SFF Reviews

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The Steerswoman: The Steerswomen’s code of open information is refreshing

The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

Originally published in 1989, The Steerswoman, by Rosemary Kirstein, was reissued by the author in 2013, along with the rest of the four existing books in the STEERSWOMAN series. This first book introduces the world of steerswoman Rowan, and the order of steerswomen (and some men), who travel the world gathering and sharing information and knowledge. There is only one kind of knowledge steerswomen don’t have — magic.

When the book opens, Rowan has stopped at an inn to question the innkeeper about a strange stone she found years ago, inside the trunk of a tree she cut down. The rules of society are these: a steerswoman will answer any question you ask if she knows the answer, and any person must answer the questions asked by a steerswoman. The w... Read More

Blood of Dracula: “Her name was Nancy, her face was nothing fancy….”

Blood of Dracula directed by Herbert L. Strock

In the memorable cult horror film I Was a Teenage Werewolf, future Bonanza star Michael Landon plays the part of hotheaded adolescent Tony Rivers, who goes to Dr. Alfred Brandon (the ubiquitous Whit Bissell) for help with his temper problems and is turned by the doctor, via a mysterious serum, into the titular monstrosity. Released in July ’57 and written by its producer, Herman Cohen, along with Aben Kandel, the film was such a hit that it induced the team to come out with three more cinematic wonders in a similar vein; films in which a diabolical adult causes an innocent teen to become a homicidal and monstrous killer. In I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, released four months later, Bissell was at it again, building a monster using the young and muscular Gary Conway. In How to Make a Monster (7/58), Robert H. Harris plays a Hollywood makeup artist who turns two teenage bo... Read More

No Gods, No Monsters: Thoughtful and well-crafted

No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

No Gods, No Monsters (2021) is one of the books that had me admiring it more than enjoying it. Strongly crafted on a sentence level, built on a structure both complex and deftly handled, and dealing with some seriously weighty themes, the book still left me, despite all that, a bit cold, a bit resistant to its charms. Still, as you’ll see, I’m mostly strongly recommending it, even if it didn’t wholly win me over.

We begin with a scene that seems all too familiar. One of the main characters, Laina, is at the morgue standing over the body of her brother Lincoln, an unarmed black man killed by a policeman as he was “running through the streets as bare as on the day he was born.” High, Laina assumes of her drug-addicted brother, but then rumors of a tape being kept secret by the police crop up, followed by a visit from Rebecca, one of Lincoln’s friends, who... Read More

The Nesting: Gloria’s swan song

The Nesting directed by Armand Weston

It sits on the crest of a hill overlooking the Hudson River to the west, a mere 18 miles north of NYC … the truly bizarre-looking structure known as the Armour-Stiner Octagon House. Built from 1859 - 1860 in Irvington, NY by financier Paul J. Armour, and expanded from 1872 - ’76 by tea importer Joseph Stiner, the structure is one of the few remaining octagonally shaped Victorian residences in the world; is now the site of a museum that is open for touring by the general public; and has deservedly been designated a National Historic Landmark. It is a site that I have long wanted to visit. OK, that last bit is an exaggeration. Actually, it is a site that I have wanted to visit for the last five days … ever since I watched the truly superior horror outing The Nesting, which features the Octagon House prominently in its story. Released in May 1981, The Nesting is a film that I never got a chance to see du... Read More

Dark Piper: Intense and memorable for young readers

Dark Piper by Andre Norton

A decade-long war is finally over and the people who live on the planet of Beltane are relieved. During the war, Beltane, where many scientists lived, was recruited for the war effort and served, unwillingly, as an experimental lab. After the war, most of the scientists left the planet, creating a brain drain, and the people who remained were pacifists who looked forward to starting a new way of life without interference from the Confederation.

When a disfigured veteran named Griss Lugard is brought back home to Beltane, he warns the citizens that because the Confederacy has fallen, there is no law, and they shouldn’t trust people who want to come to Beltane because they might have bad intentions. While the citizens of Beltane are eager to accept and shelter refugees fleeing war-ravaged worlds, Lugard vehemently objects, arguing that some of the refugees could be pirates looking for government and mili... Read More

Some Horror Films by Ted V. Mikels: A quintet of horrific trash

Some Horror Films by Ted V. Mikels directed or produced by Ted V. Mikels

It has long seemed to me that Poughkeepsie, NY-born director, producer, screenwriter and novelist Ed Wood has gotten a bum rap over the years. The one-of-a-kind filmmaker has, starting with his very first picture in the early ‘50s, garnered for himself a reputation of the very worst kind, even going so far as to be almost universally regarded as “The Worst Director of All Time.” And indeed, with such films as Glen or Glenda? (’53), Jail Bait (’54), Bride of the Monster (’55, and the very first horror film that I can recall seeing, when I was 5), Plan 9 From Outer Space (’57, and the undeserved winner of the “Worst Film of All Time” prize), Night of the Ghouls (‘59) and The Sinister Urge (’60) to his credit, it is difficult to refute the claim of his being a filmmaker of the very lamest kind. But was Ed Wood actually... Read More

