Archive for the ‘Features and opinion’ Category

I loved these little featurettes in Death Ray. This one, from #18 published in 2009 just before the Star Trek reboot movie came out, was one of my favourites.

The Enterprise

It’s dinner-plate-and-three-Smartie-tubes shape is the most recognised spaceship silhouette on the small screen. It might have been treated like personal property by its frequently disobedient crew, but boy, what a ship: the USS NCC-1701Enterprise.

Ever since the Royal Navy captured the French sloop L’Enterprise and renamed her HMS Enterprise back in 1705, there’s been a tradition of naming ships so in both the US and British navies (15 to date in Britain, plus four without the ‘HMS’ prefix, and eight in the US). The test shuttle was named Enterprise, Richard Branson is going to call his rich-boy rocket ship Enterprise, and it’s a practise that will be carried far into the future, or so it seems, for Enterprise is the name borne by some of the most famous ships in science fiction. None is more well-known than the NCC-1701 Enterprise, captained by Captain James T. Kirk. For five years this two-fisted Iowan romped about the galaxy, seducing alien princesses, blowing up Klingons and visiting different worlds with his friend, Mr. Polystyrene Rock. Such a good time did Kirk and co have, in fact, that in the Trek universe all the ships subsequently called Enterprise bear the code ‘NCC-1701’ in honour of Kirk’s stalwart vessel. With a new film looming, we too have decided it is about time to provide similar respect. Behold! The original USS Enterprise’s secrets revealed. (more…)

This piece ran in Death Ray #18, back in 2009, in the “Time Trap” slot. Campbell was one of the most influential men on SF as a whole, a fascinating character.

1937, and John W Campbell is hired to edit Astounding Stories. 1938, and he is given sole charge. Science fiction will never be the same again.

If any one man could be credited with establishing modern science fiction, then that man was John Wood Campbell Junior. His run on Astounding Science Fiction, previously Astounding Stories, now, several name changes later, Analog Magazine, ushered in a new kind of scientific and narrative stringency to the genre, banishing the stock characters and shonky science of earlier years to the rejection pile. Within months of his assumption of the editorship of Astounding in 1937, Campbell had published stories from fresh young writers, authors who were to go on to become the titans of 20th Century science fiction literature: A. E. Van Vogt, Lester Del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke and many others were to follow. The wartime period of Astounding has come to be known as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” a time when the genre was dominated by Campbell and his cadre of writers. After the war, other pulp magazines following Astounding’s lead were launched, offering other avenues of advancement to new writers. This broke Astounding’s hold over the market, but perhaps that which diminished Campbell’s influence most radically was his own editorial style. A physically intimidating, garrulous man who dominated conversation, trademark cigarette holder clamped in his teeth, he was not a good listener. As time went on his views became increasingly outspoken, his manner bombastic, and he alienated many of his earlier discoveries. Campbell was to remain in the editor’s chair at Astounding, until his sudden and unexpected death from heart failure in 1971. Ironically, for heart disease can be caused by smoking, and Campbell had written in typical forthright style dismissing the health risks of tobacco only a few years before. (more…)

Here’s a jolly piece about weird British beasties I wrote for SFX‘s Paranormal Special back in October of 2011. My knowledge of most of these creatures comes from years of reading The Fortean Times, a singular publication that deals with weird news from all over the world with a refreshingly rational eye. I sincerely recommend it.


Great Britain, as crammed full of people as it is, has its fair share of frightening monster stories. Here we present ten famous beasties to terrorise you. Some might well have perfectly ordinary explanations – misplaced animals, folkloric remembering or other such comforting, rational causes. But then others most certainly do not…

The Grey Man

Am Fear Liath, or “The Grey Man” is a giant entity said to haunt Ben MacDhui, at 1309 metres the highest mountain in the Cairngorms and the second highest in Britain. Eyewitness accounts of the Grey Man describe a huge figure, covered in fur, that pursues climbers towards dangerous drops. Others speak of becoming overwhelmed by great terror or depression. The great climber John Norman Collie described his encounter with the creature thusly: “I began to hear the sound of noises in the loose rock behind me coming down from the natural cairn on the high plateau. Every few steps I took, I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own.” Another famous early 20th century climber, Alexander Tewnion, shot at it with a revolver!

