Two horror shorts by Jason Arnopp

A few months back, I read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days of Jack Sparks, a fiendishly clever and twisted piece of unreliable narration that tells of the title character’s last days, in a posthumously edited manuscript that…well, it’s hard to explain. The short version is, Jack Sparks gripped me from the get-go, creating a rich world all through a compelling narrator’s voice, then plunging me into a twisty, unpredictable, bizarre story of ghosts, haunting, and the supernatural. So, finding out that Arnopp had not one but two short pieces available for incredibly low prices online, I wanted to check them out and see if Arnopp was a one-trick pony or not.

51kdfssa4ilBased off of A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home, the answer is definitely not. Taking the form of an anonymous letter written to a new homeowner, the letter tells the story of the home’s previous occupant, who came to realize that they were feeling less and less well-rested the longer they lived in the house. And then, there’s the night she wakes up in the middle of the night and understands why. Entirely crafted in the second person, A Sincere Warning features so much of what made Jack Sparks so great – great, unsettling horror, yes, but also a wonderfully complicated narrator whose voice tells you more about them than any exposition ever could (and who begins to reveal more and more the longer the letter continues), written with supreme control and a wonderfully natural feel. The second-person narration works better than you’d think, adding to the unease, but really, this one is a testament to how good Arnopp is as a natural writer of dialogue, making it all feel real and plausible. It’s slight, sure, but that comes along with the tight length, and really, it’s hard to argue that adding more would have made it any better. Still, it means it’s a bit of a popcorn read – it’s just a good one. (Also, apparently you can have the story sent as an anonymous letter to a friend, which sounds like an amazing idea.) Rating: **** ½

28961798But once I finished A Sincere Warning, I found that Arnopp offered a free novella for signing up for his newsletter. As a result, not long after, I found myself reading American Hoarder, which finds an unnamed narrator discussing the fabled “lost episode” of the titular reality TV show. You can guess from the title what kind of show this is, and Arnopp has a lot of fun giving us the perspective of a jaded, long-suffering professional on shows like these, with discussions about the ideal arc of the show (initial help leads to first effort, which has to relapse, which has to try to redeem), the best houses, the most disturbing collections, and so forth. But we know, given the nature of most of Arnopp’s work, where this is going – and it won’t be pretty. Hoarder doesn’t work quite as well as Warning does – the horror here feels a little more abstract, and the ending of the story doesn’t really give a great final sting so much as it feels a little confusing. (The ending of the main story, anyways; there’s a nice little stinger that will appeal to fans of Jack Sparks.) Nonetheless, I still enjoyed American Hoarder; once again, Arnopp’s knack for bringing voices to life is really great, and how much he’s able to really build not only this character, but the whole setting of the story, in such a short time makes for a solid read. It’s not his best, but it’s still a good story, and the writing is so enjoyable that I’m fine with some of the weaker plotting. Rating: ****

A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home (Amazon) | American Hoarder (

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, by Ta-Nehisi Coates / *****

blackpantherEven as a somewhat enthusiastic comic book reader growing up, I hadn’t ever been exposed much to Black Panther (my preferred series was X-Men). But even before the character’s recent explosion of popularity thanks to the Ryan Coogler film, Black Panther was getting back on my radar thanks to the hiring of author, journalist, educator, and all around brilliant and fascinating person Ta-Nehisi Coates to write an arc for the series. Entitles A Nation Under Our Feet, the arc took place after some major Marvel event or another, following T’Challa as he returns to Wakanda and struggles with his place in this nation as a sovereign king in a world that’s pushing toward democracy, trying to understand the balance between self and country, and trying to admit his failures as a leader as he’s been caught up in global struggles to the detriment of his own country.

That’s all fairly heady fare for a novel, much less for a comic book series, but luckily, Coates pulls it off and then some, juggling these dense themes with solid action and fast plotting, all while somehow never shortchanging the complexity of his ideas. And let’s be honest – there’s a lot going on here, from an internal rebellion led by a mysterious pair of revolutionaries who seem to be able to tap into the buried resentments of the people to the defection of T’Challa’s personal guard of female warriors, from an outspoken political professor to the living coma state of T’Challa’s sister, Shuri. Coates juggles his plot threads effortlessly, tying them all together in deeply satisfying ways, and never leaving the reader confused or lost (apart from some brief “I’m tossing you in, and you’ll learn to swim” issues in the first few pages). But more importantly, he gives the dialogue and the debate every bit the weight as he does his action – maybe more so – letting the characters discuss issues ranging from the effect of losing a homeland to the nature of power, from the appeal of tyranny to the importance of staying true to one’s self even when one is a leader. Coates has written a comic book that’s both action story and complex rumination on how to be a leader, and that’s no small feat.

