Saturday 25 January 2020

Dark Book Review: Alien: Prototype

Dark Book Review: Alien: Prototype

Review by Casey Douglass

Alien: Prototype

I seem to devour books set in the Alien universe faster than almost any other story. There’s just something about the bleak evil corporation mentality, the vast distances and the Xenomorph, a creature that still makes me shiver at how cool it damn well is. Titan Books has a whole host of novels that fill in gaps in the Alien chronology and they’re all well worth a read if you’re an Alien fan. Tim Waggoner’s Alien: Prototype is the latest release, and I recently treated myself to the Kindle edition with some left over Xmas money.

Alien: Prototype opens with some deep-space piracy. Tamar Prather is a spy who has been tasked with hanging around unsavoury types, the kind that attack and ransack other spacecraft. She is there because Venture, a Weyland-Yutani competitor, is always on the look out for valuable swag that can give it an edge against the other mega-corporations. And wouldn’t you know it, Tamar steals a very precious cargo. Ovoid. Glistening. You get the picture. This “prize” ends up at The Lodge, Venture’s facility on a planet called Jericho 3. The arrival of the egg precipitates events, much like one of those naughty chaos butterflies, but whipping up its own kind of dark hurricane.

The egg falls into the hands of Dr Gagnon, the stereotypical “mad scientist” type who becomes fascinated with the organism it contains. He also has no real morals holding him back from certain kinds of experiments, the kind that don’t often end well. He ends up with a Xenomorph, but there are complications. It’s not the same as the regular variety of Xeno, this one has picked up an extra ingredient in its mixture, one that makes it even deadlier than the normal kind. I know it’s a bit difficult to imagine how a creature like this could be any more dangerous. Maybe the mental image of a great white shark with a machine gun will serve here. Nope, this Xeno is far more dangerous than that!

As with any decent Alien tale, this Xeno is faced by people who are determined to stop it running amok. Zula Hendricks is an ex-Colonial Marine who has turned her hand to training a more civilian kind of security force, and it is her group of wet-behind-the-ears recruits that have to swallow their fear and face something truly dangerous, rather than the various neutered experiences they have received in their training to date. I won’t say much more as I really don’t want to spoil the sense of discovery you’ll get if you decide to read the book.

Alien: Prototype is a fun, relatively fast-paced book, with so many of the elements that I enjoy in an Alien novel. There is greed, some synthetic humans, and a bit of creature worship, along with a variety of encounters and combat situations that keep the interest. There are the typical scenes where the unaware get jumped by the Xeno, and there are scenes where the “very much aware” clash with it in desperate combat. There is some novel use of technology at times, and the “extra danger” this Xenomorph embodies is a really nice touch to add a splash of novelty to proceedings.

If you enjoyed any of the other Titan Books novels, such as Out of the Shadows or The Cold Forge, I think you’ll enjoy Alien: Prototype. If you’ve yet to dip into this series of novels, but love the Alien universe, I also think you’ll enjoy this book.

(Alien: Prototype takes place between the Alien: Isolation book and the Aliens: Resistance comic series.)

Book Title: Alien: Prototype
Book Author: Tim Waggoner
Publisher: Titan Books
Published: October 2019
ISBN: 9781789090918
RRP: $8.99 (paperback)

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Book Review: The Imposter Cure

Book Review: The Imposter Cure

Review by Casey Douglass

The Imposter Cure

I’m a sucker for the self-help genre. I sometimes fantasize that my tombstone could say “Self-help this!” in my darker moments. I think it comes from struggling with my mental and physical health, and always wanting to try to get some kind of fresh perspective on life that might help me feel better. Imposter Syndrome is a topic that has somehow passed me by. Until, that is, I flicked through Dr Jessamy Hibberd’s The Imposter Cure in Waterstones one day. I saw mention of the way that freelancers can be prone to it, because of the nature of how they have to “bid” or “win” jobs. With a rush of hope I thought it might help me to find out more, and a month later here I am, writing this review.

If you are anything like I was, you might know that imposter syndrome is a fear of being found out as not being as “good” or capable as others might think you to be. While that’s true, as with most things, there are far more layers to unpick than just this simple understanding. The Imposter Cure does this in a gentle, friendly way, the opening few sections paving the way for a self-compassionate look into something that our minds can still struggle to accept. We have all sorts of beliefs about how feeling like an imposter can keep us humble, safe or alert, and stay ignorant to the ways it’s actually harming our lives. Imposter syndrome is also more common than we might think, and a lot of people might be affected by it at different times in their lives.

The first section that clicked with me described the five competence types that someone might fall into. These are: the perfectionist, the natural genius, the soloist, the expert and the superwoman/man. Someone’s competence type dictates how they will experience failure-related shame and the mindset that they are likely to take into tackling tasks. This might be the Perfectionist’s approach of feeling strongly that there is the right or wrong way to do something, or the Expert’s desire to know everything about something before they start. I found it very helpful to see the categories I fell into, many of which I would have put down to a “simple” lack of self-confidence before reading this book.

I’m a fan of diagrams with labels showing how our thoughts, actions and emotions create spirals of mental health, whether it's feeling bad about something or feeling better. Maybe it’s from my days of having Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for my OCD, or maybe I just like things being defined and laid bare. Either way, The Imposter Cure features a number of these diagrams, showing the cycles that reinforce or undermine our feelings of competence. This got a thumbs up from me. The book also looks at why we might be prone to feeling those imposter feelings, looking at our personality traits and past experiences and how they might have laid the foundation for feeling so conflicted about success. One example is someone who might be very gifted at school, always performing well, but only being given praise when they perform “above and beyond” their usual highest standards. It doesn’t take much thought to see why this might set that person up for not really appreciating their successes going forward.

