Monday, September 18, 2017

The Ax (1997) by Donald Westlake

The Ax (1997) by Donald Westlake: Burke DeVore, a mid-level paper company executive, has been downsized. So he's going to kill his way back to full employment by murdering everyone who stands in the way of his taking a job at another paper company. And he justifies his serial spree by noting that it's not really any different than what the board members of large companies do to their workforce every day.

Westlake's bleak, black satire rings as horrifyingly true today as it did in the late 1990's. Maybe moreso, in this Hell Age of Trump the President. Westlake's novel presents white middle-class rage taken to a (seemingly) logical extreme. 

But The Ax also satirizes that white middle-class sense of privilege while also damning the American obsession with profits for the very few at the expense of everyone else. It's a dynamite novel that shows rather than tells. And it's not for the squeamish. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016) by Mark Frost

The Secret History of Twin Peaks (2016) by Mark Frost: Mark Frost's canonical (as in, 'It's a part of the series lore') book is creepy, informative fun. It could almost stand on its own, though in that case it doesn't exactly have a conclusion. 

In a nod to the documentary strain of horror fiction, The Secret History of Twin Peaks deploys journal entries, diary excerpts, newspaper articles, and first-person testimonials and reporting to supply David Lynch and Mark Frost's fictional town with a convincingly weird history as a place where the walls between the normal world and the world of demons and aliens have worn very, very thin.

The conceit here is that much of what we're reading was found in a lockbox at an undisclosed location. It's been assigned by FBI assistant director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch on the TV series) to a younger agent with the initials 'T.P.' to annotate. T.P.'s notes appear in the margins. 

The contents of the lockbox (or 'dossier') were assembled by an initially unnamed character from Twin Peaks (the show and the town). That unnamed character (dubbed 'the Archivist' by T.P.) also comments on the various pieces assembled in the dossier while hinting and then confirming that much of the dossier was assembled by another character from Twin Peaks. Got all that?

Frost brings real historical figures (Lewis of Lewis and Clark; UFO investigators J. Allen Hynek and Kenneth Arnold; President Nixon; Jackie Gleason (!)...) and real events into the secret history of demon- and angel-haunted Twin Peaks, to enjoyably creepy and expansive effect. It seems as if Frost is much more into UFO' s than Lynch, making The Secret History of Twin Peaks a somewhat different experience than the show. And that's a good thing. Everything herein dovetails nicely with what we've seen on Twin Peaks without over-writing anything.

Frost supplies background for many of the characters of Twin Peaks, from the Mayor and his brother (remember them? Well, they're major players here!) to Major Briggs and Dr. Jacoby. The dossier ends when the Archivist apparently disappears in 1989, a few days after the events in the series end. We do discover the fate of a couple of characters from the show. However, a gap of about 27 years is indeed left between the end of dossier and Twin Peaks: The Return. Some of that gap is filled in by T.P.'s marginal notes, as she or he is writing just days before the events chronicled in Twin Peaks: The Return begin.

In all, this is an impressive addition to the world of documentary-style horror and fantasy fiction. If you've watched Twin Peaks: The Return, you'll probably guess the identities of our archivist and the young FBI agent reading his work in 2016. You may be surprised when the UFO stuff starts flying, or when American magazine editor Raymond Palmer's The Shaver Mysteries suddenly makes an appearance. L. Ron Hubbard shows up as well. And Aleister Crowley, and so on, and so forth. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Tommyknockers (1987) by Stephen King

The Tommyknockers (1987) by Stephen King: 

"The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act." - Stephen King, the "act" being his addiction problems.

Who am I to argue with Stephen King on the topic of Stephen King?

The Tommyknockers is the worst thing -- novel, story, screenplay, comic book, greeting card, you name it -- the prolific King has ever written. I don't think it's even that close between The Tommyknockers and the second-worst thing. 

King wrote The Tommyknockers at pretty much Peak Addiction, and it is interesting from an autobiographical perspective as page after page dwells on the alcohol addiction of protagonist James Eric 'Gard' Gardener. 

