The Big Goosebumps Re-read #2: Say Cheese and Die! (R.L.Stine, 1992)

cheese-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

I’ve always considered Say Cheese and Die! to be one of the more iconic Goosebumps books. It has a cool name and a pretty original premise for starters. Also, I’m guessing that Stine liked this one as well because this is one of only a handful of Goosebumps books to receive a sequel (though we would have to wait some time for it).

The Blurb

Greg and his friends think it’s pretty cool when they find an old camera in a derelict house, and it works. But the camera takes weird photos – like the one of Greg’s dad’s new car – totally wrecked? Then his dad is in a bad car accident – what’s going on?

And when Greg takes a picture of his friend Shari, she’s not in the photo when it develops – then Shari disappears altogether. Now Greg knows for sure that the camera is creepy – more than that, it’s evil.

Greg and his friends – Shari, Michael and Bird – are bored. Obviously, when kids are bored, the solution is to break into an abandoned house in the neighbourhood. A derelict house that just happens to sit in the darkness of enormous oak trees and have a reputation for ghastly goings-on. Of course. No wonder youth crime is often linked to being at a loose end. Perhaps kids were actually inspired by Say Cheese and Die! back in the day?

Anyway, Greg finds the polaroid camera hidden in a secret compartment and decides to take it which turns out to be a very bad idea in the long run. The first sign of the camera’s powers comes when Greg takes a picture of Michael and the polaroid develops to show Michael plunging through crumbling staircase railings…an accident which occurs moments later. The reader immediately knows the score but nobody else believes Greg’s suspicions, even when the camera continues to predict nasty accidents. Shari shows up as invisible then disappears inexplicably. Bird is pictured having a horrible baseball accident and this too comes to pass.

One thing that struck me was how stupid the characters are in this book. Naturally, it would be a stretch to believe that a camera could prophesise and even cause sinister things to happen but even so, the evidence is there for everybody to see. Yet, even after woe befalls Michael, Bird and Greg’s father, Shari demands that Greg bring the camera to her birthday party because the weird photos it prints are fun. Greg initially refuses but Shari hounds him relentlessly until her friend caves and agrees to bring it, despite knowing that something bad is bound to happen…

With a loud sigh, he pulled the camera from its hiding place in his headboard. “It’s Shari’s birthday, after all” he said aloud to himself.

I can’t speak for anybody else but if I had a magical, evil camera that I had solid reason to believe could cause accidents, I certainly wouldn’t relent and agree to take it to a party for such a silly reason! We’ll let Greg off here because he IS a kid but that habit of giving in to the demands of bossy girls is going to land him in trouble one day.

That said, bad decisions and naivete are a staple of the Goosebumps books as we will continue to see going forward with this review series. That along with misleading chapter cliffhanger “scares” and the dismissal of kids’ fears by the adults are what get the likes of Say Cheese and Die! past the hundred-page count in the first place.

The big question in this book of course is that of the camera’s origins. It turns out that an evil scientist who enjoyed dabbling in black magic placed a curse on the camera when his partner tried to steal it from him. Somehow, this imbued the camera with the power to steal the souls’ of those it captures on film. It’s all a bit vague and convenient really. Furthermore, you have to wonder how nobody’s souls were actually eaten in all of this. The only person who disappeared completely was Shari but Greg (accidentally) manages to restore her by tearing up her photo. Overall, not a lot is explained but to expect much more from a children’s horror book would be ambitious anyway. Say Cheese and Die! is a fun story with an idea that could be expanded on for – say – a more grown-up horror movie. Perhaps it has and I’ve missed it?

Anyway, bonus stuff:

The Cover

This time, we have the camera itself and various photos of the accidents from the story sinking into the orange Goosebumps sludge. The camera looks fantastic and creepy as fuck with a grinning face incorporated into the design. One thing I want to point out is the bottom-right photograph of a skeleton woman – a random photograph that doesn’t actually relate to anything in the book.

The incredibly dated bit

Honestly, nothing stood out to me as “dated” in Say Cheese and Die! so Stine inadvertedly succeeded in future-proofing this one. That said, the car that Greg’s dad proudly brings home is a brand-new Ford Taurus. Ford axed the Taurus earlier this year so perhaps the book will feel a little bit more dated in a few years time…

The nostalgia rating

Pretty high. As I said at the start of this review, I’ve always felt that this is one of the more iconic Goosebumps books and it reads pretty well, even as an adult.

Up Next: Stay Out of the Basement

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #1: Welcome to Dead House (R.L.Stine, 1992)

deadhouse-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

Here we are at the start of our big re-read of the Goosebumps series with the first book, Welcome to Dead House. This is where it all began and I was forced to feel both shocked and old when seeing the 1992 publication date on the copyright page. Holy shit; where has that time evaporated to? Anyway, this book established the formula that Stine would use for the rest of the series – a format that would grow pretty predictable before long but hey, these are meant to be books for kids, not grown adults like me.