This is one of the most important messages that The Imposter Cure carries, that people who suffer from imposter syndrome don’t internalize their successes in the way a non-sufferer might, their beliefs and mind-set minimising what they’ve done and laying their success at the door of luck, good timing or just working hard, which “anyone” can do. The Imposter Cure challenges these beliefs and mental filtering, picking apart the Luck Myth and the way that the coping strategies we use harm us more than help us.

Dr Hibberd calls these coping strategies the Imposter Twins, and they are Overworking and Avoidance. They are two sides of the same imposter coin, a coin that shouldn’t really be legal tender if you ask me. Each coping strategy is broken down into how it might manifest, what drives it and why it’s actually harmful. Tidbits that I found useful in this area were the explanation of why having success doesn’t end the cycle of overworking, and why the fantasizing about doing less creative, more menial work, is just an avoidance strategy rather than a deep seated belief that I’m not cut out for what I want to do. I also took solace in the notion that sometimes life requires a certain level of “bluffing”, something that I feel really averse to doing most of the time, even in the most minor of ways.

The Imposter Cure also covers other areas that interplay with the core issue. Besides working through ways to address your beliefs about what success means to you and your view about yourself, it gives advice about how to handle social media, anxiety and low mood, as well as to address confidence issues. These sections are brief and useful, but if it’s the first time a reader encounters some of the concepts, I’d recommend buying a book about them in their own right. That’s not a criticism, just a thought that occurred to me as the topics arose. A good starting point though.

Did reading The Imposter Cure help me? Yes. It emphasizes that you need to put time and effort into the techniques and information it provides, and I did. Ironically, part of my mind is saying “Did you put enough in? Did you really?” and that just goes to show what a pest imposter syndrome can be. By reading the book, I gleaned some nice insights into something that previously, I had little awareness of. I think it will take time, thought and another reading to really dive into the stuff that is going on in my head. The book is certainly no magic cure and it doesn't claim to be one. It feels promising though, and sometimes a bit of hope is a rare thing to find.

Book Title: The Imposter Cure
Book Author: Dr Jessamy Hibberd
Publisher: Octopus
ISBN-13: 9781783253326
Published: 13th June 2019
RRP: Paperback £12.99

Sunday 5 January 2020

Dark Ambient Review: Hastur

Dark Ambient Review: Hastur

Review by Casey Douglass


I still find Lovecraft-themed media, whether stories, games and music, a rich vein of eldritch fun. There is something so dark about his mythos and the way that it has built into something seemingly more than it is. One of the usual highlights of this media is when Cryo Chamber releases its regular mammoth Lovecraftian collaboration, giving the listener around two hours of murk, gloom and existential horror to feast on. This year’s is Hastur, and as usual, it’s very good.
"Some name him Hastur - others Assatur, Hali or Kaiwan. The last can, to the erudite mind, whisper something of where the supernal alliances may lie. The men of Leng are purported to know more, but that is no place for wholesome minds. Better then to seek out a Shantak. It will doubtless whisper of onyx and a frigid wind, urging you ever northward and upward. Were ye to follow, ye may glean the answers ye seek. But they would do you little good, once the unrelenting drums have hold on thee. It is better, sometimes, not to know whom ye serve." - Excerpt from Digibook

The drums mentioned above seem like a great place to start. These appear at various moments in the two, hour long tracks, and when they do, they often add a certain level of ‘evil blasphemy’ to things, to go a bit ‘H.P on yo' ass’. How can drums be blasphemous? Well, besides playing them during a Catholic Mass and annoying the priest, the ones on Hastur are the kind you might only hear at night, in the distance, when strange lights are in the sky and the shadows around you keep shifting. When you add in the other ritual-like sounds, from chanting and the rise and fall of a drone, you can almost feel one of the many tendrils of an Elder god tickling your coccyx.

Drums are just one part of Hastur however, the various soundscapes containing a variety of other textures and depths. I write quite extensive notes but find it hard to adequately describe a two hour album in the way that I might a 45 minute one. Here I will write down an assortment of the sounds I heard and the ways I described them on paper. It should give you a taste of what I mean at the least. I am also tempted to caption it “Lovecraftian Gratitude Journal Day 153” :

A teeth grating sound going side to side, tones filtered through murky water fizzling out before they reach the bottom, shrieking bat-noises in the belfry, guttural chuntering, witch-like ‘hag tones’, a pulsing swarm head-fuck, ‘floor sweep’ whispers, sliding granite blocks in distant temple, lonely piano notes, chimes, static and distant screams.

The soundscapes on Hastur are relatively smooth; they don’t jar and they are quite nice for relaxation. There is enough going on to keep the listener’s interest and to provide some fun, dark daydreams, from reconfiguring temples to the movements of strange creatures in the shadows. I also really liked the drums, it made me feel that unseen forces were seeping into the soundscape, ready to unstitch the reality of the denizens silly enough to invoke them. If you are a Lovecraft fan, and you also happen to enjoy dark ambient music, you’ll probably already own Hastur. If not, visit the Hastur page below and have a listen. I think you’ll be glad that you did.

Visit the Hastur page on Bandcamp, and check out the first track below. (Skip to around 29 minutes to enjoy some of those dark drumbeats I mention above).

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Hastur
Album Artist: Cryo Chamber Collaboration
Label: Cryo Chamber
Released: December 17, 2019

Thursday 2 January 2020

Dark Fiction: YEAR ONE Anthology

Back in June 2019, my dark drabble The Carrion Maven was posted by Black Hare Press on their website. A couple of days ago, they released the YEAR ONE anthology, a collection of all of the nano-tales published in the Dark Moments online archive during last year. The Carrion Maven is inside it. If you'd like to buy the anthology, you can find it on Amazon at this link.