Comics: Stand Still. Stay Silent.

“Stand Still. Stay Silent” may be best described as a post-apocalyptic Nordic mythology inspired adventure story. The brainchild of Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish artist and writer, it reintroduces mages, myths and folklore against a backdrop of the ruins of the modern world. And it does so beautifully.

The setting is 90 years into the future. Disease has swept across the world but a few remote areas were spared: Iceland, the Finnish lakes, some inaccessible Norwegian fjords and a handful of isolated Swedish settlements. The rest of the world has gone silent, its technology and culture feared or forgotten. The safe settlements are constantly under siege by monstrous beings. No attempts has been made to reclaim any of the knowledge of old, and no expeditions have been sent into the infected zones. Until now. The story follows a small, underfunded and under-qualified team on their daring expedition into troll-ridden Denmark, seeking to harvest as many books of old that they can find for research (and profit, of course, plus possibly also a bit of fame).

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“Stand Still. Stay Silent” is a rare blend of uplifting and terrifying. On the one hand, it is a story about a thoroughly mismatched group traveling together, which translates into themes of bravery, loyalty and (slowly) emerging friendships,with a rich sprinkling of humour. On the other hand, it is outright horror. The monstrous entities lurking in the silent world are a perpetual presence, growing in menace as the expedition strikes deeper and deeper into the dead cities. Deformed remnants of the long-since deceased, man and beast alike, merged into shapeless hungry creatures, wait in the shadows. This is a story that goes from funny to frightening in the span of a page.

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The artwork is astonishing, growing prettier with each chapter. Even the gore is beautifully done (see above). The style includes elements from Nordic art and culture, and the filler pages often contain tidbits of information about mythology and folklore, again beautifully drawn. Maps and schematics are plentiful and gorgeous, and there is enough backstory about the disastrous pathogen to keep my inner scientist quite contented.

If there is one small point to deduct, it may be that the expedition takes a while to get underway. For those interested in plain horror from the get-go, the wait may be on the long side. But it is worth it. Also, the longer backstory serves to introduce the characters thoroughly, which is essential for such a diverse ensemble cast.

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The comic updates regularly (four times a week) and the artist is rarely if ever late. For those of us who have followed near-abandoned and sporadic comics, this is an absolute treat. At present (Jan 2017) there’s an archive of more than 650 pages (13 chapters plus change) to enjoy. This is also one of those rare occasions when I can wholeheartedly recommend that you DO read the comments, as the readers are a vocal, friendly and informative group, offering translations of the (odd) segment in Finnish/Swedish/Norwegian/Icelandic as well as comment on the story itself.

“Stand Still. Stay Silent” is a gem – an unusual story, nicely written and beautifully illustrated. Go read!

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(All images belongs to Minna Sundberg and can be found on the webcomic here.)

2017 in horror, fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction

As usual, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to read in 2017. My goodreads reading challenge is at a modest 35 and I have no specific plans for which ones I’ll choose, but there a few new releases in my preferred genres this year that I’m particularly excited about.

Horror: In the past I’ve tended to seek out older horror novels, but several upcoming releases have caught my eye this time around. Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, which centres around disturbing disappearances in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, looks great. As does Little Heaven by Nick Cutter, a tale set in a ominous New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. I’m also keen to read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, described by the author as one part Penny Dreadful and one part American Horror Story. Should be fun! Finally, there’s Sarah Pinborough’s Behind her eyes, which I am getting simply on the back of knowing Pinborough’s knack for deeply unsettling and menacing storylines.

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Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Having read the two previous Aftermath books, I’m keen to see how this Star Wars space opera featuring Norra Wexley and her rag-tag team ends in Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig). I’m also looking forward to the final installment of V.E.Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, A Conjuring of Light, in which the fate of the four Londons will be settled. Oathbringer, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic Stormlight Archive series, will be released in November, and I’m salivating at the promise of another visit to Roshar. M.R.Carey releases the prequel to the excellent apocalyptic zombie story Girl with all the Gifts, titled The Boy on the Bridge, and on top of that, Neil Gaiman is fictionalizing Norse mythology in the book by the same name, which should be a treat. 2017 looks like it will be a good year for fantasy and sci-fi.

Empire's End: Aftermath (Star Wars) by Chuck Wendig

Non-fiction: In terms of non-fiction, I have singled out Beyond Inifinity: an expedition to the outer-limits of mathematics by Eugenia Cheng and In Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Both come highly recommended and the topics are intriguing and wonderfully complex, so my expectations are high.

 

The Pyramid in the Arctic

Is there anything more fascinating than abandoned towns? There’s a sense of drama in a hollowed-out building that is hard to replicate. Horror novels are full of them, dystopian fiction and sci-fi have seen their share, and post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing but the shells of yesteryear.

