Cocktail Hour: The Nightflyer inspired by George R.R. Martin’s novella “Nightflyers”

The cover of the 1985 TOR edition of Nightflyers

Before the HBO series, the best seller list and the late night talk show appearances, Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin penned science fiction that was every bit as dark and rewarding as his epic fantasy. Some, including the 1980 novella “Nightflyers,” was dark enough to drift in that chilling stretch of space between sf and horror.

“Nightflyers,” available in Martin’s Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, opens by describing an ancient alien race, the volcryn, who have been traveling the universe for millennia without direct human contact. “When Jesus of Nazareth hung dying on his cross, the volcryn passed within a light-year of his agony, headed outward,” the story’s unnamed narrator explains.

We learn that a man named Karoly d’Branin has assembled an underfunded research mission to seek contact with the volcryn. His motley collection of academics travels on a starcraft called the Nightflyer to reach the enigmatic aliens. Strangely, the ship’s sole crewmember, Royd Eris, hides behind the bulkheads, limiting his contact with the passengers to his intercom and a holographic image.

After some deadly and suspicious accidents, the team begins to suspect Royd is an artificial intelligence who’s covering up for a menacing inhuman presence stalking them on the ship. The rising body count and growing paranoia make for a ripping tale of deep-space terror. Think Alien shaken with Scanners and served with a 2001: A Space Odyssey chaser.

The Nightflyer cocktail is complex and mysterious yet easy to drink.

Martin masterfully builds tension during the novella’s hundred pages by throwing one difficulty after another at the research team. Beyond unraveling the nature of the ship’s inhuman presence, they must stave off the craft’s destruction, deal with an undead menace and be prepared for their pending encounter with volcryn. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air — especially with one character after another perishing under increasingly grisly circumstances.

The fear is also heightened because we’re never sure who will be next to be blown apart or shot into space. It’s clear Martin began honing his no-one-is-safe philosophy decades before using it to keep fans riveted to Game of Thrones. Don’t expect any of the characters to be as vibrantly drawn as those in GOT, though. Probably because Martin is throwing so much into so few pages, none ever seems to be more than the sum of his or her quirks.

All told, though, “Nightflyers” is a worth your time if you enjoy the darker end of the sf spectrum. (If you like the novella, you also might want to search for the 1987 low-budget movie it inspired. Just be prepared to dig out your VCR; it’s never been released on DVD.)

This week’s cocktail attempts to capture “Nightflyers'” dark, cryptic feel by bringing together the complex flavors of gin with the complimentary floral notes of creme de violette, a liqueur made from violet flowers and a brandy base spirit. Orgeat, a sweet mixer flavored with almonds and rosewater, also adds another intricate layer of flavor. Together the ingredients make for a mysterious, slightly sweet and incredibly drinkable cocktail with a lingering floral complexity. The eerie lavender color is part of the appeal.


2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce creme de violette
1/2 ounce orgeat
1/2 lemon juice
Lemon twist for garnish

Shake the liquid ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.

Cocktail Hour: The Tooth Fairy (Inspired by Graham Joyce’s novel of the same name)

Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy works both as dark fantasy and as a coming-of-age novel.

The Tooth Fairy, the 1996 novel by late British author Graham Joyce, is the kind of dark fiction that eschews quick, easy scares for something more disquieting. Its pervading feeling of unease sticks with you long after you finish.

Central characters Sam, Terry and Clive are regular kids growing up in a working class town in 1960s England, prone to the boredom and silliness you’d expect. Things take an odd turn for them, though, the day Sam loses a tooth and sticks it under his pillow, expecting the usual compensation.

Sam awakes as the Tooth Fairy sneaks in through an open window. But unlike the creature he expected, this fairy is a nasty little trickster who smells of horse’s sweat and chamomile and threatens Sam and his family.

