The Deep of Winter: by Chris Butler

Chris Butler's striking story The Deep of Winter, featured in the current issue of Interzone (259) and illustrated by Martin Hanford, reads in summary like a classic piece of fantasy: a white witch steals into an alternate dimension to conduct an experiment in telepathy; but she succeeds only in transmitting her own legend to the natives, thereby allowing her people to track and return her for trial.

Broken into consecutive characters streams which read like crossed thoughts, the dual narrative belies the fantasy and presents the witch, Aluna, as a student working towards a thesis; her efforts are rejected by her society as juvenile and dangerous and she is forbidden from further study in the matter. Not to be deterred, she picks her dimension and proceeds. The alternate narrative thread follows Sebastian, leader of an explorative party, working its way through an abandoned underground city towards her legend, or rather her legerdemain. These narratives meet ungently, and the witnessed extraction of Aluna from her experiment, enhances her legend.

And so, for all Aluna's careless witchery, perhaps her experiment succeeds, as Sebastian suddenly finds himself more alert than ever to his wife and children, and to his place in a society that he now sees through fresh and perhaps questioning eyes. Butler's part premise is that telepathy is undoubtedly a form of enhanced empathy; more, that motifs of folklore give voice to a common flora and fauna which can be intuited - that is: shared to be understood. And these are the beginnings of empathy.

It's always a pleasure to read Chris Butler's stories in Interzone - my first experience of his work there was The Festival of Tethselem, a story I would thoroughly recommend if you can find the back issue (224).

The Deep of Winter is a story that erupts beyond its wordage and inhabits the mind of the reader as stream of discourse.

The Concrete Horizon: by Dan Morgan

It is the twenty-first century and the social order is in crisis. The great urban experiment, the monad cities, is in the process of collapse beneath the weight of its own organisation, and under the increasing pressures from the agricultural complexes Outside. In a last endeavour to restore the situation, SARA, a computerised project with a human personality, is developed. This is the Sociopathic Anomaly Re-Adjustment project, and its first trial run is scheduled for Middlesex Two. Unfortunately SARA is all too human, and 'she' falls in love with her controller... the result is catastrophic. Set in the form of a historical montage looking into the disaster at Middlesex Two, The Concrete Horizon is a grim parable of megalopolis gone mad. It is also a sad and touching love story, a compassionate story of ordinary people driven in bewilderment and panic into actions of extraordinary savagery and heroism.

The above paragraph is the jacket blurb from The Concrete Horizon - I have quoted it in full as it is a useful backup summary: In late 21st Century Britain life has polarised into two distinct factions - there are the Monads, clusters of high-rise blocks which are self-declared corporate cities and which house huge populations of a million people each; and then there are the Outsiders, which are small rural and agricultural communities, run by the Unions. These two factions co-exist on uneasy, often hostile terms; the Outsiders claim the Monads take too much in the way of duty from their communities; the Monads claim the Outsiders are starving their populations - both parties are bound together by antiquated notions of nationhood and patriotism which belong to a nation-state no longer extant; but in reality the Monads exist to pillage the Outsiders of resources and wealth, while offering only the prospect of cannibalism and euthanasia to their inhabitants. The corporate city of Middlesex Two is no exception in this regard. Perhaps aware that it is approaching the end of its useful life, the city's administration has sunk into nepotism and corruption. Mindful of this, the Sociopathic Anomaly Re-Adjustment computer, SARA, recruits a number of assassins, known as proxies, to remove anti-social and sociopathic elements among the population. However, as she proceeds, she becomes more and more unstable, turning her proxies into murderous psychopaths and ultimately threatening the very existence of the city. Meanwhile Charles Gaillard (a wonderfully drawn character) has his own problems as head of the Department of Genetics - his ambitious assistant, Swearinger, has written a new white paper offering extended lifespans to the city's aging administrators, at the expense of the longevity of others - horrified by this betrayal of the social contract, Gaillard commits himself to an assassination of his own...

Morgan takes a number of very familiar sf concepts - the high-rise dystopia, the rogue computer, hate weeks - and deftly works them into a very human narrative; each of his characters' dilemmas are wholly organic in that they transcend plotting and are instead embedded into each other as cause and effect - regardless of however tired the reader finds the premise, there is always concern for those caught within its shadows. And there are many, many shadows here, as Morgan seeks to frame socialism gone wrong in stark terms of mindless, bureaucratic care from cradle to mass grave. There are, of course, many problems with extrapolating this kind of future from the state of 1970s Britain - one of which is how so many authors, in seeking to critique social democracy, got it so wrong, considering Britain's direction of travel since 1979. Or perhaps these works were part of concerted attempt at propaganda to destroy socialism in Britain, by portraying its likely futures as almost certainly dystopian (though it is always useful for authors to critique the prevailing orthodoxy of their times). There can be no doubt that some of the most high profile public works of post-war Britain - for example, the wholesale demolition of the country's Victorian housing infrastructure and its subsequent replacement by high-rise monstrosities - lend themselves very easily to satire because they play on genuine grievances; and the tower block is an easy target. However, none of this detracts from the achievement of The Concrete Horizon - it is an excellent piece of fiction which holds the attention while pinching the nerves - leaving aside the dystopian elements, it is, in effect, an old-fashioned apocalypse thriller and the conclusion, when it escapes from the timing errors of the plot, does not disappoint; particularly as the author appears to booby-trap his characters near the end, to great effect.

Published in 1976 by Millington, The Concrete Horizon seems to have been Dan Morgan's last novel. As a science fiction author he had been active in the genre since the early 50s, penning many short stories for the usual pulps and also a number of series in collaboration with John Kippax. His 1971 novel Inside garnered a good deal of acclaim and, perhaps encouraged by this, he went on to pen two further solo novels, High Destiny and The Concrete Horizon. His sudden silence thereafter is something of a mystery and, as the author died in 2011, will probably remain so. A further thought is that The Concrete Horizon has a good deal of authorial heart, even if it is broken by the end.

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.