Cloud Cuckoo Land: Transcends the sum of its parts

Reposting to include Ray's new review.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

What do a pair of young kids on the opposite sides of the fall of Constantinople, the protagonist of an ancient Greek tale, an eco-terrorist, a Korean war vet and former prisoner-of-war, and a young girl on a generation ship have in common? Well, besides all being major characters in Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021). To find out what else ties them all together, you’ll have to read the book, which I do recommend despite some issues.

I’m going to leave the plot summary such as it is to the introduction, as part of the pleasure of Cloud Cuckoo Land is sorting through the pieces and seeing how they all fit together. Structurally, as you might guess, the novel’s a bi... Read More

Nightmare: A minor masterpiece from The House of Hammer

Nightmare directed by Freddie Francis

1964 was a very good year for Hammer Studios in the UK. On April 19th of that year, remarkably, the studio released two films, The Evil of Frankenstein (the third entry in an ongoing series) and the psychological horror thriller called Nightmare. The following month, the little-seen entry known as The Devil-Ship Pirates was released, and on October 18th, the cinema juggernaut would do it again, by releasing two films on the very same day: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (the second Mummy movie in that series) and a picture that would go on to become a fan favorite, The Gorgon. But it is of Nightmare that I would like to speak here, a film that this viewer had never seen before until recently, but one that has just made a hugely favorable impression on me. Clocking in at 82 very efficient minutes and impressively shot in ubercreepy B&W, the film is su... Read More

And What Can We Offer You Tonight: Dreamlike, angry horror

And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed

Premee Mohamed’s novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight (2021) is set in a drowning city where human life is not cheap — it’s worthless. If starvation, violence or disease doesn’t kill you, probably one of the routine government “culls” will, unless you are one of the uber-wealthy, living elsewhere and treating the city like a personal playground/hunting-ground, or a person who services the very wealthy. This leads us to Jewel, our first-person narrator, a courtesan in an elite, exclusive and very expensive “house,” the House of Bicchieri.

Jewel gets a portion of every client’s payment, and a share of any tips; it seems like she would have enough money to escape the “gilded cage” in which she lives, if she wanted to, but the courtesans ... Read More

The Snake Woman: Cold-blooded, but not chilling

The Snake Woman directed by Sidney J. Furie

In John Gilling’s 1966 film The Reptile, produced by Hammer Studios, the audience was presented with the spectacle of a young woman (the great Jacqueline Pearce) who, thanks to the ministrations of a Malaysian snake cult, could turn into a serpent at will. The film was set in the Cornwall area in the early 20th century and had been brought in at a budget of over 100,000 pounds … and with terrific and scarifying results. But, as it turns out, this was not the first time that the Brits had given us a story about a young woman who could turn herself into a snake, and who terrorized her vicinity in the early 1900s. Five years earlier, an infinitely smaller and lesser film, nearly forgotten today, had appeared, by name of The Snake Woman, and a recent watch has only served to impress upon this viewer what an inferior product it is, in comparison. Whereas The Reptile had featured sumptuous colo... Read More

Empire of Jegga: Lovely Vrita and Ho-Ghan’s heroes

Empire of Jegga by David V. Reed

I have a feeling that most people, when they begin a book in the genre of the Golden Age space opera, go in expecting a slam-bang action affair replete with starship battles, interplanetary conflict, weapons of superscience, hissable villains and cheerable heroes. Well, I am here now to tell you of a Golden Age space-opera novel in which all those aspects are indeed most certainly present, but in very much a secondary role. The book is one that you may very well be unfamiliar with, and for good reason, although its author’s name just might ring a bell among some of you.

The book in question is entitled Empire of Jegga, by the NYC-born writer David V. Reed, whose real name was David Levine. Reed’s first novel of four, Empire of Jegga initially appeared complete in the November 1943 issue of Amazing Stories (cover price... Read More

Man Made Monster: High-tension thrills

Man Made Monster directed by George Waggner

In the 1956 film Indestructible Man, the great Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed a character named Butcher Benton, who is sent to the gas chamber after a botched robbery but is later brought back to life by a mad-scientist type who supercharges his body with 300,000 volts of juice. Benton is thus turned into the seemingly unkillable creation of the title, with skin impervious to bullets and even to a bazooka blast. But as many filmgoers have known for decades, this was not the first time that Chaney had played a character who was dosed with an abundance of electricity and turned into a kind of supercreation. Fifteen years earlier, we find Chaney, in his very first horror picture, playing a similar role, but with far more impressive and artistic results. The film, Man Made Monster (the lack of a hyphen is annoying), was initially released as part of a double feature in March ’41 along with another picture fr... Read More