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Pyramiden (the Pyramid) was a small coal-mining town on Svalbard, which is an island in the Arctic Ocean. Swedish-built in 1910, Pyramiden was bought 17 years later by the Soviet Union and kept in business until 1998, when the coal ran out. At one point, the town had 1000 inhabitants, a petrol station, swimming pool and a library with Tolstoy and Dostojevsky. Now, the streets have been empty for nearly 20 years, save for the odd polar bear.

Houses were left in a hurry. They remain much the same as in 1998, decay slowed by the frigid climate. There are long-dead flowers on the windowsills, faded posters on the walls and rusted swings in the playground. The old coal mine is still in place, with its buildings, coal cars and tracks. It could remain like this for decades, if not centuries, if left undisturbed. The cold keeps the town preserved.

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While Svalbard is Norwegian territory, Pyramiden retains the feel of a Russian outpost. Signs are written in cyrillic and latin script, and an old bust of Lenin is silently surveying the settlement from the front of the old culture house. Tolstoy and Dostojevsky are still on the shelves.

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Pyramiden is named for the pyramid-shaped mountain by which it lies. It is 50km north of the nearest city, Longyearbyen (which is the world’s northernmost settlement with more than 1000 inhabitants), and there is a research station with 30-130 inhabitants about 100km to the west. Transport is by snowmobile or boat, weather permitting. And the weather does not always permit.

Part of the appeal of this place is its location, miles from everything else, tucked away amidst freezing water and held in the grips of permafrost. Svalbard holds vast expanses of glaciers, a fair share of mountains and fjords, and populations of arctic foxes, reindeer, whales and migrating birds. Much of the land around Pyramiden is protected in the form of two national parks: Nordre Isfjorden (which roughly translates to Northern Icefjord, see photo below) and Sassen-Bünsow Land National Park. I’d probably go for the landscape and wildlife alone, even without the added attraction of a ghost town.

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There is a small, recently opened hotel in Pyramiden, so staying in town is possible. While it at first seemed disappointing to have a human presence in the abandoned place (although not a permanent settlement), a small haven for visitors is probably not a bad idea given the remoteness and climate. Also, there’s the polar bears to consider… I’m not an avid camper nor much use with a firearm, so Hotel Tulip may be just the ticket after all.

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A few days at the Tulip could spin enough ideas to fuel horror stories for a decade. Whatever your monster of choice, I’m sure this town can house it. A ghoul? Sure – it is a ghost town after all. Disease? Absolutely – imagine frozen contagions freed in a thawing landscape. Vampires? Of course – this is north of Barrow, Alaska, and darker than 30 days of night. Sea monsters? The waters are dark too, and cold. Land monsters? Already have those if you count the polar bears. Below ground? There’s the mines. Dystopia? Well, if you needed a place to hide from the horrors of the world, or stage the revolution, this is pretty far way. I might just put it on the wishlist for 2017.

 

(All images credited in title (hover for information and links). Photos from (in order) ser_is_snarkish, Frode Ramore, Bente Nordhagen, Bjoertvedt, Jerzy Strzelecki and google maps).

The best comics! (Last Blood)

I figured I’d do a series of posts highlighting some great (and free) online comics. There are some fantastic artists out there and it seems a shame not to plug their work. While I tend to prefer horror/fantasy comics, the ‘must-recommend’ list is still quite varied.

First out is Last Blood, which is a take on the typical zombie story but with a few clever twists. The art (by Owen Gieni) is beautiful in a rough and gritty sort of way, perfectly complimenting the story (by Bobby Crosby). It starts on familiar ground: the small group of survivors and the zombies closing in – you’ve seen it before. And just when you think you know what you’re in for, you suddenly get… (drum roll) vampires.

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The premise is simple: the zombie apocalypse happened and human blood is in short supply, meaning that any vampire not wanting to starve needs to protect the last human survivors from the undead zombie hordes. As for the humans, the situation is simple: the enemy of my enemy (and the lesser of two evils) is the only option available. The introduction of a human-vampire alliance is only the first twist, and I won’t mention the rest and spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that trust is at an all-time low, there’s plenty of peril to go around and the two types of monster lore fit together surprisingly well. Both vampires and zombies benefit from this fresh interaction, bringing a much needed different dynamic to story structures that do occasionally risk going a bit stale.

Last Blood is high on concept and perhaps less so on characterisation, but I’m willing to forgive that if the underlying idea works. And here it does work very well indeed. Last Blood is clever, it feels new and it makes surprising sense. The latter part is quite a treat, as I’m always happy to suspend my disbelief but very grateful if I don’t have to do it too much. So if you’re after a fresh version of ‘zombies and vampires and apocalypse, oh my’, prefer your plot hole-free, and don’t mind if the premise takes the driver’s seat, Last Blood is almost perfect.

