A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem: by Philip Challinor





In this strange and alternate Jerusalem, history flits back and forth along a timeline that seems almost obsolete or abandoned, its robots and computers junked by considerations of what might have been, could have been... And it is quite a coup to restore to Pontius Pilate his soldierly sensibilities, to hone them with political considerations to the point where he resembles the undiplomatic warrior of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. In A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem, it is very much a soldier who makes reconnaissance of the politics of occupation and corruption, and who finds in their prisons the same man who is locked inside the gulag of the Gospels.

Jerusalem draws on the instinctive similarity between these two men - one a soldier, the other a being with an almost militant capacity for pain, which the former recognises as the kind of self-abnegating battle fatigue that often leads to the heroic sacrifice or the death march or the hunger strike. Pilate identifies the nightmare in which Jesus is caught by recourse to his own - he has navigated the stations of his own cross through the course of a day of meetings; and it is here that the author's invention becomes apparent - a wholly original piece of exposition by interrogation. Each meeting seems to complicate Pilate's mood and to simplify his resolve; yet just as the action remains locked, the technology has moved on and, apart from Pilate, the only curiosity is displayed by Jesus, whose touching upgrade of a robot suggests that in another life he might have been a software engineer. But he cannot affect sentient parties - prejudices and attitudes remain fixed, even as technology marks the world around them. He and Pilate are cognisant of a change; the others are lost to glitch and cognitive lag.

The book has a remarkably dry and acrid wit, disturbed only by the metallic tang of blood which seems to suffuse with the prose, rendering it brittle and bitter. The dialogue is absolutely gripping, as each station, Centurion, High Priest, or Judge, fumbles a way to excuses taken from a book which is lived but unread. Rising above these, as touching and as brutal as any act of mercy, is Pilate's final encounter with Jesus, a genuinely affecting moment, the power of which cannot be diminished, and which begs the question - just who is being released, and from what? In the end we can't help but draw the impression that this timeline is ended.

To my mind there is no modern author who work is so consistently anti-visionary - here it is not that men and women are trapped inside systems; rather they are caught inside the mixed emotions which serve to preserve systems. And that makes all the difference. As it has been remarked that reading Mr Challinor's novels is like being stalked by a cat, it only remains for me to say - true, so long as you remember this cat has serious claws.

A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem can be purchased as a paperback here, or an ebook here.

Sole Survivor (1970)




Originally broadcast as a TV movie in 1970, Sole Survivor became one of those legendary, unavailable titles about which people would talk obsessively over the years, recounting the plot from distant memory so that everyone recalled a different version. Some people remember it as a straight World War Two thriller about the rescue of a stranded flight crew; others posit alternative endings; still more swap the actors into different roles, remembering performances that simply do not exist. This fascinating process is almost a thematic extension of the film, a pleasing serendipity that is perhaps more interesting than the production itself. That's not to denigrate the film, which is a remarkable piece of work.

In the Libyan desert the ghosts of an American flight crew are earthbound to the wreckage of their crashed bomber. They cannot leave the wreck and so idly await discovery, which they presume will mean release. After 17 long years their bomber is indeed discovered, and the US Air Force dispatches Vince Edwards and William Shatner as a panel to investigate the crash, collect the dog-tags, and close the books on the incident. Accompanying them is Richard Basehart, the sole surviving crew member from the crashed bomber, whose account of the flight, and of his own survival, is now called into question - he claims the Captain gave the order to bail out, and he obeyed this order. He has stuck with this story for 17 years, and it appears to be backed up by the fact that no bodies are found at the site of the crash - but if the crew bailed out with Basehart, how did the bomber coast for 600 miles inland? And just what did happen to the rest of the crew, none of whom were recovered? What follows could be described as trial by sunlight and shadow, as the scorching desert heat has Basehart turn to liquor, giving the ghosts a maudlin presence which is entered into evidence against him.

Sole Survivor is often remembered as a Movie of the Week, though I think it came slightly before that franchise took hold. It is possible that the high quality of the film partly inspired the TV movie phenomenon of the 1970s, and though not many matched its artistry, a few - Murder by Natural Causes, Fear on Trial, Red Alert, and others - were powerful enough to create their own living, and dying, memory.




Nightwing (1979)




On a blazing American Indian reservation in New Mexico, cattle and horses are found badly maimed and drained of blood. Local Chief Walker Chee (Stephen Macht) would like very much for this problem to go away, as the reservation land has been discovered to be oil-rich and he wants to make a quick killing on the sale. He hires Philip Payne (David Warner) to track down the colony of vampire bats responsible, and destroy it. Meanwhile Deputy Duran (Nick Mancuso) is on the trail of both bats and oil money, which he believes are responsible for a spate of seemingly unrelated deaths. Mancuso joins forces with Warner to locate the colony and finds a rather novel way of taking care of business.

