"Always Prepared. Always Ready." BOOKS! Sometimes You Get What You're Given And Just Make Do

Okay, let's stop pointing fingers, dry our eyes and just accept it’s a BONUS SKIP WEEK! (Bonus Booo!). Caught me on the hop a bit, I’ll admit. Unfortunately I haven’t anything in my head about comics but there are a couple of books I’ve been thinking about. Why not, eh? You never know your luck in a raffle. So, it’ll be a bit rough and ready this time out (yeah; no change there then) but I’ll probably find my flow after a couple of dozen words. Anyway, this…  photo SkySleepRedB_zpse518c49a.jpg

THE WIDE, CARNIVOROUS SKY AND OTHER MONSTROUS GEOGRAPHIES By John Langan Hippocampus Press, 2013 £15.00 (Kindle: £4.02)

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It’s refreshing to find an author who not only knows the difference between Sabretooth and Wolverine but also mentions John Byrne’s Alpha Flight. He mentions the latter in the back matter which he provides for each story. And I know you comics lot like your back matter. It’s in the back matter that he chattily unpacks each of the short stories herein so that you know exactly what he was up to. Turns out what he’s up to is reinvigorating all the old horror tropes; the ones as familiar as that dream where someone makes you eat your own face. Yes, my little chubby cheeked chums, all the old favourites are exhumed once more; zombies, vampires, ghouls, werewolves, Lovecraft, Poe and so on and so forth, yea until the stars come right again and the Old Ones rise.

Which would be worthy of little remark were it not for the stylistic panache with which Langan executes each of his macabre modernisations. You know, speaking plainly, this was by the far the best book of (modern; no one beats Aickman) horror stories I read this year. And I read a lot of short horror stories; you didn’t know that did you? Mysterious creature that I am. Anyway, it was the best book of horror stories I read because John Langan writes like a real son of a lady and no mistake. He’s a bit of a stylist is John Langan; a bit of a shit hot stylist as it turns out. He’ll keep you on your toes and wide awake with his magnificent ability to inventively riff on concepts which looked dead only seconds before. Langan playfully pressgangs Thonrton Wilder’s Our Town into imbuing the listless zombie trope with a real sense of horror again. He beautifully uses the backdrop of a Cthullu scoured Earth to play out an emotionally flensing one hander concerning how it feels when your child moves on and away. There’s even a post-mod lyric to lycanthropy that loses none of its savagery amongst the stylistic trickery. Somewhere in there he also throws in the weight of autobiography, although probably not in the one about the Iraq War vets up against a very different vampire indeed. It’s a clever book, it’s a moving book, it’s an entertaining book which, all in all, I guess, makes it a VERY GOOD! book.

RED OR DEAD By David Peace Faber & Faber, 2013 £20.00 (Kindle: £7.79)

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Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” Those are the first three words of David Peace’s new book and they are both a statement of intent and a warning. Those three words are the book. The entirety of the book is encapsulated in those three words; no, that one word. Repetition. (Repetition. Repetition.) Because Red or Dead is a book about Bill Shankly and how Bill Shankly took Liverpool Football Club to success. Peace takes the brave and unfashionable tack of shunning mythologising and renders down the story of Bill Shankly’s success to its essence. To its basics. This is the portrait of a man. Bill Shankly had insight and Bill Shankly had talent but mostly Bill Shankly had the guts for the long haul. Tedium and slog. Slog and tedium. These are the things that got Bill Shankly results. That got Bill Shankly’s team the results. The results for their supporters. Results for the people of Liverpool. For the people. Always, always for the people. Working for the greater good. Toiling for the larger whole. And as the pages pass, as the years die Peace’s subtle subtext shimmies into view. For as the pages pass, as the years die Bill Shankly’s world slips into the past. The England of people like Bill Shankly. And a new England is born. An England not about the people but about the person. An England not about society but about the self. An England in which people begin to ask what have I got and why have they got more than me? An England in which people end by asking what have I got and why have they got anything? England: before the match, after the match. England: before The Thatcher, after The Thatcher. This book is work. This book is hard work. No, no, no. This isn’t working. This isn’t working at all. Half time whistle. Oranges and a re-think…

