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Doctor Who: “Smile”

“Smile,” the second episode of the new Doctor Who‘s tenth season, is a pretty good episode. It’s not an instant classic or anything, and there isn’t much plot going on until the last ten minutes or so, but the episode exists mostly to give the Doctor and Bill an opportunity to continue bonding and learning about each other, and in that regard it absolutely succeeds. The mentor relationship between the Doctor and Bill works so much better for me than the “space boyfriend” dynamic Doctor Who has been trafficking in since the revived series began, and as a result this season feels like a breath of fresh air. Peter Capaldi continues to shine as the Doctor — his performance is so assured it rises above even the weakest material — and I continue to hate the fact that he’s leaving at the end of this season. I don’t know what’s going to happen afterward, or for how long Doctor Who will stay on the air, but I’m convinced Capaldi will go down as one of the best new Doctors.

As I mentioned, the plot isn’t all that special, and it’s definitely one of those stories you don’t want to examine too closely or the logic will fall apart. For instance, the Vardy don’t really show many signs of self-awareness, and you’d figure the vital mechanical interface of a new colony would have some form of self-defense program anyway just in case the colony was attacked. Rebooting the system and wiping the Vardy’s memory doesn’t remove their knowledge of money, in particular pounds sterling, even though it removed everything else. The Vardy are construction microbots, so how exactly do they “eat” people down to the bone? What would make the Vardy then decide to use those bones as calcium fertilizer for the gardens? The questions could go on, but as I said, this episode was more about the Doctor and Bill than about the story happening around them.

There’s not a whole lot of Doctor Who neepery to share for this episode. The basic plot has some similarities to the 1988 Seventh Doctor serial “The Happiness Patrol,” which also involves the execution of colonists who aren’t happy all the time, although that story was really much more a response to Thatcher’s England. There are also a few superficial similarities to the 2008 Tenth Doctor episodes “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” with microscopic-sized creatures eating people down to the bone, and the 2005 Ninth Doctor episodes “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” with nanotechnology gone awry. And I suppose the Vardy are in some way a truly Moffat-era antagonist — we’ve had “don’t blink” creatures and “don’t breathe” creatures and “don’t turn around” creatures, and now we’ve got “don’t stop smiling” creatures. But that’s all I’ve got. There are surprisingly few callbacks to the classic series this time around. (Although ending this episode with what is basically the start of the next is a very classic series thing to do!)

We have another mysterious mention of the vault the Doctor has promised to guard without leaving Earth, although no more clues as to what’s in it or why he made that promise. There’s a funny joke about the Doctor not being Scottish, just very cross, and another about how Scottish colonists seek independence on every planet they inhabit. The Doctor claims he is 2000 years old now, which I found quite surprising. When the Doctor says to one of the interface robots, “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too,” my mind immediately went to the 1980 David Bowie song “Ashes to Ashes” — an earworm that grew so insistent I actually had to listen to the song later. (We know Capaldi is a fan of Bowie, so I doubt this was merely a coincidence.) My only real complaint is that Nardole is basically sidelined for this episode, and I suspect he won’t be in the next one, either, since it appears to be set in the past. I want more Nardole, please! (Also, it didn’t feel quite right that he was jealous of Bill’s presence in the TARDIS. Less of that, please.)

We may only be two episodes in but season ten is looking to be a strong one, thanks to solid scripts, good actors, and especially the rapport between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie.

The Scariest Part: Mark Matthews Talks About GARDEN OF FIENDS

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author and editor Mark Matthews, whose new anthology is Garden of Fiends. Here is the publisher’s description:

The intoxication from a pint of vodka, the electric buzz from snorting cocaine, the warm embrace from shooting heroin — drinking and drugging provides the height of human experience. It’s the promise of heaven on earth, but the hell that follows is a constant hunger, a cold emptiness. The craving to get high is a yearning as intense of any blood-thirsty monster.

The best way to tell the truths of addiction is through a story, and dark truths such as these need a piece of horror to do them justice.

The stories inside feature the insidious nature of addiction told with compassion yet searing honesty. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental deaths, and some of the most incredible names in horror fiction have tackled this modern day epidemic.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Mark Matthews:

In certain ways, the scariest part of Garden of Fiends: Tales of Addiction Horror is that it is a reflection of the modern day epidemic of opiate addiction. Certain dark truths of our world require a piece of horror to do them justice. Facts aren’t always felt, but stories are, and fiction makes the reader feel the true devastation of addiction. Such is the case with these stories, where some incredible names of horror have portrayed addiction in all its brutal honesty. Jessica McHugh, Glen Krisch, and Max Booth III (as well as my own tale) feature heroin and opiate addiction, while Kealan Patrick Burke, John FD Taff, and Jack Ketchum tackle the insatiable, unquenchable thirst that is alcoholism.

