Monday, November 14, 2016

Dark Entries by Robert Aickman

Dark Entries (1964/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "The School Friend" (1964); "Ringing the Changes" (1955); "Choice of Weapons" (1964); "The Waiting Room" (1956); "The View" (1951); and "Bind Your Hair" (1964); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Ramsey Campbell: This is Faber and Faber's reissue of weird-fiction master Robert Aickman's first solo collection of short stories, novelettes, and novels. See also my parallel review of Aickman's The Unsettled Dust.

Aickman amazes insofar as it's very difficult to distinguish between stories written in 1950 and stories written in 1979: his style and subject matter emerge seemingly fully grown and developed. Obviously, they didn't really -- Aickman started publishing in his 30's, after years of work on his art.

For all the strange and disturbing mystery of Aickman's stories and the cool, detailed nature of his prose, Aickman nonetheless often took tired horror tropes and rendered them fresh and new by re-investing them with that unexplained mystery rendered so cleanly and clearly that one feels as if one has simply missed an explanation somewhere in the story: Aickman doesn't create mystery with obfuscations of prose style. You're watching a magic trick performed without smoke and without mirrors.

Take "Ringing the Changes." It's a zombie story. But what a zombie story! Or "The School Friend": is it a Jekyll and Hyde story? Sort of. "The Waiting Room" seems like a traditional ghost story until one gets to the ghosts, whose behaviour is both inert and cosmically threatening. "Bind your Hair" makes witchcraft scary and mysterious. 

These are great, mid-career stories from one of weird and horror fiction's prickly, mysterious greats. Highly recommended.



The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman

The Unsettled Dust (1990/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "Bind Your Hair" (1964); "No Stronger Than a Flower" (1966); "Ravissante" (1968); "The Cicerones" (1967); "The Houses of the Russians" (1968); "The Next Glade" (1980); "The Stains" (1980) [Winner, 1981 British Fantasy Award] ; and "The Unsettled Dust" (1968); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Graham and Heather Smith: 

The Unsettled Dust is a bit of a curiosity in Faber and Faber's recent four-volume reissue of Robert Aickman collections as The Unsettled Dust is a posthumous reprint collection that duplicates one story from both F&F's Dark Entries AND The Wine-Dark Sea reissues ("Bind Your Hair") and two more from just The Wine-Dark Sea ("The Stains" and "The Next Glade"). Given that the F&F volumes are now the only Robert Aickman short-story collections available in mass-market editions, little or no duplication among collections would be ideal.

Nonetheless, any in-print, readily available Aickman is good. He's the master of a fairly rarefied type of ghost story, one for which he preferred the term "strange story." His stories will enthrall a (relatively) small readership. Most of Aickman's stories are too subtle for most readers, leaving them unmoved and confused as to Aickman's importance. And that's fine. He's one of the Boss Levels of horror/weird fiction. 

Those who like him, like him a lot -- but not liking him doesn't make one a 'bad' reader. Indeed, Aickman's hypercritical views caused him to dislike or dismiss many stories and writers considered by many (including myself) to be classics and masters -- almost the entire oeuvre of M.R. James, much of Henry James, all of H.P. Lovecraft, to name three writers whom Aickman found seriously wanting. So if you find Robert Aickman seriously wanting, you're just following in the footsteps of... Robert Aickman.

The stories here are mostly excellent. The one misfire is "No Stronger Than a Flower," a strange story about female vanity that seems both dated and obnoxiously sexist. But that's more than offset by the strange and disturbing wonders of such stories as "The Cicerones." That story is almost a short model of the Aickman approach: the events of the story are rendered clearly and precisely, but no emphatic explanations are offered as to why things are happening. It's immensely disturbing. So, too, "The Stains," in which horror, romantic rapture, and erotic fixation combine in a story about a recently widowed man who falls in love with... well, that's a good question.

In all, this is probably the best Faber and Faber volume to introduce yourself or others to Aickman, covering as it does more than a decade of Aickman's best stories. And when you've read them, please explain to me what the Hell is actually going on in "The Stains." Or "The Cicerones." Highly recommended.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Remembrance

The late, great Canadian poet Alden Nowlan wrote my favourite war-remembrance poem, "Ypres 1915."


