Friday, December 25, 2009

Jaromir Jagr Superman Mullet

Books:

The Tower by Simon Clark: More horror goodness from Clark. A nascent rock band gets a gig house-sitting "the most haunted house in England" for a month. I'm pretty sure you can figure out the basics of what happens next. Yes, everything goes swimmingly and everyone goes for punch and pie at the end. Well, no. Clark's flair for sympathetic characterization pretty much carries the day here -- it's that more than anything else that causes people to compare him to Stephen King. Recommended.


Penguin American Supernatural Tales edited by S.T. Joshi (c. 2006): As one-volume horror survey volumes go, this is probably the best I've ever read. As always, one notes omitted authors (no Edith Wharton, for example), but in this case Joshi does a terrific job of juggling great but much-anthologized works by major writers (Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" and Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" to name two), lesser-known works by well-known writers ("Night Surf" by Stephen King and "The Events at Poroth Farm" by TED Klein, to name another two), and fine work from semi-obscure major writers (it's always a pleasure to see work by Thomas Ligotti and Karl Edward Wagner, especially work I haven't read before, and a terrific tale by Caitlin Kiernan closes the volume). The whole thing will run you about $13 in trade paperback for over 400 pages of stories and notes, so I'd say highest recommendation.


Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (2nd. edition) edited by August Derleth and somebody else (c. 1980): This anthology of tales by H.P. Lovecraft and others originally appeared around 1970 and then got released again after Derleth's death in the late 1970's with a handful of stories added and some subtracted. The volume gives one a pretty good overview of the growth of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos (not named by him but by Derleth after Lovecraft's death in 1937) from its early 'shared world' status to a veritable cottage industry in the horror world by the late 1970's. The selection here is a bit wonky, primarily because somebody decided we should see the whole literary game of oneupsmanship between the young Robert (Psycho) Bloch and Lovecraft in the 1930's, as first Bloch killed a thinly disguised Lovecraft in "The Shambler from the Stars" and then Lovecraft returned the favour in "The Haunter of the Dark" and then Bloch added a coda in the late 1940's with "The Shadow from the Steeple."

With those two stories and the excellent "Notes Found in a Deserted House", Bloch gets three entries in the collection -- one more than Lovecraft! Clark Ashton Smith's "The Return of the Sorcerer" is another odd choice, though I do love the inclusion of Frank Belknap Long's "The Space-Eaters", wherein yet another thinly disguised Lovecraft gets killed off in a story that only an Evil-Dead-era Sam Raimi could probably do justice to. The inclusion of Philip Jose Farmer's "The Freshman" is nice, as is the decision to include a Fritz Leiber novella I'd never read before, "The Terror from the Depths." All in all, highly recommended for those who like their horror cosmic and occasionally quite verbose.


Comics:

John Byrne's Compleat Next Men Volume 2 by John Byrne with Mike Mignola (1995-96; collected 2008): By the time Byrne created Next Men, then published by Dark Horse and here reprinted by IDW, he already had career-defining runs as artist and co-plotter on the X-Men, and as writer/artist on the Fantastic Four and Superman, on his resume among a variety of other projects. The speculator-fueled comic-book collapse of the mid-1990's ended Next Men two-thirds into its story, though this volume that completes the run does have an ending of a sorts.

This may be Byrne's best work, and it bears comparison with the revisionist superheroic stories like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns that preceded it. With Next Men, Byrne creates a world of plausible superheroes played out within a world of government conspiracies and time-travelling super-villains. Powered individuals are created by a genetic 'trigger' in all humans, intentionally triggered under lab conditions and then uncontrollably spreading through sexual contact. By the year 2112, humans and 'mutates' are at war -- and that's just the beginning of the story (or maybe the end), as we then move back to the 1990's and the liberation of the Next Men from the virtual world their creators have kept their minds trapped within for entire generations of mutates.

The story moves like an angry train towards its (sort of) conclusion -- this is probably Byrne's most tightly plotted comic-book work -- but Byrne finds plenty of time to develop his characters both foul and fair, and to speculate on just how much fun it would be to be invulnerable at the price of losing all physical feeling, or super-strong when that strength makes it almost impossible for you to touch another person. Highly recommended.


Justice League of America: A Midsummer's Nightmare by Mark Waid, Fabian Nicienza, Jeff Johnson and Darick Robertson (1996): This miniseries kicked off the mid-1990's revival of DC's Justice League of America title, a revival which would see Grant Morrison, Waid and primarily artist Howard Porter make JLA a top-selling book again, in part by having it focus on DC's big names (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman chief among them) rather than the revolving-door, increasingly minor hero lineups that always seem to be the fate of any book involving the League. The Justice League confronts a villain old (Doctor Destiny) and new (Know Man) in what reads like a blueprint for the rebooted regular JLA title that would follow. About the only off-putting thing about the whole enterprise is that Superman is still in his ridiculous post-Death of Superman mullet, which he puts into a ponytail when he's Clark Kent. Seriously. It's like DC was gearing up to have a grunge Superman but balked at the last moment, leaving us with early 1990's Jaromir Jagr Superman.


JLA Classified: Kid Amazo by Peter Milligan and Carlos D'Ensa (c.2007): Amazo is one of those JLA-specific villains who's almost impossible to write well. But everyone eventually writes an Amazo story. Amazo is an android designed with all the powers of the Justice League, which begs the question of where this thing is getting all that power from. I don't think anyone's ever answered that question satisfactorily, though better post-Silver-Age writers have either limited Amazo's powers in some way or, in Mark Millar's case, used them to set up a fairly funny superhero joke, as superhero jokes go.

Milligan here goes the route of Amazo possessing the powers of the JLA's big 7 (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter) while Amazo 2.0 -- or 'Kid Amazo' -- is a cyborg who has all those powers too but also possesses the ability to think exactly like all the members of the JLA. This all pretty quickly degenerates into a standard issue grim-and-gritty JLA story that seems as if it were penned in the late 1980's, as the heroes squabble and Kid Amazo (who didn't know who he really was for several years) finds out he's been screwing his 'mother' for several months...and she knew about it. Fun stuff! Amazo's creator gets away at the end and all the heroes act really pissy for much of the story. Milligan's a fine writer on a lot of stuff, but standard superheroes really aren't his forte. Really, really not recommended.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

When Adults Attack

Book:


Blood Crazy by Simon Clark: This novel is a dandy apocalyptic thriller, equal parts Stephen King and John Wyndham with a little New Agey cuckoobanana psychology thrown in. One fine day, everyone everywhere over the age of 18 starts trying to kill everyone 18 and younger. Yikes! The narrative follows protagonist Nick Aten as he first tries just to survive, and then tries to figure out what's going on and why.