…Okay. Look, that’s all very well and good, all that up there; it’s nice I get to pretend to write all proper like in my little half-arsed way, but I’ve read the reviews. A lot of people seem unhappy about this book. So let me speak plainly for a change; this book is a fucker. It could not give less of a shit what you want from it. Huge swathes of it are repeated. (Repeated. Repeated.) It will bore you. You will be bored. To get through this thing boredom is something to be mastered. Or befriended at least. This is not a mistake. It is not an accident. David Peace is not a numbskull. It is a device. A literary device. To understand Bill Shankly, to understand Bill Shankly’s achievements, Peace puts you in the same position as Bill Shankly. Tedium and slog. Slog and tedium. These are the things that will get you results. And at first the results are small (the simple switch from players’ surnames to forenames is weighted with emotional import). Then after the slog, after the tedium come the real results. The last third of the book portrays Shankly after success, after retirement. The last third of the book is where your heart gets a work out. The last third of the book is where the results come in. The last third of the book is the pay off. But to get to the pay off, to get to the result you have to put the hours in. You have to put your back into it. You have to work for it. Look, I’m not fussed in the slightest about football and I was a near blank about Bill Shankly but it still paid off. Red or Dead is not for everyone. But if it’s for you it’s VERY GOOD!

DOCTOR SLEEP By Stephen King Hodder & Stoughton, 2013 £19.99 (Kindle: £5.70)

 photo SleepB_zps9d406f7b.jpg I like the total uselessness of the quote on the front of the book: "Hugely anticipated”. Yeah, and…? My dinner is hugely anticipated; getting in out of the rain is hugely anticipated; the next episode of The Spoils Of Babylon is...the gist you are getting, yes? I’d have thought Stephen King writing a sequel to The Shining would merit a bit more, I dunno, oomph in the blurb department. Maybe they didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up too high. Because this is no way the equal of The Shining. Now, I’ve not looked so I don’t know what the consensus is on this one is but I’d guess it’s mixed? Doctor Sleep’s got a strong start and a solid finish but the bit in-between lacks conviction, and there’s a lot of in-between here. The Danny Torrance bits which start, finish and weave through the book are great (and we’ll swing back round to that later), but they’re sandwiched around an idea more suited to a short story than the length of this brick. I mean, having old people in RVs being evil kid killers and eating schadenfreude is a droll and smart way of talking about the sick way we (“we” as a society; not me and you, we’re awesome. It’s everyone else; It’s always everyone else.) process tragedies these days together with the dangers of assumptions. But it isn’t smart enough or droll enough to carry something this hefty.

Unfortunately because the bulk of the book is less than gripping King’s late period tics stick out quite a bit. There’s the momentum sapping return to an earlier already documented event but in even more deadening detail (as though excessive attention to tedious minutiae as will effectively balance the fact we’re talking about psychic vampire eldsters); the failure to invest the mundane with menace (“She had a top hat which sounds stupid but really it was proper spooky, honest.”); the kind of attempt at a quick descriptive pop that misfires into flatness (“She had a single yellow tooth like a tusk” Annnnnd?); the interminably dull reporting of a character’s internal decision not to say something (“Chad decided not to tell Betty-May about how the world had cooled and fish had left the seas to become people and how those people had built cities and societies, and how all those cities and societies fell but history and humanity never stopped moving until here they were, today, next to the roto-rooter section in Target.”) And just like all the stuff in brackets prevented that sentence from flowing smoothly through your mind all those aspects constantly scupper King’s momentum.

But Doctor Sleep is still worth reading; it’s still worth your time, and that’s mostly because of how well King deals with addiction. There’s no horseshit here about dancing through the fire and being a better man for it; King knows that if you’re an addict you’re never through the fire and you don’t dance through it you trudge; King knows that most of the time the only reward for not drinking is that you didn’t have a drink. And eventually you don’t want to drink anymore because eventually you’re dead. You know, there’s probably a reason people talk about recovering addicts but no one ever talks about recovered addicts. The fact that a man who has been there and bought the t-shirt but is now a multi-millionaire and who lives behind a wall can still understand all this so well and, better, can communicate it so directly and sympathetically is an impressive feat of empathetic writing. Due to his mind beggaring popularity King is often given short shrift as a writer, which is a tad unfair. Because somewhere along the way Stephen King became a writer good enough to handle the horrors of reality head-on without the ghoulish gee-gaws of plastic fangs and rubber bats and it’s when he trusts himself to do so that Doctor Sleep is at its best. It is then that Doctor Sleep is better than GOOD!

Next time on Words From My Head: COMICS!!!

“They Were Stacked Criss-Cross, Like Cheese Straws…” BOOKS! Sometimes I Fancy A Change!

