The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman

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A short story, a graphic novel and a children’s picture book had a threesome in Neil Gaiman’s head and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is the result. By that I mean that this story heavily relies upon prose and pictures to get its point across, but occasionally these will join together in minicomics where the characters interact through speech bubbles. It’s an effective and arresting mix.

You may remember Eddie Campbell from Alan Moore’s historically dense comic From Hell. Happily for him The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is far more cheery, although admittedly it does get extremely dark at times. Just no gore or murderous psychopaths. These pictures are either drawn with watercolours or some sort of pencil. (I’m not an artist.)

This story is set on one of those enigmatic islands north of England. You know, like the Isle of Man. For Neil Gaiman this means kilts and sheep. Could well be like that, for all I know.

The story of The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains itself is intricately coiled upon itself like a tiny clock. (Or one of those spring-loaded toy snakes in a can). A dwarf hires a reticent farmer to help him find a mythical cave filled with magical gold, with which he intends to help a foreign king invade his island home. Of course, with this sort of scenario nothing is as it seems at first glance.

Sometimes I suspect that Neil Gaiman rests on his laurels, although he has one hell of a set of laurels, and releasing an illustrated short story like this supports my suspicion. (I probably just haven’t forgiven him for not focusing purely on comics, going down the Grant Morrison route of becoming a bigwig over at DC Comics.) But The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains‘s innovative mixture of prose, illustration and comics may just be what it takes to foster public interest in picture books aimed at adults.

Usually at this point in a review I cheap out and describe the sort of people I’d recommend it to. Besides the scores of adults with too little time to enjoy a short novel, yet are reluctant to buy a short story anthology, and also really like watercolours, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains would make a good present for a young person stuck between complex picture books and simple novels, especially if they have a ghoulish bent.

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Black Water Tales: Unwanted – Jean Nicole Rivers

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Blaire Baker is an American teaching graduate who volunteers at an impoverished eastern European orphanage. The children under her care bear mysterious injuries and the local staff almost seem to be neglecting intentionally, feeding them the same miserable gruel everyday. And there’s something bad in the basement.

The Unwanted has got some crackingly good characterization, aided by credible dialogue. Besides Blaire, the most important person in the book is her fellow volunteer and nurse Travis Wells. They complement each other well in their sarcasm and refusal to acknowledge the strangeness of their situation. Slowly throughout the novel their backstories unfold, although protagonist Blaire gets more focus, and their pasts help make these character’s actions consistent and believable. (Blaire would have enough horrific experiences under her belt if she never left America, but to elaborate further would be to venture into spoiler territory.) By the end of the book, these two characters begin to feel real.

In many horror stories the protagonist is thrust into danger by their curiosity, stubbornness or idiocy. (I’m still annoyed at Titus Crow for hanging out with that obvious Aleister Crowley clone.) This isn’t the case with Blaire. Guilt and compassion motivate her to volunteer at the orphanage, and her concern for the children’s welfare moves her to improve things for them. Whenever she considers escaping her spooky surroundings she calls her friend Emma, one of the administrators of the program, who reminds her that volunteers often get cold feet after the first fortnight and that things are probably worse in Africa. This is one of the most plausible justifications for hanging around a house that’s probably haunted that I’ve ever come across. It really helps me take the main characters and their situation seriously.

I like how the ebook of this novel has been formatted, with the first letter of each chapter made about twenty times larger than another. Presentation really shouldn’t matter in fiction, so I feel a bit guilty at being so impressed by this. Self-publishers and small presses should look to The Unwanted for an example of how to do an ebook.

The Unwanted is a surprising novel, but if I said exactly how then it wouldn’t be.

It’s also a very lyrical novel. Rivers is clearly a talented writer, whose prose would be more expected in a big L-Literary short fiction than in anything as genre as horror. Most of the time this style is engaging and fantastic for setting mood and atmosphere, which is important in horror, but it can get a little overwhelming in action scenes. If the metaphors and adjectives were slightly toned down than the prose would be excellent. As it is, it’s very good.

I enjoyed this book and I’d recommend it to the universe at large. More specifically, anyone who really enjoyed Franz Kafka’s The Castle, another unsettling tale about a stranger lost in an Eastern European town dominated by a sinister building, will love The Unwanted.

 

A free copy of this book was given to me to review. Pick up yours at Amazon.

Tomorrowland – Paul Jenkins

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Not to be confused with some Disney thing I don’t care about, the comic Tomorrowland demonstrates that stupid doesn’t always mean unenjoyable. There’s some festival out there in Belgium and some other places called Tomorrowland, and this comic exists it.

For the purposes of the story, Tomorrowland is an annual gathering where humanity’s greatest minds come together to bend time and fight the devil. Each year a new person is chosen to represent the powers of good, except this year, where for some reason two DJ brothers get the job. (Can’t remember their names, but the promotional material at the back say they’re real people.) So basically the story is Bill and Ted with turntables.

I kid you not, I laughed out loud reading this story. Time travel allows historical luminaries to interview in the story, placing Shakespeare and Jean-Jacques Costeau in hilarious scenarios. The funniest was when Leonardo da Vinci secretively discussed magical props with the twin’s friend, ending the conversation with the line ‘it’s tough to realise that your best friend is secretly an elf.’

There are elves in this book as well.

It’s just… great.

Star Slammers: The Ultimate Collection – Walter Simonson

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The Star Slammers are a culture of space mercenaries who are more or less guaranteed to win any war for the side that pays them most.

The art in this book is great. The stories are also good.

My only complaint is that there’s only two stories. Simonson could do more with this concept, perhaps something in animation.

A1: The World’s Greatest Comics

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This is an anthology and like any anthology the quality varies. The Alan Moore story is as brilliant as you’d expect,  there’s a tale about a frog which experiments with how comics handle time, and piece about an exhibition protesting Roy Lichtenstein for making millions stealing art from poorly paid comic artists. (This is a fascinating issue, check out this gallery.) I was baffled by some other stories, one involved Captain America knock-off, and another with Frankestein’s monster in wonderland.