There is an apocalyptic element to Nightwing - that the bats cause bubonic plague, which is in danger of being spread to the entire United States unless they are contained. This however is downplayed in favour of the danger of oil money to the lifestyles of natives on the reservation; in fact, several older members of the community welcome and prepare for this end of the world, as they call it; for them the oil is the end of a way of life and therefore a cultural apocalypse. Mancuso's struggle with these older Chiefs is less interesting than his interaction with David Warner: for my money the film's strength lies in Warner's performance as Philip Payne, an updated Van Helsing, paid by the World Health Organisation to travel the globe to exterminate colonies of vampire bats. Warner is on great form here; by turns obsessive, bitter and utterly friendless as he goes about his business. In fact, I would have dispensed with Mancuso altogether, and allowed Warner to do his thing.

I'm not familiar with Martin Cruz Smith's original novel, but the film is typically 70s fare treated with that era's obsessions - environmentalism, hallucinogenics, race and identity politics, and worst of all, stereotyping, where even the behaviours of a living creature are drawn from the headline rather than the article. The bats themselves appear mechanical and unconvincing, though several in-flight swarm sequences are eerily reminiscent of John Boorman's locust plague in Exorcist 2: The Heretic; and we all know what happened to that film.

In the end, like a midnight version of The Birds, Nightwing flits along the edge of your nerves before crashing into the back projection. I liked it. More, I felt it.

Warning Sign (1985)



Hal Barwood's Warning Sign starts out as a fairly sombre and serious bio-hazard thriller in which a deadly outbreak at a research facility leads to complete lockdown. Trapped inside with the infected staff is security guard Kathleen Quinlan, wife of local Sheriff Sam Waterston, who is quickly on the scene. He discovers that the facility, ostensibly an agricultural research centre providing much-needed jobs for the local economy, is really a business front for military experiments in genetic warfare, and that those trapped inside are likely doomed. He fetches ex-company scientist Jeffrey De Munn, and together they enter the facility in an attempt to affect a cure, and to rescue Quinlan, who is unaffected for reasons which wrap up nicely at the end.

Where the film switches in tone is with the arrival of Yaphet Kotto's bible-quoting company man, whose comforting words fail to ring true, largely thanks to the small army of troops and close-mouthed scientists in tow. His arrival coincides with the revival of the seemingly dead staff inside the facility, who are now not so much zombies as survival junkies (led by Richard Dysart) - their rampage throughout the facility is not that of the living dead: it is rather that of a confirmation bias towards life. These scenes retain the conventional mad stare and slaughter aspects of many containment horror films and they are, for the most part, directed with no real flair for splatter, with the exception of one brilliant twist concerning a pair of contact lens. In the end Barwood resorts to his named stars for a resolution, perhaps believing that box-office is the antidote to toxin, and that an outbreak of genre can be cured by star power.

Warning Sign is a well-regarded film in cult circles, perhaps because it is a film of two halves which run almost concurrently and so can be watched complicitly. Its latent power comes from the duplicity of the local townspeople who are perfectly willing to buy the subterfuge of an agricultural facility to maintain their lifestyles - their storming of the facility is not an act of rebellion at finding out the truth of matters; rather it is denial, an attempt to restore the status quo to an ordinary working day by producing their loved ones alive and well. Warning Sign will no doubt disappoint those expecting an expose along the lines of The China Syndrome or Silkwood, but it is just as likely to disappoint horror fans for its tepid recreation of Romero's The Crazies. Still, for all that, it's worth watching.

Children of the Damned (1964)




Children of the Damned is sometimes mistaken for a sequel to its famous predecessor, Village of the Damned. In fact, the film makes no sense at all as a sequel - it is rather a remake or, as it is now termed, a reimagining. The viewer must excise the original completely and swap the rural idyll for a grim cityscape, and the patrician George Sanders for a trio of officials, almost three kings - the teacher, the analyst and the spy. As for the children, gone are the cute but deadly cuckoos; instead we have a new species of migratory bird, as the atypical children scattered across the globe converge on London, courtesy of the United Nations. And this London is a bleakly satisfying place - brutalist structures sit uneasily amidst the surviving classical lines of the city. There is a striking scene where the children navigate a pelican crossing, almost thrown into hesitancy by a contusion of stripes. There is no apparent vengeance in these children; they must be prompted to act. They appear even reticent to speak and select a human voice in the form of Barbara Ferris; it's obviously not a coincidence that her child-like voice bears a striking resemblance to that of David in Village of the Damned. It is this kind of continuity that makes for art, and it is true to say that Children of the Damned is a an artful affair...

