About jonathanmills95

Writer, folklore blogger, lover of all things green and pleasant...

“Annihilation” review


There has been a lot of chatter about Alex Garland’s new film, Annihilation, and much of it has been asking why, outside of the United States and China, it has not received a theatrical release (it premiered in the rest of the world on Netflix on March 12th).

In my opinion, though I think the film has flaws, it was certainly deserving of being seen on big screens worldwide, and it’s a great shame that hasn’t happened (apparently it’s due to differences between Paramount Pictures and the film’s producer, Scott Rudin). Nevertheless, for those of us who subscribe to Netflix and have had a chance to see the movie, it’s a fascinating and beautifully made science fiction film that treads a well-worn path in terms of both tone and subject matter, but does so with some style.

Warning: spoilers.

It tells the story of biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears after going missing a year before, on a top secret mission. He’s acting strangely on his return, and when he becomes violently ill Lena calls an ambulance; but on the way to the hospital she and her husband are intercepted by shadowy government agents who take them to the top secret research facility known as “Area X”, whose psychologist, Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), explains to Lena that Kane was part of an expedition into the nearby “Shimmer”, a strange force-field somewhere on the coast of North America, whose centre is an old abandoned lighthouse. Little is known about the Shimmer except that none of the people so far sent in have come out – with the exception of Kane. Oh, and it’s growing…

So, racked with guilt about her husband as he lies in intensive care, Lena decides to join an all-female team of scientists led by Dr Ventress to explore the Shimmer, and find out what’s happening inside.

This is an intriguing premise for a story, no doubt, though the pedant in me couldn’t help but question the lack of common sense the characters display – why, when the Shimmer has been growing for three years, and countless teams have disappeared inside, would you send yet another team of researchers into it? Wouldn’t they use drones or something? And if you’re going to send people, at least put them in hazmat suits, right? Honestly, anyone would think these folks have never seen Eddie Izzard’s routine about the forest of death and blood:

The Shimmer certainly looks beautiful (location shooting was in Windsor and Norfolk), and the vegetation and bizarre animals (a result of the Shimmer’s strange mutating effects) are a credit to production designer Mark Digby and his team. The human/bear hybrid was especially disturbing (and surely owes a debt to the alzabo, a bear-like creature who speaks in the voice of its victims in Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun”), and there is a scene involving human intestines which is not for the squeamish. As the team get closer and closer to the lighthouse, they become increasingly unhinged, and the final confrontation between Lena and the alien presence there is an extraordinary, bravura sequence which reminded me of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”.

Like that film, “Annihilation” is apparently only loosely based on its source novel (by Jeff VanderMeer), and made me curious to know how and why Garland has deviated from the original story. In sci-fi movies, the theme of human beings being physically and/or psychically altered by encounters with extra-terrestrial life goes back at least as far as The Quatermass XperimentThe Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and on through Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Ridley Scott’s Alien, the work of David Cronenberg, and the recent Netflix adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels:

So Annihilation isn’t doing anything spectacularly original in that sense. But its predominantly female cast (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny & Tessa Thompson play the other three scientists assigned to Ventress’s team) , and unsympathetic heroine (Portman’s character has been having an affair, and it is implied that this may have pushed her husband to embark on such a dangerous mission) are major plus points for a Hollywood blockbuster (at one point Kane tells Lena, before he leaves, that at least they will be in the same hemisphere, and so when he’s gone she can “look up and see the same stars”, and she angrily retorts that she has better things to do in his absence than just stare at the stars), and thus, disappointingly, may also have contributed to Paramount’s getting cold feet about an international release (see Helen Lewis’s detailed discussion of this in the New Statesman).

But though it boasts a superb cast and creative team, and I wanted very much to like it, I fear the film left me a little cold in the end. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not a romcom, after all – but I felt that its precarious balancing act between the commercial imperative to deliver an exciting slice of commercial cinema, and its makers’ desire to reach for Some Deeper Meaning, never fully resolved itself. That said, we need science fiction and fantasy that has ambitions beyond simple audience titillation, and for that I salute this film, and heartily recommend that you see it if you can.


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.


Wraiths or zombies?

I’ve always tried to avoid zombies.

Good idea, you say.

More specifically, I’ve always tried to avoid the term “zombie” in my fiction, or anything resembling it.

Or have I?