On a more personal level, the scariest part is that addiction will remain in my own subconscious no matter how many years it has been since my last use.

I’ve used every drug that appears in this anthology, and it nearly killed me, but I’ve been clean over 24 years, and, after going back to school to become a licensed professional counselor, have worked in the field of addiction treatment for much of that time. Working with other addicts has helped me keep my own sobriety, but dealing with the cravings that remain never stops. I still dream about drinking. I still feel a jolt of lightening in my spine when I watch someone snort cocaine or crystal meth in a movie. I’ve come to expect the cravings and learn to live with them, and when I write dark fiction, the culture and pathology of addiction pervades, and writing is incredibly therapeutic.

I am so thrilled at the list of writers who appear in Garden of Fiends to portray this affliction. This anthology is a way of bearing this burden to the world. Not just my burden, but the burden of sick and suffering humans everywhere. As you read this, someone just shot up for the first time, and soon their body will be aching for heroin the way a vampire thirsts for blood. Someone right now is buying a half pint of vodka with shaky hands at the liquor store, trembling with terror. A mother just identified their daughter’s overdosed body at the hospital. Another is writing their son’s obituary. Everyday we hear horror stories such as toddlers found in the back-seat of a car with overdosed parents in the front or a batch of fentanyl-laced heroin killing scores of people over a single weekend.

The scariest part is that what’s inside this anthology is a mirror of our world, not a teleporter to another.

Here’s a brief summary:

A Wicked Thirst — Kealan Patrick Burke
An alcoholic’s incessant thirst for drink has caused a trail of devastation in his path. A blackout one night puts him face to face with the specter of his past. A powerful opening punch and quite simply vintage Kealan Patrick Burke.

The One in the Middle — Jessica McHugh
“The best way to take atlys is to inject it straight into the testicles,” thus begins Jessica McHugh’s excerpt from The Green Kangaroos, which blew my freaking mind (cliché as that sounds). Captures the tone, lifestyle and craving for heroin in a wonderfully transgressive fashion. William Burroughs himself would be proud.

Garden of Fiends — Mark Matthews
The father of a heroin addict is tired of his daughter relapsing, so he takes drastic measures to protect her. He thinks he’s cut out her disease, but he’s only made it spread. Pretty soon, there are addicts all over the city of Detroit trying to get his daughter high.

First, Just Bite A Finger — Johann Thorsson
This flash fiction piece is a lightning shot across the page. An addict keeps convincing herself she can quit her bizarre addiction — “She could quit if she wanted to, and she did, and went until Thursday evening.”

Last Call — John FD Taff
Last Call is about the type of alcoholic I am quite familiar with — one who frequents AA meetings, can’t stay sober, and often shows up drunk. His sponsor offers him one last chance at sobriety by visiting the most unusual of places: a liquor store. A perfect illustration of the family legacy of alcoholism.

Everywhere You’ve Bled and Everywhere You Will — Max Booth III
Max Booth’s story is about a recovering heroin addict who relapses after a bizarre turn of events and an infatuated (and quite creepy) girlfriend. It includes a bleeding penis, spiders, a Walmart worker, and Max’s unmistakable wit. Your jaw will drop.

Torment of the Fallen — Glen Krisch
Scarecrows, rats, syringes, and heroin are the ingredients for this Glen Krisch story. When you see real demons, sometimes the demon of addiction is all that will hold them back.

Returns — Jack Ketchum
Ketchum didn’t write this short story to serve as the perfect ending to Garden of Fiends, but he might as well have. This is a sweet, somber story about a Ghost visiting his alcoholic ex-lover, watching her drink herself to death, and trying to find his purpose for this return to his old life. I’m so grateful to have another one of my writing heroes included in Garden of Fiends.

Mark Matthews: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads / Amazon Author Page

Garden of Fiends: Amazon / Barnes & Noble

Mark Matthews is a graduate of the University of Michigan and is a licensed professional counselor. He is the author of On the Lips of Children, Milk-Blood, and All Smoke Rises. He lives near Detroit with his wife and two daughters. Reach him at

Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

The Doctor Who revival series has made it to its tenth season! To me, this feels like almost as much of a milestone as the series’ overall 50th anniversary, and as it turns out the 10th season premiere, “The Pilot,” is a worthy start. In fact, I’d say it’s the best Doctor Who season premiere since “The Eleventh Hour” back in 2010.