Paper & Blood: Al and Buck go Down Under

Paper & Blood by Kevin Hearne

Paper & Blood is the second novel in Kevin Hearne’s INK & SIGIL series which is a spin-off of his very popular IRON DRUID CHRONICLES. In the first INK & SIGIL novel, Ink & Sigil, which you’ll want to read first (though Hearne thankfully gives us a “The Story So Far” summary – thank you!), we met Al MacBharrais, a sigil agent who uses ink and paper to create magic spells. We watched Al and some of his colorful colleagues solve a mystery and stop the trafficking of, and unethical experimentation on, fae creatures such as pixies.

In Paper & Blood, Al gets some bad news: some of his fellow sigil agents are ... Read More

The Return of Dracula: Welcome back, champ!

The Return of Dracula directed by Paul Landres

Contrary to popular belief, the great Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi only portrayed the world’s most famous vampire twice, both times for Universal Studios: first in the creaky yet eternal glory that is Dracula (1931) and next in what many of us consider to be the greatest horror/comedy of all time, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). And then, for a solid decade, that infamous character, the dreaded Transylvanian bloodsucker, would disappear from the world’s screens (with the single exception being the little-seen, 1953 Turkish curio Dracula In Istanbul) until the spring of ’58, when two films would mark the character’s return in a very big way. In April ’58, United Artists in the U.S. released a picture with the very apropos title The Return of Dracula, while in the U.K., the following month, Hammer Studios would release its highly influential film ... Read More

The Fire Opal Mechanism: Lovely worldbuilding, an enjoyable read

The Fire Opal Mechanism by Fran Wilde

Of course I’d be a sucker for any book with a brave librarian, and Fran Wilde’s 2019 novella, The Fire Opal Mechanism, has one such, along with a resourceful thief and a time travel device. This short book is an enjoyable read. I haven’t read The Jewel and Her Lapidary, a novella set in the same world. Probably some of the comments about the jewels will make more sense to people who have read that story, and there is a crossover character, but this novella does stand alone well.

Ania has been promoted to Master Archivist at the Far Reaches university library, after the previous archivist has vanished. As the story opens, she is frantically... Read More

Lady Frankenstein: Neri fiddles while the castle burns

Lady Frankenstein directed by Mel Welles

Of all the great quotes ever uttered by Hollywood royalty, one of my favorites has long been a line that was uttered by the great Virginia-born actor Joseph Cotten, who once said, “Orson Welles lists

Citizen Kane as his best film, Alfred Hitchcock opts for Shadow of a Doubt, and Sir Carol Reed chose The Third Man … and I’m in all of them!” And it’s so true … Cotten, at the height of his career, got to work with the cream of Hollywood, and appeared in some of the very finest pictures of the age. But as the actor got older, he found, as had so many before him, that the availability of choice roles was limited (you might recall that the great Basil Rathbone’s final film was, uh, 1967’s Hillbillys in a Haunted House!), and during his final decade, he perforce appeared in any number of questionable/outre projects. Case in point: the 1971 Italian film Read More

Three Great Gialli by Luciano Ercoli

Three Great Gialli by Luciano Ercoli directed by Luciano Ercoli

It seems possible to me that even those fans of the genre known as the giallo film — that uniquely Italian cinematic product marked by stylish mayhem, gorgeous soundtracks, mind-bogglingly recomplicated plotting, outrageously violent set pieces, and fiendishly wackadoodle serial killers — might be unfamiliar with the director whom I would like to shine a spotlight on here. Though they might be very familiar with such giallo mainstays as Mario Bava (whose 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much is often cited as the very first giallo picture), Dario Argento (who has arguably done more for the genre than any other single director, and who remains wildly popular to this day), Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi and Massimo Dallamano, they yet might not have experienced the three gialli created by one Luciano Ercoli (1929 - 2015), who also helmed film... Read More

The Black Cat: A very well-done horror comedy

The Black Cat directed by Albert S. Rogell

As the new decade of the 1940s got under way, Universal Studios in Hollywood continued to pump out frightening movies that have since become a distinct film genre unto themselves: Universal horror! The ‘30s had seen the studio get the ball rolling with its Frankenstein, Invisible Man, Mummy and Dracula franchises, and as the new decade began, audiences would continue to be thrilled and amused by their continued antics. The year of 1940 saw four sterling entertainments released: The Invisible Man Returns, Black Friday (starring the studio’s two leading horror stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi), The Mummy’s Hand and The Invisible Woman,... Read More

The Icepick Surgeon: An intriguing rogue’s gallery of scientific criminals

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam Kean 

Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.