There are certainly creatures in my stories who act like classic zombies, as they appear in popular culture: Watchers, I call them, or shadowmen. They are men robbed of their souls, their eyes removed, and a “third eye” etched on their foreheads:

“…their cloaks the colour of darkness, and their faces pale and sightless, the hungry mouths hanging open like black pits, and the cruel mark of the Third Eye set deep into their foreheads.”

(from The Witch of Glenaster)

A common trait of zombies is that they are essentially mindless, driven only by a never-sated desire for death, violence and human flesh. This mindlessness, or lack of agency, presents its own problems for the writer. How do you write convincingly about a character with such a lack of complex motivation (and usually with no higher brain functions at all, which also tends to result in their famously shambling gait)?

“Famously shambling gait.”

The word “zombie” is of West African origin, from “zumbi”, meaning “fetish”, and existing folk traditions of the Africans brought to Haiti as slaves developed as part of voodoo belief (the “zombies” being controlled by sorcerers called bokors), and were picked up on by Hollywood in the Twentieth Century with films like White Zombie (made at a time when the US was occupying Haiti) and I Walked With A Zombie. Writers like HP Lovecraft and Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”) also contributed to modern zombie mythology, as of course did director George A. Romero with “Night of the Living Dead”:


With the success of modern movies and TV shows like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and The Walking Dead, zombies have become big box office, and even a zombie-sceptic like myself can enjoy this kind of beautifully filmed gory mayhem, and there’s no doubt that zombies lend themselves well to comedy and satire. But the interaction between zombies and ordinary humans in these stories, and the knowledge that zombies were once just like us, is surely key to their appeal. A story featuring only zombies might quickly become tedious. At the very least the dialogue would be somewhat limited.

Wraiths, on the other hand, are harbingers (rather than bringers) of death, and in English folklore tradition can be seen between midnight and one o’clock on St Mark’s Eve (24th April) – or sometimes Midsummer Night (23rd June) or All Souls’ Eve (1st November) – trooping into the local church in the order that their human counterparts will die during the coming year. If you see your own wraith, or “fetch”, then you too will be dead within twelve months. In 1608 a woman in Nottinghamshire was charged with “…watching upon Sainte Markes even at Nighte laste in the Church porche to presage by divelishe demonstracion the death of somme neighbours within this yeere”, and some sources say the watcher must fast or circle the church before being able to see the wraiths.

The wraiths in my own stories are physical beings rather than ghosts, so I suppose in that sense they are more like zombies, under the spell of a witch or necromancer. But then there has never been a strict delineation between different supernatural creatures in folklore, and one of the joys of writing is the freedom to pick and choose!


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.



Hi there.

Just thought I’d write a little more about the Glenaster Chronicles, and some of the world-building and terminology that’s gone into it.

Today I thought I’d dwell briefly on Glenaster itself.

The first thing to say is that this word is (as far as I can tell, and I have checked) completely made up (if anyone knows of any mentions of it prior to 2010, when I created it, please let me know!). I just liked the sound if it, indeed originally it was spelt slightly differently, as “Glenastor” with an “o”.

But I’m glad I changed the spelling, as it now makes (theoretical) sense. Though there isn’t a Glenaster in reality, there could be one. The word “glen” is Scottish Gaelic in origin and refers to a long, narrow valley. And an aster (derived from the Greek for star) is a type of flower commonly known as the Michaelmas Daisy, as it blooms around Michaelmas time (29th September). Devotees of Scotch whisky will be familiar with such single malts as Glenmorangie (meaning “vale of tranquillity” or “vale of big meadows”) or Glenfiddich (“valley of the deer”), and so my fictional Glenaster is referred to by one of my characters, Thomas Taper, as the “vale of the smallest flower”.


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

Ursula K. Le Guin 1929-2018

Book News Roundup: Ursula K. Le Guin inducted into the ...

Photo: culturefly.co.uk


Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer,

Like hands joined together,

Like the end and the way.

(from “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin)

On Wednesday morning I woke up to discover that one of my favourite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin, a woman who has influenced not just my writing but how I think, had died. She had passed away on the Monday, and the news had filtered through over the following 24 hours.

Her death was not unexpected, I suppose, as she had reached a great age, but still it seemed shocking, as it always is when a great artist or a great writer – indeed, a great person – leaves us, a bafflement that so important and beloved a figure could be gone.

