The Fisherman
The Fisherman

The Fisherman by John Langan is a quietly disturbing novel of loss, black sorcery, and regret. Unexpectedly, the story manages to be both intimate in its telling and sweeping in its possible implications. While not perfectly balanced between those points, The Fisherman is a well-written and emotionally engaging work.

Told in three parts, The Fisherman begins by introducing the languid, convincingly-realized Abe. He is the novel’s widowed narrator, recollecting why he began fishing and what eventually made him stop. Abe’s tale ventures from his personal history into local history, then local folklore, and then deep into the occult and supernatural. But Abe and his experiences are made to serve double-duty. While he is presented as the primary, first-person focus of The Fisherman, Abe’s life shortly becomes the frame for another tale that is a thinly disguised, massive exposition dump. However, that content does allow Abe’s narrative to be something more than an intriguing novella.

After Abe sets the scene, the second, longer part of the novel is a several-times secondhand recounting of  events that occur well before the frame story. While this second part is nearly stand-alone and full of rich images, it eats up the middle 150 pages of the 266 page novel without hitting the same emotional tone as the introduction. In particular, it lacks the distinctive voice Langan gives to Abe.


In addition to creating a great character, Langan also imbues The Fisherman with a great sense of place—the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York are a vital presence in the novel. He teases out the atmosphere of the forests, rivers, and streams, captures the fragrance of the woods and the qualities of light. He also very gently lets grief seep in before his characters declare it out loud.

The foreshadowing in The Fisherman is frequent and subtle. Langan keeps good control over its pace, even when he seems to be pointing right to it: “The canvas was such a mess of shades and shadows that I half-suspected it was some kind of giant Rorschach Test… there was something about it, this quality, that I don’t know if I have the words for. The picture fascinated me; I guess because it was so close to showing you what it was, so close to revealing its meaning” (41).

You don't want these fish
You don’t want these fish

The imagery is strong but not always connected. The many, many uses of water are beautifully done, vivid and tactile, but they do not always, well, flow. Occasionally it seems as if a water reference is used simply because it is watery. For example, in the third part of the novel Langan weaves a familiar urban legend into the mix and then submerges it, using it to reinforce the dolorous mood:

“It’s one of those tales I’ve noticed attaches to spots where water covers the site of human dwelling. There’s something haunting about the image of those houses, those shops, those churches, submerged in darkness, schools of fish darting amongst them, the light a distant glow overhead. It’s as if you’re seeing how time works, or some such” (199)

While it is evocative, it doesn’t fully connect with his other uses of watery imagery, particularly the pivotal Dutchman’s Creek and the often-referenced black ocean.


John Langan, The Fisherman himself
John Langan, The Fisherman himself

Speaking of liquid images, I wish the strange other world Langan attaches to our own had been more thoroughly dived into. He presents us with such grand visions as: “For a moment, Jacob’s mind insists that what arcs out of the water is an island, because there is no living creature that big in all of creation. Then it moves…the whole of its dull surface traversed by the ripples of what Jacob understands are great muscles flexing and releasing, and there’s no doubt this is alive” (145). This and descriptions like it evoke the sheer scope of the thing and its environment in a way that recalls Dune and the sandworms. Yet it still feels somewhat incomplete to me, like a set-piece rather than a fully organic experience. I would have welcomed a much longer novel that delved further into that sorcerous world.

The Fisherman has been described as Lovecraftian—but everything is Lovecraftian, of late. This flirts with it, although it is in many ways too concrete and contained in its cosmic horror. But comparisons are only guideposts, and John Langan has a distinct style that stands on its own. I truly enjoyed The Fisherman. It has at its root a thoughtful literary sensibility wrapped around a solid supernatural horror story. That’s a hard combination to beat.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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The Weird
The Weird

The Weird is a far-ranging 2012 anthology compiled by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, both of whom have stellar weird credentials—Ann was an editor at the legendary Weird Tales magazine before it fell into limbo, and Jeff is an established novelist of the New Weird known for his Southern Reach trilogy. Together, they have identified many stellar, foundational, and surprising examples of the genre. For this volume, the VanderMeers assembled one hundred and ten stories that fill more than a thousand pages and that demonstrate a spectrum from the most traditional of weird tales to the post-modern new weird.

As Michael Moorcock observes in his “forweird”, “There are no rules for the weird tale, which is at least part of the attraction if the story an author wants to tell can’t readily be told in an established form,” at a stroke releasing the idea of weird fiction from the usual genre constraints. And, he adds, “the best writers write the best weird stories”.

In this ambitious a collection, with stories ranging in time from the early years of the twentieth century to present day, there are of course many familiar authors we are used to considering ‘the best’. The VanderMeers do give us Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Clark Ashton Smith. But there are even more unexpected additions to the ever-widening gyre of weird lit such as Kafka, King, and William Gibson—all of whom are also in here. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the author of Rashōmon, appears with the inflected and disturbing “The Hell Screen”, and the remarkable but often overlooked Daphne du Maurier is well represented by the grotesque “Don’t Look Now”. And there are so many more surprises. Among my favorites are:

“The Willows” (1907) by Algernon Blackwood, which is what I would describe as classically weird. It is a slow, repetitious, corrosively told tale that keeps its true horrors almost entirely hidden. Its length seems at first excessive, but the undefined dread feeds off it.

“The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951) by Margaret St. Clair is a story I first encountered as a child in an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology. It is a short example of capitalism and avarice gone horribly wrong, as inspired by Dunsany.

“It Only Comes Out at Night” (1976) by Dennis Etchison, a story I first encountered in The Year’s Best Horror Stories series, is bleak and creepy and inexplicable as the best of the weird always is. This one always comes to mind on long car trips, and makes it clear why Etchison is a legend in the horror community.