And the townsfolk of fictional, tiny Haven, Maine (near demon-haunted Derry in Stephen King's Maine) also succumb to addiction of a type: well, an infection, anyway, from a long-buried spaceship that ends up getting unburied when Gard's former lover, Western writer Bobbi Anderson, stubs her toe on a projecting part of a giant spaceship in the woods behind her rural home.

Once exposed to air, the spaceship infects people with some sort of airborne virus or nanotechnology. The virus makes people progressively less human as it also turns them into assholes who like building high-tech gadgets. Soon, Haven is hard at work, working towards The Becoming, when they'll finish excavating the spaceship (it's saucer-shaped, natch) and go do bad things somewhere on Earth or elsewhere.

All this seems to have been predicted by a Maine folk rhyme about 'the Tommyknockers' that begins 'Late last night and the night before/ Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door.' Even buried for millennia, the spaceship has exerted some malign influence on people living near it. It reminds me of King's previous novel, It, in which we see It crash into the primordial forest that would one day become Derry. Derry is located about 30 miles from Haven. Is there some sort of magnet that causes weird stuff to crash in this area of Maine? Is Amelia Earhart's plane out there too?

There's probably an OK but derivative short science-fiction novel buried in the bloat of The Tommyknockers. The novel's most obvious antecedent is Quatermass and the Pit/ Five Million Years to Earth, in which an alien spaceship is unearthed during a London subway dig and proceeds to alter the humanity around it as it draws power from its environment. The Tommyknockers is the rural version of that, and this time the Martians aren't Nazis: they're gadgeteers. They're King's heavy-handed, repeatedly spelled-out metaphor for the human beings who make atomic bombs, nuclear power plants, intelligence agencies, and every other ill on the Earth caused by technology.

King plays bait-and-switch with his protagonists. Bobbi Anderson takes point, but once the alien infection takes hold, the narrative switches to Gardener. And once Gardener gets really drunk in the middle of the book, the novel jumps around among various townsfolk and outsiders until Gardener starts to sober up around page 350 or so. The structure plays Hell with readerly sympathy, a problem compounded by...

The Tommyknockers give us King's least sympathetic, most caricatured set of characters in all of his writing. It's far and away King's sourest book. Part of the problem seems to come from King's decision to only supply characterization for most of the townsfolk after they're already turning into gadget-building assholes. Part of the problem comes from the fact that King falls back on some of his recurring stereotypes for characters, even when they should be at least nominally sympathetic. 

To cite one, we get a nebbishy man who lives at home with his mother who browbeats him. We also get a crusty senior citizen who knows where all the bodies in Haven are buried, not one but two writers as co-protagonists (and Gard is alcoholic -- did I mention that?), a super-smart kid who's ostracized by his peers but beloved by his younger brother, and a lot of small-minded small-town types. Once most of those stereotypes get infested, they're really annoying.

Even the people outside Derry are assholes. Gard has to deal with a mean woman who runs the travelling poetry show that pays his salary. You can tell she's mean because she's an upper-class twit with a pinched face and no breasts. Bobbi has been repeatedly terrorized throughout her life by an insanely domineering, evil sister, and you can be sure that evil sister will show up in Haven before the end of the novel. The bad characters in The Tommyknockers have no redeeming qualities. But we will spend a lot of time with them. Even doomed minor characters from outside Haven are assholes who sort of deserve to die. And die they will!

And we will know that many of them will die before they die for one of two reasons. Maybe King will employ probably his least endearing, corpus-wide trope -- the narrative voice telling us that the character we're reading about is going to die before the end of the novel. Or maybe King will indulge in the frustrating, suspense-cancelling structural tic he developed for The Tommyknockers, in which the novel describes events building to something catastrophic before jumping backwards in time to show us the events building to that same something catastrophic from a different narrative POV. This happens again and again, and indeed accelerates in the last 50 pages or so, as we see the same thing happen over and over again from a seemingly endless series of POVs. So long, suspense!

Two major characters have steel plates in their heads. And this is a major plot point. Two characters! What are the odds! King also brings back the evil Coke machine from Maximum Overdrive. I shit you not. I wish he'd also brought back Captain Trips from The Stand so that everyone in this fucking novel could die by page 100.