She was 88, and had had a long and fulfilling life and career, for which we should be grateful, and she could be proud of her lasting influence on literature, especially science fiction and fantasy. And she was a robust defender of her chosen genre(s) – here she is giving the acceptance speech when she won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014:

I first discovered her work about fifteen years ago, when I bought an omnibus edition of her first four Earthsea novels from my local bookshop in North London. I knew next to nothing about her, except that I was intrigued by her name – which I thought was a memorable one, especially for a fantasy writer – and by the little I had heard about her writing. I opened the book, and started to read:

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards…”

Here was an imaginative landscape both familiar – wizards, dragons, strange lands and a simple but well-drawn map tucked between the title page and the first chapter to tell you where you were – and yet strange, as Le Guin took some of the tropes of epic fantasy that had been invented or reinvented by writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and proceeded to shape them to her own ends. Her interest in Taoism, in the balance of light and dark, and in cultures different to her own (her parents were anthropologists) led her to explore the ultimate questions of what makes us human, and what we are capable of being, by placing her characters in fantastic or extraordinary situations and then showing how they – and, by implication, we – might react, might grow and change.

In both the Earthsea books and stories, and in her Hainish Cycle of science fiction (Hain being the fictional planet where in Le Guin’s universe humanoid civilization first develops before spreading out across the galaxy), her tone is thoughtful, compassionate, non-judgemental, and she does the reader the great courtesy of treating them as an equal, even (perhaps especially) in her work for children. There are no literary pyrotechnics, no “look what I can do” showing off, and she is never pretentious or condescending. All this might sound overly worthy, but as well as being beautifully written her stories are also exciting and gripping to read, her invented worlds so well crafted that one can become completely absorbed in them.

She can be angry, too, and her polemical novel “The Word for World Is Forest” (which I have discussed in an earlier post) seethes with barely suppressed rage against the Vietnam War (it was written in 1968), and some of her short fiction, notably “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, upend the reader’s expectations and leave us with more questions than answers, which is as it should be. Though clearly she believed that there were better and fairer ways of organising society than those currently on offer, she was too alive to the contradictions and idiosyncrasies of human nature to assert unambiguous fidelity to a particular political creed. Her novel “The Dispossessed” is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia”, and neither Anarres nor Urras, the two contrasting worlds of the story, are presented as perfect or necessarily worthy of emulation.

The more enlightened societies of her stories are often small, village-like, living in harmony with nature rather than against it, effectively autonomous from central authority, gently anarchist, valuing technology only in terms of its practical utility and not as an end in itself. They are places you believe she has visited, which of course she has, in her mind, with a keen anthropologist’s determination to study and record, and report back. To build a better world you first have to imagine it, and what an imagination Ursula Le Guin had, an imagination that could change minds, and will continue to do so, long after she is gone. She has died, but she leaves us a wealth of fiction and non-fiction (her best essays, like her stories, are laced with a dry wit and the sharp observations of this most pragmatic of enlightened thinkers) to read and re-read, and to cherish and pass on. It’s somewhat of a cliché, I know, to describe someone as casting “a long shadow”, but for a great lover of the natural world like Ursula Le Guin I think it is entirely apposite to say that many people will find hope and refreshment in that cool shade, and that her words will continue to nourish those of us who love them, and those yet to discover them, as long as they are read.


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.


“She is drooj – a magus of the ancient world.”

Hi there.

Here’s the first of a projected series of posts on some of the terminology used in the Glenaster Chronicles, and – hopefully – I’ll be writing about some of the main characters and places, etc. too.

I thought I’d start with the term “drooj”, which crops up quite a bit in both The Witch of Glenaster and The Widow’s Thorn.

Like most of the unusual words that appear in my work, it is real and not made up, and is my (no doubt clumsy) attempt to render phonetically the word “druj”, which comes from Zoroastrianism, the ancient Iranian religion based on the principle of order and truth (“asha”) as opposed to disorder and falsehood (“druj”).

Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia for over a thousand years, until the rise of Islam in the 7th Century, but there are still several thousand Zoroastrians worldwide. Fire and water are sacred elements in their belief, and their places of worship are called fire temples, with a source of natural water such as a well somewhere in the grounds, and an inner chamber containing a fire that is tended day and night by magi or priests.