The problems of organizing teenagers into viable survival groups allow for some Lord of the Flies-style shenanigans, while the travails of various survival groups in combatting the increasingly organized but ant-like adults also allows for much angst and action. The explanation for the situation reminds me a lot of group and mass psychology tropes from 60's science fiction, especially Dune, Quatermass and the Pit, and a Doctor Who serial called "The Daemons." All in all, a dandy, compulsively readable novel from Clark, whom I grow more fond of with each new novel.


Comics Collection:


Essential Doctor Strange Volume 4 by Roger Stern, Chris Claremont, Gene Colan, Marshall Rogers and several other writers and artists (c.1976-1981, Collected 2009): The relatively brief Stern/Rogers run on Doctor Strange was one of the good Doctor's career highlights. Well, actually anything written by Stern is a career highlight -- he's Doc's second-best writer after Stan Lee. Claremont (long-time X-Men writer) takes Doc a bit too far into the realms of self-pity, but Stern gets him back again.

My only real complaint about the volume (other than the non-ending to the year-long Dweller in Darkness story, caused, I assume, by Stern being replaced by Claremont for a couple of years) is that it features the semi-famous Marvel House Ad from 1981 that promised us Frank Miller taking over the art chores on the book. Now there's a fascinating 'What if?' scenario, as Miller never did make it over to Dr. Strange.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

King, Conan, Bat, Spider

Books:

Under the Dome by Stephen King (2009): At 1072 story pages, Under the Dome is King's longest novel since the complete and unexpurgated Stand came out in 1990 and his third-longest novel overall, also trailing It (1986). King originally started writing the novel back in the 1970's, abandoning it twice before finally starting over to write this one. Thus, the concept of a city trapped under a dome (really more of a capsule extending 47,000 feet up and down) predates The Simpsons Movie (2008). But there were also a number of science-fiction stories and novels that also dealt with such a predicament prior to the Simpsons.

As he did in such novels as The Stand and Salem's Lot, King deploys a large cast of characters for the roving eye of the third-person narrative to examine. The entire town of Chester's Mill, Maine, population about 2000, gets enclosed within a mostly impermeable dome (it allows a small amount of air and water flow, along with all forms of radiation) one October day. Over the course of the next week or so, life under the Dome becomes more and more fraught with problems as the power-lust of a Christian fundamentalist town selectman and the brain-tumour-enabled madness of his son lead to a large-scale reenactment of Lord of the Flies.

King's characters are more well-rounded here than they often are -- the nominal villain, "Big Jim" Rennie, is loathsome but understandable. Small towns and big towns are always afflicted by people like him. The rapid descent of Chester's Mills into chaos and then malign reordering has been especially well imagined by King. For all that, the town's survival or lack thereof remains in doubt until the last few pages, when a human-created wild card combined with the air-retaining qualities of the Dome put the town into the Final Jeopardy round.

For a near-1100-page novel, Under the Dome moves quickly and assuredly to its climax. You'll probably end up liking a number of characters, which makes the ruthlessness of King's narrative -- this is not a novel where all the 'good guys' survive, or even most of them -- all that much more appealing. Perhaps most appealingly, none of King's major characters are writers or artists. After Lisey's Story, Duma Key and Cell, that's something of a relief.



The Essential Conan: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard, edited by Karl Edward Wagner: Even though there are hundreds of Conan books and comic books both new and out-of-print, finding unexpurgated, un-'improved' versions of Robert E. Howard's original stories from the 1930's isn't easy. The successful paperback packagings of the Conan stories from the 1960's edit out the saltier parts along with the most overt sexism and racism.

Beyond that, the editors of the Conan stories for Ace Books also needed to fill as many paperbacks as possible. That's not easy -- there actually aren't that many Conan stories relatively speaking, though in total they probably equal about one Lord of the Rings. Not bad, given that Howard committed suicide when he was 30 and that he wrote more than a hundred stories about characters other than Conan. The editors of those Ace Books 'retrofitted' a lot of non-Conan Howard stories to be Conan stories, changing names and place names, and they also finished up some story fragments and wrote entire stories based on Howard's notes. Howard's original barbarian would eventually be buried under all these additions.

Howard's Conan is indeed the supreme fighter of the movies and short-lived TV series. However, he's also extremely bright, a master of dozens of languages and dialects by his mid-20's, and a highly competent military tactician and strategian. The pre-last-Ice-Age Hyborian world he wanders through is a crazy quilt of countries that resemble historic countries from across the breadth and span of human history -- essentially, dynastic Egypt, 19th-century Afghanistan, Golden-Age Greece and 1000 AD Scandanavia are all contemporaneous. And magic, of course, works.

In this collection, Conan combats a number of menaces human, natural and supernatural. The stories are superior adventures for the most part, and one recognizes certain scenes that the makers of the first Conan movie cherry-picked for that movie, most notably the crucifixion of Conan in "A Witch Shall Be Born." Conan can take punishment with the best of adventure heroes -- in the story, he apparently recovers from being crucified without the aid of magic as he does in the movie.

Howard's prose style is also quite interesting, much moreso than that of most of his imitators. While Howard was relatively young when he wrote about Conan, he was a voracious reader who also apparently swallowed a thesaurus, thankfully after checking the definitions contained therein. The result is prose that moves from the descriptive to the baroque, along with a sense of story structure that grows by leaps and bounds over his short career. If you enjoy fantasy but have only experienced Conan through other media or through various new Conan novels, I'd recommend looking up Karl Edward Wagner's attempt to bring the real Conan back from the 1930's.



Comics:

Secrets of the Batcave by about 100 writers and artists (1940-2001; collected 2007): A fun collection of predominantly Golden Age Batman stories involving the Batcave, its development, and the various trophies found inside. Of primary geek appeal are the stories detailing the origins of the giant Lincoln penny and the robot T. Rex seen literally hundreds of times in the background of hundreds of scenes set in the Batcave over the last few decades. The filmmakers really should get around to giving Batman a trophy room. Because giant pennies are cool.


Essential Spider-man Volume 4 by Stan Lee, John Romita, Jim Mooney, John Buscema and others (c. 1969-1970): The evolution of Spider-man into the most tormented superhero of them all continues apace here as the book zips ever closer to Stan Lee's retirement as a full-time writer. The legendary John Romita does a lot of design and layout work here, though he pencils relatively little of this collection, leaving Jim Mooney and others to ape his style as best they can.

Where original Spidey artist Steve Ditko's Spider-man actually looked like a gawky teenager (well, at least for awhile) and his characters looked at least nominally realistic, Romita's Spider-designs are slick, action-oriented work -- really, the defining Marvel art-style of the 1970's. Spider-man's popularity exploded under Romita's pen, but I much prefer Ditko's art (and his often wonky plots and villains). Still, quite enjoyable, though Peter Parker's angst does get grating after awhile. Subsequent writers would tone this down a bit -- there are times where Parker sounds as tortured and whiny as Lee's Silver Surfer, also being published at roughly the same time as this version of Spider-man.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

If These Are The Chosen, I'd Rather Be Damned...