After that first chilling encounter, the entity continues to drift in and out of Sam’s childhood and adolescence. Of course, Sam’s the only one who can see the fairy, whose sex, appearance and moods change seem to change in lock step with his growing pains. For much of the book, we’re left wondering whether the being is real or a figment of his fragile psyche.

Unlike most speculative fiction, The Tooth Fairy isn’t plot-driven. Instead, it’s structured like a literary novel. The book traces the growth of the characters through a series of episodes during their formative years. We laugh and wince as Sam and his buddies engage in petty vandalism, are bullied by older boys, discover masturbation and, ultimately, girls.

And that’s what makes The Tooth Fairy so memorable. It works as both as creepy dark fantasy and as a coming-of-age novel. Joyce brings Sam and his friends to such vivid life, one wonders how many of the experiences were his own. The characters feel real and we identify with them, which makes the supernatural threat all the more disturbing.

The Tooth Fairy cocktail: Chamomile but no horse sweat.

A great novel with great characters deserves a great drink, so let’s toast Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy with a worthy cocktail of the same name. This one, inspired by the Earl Grey tea-infused Lady Grey cocktail, doesn’t smell of horse’s sweat, but it does combine chamomile with that most English of spirits: gin.

The Tooth Fairy

2 oz. gin
1 oz. lemon juice
1 oz. chamomile-infused simple syrup (see below)
3 drops of orange bitters
Stip of lemon peel

Shake gin, lemon juice, chamomile syrup and bitters over ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

Chamomile-Infused Simple Syrup

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tsp dried chamomile

Bring the sugar and water to a boil over medium heat. Add the tea and let it continue to boil for a minute or so. Remove from heat and continue to steep for an hour. Cool and strain syrup into a jar. It keeps refrigerated for up to a month.


Cocktail Hour: The Budayeen (Inspired by George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails)

The Budayeen: It's like boozy baklava.

A memorable setting can make an already good novel positively sublime.

Take, for example, George Alec Effinger’s 1987 cyberpunk classic When Gravity Fails. While Effinger’s sharp, Chandler-inspired prose and well-drawn characters succeed on their own, the book’s Middle Eastern setting remains one of its most endearing features and something that set it apart from the flood of Gibson- and Sterling-inspired sf that flooded bookshelves at the time.

Gravity takes place in the Budayeen, a gritty-yet-glamorous criminal quarter of an unnamed Middle-Eastern city. It’s the 22nd Century and the Arab World is ascendant while the old Western superpowers have fallen into Balkanized disarray.

Enter Marid Audran, a youthful freelance fixer who prefers his wits to a weapon. The Budayeen’s 200-year-old godfather drafts Audran to track down a serial killer. The madman is terrorizing the ghetto, driven by bootlegged cartridges that plug into his brain and feed him the personalities of seasoned killers from James Bond to a sadistic torturer named Khan.

Audran soon learns his subtle approach may not work against this new adversary. His wits-alone code gets its ultimate test when he’s forced to get his own implants before the final showdown.

Gravity is a dirty, dangerous ride and Effinger wisely leads with his setting. The opening lines reel us in with the promise of peril:

The 1988 paperback cover of When Gravity Fails.

“Chiriga’s nightclub was right in the middle of the Budayeen, eight blocks from the eastern gate, eight blocks from the cemetery. It was handy to have the graveyard so close-at-hand. The Budayeen was a dangerous place and everyone knew it.”

Effinger’s descriptions of the Budayeen are so vivid, I was surprised to learn he wasn’t a seasoned traveler to the Middle East. Turns out, he modeled the district on his home town of New Orleans. While his sensory descriptions lend a similar seaminess, Effinger’s use of the Arab world’s intricate rituals of conduct, its religious details and ethnic tensions ultimately provide the greatest level of authenticity.

Of course, it’s best to explore any red light district, real or imagined, with a drink in hand. May I suggest this week’s cocktail: the Budayeen.