I took to new companion Bill Potts very quickly, quicker than I thought, perhaps because she is so different from Clara in exactly the way Clara herself was not very different from Amy. Bill also has a good rapport with the Doctor, one that’s based on a shared intellectual curiosity, which is a nice change of pace from companions who have a crush on him or who are simply thrilled with the adventure of it all. I continue to be amused by Nardole’s presence as the Doctor’s de facto butler, even if he didn’t have a whole lot to do this episode. I hope he sticks around and becomes a more active player in future episodes. I adored the collection of old-time sonic screwdrivers on the Doctor’s desk, as well as the picture of his granddaughter Susan. I was intrigued by the mysterious vault the Doctor is guarding. What’s inside it? It must be something pretty important for the Doctor to give up traveling and disguise himself as a university professor for the past fifty years to keep an eye on it. (Then again show runner Steven Moffat is pretty terrible when it comes to season-long arcs, so I’m halfway expecting to be disappointed when the vault finally opens.)

But mostly I came away from “The Pilot” mourning the knowledge that this is Peter Capaldi’s final season as the Doctor. I think he is superb in the role, a monumental step up from Matt Smith (come at me, Smith fans, I will fight you!), and when the Doctor is written right, as he is in “The Pilot,” Capaldi stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of John Pertwee and Tom Baker. I wish he would stay longer. This “three seasons and out” pattern the actors seem to have fallen into is too bad. We barely get a chance to know a Doctor before the next one comes along, with the unfortunate side effect that the regeneration episodes become trite, formulaic, and expected.

“The Pilot” was written by Moffat, so it does suffer from a few annoying Moffatisms. We get a fat joke right up front when Bill describes what happened after she continually gave her crush extra chips in the cafeteria. Plot threads are raised and then immediately dropped (Bill notices the Doctor’s reflection in the old photographs of her mother but never asks him about it). There’s a needless riddle (“What’s the one thing you never see when you look at your reflection?”). The antagonist’s powers remain just undefined enough to let Moffat do whatever he thinks will make for a cool scene instead of something logical (how and why does it shapeshift into a Dalek? A Dalek can’t look down into a puddle’s reflection, and changing into a Dalek has no strategic importance anyway for a creature that can’t be destroyed by their weapons). The Doctor’s electric guitar and (sonic?) sunglasses make a cameo at the start of the episode, which hopefully will be the only time we see them this season because ugh, enough already. And of course the power of love saves the day, because Moffat can never seem to resist treacle.

There’s not a whole lot of Doctor Who neepery to share this time. I already mentioned the old sonic screwdrivers and the picture of Susan. But one marvelous bit that was only seen briefly made me smile, and that was the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it return of the Movellans, a race of alien androids with silver dreadlocks last seen in the 1979 Fourth Doctor serial “Destiny of the Daleks.” The Movellans were locked in a never-ending war with the Daleks, and in fact it was this war that made the Daleks return to Skaro to resurrect their creator, Davros, whom we saw again as recently as last season.

“The Pilot” is a promising start to a milestone season. Longtime readers of these reviews will recall that I thought last season was a strong one, perhaps the best since Moffat took over, and I’m hoping this season will continue the upward trend. With a cast of characters this strong it ought to. However, the next episode features robots that only speak in emojis, so…


The Scariest Part: J. S. Breukelaar Talks About ALETHEIA

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author J. S. Breukelaar, whose new novel is Aletheia. Here is the publisher’s description:

The remote lake town of Little Ridge has a memory problem. There is an island out on the lake somewhere, but no one can remember exactly where it is — and what it has to do with the disappearance of the eccentric Frankie Harpur, or the seven-year- old son of a local artist, Lee Montour.

When Thettie Harpur brings her family home to find Frankie, she faces opposition from all sides — including from the clan leader himself, the psychotic Doc Murphy. But Lee, her one true ally in grief and love, might not be enough to help take on her worst nightmare. The lake itself.

Because deep below the island, something monstrous lies waiting for Thettie, and it knows her name.

A tale of that most human of monsters — memory — Aletheia is part ghost story, part love story, a novel about the damage done, and the damage yet to come. About terror itself. Not only for what lies ahead, but also for what we think we have left behind.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for J. S. Breukelaar:

I can’t tell you what the scariest part of writing Aletheia was, because it will spoil everything. You who have read the novel, know that about a third of the way in, the unthinkable happens. And that was the scariest part for me, not just because it was terror incarnate, but also because I didn’t plan it. Hand to God. I’m not being coy. I had totally different plans for Thettie Harpur, for everyone. But the story had to do itself. And that’s how it played.