The Blurb

Amanda and Josh aren’t too sure about the old house they’ve just moved into. It’s spooky, and probably haunted, and their new neighbourhood, Dark Falls, is pretty creepy too.

Their parents don’t understand them – You’ll get used to it, they say. Go out, make some new friends.

But the kids Amanda and Josh meet are twice as weird as the house. Not exactly what their parents had in mind. They’re friendly, all right, maybe a little too friendly. In fact, they want to be friends…forever.

It’s a straightforward book and you can see what is happening from a mile off. The family dog, Petey, is NOT happy about this new house that the family mysteriously inherit for free from the previously-unknown Great Uncle Charles. And you know what dogs can apparently sniff out, don’t you? Then there’s the town itself, the ominously-named Dark Falls where the streets are desolate, the sky a perma-grey tone and trees cast huge shadows over every lawn.

I would say, “Spoiler Alert!” but this is a twenty-seven year-old children’s book. The entire town is dead and the weird kids that Amanda and Josh meet are some sort of walking undead. Near the end of the book, it is revealed that most of the adults in town used to work at an outlying plastics factory when a terrible accident occured that transformed Dark Falls into an undead town. This explanation is so vague and daft that it deserves quoting here.

“Then there was an accident. Something escaped from the factory. A yellow gas. It floated over the town. So fast we didn’t see it…didn’t realise. And then, it was too late, and Dark Falls wasn’t a normal town anymore. We were all dead, Amanda”

Every so often, the undead population of Dark Falls need “new blood” (because requirements) and so families are lured to the “Dead House” before being forced to join the residents in their undead gloom. There’s no explanation as to why the “new blood” is needed or how the victims being brought to Dark Falls sustain the existing inhabitants. But this is Goosebumps so you don’t question stuff like that. Just like you don’t question why the only undead residents seem to be children with the exception of property agent, Compton Dawes. Or how Dark Falls exists on the map after a major chemical disaster that would have seen it sealed off in the real world. Or why nobody else passes through.

In typical Goosebumps fashion however, it takes a while to get to all of this. The first third or so of the book consists of chapters ending on false scares. Then there is the staple element of kids being victims of supernatural events while their parents roll their eyes, tell them to stop pranking around and simply don’t believe them.

For a book aimed at pre-adolescent children, there’s some pretty gruesome and semi-graphic stuff too. Obviously, I don’t read kids books these days so I have no idea if the gore flows freely in the ‘Young Horror’  genre but my cynical instincts would have me suspect that violence and bloody visuals might be toned down a bit for this overly-PC generation. Not so in Welcome to Dead House.

Ray’s skin seemed to be melting. His whole face sagged, then fell, dropping off his skull. I stared into the circle of white light, unable to look away, as Ray’s skin folded and drooped and melted away. As the bone underneath was revealed, his eyeballs rolled out of their sockets and fell silently to the ground.

Clearly though, the ten, eleven or twelve year-olds in the world of Goosebumps aren’t scarred for life or destined for a future of therapy after witnessing such fucked-up stuff. Unless it hits later? Maybe R.L. Stine should write gritty adult follow-ups to his books that follow the same characters as adults so that we can see how their lives turned out.

Welcome to Dead House is a simple and predictable ghosts ‘n ghouls horror story for kids. As an adult, you have the the unfortunate ability to see straight through the smoke, mirrors and false scares but this re-read brought with it a different kind of entertainment as I couldn’t help smiling at how dumb some of it was. Now, onto some bonus review-y bits…

The Cover

I absolutely loved the UK covers for the Goosebumps books as a kid and that admiration hasn’t changed as I’ve grown older. For starters, you just don’t get these sorts of hand-drawn covers anymore. Then there is the uniform style of the series with the bubbling slime and objects relevant to the story swirling about in this brightly-coloured sludge. Here we have a realistic grinning skull surrounded by gravestones. It’s eye-catching and simple yet the art is detailed and probably more adult than the story itself.

The incredibly dated bit

I’m going to put my bed against that wall opposite the window, I thought happily. And my desk can go over there. I’ll have room for a computer now!

Amanda’s joy at having space in her bedroom for a (no-doubt) big bulky early 90’s desktop computer with no internet is amusing in 2019. But it’s also nostalgic to go back to a time before tablets, mobile phones and social media. A more innocent, straightforward time some might say…

The nostalgia rating

Obviously high with the aforementioned lack of technology in society and the fact that I’m reading a book that I haven’t touched in around twenty years. Then there is that lovely, musty used book smell permeating the yellowed pages. And a listing in the very back for another line of books also from Hippo: The Babysitters Club. Remember those?

Up Next: Say Cheese and Die!

