Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Rosedale Horror (1980) by Jon Ruddy

The Rosedale Horror (1980) by Jon Ruddy: This Canadian paperback original from defunct Canadian paperback imprint Paperjacks is shocking in its goodness. It's a haunted-house story with a twist, set in Toronto's tony Rosedale neighbourhood in 1974. Ruddy was a long-time newspaper reporter, and it shows: he grounds all the horror elements in detailed, specific, and often quite funny and illuminating glimpses of life at a failing Toronto newspaper in the 1970's. 

The specifics of newspaper work on a variety of fronts from daily news columnist to police reporter to freelance writer give the proceedings a real verisimilitude. That the book is often scathingly funny about life at a tabloid and about Toronto the Good really helps things.

Ruddy also carries off a difficult bit of structure. The Rosedale Horror is told in six sections, each focused in the third-person on a specific character, though there is also some first-person narration by way of a tape recorder. And it all works both as characterization and as a builder of suspense.

There are elements in the text which at times seem sexist. Some of them fall into the realm of a sort of R-rated Leacockian satire directed at certain men and women alike, including a female relationship columnist and a male news columnist. Ultimately, the novel isn't sexist, though some of its characters are sexist and, in a couple of cases, somewhat predatory.

Ruddy manages several scenes of horror shot through with the occasional bit of grotesque humour. That tape-recorded first-person monologue is one of the two deftest bits of horror, revealing gradually a mind both ill and toxically malign. A rape scene also manages to horrify without seeming exploitative -- no small feat in any novel, and Ruddy amplifies the effect by having the rapist himself under the malign mental influence of something awful.

The Rosedale Horror certainly has its pulpy elements, but they never undercut the horror and the comedic in Ruddy's novel. As both horror and pointed, satiric social commentary, The Rosedale Horror is far superior to many, many novels I've read by far more celebrated authors. It's also hard to go wrong with a novel in which a character is murdered by being telepathically forced to urinate on the third rail of the Toronto subway line. Recommended.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Northern Frights 3 (1995): edited by Don Hutchison

Northern Frights 3 (1995): edited by Don Hutchison; contains the following stories:

Wild Things Live There by Michael Rowe
Silver Rings by Rick Hautala
A Debt Unpaid by Tanya Huff 
Imposter by Peter Sellers 
Exodus 22:18 by Nancy Baker 
The Suction Method by Rudy Kremberg 
Sasquatch by Mel D. Ames 
Grist for the Mills of Christmas by James Powell 
Tamar's Leather Pouch by David Shtogryn 
Snow Angel by Nancy Kilpatrick 
The Perseids by Robert Charles Wilson 
Widow's Walk by Carolyn Clink 
If You Know Where to Look by Chris Wiggins 
The Bleeding Tree by Sean Doolittle 
The Dead Go Shopping by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime 
Family Ties by Edo van Belkom 
The Pines by Tia V. Travis
The Summer Worms by David Nickle 

Solid third volume in Canada's Northern Frights series of mostly original anthologies has one moment of editorial fright early on -- not only is the Table of Contents regrettably centre-justified, but it lacks page numbers for the stories. What the H?

The stand-outs include "Wild Things Live There" by Michael Rowe, a dandy bit of horror that anticipates some of the horrors of Laird Barron's terrific series of stories about the Children of Old Leech while remaining steadfastly Canadian -- the story even involves a migration from Ontario to British Columbia by, well, some things. Oh, Canada!

Another fine story is "The Perseids" by Robert Charles Wilson. Wilson is known as a highly regarded Canadian writer of fairly 'hard' science fiction. Here, some of that scientific and astronomical 'hardness' is present in what is otherwise a subtle, unnerving piece of cosmic horror. Or at least cosmic weirdness.

"If You Know Where to Look" by Chris Wiggins is also a nice piece of dread set in the Maritimes and involving a Scottish legend that seems to have migrated to Nova Scotia along with the Scots. And yes, he's that Chris Wiggins, Canadian actor. And he really shows an ear for believable dialogue and dialect in this story.