Movie (Spoilers!!!:

Knowing starring Nicolas Cage and Rose Byrne, directed by Alex Proyas (2009): When this movie goes completely off the rails with about 30 minutes to go, what results is one of the most laughable 30 minutes in bad movie history. And it's not like the first 90 minutes were all that great. Mysterious numbers left in a time capsule from 1959 accurately predict major disasters from 1959 to the present. Can widowed astrophysicist Cage save the world?

Well, no, but he does give a lecture on randomness vs. determinism to his astronomy class that doesn't actually explain either principle correctly. And he does reconcile with his pastor father approximately 30 seconds before a solar flare destroys the Earth. And angelic aliens do save his son and a few other people and animals to populate another Earth-like planet somewhere else. See, it's the story of Noah and the flood. Or maybe Sodom and Gomorrah. Or Adam and Eve. Or something. But the angels travel around in UFOs and, for reasons never explained, disguise themselves as people who can't talk and who drive around in what look to be 1970's era Crown Victorias.

There's a great moment when the aliens take Cage's son, a little girl, and two rabbits onto their spacecraft. Cage isn't allowed to go because he isn't one of the Chosen. Anyway, if this movie had had Captain Kirk in it, I imagine Kirk would have argued the angel-aliens into stopping the solar flare. Given that these beings have a fleet of spaceships and premonitory abilities, I have to figure they could stop a solar flare if they wanted to. So I imagine Kirk giving a rousing speech to the aliens/angels, at the end of which one of the beings says, "OK, we'll stop the solar flare. But we're keeping these rabbits!"

Apparently, Heaven exists, so the six billion people who die go to a better place. I don't remember the people left behind by Noah getting that sort of deal, Heaven not having been invented yet, so there is that. The whole thing ends up playing like one of C.S. Lewis's demented Christian science-fiction novels (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, for those who know only Lewis's Narnia books) in which aliens are actually angels. The aliens also travel around in a ridiculously complex looking spaceship that suggests they had a lot of free time to pimp out their ride while they were waiting for the apocalypse.

For all that, the movie is worth watching. There's a spectacular plane crash about 45 minutes in, and the whole thing becomes so ludicrous that it's enjoyable in a pompously, pretentiously overblown way. It's like an episode of the X-Files reimagined by Jack T. Chick.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Surfer, a Puritan, a Doppelganger and a Sundial walk into a Bar...

Comics:

The Saga of Solomon Kane Volume 1 by Roy Thomas, Doug Moench, Don Glut and about 50 other writers and artists (1974-1994; collected 2009): Dark Horse Comics turns its attention to reprinting the adventures of one of Robert E. Howard's non-Conan heroes. The adventures, originally published as back-ups in various Marvel B&W comics magazines of the 1970's, 80's and 90's, adapt pretty much every Howard story, poem and fragment about Solomon Kane, and also add several original stories to the mix.

Kane was an English Puritan of the 16th and 17th centuries who pledged his life to fighting supernatural evil wherever he found it. In Howard's original double-handful of stories and poems, these adventures take place in Africa, England and Western Europe, though there are references to adventures in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the New World as well. An extremely muscular Christian, Kane does battle with vampires, werewolves, Cthulhoid monstrosities, genocidal last outposts of Atlantis, ghosts, demons, dragons and even Dracula herein. The art is for the most part solid 1970's Marvel style, with one really nice piece illustrated by the great Howard Chaykin and a number of nice 'pin-ups' by artists that include John Byrne and John Buscema scattered throughout.

The overall effect isn't quite as much fun as Howard's original prose pieces, due in part to the cramped nature of a number of stories that try to tell an entire Howard short story in too few pages. The two Dracula encounters embody one of the problems of having an established hero fight an established villain prior to that villain's chronicled 'demise.' Kane, who otherwise bats 1.000 against supernatural menaces, can't dispose of Dracula 300 years prior to the events of Bram Stoker's Dracula, so he doesn't -- Dracula must survive. So the writers content themselves with having Kane defeat Dracula on every other level, including a humiliating pummelling during a sword fight.

All in all, though, this is a lot of fun, and as I believe there's enough Marvel material for another volume, hopefully that volume will be forthcoming in the future as a 'sideline' to Dark Horse's new, more expansive Solomon Kane adventures like "The Castle of the Devil."


The Essential Silver Surfer Volume 1 by Stan Lee, John Buscema and Jack Kirby (1968-1970): The Silver Surfer started comic-book life in the pages of Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four as the herald of Galactus, Galactus being a universe-wandering devourer of the life of 'living' planets. When Galactus came to Earth, the Fantastic Four fought him long enough for The Thing's blind girlfriend Alicia Masters to convince the Surfer that humanity didn't deserve to die, leading the Surfer to switch sides and fight Galactus. After various twists and turns, Galactus left Earth without eating it, exiling the Surfer to our world as punishment for his betrayal. The Surfer's own series picks up where that and a couple of subsequent FF adventures left off, with the cosmically powered Surfer trying to understand humanity.

The Silver Surfer was pretty much a cosmic naif in his early FF appearances, suggesting that he had indeed been created by Galactus sui generis to search out living planets. The Surfer's own magazine quickly altered that concept, giving the Surfer a backstory as a self-sacrificing alien named Norrin Radd from the planet Zenn-La who bought his planet's survival by agreeing to aid Galactus in his search for living planets.

Lee really lays on the bathos and sermonizing with a trowel in the Surfer's own magazine -- this may be the preachiest comic-book on the topic of man's inhumanity to man ever published by a major comic book company. That preachiness works insofar as one pretty has to read the book as a series of late 60's moral homilies spruced up by cosmic action and adventure.

And because the book was originally a double-sized bimonthly, artist John Buscema really gets to cut loose with the art in that more expansive format because the plots themselves aren't really any more detailed than a typical 20-page Stan Lee opus. Thus, with loads of single and double-page spreads and a preponderance of 4-panel pages, we get what I think is probably John Buscema's best artwork. Certainly his most epic, anyway, as the Surfer battles various threats to Earth, the universe and even his own immortal soul at the hands of Mephisto, the Marvel Universe's version of Satan introduced for the first time in the pages of the Silver Surfer. The sermons get a little tiresome, but the whole thing moves quickly.


Prose Books:

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958): Jackson was a master (well, technically mistress) of a sort of understated, sarcastic Gothic/horror style that no one else has ever really done. Her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, managed to present both a terrifying (and pretty much terrifying in an unprecedented way) haunted house operating as both the setting and another character within a novel about the extent to which various types of people can delude themselves, and how those delusions can flow naturally out of a character's social class as much as from individual psychological quirks.

Here, Jackson pretty much eviscerates the American rich of a certain type, possessed of a superiority complex derived from money and station, isolated literally and figuratively from the townspeople nearby, and deluded about what those townspeople really think of them. All this is set against a plot driven by a supposed ghostly warning of the End of the World granted to Aunt Fanny of the O'Hallarn clan. Everyone, Fanny says she is told by the ghost of her robber-baron father, will die except for the O'Hallarns and anyone else inside their massive house on the Night of Judgment. And so the family and its guests set out to prepare for the apocalypse.

