Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem – Nick S Thomas

Being interested in both Horror movies and Sherlock Holmes I end up reading all kinds of pastiches. Some of them are very competent like Loren D Estleman’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes, but an awful lot of them are a bit rubbish.

Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem falls somewhere in the middle, even if it does veer more towards the rubbish end of the spectrum than the competent. Thomas conflates Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, where Holmes tracks down Moriarty to Switzerland and apparently perishes as he tumbles from Reichanbach Falls, with yet more flesh-eating zombies derived from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Apparently Moriarty has discovered how to create an army of the living dead, although how is never revealed, and has charged them with preventing Holmes from tracking him down to his Swiss lair. Along the way Holmes is aided by a young Winston Churchill, intrepid traveller Phileas Fogg and explorer Sir Richard Burton, who has somehow faked his own death to fit in with the chronology.

While the writing isn’t too bad, there really isn’t much of an opportunity for Holmes to indulge in any detection. Much of the story is a series of set battles as Holmes and Watson despatch legions of flesh-eating zombies and the conclusion is rather unsatisfactory. As Watson ponders his friend’s apparent death we never discover what happens to the legions of living dead rampaging around Europe.  I have to say that I’m bored with zombies, they don’t really do much other than eat people and don’t offer any intellectual challenge to either the protagonists or the reader.

In common with a lot of self-published books Sherlock Holmes and the Zombie Problem has not been edited much beyond a spell check and it is littered with random paragraph breaks and words used in the wrong context.

MR James – Night of the Demon

I have been reading the Collected Ghost Stories of MR James this week, as research for a feature I’m writing about the old boys 150th birthday this year. I have read many of these stories before in those paperback collections of Horror stories from the 1970s like Christopher Lee’s Archive of Evil, that I used to scour charity shops for, while others are familiar from those TV adaptations that used to turn up every Christmas.

Despite the predictability of hindsight, in print these stories can still do the business, every now and then there is a little twist, say where Dr Haynes’s hand idly touches the carving of the cat on the archdeacon’s stall in The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral only to discover instead of polished wood, living breathing fur, that has the power to shock and surprise. The power of James’s writing is in the ability to suggest and let the reader’s imagination do the rest, for my money a skill far greater than that of churning out gruesome violence and mutilation.

One of the things that did surprise me was how much of MR James’s material had been plundered by HP Lovecraft. I know Lovecraft admired James, he confessed as much in his essay on supernatural literature, but some of Lovecraft’s short stories have borrowed quite extensively from James tales like Lost Hearts and despite Lovecraft’s phenomenally fertile pantheon of horrors he is not the technician that James is when it comes down to atmosphere and plot.

Surprisingly few of James’s works have been filmed for the big screen, but in 1957 the French-American director Jacques Tourneur (him of the very stylish RKO B features Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie) crossed the Atlantic to film the story Casting the Runes. Moving the story on from 1911 to the 1950s Night of the Demon was remarkably faithful to the orignal story.

OK the fight with the stuffed cat looks a bit lame but the movie scared the pants off me when I first saw it on late night TV in the 1960s. It’s still one of my favourite horror films to this day. (Curse of the Demon was the US release title)

The Bloody Red Baron – Kim Newman

If you have been in a bookshop in the last year or so, you can’t have missed the creaking shelves of what we used to call the horror section. Vampires, zombies, demons, ghosts and werewolves are seemingly up for anything, whether it’s romancing teeny Americans or munching their way through Regency England. If you want my opinion most of it is pretty dire.

Having grown up on a diet of Hammer Horror, Pan and Fontana books of Horror, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and MR James Christmas chillers on the BBC, I liked the world of properly defined evil supernatural monsters so imagine my joy on discovering Kim Newman’s alternate Anno Dracula reality.

My old original Bloody Red Baron with the super new expanded edition

In the world of Anno Dracula, the blood sucking Count has married Queen Victoria, vampires are an accepted, even fashionable part of society and characters from history and literature interact with each other as the story unfolds.

