by Sandy Auden
There's lots of good stuff out for the Summer so here's a round up
of Guillermo del Toro's vampires in The Strain; Jonathan L Howard's
necromancer Johannes Cabal; and both Mike Carey's dysfunctional Tom Taylor
in The Unwritten and news about the ultra-cool Felix Castor.
HarperCollins have published The Strain, the first in a thriller vampire trilogy written by acclaimed director, Guillermo del Toro, creator of the Academy Award-winning film Pan's Labyrinth, and Hammett Award-winning writer Chuck Hogan.
Sarah Hodgson, Deputy Publishing Director at HarperCollins UK, tells us all about it…
"The Strain is a thriller but it has a supernatural element which is essentially vampires. And it's very, very cool. It starts off with a plane landing at JFK airport and it taxis to a halt on the runway and then it just goes completely dark, there's no communication with air traffic control and no-one knows what's happened. So they have to send a team out to get onto the plane to find out what's happened. The team go onto the plane and it seems as if everyone's dead but there's no explanation, there are no signs of poisoning, no signs of violence, no-one knows what's going on.
"And then they find that four of the passengers are actually alive so they're all taken to hospital and the rest of the corpses are taken out and off to the morgue. Then that night two hundred corpses disappear from the four morgues around the city where they've all been taken.
"The main character is one of the guys who goes on the plane first. He's called Dr Ephraim Goodweather and he's in charge of the Centers for Disease Control in New York and he has to investigate this mysterious disease and gradually realises that it's something very, very strange that no-one's every seen before. He eventually teams up with a guy who's actually a pawnbroker but originally from Eastern Europe and grew up with tales of vampires told to him by his grandmother. He knows all about them and how to deal with them.
"So they team up and form a small band of sort of vigilante heroes who are the only people who really know what's going on. And it's fantastic, it's just really well paced and suspenseful and in parts, horrifying.
Hodgson was the editor involved when the story was first offered to HarperCollins. " It was very exciting when it came in because it was sent to me from the New York office and we had to make an offer really quickly so I literally had an afternoon to read the material -- about 200 pages of manuscript -- but I was so excited when I read it that I absolutely wanted it...
And she wasn't the only person who got excited about it: "Everyone at HarperCollins was really excited about it. Quite often, you know, everyone has so much to read that all of the editors are clamouring to get their book read but with this one everyone wanted to read it. I had so many people coming up to me and saying, 'Oh my god, I read The Strain last night and I've had nightmares. What have you done to me?' But really enjoying it and getting into it. That's really exciting."
The book is credited to both Guillermo and Chuck Hogan but what was the division of labour? "I think it's pretty equal. They kind of went back and forth, back and forth quite a lot, rewriting each other's drafts. And then of course they had to go through the whole editing process as well and then go back and forth all over again.
"Guillermo was very involved all the way through the publishing process and even down to really tiny details. I emailed him the cover copy and we were emailing back and forth over really small individual word choices. He really wanted it to be right -- which is amazing when you consider how busy he is. I mean he was in New Zealand preparing for The Hobbit when he was emailing about the book."
So is it as visual a book as you'd expect from a director? "It is quite visual, yeah. And it's interesting because if you've seen his film Blade II, you can see the development from there as well…"
The Strain is out now from HarperCollins publishers.
Jonathan L Howard talks about Necromancer Johannes Cabal
Johannes Cabal, desperate to further his studies into necromancy, sold his soul to the Devil but he just didn't realise how much it would hamper his studies. So now he wants it back. Unfortunately it rests within the festering bureaucracy of Hell, and Satan -- as well as being cruel and capricious -- is rather dangerously bored. It is Cabal's unenviable task to provide him with amusement.
So a wager is drawn. In return for his own soul, Cabal must gather one hundred others. Armed only with his intelligence, a large handgun and a total absence of whimsy, Cabal has one year to beat the devil at his own game…
Cabal was created by author Jonathan L Howard almost twenty years ago, "I discovered that I had a small talent for short stories, having learned that the secret to finishing a story was, remarkably, to stick at it until the story was told, as opposed to giving up after a thousand words and going to the pub. Who knew?