There is one caveat: Last Blood is unfinished and has not been updated since 2011. While I’d very much like to see it continue, or even make it to the big screen, I’m not holding my breath after half a decade. Still, it’s worth a read, even if you have to make up the ending yourself for now.

Link to the online (free) comic: http://lastblood.keenspot.com/
(also available from amazon.com)

Let me know what you think, or if there are other comics/stories you think is worth a mention in the comments below?

Book review: Rabid: a cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a summary of rabies, its history, cultural significance and the ultimate unraveling of some of its secrets at the hands of science.

As non-fiction books go, it is an easy read. Perhaps a bit too easy in places, leaving out the drier details that might interest anyone wanting a more in-depth analysis. For example, the book provides little to no detail on any mechanisms by which the rabies virus modifies behaviour, be that in animals or humans. It gives a very brief nod to rabies altering communication between brain cells as well as killing neurons, but it doesn’t delve into the specifics. This is a shame, as the mind-altering properties of rabies, its defining characteristic, is perhaps the factor that has embedded it so solidly in history.

This can be forgiven, because there is no firm consensus yet as to how rabies operates in the brain. However, there are plenty of hypotheses that the authors could have explored. For example, it has been suggested that in addition to killing cells, rabies disrupts the release and binding of chemical messengers in the brain 1. This includes serotonin, which, among other things, is negatively associated with aggression. Less serotonin equals (typically) more aggression. There is also some studies that suggest that rabies targets brain structures associated with memory, fear and emotion: the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus 2. I may be biased, but in my opinion, a few paragraphs on the intricacies of the rabid brain would have been the icing on the cake.

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Apart from this omission, Rabid provides a rather thorough introduction to the history of rabies treatment. It outlines the early misconceptions, the discovery of the virus (a lyssavirus), the numerous host reservoirs (dogs and bats in particular), and attempts at rabies control (culling and vaccines), as well as last-resort treatments (a very good description of the not yet proven Milwaukee protocol). This highlights both the unrelenting force of the disease and the almost paradoxical drive to beat it. With only a handful of people ever surviving, this is the stuff of nightmares and a strong element of the book.

However, it is in describing its impact on society that Rabid truly shines. From the uneasy relationship between humans and dogs (the source of most human cases) highlighting how man’s best friend can turn into man’s greatest horror, to the historical fear of the beast within which has emerged in a number of classic horror novels, this book is nothing but thorough. Rabid makes the case that our fear of rabies has been central to our culture and literature, and after reading the book, I doubt anyone would argue that there isn’t some element of truth to that.

“Stories evolved, too, as they spread, and so we can consider what remained after centuries of such ‘audience testing’ as having a perverse sort of evolutionary fitness. […] The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.”

I have written before about some of the mind-controlling horrors in nature and how they relate to our modern monsters, but rabies is the mother of all such links. Rabid touches briefly upon the most likely modern suspect, the zombie, and goes on to provide a much more substantial discussion on the old classics: vampires and werewolves. It’s not a novel idea by any stretch. For example, a paper in medical science journal Neurology outlined the link between rabies and the vampire legend in 1998 3, and while Neurology is a good source for new developments in neurology, one suspects it may not be the first to report on vampirism. Despite it being an old idea, Rabid does a fine job of describing the numerous links between vampires, werewolves and rabies, spanning the entire range from Byronic ghouls to 28 Days Later.

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In short, Rabid is an accessible, well-written popular science book, which gives a good introduction to rabies-the-disease and an even better one to rabies-the-history. Given the subject matter – one of the most interesting (and feared) diseases in human history – it could hardly be anything but an exciting read. It’s thoroughly recommended for the non-squeamish.

1. http://www.kliinikum.ee/infektsioonikontrolliteenistus/doc/oppematerjalid/Referaadid/Rabies.pdf
2. http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:neuroethology-of-parasites-that-alter-host-behavi#toc8
3. http://www.neurology.org/content/51/3/856.short

Autumn books!

I love autumn. The chill in the air, the colours, the smells, the darker nights. To me, autumn is hot, comforting drinks and nice, comforting books.

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This autumn, my reading list is particularly self-indulgent. I almost wish for poor weather to justify the hours I plan to spend on the sofa with a stack of books. While it is not looking like 2016 will be particularly nice and chilly (given recent heat records), we can always hope for a few thunderstorms. Given my penchant for horror, that would suit me just fine.