Horror lends itself to social satire, and the satire here is about as bleak and black as it gets. Jackson always had a flair for allowing a reader to understand the forces that drive flaws and errors in certain characters without necessarily making one feel sympathy for that character, in part because self-pity is a dominant character trait in so many of here wealthy, pampered protagonists. By the time the end of the world arrives, if it does, there won't be a wet eye in the house.


This Rage of Echoes by Simon Clark (2004): Clark is one loopy horror writer. The central premise of this novel is a concept I've only encountered once before, in a Philip K. Dick story called "Upon the Dull Earth", and there the concept was deployed to much different effect. Basically, a bizarre plague starts transforming people into copies of certain other people. Then these copies try to kill the originals. And other stuff. And the plague starts spreading while also eventually centering on copies of one man, the narrator, who has no idea why this is happening. And then things get weirder, with covert government agencies, aliens and the apparent ghost of a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy being added into the mix.

Clark knows how to write an action scene, and while the novel is bloody and contains some graphic sex, it doesn't resort to the stomach-turning grotesqueries of a lot of post-splatterpunk horror. The plot twists (and the Final Plot Twist) are often so bizarre that they stagger one's suspension of disbelief. It's as if Stephen King worked up a novel based on a Philip K. Dick outline. I enjoyed the novel, but I enjoyed the other two Clarks I've read (Vamphyrric, Stranger) more, though this novel shares with Vamphyrric a certain spottiness of editing that leads to too many repeated phrases and descriptions. I'd almost think the novel had been serialized and then compiled without having the necessary repetitions and reiterations of something in serial form edited out.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Beware of Exploding Vampires

COMICS:

Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days by Neil Gaiman, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Mike Hoffman, Mike Mignola, Dave McKean and others (1988-2005; collected 2005): I'd imagine that someday soon this slim, over-priced collection of Neil Gaiman's non-Sandman, non-miniseries DC work will be replaced by a larger volume that will also include the missing Poison Ivy piece mentioned herein, the lost-and-found Superman/Green Lantern team-up that was initially meant to be the final issue of the abortive weekly Action Comics experiment of the late 1980's, and Gaiman's recent "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"

As is, this is an interesting volume of Gaiman's American comics baby-step, highlighted by the terrific John Constantine one-off "Hold Me" illustrated by frequent Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean. More for completists than anyone else -- you wouldn't want to introduce someone to Gaiman through this stuff, no matter how interesting I might find the Mike Mignola-illustrated Floronic Man short or the Swamp Thing annual featuring Brother Power the Geek.


The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity; How the Whale Became by Mike Carey and Peter Gross (2009): This is great metafantasy in any medium. Over the first five issues of the series (which I'm assuming will be collected forthwith), Carey and Gross begin an epic fantasy involving readers, writers, vast conspiracies, children's literature, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein's creature, Internet message boards, the nature of fandom, messiahs, and one confused man who thinks he's the adopted son of the long-missing author of a best-selling, beloved children's fantasy series about a magical boy named Tommy Taylor. The writer apparently named this son after his famous creation. Or did he?

Gross's art is sharp and deft in its ability to shift across the comics art spectrum from cartoony to mimetic and back again. Carey's been writing much-praised comics for more than a decade now, but I think this his best work by far -- his Invisibles, Sandman or Preacher, if you will. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Boo Radley was a Hero to Most

Inconsequential Tales by Ramsey Campbell (Collected 2007): This was never meant to be a great collection of Campbell's stories, as it's a small-press collection of uncollected stories from throughout his five-decade career. Campbell delivers a typically self-deprecating introduction in which he describes the genesis of each story and his current feelings towards it (usually embarassed or amused). Some of the stories are still better than what most horror writers are ever capable of delivering, and one also gets pretty much all of the science fiction Campbell ever got published in the 1970's. The illustrations don't add much, but this is a somewhat essential collection for any Campbell reader, as one can see his unique prose style developing in fits and starts in the earlier work.

***

Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein (Collected 1985): Klein is both a terrific and a terrifically slow horror writer -- we've been waiting for that second novel since The Ceremonies appeared in 1985, and there's only one other collection of short stories (Reassuring Stories) on his resume. This collection of four novellas probably deserves a spot on any 'Best 100 Horror' list. It may even deserve a mention on Great Fiction About New York, as all the stories deal in one way or another with the metropolis H.P. Lovecraft came to hate back in the 1920's.

The four novellas manage to rework some fairly potent 20th-century horror tropes (and specifically Lovecraft-derived tropes in "Black Man with a Horn" and "Children of the Kingdom") into occasionally brooding, occasionally sardonic 20th-century nightmares. "Children of the Kingdom", with its blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to Lovecraft's alien Mi-Go, evokes the crime, racism and paranoia of 1970's New York in what could be seen as a brilliant reimagining of Lovecraft's paranoid musings on miscegenation and inbreeding. "Nadelman's God" bounces off Fritz Leiber's seminal urban nightmare "Smoke Ghost" with a new (or is it?) god. "Black Man with a Horn" pits a (fictional) friend of the late Lovecraft's against some of the source material for Lovecraft's malign Tcho-Tcho people. "Petey" imagines an Updikean house-warming party imperilled by a large, gooey something that may turn out to be an unlikely punishment for...real-estate fraud?

Brilliant, witty, creepy stuff.

***

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (2004): Showtime's mostly enjoyable Dexter series started as an adaptation of the first Dexter novel, though the two Dexter streams have mostly diverged by now. Lindsay's breezy, first-person novel about a serial killer trained to kill only bad people by his cop foster father is an enjoyable page-turner until the last twenty pages or so, at which point Lindsay gets a bad case of sequelitis and decides to keep one villain around who should really bite the dust. Much of the interest of the novel lies in Lindsay's attempts to create a narrator who's essentially Hannibal Lecter trying to be Batman. It all works, sort of, but Lindsay's reductive approach to serial-killer psychology (everyone traumatized in a certain way in childhood will become a sociopath) would realistically leave us with a global serial killer population that should have cut the general population number to 3 billion people by now and falling fast. An enjoyable waste of time, but I don't think I'll be going back to Dexterland anytime soon.