“Angels In Love” (1991) by Kathe Koja is almost poetic in its descent, tracing the last days of an unimaginative party girl who wants something she can’t even conceive of. There is an odd, punky, Southern Gothic quality to the story that makes the sudden brief weirdness of the conclusion its only natural outgrowth.

“The People on the Island” (2005) by T.M. Wright is an unsettling surrealist vignette in which none of the characters understands why their world is changing or how to deal with it. Wright’s familiar themes of loss, loneliness, and alienation are all here in one mournful package.

Tentacles are always weird
Tentacles are always weird

Since The Weird is arranged chronologically, it is easy to see the progressive development of the weird tale. I found in many of the earlier stories the weird quality is not fully realized, existing as a blurry suggestion rather than a fully integral component. Some of the stories included do not have the sense of cosmic nihilism I usually associate with weird fiction, falling more into the purely horror or surreal category for me. A few are trapped by their author’s prejudices, such as the remarkably dated “Unseen-Unfeared” by Francis Stevens, which I think perhaps the weakest addition to the collection.

However, the sheer number and international scope of the selections forces one to reconsider dismissing any of these strories or putting them into an easier category.  Taken as a whole, the stories make a reader look at what qualities would bring them into the weird fiction fold. They force the question, ‘What is Weird?’ —a question that is re-examined in China Mieville’s artful “afterweird”. In it he demonstrates his expression of the weird as well as summarizes the subject both richly and well: “This collection is not (just) an act of cannon. It does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion—of the crawling and wriggling kind—there is no Weird”.

And it is hard to argue with that.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Joe Hill's The Fireman
Joe Hill’s The Fireman

The Fireman, Joe Hill’s latest opus, is a big, rambling, post-apocalyptic horror novel that is fast-moving and entertaining but, for me, ultimately unsatisfying. I was never engaged enough to suspend my disbelief or to be even remotely scared by the goings-on. This was a distinct impediment to my full enjoyment of a promising feast. So while I found the novel action-packed, reasonably fun to plow through, and a good enough way to spend a couple of days, I could not in the end take it seriously.

The Fireman begins with the world in the throes of a new plague known as Dragonscale—a highly contagious fungus that causes most infected people to burn alive, and to burn the world down with them as they go. A lucky few, however, have learned to make a chemical peace with the infection. Some can even use their fire as a tool, or a weapon. These fire-users become the novel’s main characters, fighting to get to a safe place rumored to be off the Maine coast.

This, for me, is where The Fireman’s problems start. I didn’t find these characters believable as real people, and so it didn’t matter to me if they succeeded.

Hill’s POV character is Harper Willowes, a twenty-six year old nurse infected with Dragonscale, pregnant, and fleeing what she has just now discovered is an abusive marriage. To me, she comes across as both trite and cutesy. Her main character traits seem to be her weirdly optimistic affect, unlikely medical knowledge, and obsession with Mary Poppins. The last highlights the inconsistencies in her personal frame of reference. Harper is supposed to be in her twenties, but Hill’s timeline of her experiences and life events (as well as her taste in music and children’s films) all skew at least a decade older. She is a collection of quirks that never quite gel into a convincing person.

The main male character is John Rockwood—exhibitionist British mycologist, romantic lead, Dragonscale master, possessor of a 1935 hook and ladder rig, and so the Fireman of the title. He also suffers from an abundance of odd traits. He is somewhat more realistic than Harper, but he still ends up being presented as an assemblage of eccentric details rather than a fully-developed character.

I also found the secondary characters weak in The Fireman. Hill uses a lot of stereotypes in the peopling of his novel, from the calm, wise black woman to the grandfatherly old man and from the evil conspiracy theorists to the pseudo-religious cultists gone bad. Profanity and lascivious chatter are thrown in at random and attributed to various characters without regard for who they are supposed to be, giving the racy dialogue a toneless quality and a distinct lack of impact. Teens are largely portrayed as Lord of the Flies-style savages. The bad guys are single-dimensional at best, cartoonish at worst, and consequently not particularly frightening. None are truly individuals—they are tropes and plot devices which act without personality. I couldn’t find anything about them to genuinely care about.

Joe Hill as a fireman
Joe Hill as a fireman

The Fireman may be intended as homage or at least a pastiche, but the literary and cultural references are so in-your-face it is hard to take them as other than too-clever name-dropping. We get the direct naming of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, and Harper Lee. We get obvious allusions to Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, King’s The Stand, Pet Semetary, Firestarter, and more.  At one point Hill uses his father’s technique of detailing a sudden disaster’s effects on minor characters. But the trick falls flat when there is no relationship with or between the people he suddenly throws into the story.

As with the references, so many of the details feel disconnected, as if Hill were focused more on moving the plot along (which he does, extremely effectively) than building a convincing end-of-the-world scenario. I was distracted by too many technical questions that stood out more clearly than the characters themselves. For example: Where do all the big trucks and construction vehicles gas up when they are driven for hundreds of miles? How do the overweight characters stay that way for months on end if the survivors are on short rations and skipping meals? And why are there always canned peaches?

So, to sum it up: despite the undeniably compelling pacing I found the characters poorly drawn, the cultural and literary references overdone, and the post-apocalypse details unconvincing. I can’t recommend The Fireman as more than a lightweight beach book. It is a glossy, compelling, in-joke of a novel with unlikely nonstop action, deus ex machina plotting at every turn, and an additional scene dropped off after the credits that teases a sequel. It will fall apart if you look too deeply. But if you don’t look, and don’t really expect too much, The Fireman can still be fun.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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The Loney
The Loney

The Loney is Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel, and it is a wonder. As literary horror it is gothic and gorgeous, not so much frightening as vastly uneasy. It has been a long time since I’ve read a book in one long gulp, and I am tempted to open it and start again. Hurley’s use of language is hypnotic, and he is relentless in setting and keeping the dim, wet mood of the novel.