The Budayeen riffs on the Ramos Gin Fizz — a famous concoction from Effinger’s home town — by incorporating cinnamon and black walnut flavors to the orange blossom water for a Middle Eastern twist.

It’s like drinking boozy baklava. And far safer than anything served up at Chiriga’s.


1 1/2 oz. gin
1 Tbsp. cinnamon-infused simple syrup (See recipe)
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 fresh egg white
1 oz. heavy cream
1/4 tsp orange flower water
3-4 drops black walnut bitters
1 oz. club soda, chilled

Combine all ingredients except the club soda in a shaker without ice and shake to combine. Add a generous number of ice cubes and continue shaking for another minute or two. Strain into a glass and top with club soda. Stir and serve.


1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cinnamon stick

Bring the sugar and water to a boil over medium heat. Add the cinnamon stick and let it continue to boil for a minute or so. Remove from heat and continue to steep for an hour or so. Cool and remove the cinnamon stick. It keeps refrigerated for up to a month.

Cocktail Hour: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Nigh highlights Persian flavors.

When a horror film is called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, we’re trained to think the girl in question is the one facing the dire threat. But in Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 debut feature film, the girl is the the predator, not the prey.

The nameless young woman, played by Argo actress Sheila Vand, wanders the nighttime streets of a fictional Iranian town called Bad City, populated by pimps, prostitutes, punks and junkies. She’s draped in a black chador which can make her appear anonymous or ominous, depending on the situation.

We learn early on that the girl is a vampire, and we see her savagely dispatch the local pimp, the first of several killings that make us wonder whether she’s simply quenching her thirst for blood or acting as a feminist avenger. When her path continues to cross that of the film’s protagonist, a small-time hood played by Arash Marandi, a new question haunts us: Does she actually have feelings for him or is she toying with him, amusing herself before the kill.

Amirpour does a great job humanizing the vampire without explaining too much about her. The girl’s ’80s-inspired clothing, the teeny-bopper posters on her wall and the synth pop she plays on her record player hint at who she was before she became undead. And those trappings also help us understand she’s more than just a murderous apparition.

Be careful of what lurks beneath the chador in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

The movie’s stark black-and-white photography and effective use of silence probably owe as much to the influence of Iranian New Wave cinema and early Jim Jarmusch as they do F.W. Murnau. A creepy atmosphere pervades, but the movie isn’t without humor. The vampire girl acquires a skateboard and uses that to glide along the street for much of the film, and we catch occasional glimpses of street signs warning motorists to watch out for women in chadors — an image that takes on a double meaning here.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night doesn’t deliver the kind of bump scares and roller-coaster thrills of a Hollywood-style horror film, but it’s refreshingly clever in the way it humanizes its monster and draws us into a dream world that borrows details from horror, Spaghetti Westerns and art house cinema.

That’s why it’s the inspiration for this week’s cocktail.

Lime, cherry and rosewater are all ingredients that figure prominently in Persian cuisine, and they all figure prominently in this cocktail. The cherry is doubly appropriate here because of a Persian saying that we taste cherry when we die. Our final reflection on life is that it’s been both sweet and sour.

The cherries’ sourness is augmented by the lime in this drink, while the gin and rosewater lend an aromatic dimension. Like its namesake movie, this cocktail is refreshing and complex without being cloyingly sweet.


2 oz. gin
¾ oz. Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
½ oz lime juice
½ oz rosewater (available at most Middle Eastern and Indian groceries)
Maraschino cherry

Shake all the ingredients, except the cherry over ice. Place the cherry and a little of its syrup in the bottom of a chilled coupe glass then gently pour the mixed cocktail over top, allowing the red syrup to drift upward like drops of blood.

Cocktail Hour: The Esper

The Esper: Not for amateur telepaths... or amateur drinkers.

I discovered Alfred Bester my freshman year of college while reading an anthology of classic science fiction.