***

The Compleat Werewolf by Anthony Boucher (Collected 1962): Boucher was the brilliant co-editor of the influential The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1950's and early 1960's before his ealy death from a heart attack. Prior to being an editor, he was a prolific fantasy and science fiction writer himself, and Werewolf collects most of his best work, primarily from the 1940's. "The Compleat Werewolf" is a fairly jolly werewolf novella, in which the typical bloodthirstiness of the werewolf is dropped in favour of a more humourous exploration of what being a wolf with a human mind would be like. Most of the other sf and fantasy stories here operate on the same somewhat amused level with the exception of "They Bite", Boucher's best short story and one of the creepiest horror stories ever written.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Other Wolverine

Comics Collections:

Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine Macalastaire Volume 1 by William Messner-Loebs and Nadine Messner-Loebs (c. 1982-84; collected 2008): Journey was one the great and now unjustly neglected independent comic books of the 1980's. It's a picaresque romp through early 19th-century frontier America (mostly in the Michigan-Ohio area), focusing on the adventures of trapper/hunter/guide/deliveryman/frontiersman Joshua "Wolverine" Macalastaire against the backdrop of the Indian uprising centered on Tecumseh. IDW has collected the entire run of Journey in two B&W trade paperbacks. My only complaint is that the covers aren't collected along with the interior work, but god bless IDW for its ongoing work reprinting some of the best independent comics of the 1980's and 1990's in new editions.

Messner-Loebs is one of the drollest writer-artists the comics medium has ever seen, with a flair for finding genuine humour amidst the darker elements of his story. Journey is also splendidly flexible in its tone, with suspense, horror, humour, adventure and social commentary all working within the tale. Messner-Loebs's art is equally flexible, combining the cartoony with more commonly representational art in a manner that somehow suggests both Will Eisner and, I swear, a strange echo of Bugs Bunny cartoons in some of the character design and staging.

Messner-Loebs is also a deft hand at characterization. Wolverine emerges fairly quickly as a fully rounded, fallible but competent character, but so, too, do the other characters both major and minor, with a particular favourite being Edwin Allyn Craft, Messner-Loebs's fish-out-of-water homage to both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. On the frontier. Craft initially seems like some sort of one-off bit of comic relief, but he really grows on you, as do all the other native Americans, soldiers, couriers de bois, wolves, frogs, bears, ghosts, Sasquatches and assorted other human, animal and supernatural beings that populate this world.

As artful as Journey is, it remains a piece of fast-paced and thoughtful entertainment as well, as gripping and humourous as any comic book I can think of. And it's also the relatively rare comic book that people who don't read (superhero) comic books might actually enjoy. Highly recommended.


Showcase Presents Martian Manhunter Volume 1 (1953-1962) by Jack Miller, Joe Certa, Joe Samachson, Edmond Hamilton and others: One of DC Comics's most venerable second-string super-heroes, the Martian Manhunter was also one of the first new super-heroes of what would come to be known as The Silver Age. Until he joined the Justice League in the early 1960's, all of the Manhunter's appearances were in short (6 to 12 page) back-up stories in the Batman-fronted Detective Comics. Most of these adventures were written by Jack Miller and drawn by Joe Certa, both competent but unspectacular comic-book professionals.

Reading these stories for the first time, I was struck by how ill-served the Martian Manhunter has been by later rewrites and re-rewrites and reimaginings of his origin and powers. When MM -- real name J'onn J'onnz, secret identity name Detective John Jones -- is first accidentally pulled to Earth by an experimenting professor who immediately drops dead, stranding J'onn on Earth, the Martian Manhunter's powers resemble Superman's with some key differences. J'onn is telepathic, can change shape and can turn invisible. Strength-wise, he's obviously not as strong as Superman, while writer Miller never seems to be sure whether or not J'onn can fly -- on a number of occasions J'onn jumps, propels himself with super-breath, flaps his arms (!) or moves his arms like propellers (!!).

For the first four years or so, MM fought crime without revealing himself to the world, a situation pretty much unique in superhero circles. Only well into his career would the Martian Manhunter act more like a regular superhero, visible to all. Subsequent writers would rework J'onn's powers and origins until, by the 21st century, he was a physical match for Superman with extra powers whose real form looked like a cross between Gumby and the adult alien from the movie Alien. His original weakness -- fire depowered him -- would be explained as a psychological ailment common to all Martians.

There's a real and mostly lost comic-book craft to writing and drawing a long series of short stories that don't continue from issue to issue and in which the hero remains (mostly) unchanged. Miller and Certa make the Manhunter a pretty interesting fellow, though it's interesting to see how his appearance gradually alters. In his first appearance, J'onn looks like a green, bald human being with a jutting, almost Neanderthal brow. That brow gradually disappears, though later artists would add it in to foreground J'onn's alienness prior to the whole Gumby thing really foregrounding his alienness. All in all, an interesting read.


Worlds of Tomorrow edited by August Derleth (c. 1954): This relatively short paperback science-fiction anthology from the 1950's has some decent stories (the satiric "Null-P" by William Tenn perhaps being chief and snarkiest among them) and some interesting curiosities. Frank Belknap Long's 1933 far-future dystopia "The Great Cold" is the weirdest of the latter category, detailing as it does a future humanity that's been enslaved by giant, intelligent barnacles. Yes, barnacles. Humanity was getting enslaved a lot by intelligent versions of bees, ants and other creatures throughout the 1930's, so I guess someone had to go the barnacle route. If you read one story about intelligent barnacles this year, it should be this one because I can't recall ever reading another one.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Clark Ashton Smith

100 Bullets Volume 2: Split-Second Chance by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (2001): There's an undeniable gut-level appeal to the basic idea of 100 Bullets. A mysterious group hands people who've been wronged the "undeniable evidence" of who wronged them and how, along with a handgun, 100 untraceable bullets, and complete immunity from police investigation and arrest. The "mythology" of the series starts to kick into high gear in this second volume, as the origins and purpose of The Minutemen -- two of whom are handing out these guns -- and the super-secret Secret Rulers of the World, The Trust, begin to be fleshed out.

It's all fairly gripping. Azzarello has always had a flair for hardboiled dialogue, while Risso's women almost all seem to embody a sort of grimy sluttishness that occasionally gets in the way of any deeper characterization -- he'd probably be the perfect artist for a Mike Hammer comic-book series. I'm not sure I've ever seen a comic book with more panels centered on the female ass in various stages of undress that wasn't simply pornography. As one of those women whose ass gets centre-panel prominence is pretty much the only continuing sympathetic character -- Dizzy -- one's ability to see her as a character and not as an exercise in drawing boobs and butts is severely compromised. Maybe that's the point, but there's something a bit exhausting (and exhausted) about a book where all the women are at least 34D's sporting thongs and hyper-exaggerated fuck-me collagen lips.



The Collected Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith Volume 1: The End of the Story, Introduction by Ramsey Campbell (Collection 2007): Of the writers dubbed 'The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales' in the late 1930's, Smith remains the least well-known and, stylistically speaking, by far the best writer. Smith maintained voluminous correspondence with the other two Musketeers -- H.P. 'Cthulhu Mythos' Lovecraft and Robert E. 'Conan the Barbarian' Howard -- which allowed for the many textual crossovers among the three, most of them centered around Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos as Howard and Smith were encouraged to add gods, arcane books of supernatural lore, and weird creatures to Lovecraft's secondary world.