"Having made this great breakthrough, I distinctly remember sitting over a pint -- I never said pubs have no role in the writing process -- and making a list of ideas for stories about Cabal. One such idea years later formed the seed of Cabal's first appearance in print, "Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day", and another couple turn up as passing incidents within the novel.
"That pint was when Cabal first became recognisably Cabal, name and all, but he existed in prototype form even earlier than that. Back in the mid-80s, I saw and loved the movie Reanimator. I'm a terrible one for spinning off stories from things I've enjoyed, purely for the pleasure of creating stories. I'd been doing this since I was a child, and it was just a form of play that never left me.
"In this case, I amused myself while on buses and walking by coming up with a sequel to Reanimator, or at least, the pre-title sequence for a non-existent film. This featured somebody -- not Herbert West -- animating something he's created. It's a vicious little monster, and he has to kill it, a procedure that is interrupted by a inquisitive policeman at the door. He manages to fob the officer off, and is just congratulating himself, when there is another knock at the door. He opens it, and finds Herbert West on the doorstep. "I think," says West, "we can help each other." Run titles.
"This new character would be different from West in that he used magic as well as science, and that his motivations were personal, which would put him at odds with West, who's just a 'damn the consequences' sort of amoral scientist. Over the years, however, Cabal became harder, more driven and German, the latter for no better reason than I rather like the Germans and wanted to create a German character."
And Cabal would leave a lasting impression with the author even after the first novel-length story was told. "I have long had a mental image that travelled with me after I wrote the novel but before I had an agent or any likelihood of actually seeing the thing in print," said Howard. "It's a black and white image of a man in a long coat -- Johannes Cabal -- with his back to the viewer. His right hand hangs by his side, and holds a large revolver. By his left foot, a Gladstone bag sits on the floor. In Cabal's left hand, he is holding a candyfloss cloud upon a stick. The candyfloss is brilliant pink, and the only colour in the image. Cabal regards it with an air of scientific curiosity."
Cabal has a lot of other traits besides scientific curiosity. "He is a brilliant chemist, a mathematician, he has an excellent memory bordering on the eidetic, he is a hard worker, he thinks quickly and usually clearly, he doesn't give a damn what people think of him, and he is fearless. He's not based on anybody especially, but he has a lot of aspects I'd love to have. Then again, he offsets the whole thing by being an utter bastard, having a small army of mortal enemies plus a few immortal enemies, and is so spectacularly screwed up that he doesn't even realise it.
"And I do like it when he does something that might possibly be mistaken by the misinformed as an altruistic or, gods help us, a noble act and then he rationalises it away as anything but. The poor delusional schmuck."
Surrounding Cabal is a world full of the weird and wonderful. "I have always liked the idea of a cabinet of curiosities, and have long regarded my mind as much the same. I fill it with whatever stuff appeals to me and, over time, things run together... gelling... distilling... and before you know it... Voila! Gin jelly. Or, alternatively, an appealing synthesis."
And there's always something funny happening. "Most of the humour is character driven, with the narrative voice allowing you to get inside heads. There are very few set pieces that I recall, because I don't really like set pieces. They're all as signposted as 'Where shall we hide from our enemies? Oh, let's duck into that custard pie factory!' No matter how good a job you do with such sequences, the spectre of the pie factory shall hang about you. Why bother?
"The story is humorous rather than straight just because I know the genres pretty well and I wanted to tell a story with humour set within them. I have fun with a few conventions, but the core story would survive even if the humour was removed.
"There's emotion in there, and people do things for reasons that can be sympathised with, even if the things done are awful. Many of the secondary characters are ciphers or parodies, but they're just the same sorts of ciphers and parodies that you might find in any story. The core characters, however, have human personalities, even when they're not as entirely human as might be expected."