Movie Talk: Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)

hobo-1Release Year: 2011   |   Directed By: Jason Eisener   |   Starring: Rutger Hauer, Gregory Smith, Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey, Nick Bateman

[to a group of newborn babies] “A long time ago I was one of you. You’re all brand-new and perfect. No mistakes, no regrets. People look at you and think of how wonderful your future will be. They want you to be something special like a doctor or a lawyer. I hate to tell you this, but if you grow up here, you’re more likely to wind up selling your bodies on the streets, or shooting dope from dirty needles in a bus stop. And if you’re successful, you’ll make money selling junk to crackheads. And you won’t think twice about killing somebody’s wife, because you won’t even know what was wrong in the first place. Or maybe you’ll end up like me – a hobo with a shotgun! I hope you can do better. You are the future.”

There’s nothing thought-provoking or “big” about a film like Hobo With a Shotgun but then, we don’t all want to coo over arthouse drivel or social commentary masquerading as entertainment. Sometimes we just want unrestrained fun, audacious violence and black humour without all that thinking man’s crap. This film certainly delivers on all those counts. The Hobo (Hauer) is a drifter travelling by rail who rides into Hope Town, a town with irony dripping from its name because there couldn’t BE a town with any less hope on display. Oppressive urban decay is everywhere as is flagrant, violent crime. Worse still, a psychotic crime lord self-styling as ‘The Drake’ (Brian Downey) rules the town with fear, routinely carrying out live executions in highly gruesome fashions. These killings take place in the streets for all to bear witness to and are dubbed “The Drake Show”. The Drake has his equally sadistic sons, Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman) on hand to help keep Hope Town dancing to his tune. Mess with The Drake or his business and you could well be The Drake Show’s next special guest.

All the Hobo wants is to keep himself to himself and scrape together enough money to realise his dream of purchasing a beat-up lawnmower from the town’s pawn shop. He quickly finds it difficult to turn a blind eye to the brutal, bloodthirsty acts taking place all over town however and his curiosity lands him on Slick’s radar when he intervenes in a struggle between The Drake’s favourite son and prostitute, Abby (Molly Dunsworth). The Hobo bucks the status quo by laying the smackdown on Slick and hauling him to the police station to make a citizen’s arrest. Unfortunately, Hope Town’s police force is in The Drake’s pocket and the Hobo finds himself on the end of a vicious retribution attack which he is lucky to survive, largely thanks to help from Abby.

The Hobo manages to obtain enough money for his lawnmower but upon visiting the pawn shop to make his purchase, he finds himself caught up in an armed robbery and despite the price paid for his previous intervention, steps in once more by seizing a shotgun and blowing away the criminal scum. He forfits his garden appliance to pay for said shogun instead and thus begins his vigilante quest to clean up the streets, delivering justice one shell at a time.

I said that this movie isn’t about the commentary but what I will say is that the Hobo’s desire to act and his subsequent killing spree speaks to that part of us that secretly wants somebody like the Hobo around; that person who can cleanse the streets of deviants and the very worst criminals when the justice system(s) has proved too soft and law ineffective. We want to see the monsters of society reap what they sow and not get off lightly. Of course, I wouldn’t go as far as to promote vigilantism but thankfully we have movies like this and I found immense satisfaction in seeing the utterly evil scourge of Hope Town first introduced through the Hobo’s eyes then blown away by his shottie.

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The other reason I really dig Hobo With a Shotgun is because it just doesn’t give a fuck. They went wild with the free-flowing gore, sadistic violence and generally fucked-up stuff here, firmly placing the movie in the Exploitation sub-genre with that crazy Grindhouse feel that you’ve seen in the likes of Planet Terror and Machete. There’s heads being crushed to a bloody pulp between two fairground bumper cars. There are heads being ripped off by barbed-wire nooses tied to cars. There are topless girls giggling as they beat the shit out of a human pinata with baseball bats and then squealing with delight when his blood sprays like a burst water main and soaks their naked bodies.

It’s disgusting, gratutious and extremely OTT but at the same time, it’s all so silly and comical that you can’t take it seriously and so all this highly creative violence is likely to coax out a smile from the viewer rather than a grimace.

Hobo With a Shotgun doesn’t just stop at the ultra-violence however. This is a no holds-barred movie that frequently shocks with the daring makeup of some of the scenes that fly in the face of our overly-sensitive society that wants everything banned. The paedophile santa for example who parks outside a children’s playground and spies on kids through binoculars, touching himself before speeding off with an unfortunate captive hammering on the back window of his car. Then there’s a scene where a school bus full of kids gets torched with a flamethrower to the tune of The Trammps’ Disco Inferno.

Nothing is held back and I got the sense that the director and writer of this film let their imaginations run riot without even considering putting their ideas through an acceptability filter in order to appease the “won’t somebody think of the children?” brigade. And I love them for it, I really do. It’s a fat dosage of mental, unpretentious FUN that absolutely rocks hence why I’ve watched this movie about four or five times since 2011.

I must also quickly mention the lovely Molly Dunsworth who plays Abby. All horror and bizarre exploitation films need a hot female lead who can kick ass as well as look sexy and Dunsworth more than succeeds here.