There is a mountain illusion, the Brocken Spectre, essentially an amplification of a person’s shadow in the mist, that offers a possible explanation, another is that the Grey Man is a relict hominid, or that Ben MacDhui is a dimensional portal. Research into the phenomenon suggests that this feeling of panic is a feature of wild, mountain areas – the evil twin of the feeling of serenity one may also experience in nature – so there may be a psychological explanation.

Loch Ness Monster

Modern interest in Nessie goes back only as far as 1933, when a Londoner named George Spicer and his wife saw a large creature crossing the road toward the loch with “an animal in its mouth.” The story was widely reported, and more sightings were unearthed from the past, including St Columb’s encounter with a “water beast” in the 7th century. A photograph taken by Hugh Gray was released later in 1933, and interest has never died away.

There have been numerous expeditions to find the monster, and they’ve turned up a variety of contentious sonar hits, weird underwater noises and photographs. Concrete evidence, however, remains elusive. The most extensive search of the loch, undertaken in 2003 by the BBC and using the most modern technology, failed to find anything.

The monster’s identity has been ascribed to remnant populations of prehistoric seals, giant eels and plesiosaurs, but it’s worth bearing in mind that lake monsters are common worldwide, (examples include Ogopogo in the US, and Storsjoödjuret in Sweden), and so are possible explanations – turbulence, swimming deer, and surfacing logs.


Morgawr (“water giant” in Cornish) is Britain’s most famous sea serpent. This beast haunts the seas off Falmouth in Cornwall. Descriptions of it, and it has been seen many times, are remarkably consistent – a long-necked, humped, scaly creature with a mane, small head and stumpy horns. Examples of it were supposedly landed by fishermen in 1876 and 1926. Several credible sightings date from the 1970s, and in 1999 a Natural History Museum employee videotaped the beast.

With 70% of Earth covered in water, sea serpents may be real – there is, after all, plenty of places for them to hide. They’ve been reported through history and seem to fall into a number of distinct types. Although some of these are undoubtedly oarfish, giant squid or other unusual but known creatures, perhaps there are several kinds of large “monster” waiting to be discovered in the oceans of the world. We can only hope.

Black Dogs

Skriker, Padfoot, Hairy Jack, Black Shuck, Moddey Dhoo – Britain is positively crawling with spectral hounds, where they are associated with ancient ways, execution sites and electrical storms. Not all black dogs are evil; some, like The Gurt Dog of Somerset is said to watch over children and lost travelers. But most are.

Their appearance is held in some areas to be a portent of death for the observer or for a relative. Some are actively dangerous, like York’s barghest. This black dog comes into the city where it hunts in the snickelways, and is possessed of shape-changing abilities, once having been witnessed as a lady’s glove.

There are headless dogs, fiery dogs, dogs that are ghosts of men, dogs that appear as men, and dogs that hunt with the ghosts of men. Generally they are saucer-eyed and big as calves. Black Shuck, the ghost dog of the east English, entered the church of Bungay in 1577 during a thunderstorm and killed two people. Claw marks can be seen on the door still.

Perhaps these dogs are folk story hand-me-downs from ancient mythological beasts such as Garmr and the Cwn Annwn. On the other hand, perhaps best stay off crossroads during thunderstorms…

The Owlman

In 1976 the area around Mawnan, Cornwall was gripped by a wave of weird activity – UFO sightings, animal attacks, and a sighting of Morgawr.

The most enduring tale of that summer came from holidaymaker Don Melling. His two daughters saw a terrifying creature hovering over Mawnan church in Cornwall, so perturbed were they by this encounter that they cut short their holiday by three days and fled. That creature was the Owlman. Several more sightings were reported that summer, with more in the years since. The overall theme of the depictions suggest an eagle owl. Eagle owls can grow to two feet tall, with a massive six-foot wingspan. They are not native to the UK, but our country is full of naturalized escapee animals (including wallabies, wild boar, and various species of deer), and eagle owls are kept in aviaries here. Plausible, but eagle owls aren’t as tall as people, nor do they have glowing eyes.

The Geordie Bigfoot

In 2003, there were two reports of a huge, yeti-like apeman haunting Bolam park in Northumberland. Three fishermen coming back from the lake after midnight saw “a dark figure, looked about 8ft tall, heavy built, its eyes, or what seemed to be its eyes, glowed in the darkness.” Another fisherman, camping out there some time earlier, reported hearing a growl and something rummaging through his baitbox at one in the morning.