61fawp5jwelAnd yet, it also doesn’t convey just how exciting and gripping A Nation Under Our Feet is to read. If all of what I just said makes this sound dry and academic, it shouldn’t; Coates is a deep comic aficionado, and from the long-dormant canon pulls to his love of a good throwdown, he keeps the comic moving like a rocket, pulling you along just in time to leave you dangling for the next issue. (I owned all three collected volumes of the series, but ever since I saw some thoughts about issue-oriented plotting, I tried to take a short break between each issue of the story.) And he’s aided in this by incredible illustration work from Brian Stelfreeze (books one and three) and Chris Sprouse (book two), bringing to life Wakanda’s afrofuturistic look and immersing us in it, letting the illustrations remind us of the power dynamics at play, or the subtle ways that a face can reflect feeling. The combination of Coates’ plotting and the masterful illustrations bring the world to life, letting the stories often unfold on a physical level of battle and conflict, all while the narration reveals very different thoughts.

(Side note: this was the first time I ever read using comiXology’s “Guided View”, in which comic artists and experts map out the physical page as a series of panels, setting up a way that, when you’re reading on a device like an iPad, you slide between the panels, zoom in to reveal details, crash zoom out to expand the view dramatically, and all kinds of cool stuff. It made for an incredible read – it never once took away from the impact of the art or dialogue, and in fact, made it easier to slow down and take in the rich illustrations and savor the words in a way that I don’t always do with physical or full-page comics. I was a huge fan of it, and plan on reading many more comics in the same way.)

All in all, A Nation Under Our Feet is a masterpiece – it’s not just a great superhero comic, but a fascinating and complex look at power, responsibility, politics, heritage, and so much more. From gender inequality to the African diaspora, from the divine right of kings to civil unrest, Coates incorporates all of it into a rich, satisfying story that works both as comic book excitement and thoughtful debate. I’m glad I read it, and am only really sad that it’s already over.

Amazon: Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3

The Warren, by Brian Evenson / *****

30199444I’m a huge fan of Brian Evenson, an author whose works I find unsettling, thought-provoking, unconventional, and incredibly well-written in a way that’s hard to convey. At times coming across like some weird fusion of Edgar Allan Poe, Cormac McCarthy, and Gene Wolfe (to whom this novella is dedicated, which makes sense, given the massive unreliability of our narrator(s)), Evenson writes genre fiction full of fractured protagonists who don’t always understand themselves, grappling with themes of identity, morality, and religion, all while following his dark stories to their inevitable conclusions. More importantly, he’s not interested in holding the reader’s hand; Evenson is an author who immerses you in his characters’ heads deeply, only giving us the limited scope of the world that they can perceive, and expecting his reader to engage with the text to think about what’s happening and character motivations.

All of that comes together beautifully in The Warren, a tight science-fiction novella following a confused survivor named X and set in a post-apocalyptic world whose nature only gradually becomes clear. (Fans of Evenson’s might feel like there are connections to his previous novel Immobility, though reading that book isn’t necessary to appreciate The Warren.) But really, The Warren isn’t about its world so much as it is about its protagonist – or, should I say, protagonists. Because what becomes very evident, very quickly, is that despite his thought that he’s the last surviving member of his kind – and what kind that is, exactly, remains open to debate – there must be someone else alive in this world, because things keep happening that he doesn’t remember doing.

The exact nature of what’s going on with X doesn’t take long to become clear, but it’s worth experiencing it cold, the way Evenson intended, because only then can you start to realize just how meticulously crafted and careful the narration of this book is. Written with Evenson’s usual masterful, stark prose, The Warren makes its debt to Gene Wolfe clear, giving us a narrator who is massively unreliable on multiple fronts, not all of them in his own control. But despite these elements of confusion, what’s in doubt isn’t the plot or what’s going on, but rather, what it all means. Evenson uses the character’s existential confusion to address any number of issues – the nature of consciousness, what it means to be a “human” or a “person,” the construction of an identity – and plays with them in fascinating, thoughtful ways.