"Sometimes I’m not even sure that I have a country.
But I know that they stood there at Ypres 
the first time the Germans used gas, 
that they were almost the only troops 
in that section of the front 
who did not break and run, 
who held the line."

Monday, November 7, 2016

Vampires, Deserts, Forests, and Christmas

Dracula (1931): adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from the play by Garrett Fort adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Tod Browning; starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing): This stagey, bloodless Dracula was a big hit in 1931. It has the hallmarks of early sound film -- that super-heavy, static sound camera pretty much necessitated a nearly immobile, stagey shot. 

Bela Lugosi is great, especially in the first section set at Castle Dracula. Dwight Frye is a hoot as Renfield, the foundational figure for so many crazed characters to come in horror movies. Once the action moves to England, things become a bit tedious. And the censorship people ensure that Dracula dies off-screen with barely an "Argh!" to mark his passing. F.W. Murnau's bootleg Dracula, Nosferatu (1922), is a far superior work, as are many of the later adaptations. Still, Lugosi remains a bracing presence. Recommended.


John Carpenter's Vampires (1998): adapted by Don Jakoby from the novel by John Steakley; directed by John Carpenter; starring James Woods (Jack Crow), Daniel Baldwin (Montoya), Sheryl Lee (Katrina), Thomas Ian Griffith (Valek), Tim Guinee (Father Guiteau), and Maximillian Schell (Cardinal Alba): One of John Carpenter's crappier offerings. Oh, sure, it has its moments. But it's crippled by a totally uninteresting vampire antagonist (Thomas Ian Griffith), sloppy writing, and the perplexing choice to have Daniel Baldwin play a character named 'Montoya,' complete with dyed-black hair to, I suppose, trick the audience into thinking Baldwin is Hispanic. The treatment of women is a bit... problematic, given that women in this movie are either prostitutes or vampires (or in Sheryl Lee's case, both).  I was entertained, but not a lot. Lightly recommended.


Krampus (2015): written by Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields, and Todd Casey; directed by Michael Dougherty; starring Adam Scott (Tom), Toni Collette (Sarah), David Koechner (Howard), Emjay Anthony (Max), and Conchata Ferrell (Aunt Dorothy): Michael Dougherty's ode to Gremlins isn't as good as Gremlins (which was also set at Christmas), which may be more an indictment of studio interference than anything else. Krampus, which visits the Germanic anti-Santa Claus on a small American town that has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, needs sharper editing in its first half, which seems to run on forever while we wait for Anti-Claus to show up.

Thankfully, Krampus and his twisted minions -- horrible snowmen, horrifying toys, homicidal gingerbread men, and a really nice looking evil Christmas-tree Angel -- do arrive to scare and stalk Adam Scott's family, who are too angry and fractious for The True Meaning of Christmas to take hold. There are some lovely effects both mechanical and CGI animating the various monsters, including Krampus itself. And there's a real sense of menace as things roll towards the end.

Depending on one's interpretation, Krampus either manages a treacly happy ending, a slightly menacing happy ending, or a refreshingly bleak ending in which not even a baby is safe from damnation. Seriously. At 100 minutes, Krampus feels about 15 minutes too long and two sugar packets too sweet for some stretches. But I still enjoyed it. I also enjoyed that it offers an odd commentary on this year's U.S. election: Republican or Democrat, Krampus is taking none of your self-serving bullshit if you're committed to a world where only money matters. Recommended.


The Forest (2016): written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai; directed by Jason Zada; starring Natalie Dormer (Sara/ Jess Price) and Taylor Kinney (Aiden): Dull film set mostly in Japan's 'Suicide Forest' (but filmed in Serbia) wastes a solid turn by Natalie Dormer as twin sisters. That this movie is actually inferior to the straight-to-cable, bafflingly titled The Last Halloween/ Grave Halloween is an extraordinary feat of wasted opportunity. Among other things, features characters following a river by walking away from said river at a 90-degree angle. OK! Not recommended.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Reviews Will Return

I've been dealing with the sudden death of my father, Arn Stover, since October 18th. Rest assured that I'll be back soonish. Until then, here's Dad's favourite football-coaching photo of himself...