At several points, either King or his characters basically throw up their hands and start using other people's works to explain things. Thus, Peter Straub's Floating Dragon gets a shout-out from Bobbi and Gard. So, too, Poul Anderson's Brain Wave (wrongly in terms of Brain Wave's plot), the work of Robert Heinlein (dismissively and not remotely accurately in the assessment, BTW), and some of King's own work. It's Pennywise cameos for no real reason other than that a couple of characters drive through Derry. 

The Heinlein moment is especially weird. Having learned that the aliens (or 'Tommyknockers' if you prefer) are neither benign nor particularly intelligent, Gard thinks "So much for Robert Heinlein." As Heinlein wasn't known for writing a lot about benign, technologically advanced aliens, this statement makes little sense. 

It makes even less sense when one knows that one of Heinlein's most famous novels of the 1950's was The Puppet Masters, in which malign parasitic aliens invade Earth and take possession of human beings to advance their goals. They even stick people in fluid-filled tubes, as do King's Tommyknocker-possessed humans. 

And King even repeats a much different Heinlein trope, one seen in many American science-fiction works: humanity has something so special about it that unlike other races, it offers resistance to this alien threat. King has met the enemy, and King is Heinlein.

Much, much odder is a section in which King's narrative voice sings the praises of Canadian writer Robertson Davies and, specifically, Davies' Deptford Trilogy and, most specifically, those portions of the Deptford Trilogy dealing with the young Dunstable Ramsey's attempts to master magic tricks in the company of the younger Paul Dempster, who really will master magic and go on to become professional magician Magnus Eisengrim. So King really likes Robertson Davies. Not one of the characters -- King's narrative voice. OK. This novel is brought to you by the Deptford Trilogy. I'm surprised the narrative voice doesn't warn us that Robertson Davies is going to die.

I could go on, but I'm sort of exhausted. The novel ends in part with an astronomical statement that makes absolutely no sense. That pretty much sums it up. Populated with characters unpleasant or boring or both, derivative or dismissive of far superior works, The Tommyknockers is indeed, in King's own words, "awful." To flip the punchline of an old joke... and such large portions! Not recommended.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Great White Space (1974) by Basil Copper

The Great White Space (1974) by Basil Copper: The amazingly prolific Basil Copper gives us a splendid homage to H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, with perhaps a smidgen of Moby Dick, in this tale of an expedition into a mysterious cave system located beneath mountains somewhere in Asia. The exact location is never given because the narrator doesn't want anyone to follow in his expedition's footsteps for reasons that become abundantly clear as the narrative progresses. He only is escaped alone to tell thee.

Narrated decades after the (thankfully fictional) attempt of the 1932 Great Northern Expedition to penetrate the mysteries of that cave system, The Great White Space goes not into the southern polar regions (as Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Jules Verne's The Sphinx of the Ice, and Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym did) but beneath the Earth. 

Copper devotes a lot of space and detail early in the text to explaining the technical and logistical preparations for the descent and then the long voyage to 'The Black Mountains', where the entry to the cave system exists. Along the way, two different and somewhat odd Asian tribes are met, and possible taboos about entering the caves encountered. The natives do not go in there, through an artificial cave mouth that stands several hundred feet high.

Once inside the system -- which is, to use a favourite Lovecraftian adjective, cyclopean, as in monstrously huge -- the expedition soon discovers that the entire cave system is artificial, carved or somehow otherwise scooped out of the rock through unknown technological means. Something lurks, of course, though much of the terror of the novel lies in what comes before the Big Reveal. 

Unnerving details and an attention to both the squeamish and the Sublime build to the revelation of what waits in the region of The Great White Space, a region paradoxically located miles beneath the Earth. There are things in bottles, a library, and great forms glimpsed in the distance, coming closer. And there comes occasionally from far off the sound of enormous wings.

Some may find this brief novel a tad slow -- the horrors come on-stage fairly late in the game, and explanations are abandoned in favour of mystery and dread. I quite liked the modulation of this novel -- it's quiet and it demands concentration, but it's a page-turner nonetheless. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Girl With All the Gifts (2016)

The Girl With All the Gifts (2016): adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel; directed by Colm McCarthy; starring Gemma Arterton (Helen), Glenn Close (Dr. Caldwell), Sennia Nanua (Melanie), Fisayo Akinade (Kieran), and Paddy Considine (Sgt. Parks): Tight, taut, thoughtful zombie movie adapted by the great novelist and comic-book writer Mike Carey (Lucifer, The Unwritten, the Felix Castor series) from his own novel. 