The Warren won’t be for all tastes; Evenson has never been an author who’s interested in answers and spelling things out, and even by those standards, The Warren is cryptic, giving you just enough to draw you in and leave you thinking, but never offering much concrete or decisive. If you’re fine with that, you’ll love this; for me, I admire the book’s refusal to give easy answers to questions that have no answers to them. And with Evenson’s crystalline prose, his complex characters, and the compelling confusion of his story, what you have is a knockout of a little novella that’s deeply satisfying for those who are up for its uncertainties.


The Devourers, by Indra Das / **** ½

27245999One of my all-time favorite short stories is a Neil Gaiman tale named “Murder Mysteries”. It’s the story of a young man who’s out partying in Los Angeles, but gradually feels more and more disconnected from the hedonistic world around him. One night, as he wanders through the city, he meets a homeless man who asks for a cigarette, and after being given one, repays the favor by telling a story – the story of the first killing in Heaven. It’s a wondrous tale for so many reasons, but much of why I love it is the storytelling aspect of it – the way that the entire short story is both a story in of itself and a testament to the power of tales, to the way we impose narrative on the world in an effort to make sense of it. And what’s more, how so often, what a tale says is less important than how the listener receives it.

I found myself thinking of “Murder Mysteries” (and Gaiman’s work in general, sometimes) often as I read Indra Das’s The Devourers, an unclassifiable piece of genre fare that presents itself as a werewolf story, but has far, far more on its mind than just a simple horror story. It opens, in India, in a similar way to “Murder Mysteries,” with a stranger offering our protagonist – a lonely academic – some stories in exchange for some company. But as the stories come to sudden, explosive life in the mind of our academic – and as the stranger tries to explain that he is, more or less, a werewolf (at least, that’s the most understandable way he could explain it), it becomes clear that we are not in the normal world anymore. And then, our “werewolf” offers the academic a scroll that he needs translated, with no explanation or context.

What unfolds from there is fascinating, as we read the scroll’s account of life as a werewolf – our narrator? a friend of his? someone else entirely? – presented entirely through the shapeshifter’s perspective. We get a sense of how long this being has existed; how inaccurate the label “werewolf” may be in capturing the scope and power of this entity; we see how they relate (or not) to humankind; and we see the way he justifies even his most repellent actions, all as filtered through his grappling with a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. Meanwhile, our academic provides context to some of the notes, footnoting unfamiliar terms, and leading us to think about what all of this means – and ultimately reminding us that we, like the academic, are struggling to figure out how this connects to the stranger we’ve met already.

The Devourers continues to evolve in its second half, with the introduction of another scroll that complicates the first, and manages somehow to sustain two full narratives – the ancient (?) tale of the scrolls and the growing contemporary connection between the academic and the shapeshifter. Interweaving Indian history, world religions, and more, Das brings both halves of the story to rich life, with every character growing in complexity and nuance as the tale evolves into something unclassifiable. At times, it’s a “urban” fantasy novel (if one could be set in the pre-urban days as the Taj Mahal was being built); at times, it’s a horror story; and at its core, it may even be a romance. That Das doesn’t care about what kind of story it is, and indeed, lets each half underline and emphasize the other, makes The Devourers all the more remarkable and compelling, as he treats his fantastic elements with emotional weight and heft, investing himself as much in his characters as in his conceits, and bringing to vibrant life both temporal versions of India.

I couldn’t help but think of Gaiman frequently as I read The Devourers, but that’s not a bad thing; Das feels like an author inspired by Gaiman’s magical realism and fantastic but grounded worlds, and yet also feels like no one other than himself. Creating a fantastic world somewhere between “Murder Mysteries” and The Time Traveler’s WifeThe Devourers is rich, compelling, heartbreaking, and more beautiful and optimistic than you may think from its early going. If it doesn’t quite stick the landing, that’s understandable, to me; this is one of those cases where the journey is so satisfying that I can forgive the destination for not quite clicking as much as I wish it did. As for the rest of the book, it’s beautifully written, lushly imagined, and incredibly thoughtful and satisfying – and ultimately, surprisingly moving.


Night of the Living Dead / *****

909_bd_box_34x490_originalI’ve seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead more times than almost any other horror movie (with the possible exception of Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the few films I put on equal footing with Romero’s stone cold classic). Every time, I worry that I might enjoy it less, that this might be the time that I question whether my love of it is unjustified, and every time, I love it even more, finding more and more evidence that the original Night is one of the greatest horror movies ever made – a film that’s undeniably of a time fraught with anxiety and fears about racial unrest and an unpopular war, and one that reflects those worries, making it impossible to look away.