I didn’t really get around to any comics this week what with one thing and another. But I did read some prose and I ended up writing about that. It was a couple of books of short stories written by the co-founder of The Inland Waterways Association. Sounds gripping, huh? Well, if you’re going to let preconceptions hold sway then, I guess, this one’s for me. I know! The gall of the man, the sheer, wicked nerve! Anyway, this…  photo both_B_zpse0754c84.png

COLD HAND IN MINE By Robert Aickman Faber, £12.00 (2008) THE UNSETTLED DUST By Robert Aickman Faber, £13.00 (2009)

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The written work of Robert Fordyce Aickman (1914-1981) was a staple of my young life via his collections of, to use his preferred term, “strange stories”. Memory, ever unreliable it should be noted, maintains a plenitude of these books populated the stacks of the library around which much of my young life revolved. For the child library books have their own unique wonder. The primary source of this wonder being the sure discovery, on a page turn, of the, seemingly obligatory, trapped and flattened hair of an oddly pubic cast. So inevitable did such lightly disquieting discoveries seem that a youth possessing an imagination lightly foxed by morbidity might consider it not entirely beyond the pale that, down a quiet and municipally taupe corridor, there could not fail to be some secluded room within which, ill-lit by a crackling bulb, some hirsute creature crouched, snuffling wetly while delicately plucking and pressing a single hair from its own plentiful fund between the pages of a book. Said volume having been taken from the piles mazed around the bristling creature, doctored as stated and finally replaced upon the shelves by a man with a strangely fungal pallor and slurred gait. And upon this book the hand of a child would alight…

…Some three decades later and deciding to add some agreeably bound volumes of Mr. Aickman’s work to my own modest, and largely hairless, personal library I was aghast at the lack of availability of such volumes. O, they existed; their existence could be in no doubt but then nor, alas, could the height of the prices they demanded. Existence and availability should never be assumed to be twinned as many a convicted sex offender has discovered to their chagrin. After a little piggish truffling I did, however, find the paperback volumes noted here which, while not precisely cheap, are at least within reach of most budgets. True, they are a bit on the perfunctory side, with the only variation design wise being the name of the collection in question. A biographical note is also lacking; so one would not know that Mr. Aickman was renowned in his time for his efforts to reclaim Britain’s inland waterways and edited the first 8 volumes of the Fontana Book Of Great Ghost Stories; modestly excluding his own work from vol.s 4 and 6. Proof reading, particularly, with The Unsettled Dust, leaves something to be desired; Aickman being a most fastidious writer this is not groundless carping. Nor are there found hereabouts any testaments to the high regard with which Mr. Aickman’s work is held by today’s fantasists and fabulists. So, the modern reader would not be attracted by the fact that such as Peter Straub (who attempts to write in the key of Aickman upon occasion), Neal Gaiman (whose less fey work can approach the Aickman-esque) and the British dark comedy practitioners The League of Gentlemen (whose work is sodden with Aickman’s influence) are amongst the many who flit around Aickman’s darkly warming flame still.

With rare exceptions Aickman’s shorter works are primarily allusive and flee from concrete meaning with a singularity of purpose akin to a man who has bolted from his home upon noticing his wainscoting labours as though breathing and, indeed, has done so for some time…But, fret not, it does this in a welcoming rather than an exclusionary way. Aickman’s lithe use of language and precise prose draw the reader in before baffling and unsettling them to pleasantly discombobulating effect. Recently I, perhaps unwisely and certainly rather blithely, posited that the popularity of British war comics in the 1970s was not a result of us being a nation of blood thirsty racists backwardly yearning for The Empire, but rather the result of complications born of adjusting to the unavoidable upheavals such a prolonged period of warfare prompts. Had I finished these books in time they would, perhaps, have helped mitigate the apparent inanity of my premise. For, it soon becomes apparent, that much of Aickman’s work is concerned with the inadequacy of the brittle social conventions of the time (these collections date from 1975 onwards) to endure in the face of the psychic mayhem unleashed by two debilitating wars in quick succession. Aickman’s stories mostly document minds and lives as they intersect with subtly chaotic and leisurely overpowering forces and, as a consequence, dissipate with the tranquil violence of paper separating in a puddle. In doing so he also attempts to convey the dislocation and unease felt by a society as paradigms shifts far too suddenly for comfort.  I feel no shame in revealing that as a child all this completley passed me by. It appears that Aickman's work is work that grows with you, how simply marvellous! There’s another collection in this series, The Wine Dark Sea, now I haven’t acquired that one yet, but be assured I shall. For now I must return down this municipally taupe corridor to my room, ill-lit as it is by a crackling bulb, and bend my back to my task…

Oh, and how does Robert Aickman bear up? Well, brace yourself and let me pour you a stiff brandy because it appears, to all intents and purposes, that Mr. Robert Aickman remains…EXCELLENT! Next time, probably, - COMICS!!!

"Choke! Gasp!" Not A Podcast! Not Comics! Nothing To See Here. Move Along Now, Please.