Barely released in North America, The Girl With All the Gifts presents a world several years into a plague of zombies unleashed by a fungal strain that attacks the human brain. But second-generation 'zombie' children seem to be sentient and 'human' so long as they don't get hungry -- or get triggered to be hungry. Why? 

While biologist Glenn Close tries to cure the disease, Gemma Arterton's school-zombie teacher tries to keep the most tractable and intelligent of the child-zombies happy and educated and non-lethally inclined. A very interesting piece of work, though a lot of the military stuff needed some serious consulting. Or me on the set to yell, "There's no way they'd put a plate-glass window there." Recommended.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940): based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, adapted by Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, and Michael Hogan; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Joan Fontaine (The Second Mrs. De Winter), Laurence Olivier (Maxim De Winter), George Sanders (Cousin Jack), and Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers): Alfred Hitchcock's first American film for hands-on producer David O. Selznick won the 1940 Best Picture Oscar, but Hitchcock was denied Best Director in favour of John Ford on the treacly How Green Was My Valley. Sigh.

Hitchcock said many times over the years that Selznick's interference before, during, and after Rebecca's production meant that the movie wasn't a Hitchcock movie. Critics and historians disagree. I'd say it's about 75% Hitchcock, and I'd say it's the finest Gothic Romance ever put on the big screen. 75% Hitchcock is well over 100% for virtually any other director.

Rebecca is magnificent and melodramatic, shot in high-contrast, moody, threatening Black-and-White per Hitchcock's wishes. Joan Fontaine, her second Mrs. De Winter never given a first name in the movie or originating novel, undergoes a bildungsroman over the course of the movie from timid orphan to self-assured Lady. Fontaine is terrific, supplying the small human touches that make her character feel like a fully realized dramatic character walking through a world of melodrama and comedy turns from supporting players that include the oily George Sanders and the affable, blustery Nigel Bruce.

The set design of mammoth, haunted Manderley mansion and grounds is superbly realized and menacingly shot. The exteriors don't show a real mansion: it's a miniature, and a great one. Tim Burton clearly liked some of the interiors, as he homages several in his two Batman movies.

Laurence Olivier's Maxim De Winter is abrasive and distracted and occasionally filled with rage. It's a solid performance, though Olivier is stuck to some extent playing a version of Ronald Colman, who turned down the movie.

Judith Anderson's housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is the crowning achievement, one of the great movie villains of all time. Bird-like, menacing, unblinking, and always turning up when the second Mrs. De Winter doesn't expect her -- it's brilliant acting and brilliant directorial management of an actor. If the exposition gets a little leaden over the last 15 minutes of the movie -- well, there's always that finale to wake you up again. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Dark Tower (2017)

The Dark Tower (2017): adapted by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Nikolaj Arcel from the series by Stephen King; directed by Nikolaj Arcel; starring Idris Elba (Roland), Tom Taylor (Jake), and Matthew McConaughey (Walter): Shortly before its release, The Dark Tower was called a sequel to the 8-novel+ Stephen King series by its creators. And it actually makes sense as one if you've read the series. 

Is it a great movie? No. It's bracingly short and compact, though maybe 20 minutes' more questing and world-building would have been nice. Idris Elba does fine work as a more tortured Roland the Gunslinger than we see in the novels. Tom Taylor does fine work as Jake, the boy on 'our' Earth who dreams of the Gunslinger and his fantastic quest to save the Dark Tower at the centre of reality. And Matthew McConaughey is suitably smarmy and smug as Walter, the Man in Black who's trying to bring down the Dark Tower in service to his own dark god(s). 

There are Stephen King Easter Eggs galore (Hello, Charlie the Choo-Choo! Hello, Room 1408!). There are rat-men and assorted other servants of darkness. Its weakness is occasionally seeming rushed, though that's better than bloat in my book any day. The Dark Tower also understatedly offers a multi-racial cast, something that seems to have gone unremarked upon the curious critical rush to pan the movie. Oh, well. Recommended.