Unlike Lovecraft and Howard, Smith didn't die relatively young in the late 1930's but lived into the 1960's, though the bulk of his major writing did occur in the late 1920's and 1930's. Smith was a poet, sculptor and painter prior to turning his hand to prose at Lovecraft's encouragement, and may critics find Smith's prose to be both painterly and poetic in its attempts to conjure up alien worlds and alien creatures. And yes, even early in his career, Smith seems to have swallowed a thesaurus. But also early on, Smith modulates his dense and high-minded diction in the interests of portraying true alienation, scenes of wonder, scenes of horror, and even material that can be surprisingly (and intentionally) funny.

It's amazing how many major stories came out of Smith's first few years as a writer. Included here are standouts like "The Immeasurable Horror", "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros", "The Monster of the Prophecy" and "The Devotee of Evil", among others. "Horror" gives us the most monstrous blob of carnivorous goo ever seen in science fiction, while "Zeiros" manages to be both funny and horrible in its depiction of a charming rogue-thief (that would be Zeiros) and a treasure-hunting expedition gone horribly wrong. Smith isn't to everyone's tastes, but those who like him, as the beer commercial went, like him a lot.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

God Was My Financial Advisor

I think there's a certain irony to the fact that the people of the most overtly Christian nation on Earth (the United States, natch) derive so much revenue from two things that are pretty explicitly described as sinful by either The Bible or a long history of Christian teachings: gambling and lending money with interest.

Everything from state lotteries to various ways to make money off the stock market cover the gambling side of things. Even more excitingly, a fairly large chunk of the ongoing financial crisis was caused by gambling ON lending money for interest. I don't think Dante covered that one in Inferno, though he did cover the penalty for giving God the finger.*

If, as people like Jerry Falwell have charged, God used 9/11 to punish the U.S. for allowing homosexuality and promiscuity, then one would think that such widespread gambling and profit-minded money-lending would bring down the wrath of God as well.

Not that I think it did, mind you. If God's wrathfulness exists, evidence would seem to suggest that it must occur entirely post-mortem. Folding Christ's point about rich men, camels and the eye of the needle into things, I'm pretty sure there are a lot of very surprised people arriving in Hell daily.

Well, if I believed in Hell, which I don't.



* Yes, I know Vanni Fucci actually gives God the "fig." Same difference.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Zombie and Son

Stranger by Simon Clark (2003): A fairly enjoyable addition to the quasi-zombie apocalypse subgenre. In what can work as a fairly overt subtext about illegal immigration, Stranger posits a world where a strange illness initially causes virtually everyone in South and Central America and eventually Mexico to migrate north into the United States. At first, those afflicted with the disease (later nicknamed 'Jumpy') are peaceful, but then, as if on cue, they go bonkers and pretty much destroy civilization in the U.S., parts of Canada and, so far as we know, everywhere else on the planet.

Not only do the armies of the Jumpy (soon swelled by those infected in the target countries) kill most normal humans they come across, but they also systematically destroy shelter, food supplies and clean water supplies. And then they congregate in various places to protect something, or a number of somethings, that represent the end-stage of the disease (or whatever it is). We meet the Greg, protagonist, in an isolated community in the northern U.S. that's managed to keep Jumpy out, in part because our protagonist can somehow sense the afflicted, even when they're not showing any symptoms. Various post-apocalyptic shenanigans ensue as Greg and a ragtag group of survivors try to both survive the situation and discover who or what is behind the disease, and what Greg's mysterious connection to the outbreak is, if anything.


The Year's Best Horror Stories Series 1 edited by Richard Davis (1971): This is either the first volume in DAW's long-running Year's Best Horror Stories antholgies of the 70's, 80's and early 90's or a reprint of British Sphere Books' similar anthology series. In any case, it offers an interesting and enjoyable cross-section of horror fiction nearly 40 years ago.


The Living Dead edited by John Joseph Adams (2008): Or, 34 post-1970 English-language stories about zombies. If I were going to come up with guesses as to what prominent horror writers might come up with a story about zombies who eat their living victims' genitals first, Poppy Z. Brite and Clive Barker would probably top that list. Here, Brite doesn't disappoint in "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves", leading me to believe that Brite is the world's oldest distaff giggly 11-year-old gross-out obsessed boy. The anthology weighs a little too heavily on the social satire and commentary side of things and not enough on the actually scary side of things, but there are some gems here. John Langan's "How the Day Drawn Down" combines zombies and Our Town into a surprisingly effective bit of quasi-playwriting, for instance, while Joe Lansdale, Scott Edelman and Joe Hill also contribute stand-outs.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Superman vs. Don Rickles

The Adventures of Jimmy Olsen Volume 1 by Jack Kirby and Vince Colletta (1970-71): One of the strangest occurences in 1970's comic books consisted of DC wresting writer/artist Jack Kirby (co-creator of Marvel's Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers and a slew of other characters) away from Marvel and then apparently having absolutely no idea what to do with him.

This led to a number of fascinating Kirby series that always seemed to get cancelled just as they were shifting into high gear (The Demon, The New Gods, The Forever People, OMAC...). It also led to DC putting Kirby not on the core Superman books but on the failing Jimmy Olsen book for close to two years. Kirby created stuff there (the Cadmus Project chief among them) that would go on to become crucial elements in Superman mythology...more than 20 years later, during and just after the Death of Superman storyline of the early 1990's. Maybe Mark Evanier is right -- Kirby was always ahead of the curve.

The oddest thing about Kirby's run on Jimmy Olsen was that DC, apparently traumatized by a Kirby Man of Steel, got other artists to redraw Superman's face so that it "fit" better with the company-wide portrayal of Superman. Why did this happen? Good question, because Kirby's unedited Superman is as much or more "on-model" as Mike Sekowsky's Superman in Justice League during the 1960's and early 1970's. For whatever reason, what one gets is a lot of characters with Kirby heads and Superman and the occasional Perry White with an Al Plastino or Curt Swan head. Bizarre.

The Jimmy Olsen stuff Kirby did is mostly fun, and it offers glimpses of what Superman would have been like had DC handed the reins to the character to Kirby (hint: dynamic and somewhat offbeat). Clashes with genetically engineered super-mutants abound, including one with a four-armed yellow-guy who wouldn't look out of place in Hellboy. This volume also contains the famous/infamous Don Rickles two-parter. Yes, Don Rickles guest-stars alongside Jimmy Olsen and Superman, though Superman and Rickles never actually meet. Again, bizarre. To quote the tremendous cover blurb on the second part of this team-up, "Don't ask! Just buy it!"