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If I had to level any kind of criticism at Hobo With a Shotgun then I suppose I would have to wheel out the traditional “style over substance” trope and I can’t completely refute that observation. However, it’s also worth pointing out that you know exactly what you are getting into with a film like this just by looking at the poster, DVD cover or synopsis so I imagine it unlikely that you could expect anything other than what I’ve described in this review.

Book Talk: My Reading Journey

The other day, I found myself reflecting on my reading ‘journey’, how I’ve been reading books my whole life and how my reading tastes have evolved. We are taught to read by our schools and force-fed a certain amount of written words in this way but many kids don’t read outside of their English lessons or are unfortunate (I consider it unfortunate anyway…) to have parents who don’t read or promote literature to their children. These days, it’s easier to distract kids with tablets (the electronic kind of course!), computer games or smartphones. These are all okay in moderation but none can provide the same mental stimulation as the written word and – dare I say it – can result in more braindead children, addicted to screens and with less grasp of that beautiful thing called The English Language.

I class myself as fortunate on two counts. The first is to have had parents who enjoyed books and promoted reading to me from a young age. My father was all about factual books covering the likes of science and astronomy while my mother enjoyed fiction. Their takes on reading might have differed but it did mean that there was always a full bookshelf in our living room. Books were bought for me too and so while I read at school, I was also reading at home and always ahead of most of my classmates when it came to reading ability. When we were given a book to take home and read over the course of a week for instance, I’d have it finished in a single evening. I was taking books out of the library on the weekends too and then the mobile library which used to visit every fortnight. I’d take out five or six books at a time and finish the lot well in advance of their return date.

The second reason I class myself as fortunate is that I was one of the last generations to come up through school with computers and technology only just beginning to go mainstream. They weren’t integrated into everyday life until I was in the latter years of secondary school and sixth form (college). Mobile phones didn’t start to become commonplace amongst kids my age until my early teens either. Why is this a positive thing? It meant that I could enjoy the emergence of technology without it dominating everything. It left room for books and the paper-based word to remain a staple of my education and downtime outside of school.

If you couldn’t tell, I really like books and reading hence why I’ve been enjoying talking about them so much on this blog. Books are fucking brilliant.

So I thought I’d go on a quick trip through my past to look at how reading evolved for me at the various stages of my life up until this point.

Early Years

The primary school I attended used the Oxford Reading Tree series of books to educate pupils on reading. The books began as large, mostly picture-based books featuring a recurring cast of characters and an increasing word count as you progressed through the ‘Stage’ system attached to the books. Stage 1 was entirely pictures for example and the school skipped over them (I didn’t even know they existed until spotting them in one of the store rooms). Stage 10 was the final batch of books in this format featuring Biff, Chip, Kipper, Wilf, Wilma and Floppy the dog.

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I skipped Stages 9 and 10 based on reading ability and went on to Stages 11-14 which were thicker books with self-contained stories branded as the ‘Treetops’ series, presumably to indicate that you’d reached the top of the reading tree. It was around this time that I also borrowed lots of ‘Jets‘ books from the classroom bookshelf; more stories with great front covers and often humorous, recurring characters (I wonder if anybody else remembers these?).

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Outside of school, my main vice when it came to books were R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of books. It was always exciting to find a new one in the library or add books to my personal collection whenever I had some pocket money or received books for birthday or Christmas. I know a lot of kids would have been pissed at receiving “boring” books instead of videogames, mountain bikes or the latest trainers but I enjoyed it immensely and I can probably thank R.L. Stine and his series for an interest in horror that endures to this day. I can certainly thank the books for nurturing my interest in reading and the springboard to the next level that they would provide.

On a side note, I did eventually complete my collection of the original sixty-two Goosebumps books, all in original, matching covers/first prints. I still have this collection as I had to be an adult in order to track down the missing books and finish the set but it’s a collection that fills me with nostalgia and takes me on a trip to the past whenever I take them out. The collection is a mixture of books purchased when new, books procured from charity shops or second-hand bookshops and a few that I had to use ebay for (mostly the later ones which are harder to pick up).

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What a complete Goosebumps collection looks like.

I also inherited my mother’s collection of Famous Five books at some point and enjoyed these too in my younger years. The more innocent and simplistic lifestyle of the children in Enid Blyton’s adventure stories is difficult to relate to these days (and was when I was a child I suppose) but they were great escapism and I thoroughly enjoyed plowing through the collection. I even went on to check out some other Blyton adventure books that involved different characters.

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Old school reading here…

Teenage Years

Goosebumps was a springboard into more grown-up reading because I became aware of R.L. Stine’s other series’ – the Fear Street books. These are tame books by adult standards but coming off the back of the false scares and childish fears in the pages of Goosebumps, they were a step up for sure. Of course, the trademark false scares and ridiculous plots of Stine’s were still present but now we were dealing with murders and more sinister supernatural menaces. I didn’t actually ever own the Fear Street books – I only borrowed them from libraries. They were sold under the ‘Point Horror‘ banner and I don’t really recall seeing them for sale in shops. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t looking when I was able to take out stacks of them at a time from libraries.