Monday, October 17, 2016

Horrors Quiet, Horrors Loud

The Thief of Broken Toys (2011) by Tim Lebbon: This lovely, lonely, haunting short novel is a thing of disturbing beauty from Tim Lebbon. There's a Ray Bradbury quality to some of the story elements (especially that eponymous being). But it's the leaner Bradbury of the 1940's, the one capable of horror. 

The loss of a son to an undiagnosed genetic disorder has left the novel's protagonist, the boy's father, in an emotional purgatory as The Thief of Broken Toys begins. His wife struggles to move on -- in part by having left him. He stays at home, for the most part, where he's been for the most part of a year. And then, on one of his nightly walks on the English sea coast, he encounters the eponymous being -- an old man who offers him the ability to heal. Beware strangers bearing supernatural gifts, no matter how seemingly benign!

I don't know that all of the elements work. The occasionally intruding narration speaks to larger things outside the events of the novel, but it never entirely convinced me, or at least convinced me that it was necessary to the tragedy and horror of the story itself. Nonetheless, this is stellar work from Lebbon. 

Technically this is 'quiet horror,' but it's horror nonetheless. And the final catastrophe horrifies without any blood being spilled or tentacled monster making an appearance. Actually, a tentacled monster would probably have been comforting. Highly recommended.


The Keep (1981) by F. Paul Wilson: F. Paul Wilson's first 'big' novel is also his best. A dreadful movie adaptation in the mid-1980's, directed by Michael Mann, got pretty much everything wrong about Wilson's original. The Keep is a clever synthesis of vampire novel, cosmic horror, and high fantasy, though that last bit doesn't become evident until the last 50 pages or so. Its best horror moments come in its first half, while the full nature of the adversary remains hidden from reader and characters alike.

The Keep would soon be folded into Wilson's 'Adversary Cycle,' a six-novel arc that is itself part of a much larger body of work dubbed 'The Secret History of the World' that includes Wilson's multi-volume Repairman Jack series. My version of The Keep ends without any sort of cliffhanger or 'stinger' ending, but this may not be true of later editions of the novel. Wilson rewrote a number of novels to eradicate inconsistencies within both the Cycle and the Secret History.

The genius of The Keep lies in its use of the Nazis as foils to the greater evil growing inside the Keep. It's 1941. Much of the action occurs in an isolated part of Romania where German infantry have been entrusted with taking control of that mysterious Keep. The name itself is a misnomer -- there was never a castle surrounding the structure, and the name was simply attached as a matter of convenience. Why are there unusually designed crosses embedded in the walls of the Keep? Why does anyone who tries to sleep there awake from nightmares of confinement? Who's been paying to maintain the Keep with a long line of well-recompensed villagers from an adjacent village for the last 500 years? And why has the German Army Captain in charge of the Keep telegrammed High Command to ask for help because "something is killing my men"?

Well, there's the novel. Wilson's strongest character work involves the fraught relationship between the German Army Captain and the SS Major sent to deal with the problem. The Captain hates the Nazis, but he's also a loyal soldier. The SS Major is a coward and a sadist who dreams of the money to be made once he takes control of Nazi preparations in Ploesti for the coming Romanian Holocaust. As problems at the Keep continue despite the SS presence, they agree to summon a Romanian-Jewish scholar who's the world's only known authority on the Keep. As the scholar has been crippled by a wasting disease, along with him comes his bright, unmarried daughter.

Props where props are due: that daughter makes for an interesting and unusual character in a horror novel written by a young man in the late 1970's and early 1980's. She becomes the focus of the third-person narrative, and Wilson makes her a compelling figure who wants a life of intellectual achievement in a world where both her gender and her ethnicity stand against any such achievement. While this character is put in jeopardy on numerous occasions, Wilson never makes her a stereotypical female victim. By the climax of the novel, she's one of the two most important characters in terms of opposing the ancient dark force inside the Keep.

As noted, the strongest moments of horror come in the first half, as a mysterious, unseen force stalks the Keep. But the revelation of the horror doesn't immediately deflate the narrative of its mystery: the creature explains what it is, but there are odd gaps and curiosities in its story. And the discovery of a cache of Lovecraftian banned texts points the way towards an explanation that has nothing to do with vampires or werewolves or ghosts. And they are literally Lovecraftian texts, the Necronomicon and a number of other fictional 'banned' books mentioned by H.P. Lovecraft and his fellow Cthulhuists over the years in a nod by Wilson to his American horror forerunners.