“If it had another name I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney—that strange nowhere between the Wyre and Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time…and look[ed] for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter” (3)

First published in Great Britain by Tartarus Press in 2014, The Loney’s first American edition came in May 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In between those dates, the novel collected a number of awards and recognitions, with Britain’s Sunday Telegraph already declaring it “a modern classic”.

They may be on to something.

The unnamed narrator is almost absent from the story, even though it is told in first person as his own experience. His reactions and feelings are left mostly a blank, described but not dwelt on. This creates an emptiness at the heart of the story, rendering it as an almost clinical, if poetic, observation that results in very few answers.

Set primarily during a religious retreat in 1975, The Loney recalls the trend in sixties and seventies horror toward pagan witchcraft and Satanism as the root cause of terror. In many ways the novel shares the same thematic landscape as The Great God Pan, The Wicker Man, and assorted Hammer films like The Devil Rides Out. Here, though, Hurley uses the familiar horror tropes of witches, demonic infants, hostile locals, and ancient, secret religions as background rather than primary plot devices.

An ancient yew
An ancient yew

The Loney is filled with many portentous allusions and subtle misdirections. There are random, muddy hints that the narrator’s rigidly Catholic mother may be quite familiar with the undefined old ways. The storyunfolds during Easter, a Christian holiday with particularly strong ties to pagan rites. There are frequent mentions of yew trees, with their ancient connection to rebirth and immortality and astounding longevity, and ubiquitous place in churchyards. A troupe of Pace Eggers makes an appearance, whose performance varies from the norm and suggests uglier, older customs. There is a church chained shut, a decayed shrine, the mystery of a priest’s death. A nearby estate called Coldbarrow is said to be haunted by a witch, and its manor house, Thessaly, seems named after the battlefield where Greece’s old gods fought the new. The references are enough to bury a reader in history both real and mythological.

“I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along, It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way” (31)

Details and characters are introduced but not resolved, left hanging to intrude at intervals without confirming explanation. Striking and suggestive imagery is used but not integrated. Any sense of understanding is necessarily incomplete, because the fear The Loney generates is not from monstrousness but from uncertainty.

The Loney's uncertain terrain
The Loney’s uncertain terrain

And uncertainty becomes a moral and a mortal danger. Hurley’s real theme, as I understood it, is faith—its blindness, its loss, and its absence. The oppressive religiosity of the characters adds to the joyless proceedings, reinforcing the bleakness and alienation of the setting and the mood.

The narrator’s mother demonstrates a slavish, near fanatical adherence to ritual, to the point that ritual seems all that gives her faith. There are slippery narrative whispers that she and the other characters have lost their way, with their stubborn adherence to a faith that is not so pure as they would have it.

“The shrine seemed much further than everyone remembered, but eventually we arrived at a small gravel car park, deserted apart from a matress and some old car tyres. The little booth where an elderly attendant had once sold penny information leaflets was gone and there was only the wind and the sound of sheep far away on the hills” (209)

They do not want to admit the syncretic merging of a newer religion with an older, or that a religion changes at all. And that refusal to accept the uncertainty of changes–that God or no God is not so cut and dried, that there may also be a matter of God or Other Gods–makes the possibility of a loss of faith truly devastating.

Hurley does a compelling job at weaving all his many threads into a story that retains its mystery even after it ends. The Loney is convoluted, but without any coherent resolution—a puzzle with too many pieces gone. Yet it is so gorgeous, so evocative, that the incompleteness of it acts as a spur rather than a disappointment. I was left sated but wanting just one more bite. Time will tell if The Loney is truly a modern classic. But judging by the effect it has on me, I think it will be.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Wool, the publishing sensation
Wool, the publishing sensation

In my experience, the bigger the hype, the bigger the disappointment. And so it is with Hugh Howey’s Wool, the first of his Silo saga. Wool began its climb to fame as a self-published series of short stories. Then those various pieces were collected into a novel when Simon & Schuster picked up the property. But despite the attention of a mainstream publishing house, its amateur origins show. While the novel gained considerable word of mouth buzz (including rumors that a film version might be directed by Ridley Scott), I think its literary shortcomings dim the luster and make the glowing cover blurbs seem completely overblown. Wool is reasonably entertaining, and may be in the vanguard of the new way of publishing, but it is a long way from great.

The basic idea is intriguing—a society contained entirely inside a deep, underground silo, the descendants of the last human survivors of a world-killing war. And the plot itself is plain and solid, with secrets, factions, civil war, and plenty of action. But the execution is blunt and unpolished, with several main narrative components suffering from it.

The first issue I have is with Howey’s character development. Wool presents as a typical teen dystopia—except it has a cast of adult characters who do not seem to have grown emotionally since their adolescence. The stubborn behaviors, the angst, the absolutism, the weepiness, would all make more sense if the characters weren’t mostly in their thirties. Overall, Howey’s silo inhabitants are not particularly well-drawn or differentiated, with even the main protagonists being plot-driven rather than drivers. The few who do stand out, though, demonstrate a profound lack of realism.

As a surprise survivor in another underground silo, Solo (Solo? Really?) is written like a mentally challenged child, not as a fifty-ish man who has spent most of his life in isolation. He jumps around like a preadolescent, although he was supposed to have been sixteen when he was left alone.