Point Horror also published lots of other horror stories for teenagers and young adults and I read these too. What I absolutely loved about the likes of Goosebumps, Point Horror and most books of this kind were the covers. The covers for these books were fantastic, largely because they were hand-drawn. The art was sometimes a bit shonky but for some reason, it usually added a creepy abstract element to the books rather than detracting from them.

Then there was ‘Point Fantasy‘ which was – as you’d expect – fantasy fiction from various different authors. I didn’t read many of these but of the few I did take out from a library, Elfgift and Foiling the Dragon stand out in my memory as ones I enjoyed.

Obviously, I wasn’t immune to Harry Potter either. My mother borrowed the first three books from one of her work colleagues and that’s how I was introduced to the wizarding world. I enjoyed it immensely and I can say that the Harry Potter books were the first books that I felt genuinely sad to finish, the conclusion of each one leaving me longing for the characters and their world. Suffice to say, I was well and truly hooked after Prisoner of Azkaban and bought each sequel on the day of release thereafter. Unfortunately, I got rid of those monolithic hardbacks a long time ago due to space constraints but I’ll never forget the impact that Harry Potter had on me.

The last notable books that came along before I got into adult fiction were Christopher Pike’s horror stories. These are STILL some of my absolute favourites. The beautiful hand-drawn covers caught my attention in libraries and I made a point of picking up used Pike books whenever I could.

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You don’t get cover art like this on books anymore. The lens crack in Die Softly is an actual hole! I also have a full set of the Last Vampire books packed away elsewhere.

I consider these the bridge between the silly teenage Point Horror/Fear Street style of horror and true adult fiction. Here we have murders and supernatural events but also, darker storylines and mild sexy stuff. These were probably the first books I read that featured sex and it certainly captured my attention as a teenage boy! Yes, I lived a sheltered, nerdy life…

Adult Years

As you have no doubt picked up on, my mother has been responsible for introducing me to a lot of the fiction I have read and it’s something I am grateful for when I know other parents didn’t push reading with their children. So it was only fitting that she gave me my first real “grown up” horror book – a battered paperback of Stephen King’s The Shining. If you have read any of my book reviews here on Unfiltered Opinion then you will already be aware that I am a big Stephen King fan. That used charity shop copy of The Shining was where it all began. I was enthralled and demolished the book, hungry for more.

As it stands, I have read almost all of Stephen King’s books by this point, many of them several times. The only ones I have missed (off the top of my head) are The Running Man, Thinner, The Bachman Books and the Dark Tower series (I know, I know…). I will track these down in due course but I am currently taking a bit of break from Stephen King and getting into thrillers, a genre I have only recently found an appetite for thanks to a few Peter Swanson books I was very impressed with.

James Herbert is another author I really enjoy. His books are pretty dark and disturbing with gruesome horror and gratuitous sex descriptions. The various deaths in The Rats are a good example of the former and the latter? Let’s just say that I’ve never fully forgotten the pages of description in Once where the wicked Nell seduces Katy in an entirely unnecessary lesbian sex scene that added nothing to the story.

I’ve also dabbled with Michael Crichton and Dan Brown as well as various autobiographies of my favourite Formula 1 drivers.

And I can’t not mention Robert E. Howard’s incredible Conan stories. I have “The Complete Chronicles” and it is an addictive blend of sword-and-sorcery, barbarian themes and totally non-PC content that I really admire and enjoy escaping to in this, the era of the easily-offended *shudders*

I’m hoping to continue broadening my literary horizons going forward and to review more books here.

Feel free to comment below if you had a similar literary upbringing to me, remember any of the books/series’ that I’ve talked about or just want to tell me what YOUR reading journey was like. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The UK MEP Elections are a waste of time

We seem to be pretty adept at squandering money here in the United Kingdom which is ironic given the relentless savaging of national and local funding that often makes me question if we ever actually escaped the 2008 recession. If the austerity measures were truly necessary then surely the government would be doing their utmost to preserve funds and not waste them?

You would think anyway.

Let me briefly travel backwards to 2nd May of this year (2019). The local council elections were taking place and temporary polling stations were rolled out to wards that didn’t have somewhere permanent i.e. a school to commandeer for the day. The polling station I am instructed to go to should I wish to cast my vote is one such temporary facility – a large container-like portable cabin that is set up on a field behind my house. Usually it is removed fairly quickly once the voting is done and dusted and the experts are busy chewing over the results but this time, it hung around for over a week. “Makes sense” I thought. “The European Parliament elections are being held later this month so perhaps they will do the efficient thing and just leave it there”.