The word “druj” in Zoroastrianism appears to be an abstract noun, but apparently it can also be feminine, and from my limited reading on the subject “Druj” with a capital “D” seems to refer to a female demon.

My own version of the word, “drooj”, is used as the collective term for many if not all followers of the Witch of Glenaster, specifically those with magical or supernatural powers.


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

“An English Wood” – A Story

The week in pictures: 6 November 2015 - Telegraph

Photo: telegraph.co.uk

Martins was lost, and he knew it, though he couldn’t decide if knowing it made it better or worse.

Of course, he couldn’t be truly lost. This was southern England, in the 21st Century, not some endless African savannah, or colossal American mountain range. He was in a wood. An English wood. A bit spooky, perhaps, as the evening came on. But hardly dangerous.

No need to be alarmed, then, no need to send up a flare (even if he had one, which he didn’t), no need to worry about the dead battery on his phone. Except that, he had been looking for the path back to the car park for three hours now, and he couldn’t seem to find it, and the wood, he knew, wasn’t that big. He should be out of it by now, back at the road, or at least in some field or other, trying not to trip over the sheep.

At one point he thought he had reached some kind of boundary fence, and through it he had seen, a few yards away, two horses, one white, one black. They had looked at him for a long time, and then wandered over, no doubt expecting him to give them food. He didn’t have any, and stupidly found himself explaining this to them, and apologising. But the horses just went on gazing at him, neither pleased nor annoyed, and when he realised that the field in which they stood was completely enclosed by the wood, and therefore did not provide a way out of it, he walked away, and was somewhat unnerved to discover, when he turned back a few minutes later, that the horses were still there, watching him.

He thought that locating the track leading away from the main gate to the field might bring him inevitably back to the road, but after about half a mile it disappeared into a maze of other tracks, and he was lost once again. He began to wonder if he was going in circles.

When he left the car park earlier that afternoon he had climbed along a path clearly waymarked, with occasional signs indicating the wildlife one might expect to see, and a map of the valley, with “You Are Here” and a large arrow written prominently in red. Likewise, though it was a weekday in February and the sky was overcast, there had been other people about, mostly, like Martins, of a certain age, though they had all said hello to him with varying degrees of enthusiasm as he passed them on the footpath.

But now he could see no markings anywhere, and all the people seemed to have disappeared hours ago, as soon as the already feeble daylight had started to leach from the sky. Martins cursed. He was dressed sensibly, he had his waterproofs, good boots, a bottle of water, even half a Twix. He considered retracing his steps back to the field with the horses in it, and spending the night there, if necessary. He wasn’t in bad shape for a man of his age. A night out of doors probably wouldn’t kill him. Whoever owned the horses would no doubt visit some time tomorrow to feed them, and he could reveal himself, allay their alarm by apologising in a classically embarrassed English way, and they would both laugh, and the stranger would take him back to his car, make sure he was all right, was there anyone he could phone? Perhaps he might like some coffee, or a bite to eat? And Martins would say, No, that’s very kind, thank you. I’m just glad to be out of that wood.

But of course he couldn’t retrace his steps back to the field. He couldn’t retrace his steps anywhere. He was lost.

There was a soft creaking away to his left, that made him turn suddenly. He thought at first it was a lorry or coach changing gear as it came down the hill, and that the sound might somehow guide him back towards the car park, but there was something about the sound – some kind of agency to it, Martins thought – that he felt to be unnatural, and he realised he was really frightened now, in a way he could not remember being for many years, and as he realised this he realised also that it was now almost completely dark.

Of course, his eyes had been able to adjust gradually, so he was hardly blind, but he always forgot how quickly day turned to night in winter, and he had forgotten something else, too, because he had not expected to need it. His torch.

He stood there for a moment in the darkness, thinking. He felt like shouting, or crying, but did neither. The thought nagged at him that he must try and stay quiet, that he mustn’t attract attention, that he wasn’t alone – and that whoever else was in the valley with him was watching, and, in some way that he couldn’t fathom, wished him harm.

He shook his head, rubbed at his shoulder. He ate the rest of the Twix, and drank some water. And then he sat on the ground, and waited.