It’s this aspect of Night that I found myself thinking most about on this rewatch (which, incidentally, was also my first watch of Criterion’s new 4K restoration – it is a knockout, plain and simple, and a revelation). In so many ways, Night of the Living Dead is a film that bridges two eras of horror. We begin in the 1950’s, with camp, exaggeration, and mannered performances; we end in the 1960’s, with no justice, no easy answers, and no flinching from the nightmare of the world. (A lot of spoilers are going to follow; this is more of an essay than a review.)

Look, for instance, at the opening scenes of the movie. A brother and sister arrive in a graveyard to pay their respects to their long dead father. The film looks cheap and B-movie level, at best, at this point. The performances are broad, the dialogue mannered, the banter overwritten. That first zombie attack? It’s ridiculous. It’s a man basically playacting as Frankenstein(‘s monster), with a death that’s so bloodless we don’t even know if it’s actually a death, followed by a hurried, not particularly urgent escape.

So far, so good. This is familiar territory for 1950’s monster flick fans. A lot of fun; in theory, it could be scary, but mainly, it’s silliness, and a good time at the movies.

But then the film starts to change a little. Just a little, though. Sure, there’s Barbara, portrayed by Judith O’Dea in a mannered, B-level performance of hysteria, anchoring the movie squarely in the genre of the 1950’s. Nonetheless, there are signs that things aren’t quite what we think. A surprisingly graphic corpse rotting upstairs. The arrival of our new hero – Ben, an African-American man, whose blackness feels revolutionary, and yet the film leaves it uncommented upon. More than that, there’s the sharp contrast between O’Dea’s performance and that of Duane Jones, who feels more naturalistic, grounded – more in line with the naturalistic feel of performances we were starting to see in the new Hollywood wave. Still, setting aside these brief moments, the whole thing generally feels like a low-budget monster movie, and that’s no bad thing. For a while, our characters are talking inside a house, rather than fighting zombies. They’re making plans, and the glimpses of the zombies are brief and sporadic.

Obviously, the film is going to change, and change drastically, after the end of the time in the house. On this watch, though, I was more and more aware of how Romero was gradually tossing in more and more elements of 1960’s film, letting them sit in sharp contrast to the 1950’s elements. The cast continues to split, with most of our protagonists turning in 1950’s square performances, but there’s a greater and greater sense of divide between them and Jones. That finds a mirror all the way down to the various newscasts, which vacillate between War of the Worlds-style commentary and visceral newsreel footage, the latter of which features yet another grounded, realistic performance by George Kosana, playing a local sheriff who’s leading zombie-killing posses.

What’s more, there’s a creeping dread that what’s outside isn’t as safe as we thought it was. The news reports start drifting from 1950’s cheese (“The dead have begun to walk!”) to more brutal, disturbing claims of cannibalism and mutilation. The brief zombie forays get more violent, with one intruding hand being slowly torn apart by a hammer. There’s a sense that the child downstairs might not survive the night. In other words, there’s a slowly growing sense that the rules as we know them aren’t applying anymore.

And then, our heroes make an effort to fill up a truck with gas, and all hell breaks loose. Our teenage couple dies – not in a bloodless knock to the head like Johnny in the opening’s scene, but in a ball of flame that burns them alive. Ben is nearly left to die thanks to the cowardice of the surviving white male lead. Suddenly, the film isn’t fun anymore. People are dying, and not in safe ways.

All that before the zombies literally tear the victims apart, chewing and feasting on their flesh in gory, graphic ways – ripping the flesh off of severed hands, fighting over slippery intestines, and worse, thanks to the truly disturbing foley work.

Even in a day and age where zombie gore is nearly passe thanks to shows like The Walking Dead, there’s something shocking and unforgettable about Night‘s gore, and it’s in no small part because of how long the film takes to get to it. Before the gore, there’s been a sense that we’re in an old monster movie. After the horrifying death of the teenagers and their graphic dismemberment, though, we can’t hide from this world anymore – the rules as we know them seem to have been thrown away.

What could be more appropriate than that for a movie made in a decade where the facade was ripped off of race relations, forcing Americans to grapple with their own complicity in oppression and cruelty? Or for a decade in which footage was coming through on the nightly news of wartime violence, uncensored and unedited, to say nothing of the wartime crimes being committed?