But no; it stayed there for over a week and was then suddenly loaded onto a lorry and removed…only for it to be brought back today on the 23rd May for the MEP elections. Now imagine this happening all over the country and think of all the transport costs incurred for moving something that need only ever have been removed once after BOTH of these elections had concluded. What a waste of time. More importantly, what a waste of money. Yes, it’s a relatively minor thing to gripe about but that wasted money comes to mind when you’re driving along on roads that look and feel as if they’ve been the target of several airstrikes.

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While I’m on the subject of the European Parliament elections though, they are a monumental waste of time and money the UK. That’s right folks, here we are going to the polls to select who we want to represent us in a parliament we should no longer be part of, in a union we should also no longer be part of. We should have left the EU a long time ago but thanks to the staggering incompetence of our politicians, here we still are. Rather than banding together to put a good deal together for the people of Britain, the government and opposing political parties are more interested in taking shots at one another and scoring points, Brexit being the vehicle for their war of words and embarassing slanging matches in the Commons.

We will be exiting the EU in October with or without a deal so whoever we elect will be swiftly ejected from the EU parliament, making the voting process and all the costs involved even more of a joke. Nobody’s laughing though.

I didn’t bother to cast a vote in the MEP elections because of this. As far as I could make out, voting meant making one of two non-productive choices:

  1. Choosing candidates representing the current warring parties who have already failed to sort this mess out over the course of several years.
  2. Choosing candidates from the likes of the Brexit Party or UKIP – MEP elects who would aim to cause maximum disruption in the EU parliament and would be unlikely to help anything. Voting this way is essentially blowing a raspberry in the face of the EU.

I’m pretty sure we’re all fed up of this shitshow now. I voted “remain” in the original refurendum (based on the Leave campaign’s complete lack of substance or concrete facts about the aftermath of a Leave result) but I also have no love for the EU.

But I have even less love for our own politicians and this crap that they can’t seem to solve much to the country’s frustration.

And on top of that? We now face a leadership change in the wake of Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation this week…

Head in Hands

Shaving your wallet as well as your face

I’ve always gone for the clean-shaven look on my face but recently, I decided to give it up. The main motivator for change was the fact that I also decided to cut my hair down real short and keep it that way. I can blame premature baldness/hair loss for that one – something that isn’t exactly welcome at the age of twenty-eight. I’d been stuck in a routine of allowing what was left to grow wildly out-of-control before getting it tamed at the local barbers but as one of the ladies there sagely put it, you just have to accept that the grass sometimes just won’t grow anymore. A basic cut there was costing me £7.50 a visit so just chopping it all off myself at home would already save me money on top of having a more honest, no bullshit number two all over .

But I didn’t want to have a smooth baby-face with such a hair “style” so keeping my facial hair as rough (tamed) stubble was the next decision I made. Awaken my inner Jason Statham, I thought, and get the ladies feeling a little moist around my newfound badass image (don’t worry: I did wake up and have a laugh at myself afterwards).

Back in the land of reality, there was a secondary motivation for rejecting the clean-shaven look that was of greater import than provoking a damp gusset: escaping the ritual of buying replacement razor blades. As both men AND women know, razor blade refills are an unwelcome feature on any shopping list. Scandalously expensive, rarely on promotion and roughly the same price everywhere (no matter how savvy you are with shopping around), they are one of the marketing men’s most diabolical creations. Like inkjet printers and water filter jugs, razors are one of those disgusting false economies where the base hardware (in this case, the razor itself) is yours for a reasonable price but once you’re suckered in, the refills will savage your wallet. It doesn’t feel good to be trapped in this commercial machine and a slave to the scalping tactics of these businesses.

For years I have used Gillette’s Fusion Proglide series of razors and I have always been happy with their performance but the blade refills are NOT cheap. A quick check on trusty Amazon yields a pack of six for £15.94, an apparent markdown on an RRP of £21.00…for SIX blades.

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Ah, our old friend, Gillette…the company who caused a major stink by telling us that we have failed as men and must change our ways. Regardless of whether you believe that controversial ad campaign to be legit or a devilish marketing ploy to thrust the brand into the public eye, there’s no denying that Gillette are hypocrites with no moral superiority to anybody else. Frankly, I’ve been an utter mug and given them my money for far too long, dancing to the beat of their drum.

This is the company that tells us to quit objectifying women even while they are encasing attractive females in latex and plastering the Gillette brand across their shiny bottoms:

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They encourage these false consumer economies that result in untold levels of waste when you look at razor blade packaging and all of these refills being sent to a hole in the ground where they will probably outlive the men who dutifully replaced them at Gillette’s recommended intervals.

They are a company that continually add new lubricant strips or gimmicks to their razors complete with attention-grabbing names such as “Turbo”, “Champion” or even “nitro” in order to turn us into braindead consumer-shaped sheep. If the previous iteration of the Mach 3 razor was all you needed for the “perfect shave” then why do we need a Mach 3 Turbo Champion Nitro Elite Proshield+ upgrade? Because new COLOURS and gimmicks such as the flexball “technology”.