And as the chief antagonist, IT head Bernard is an almost comically hackneyed villain with his mustache, pot belly, and Napoleonesque habit of putting his hand inside the front of his overalls. He is grandiose and megalomaniacal and every bit the cartoon tyrant.

At intervals, Howey tries to add some flavor to his cast. “I just don’t figure he was happy up there. That weren’t his home” (184) is his repeated attempt at differentiating characters—the ones he would have us identify as older, good men. Unfortunately, inserting a few random country twangs into a limited, otherwise homogeneous (if stratified) population doesn’t ring true and does nothing to make those characters into individuals.

Inside a silo
Inside a silo

Howey seems to have done only cursory research on the physical aspects of the novel’s world, relying instead on his imagination to flesh it out. This makes many of his constructions come across as unlikely and conceptually flawed. Too many details are seemingly thrown in only to make the situation seem futuristic, and they do not bear much scrutiny before they fall apart—the giant spiral staircase as a highway for the entire population, the inefficient reliance on human porters, the ubiquitous, color-coded overalls, pig’s milk as a beverage, corn growing in underground farms, mining and oil drilling directly below the silo, rotten soup and intact bodies still existing after thirty four years. It all goes back to the old saw of “write what you know”—which doesn’t mean write what you have experienced, but what you have studied and understood. Howey didn’t.

In addition to the awkward and unlikely details, there are some really excruciating descriptions to be found here: “His husband eyes swam behind tears while he allowed his dutiful sheriff-self to intervene” (24); “The clouds…loomed like worried parents over these smaller darting eddies of windswept soil, which tumbled like laughing children, twirling and spilling, following the dips and valleys as they flowed toward a great crease where two hills collided to become one” (44); “Here was where silicon chips released their tangy scent as they heated under the strain of crunching data” (204). The messy attempts to build atmosphere only serve to show how rough this Wool really is.

Wool's backyard
Wool’s backyard

As an extension of the weak characterization and the bad prose, Wool is riddled with pervasive fifties-style sexism and gender-roles that seem an odd social trait to retain, post-apocalypse. For example: “The deputy possessed that distinctly male quality of pretending to know where he was, even when he didn’t” (90); “There’s this ritual, a man asks a girl’s father for permission” (152); in reference to a twenty-seven year old man, “She smoothed the front of her red overalls and allowed Lukas to help her to her feet. She puckered her lips, and he presented his cheek. “My little boy,” she said, kissing him noisily and squeezing his arm” (410); and the hyper-traditional “Young children lumbered reluctantly off to school; husbands and wives kissed in doorways while toddlers tugged at their overalls and dropped toys and plastic cups” (146). Howey evokes a social structure that harkens back to an idealized mid-century rather than putting the energy into something organic. I found it off-putting and a little weird, unless Wool’s world ended in 1960.

The story picks up considerable momentum in the last hundred pages and becomes a reasonably compelling read, but the damage is already done. The improvements in the home stretch can’t disguise that Wool is overall rather artless, and the weak characterization, ungainly descriptions, and ill-conceived mechanics all combine to make this novel a prime example of the pitfalls of big hype. It’s an interesting story idea, passably told, and an amusing enough read. Not much more.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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When it comes to adaptations, I am normally a stickler for the purity of the source material (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson). I realize there will always be exceptions like The Princess Bride, when a book’s narrative structure makes it difficult to film but it still has a viable story to be told, or adaptations which tell the core story in a way that is distinctly their own—inspired, rather than adapted, different yet equal—like Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And last there are those adaptations where the movie is far better than the book ever was, tapping into the story’s potential in a way the words on the page have failed to do. That, I think, is the case with P.D. James’s The Children of Men and the film made of it.

The Children of Men--the end of the world according to P.D. James
The Children of Men–the end of the world according to P.D. James

Since I thought the movie version of P.D. James’s foray into bleak speculative fiction was excellent, I figured I would check out the source novel. I was intrigued by the idea of James writing dystopian fiction, since she was well known for her literary mysteries and not for her near-future world’s ends. But dystopia is not something strictly relegated to multivolume science fiction epics. Dystopia is a concept that rears its head among the literary set with some regularity. Think 1984. Think Brave New World. James is respected. What could go wrong?

A lot, actually. While the novel was undeniably well-written, I expected much more than I got. The Children of Men is a fairly dry story about not particularly nice middle-aged to elderly people, many of whom are Oxford University professors, all of whom are jockeying (openly or in secret) for control in a dying world. It is a slow-moving work, spending more than half its pages in setting the stage before anything actually happens. Told alternately as first-person diary entries and third-person narrative, the plotting is solid and polite and the characters’ evolutions not truly believable.

The end of the world has already happened when the story begins, and the novel unfolds in the long, slow decline that comes in its wake. Human fertility petered out twenty five years before. Society is crumbling at the edges, but the aging population can still go about a fairly normal routine that becomes more limited as the days pass. Their suicide is encouraged by the newly-totalitarian government as a means to preserve resources as long as possible.

The last-born generation, the Omegas, have become dangerous and uncivilized as their elders come to grips with the end of the world. James dwells on the collapse of society, and the re-embrace of the brutal pagan past: “that even the frozen sperm stored for experiment and artificial insemination had lost its potency was a peculiar horror casting over Omega the pall of superstitious awe, of witchcraft, of divine intervention. The old gods reappeared, terrible in their power” (8). She imagines a different kind of lost generation, one that has gone feral because they no longer represent hope for the future.