Having discovered child genius Paul at an inner city school, Hendry and Badel decide to do a little investigating into the boy's background. They discover through contacts at the UN that there are six such children across the world, and they make arrangements to have them brought to London for tests. Meanwhile their investigation invites the attention of government spook Alfred Burke, who decides to take the boy into custody. By this point the boy is wise to the situation and he and the other children flee to an abandoned church, where they remain very much under siege... from here on, things are tightly plotted on the turn of a screwdriver.

Sadly, John Briley's plot is perhaps the weak point in the film. Though the dialogue is fine and has a cynical ear for the times, the conceit, that of a sudden jump in the human evolutionary process, is unoriginal, even by the standards of 1964, and Briley offers no new take on it. He jettisons Wyndham's suggestion of an alien intervention, while choosing to play up curiously religious aspects - the children all appear to be miraculous births, and much of the film's action and denouement takes place in the abandoned church. The final scene, though strangely pleasing due to heavenly electricity, (perhaps another ulterior message from Sanders via Chekhov), reminded me rather of an ultra-violent variation on Whistle Down the Wind.

Ultimately Children of the Damned is a different take on Wyndham's tale, but not a better one. It demonstrates a downgrading of one author's imagination by another; in fact, it's rather ahead of its time that way. However, the film is turned into a first class piece of science fiction by its infernal photography and its quite Gothic sets and locations; by a trio of splendid performances from Ian Hendry, Alan Badel and Alfred Burke; and by the residual power of the original, which can be found still in the glowing eyes of diabolic children everywhere.

Vacui Magia: by L.S. Johnson




L.S. Johnson's utterly beautiful story Vacui Magia engineers a spell into formal breaks, each one a principle containing within and between its clauses the emotional power of prickling skin, and of goosebumps so deep that they ripple on the bone. The physiognomy detailed here is the creation of a life for ulterior motives; these are not base, but nor are they convincing, being rooted in social constraints. This practitioner is performing, for sentimental reasons, a spell to create a child which she can present to her mother as continuity - sentiment is not an adept nor is it apt to have retaining power - there is entropy in magic, as in all things; order into disorder; resolve into dissolve, possible into impossible. However, the sentiment of continuity of life will suffice for a while if the proprieties are observed. To this end Johnson scratches life lines into her text, using an array of words which autopsy her practitioner's intent with a precision scalpel acting as a wand of sorts.

There is never a problem invoking magic through hindsight; but to transform such magic into second sight by means of a ceremonial narrative is a spell on its own. I had attempted this myself in a stage play which was workshopped out of existence in Belfast a few years ago - largely because of a refusal to admit of ceremonial magic by the minds of those involved. Perhaps they were right: In a curiously pleasing twist the play was referring to itself - it was never formally acted, but was enacted to great effect. And so it is with Vacui Magia: the act of creation contains its undoing.

You can read Vacui Magia at the Strange Horizon website here.

Satan's Shrine: by Daniel F. Galouye






I rather liked this 1954 story by Daniel F. Galouye, originally published in Galaxy and reprinted in Poul Anderson's 1986 anthology Terrorists of Tomorrow. The plot seems ahead of its time, fusing elements of a military-industrial complex into a computer which runs a global conspiracy, and which finally acquires for its identity the ultimate super-villain, Satan. This solid-state Satan acquires half the globe as a server for total war, and the free world, such as it is, comes to resemble London under the assault of Hitler's V-weapons during World War Two, or Orwell's Oceania.

On a mission to destroy Satan, a group of highly-trained specialists and soldiers are assassinated by techniques which game their compassion and common humanity, turning these into battlefield weakness and tactical hurt. The party is splendidly inserted into the Shrine through the barrel of a gigantic canon, wherein a maze of tunnels are booby-trapped by as many inventions of death as the mind of a conductive Satan can imagine. It is only by the discovery of the remains of previous missions that the soldiers gain any clue of the ingenuity of their imminent deaths - the assimilation of this knowledge is akin to pulling a trigger or tripping a wire. Also striking is how Satan is able to play on the national characteristics of the party - made up of an Englishman, a German, a Frenchman, a Russian, etc - and to auto-translate these national differences into suspicions and then errors of judgement which cost lives. Eventually, as the survivors find comradeship in the fact of just being alive, this too is used to whittle their number down to one.

The last survivor reaches Satan's control room to find not a devil but a technocrat, whose administrative function is to ensure continuity of what is revealed to be a very human conspiracy - everything is a hoax, a charade, a painted set; everything, that is, but the blood and anguish and death. Suffice to say that Satan's Shrine has many rooms, each one equipped with a device of torture which has been reverse engineered from the bones of its victims.