? And get themselves checked out at hospital and get to social services after their horrific ordeal and long-term arsenic poisoning, right? Wrong. Chris, apparently unable to see the obvious course of action himself, lets Cathy make the decision. She remembers the good life they had before their father died. She thinks of the publicity they’ll receive if they go to the police. She thinks that her mother now has now lost her children and can’t have any more. She thinks how her mother won’t ever get to meet any grandchildren she might have. She thinks how her mother will grow old with a younger husband. She imagines meeting her mother again and turning her back on her. And she decides that after locking her four young children in an attic for years, driving them to incest, poisoning them and eventually killing one of them, that will be punishment enough. RIDICULOUS.

This story could have been so good! It’s supposedly based on a true story. It even has some good twists at the end. But because of the ridiculous way it’s told, the unrealistic way the characters speak and think, the pantomime wicked grandmother, the clumsy description of the children’s sexual awakenings, their inability to manage a totally manageable escape… basically everything, I found it just laughable. Now if you want a really good example of the ‘imprisoned by an evil parent in a small room for years’ story, the brilliantly unsettling Room has to be the polar opposite of the fusty and pious Flowers in the Attic.

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Horns – Joe Hill

Horns is the story of the aptly named Ignatius Parrish following the brutal murder of Merrin, the love of his life. A year after her death, he gets wasted and visits the place she was killed near an old disused foundry. He desecrates the shrine that people have made in her memory, and pees all over a plastic Virgin.  Waking up the next morning, his troubles begin having grown a fine pair of horns and apparently acquired various demonic powers. We follow him as he looks for help amongst his friends and family, and they each in turn tell him their deepest darkest desires. Eventually this leads him to find Merrin’s killer, and he goes about extracting his revenge.

The opening of this book sucks you straight in. You find out that Ig has grown horns at the same time that Ig finds out he has grown horns, and his rational (in the circumstances) reaction is reassuring in letting you know that the horns are the only weird thing going on here. All too often in books, and even more so in films and tv, a situation is set up where there are too many suspensions of disbelief required. As an audience member, I think that one step away from reality is enough for an interesting set-up, any more and it just gets silly. That’s the reason people end up shouting at the screen (or the page); because characters are doing ridiculous things in ridiculous situations. A story is much more convincing and easier to get involved in if people are doing rational things in ridiculous situations, or vice versa. So when Ig does the rational thing and goes to a doctor, it works as an excellent device to unfold the story. Not only does Joe Hill convince you of the legitimacy of the character in an otherwise abnormal situation, he also uses Ig’s journey to the surgery to first show how the horns work, and then explain why they work. This lays down the foundations of the rest of the story in such a way that I really could not stop reading.

Every time Ig talks to someone, they reply to his horns instead of to him. Glenna, the trashy girl he’s living with, tells him she just wants to eat doughnuts til she’s so fat she’s repulsive, and she looks to Ig and his horns for approval. When he tells her he doesn’t give a fuck what she does, she sticks her face in the doughnut box and gorges herself.

“The fly landed at the corner of her mouth.  He saw it there for a moment – then Glenna’s tongue darted out, and she trapped it with her hand at the same time. When she lowered her hand, the fly was gone. Her jaw worked up and down, grinding everything in her mouth into paste.”

I think this image is perfect. So revolting, it makes Glenna reptilian, utterly vile in her compulsion to eat. It illustrates wonderfully Ig’s new powers over people; if he says it’s ok to do something, it is ok. Even when it really isn’t.

As Ig encounters more people, they all turn effortlessly from normal people into depraved characters with ugly desires. The surgery receptionist wants to tell the mother of the screaming kid to “shut that miserable brat up”. The mother of the screaming kid is having an affair with her black golf instructor, despite being mildly racist, and wants to “kick her [the screaming kid] right in her spoiled ass”. The screaming child hates her mother and wants to “burn her in her bed with matches”.  The nurse likes to vandalise cars of people she dislikes, and would like to “leave dog shit in the driver’s seat”. The doctor wants to snort prescription drugs and masturbates over his 17 year old daughter’s friends. Animosity, racism, revenge, drug use, lust. These confessions and urges are shocking to read, these characters are twisted. Except not, because these are things that most people have thought at one time or another.  Ig’s demonic horns allow him to see the evil in people, except that the ‘evil’ is just normal human behaviour, with all its pettiness and selfishness and greed.

So on to the theological themes of this book. Obviously, with the main character turning into the Devil, there is going to be some discussion on the nature of good and evil.  Which brings me to another reason I loved this book; it made me think of something I had never thought of before, but which I wanted to instantly grab onto as my own opinion and belief. In this case, the argument is that as God hates sinners, and the Devil punishes sinners, aren’t they really on the same team? I don’t know how original this idea might be, but it’s certainly not something I’d thought of before, and the way it’s illustrated in Horns is wonderful. Emphasising the hypocrisy of religion, the priest is shown as corrupt and disobeying his vows of chastity. Merrin’s mother has replaced all the pictures of her dead daughter with pictures of Jesus.

On a lighter note, I like that the devilled eggs in Ig’s mother’s fridge are 666 times better than anything else. In the junk at the foundry, all Ig can find to wear is a blue skirt, referencing the Devil in a blue dress. The car he drives is a Gremlin. I smiled at Glenna’s trashy reading choice; Dean Koontz novels. And there’s a reference to Carrie as well, both things I think are a tiny tip of the hat to Joe Hill’s father, Stephen King.

When I read a story, often I just read the story. I must admit that sub-text and underlying themes can pass right over the top of my head.  So I hope I’m not going too far the other way this time, and reading too much into Horns. The story was a captivating one of love and revenge in a fantastic setting, studded with brilliant gems of imagery, witty references and clever observations. Joe Hill’s style effortlessly sets a slightly unsettling scene which makes for pleasurable reading I can get totally immersed in. But in my opinion, Horns is also an eloquent comment on the corruption and ineffectiveness of organised Christian religion in relation to the darker side of the human condition. And if that’s too pretentious, then it’s just a devilishly good book.

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