These books used to be really hard to find, but last year Titan books republished the first Anno Dracula novel in an expanded format with new material. The sequel The Bloody Red Baron was republished this week again with extra material including a new full length novella. The action has moved on from late Victorian England to the trenches of the Western Front in 1918 and the forces of Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary are under the command of Graf von Dracula. In the skies the aces of the Royal Flying Corps are under attack from the shapeshifting vampire squadron headed up by the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. I won’t give away any more other than to say that like Anno Dracula there are real people like Richthofen, Mata Hari  and the British fighter ace Albert Ball (no relation) and there are characters from sources as diverse as DH Lawrence, Jules Verne and Captain WE Johns. Part of the fun is seeing who you recognise!

Kim was doing a signing down at London’s Forbidden Planet bookstore yesterday so I went down and got a few books signed for the folks at home.

Kim Newman fortunately not signing in his life's blood

In my previous life as Royal Mail’s stamp product editor, I worked with Kim on a couple of projects including the presentation pack for the Hammer horror stamps in 2008. His encyclopaedic knowledge of film is quite astonishing (he is the go to guy for any BBC documentary as well as writing for Empire and Sight and Sound) and I have no hesitation in recommending his recently revised masterwork Nightmare Movies for an in-depth look at Horror Movies from the 1960s onwards.

By far the best book on the modern monster movie

For me this neatly takes up the story of screen horror from where Dennis Gifford with A Pictorial History of Horror and David Pirie with A Heritage of Horror, left it in the 1970s.

P & O Across the Oceans, Across the Years

Beautifully illustrated with over 200 photographs and illustrations and engagingly written, I’m delighted to announce that my new baby has arrived. This lovely book tells the story of the great P & O shipping line and how it connected the UK with the rest of the world: from the early days of  empire mail contracts to stately cruise liners that were the very last word in ocean-going luxury. The book marks P & O’s 175th anniversary.

The lovely P & O Book I worked upon

My role in its creation was only small (compiling the index), the real hard work was done by author Ruth Artmonsky, Susie Cox, Beth Ellis and Anna-Klara Hahn of the P & O Heritage Collection and my friends Brian Webb and Dan Smith of Webb and Webb Design.

The book is packed with fantastic archive photography, like this informal shot of King George V and Queen Mary on board the Medina

A big part of the story telling is through the recollections of passengers and crew, giving the book an accessible human touch.

While not forgetting the incredible work of the creators of P & O’s publicity posters and graphics. For anyone with an interest in shipping, travel or graphic design this book would make a great gift.

After spending so much time with designer’s run-offs and page proofs, there really isn’t much to compare with the feeling of holding the finished article and getting a waft of that smell of fresh printers ink. The book was a real pleasure to work upon and it was fabulous to work with such a talented group of people, so big thanks to Brian for suggesting me for the indexing gig.

Dan Smith, Susie Cox, Brian Webb and Ruth Artmonsky at the book launch – photo by me

P & O Across the Oceans, Across the Years is available from www.antiquecollectorsclub.com for £35 (free postage for mainland UK)

Doors Open – Ian Rankin

If there is one constant in Ian Rankin’s stories it’s the Jekyll and Hyde duality of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. On the one side there is the rarefied middle class intellectual world of the University and cultural elite, on the other the violence and sleaze of the criminal underworld.

Doors Open

Here both world’s collide when a group of art lovers decide to liberate some of the old masters locked away from public view in the National Museum of Scotland’s secure store. Trouble is they need a bit of extra help and that comes in the form of gangland boss Chib Calloway. It isn’t long before things start going wrong especially when a group of Norwegian Hell’s Angels get involved.

As with Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels, this is a great read, the evocation of both high and low Edinburgh is spot on and the twists and turns of the plot keep you teetering on the very edge of your seat until the final chapter.  He even has a wry laugh at Edinburgh’s cultural vultures, take this exchange between the investigating policeman and a fine art auctioneer after the robbery:

‘So do you have any names for me?’