His story “Fondly Fahrenheit” opened with a child murder at the hands of a homicidal android, placing it light years apart from the more optimistic Golden Age tales that preceded it in the book. It was also noteworthy because the narrator slipped between the use of “I,” “me” and “we” to describe his actions, an effective experimental touch that suggested the android and its human owner were slipping into shared psychosis..

On the strength of that first impression, I soon plowed through Bester’s The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Those novels’ cynical outlook and crisp prose resonated with me as I immersed myself in the cutting-edge (at the time) cyberpunk of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Turns out, both cite Bester as a major influence, as did scads of other boundary-pushing cyberpunk and New Wave authors.

Beyond being a writer ahead of his time, Bester was a drinker. Legend has it he left his entire estate to his bartender, Joe Suder. What’s more, robot bartenders and cocktail parties feature heavily in his fiction, and I stumbled across no shortage of printed interviews he gave at convention bars over pitchers of beer.

In other words, Alfie Bester is the perfect inspiration for a cocktail.

Today’s, THE ESPER, borrows its name from the telepaths in Bester’s The Demolished Man, whose extrasensory perception makes murder near impossible in the 24th Century.

I based this concoction on the similarly named Vesper, created by James Bond author Ian Fleming in Casino Royale. Fleming’s cocktail combines gin, vodka and Lillet, a wine-based French aperitif. In the case of THE ESPER, I substituted absinthe for the vodka, because… well, let’s just say I’ve had more than a few extrasensory experiences courtesy of la fée verte.

I recommend one ESPER, only one, before dinner — or while reading Alfred Bester. Careful, this one’s boozy, boozy, boozy.


3 oz. gin
1 oz. absinthe
1/2 oz. Lillet Blanc
A thin slice of lemon


Shake the ingredients with ice in a shaker, then pour into a chilled martini glass or champagne goblet. Add the lemon slice.


Cocktail Hour: The Scarlet Gospel

Today, I’m debuting a regular feature in which I’ll highlight a science fiction-, fantasy- or horror-themed cocktail and discuss its inspiration. Today’s drink is an appropriately hued gin concoction themed around the recent release of Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels.

Barker’s first adult horror novel since 2001, The Scarlet Gospels is essentially a hard-boiled version of Paradise Lost. It matches Harry D’Amour, the private-eye demon hunter who first appeared in “The Last Illusion,” against Pinhead, the lead Cenobite from “The Hellbound Heart,” the novella that launched the “Hellraiser” franchise.

Those expecting the kind of skin-crawling horror Barker executed so well in “The Hellbound Heart” and his groundbreaking Books of Blood will likely be disappointed. Sure, there’s plenty of trademark viscera and lush language. One expects that as the characters trek through through Hell in search of Lucifer, who’s pulled a Howard Hughes-style disappearing act. But missing is the sense of creeping dread that made “The Hellbound Heart” such a compelling read in the first place.

That said, The Scarlet Gospels still succeeds as dark fantasy. Barker’s prose is vivid, even if stripped down compared to his earlier work. The opening scene, in which Pinhead dispatches the last of the world’s great magicians, is alone worth the price of admission. During the course of the novel, Barker does a superb job at making us care about both the dedicated and loyal Harry and the immortal and world-weary Pinhead, even as the demon exacts cruelty after cruelty.

The book’s namesake cocktail combines gin with Cynar, a bitter Italian aperitif made from artichokes. Beyond its color, I chose Cynar because we learn during the course of The Scarlet Gospels that Pinhead isn’t only a ruthless sadist but a rather bitter fellow. Among his many grievances: the hardware store-inspired nickname with which he’s been saddled. The cocktail’s use of blood orange, aside from deepening its red color, provides sweet and sour citrus notes as a foil for the Cynar’s bitterness.


The Scarlet Gospel

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Cynar
3/4 oz. fresh-squeezed blood orange juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup

Shake the ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker and drain into a coupe glass. Serve ice cold.