Reports of giant apemen are not as rare as you might think in the UK. Another was seen by three men in the 1990s near Aberdeen. This trio saw the beast twice – the first time while walking in a forest. Spooked by its “inhuman face” one of them lobbed a rock at it. It had its revenge a few weeks later, where it chased their car at 45 miles per hour as they were driving towards Torphins until they outran it, leaving it staring after them in the road.

Alien Cats

Tales of “alien big cats”, or ABCs, are a favourite of British papers. There multiple sightings a year of cats variously described as pumas and panthers [indeed, I know someone who has seen one], and some compelling video evidence – the best in recent years that of PC Chris Swallow, taken near Helensburgh in Scotland in 2009.

There are two oft-touted explanations for the actuality of these felids. One – obviously – is that they are out of place exotic species. In 1976, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act came into force, forbidding the keeping of dangerous animals as pets. (Previously, lions had been for sale at Harrods). Many may have been dumped. In 1980, a puma was captured in Scotland. In 1991a lynx, on the run from a private collection, was shot in Norwich.

The other explanation is that ABCs are an unknown big cat, a survivor from the Ice Age. This may seem improbable, but in 1984 the Scottish Kellas cat, long thought to be a myth, was proved to exist when one was shot. At over two feet long, this hybrid of wildcat and house cat is not a small animal.

Sightings, the occasional attack and other evidence aside, no remains have been found, nor has one ever been hit by a car, and police hunts for them end fruitlessly. Die-hard paranormalists ascribe a mystical origin (that old dimensional doorway again); psychologists mass hysteria. Still, there may be a leopard at the end of your garden…

The Cottingley Fairies

Fairies play a prominent part in British folklore, especially on the Celtic fringe. One famous hoax story that took in no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was that of the Cottingley fairies. Two cousins – Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths took five photographs in 1917 that purported to show fairies in their garden. Doyle, a staunch spiritualist, took the pictures at face value and used them in an article he wrote in 1920.

In the 1980s, the pair admitted they were faked – the fairies were cardboard cutouts copied from a children’s book and stood up on pins. However, Frances maintained that the fifth photograph, the “sunbath” showed real fairies, and the pair of them insisted that they had actually seen the fairies to the end.

As to why they remained silent for so long, Elsie related in an interview on Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World in 1985: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.”

The Lambton Worm

Where would a round-up of monsters be without a dragon? This worm-like example comes from Northumbria. John, heir to the estate of Lambton, bucks church one Sunday to go fishing. Ignoring dire warnings from a wise old man, he pulls up a bizarre creature from the River Wear. Deciding he’s caught the devil, he chucks it down a well, grows up and goes off on the crusades. While he’s gone, the dragon, now massive, crawls out of the well, and begins to eat everything in the district. His father calms it daily with gallons of milk, and impoverishes himself keeping it sated.

John, returned home, follows the advice of a local witch and welds a bunch of spearheads to his armour so that the beast cannot crush him in its coils. He chops it to bits, which are washed away by the river. Unfortunately, he does not heed the warning of the witch, that he should kill the first living thing he sees. He hatches a cunning plan to kill a dog, but dear old dad forgets and rushes to congratulate his son. John cannot bring himself to kill him, thus condemning nine generations of his family to early deaths.

The Hexham Werewolf

In 1972, the Robson boys dug up a pair of stone heads in their parents’ garden in Hexham. The night after, their neighbour witnessed a werewolf-like phantom in their house. The heads were passed to Dr Anne Ross, who collected such things. Shortly after acquitting them, Dr Ross awoke at 2 am to see this monster: “It was about six feet high,” she said, “slightly stooping, and it was black, against the white door, and it was half animal and half man. The upper part, I would have said, was a wolf, and the lower part was human and, I would have again said, that it was covered with a kind of black, very dark fur. It went out and I just saw it clearly, and then it disappeared, and something made me run after it, a thing I wouldn’t normally have done… I could hear it going down the stairs, then it disappeared towards the back of the house.”

She initially believed it to be a dream, until her tearful teenage daughter revealed that she had seen something similar. Ross disposed of her collection. The heads were displayed in the British Museum for a time, where they were linked with further odd happenings. Although it was later claimed a previous owner of the Robson house had carved the heads, they have since gone missing, and it was never possible to determine their provenance. Interestingly, in 1904 there was a wolf-panic in Hexham, The Wolf of Allendale, which saw many sheep killed and farmers roaming the countryside with guns. Linked? Perhaps.