‘Names?’

‘Art-lovers who might put a gang together.’

‘This is Edinburgh, Ransome.’

National Gallery of Scotland

The Nightmare Man – David Wiltshire.

I have just finished this book, which was originally called Child of Vodyanoi.

Lovely Lurid Cover

This edition was published as a tie in to a BBC TV dramatisation in 1981, where the title was changed to give it a bit fright appeal. As you can probably guess from the cover there is a bit of a Sci-Fi Horror thing going on here. I never saw the TV series and only found out about it when I was researching British Sci-Fi shows for a project I was working upon. The premise of a mystery object found on a deserted Scottish beach, with an occupant who immedietely goes on a deranged killing spree, reminded me a lot of 1950s and 60s movies like the original Thing from Another World and Brit horror  The Island of Terror. I just had to read the book. It’s long out of print, so I tracked down a copy from an Amazon reseller.

It’s not high art by any means, but it didn’t disappoint. It really did take me back to the heady days of low-budget British Sci-Fi films and TV shows, before things got spoilt by CGI technology. The writing is well paced, the scene setting atmospheric and it doesn’t overdo the details of the rather nasty killings. The hero is the local dentist, who fortunately turns out to have been in the Paras (That’s the Parachute Regiment of the British Army my non British readers) and if I tell you any more I will spoil it for you. For the same reason, I’m not saying what a Vodyanoi is.

I’d quite like to get my hands on the DVD of the series, which starred one of my favourite actors, Celia Imrie as the dentist’s love interest. How about it Santa?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Jane Austen and Grahame Smith

The idea of transplanting a zombie holocaust into a Jane Austen classic probably sounded like a good idea at after a few drinks.

So in the early 19th century Britain is in the grip of an unexplained zombie plague. Fortunately the Bennet sisters have been trained in martial arts at the Shaolin Temple in China and their zombie slaying antics are here grafted onto the romance of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth.

As if the sub Karate Kid high jinks aren’t irritating enough Smith puts chipmunks and skunks into the British countryside. Now while imagining zombies roaming through 19th century Hertfordshire isn’t a problem for me, North American animals are. Similarly giving Elizabeth Bennet a Brown Bess musket that can fire with the rapidity of an Uzi was a bit rubbish, what’s wrong with an eight barrel volley gun? It worked for Sharpe’s Sergeant Harper, did loads of damage and it was a real piece of Georgian engineering.
This book is a bit of a one trick pony, but somehow has spawned a minor industry of horror/classic mashups, where zombies, werewolves and other creatures are grafted onto existing properties. Personally I have no problem with authors using other author’s characters, so long as they do something interesting with them, in the hands of someone like Kim Newman it can result in a really entertaining and original read. So if you want something that’s a bit more original don’t buy this book buy Kim’s Anno Dracula instead.

Anno Dracula – Kim Newman

I went along to London’s Forbidden Planet bookshop tonight because my pal Kim Newman was signing copies of his recently republished novel Anno Dracula.

My new and old copies of Anno Dracula

While the shelves are full of monster mash ups and vampire stories, this is the daddy of them all. Forget about Pride Prejudice and Zombies and the Twiglet saga. This is no retelling of a classic story with added monster bits by a hack writer, this is an original work, albeit with characters drawn from literature, film and history. Here Dracula has won, the blood sucking Count is married to the vampire Queen Victoria, Van Helsing’s head is on a spike outside Buckingham Palace and a serial killer with a silver blade is taking care of Whitechapel’s vampire prostitutes.

Part of the fun of reading the book  is identifying characters that you have encountered before from say Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells and Hammer horror movies, and I am full of admiration for the way that Kim has melded so many characters both real and fictional (including many of his own) into the story. There are also some handy notes at the back so you can look up characters you don’t know.

Anno Dracula has been out of print for ages in the UK and my old copy is falling to bits, so I was delighted to get a new copy, signed, with some extra stuff in it too.  Oh and there are no wet sparkly vampires thankfully.