I can’t justify the amount of money I have invested into blades and updated razors. All I can do is apologise to myself and admit that it was down to pure laziness and an unwillingness to try something new. As you can probably deduce from the preceeding rant, I was thrilled to give Gillette and disposable blades the middle finger and escape to freedom. I did what I should have done a long time ago and bought an electric razor.

So I opted for the Phillips One Blade, a compact electric razor with interchangeable combs for maintaining one’s facial hair at the desired length. Sure, you are supposed to replace the heads on these razors every six months but I’m not going to buy into that bullshit. I know from others that they last a lot longer than that. One problem that I can’t avoid however is that the razor only came with 1mm, 3mm and 5mm attachments. After a bit of experimentation, I arrived at a conclusion: 3mm was too long while 1mm was too short. No biggie though – you can after all purchase the ‘missing’ comb sizes individually. A piece of featherweight plastic likely manufactured overseas at a cost of a few pence…

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Book Talk: Nightflyers And Other Stories (George R.R. Martin, 1973-1981)

night-1I had been aware that George R.R. Martin had written other things besides the epic A Song Of Ice And Fire series but until now, I hadn’t looked into them. Fortunately I have long since cleared my reading backlog and now find myself back in that lovely position of having nothing to read. It means that I can actually browse the books in shops again and pick out stuff at random, hopefully broadening my literary horizons a little more. Nightflyers And Other Stories is one such purchase. I picked it up for £4.50 (half RRP) and decided it was time to see if Martin’s other work can match the bloody and treacherous exploits of Daenarys and co.

Well, it doesn’t but I wasn’t too surprised about that. A Song Of Ice And Fire is one of those rare series of books that is near-impossible to go toe-to-toe with and that’s okay. Besides, the six short stories collated in this book were written well before Martin gave us A Game of Thrones so a direct comparison would be cruel anyway. The stories within this book feature a different sort of tone too; yes there are fantasy elements but sci-fi is the dominant genre – sci-fi that explores wondrous futures and the dark recesses of the human mind.

Headlining the book is Nightflyers, a space sci-fi/horror story that was turned into a Netflix TV series (Syfy for America) in 2018. This is the expanded version from 1981 that features an extra 7,000 words over the original 1980 version printed in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Nightflyers is set on a starship chartered by Karoly d’Brannin, a scientist chasing the mysterious Volcryn alien race of which he is obsessed with meeting. D’Brannin brings a hand-picked crew with him for the mission consisting of telepaths, linguists and computer experts – people he hopes will aid him in communicating with the enigmatic Volcryn. Very quickly, the story’s focus moves away from the crew’s mission and turns instead to the ship’s resident master, the mysterious Royd Eris, a character who claims he is controlling the ship from his sealed chamber. He won’t meet them and nobody can get into his quarters to see him. He communicates via intercom and asks that the crew trust him.

Naturally, rampant paranoia and suspicion sweeps the ship, not helped by the resident Class One telepath, Thale Lassamer sensing impending danger. Who is Royd Eris? Why are they not allowed to meet him in person? Why is he watching and listening in at all times? The innocent explanation is that Eris lives a lonely life, sealed in his quarters for health reasons and as such, he is fascinated by the people on his ship and how they act. It doesn’t wash with everybody though.

“Who is this Royd Eris, really?” the xenobiologist Rojan Christopheris, complained one night when four of them were playing cards. “Why doesn’t he come out? What’s the purpose of keeping himself sealed off from the rest of us?”

“Ask him” suggested Dannel, the male linguist.

“What if he’s a criminal of some sort?” Christopheris said. “Do we know anything about him? No, of course not. D’Brannin engaged him and d’Brannin is a senile old fool, we all know that”

“It’s your play” Lommie Thorne said.

Christopheris snapped down a card. “Setback” he declared, “you’ll have to draw again.” He grinned. “As for this Eris, who knows that he isn’t planning to kill us all.”

As if the xenobiologist was a telepath himself and capable of predicting the future, people start dying one-by one in tragic accidents. I can’t go much further without spoiling the story but the “accidents” are all plausible and explained calmly by Royd Eris who shifts the blame back to the crew and their attempts to reach him against his wishes. At the same time, there is the obvious suspicion that Eris is behind the deaths. Martin is uncompromising in his descriptions of the deaths themselves (something that would carry over to Ice And Fire) and so Nightflyers becomes a sci-fi and gory horror in space. It keeps you guessing at who or what is really responsible and there is a twist near the story’s endgame. Nightflyers is clearly the best story in this collection and while it took a some time to get going – not helped by the strange character names – I eventually fell into that zone where I couldn’t put it down.

The other stories don’t quite live up to Nightflyers but the interesting thing is that they all take place in the same fictional “Thousand Worlds” universe. There are no direct links between the stories but the same planets and races are often referenced, letting you know that there is a loose continuinity behind the scenes.