If I recall correctly then this Tuesday the lovable light entertainers Mr. Jeff Lester and Mr. Graeme McMillan will not be with us this evening. Now I know you've all travelled a long way tonight and so, in an effort to avoid rioting, their part tonight will be played by me. Photobucket

Mr. Jeff Lester And Graeme McMillan In Happier Times.

Not available on iTunes! Uninteresting and self-indulgent free content available only at The Savage Critics!

THE COMPLETE POEMS OF PHILIP LARKIN By Philip Larkin Edited by Professor Archie Burnett 768 pages, Faber and Faber, £40.00 (2012)


As the delightfully demure Mr. Brian Hibbs has pointed out in his past comments comics and poetry share many qualities. He was speaking from a primarily retail perspective because, and I don’t know if he’s ever told anyone this but, that’s what he DOES! I’m no retailer, just a reader but from a reader’s perspective I can tell you that poetry and comics are also like comics. In fact I will tell you.

For starters this particular volume illustrates that poetry, like comics, is always being repackaged and resold. Only last year I bought a Larkin collection and here I am buying another. And the one I bought last time wasn't the first one I’d bought either. Hopefully this will be the last time as, unless the title is a big fat lie, this is a complete collection of verse from the most gifted librarian to be employed by The University of Hull. It should be the last time because the dour genius’ papers have been gone over by academics so thoroughly you’d think they were looking for clues to Lord Lucan’s whereabouts. It should definitely be the last time since Larkin died in 1985 and his output has slackened off somewhat since then.

A fair indication of the completeness of the contents is given by the contents page which lists: The (previously collected)Poems, Other Poems Published In The Poet’s Lifetime, Poem’s Not Published In The Poet’s Lifetime and Updated or Approximately Dated Poems. Unless we’re going to start employing mediums to bring back Poems The Poet Thought About Doing But Didn't then, yes, this should be as complete as it gets. It’s probably going to be as comprehensive as it gets as well since the poems end on p.329 and the rest of the book is composed of Commentary and Appendices where Professor Archie Burnett gets to strut his funky stuff.

Now to fit all that nutritious Knowledge in there and not have the book become even bigger and even pricier one interesting change has been made to the poems. Throughout the book the poems follow directly on from each other. Directly. Now, again like comics, it is quite important how the poem looks on the page. It’s not as important as the content of the poem of course but still the cluttered effect of these pages is a bit unfortunate if necessary. Yes, all across the globe poetry fans will be reading this book and then clustering together to politely but insistently engage in what is basically exactly the same process as comics fans getting aerated over the colouring changes in the new FLEX MENTALLO collection.

So, while the poems are as accessible in their wonderfully disheartening and exhilarating glory as ever the rest of the book is a bit elbow patches and chalk dust. This is just a pissy way of me intimating that I haven’t actually finished the book while at the same time needlessly denigrating the sterling work of Professor Archie Burnett for the sake of a cheap laugh. Sometimes my lack of class appals even me.

It’s The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin so how could it be less than EXCELLENT!

THE BALLAD OF BALLARD AND SANDRINE By Peter Straub 92 pages, Subterranean Press, £15.00 (2012)


From what I can gather for the last few years Straub has been troubled by ill-health and that certainly explains the variable quality in his recent novels and a seeming shift towards the shorter forms of fiction. Which is what this is an example of and that’s just fine because the short form seems to suit Straub best at this stage of the game. Throughout his long career Straub’s early poetic ambitions have informed his fiction via a truly remarkable talent for using the most seemingly innocuous of language to achieve the most devastating of effects. Reading this one was like chatting to a well-groomed scholarly looking type only for him to lean in at the last and whisper something you only barely comprehend but the foulness of which is so evident that it sticks to your brain like shit to a straw mat. Since I’m a bit of an odd bod that made this VERY GOOD!

TARZAN: THE LOST ADVENTURE By Edgar Rice Burroughs and Joe R. Lansdale Illustrations by Studley O. Burroughs, Gary Gianni, Michael Kaluta, Monty Sheldon, Charles Vess and Thomas Yeates Preface by George T. McWhorter 211 pages, Dark Horse Books, £14.99, (1995)


I don’t know about you (I really don’t, sometimes it’s like I don’t even know you) but if I picked up a book in which Joe R. Lansdale completed an unfinished Tarzan fragment left behind by Edgar Rice Burroughs when he died I’d expect one of those prefaces. You know the ones? The ones that are pretty much composed of oleaginous bullshit and make you angry at the waste of your time and the lack of respect shown for the reader’s intelligence. This preface isn't like that. Oh, it wants to be and it tries so hard to be but, seriously, George T. McWhorter is the curator of the Burroughs Memorial Collection and although he tries to hide it it’s clear he clearly don’t cotton none too much to this Joe R Lansdale fella. It’s pretty funny. I mean Mr. McWhorter is trying to be a real sport but, damn, he just can’t hide it. Look at this,

Mr. Lansdale…met the challenge head on and conquered…the prose reads fluently and the story now has a beginning, a middle, and an end that hold’s the readers attention.”