But James’s characters seem brittle and not especially likeable. Theo, the keeper of the diary, is a middle-aged professor of history whose conversion to the rebel cause is less than convincing. His falling in love with the blank slate of Julian, the first pregnant woman in a generation, seems built on nothing in particular, as does her mutual attachment to him. Theo’s main value seems to lie in his family connection to the head of the ruling council, a man so entrenched in his power that he can throw out grim philosophies like, “We plan for the sake of planning, pretending that man has a future” (102). There is little warmth to be found in the novel, and even with an eventual birth James leaves her readers with very little to hope for. But she does leave us with an intriguingly sharp observation about the lure of power.

And yet something more passionate came from it.

Police-state brutality in Children of Men
Police-state brutality in the film version of Children of Men

Despite its emotionally chilly source, Children of Men was a well-received 2006 movie that took a large number of action-oriented liberties with the plot, transforming The Children of Men from a mannered, upper-class dystopian novel into a deeply touching film about the fight to preserve human worth in the face of societal collapse, whatever the personal cost. The film shows the effect of the gradual loss of hope much more vividly than the book does, through younger eyes and by more violent means. But it also shows that while hope exists, there will always be people willing to sacrifice themselves to make it bloom. Resilience, kindness, and an unquenchable willingness to help underlie the grim, dehumanizing world of this Children of Men.

The story begins with the same triggering event as the novel. But it also begins in a crowded London with the populace soaked in government-sponsored nationalism and fear of illegal immigrants. The characters have considerably more emotional depth than in the book, and the actors have a lot to do with the humanity of the tale. Clive Owen especially brings a nonacademic fullness to Theo that is lacking on the page. And the script sees fit to give them all more realistic motives, with some tie to either current or past radicalism and a deep well of sympathy to draw from.

In this version, the British government’s Homeland Security rounds up its immigrants for transport to a city converted to a brutal internment camp. Everyone is armed and willing to kill, with rebel groups fighting a guerrilla war against the government repression. Julian is reimagined as a radical involved with a terrorist gang to protect a young, miraculously pregnant immigrant woman from government interference. Trading on old relationships, she draws Theo into their plot. Theo’s ties to power, so vital in the book, are no longer central—they exist, but he becomes truly valuable because of his own qualities and his commitment to saving the pregnant woman.

Hope exists in Children of Men
Hope exists in the film of Children of Men

While I normally enjoy a film less than its inspiration, this is a case where the original material left me cold. I found The Children of Men to be beautifully written but so full of unpleasant people that I can’t honestly say I cared what happened to them. The movie, though…if you are looking for an adult dystopia, Children of Men will serve well. Despite the terrible imagery that fills it, this Children of Men still ends with fragile optimism. Same characters as the book has. Same events. In some cases scenes transcribed verbatim. But by shifting the perspective from the machinations of power to the power of hope, the effect on film is something wholly different than the original material can produce.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Cuckoo's Egg's best known cover, by Michael Whelan
Cuckoo’s Egg

The cuckoo is a bird best known for laying a single egg among the clutch of another species, in order that its chick be raised by the other parents. Cuckoo’s Egg, C.J. Cherryh’s short stand-alone 1985 novel, is about a very similar occurrence. It is a closely-told tale of human and alien interaction set in a vividly imagined—if thinly described–world that is revealed mainly through suggestion and reference instead of direct depiction.

The prolific author of a number of sweeping science fiction series, C.J. Cherryh’s storytelling technique is distinctive. She is known for using a third person subjective point of view so limited it is essentially internal. Cuckoo’s Egg is a striking example of the technique. The text is loaded with parentheticals that transcribe the main characters’ in-the-moment thoughts and reactions as they occur inside the third person POV. Consequently, we experience the narrative not just through their perspectives, but as their private understandings of their world and circumstances.

It’s easy to forget just how much of our own everyday environment we ignore, taking its familiarity for granted. We know what everything is and do not pause to think why it is, or what it looks like. We do not describe to ourselves the chairs we sit in every day. We just sit in them. We do not explain to ourselves the different forms of formal and informal address we use socially. We just use the right one for the situation. We learned all the rules and no longer dwell on them. Cherryh’s writing is like that. Her characters inhabit a familiar world. They are not going to mull over the layout of their own bedrooms for our benefit.

And ultimately, that stripping away of extraneous detail allows us to be fully inside the characters’ minds.

Cuckoo’s Egg is told almost entirely through the two primary characters of Duun and Thorn, alternating only as the explicit needs of the narrative demand. Cherryh does not waste words with lengthy exposition for the audience. She opts for immersion.

The set-up is straightforward, and the story begins without preamble. Duun, by description an alien adult, has just become the caretaker of Thorn, by description a human infant. Except that in Cuckoo’s Egg, it is Thorn who is the alien being. “Shonunin were naked when they were born, but downed in silver that quickly went to dapples and last of all to gray body coat and black on limbs and ears and crest. Duun held the creature on its discarded wrappings, on his knees, and its downless skin was naked and pink as something lately skinned, except for a thatch of nondescript hair atop its skull” (1-2).

The details are fine and intimate, and in their intimacy give an intuitively coherent picture of the race and culture involved: “He held it as if it were a shonun child and washed its eyes with his tongue (they tasted salt and musty). There was nothing he spared himself, no last repugnance he did not overcome. Such was his patience” (9).

Cuckoo's Egg limited edition from Phantasia Press
Cuckoo’s Egg limited edition from Phantasia Press

The Shonunin are a neatly-imagined alien race, although I hesitate to use the word ‘alien’ to describe them. The story told is ultimately theirs, the world it happens on is theirs, and as the sole human character, Thorn is theirs as well, having never known another world or another people. Physiologically and psychologically, the Shonunin are reasonably compatible with humans. They are distinctly humanoid. The environment of their planet is comfortable for human life. Their family structures are not dramatically different. They are a technologically advanced species who have not yet conquered space. While the familiar details of the Shonunin form and culture are the plot device that makes the whole story possible, they also serve to blur the line between human and alien from a reader’s perspective.