Hellboy Volume 8: Darkness Calls (2006-2007) by Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo: Fegredo nicely combines the moody and the action-packed in taking over for Mignola on Hellboy's art here. Various supernatural nasties -- chief among them the Russian Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless -- take their shots at Hellboy while armageddon continues to move closer. That Hellboy occasionally generates his own sound effects -- yelling 'Boom!' as he punches somebody -- continues to amuse me way more than it probably should.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Comics X 5

Essential Spider-man Volume 6 (1972-74) by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, John Romita, Gil Kane, Ross Andru and others: Not only does this volume supply a lot of the framework for Spider-man movies 1 and 3, but it also introduces the Punisher, Marvel's popular and bloodthirsty vigilante who so far has starred in three woeful movies of his own. Major moments in Spider-man history showcased here include the death of Gwen Stacy, the death of Norman Osborn (the first Green Goblin), and the assumption of the Green Goblin mantle by Norman's mentally disturbed son Harry.

The issues -- mostly written by Conway -- work heroically to expand Spidey's rogue's gallery while also managing to get decent stories out of fairly minor Lee/Ditko era villains (most notably the Vulture and the Molten Man). Contained herein are some of the first Spider-man comic books ever bought for me, which gives this volume a nostalgic tinge. For the record, "my" Spider#1 would be the second installment of the Molten Man two-parter.

Spider-man probably had one of the smoothest writer-and-artist transitions from its initial Lee/Ditko (or for other Marvel books, Lee/Kirby) days. John Romita took over prety dynamically after seminal Spidey artist Ditko left in the mid-1960's, while in this volume, Conway and Wein finally take the reins from Stan Lee without any noticeable drop in quality. On the art side, Gil Kane and Ross Andru start putting their imprints on the web-spinner. Andru, especially, is one of the more under-rated super-hero artists of the 60's, 70's and 80's, with terrific runs on Wonder Woman, Super-man and Spider-man during that time, along with the spiffy first Superman/Spider-man team-up.

Reading these issues now, I'm struck by how much plot and dialogue a normal Spider-man comic book of the far-flung past of 1973 had when compared to most super-hero comic books now, allowing for things like character-building to occur in between the fight sequences.


Showcase Presents the Flash Volume 2 (c. 1960-63) by John Broome, Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino: Fittingly, super-speedster Flash had pretty much the zippiest adventures of DC's Silver Age heroes. His rogue's gallery was the weirdest this side of Spider-man and included such characters as the Top, Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, Captain Cold, the Reverse-Flash, the Pied Piper, 64th-century magician Abra Kadabra and the Weather Wizard. When he wasn't dealing with those criminals separately or in various combinations, the Flash tended to fend off alien invasions.

The whole volume goes down smoothly, and Broome's often loopy extrapolations of the Flash's power (the Flash can control every molecule in his body, to cite one example) keep things fresh and lively. Team-ups with Kid Flash, Green Lantern and the risibly named stretchy superhero Elongated Man also appear.


Showcase Presents Teen Titans Volume 1 (1964-68) by Bob Haney, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Nick Cardy, Irv Novick, Lee Elias, Bill Draut and others: Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad and Kid Flash -- the youthful sidekicks or proteges of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash, respectively -- team up here for adventures that are generally easy on the eyes (Nick Cardy, a really deft and appealing penciller and sometime inker, handles a lot of the art duties here) but sometimes really hard on the old reading part of the brain. Writer Bob Haney, who's generally quite readable on his Batman material of about the same era, seems to have been under orders to make the Titans hip and groovy and, once the Batman TV show hit the airwaves, campy.

The result is possibly the worst writing on any DC book of the 1960's. The only analogy I can think of is Homer Simpson's attempt to be hip with Poochy on the Itchy and Scratchy Show. OK, so who doesn't want to see the Titans disguise themselves as hippies, battle the Mad Mod or take part in various adventures that seem to be thinly disguised ads for Honda motor scooters? The art is terrific, though, and a glimpse of things to come appears in the last story of the volume with Titans uber-scribe Marv Wolfman sharing writing duties with Len Wein on what was, for the Titans of the time, a thoughtful and serious piece about politics and bigotry.


Angel: Blood and Trenches by John Byrne (2009): Byrne's story of Buffy's Angel fighting vampires during World War One is a fun piece done in glorious black, red and white. The art recalls Byrne's similar B&W art on his vastly under-rated OMAC miniseries of the early 1990's, a miniseries I'd suggest you go out and buy right now. Angel isn't quite as compelling, but it's still a fun read with an interesting twist at the end. A warning to the curious: don't read Byrne's afterword until after you've read the comic or you'll spoil the surprise. Certainly recommended for Buffy and Angel fans.



Hellboy Volume 7: The Troll Witch and Other Tales by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell and Richard Corben (2003-2005): After the catastrophic Hellboy mythology building of Volume 6 comes a somewhat lighter collection of standalone stories (though most add something to our understanding of how Hellboy is either going to destroy the world or save it).

Having two of comics' greatest fantasy artists along to illustrate a couple of the stories -- Russell on a light-hearted romp about the vampire of Prague and Corben on an apocalyptic slice of African mythology -- keeps things fizzing along quite nicely. Russell can be one of the funniest -- or maybe drollest -- comic book artists around, and the vampire story plays to that side of his art. Corben's story gives us that distinctive mix of the monumental, the realistic and the matter-of-fact grotesque that's characterized Corben's work since the early 1970's. By this point, Hellboy has become a rarity in horror/dark fantasy stories -- an investigator character who's as interesting as the menaces and mysteries he investigates, a company that would also include Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin and Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer and not many others.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Dark Descent: The Evolution of Horror edited by David Hartwell

The Dark Descent is a peculiarly difficult anthology to review because if it had a different title and reason-to-be, I'd be a lot less judgmental about it. Let's say the title is '60 Horror Short Stories and Novellas that David Hartwell Really Enjoyed.' Fine. I can get fully behind that anthology. So if that anthology were this anthology, contents unchanged, I give it a solid A- and request that in subsequent printings of this enormous trade paperback, TPTB print it on lighter paper.

This is, quite seriously, the heaviest 950-page book I have ever read. My forearms grew three sizes from reading it. It's so big and heavy, it was broken up into not two but three volumes for its mass-market paperback edition (for the record, those paperbacks -- with the titles of the three thematic sections of the HC/TPB -- are The Color of Evil, The Medusa in the Shield and A Fabulous Formless Darkness).

However, this anthology is supposed to be a useful all-in-one-volume survey of horror literature from its beginnings to the present day, the present day being the early 1990's, when the book was published. And as a survey, it's a bit of a bollocks on three fronts.

1) Thematic Organization: Generally speaking, I'd say historical surveys need to follow some semblance of chronological order. You can play with this a bit by having lots of sub-categories with, say, three representative stories in chronological order. Having no discernible order, though, and only three vague categories of horror, really doesn't help the hypothetical reader who's new to horror. I can figure out when certain things were published, sort of, and how they link together, because I've read a bloody awful lot of horror. A new reader can't, and thus can't actually get much of an idea of how M.R. James leads to, say, Robert Aickman.