I grabbed the chance to watch The Desolation of Smaug on Monday night. This is something my demi-Swede would like to see also, but I figured I’d happily watch it again with her. After driving back from Yorkshire I was in need of some telly time, and had been very much looking forward to the movie.

Damn shame to say, I was disappointed. I’ve read several reviews that rate this the better of the two Hobbit films thus far, but I reckon not. There are plenty of story choices I could pick apart here (Thirty orcs invade a city that becomes conveniently deserted for the sake of a fight! Smaug immediately guesses the provenance of Bilbo’s ring! Middle-earth is as easily travelled as it needs to be! The story suddenly shifts to a quest for the Arkenstone! Smaug the Golden has to be actually coated in gold! Repetition of the virtues of Athelas because we need fan-service winks! etc). I don’t want to write up a long screed that sings out “But it was different from the book! That makes it rubbish!” It does not. Cinema is different to literature. And my objections are personal, therefore their legitimacy is at the mercy of your judgment. After all, my dislike stems from one thing: The film Jackson made is not the kind of film I expected The Hobbit to become.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was, on the whole, a meticulous and considered adaptation of the source material for the screen. Tolkien’s message, though much obscured, is still present. There’s an air of painstaking art about the books, and an air of painstaking art about their adaptations. The Hobbit adaptation feels altogether sloppier. Jackson appears to want two things: Firstly, to make an action movie, secondly, to provide a prequel to his Rings films. But The Hobbit, though blessed with action, would better suit an adventure movie not an action movie format, while the presaging of events of The Lord of The Rings − which I agree with in principle − proves clumsy.

As in Jackson’s King Kong remake, there is much to admire − in this case Smaug, the elves and Thranduil in particular were effective − but like the ape epic there’s altogether too much going on, too many ideas fighting for time, too many “wouldn’t it be so frickin’ cool!” sequences. There’s plenty in the book to make two good films, not three. Sadly, even in making three, Jackson eschews the opportunity the extra running time allows for character beats, filling up his minutes with bonus orc chases and people falling off things (like, come on! What is it with you man?). There is a fair bit of material in the second section of the book that didn’t make onto the screen at all, Bilbo’s role in particular is bizarrely sidelined. Odd, given that changes to the material in the first film appropriately gave his actions greater emphasis.

The biggest addition, Tauriel, I expected. Her almost-romance with Legolas I expected. And I was glad to see that actually, she worked rather well as a character. What I didn’t expect was the weirdly reciprocated infatuation Fili had with her, coming to fruition in his surprise sojourn in Laketown (what was that all about other than a way to give key dwarfs more to do?).

It’s a movie crammed with unlikely acts of superheroic acrobatics and clownish pratfalls, whose design − while awe-inspiring in parts − takes Middle-earth nearer to the whimsy of Hogwarts than the majesty of Arda. If I were to hazard a reason for all this filmic flimflammery, it’d be this: The Lord of The Rings series had effects that were groundbreaking. Their mere execution was enough to wow, leaving Jackon’s not inconsiderable talents free to work on other aspects of storytelling. Now such magic is commonplace, Jackson as a showman seeks to bedazzle us with added… Well, added things falling off other things, mainly. Or maybe he simply has the opportunity to do MORE COOL SHIT. Either way, all good ringmasters know three elephants are better than one. A perhaps apt analogy, because, let’s put it like this, this film is Legolas surfing the Mumak over and over again.

It probably needs a second viewing, this initial opinion may mellow, but I’m not so sure that I do want to watch The Desolation of Smaug again. (Sorry Emma).

As a last minor irritation, The Desolation of Smaug really quite unexpectedly

This is a crazy nuts time of year. This is the way it usually goes: Coast out of Christmas, finish off the previous year’s work, hustle for this year’s work, get rained on, get struck down by successive waves of germs brought home by Benny, fill in a ton of forms various organisations I work for all need at once, become enraged by the changes various organisations I use wreak on their services all at once (and without warning), pay my tax (HOWL!) and get mildly miserable owing to a paucity of sunlight. I think I’ll be taking those vitamin D tablets again. (more…)

Last week, an old acquaintance of mine got in touch. He was thinking of switching careers from programming to magazines, and had a job interview at a well respected hobby magazine as a sub-editor, so he wanted to pick my brains. I figured I’d pop up his questions and my responses here, as they may prove useful and/or interesting to some of you. His questions are in bold, my answers not. [] denote an additional thought I had while preparing this for publication here. (more…)