None of the stories are duds, though there are a few bits of whimsy that don't work as horror, weird, or whimsy. Editor Don Hutchison does his normal good work, even without page numbers on that Table of Contents. Recommended.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Strangers (1984) by Mort Castle and Under the Lake (1987) by Stuart Woods

The novel sez Strangers got red auras... 
The Strangers (1984) by Mort Castle: Depressing, nihilistic, pointless, nauseating, and a tad rapey horror novel that ends where it should have begun. 

Technically, Mort Castle isn't a bad writer. Indeed, just from this brief exposure I'd rate him above beloved horror writers that include Richard Laymon and Douglas Clegg. But this is one of those horror novels that some people might confuse with splatterpunk given the violence. It isn't -- sociologically, it's about as reactionary a thing as one can find in the horror genre. 

Bad things happen because a small percentage of people are Strangers -- bloodthirsty psychopaths who pretend to be normal people as they await The Time of the Strangers. While waiting, they account for pretty much all human atrocity in the world. Luckily, you can spot them by their Auras! Well, not luckily, because no one's going to do much of anything productive in this novel who isn't a Stranger. If you enjoy a pointless catalogue of atrocities and boring characters who are either monsters or victims, this is the novel for you. Not recommended.

Under the Lake (1987) by Stuart Woods: Jesus, what did Stuart Woods have on Stephen King, Pat Conroy, and Andrew Greeley to get the glowing back-cover quotes this novel received? Woods still writes, so far as I can tell, in the thriller genre. That's probably a good idea. Ostensibly a Southern Gothic ghost story, Under the Lake wanders off into ill-advised thriller territory when it should be developing its more gothic elements. Why pay off on atmosphere when you can have a couple of pitched gun battles and an exploding plane? Why indeed. 

There are brief moments of interest here, but the horrific revelation towards the end lands with a dull thud. After all the perfunctory murders, seances, incest, and mopey drunk writers, this is all there is? An unpleasant bit in which a 12-year-old girl is presented as a sexy, sex-starved sexual predator really, really, really doesn't help things. Not at all. Not recommended.

Sinister 2 (2015)

Sinister 2 (2015): written and created by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Ciaran Foy; starring James Ransone (The Deputy), Shannyn Sossamon (Courtney Collins), Robert Sloan (Dylan Collins), and Dartanian Sloan (Zach Collins): Any and all name actors having been eradicated in the first movie (or in between the first and second movie in the case of Vincent D'Onofrio's literally phoned-in professor in Sinister), Sinister 2 comes across as comfortably anonymous. 

That's a good thing for some horror movies, this one included. Bughul the demon still remains regrettably visualized from the neck down, the scary face of the early scenes of Sinister burdened with a blazer-and-pants combo that suggest the Sumerian boogeyman just got off his yacht and is about to offer the viewer a gin-and-tonic. But the performances by the kids are pretty good, Shannyn Sossamon has a sweet desperation to her character, and James Ransone brings a goofy charm to the hero of this one. 

Yet another stupid 'stinger' ending ruins some of my good feelings towards this movie. Stop it, horror movies. Stop it right now. In a demonstration of 'less is more' in horror, the scariest scene in the movie involves a ham radio's creepy broadcast. Recommended.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

21st Century Horror Comics

Severed (2012/Collected 2013): written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft; illustrated by Attilla Futaki: This dark, often Bradbury-esque road story, set in early 20th-century America, is a mostly solid piece of horror from Snyder, Tuft, and artist Futaki. The first half or so seems more compelling than the second, possibly because the graphic novel jettisons its most interesting character about halfway through. And it does so in a way that makes no sense in relation to how that character has been developed to that point. 

After that, about one issue's worth of material gets smeared across three issues of pages, like too little butter scraped across too much bread (thanks, Tolkien!). Futaki's art is moody and horrifying when it needs to be, though he has a devil of a time maintaining consistency with the faces of the main characters. The monster is horrible, and he gets to deliver a lengthy speech about why he's horrible. Recommended with some reservations.