2) Dates: Unless I missed them somewhere, this anthology doesn't provide a clear and consistently deployed explanation of when the stories were published. This is a really irritating omission, and one easily remedied by putting dates on the various stories.

3) ...But He Sure Loves Robert Aickman: Of the 60+ stories in this anthology, three are by Robert Aickman and three are by Stephen King. So 10% of the history of horror is tied up in Stephen King and some British guy no-one who doesn't read a lot of horror has ever heard of.

This wouldn't be as much of a problem if Hartwell hadn't bewilderingly left out Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson and limited M.R. James to the short and somewhat second-tier "The Ash-Tree." Machen and Hodgson and James are as central to the development of the horror story in English as Dickens and Thackeray and Joyce are to the development of the English novel. Maybe moreso. But they're only represented by one measly James story.

Now, this anthology deserves some love, not as a useful or even decent survey, but as an occasionally eclectic assortment of horror stories. And unlike the woeful, smug Masterpieces of Horror and the Supernatural survey anthology edited by the woeful and smug Marvin Kaye, The Dark Descent confines itself to stories that can actually inspire horror and terror and unease. So kudos to the unlikely but apt inclusion of Thomas Disch's "The Asian Shore", Gene Wolfe's "Seven American Nights", Philip K. Dick's "A Little Something For Us Tempunauts" and Michael Shea's "The Autopsy", among others.

The Terror, the Terror, yawn....

The Terror by Dan Simmons (2006): If there's a preset figure for the number of pages one can read in a lifetime, The Terror ate up 760 pages of that total without giving much back. But being one of those people who will almost always finish a novel, I finished it.

I think I may actually have skipped about 50 pages total in my rush to the end, but I finished it. The whole mess makes Stephen King's extended version of The Stand look like a model of narrative economy by comparison.

The Terror is about the doomed Franklin expedition of the 1840's which set out to find the Northwest Passage with two ships -- the Terror and the Erebus -- and ended with everyone dead. Well, so far as we know. Pack ice and fire destroyed the two ships, and only scattered bodies and camp sites and sledges give any indication of what happened to the expedition, and why.

Historically, the expedition fell prey to two years of being stuck in the ice off King William Island; its own lack of knowledge about how to survive north of the Arctic Circle; the complete lack of a Northwest Passage through the ice; and food poisoning brought on by tinned food prepared for the expedition by a really low bidder. Technically speaking, it's probably the last thing that really ensured the death of everyone involved before any attempt at rescue could get close to the two ships -- inadequate canning and cooking probably more-than-halved the expedition's food supply, which was enough to last for seven years. Botulism, lead poisoning from the lead solder used to seal the cans, and putrid food helped seal the deal.

In the novel, however, a magical polar-bear demon-god-thingie picks off members of the expedition by ones and twos as they sit stuck in the ice pack by King William Island. Starvation, scurvy, lead poisoning, botulism and mutiny take care of the rest. The captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier, alone survives to become a sort of shaman in a legion of Inuit shaman entrusted with the job of keeping the bear-demon from coming too far south. They basically do this by entertaining the bear-demon. Crozier marries an Inuit woman-shaman much younger than himself and goes off to have magical adventures in the far North. The polar bear demon will eventually sicken and die from eating white souls, which are poisonous to it, and the demon's death will cause global warming to begin. The End.

The worst thing about the novel was the repeated regurgitation of research (doesn't that sound like a Stan Lee line?). I knew I was in trouble when one of the Ice Masters shows up for the sole purpose of demonstrating that Simmons has read up on the various Royal Navy terms for ice circa 1847. Or the various scenes (especially funerals) when the book gives us the full name and rank of everyone there. Again and again and again and again and again. Or the number of times the novel sees fit to tell us the same information about a character again and again. I was relieved when John Franklin got killed around page 300 because it meant that I wouldn't be told at length every 20 pages that Franklin was a fanatical teetotaler.

Oh, and the bear demon not only can't be killed by conventional or magical means, it can't even be hurt. Imagine a nineteen-hour version of Jaws in which the shark has a force field around it and you've pretty much imagined The Terror, only with more nautical history and research than three Moby Dicks folded into the mix, all rendered in a serviceable prose style that starts to plod about 200 pages in. Attempts at the poetic and the sublime tend to get derailed into the mundane and the ridiculous by this sort of plain style. The overall effect is that of Moby Dick as reimagined by a pompous newspaper writer.

I also despise the cliched right turn the novel takes in the last 100 pages as it suddenly becomes the story of how a white man 'became' a Native American (well, technically in this case, a Native Canadian). This is not a fruitful literary sub-genre, and is generally the stuff of melodrama (see: Dances with Wolves, Man Called Horse, even Last of the Mohicans). Large swathes of American and Canadian literature have been derailed by the narratives of white people who Learn Better and "become" native people.

Of the magical polar bear, the less said, the better. Ramsey Campbell noted in an essay that "Explanation is the death of horror", and even though it's necessary sometimes, the sudden introduction of Inuit mythology via telepathy 600 pages into the novel was jarring. Campbell does a similar thing structurally in The Hungry Moon, but a lot more interestingly and without providing any clear and definitive answer as to 'what' the long-leggedy beasty of that novel is, while imbuing the telepathic discovery of that knowledge with wonder and terror.

Here, it's like Captain Crozier just got front row tickets to the Encyclopedia of Inuit Mythology. Yippee!

And as I noted earlier, the monster can't be killed, so there's really no point to the whole struggle. Can't even be hurt. But it can be poisoned by the craptastic souls of white people, and when it dies, Global Warming will begin. Hahaha! That is fucking ridiculous!

If you want to read a good Dan Simmons novel, I'd recommend either Summer of Night or Song of Kali. If you want to read a supernatural horror story about the polar regions, go with HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness or John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" or Ramsey Campbell's Midnight Sun. Rent the John Carpenter The Thing. Watch the first-season X-Files episode "Ice." Get really drunk and then try to find a cab in London, Ontario on New Year's Eve. But leave The Terror alone.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea-monsters, Oh my

The Sorrows of Young Werewolf
Wuthering Heights and Werewolves
Gone with the Frankenstein
The Bell Jar Sans Merci
Finnegan's Bloody Wake of Terror
The French Lieutenant's Werewolf
The Incredible Shrinking Man of La Mancha
Howards End of Days
The Hell House of Mirth
The House of Seven Gables on the Borderland
Never Cry Werewolf
Sons and Lovers and Loup-garouxs
The Shoggoth Always Rings Twice
For Whom the Belle Dame Sans Merci Tolls
As I Lay Dying from a Zombie Bite
The Sound and the Fury of Frankenstein
Ethan Frome Must Die!
Middlemarch of the Penguins
George Romero's The Dead
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manimal
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manitou
Undeath of a Salesman
Bring Me the Head of Damaso Garcia
Zombie and Son
by Charles Dickens
Gone with the Wendigo
The Stone Angel of Death