Fellside img_2261by M.R.Carey has been on my radar for some time, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to wait until Halloween to dig into that particular book. A twist on the classic ghost story set in a prison at the edge of the Yorkshire moors should fit the season nicely. I have been told that Fellside is a book susceptible to spoilers, like Carey’s earlier The Girl With All The Gifts, so I’m staying clear of reviews, although ratings suggest I’m in for a treat. Actually, just looking at the cover makes me excited. amityvillecover

I’m planning on tackling an old classic: The Amityville Horror: A True Story by Jay Anson, as it is one of those stories I’ve watched but never actually read. I have been told that the book is creepier than the film(s), so I’ve got my hopes up.

I’m also looking forward to a steampunk fix. Island of Birds, the sequel to Austin Hackney’s Beyond the Starline, has recently been released, and I may also pick up a book in the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, probably Clementine or Dreadnought. If anyone has any thoughts on which I should go for after Boneshaker, let me know in the comments.

aftermathYet another sequel, Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig, is also on my list, which should get me in the mood for the upcoming Star Wars Rogue One film in December (not that I need to get more in the mood for Star Wars). I truly enjoyed the first Aftermath novel, although I am aware that the response to it was not uniformly positive. All I can say is that Mister Bones is right up there with BB-8 on the list of favourite droids, but for very different reasons.

I also plan to settle down with two non-fiction books: 1812: Napolerabidon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski, which was recommended to me more than a year ago by a friend, and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, simply because the subject matter is fascinating. The monster du jour, zombies, do not make an appearance in Rabid, if reviews are to be believed, but I expect to get a fair few parallels with werewolf myths in addition to the history and biology of one of the nastiest viruses out there. The scientist in me is quite excited about Rabid.

In short, it’s looking like it will be a pretty good autumn. What are you planning on reading? Let me know in the comments.

Book review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) was the zombie book I couldn’t be bothered reading, mostly because the trailer for the film left me a bit underwhelmed. (I have still not seen the film, having had it described to me as ‘Globetrotting Brad Pitt’, so any advice as to whether it is worth my time would be greatly appreciated.) But I picked it up a few weeks ago, looking for something entertaining and gory, and I was positively surprised.

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Written as a series of interviews, Brooks weaves a nice story of a zombie plague, pulling in politicians, civilians and military personnel amongst others, to paint a surprisingly believable picture of a plague outbreak. Whilst the zombies themselves are make-believe, I did not have to suspend my disbelief at the portrayal of profiteers, accidental heroes, conspiracy theorists, desperate parents and myopic leaders. Indeed, some of the themes, such as isolationism and inept leadership, can hardly be said to belong solely to the province of fiction. The interviews span a range of responses to a pandemic, and the individual voices were done well enough for me to believe in the characters.

Writing the book as an assembly of individual accounts has one very obvious advantage: it allows for a generous number of viewpoints. When describing a global event, the number of responses and fates will be vast, and Brooks gets to cover more of these than if the story had followed a more traditional trajectory. This way, we can choose from all countries and all walks of life without shoehorning characters into one storyline. We also remove geographical constraints, meaning there will be more to the story than a besieged wal-mart or a stretch of motorway. Whilst it remains quite US-centric, it is refreshing to note that other continents get more than a brief mention.

In many ways, the book reminded me slightly of The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner due to the multi-strand narrative, although Brunner’s book is thematically different (deteriorating environment) and somewhat more dystopian.

Which brings me to my perhaps sole quibble with World War Z: it is less bleak than it could have been, despite being more serious than its predecessor The Zombie Survival Manual. I know it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me, it would have packed a greater punch if it had received a greater infusion of pessimism. That being said, I still enjoyed it immensely and know many readers who prefer a hint of hope with their horror.

Brooks has said that he views the zombie more like a virus than a traditional predator, and that it is this aspect, the lack of any hope for rational discourse or negotiation, that makes the zombie frightening. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, predation and contagions/infection are the two categories of horror that tend to generate the most successful horror films. Zombies tick both boxes. Yet, they somehow take a back seat in World War Z.

For sure, the zombie in World War Z is the catalyst, the fuel of the story and the indisputable monster of the tale, but the focus remains on the fighting living, not the walking dead. While there is no shortage of gore, I still thought that World War Z was more about the response to the zombie than the zombie itself. The zombie is the monster du jour: an oft-cited metaphor for an uncontrollable world, for pandemics, nuclear war and economic collapse. If we accept the zombie as metaphor, then World War Z becomes a tale of an overwhelmed world, our modern fears illustrated by a vast, unstoppable zombie horde, and it ends with the possible route to regaining control.

Then again, it might just be about monsters.

Either way, it works for me. I read in two thoroughly enjoyable sittings (which would have been one but for the need to attend work). In my view, it’s right up there with Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century in terms of zombie excellence. If you’ve read it, or read any other zombie books that you can recommend, let me know in the comments!

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