From there, there’s no going back. A child brutally and graphically murders her mother, stabbing her over, and over, and over, and over, until we just want it to stop. Ben – our hero, our protagonist, the one decent man – kills a man, not because he’s a zombie, but because he almost let him die. It’s murder, plain and simple, and even with Ben’s successive killing of a mother and child because they’ve turned, there’s a sense that we’ve crossed another line, one in which morality is gone, too. Barbara? She doesn’t make it either, pulled away by her own brother. Even those we love turn against us in Night, making us question whether we can truly know what’s in anyone’s heart. And in the midst of all of it, we catch a glimpse of that zombie from the opening scenes. He’s unchanged – still lurching, no more graphic than he was – and yet, he’s not funny anymore. None of it is. Is it just part of the way the film comes full circle, ending where it began? Or is it a darker comment on how this horror has been underneath the surface all along, and we’ve just been blind to it – the same way so much of America was blind to the horrors of war, or racial intolerance?

And then there’s the ending. Not giving his an audience even a moment to relax as he builds to the unforgettable final moments, Romero fills the scene with loaded images: cops holding back straining German Shepherd dogs, wandering patrols in grassy fields picking off people one by one. It’s impossible to see these patrols and not find them horrifying, no matter if intellectually we tell ourselves that they’re hunting zombies – it’s too close to what we’ve seen on the news every night, and the enjoyment they’re feeling is too nauseating,

Too nauseating, even before they shoot Ben as an afterthought. No big music sting. No teased hope. Just a short, brutal death – a betrayal of any hope that good might win, and an image whose resonance hits home even after 50 years. (Maybe more so, in a world after countless examples of black men killed for the color of their skin.)

And then, Romero cuts to newsprint-style credits, but even there, there’s no escape. We watch as Ben – our hero, the voice of reason, the survivor – is impaled by hooks, tossed on a blazing inferno. The still images give way to a towering inferno of corpses.

Cut to black, and our journey is complete. We started in the world of the 1950’s. Threats were childish, and we could joke about them. The world made sense. Heroes would win, villains would lose, and order would be restored. There were risks and uncertainties, sure, but the world tended towards justice. White heroes would thrive, would be brave. Villains were easy to identify.

But we end in the 1960’s. We have met the enemy, and he is us (an “us” that might be “humanity in general,” or just “suburban white people”…or maybe both). Racial violence is impossible to ignore. The authorities are not our saviors. The world doesn’t make sense. Death is ugly. Humans are cruel to each other. You can try to cling to the old ways – like Barbara did, acting as though this is nothing but men in rubber suits and it’s all going to be fine – you won’t make it. But even those who adapt, like Ben, sometimes have no chance. And sadly, even fifty years later, every bit of it still hits home relentlessly. Authorities still kill black men without remorse. Men with guns kill and feel like big men because of it. War makes every brutality acceptable. Humanity is willing to turn on itself at a moment’s notice. In other words, despite us “moving forward” as a human race, every bit of the ugliness and nastiness uncovered in the film is still relevant and trenchant today.

And that’s far, far scarier than any zombie ever could be.


Hellbound: Hellraiser II / ** ½

mv5bmzixzja2mzatztu5ms00n2fjlwi2ndqtngmwyzqxmge1ndlmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_sy1000_cr006471000_al_Man, do I wish this movie was 2/3 as long as it is.

Let me back up for a moment. I’m a big fan of the original Hellraiser, both as a low-budget, unsettling horror film and as an adaptation of Clive Barker’s work. I think that there are few authors out there like Barker, but movies have always struggled to match his surreal imagination, boundary-pushing horror, and blurring of lines between morality and pleasure. Barker was never an author interested in conventional horror stories, and any effort to turn his work into something more easily pigeonholed usually ended up disastrously.

All of which is to say, I wasn’t really expecting Hellbound to be any good. It’s not as though Hellraiser really needed a sequel, and knowing how the later films essentially turned Pinhead and the Cenobites into generic slasher villain tropes – thus missing every appeal of the original film and novella – I assumed Hellbound was just the first step down a long path of mediocrity.

Which is probably why I got so frustrated by the film’s final act, because up until then, Hellbound is way more interesting than you’d expect it to be. Yes, it still feels like an unnecessary sequel – it picks up right after the events of the original, and follows Kirsty’s fears that her stepmother Julia can be resurrected the same way Frank was in the original – and can sometimes feel a bit like a retread, with characters sometimes just going through the motions to keep the original plot cycling through again. And yes, there’s undeniably a sense of “missing the point”, with the filmmakers clearly not interested in Barker’s blending of pain and pleasure and instead going full on torture and gore.