The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft (2009/ Collected 2010): written by Mac Carter; illustrated by Tony Salmons and Adam Byrne: Something of an oddity, this -- a comic book about H.P. Lovecraft that plays extremely fast and loose with the actual details of his life so as to turn him into a forlorn Romantic who hates his home town of Providence. It's part of that large and often annoying corpus in which both Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos co-exist in actuality, simultaneously. 

However, it's not a documentary, so one goes along with Lovecraft the unrequited lover of a sexy Providence librarian in the early 1920's, or doesn't go along, depending on how compelling the story is. And it's not a terrible story -- Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows' superior Providence has pretty much the same basic set-up, with HPL as the gateway for the Old Ones. Their HPL resonates with a careful attention to actual history, though: this one gets boring every time he gets lovelorn and mopey, and that happens a lot.

Artist Tony Salmons is great with the goopy, tenticular horrors of the story. The lay-outs sometimes get away from him (is this a scripting problem or an art problem?), causing several pages to become incomprehensible. Having Salmons handle the more outlandish moments and another, more normative artist handle the day-to-day material might have resulted in a much more interesting book. Still, I've always liked Salmons -- boring he is not.

Mac Carter's writing comes and goes. Lovelorn, Providence-hating HPL is a tough sell to anyone who's read much of anything about or by Lovecraft. Actual quotes from HPL weave in and out of the narrative, mostly effectively except when they highlight how much better a writer HPL was than Mac Carter is. A jokey quality undermines many scenes, eradicating horror. Very lightly recommended.

Outcast Volume 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him (2014/Collected 2015): written by Robert Kirkman; illustrated by Paul Azaceta: The TV series adapted from the Outcast comic series has so far been very faithful to the comic, which I guess is what you get when the comic book's creator controls the TV show. The first six issues here are a nice, under-stated piece of horror that gestures towards the epic that awaits just over the horizon. Kirkman's writing is sharper here than it has been for years on The Walking Dead: supernatural horror without zombies seems to have reinvigorated him.

Paul Azaceta's art is what we once called European before David Mazzuchelli drew Batman: Year One: understated and representational, sometimes a bit too understated and too much like late 1980's Mazzuchelli. Still, it's mostly lovely work, much of it rendered in subdued and mournful colours. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961-1971

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961-1971 (2014): edited by S.T. Joshi: Essential, informative, and educational reading for any reader of horror, and especially for those who admire both H.P. Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell.

August Derleth was a fantastically important editor and publisher in the realms of the weird. He kept H.P. Lovecraft in print, in book form, for decades until the rest of the world started catching up with the Cthulhu Mythos. And he also published the first book by Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell after Campbell started corresponding with Derleth back in 1961.

In 1961, Campbell was 15. His first collection -- The Inhabitant of the Lake -- would come out from Arkham in 1964. And while the precocious Campbell's early works would be Lovecraftian pastiches not-dissimilar to some of Derleth's own work, Campbell's growth curve as a writer was startlingly steep. By the late 1960's, his voice was uniquely his own and he'd helped pioneer a new approach to visionary horror.

Derleth and Campbell carry on a lively, wide-ranging correspondence for ten years, though the last three years are a bit spotty because many letters have gone missing. While thoughts on horror are the main attraction, Letters to Arkham also offers a glimpse into the cottage industry that was Arkham House. We also learn just how prolific Derleth was as a writer. And a lover, though some of that may be taken with a grain of salt.

As Campbell notes in his afterword, he was something of a fan-boy in his early letters. But that element gradually slips away, leaving the reader with a dialogue between two friends who never met in person. Their debates on the merits of everything from Peter Sellers to Samuel Beckett are lively and fascinating. Derleth functions as a mentor figure for Campbell throughout their correspondence when it comes to writing and, more generally, living. 

And we find out that Derleth took to the Wisconsin woods where he lived every May to collect morel mushrooms. Thousands of them, their number dutifully reported each year. Fungi from Wisconsin. How Lovecraftian is that? Highly recommended.