The switch from “conquered” to a list of quite mundane accomplishments is pretty revealing isn't it? Possibly more so than the bit where he chunters on about Lansdale’s incorrect usage of “pole vault”. Look, he might not have been entirely pleased by the enterprise but Mr. McWhorter’s honesty pleased me. Alas, Mr. McWhorter is clearly no comic fan as he describes luminaries such as Kaluta, Gianni and Yeates who provide illustrations as "competent artists".They are far more than that and the spot illos. and chapter headings they provide are, as ever with these men, things of joy.


As for the story, well, I’m not really up on my Burroughs but I am up on my Lansdale and I can safely say that any Lansdale fan will be pleased as punch with the results. It’s got all the deadpan humour, savage violence and bizarre creatures one could want from the master of modern pulp. I particularly enjoyed the part where Tarzan senses danger and spins round to snatch an arrow out of the air and, without halting his momentum a jot, spins to release it and sends it straight back. It’s a totally implausible moment lent total plausibility by Lansdale’s earthy approach. On the whole though I’d guess Burroughs’ Tarzan wasn't this sarcastic and less people in the original books commented on the fact that he walked about in just his ‘pants’. But it is Tarzan in the jungle doing his jungly thing so I guess, on balance, fans would be pleased, if not entirely satisfied, by the final outing for the vine swinging one. A bit like George T. McWhorter in fact. Me, I like The Lansdale, I like the artists and I like The Pulp so I thought it was GOOD!

Because this is a comics blog I thought what could be more natural than to talk about three Sean Connery films made before most of your parents were even born. This is what you want!

ZARDOZ (1974) Directed by John Boorman Written by John Boorman Starring Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestleman and John Alderton


"The Penis is evil!" (Zardoz speaks Truth in the motion picture presentation ZARDOZ.)

The best way to watch ZARDOZ is just to watch ZARDOZ. If at all possible you should have a friend or loved one purchase the film and load it into your player without you even seeing the box. Going in cold will really pay off for the first-time viewer. Messrs Lester and McMillan have already sung this film’s praises on podcasts past so you know it is worth a look. Well, they may not have sung its praises exactly but they pretty much described it as what would happen if Jack Kirby’s NEW GODS was produced by a traumatised adolescent. Actually the best way to watch ZARDOZ is when you are fourteen and your Mum and Dad are asleep and it’s just you, the TV, a box of tissues and a hunting knife. Some people think ZARDOZ is EXCELLENT! Some people think ZARDOZ is CRAP! In the end though it can only be that which it is and it is ZARDOZ!

THE OFFENCE (1972) Directed by Sidney Lumet Screenplay by John Hopkins based on his stage play This Story of Yours Starring Sean Connery, Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant and Ian Bannen


In 1965 Lumet, Connery, Bannen and Howard delivered the powerfully unsettling film THE HILL. Set in a British army prison in WW2 it’s a B/W masterpiece that drags you in and on to an ending you’ll want, like the camera itself, to look away from. You might want to watch that before this one because as harsh as that one is this one bites. THE OFFENCE is set in the’7os of my frolicsome youth and Lumet’s quietly innovative film accurately depicts that land of vicious banality, sheepskin coats and hastily scoffed fish suppers troughed in newsprint wilting in perpetual drizzle. Connery plays a copper whose soul is so eroded and his self so stained that in his struggle to function he’s become something he can’t even acknowledge from the corners of his thuggish mind. When a child goes missing and a suspect is found an unbearable man will face truths he cannot bear. And outside the rain persists regardless. It’s probably the performance Connery should be remembered for but won’t be because remembering it is painful. If you ‘enjoyed’ David Peace’s knock-a-bout Red Riding Trilogy books then this film is right up your cobbled and un-lit alley. THE OFFENCE is the kind of film that rightly attracts words like blistering, powerful, unforgettable, upsetting and miserable and because I am a regular laughing boy that makes it EXCELLENT!

Hopefully next week Mr. Jeff Lester will have finished scourging his body with a diet consisting solely of bird seed and motor oil and Mr. Graeme McMillan will have stopped hiding from his Mother-in-Law. Or whatever it is they are doing.

Me, I’m done. Time to read some COMICS!!!