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...


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


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.