That was fucking scary. I mean not just what happened, and how irrevocable it was, and how horrifying it was, and how my bleeding fingers made me write it in the second person. Scene by scene. Blow for blow. How even as I was writing it, I had no idea how bad it was going to get, and it got bad. It got very bad. I hated myself for even writing it. I scared myself. The tooth hurts.

And then, after it was written, I had no idea, really, what to do. How to go on after that, emotionally, psychologically, and artistically. How would I tell the rest of the story? I had already set up the parallel narrative — Thettie and Lee’s point of view in alternating chapters, but now what? I can’t go into it too much more, except to say, I was finished.

But the story wasn’t. It couldn’t end at that moment of total narrative collapse, but it was really difficult for me to see beneath its broken structure at that point. And there was another thing. It wasn’t just the story that had broken. It wasn’t just the characters who were looking at me in gobsmacked revulsion at what I’d done to their world. I was looking back at myself, and wondering what the story, as I’d told it, made me? I wanted to tell the characters that the story had broken my heart, too.

Stories have a way of biting the hand that feeds them. And the only way to go on is to bite back. Except I wasn’t sure how. I didn’t even really know what had happened. There I was with a story in shards, and I had no real idea of the logistics of how this terrible, plot shattering thing had happened. And I think it was that that allowed me to continue. I had set up a kind of unspeakable crime, but one of a nature so dualistic that the supernatural part of it remained a mystery, even to me. So, while the rest of the characters went about trying to figure out the true crime, I knew my job was to fathom the horror, the horror beyond the cruelly banal, beyond the everyday evil. And I knew that the only place I’d find it was beneath the lake.

So that’s how I managed to find my way back into the story. I went back out on the lake, and I bit Time right in the ass. I split the chapter I’d written before the terrible turn into two parts, leaving the first section in Part 1 and resuming the chapter in Part II, but I switched to present tense. I picked it up right in the middle of a storm on the lake out near the island, the island that was the clue to everything. To all the pain and all the hurt, the island that Time forgot so it had nothing but Time. In fact, the second scariest part was writing the ending. As I’ve spoken about elsewhere, the gifted author/publisher and my friend, J. David Osborne, read an early draft of the novel. It had most of the scary parts in it — including the shock turn halfway through. But my meta-fictional detective work was flawed, and I came up with a false ending that David didn’t buy. So that sent me back to the beginning again. And that was really scary. Not just the fact that I’d thought I’d finished the damn thing, and was scared as hell of looking at months of rewriting, but also because I had to go deeper. Deep into my own heart and dark thoughts in order to come to terms with what the island was, and what it always had been. I thought that I’d get away with just going to the second half of the novel, the part where it gets all messy and weird. But that didn’t do it. I had to go back even further.

Stephen Graham Jones writes:

Plot isn’t a line your story follows, it’s a chart of your characters’ decisions. And it’s only ever seen in the rearview mirror… [When things go wrong], back up, look for a place where the story should have branched, and keep backing up until you find it. Sometimes all the way to the point of conception. Then conceive better.

That was me. I had to go right back to the point of conception. Back to the second scene in the very first chapter, where Thettie steps on a hideous grin-shaped crack in the pavement that is no longer there, but re-cracks at her approach. Spider-webbing the shiny new mica surface right down to the soil, its weed-choked grin just as lying and leering as if she had never gone away at all. As if she’d stayed in Little Ridge with her beloved cousins Frankie and the wild-at-heart Cassie, and Frankie had never gone to war to get caught up with the crooked Doc, and Cassie had never stolen that credit card that brought deGroot vengeance down on her Sweet Sixteen, and Thettie had never let her two young sons go out on the lake alone — as if none of that had happened, and things had stayed rock ’n’ roll forever.

There is a point in the novel where one of the characters realises that s/he is the lake monster after all. That there has never been another. The scariest part of writing is that. That moment when you realize that you are the scariest bit. You are the reason to be afraid. That the fear is in you, and of you. And it knows your name.

J. S. Breukelaar: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

Aletheia: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

JS Breukelaar is the author of the novels Aletheia (Crystal Lake Publishing) and American Monster (Lazy Fascist Press), as well as the collection No Bunnies, out in October 2017, also from Crystal Lake Publishing. Her stories and poems can be found or are forthcoming at Gamut Magazine, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Lamp Light, Juked and elsewhere, including the anthologies, Welcome to Dystopia and Women Writing the Weird. She lives in Sydney, Australia with her family.