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

A Christmas Story

Many thanks to all my readers over the last year. Thank you for stopping by this blog, and for taking the time to read my posts. May your days be merry and bright, and every blessing to you for 2018. Here is a short Christmas story for you – hope you enjoy it.Happy Saint Nicholas DayPhoto: playeatlove.com

The snowbank curved like a spine, each house a notch of vertebrae, sweeping west from Old Arthur Pa’s place, and then south through the homes of the Russell clan and Mother Paphides and Corkscrew Jones, then winding a little east and south-south-west to the manor of Big Charles, and the Jacksonvilles’, and Ma Laundry’s place, until finally it rested, with a point so neat a pâtissier might have done it, over the onion dome of the Blessed Martyrs, its cross peeking out like a golden bird above the clouds.
The snow was up to the roofs of the buildings, and swaddling doors, and blanketing the startled sheep. And Mad David cried that there would be no more fish for supper if the river did not unfreeze, which only God in His mercy could do, and the hinges weakened in the doorjambs, and the wind curled her fingers into the sockets of the flagstones.
This was the sight that greeted Saint Nicholas on Christmas morning, may my word never be a truer one.
The old man – and everyone knows that Saint Nicholas is very, very old, almost as old as Old Arthur Pa, and that is very old indeed, so old the stars have forgotten his birth – wiped his nose with a large spotted hankie, and took from his pocket with an elegant flourish a brass pocket-watch, which he shook for a solid minute, though it remained as stiff as a clam. Saint Nicholas’s eyes blinked slowly beneath a brow as smooth and white as sealskin, and he wet his lips, and pulled gently at his beard, that was softer than the eider down the women collect in the nesting season, and blew a long and low note, over the fields and the elderly stone walls, and the shining birds in their bright plumage, and the cracking of the clouds in the sorrowing sky. And the ground started to itch and ache, and then gasp like a rheumatic dowager, and the snow shook itself off the roofs with a sudden shrug, and the people came out of their houses to see it.
Some snow fell upon Old Arthur Pa’s head as he emerged from his front door.
“There are sheep in my hair!” he cried, mournfully. “My wife is a bitter woman, and the world is undone, and now there are sheep in my hair!”
And he wept uncontrollably, and Mother Paphides tried to console him with her story of the cackling pig, and Little Gerald did backflips to try and distract him, but all to no avail.
“There, there, man,” said Big Charles, in his bluff way. “Your wife isn’t bitter. Why, some days she even looks mildly pretty, and I can think of no handsomer compliment than that!”
But Old Arthur Pa only went on weeping, and wetting Mother Paphides’s kerchief with his tears.
Saint Nicholas studied the faces of the villagers, and he shivered, for, contrary to what you may hear, he is not from Lapland, but from the East, and he missed the dry winds and green hills of his home. Then he blessed the people, and spoke the solemn words, and Mad David was so overcome he ran naked three times over the frozen river, until Ma Laundry put a towel over his bony shoulders and the Russell clan carried him to his house and bolted the door and swore not to let him out till they heard the first cuckoo of spring – or possibly the second, or the third – and adjured God to look after him, and not to hold his sin against him. And the icy plates of the river came unglued, and it ran once more, first in a trickle, then in a stream, and finally as a great flood, nearly lapping the banks in its dash for the sea. And Mother Paphides cried would they not fetch the priest, but the priest had been in the ground nearly ten years and was not for coming out, even for mass, or breakfast, or sudden strange miracles such as these.
For all agreed that it was the most miraculous occurrence since Saint Decuman had had his head cut off by pagans and proceeded to wash it and put it back on his shoulders, saints being practical people in those days and not easily put off by a little beheading.
And Lame Maggie, and Little Gerald, and the Jacksonville twins, danced and sang for Saint Nicholas, and he clapped and laughed, until the tears ribboned his cheeks, and he was glad and sorrowful all at once.
And he gave each of the children a present – small soldiers with high coloured plumes on their heads and smart buttoned tunics, and dolls whose eyes moved from side to side, and horses with wheels fixed to their feet, all exquisitely detailed and made by ancient and magic hands – and then he turned to the villagers and said his goodbyes. And they watched as he walked back across the fields, to where the sky and the earth were all one blanket of white smoke, and the sun sulked in her gauzy shroud, until they could see him no more. Then they went home, and ate woodcock, and parsnips, and plum pudding, and wished each other a Happy Christmas, and a long and joyful New Year.


Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.