Duun raises Thorn in isolation as closely as possible to how he would raise a Shonun child, training him as a hatani (perhaps best explained as a warrior-judge) and protecting him. Although Thorn is aware that he is different from Duun, he is not entirely aware he is another species. That is forced upon him when he accidently bursts into a Shonun settlement: “He spun on his heel and ran. He heard doors slam, more than once. Heard running come towards the fence, heard voices at his back. ‘Gods, it’s him!’ one yelled, and others took it up. ‘It’s that thing—that thing!’” (41).

At times the effect is a little disorienting, to see a member of our own species described by another species in the terms we would use for some strange, half-legendary creature: “(“When you get used to him he’s beautiful,” Sagot said. “Frightening, like some big animal you’ve gotten closer to than you wanted. But you want to watch him move. There’s a fascination to such things, isn’t there?”)” (107). Viewed both as monster and as beast by most of the Shonunin, and a threat to their way of life, Thorn is dehumanized and depersonalized in ways those words don’t quite adequately encompass. It is a slightly unnerving position from which to experience the story, and a slightly uncomfortable way of looking at what we take for granted as humanity and personhood. It is like reading history from another nation’s point of view.

The Grand Master herself, C.J. Cherryh
The Grand Master herself, C.J. Cherryh

The political, scientific, and cultural landscape in which Thorn is raised is complicated and for the vast bulk of the novel only obliquely explained. The backstory and its influence on Shonun civilization is not revealed until the last twenty-odd pages, when Cherryh at last foregoes her usual reserve in an enormous, finally detailed explanation that allows the novel’s conclusion to be both satisfying and loaded with a heady ‘What if?’.

So my conclusion is this: Densely detailed, occasionally inscrutable, emotionally sensitive yet action-packed, Cuckoo’s Egg is, I think, a solid starting point for anyone wishing to sample C.J. Cherryh’s work, and an excellent point to revisit if you already know how good an author she is.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Man of Steel, indeed.
Man of Steel, indeed.

Superman may be the Man of Steel, but a Man of Steel does not live by heroism alone. In 1971, before the famous Christopher Reeve movies and the romantic getaway at his Fortress of Solitude, the inimitable Larry Niven (Ringworld, The Man-Kzin Wars, and many productive collaborations) decided to address that crucial facet of Superman’s existence—his sex life, the possible lack thereof, and the implications for his species and for humanity of him having one. The result is the short story “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”, a snidely hilarious pseudo-clinical discussion of the carnal possibilities that is part speculative lab report, part contemplative essay, and wholly TMI.

Now, I’m not terribly familiar with the minutia of Superman’s legend, but I know that with his current grittier reimagining this might become more relevant than when he was the idealized all-American alien boy. Still. There’s a lot of skin peeled back here. Niven takes the question of interspecies humanoid sex to its neatly argued, logical conclusion in a charming display of reducto ad absurdum. It’s clear he’s having fun playing the little game he’s come up with. And it’s a good game. Let’s start with some of Niven’s ground rules:

Superman, the Man of Steel, showing off
Superman, the Man of Steel, showing off.

“Superman’s sex problems are strictly physiological, and quite real. The purpose of this article is to point out some medical drawbacks to being a kryptonian among human beings, and to suggest possible solutions. The kryptonian humanoid must not be allowed to go the way of the pterodactyl and the passenger pigeon.”

Niven begins with the simple premise that Superman, at the time of his writing thirty-one years old and strappingly healthy, must be lonely for Kryptonian female companionship and a family of his own. His only option is terrestrial. He’s going to go for it. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, on a basic sociological level, there’s this: “A mating between Superman and Lois Lane would feel like sodomy-and would be, of course, by church and common law.”

From there the speculations become a bit more…graphic, as Niven theorizes on the actual physical effects of Kryptonian/Earthling love. The descriptive title Man of Steel takes on some interesting nuances within that context, and Niven deftly illustrates and then rules out the possibility of successful interspecies in-the-flesh romance.

But what of Kal El’s responsibility for carrying on his species? Why not assisted reproduction? That should work!

“All known forms of kryptonian life have superpowers. The same must hold true of living kryptonian sperm…They scatter without regard to what is in their path. They leave curved channels, microscopically small. Presently all will have found their way to the open air.That leaves LL with several million microscopic perforations all leading deep into her abdomen. Most of the channels will intersect one or more loops of intestine.”

Or not.

These superpowers.
A frustrated Man of Steel

The potential damage such potent cells could do is expounded on at some length. And the damage would not be limited to the innards of a human female. These little suckers would shoot through Metropolis like rockets, destabilizing infrastructure and causing war-like devastation as they escape, looking for love: “Metropolis is shaken by tiny sonic booms. Wormholes, charred by meteoric heat, sprout magically in all kinds of things: plate glass, masonry, antique ceramics, electric mixers, wood, household pets, and citizens. Some of the sperm will crack lightspeed. The Metropolis night comes alive with a network of narrow, eerie blue lines of Cherenkov radiation.”

With those difficulties in mind, Niven asks another pertinent question: “Can human breed with kryptonian? Do we even use the same genetic code? On the face of it, LL could more easily breed with an ear of corn than with Kal-El.” Let’s face it, if it is biologically (not just physically) impossible, why go through all the trouble in the first place? But Niven allows the random workings of chance to come into play, here, because after all, life will out. What impediment could utterly separate evolutions pose in the face of that?