Once the novel passes that midway point, elements of a more conventional thriller begin to blend with elements of both dark and high fantasy. There are even riffs on the sort of material made popular by The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard's Conan series. But Wilson also keeps things rooted in the historical setting of 1941 Eastern Europe, with the seemingly unstoppable Nazis about to embark on their betrayal of the Soviet Union. It's a relatively long novel, but it's briskly told in Wilson's competent, unflashy prose.  To nod to an old chestnut, if you read one novel by F. Paul Wilson, it should be this one. Highly recommended.

Very English Horrors

The Black Country (2013) by Alex Grecian: Enjoyable mystery set in England's coal country in 1890. The characters are engaging, though the central mystery will be familiar to anyone who has read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008) by Kate Summerscale. Grecian adds a second mystery to the mix, albeit one linked to the first. Apparently not finding the generally well-portrayed oddities of the coal-mining town and its superstitions to be diverting enough, he also throws in several sections set at the horrifying Andersonville POW camp run with murderous efficiency by the Confederacy in one of those historical foreshadowings of the Holocaust. 

Just to lighten things up, Grecian adds a lot of low-level comedy to the relationship of the two Scotland Yard detectives sent to the coal town. He even throws in a lovable, mentally handicapped giant. And a scar-faced mystery man. And an abandoned baby magpie which first one detective and then the giant try to nurse back to health. And village superstitions attached to a mythical monster called Rawhead and Bloody Bones. And a mysterious disease sweeping the village. And a cinematic climax, first above and then below the ground in the village as it is wracked by subsidence caused by over-mining. 

We even get a final few lines that will remind the reader of either the forced comedy that seemed to end every 1960's and 1970's American TV drama no matter how dire the preceding events -- or the parodic endings of every episode of Police Squad (a.k.a. the TV show that the Naked Gun movie series continued). It's a diverting novel, though the setting seems under-served by the novel's pedestrian yet over-stuffed ambitions. Lightly recommended.


The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World (2006) by Steven Berlin Johnson: Engaging, sweeping examination of England's last major cholera outbreak in London's Broad Street neighbourhood near Soho in 1854, and how two men ensured that England would never suffer from a cholera outbreak again. Medical Doctor John Snow and Anglican curate Henry Whitehead, both of whom lived near the outbreak, would form a somewhat unlikely Dynamic Duo whose detective work and scientific acumen would convince the medical and civil authorities of London that cholera was a disease spread by contaminated water and not, as then-standard wisdom had it, by 'miasmic' gases.

Much of the book is marvelous and humane, explaining the rise of cholera to being one of the world's great killers over the course of the last 200 years. Along the way, The Ghost Map also delves into the development of epidemiology, safe sewer and water-supply systems, and the toxic Social Darwinism that helped blind Victorian England to the true cause of cholera in its cities. The book also offers a tour through London's underground economy of night-soil men and cat-meat men and coster-mongers and 'pure' collectors (pure was a euphemism for dog shit), and their roles in keeping the 'above-ground' world running.

You'll also visit the horrifying cess-pits and cesspools and streets of 1854 London. You'll discover why alcohol, tea, and coffee were all integral to the urbanization of the world. But mostly you'll deal with these two heroes of science and rationality, Snow and Whitehead, as they individually and then dually seek an answer to the Broad Street Outbreak. 

Only in the last 20 pages or so does Johnson waver, as he suddenly takes the book so wide as to attempt to convince the reader that the world will be a better, more environmentally friendly place when everyone lives in cities (not suburbs -- cities proper). It feels like the beginning of a different book, one whose enthusiasm for urban living and disdain for rural living comes gushing straight out of its author and onto the page. All it really lacks is the line, "Since the beginning of time, man has longed to evacuate the countryside!".

But other than the writer's book-derailing, evangelical rant about the Great Goodness of Cities, The Ghost Map is terrific, informative, sad, and hopeful. Lift your glass of clean drinking water to Snow and Whitehead, who defeated an invisible enemy 30 years before humanity could reliably find cholera under a microscope. Highly recommended.