How does Howard get in the mood to write 'funny'? "Usually, I just am. Utterly hilarious, me. Actually, I have a variety of 'voices' that I use, depending on subject and tone. The Cabal voice is dry, looks for absurdity, and expands upon it when it finds it. I never sit down to write a titifalarious gag-a-thon; I just decide which voice I shall use to describe the action, and modulate it depending on events.
"One thing, though; I never laugh at death. I may be abrupt or brutal about it, but I never make a joke of it. The events leading up to it, and those subsequent are fair game, but a death is an awful thing and its moment is not an opportunity for cheap gags. There are plenty of other opportunities for cheap gags, in any case."
And there will be more opportunities in the next book too -- Howard has just handed in the submission draft for the second book. So if Cabal's adventures snaring souls has whet your appetite for the absurd and downright strange, rest assured there's more on the way.
Mike Carey on new comic series The Unwritten and Felix Castor
Mike Carey has been impressing book readers over recent years with his tales of Felix Castor, freelance exorcist and all round dry wit (more on that later), but Carey's other projects in the world of comics also demonstrate the depth of this writer's talents -- he's written everything from Batman, The X-Men and The Fantastic Four through Lucifer and Hellblazer to 2000AD.
Now he has a new project showcasing his stories…"It's called The Unwritten and has Peter Gross doing the artwork," said Carey. "It's loosely based on the real life of Christopher Robin, Christopher Robin Milne who was the son of A.A. Milne. Famously his father puts him into these stories where he's a cute little kid. The family friend, Ernest Shepard, draws him as the cute little kid, a boy dressed in girl's clothes really. Then he grows up and has to live with this, being famous as somebody else's fictional character. And he said in his autobiography that his father had appropriated his childhood for his own purposes.
"So in The Unwritten we have a character, Tom Taylor who is in exactly that situation. His father Wilson Taylor is the author of probably the best selling series of novels ever, The History of the World, the adventures of a loveable boy wizard called Tommy Taylor and his friends Sue Sparrow and Peter Price. And he goes to wizard school and does all the things that boy wizards normally do.
"Now Tom Taylor as a man is earning a meagre living going around the convention circuits selling his father's books. And he hates it, he hates the fact that he's never been his own man, he's always been this sort of adjunct to his father's career.
And then at the start of our story he's at a convention, he's doing a panel and someone stands up and says, 'I have a question for you Mr Taylor. Who are you really? Because your birth certificate is forged, your social security number belongs to an old woman who died twenty years ago, these photos of you as a child are actually of some other child. So your entire past is forged. Where did you really come from?' And he's forced to face the awful possibility that he may actually be the fictional character Tommy Taylor, somehow magically made flesh and given this fake past.
"He doesn't believe this for a moment but the more he tries to prove that he is himself, the more the evidence seems to turn up that he's not, that he's somebody else. There's also a plot concerning a conspiracy, a cabal called The Unwritten who, for reasons of their own, have designs on Tom -- unfriendly designs. And it turns out that they have been to some extent manipulating fictions, stories that people tell, stories that human societies have told themselves for a great many years, possibly centuries. And it's all part of this bizarre plot.
"So it's a story about stories. It's a story about why stories are important to us and what we get out of them. It's a blast to write because it's totally meta-fictional. We start off in the first issue we had some pages for the Tommy Taylor novel, we have a scene from the Tommy Taylor film, we have a page that was web pages all overlaid with each other so we were drawing in on multi media strands. And in later issues we've got Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice and it's really all about the inter-tangling of fact and fiction at different levels."
You can start untangling the stories of The Unwritten now with Vertigo and it's a nice way to fill the time until the next Felix Castor novel. "The fifth Castor novel is written and will come out in October 2009 so I'm working on book six now," explains Carey.
And it's going to be a hugely important volume for Castor fans: "The arc finishes with six so there's a climax in book five. Book five is all about Castor and Asmodeus so there's a sense in which you get to an endpoint with five but the sixth novel is the one where you actually find out the whys and wherefores of the whole situation. You know, why are the dead rising? Why is all this happening now at this point in the human history? And you get resolution for all of that."
So watch this space, there's something big a-coming…
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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