Larry Niven
Larry Niven, speculator

So, after a number of broad leaps of logic, and going through a laundry list of bad outcomes and the extreme measures that would be needed to prevent them, Niven finally finds a way for a bouncing baby Kryptonian/human-hybrid to gestate and enter the world. A happy ending, as it were, to a very difficult problem.

“Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” may be best described as an exercise in over-thinking a purely speculative line of reasoning, a letter to Penthouse gone horribly wrong, or an extraordinarily maladapted love story to a comic-book legend. Heck, it could even be described as “Larry Niven vs. Superman”. Whatever you wish to call it, it is laugh-out-loud funny. By all means, read it. But maybe not as a way to get in the mood.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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The Art of Language Invention
The Art of Language Invention

The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson is a short, information-packed guide to creating imaginary languages for fun and profit. Peterson is the linguist responsible for multiple alien languages for various television shows, not the least of which is Game of Thrones, with its Dothraki, High Valyrian and other derived languages. Peterson loves what he does, and has a fantastic time in breaking language down into its component parts. Unlike the little-too-cutsey humor of the neuroscientists we encountered in Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep, Peterson leaves any affectations at the door. But that does not prevent him from being very, very funny while trying to explain precise terminology to interested laymen: “Discussing allophony is really the first step toward understanding the systematicity of language. To explain it, let me take a fun topic like werewolves and ruin it by turning it into math” (58). And, as any reader will learn, he really dislikes onions.

Language invention, or conlanging as it is known among its practitioners, requires more than simply making up new words for common ones. That way lies Star Wars. And by that I mean Peterson almost immediately identifies something about Star Wars that has irked me for years: the examples of language there are complete gibberish, a random assortment of sounds with no meaningful relation to each other or to the subtitles. I was inordinately happy, nay, validated, to see Peterson’s criticism of the awkward alien dialogue bits in Return of the Jedi: “How on earth does Leia say the same thing twice and have it mean something different the second time?” (4). Lucas had a number of flaws, and lack of attention to linguistic details was a large one. As Peterson points out, there is always a certain percentage of fans who want to learn the language you have invented, and who will notice sloppy linguistics and let you know, loudly, that they know.

Tolkien's Sindarin language
Tolkien’s Sindarin language

Now, I have also tried my hand at creating languages for my own unrealized epics. Has anyone who has read Tolkien not? There’s something very satisfying about his languages and alphabets that encourages imitation. I had taken it for granted that because Tolkien was a professor of languages, his languages would be good. But I had given no thought to how much work goes into making a language with any depth when it is not something that has evolved organically over thousands of years of interaction. So when Peterson brought up the minor detail that “Tolkien was a language creator before he penned his major works…He understood that language itself is inseparable from the culture that produces it” (10), I knew that this would be more than a simplified approach to conlanging—it would truly be about the art. I was not disappointed.

The Art of Language Invention uses an assortment of both actual and invented languages to demonstrate how that intersection of language and culture actually works. Peterson introduces the idea of language invention with real-world constructed languages—the historical Lingua Ignota and the more recent Esperanto and Volapük—and evaluates the reasons for their success or failure. He provides examples of how he developed certain invented languages—High Valyrian and Dothraki, in particular—based on a few words in the original text and influenced by existing natural languages. He discusses the difficulties in translating from the English-language scripts because of the different linguistic rules that had evolved in the conlangs. He diagrams a few sentences, conjugates a bunch of verbs, shows how parts of speech develop as the need to express certain concepts arises, and how pronunciations change. “English speakers have an unfair advantage when it comes to explaining sound changes since our gloriously appalling spelling system preserves, in many cases, an older state of the language” (163).

Through his lessons Peterson points out a surprising number of nuances and variations in natural language that we take for granted. And it’s not just the grammar and vocabulary—it’s the grammarization and cases, the affixes and inflections. If we stop to think about the elaborate construct that is a natural language, we would go down a deep and wonderful rabbit hole that would let us fall thousands of years into the past.

“Creating a language at any point is an attempt to take a slice out of an eras-long progression” (151). Linguistics and evolutionary biology often use similar terminology, because the mechanisms for both are comparable. New words are normally variations or adaptations of existing words and forms, not inventions from whole cloth. “Grammatical evolution is the most difficult, least described, and most exciting aspect of linguistic evolution…When it comes to historical linguistics and language modeling, this is the final frontier” (184).

David J. Peterson
David J. Peterson, conlanger

The Art of Language Invention is a dense and passionate introduction to the architecture and mechanics of language. The book contains only four chapters: Sounds, Words, Evolution, and The Written Word. Each chapter is a distilled lesson in the basics of linguistics, with heady terminology and a case study to demonstrate. A collection of phrase books at the end feature common pleasantries (from ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to ‘will you marry me?’) in Dothraki, High Valyrian, Shiväisith, and four other languages Peterson created. There is also a brief glossary of the linguistic terms used in the book.

Alas, The Art of Language Invention is too short to do more than whet the appetite of anyone who loves language in all its complicated and mysterious versions. It provides enough technical detail to give a rough familiarity with the subject, and offers extremely stripped-down examples of how the concepts work together to produce specific and nuanced meaning. As David Peterson makes clear, even invented languages are not just a bunch of words: “There are processes we have evidence of, and then there are processes that seem plausible, but for which we have no direct evidence. A conlang itself is an argument for its own plausibility” (197). They are living things that are at their best and most convincing when allowed to develop according to their own strengths and quirks. Kind of like their creators.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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‘The Rats in the Walls”, published in Weird Tales in March, 1924, is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s essentially non-mythos tales (he injects a deity into the proceedings at nearly the last minute), a bit of grim narrative that manages its cosmic horrors without relying on the normal godly oppression. It is short and tightly written, yet still manages to appear deeper and more convoluted than it is due to some very well-placed classical name-dropping. Lovecraft’s racism is in full bloom, here, with frequent references to degenerate early races and an unfortunately named black cat who had to be renamed in subsequent reprints. But Lovecraft, for all his sins, is an inspiration to other artists. One of those is the legendary illustrator Richard Corben (Neverwhere), who was stirred to retell the story as Rat God, a five-issue series from Dark Horse Comics released in 2015 as a single volume.