~ Albert Einstein

Sam Kean is my favorite pop science author, ever since I read Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us in 2017. Kean has an engaging voice, a solid understanding of science, and a talent for telling stories, making complex subjects both intelligible and interesting to non-scientific readers (tellingly, he studied both physics and English literature). In his latest book, The Icepick Surgeon (2021), Kean turns his attention to the many ways in which science has been twisted to si... Read More

Night of the Bloody Apes: Eye-popping fun

Night of the Bloody Apes directed by Rene Cardona

Although the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema is generally said to have lasted from the years 1936 - ’59, it wasn’t until the very end of that glorious run that the country really began to excel in the realm of horror. Indeed, it was only in the mid-‘50s that Mexico began to make an impact in the fright arena, but in a very big way; I have already written here of such marvelous Mexican horror entertainments as The Vampire (’57), The Vampire’s Coffin (’58), The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy (’58), Ship of Monsters Read More

The Tower at the End of the World: A weak sequel

The Tower at the End of the World by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

In The Tower at the End of the World (2001), the ninth novel in  John Bellairs & Brad Strickland’s LEWIS BARNAVELT series, Strickland once again pays tribute to the late Bellairs by returning to, and expanding the plot of the first novel in the series, The House with a Clock in its Walls.

At this point, Lewis is 13 years old and has just finished reading Sax Rohmer’s FU MANCHU series. (I ... Read More

The Monster of Piedras Blancas: A truly memorable monstrosity

The Monster of Piedras Blancas directed by Irvin Berwick

It is truly remarkable how a cinematic image can make a lasting imprint on a young and impressionable mind. Take, for example, the 3-year-old me, who witnessed, in a movie theatre, the image of a man falling on a dynamite plunger and causing a bridge to blow up, resulting in a devastating train wreck. It is an image that I have never forgotten, despite all these intervening decades; one of the final scenes, of course, from the great David Lean film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which I have since verified my folks did take me to see, although why my parents deemed a 2 ½-hour war movie appropriate fare for such a young child is another matter. Flash forward five years or so, and we have another lasting cinematic image from my childhood, this one of a bit more grisly nature: a hideous monster advancing toward the camera, clutching in its mitt the dangling head of its latest... Read More

The Human Target: A thriller about a man with a thousand faces

The Human Target by Peter Milligan (writer), Edvin Biukovic (artist), Lee Loughridge (colorist), and Robert Solanovic (letterer)

Christopher Chance is the Human Target. He is able to impersonate anybody, and he takes the place of those whose lives are in danger, often when there is a hitman pursuing them. He digs deep in his method acting to really become the person he impersonates. He is a master of disguise, but sometimes a human target can be too good at imitation, perhaps even forgetting at times that he is not the person imitated. For example, in this story, the Human Target, a white man, takes the place of a black minister who is trying to clean up his neighborhood, get drugs and drug lords out of the community. The minister has a wife and young child, and the impersonation lasts for over a month. After that long, the Human Target starts to believe he is really married to the wife and a father to the child. He wil... Read More

Horror Island: A rum time on Morgan’s Island

Horror Island directed by George Waggner

Just recently, I had some words to say about the Universal horror movie Man-Made Monster, a rather pleasing little film that featured some top-notch special effects and is primarily remembered today for the debut horror role of the great Lon Chaney, Jr. The film was first released on March 28, 1941, along with the expected cartoons, trailers, news reel, film shorts and heaven knows what else; the crowds surely got their 15 cents’ worth back when! But also on that same bill, 80 years ago as of this writing, was yet another Universal horror film, one that featured little in the way of effects, and one that is virtually forgotten today. That second film on the fright bill was Horror Island, and my recent, first-time watch has revealed the picture to be a somewhat silly, lighthearted horror comedy that just barely manages to entertain ... Read More

Spacecraft: Not exactly what it says on the tin

Spacecraft by Timothy Morton

I’m sure there is an audience for Timothy Morton’s Spacecraft (2021), one of the OBJECT LESSONS series titles. Unfortunately, I wasn’t it. I’m also thinking that based on the title, a number of people might find themselves in my position, a problem perhaps more of expectations than substance.

The OBJECT LESSONS, which I’ve generally been a big fan of, “start from a specific inspiration ... and from there develop original insights and novel lessons about the object in question.” And there lies the expectations problem because from the title, one would imagine the inspiration is, well, spacecraft. And at least at the start, it seems to be the case, as Morton offers up his youthful love of spacecrafts, his clear enduring enthusiasm, an insightful distinction between spaceships and space... Read More