And yet, Hellbound manages to capture the unsettling, otherworldly, Lovecraftian feeling that Barker sometimes managed. The glimpses of the other world that we get here are genuinely unsettling and strange; Pinhead and the Cenobites are still forces of malevolent nature, incomprehensible to human understanding; the horror is still visceral and truly horrifying. (I try not to be an old man about movies too often, but there’s little denying that Hellbound‘s effects largely work because of their practicality. The latex body suits are tactile and horrific in that texture, giving it all a physicality that computer effects never could. And the same can be said for the matte paintings, which are moodier and stranger than CGI could often create. I’m not saying all CGI is bad – far from it – but the first two Hellraiser films are testaments to the power of practical horror effects.)

All of which makes it all the more frustrating when Hellbound goes so far off the rails that the word “off” doesn’t even do it justice. Up until the scene in which of the film’s antagonists meets what seems to be his final fate in a hellish box, I was into it. But within seconds after that, character motivations veer wildly, physical behaviors make no sense, power struggles become unclear, and the film loses any sense of coherence, clarity, or any purpose beyond gore and violence. It makes for an exhaustingly awful, pointless, and truly incomprehensible final act, and it’s so bad that it takes away from how surprisingly solid, if unoriginal, I found the rest of the movie. If you love the original Hellraiser, you might be surprised by how good Hellbound is for a while; just trust me when I tell you that it’s time to turn the movie off after the aforementioned scene – that is, unless you want to be able to pinpoint the exact, precise moment a film implodes.


Only You Can Save Mankind, by Terry Pratchett / ****

9f2e49_f831ea71d494476e89a45cfcc5ee521amv2Anyone who’s read through my book reviews knows of my deep and abiding love for Terry Pratchett, a man who I genuinely feel was one of the great authors of the 20th century. Mixing comedy and social commentary, deep meditations on humanity and wild silliness, Pratchett was something special – a man who could mix seemingly light plotting with devastating insight, and whose brisk, rich writing style could sneak up on you when you least expected it. And though I’ve read almost all of Sir Pratchett’s bibliography, I hadn’t been able to check out the Johnny Maxwell trilogy until recently.

Only You Can Save Mankind, the first volume in that trilogy, automatically sets itself apart from almost all Pratchett by being set entirely in the modern world. There are fantastic elements, yes, but there’s no magic, no nomes wandering beneath the feet of men. No, instead, there’s Johnny, very much the kind of kid we all knew in high school – not quite an outcast, but certainly not popular; the kind of kid who just wanted to be unnoticed and ignored, mostly. And in the glimpses we get of Johnny’s homelife, that’s understandable; the “Trying Times” we see make Johnny’s home feel acutely familiar to any child of divorce who remembers how bad things could be at times. More than that, Pratchett gives us glimpses of poverty, of racial concerns, and of class strata more carefully – and, in some ways, more explicitly, given the lack of fantastical metaphors – than he’s ever done before, filtering it all through a child who’s too young to understand all of it yet, but is being forced to anyway.

If that all sounds a bit darker than the usual Pratchett fare, well, it is. That’s not to say that some of Pratchett’s usual clever wordplay and light language doesn’t make its way in there, nor some clever dialogue. But in many ways, Only You Can Save Mankind feels like a very different book, one that’s more cynical and more uncertain as to where we’re going as a species. It’s a book set against the backdrop of Desert Storm, where the war has been turned into TV highlights and students complain that the war gets boring to watch unless there’s good action. That background helps to shine a light on the intent behind the main plot, in which Johnny finds himself drawn into a Galaga/Space Invaders-style video game to help the aliens survive, because they can handle no more slaughtering at the hands of humans who find war to only be an entertaining game.

That idea automatically gives Mankind some weight and heft that you might not expect, with children dealing with the concept of death and warfare, and trying to understand how being distanced from the consequences can change your perspective. And this is not Pratchett scolding video games; rather, this is undeniably (and sometimes too overtly) a book about media and war, and one clearly inspired by the war that’s playing out in the background of the novel. Luckily, in Pratchett’s capable hands, the book still plays out as a fun adventure novel, but there’s little denying that the undercurrents here are dark and thoughtful. Is it still a great book? In many ways, yes, but it’s definitely missing some of the effortless grace and careful construction (to say nothing of the more subtle use of themes) of Pratchett’s best novels. Then again, it’s still a Terry Pratchett book, and you know that means it’s almost definitely worth reading no matter what; it’s just not among the top tier of his works.