Override is a story set on the planet of Grotto where Corpse Handlers mine precious stones using crews of ‘deadmen’, deceased human beings reanimated and managed with the Handlers’ control box devices. Override was my least favourite of the stories in this collection. The others that follow Nightflyers explored morality, religion and philosophy. Here we have the enforced enslavement of the deceased and a fairly nonplussed attitude towards the practice which is a pretty grim future indeed but it felt like a more straightforward tale.

Weekend in a Warzone was much more interesting. In the future, there are no wars so to satiate man’s primal bloodlust so multiple fighting clubs will take your money and drop you into a warzone for a specified length of time. You will fight against “soldiers” from a rival fighting club. The war and the death is real but the chilling aspect to this story is that people choose to sign up for it; war and killing for the entertainment value and thrills. Man’s appetite for violence contained on artificial battlefields and packaged as a weekend away from ordinary life.

The Concom guns are molded from greenish plastic, but otherwise they’re the same. Of course. The weapons have to be the same, or the war wouldn’t be fair. Underneath, there’s a serial number, and a legend that says PROPERTY OF CONSOLIDATED COMBAT, INC.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. Fight in the mountains, Maneuver against Consolidated Combat! Try and jungle war, General Warfare versus Battlemaster! Slug it out in the streets of the city, Tactical League against Risk, Ltd. There are thirty-four war zones and ten fighting clubs. You pays your money and you takes your choice. But all the choices are the same.

Weekend in a Warzone is a short story but a very good one. It paints another unsavoury future where war has become trivialised and a sport rather than the result of two sides fighting for deeper causes. And it struck me as the kind of future that could actually exist if wars and conflict were ever to be completely eradicated. As I said, chilling stuff.

The next story is And Seven Times Never Kill A Man. This one takes place on the world of Corlos where the Steel Angels have established a colony and are systematically wiping out the native Jaenshi with brutal force. There are some religious themes running through this story as the Steel Angels worship their God, Bakkalon, and everything they do is driven by their zealous belief system. Outsider Arik neKrol is a trader and as such can move between both races. He views the Steel Angels as evil and plots to arm the passive Jaenshi in order to fight back. I didn’t really enjoy the conclusion of this story and found myself wondering whether I’d overlooked an underlying message or subtle detail. Nevertheless, it was detailed, enjoyable and made me want to know how it would all end.

Nor The Many-Colored Fires Of A Star Ring is a mouthful of a title. It’s also possibly the most sci-fi of all the stories in this collection. In the future, enormous ring-shaped structures called Star Rings surround nullspace vortexes and use them to open up dimensional warps, allowing for fast travel across the cosmos. There’s definitely a Star Trek vibe to this story, especially with the descriptions of the control panels and Star Ring itself. But the main focus of the story is the character of Kerin daVittio and his growing obsession with the infinite, utter darkness of unexpanded space lying outside of their particular Star Ring.

But on the far side of the Hole to Nowhere was the darkest realm of all. Here blackness rules, immense and empty. There are no stars. There are no planets. There are no galaxies. No light races through this void; no matter marks its perfection. As far as man can see, as far as his machines can sense, in all directions; only nothingness and vaccuum. Infinite and silent and more terrible than anything Kerin had ever known.

You aren’t ever certain whether Kerin fears the darkness or can’t get enough of it. Or both. The story makes you think philosophically and realise how small and insignificant we are as a race compared to the unfeeling blackness of space which goes on forever.

The final story is A Song For Lya. Two telepaths – Lyanna and Robb – arrive on an alien planet where a human civilisation butts up against that of the native Shkeen, an ancient, peaceful race that don’t mind co-habiting with the humans. But the Shkeen all follow a singular religion whereby they ‘join’ with a jelly-like organism known as a Greeshka before proceeding with the Final Union between the ages of forty and fifty. Humans are converting to the Shkeen’s religion and slowly deserting the colony and so Lyanna and Robb are brought in to try and read the minds of the Joined and work out why seemingly healthy humans are giving up everything for the Shkeen religion. Final Union involves being willingly sacrificed to the Greeshka and so the religion has become viewed as a worrying suicide cult by the human administration. There was a lot going on in this story including religious themes and the romantic relationship between Lyanna and Robb and how it is affected by what they learn from ‘feeling’ the emotions of pure love from those who are Joined in Shkeentown. It is a very good story and like the proceeding one, it did make me stop and think once I’d reached the end.

Overall, I enjoyed dipping into sci-fi, a genre that I rarely flirt with. All of the stories in this collection were worth the entry fee even if some were better than others. Nightflyers, Weekend In A Warzone and A Song For Lya were my personal favourites but I wouldn’t say that that there were any weak links. Override stands out as the story I got the least out of but even then, I still enjoyed it for what it was. As with the books in the Ice And Fire series, it’s Martin’s descriptive powers and ability to create believable fantasy worlds out of alien ideas and futures that makes this book. If you are into classic sci-fi or enjoyed A Song Of Ice And Fire then you should also enjoy Nightflyers And Other Stories.