Let’s compare.


Rats in the Walls
Rats in the Walls

Staid and traditional, “The Rats in the Walls” is a fine example of Lovecraft’s style. Lovecraft makes frequent mention of a different set of old gods than he is usually known for, referring to degenerate Roman cults devoted to Cybele, the mother goddess Magna Mater, and to her consort Atys (otherwise known as Attis), an ancient diety of resurrection and rebirth. Their combined worship entailed sacred castration and a priesthood of eunuchs. He attributes the cults to the Romanization of much older worship: “I deduced that Exham Priory stood on the site of a prehistoric temple; a Druidical or ante-Druidical thing which must have been contemporary with Stonehenge. That indescribable rites had been celebrated there, few doubted… there were unpleasant tales of the transference of these rites into the Cybele-worship which the Romans had introduced.” There is only a single late mention of Nylarthotep, but the spell of cosmic dread has been cast.

The description of the above-mentioned Exham Priory, the setting for “The Rats in the Walls”, reads like an inspiration for From Dusk ‘til Dawn’s evil brothel. It had “Gothic towers resting on a Saxon or Romanesque substructure, whose foundation in turn was of a still earlier order or blend of orders—Roman, and even Druidic or native Cymric, if legends speak truly. This foundation was a very singular thing, being merged on one side with the solid limestone of the precipice from whose brink the priory overlooked a desolate valley”. The architecture is fantastic, and physically allows the plunging descent into madness that will come.

Lovecraft’s fondness for cats is on full display here, with Mr. de la Poer bringing nine of them with him to the accursed priory. The cats are the only other creatures besides his tragic hero who can detect the phantom rats, “those fiend-born rats, always questing for new horrors”, that haunt the priory, and also the only creatures instinctively equipped to fight them, phantom or not.

“The Rats in the Walls” is also full of hints, none too subtle, of cannibalism. As he descends into the unknown, Mr. de la Poer finds carvings that describe “the most shocking ritual I have ever known; and told of the diet of the antediluvian cult which the priests of Cybele found and mingled with their own… but it was too much to see familiar English implements in such a place, and to read familiar English graffiti there, some as recent as 1610”. Eventually it becomes blatant (and the renamed cat becomes elevated to hero status) as de la Poer is repossessed by the ancestral madness: “they… found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat”. From the first hint of horror to the final grip of madness is a brief, unimpeded drop, simple and deeply effective.


Rat God--a little different then Rats in the Walls
Rat God–a little different then Rats in the Walls

Rat God is a different creation. Where H.P. Lovecraft created a short, pointed, and frightening tale in “The Rats in the Walls”, the Richard Corben used the bones of it to construct his own fast-paced, inspired graphic version.

Both written and drawn by Corben, Rat God is a twisted and at times playful reimagining of Lovecraft’s original, streamlined tale. Corben uses some of the original iconography of the story while adding more overt and traditional Lovecraftian references as well as an overlay of Native American folklore. The heroic black cat of “Rats in the Walls” appears as a fortuitous black panther in Rat God.  The main character, one Clark Elwood, swears to Cthulhu and the Old Ones at frequent intervals. Corben models his protagonist after Lovecraft himself, making the young man a tall, gaunt, prissy academic, deeply bigoted and holding himself up as New England aristocracy. But he is still quick to start (and end) a fistfight with the local riff-raff.

In contrast to the haunted pile of the original, Corben sets his version in Lovecraft’s familiar Arkham and its Miskatonic University, and in a town of his own invention, Lame Dog. In typical horror-movie fashion, the town has cut itself off from outsiders, is ruled by an inbred family, harbors a weird, dangerous cult, and is full of warnings about not going into the cemetery. There is a pervasive mood of good-natured teasing  as the reconfigured plot winds its way through and around its source material.

Rat God--horror with humour
Rat God–horror with humour

Corben sprinkles in his usual flashes of jokey humor, some of it verging on slapstick. While hardly the norm for a Lovecraftian tale, it is natural to something from Corben. He infuses sex, miscegenation, mutant rats, and deus ex machina walking corpses into Lovecraft’s classic mix of persistent ancient religion, human sacrifice, and decayed family lines. The result is that Corben’s story is livelier, with plenty of highly stylized nudity and highly imaginative ritual. The panels are full of thick black lines and strong, earthy colours. The overall effect of Corben’s style is one of sweaty physicality, a solid, stolid meatiness where Lovecraft favours suggestion. It brings a far more carnal resolution that Lovecraft would have ever entertained.

It is still unmistakably an affectionate homage.


Lovecraft’s themes and tropes have long provided fuel for other authors’ work. He encouraged it, after all. The essential elements of “The Rats in the Walls” are recognizable in Rat God, as much as the stories go their different ways with them. Corben’s tale has a vibrancy, an irrepressible energy, that much Lovecraftian-styled fiction avoids. Reading the two works back-to-back, though, it is impossible to miss the dark, measured energy of the original story. That, I think, is what inspires our affection for the old master, and keeps so many of us writing in his image.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.