Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dark Victory


Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (2010): King's third quartet of previously unpublished novellas isn't as strong as the first (Different Seasons, which gave birth to three superior King movie adaptations: The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Stand by Me) but is stronger than the second (Four Past Midnight). Like Neil Young, King keeps rolling along, taking creative risks at an age when most writers are in their dotage, all without really altering that distinctive Kingian narrative voice: colloquial, perceptive, clear-eyed and often appalled.

The collection begins with "1922", a grim tale of Dust Bowl murder and (possibly) supernatural vengeance. What a terrific movie this would make if the Coen Brothers could be tapped to adapt it! There's a touch of King's early revenge-horror novella "Nona" (c. 1980) in this story of a farmer who murders his wife in order to save his land and ends up losing everything in far worse ways than would otherwise have occurred. King yokes the story to two venerable horror-narrative tropes -- the confession written under supernatural or psychological duress, and the newspaper-article coda that either confirms or problematizes everything we've read. The first-person narrator is a solid creation; one could eaily use this story to teach the concept of unreliable narration to a group of bored undergrads.

Next is "Big Driver", a relatively familiar tale of vengeance. A minor mystery writer gets waylaid, raped and left for dead by a serial killer. But she survives, and rapidly pursues personal vengeance. There are some nice touches here, mainly lying in the protagonist's struggles with her own need to get personal payback.

A second tale of woman vs. serial killer closes out the volume. In "A Good Marriage", a 50-year-old wife who's been married for nearly a quarter of a century discovers that her husband is a notorious serial killer (as opposed to the non-notorious type, I guess). This novella takes some surprising twists and turns, and again the female protagonist is drawn clearly and sympathetically. Her reactions to the situation seem natural and unforced throughout, and her solution to the problem fairly sensible. The semi-retired police detective who enters the story towards the end reminds me a lot of Lieutenant Kinderman from the Exorcist movies and novels, a nice grace note.

The most minor of offerings here is the third novella, so short as to almost be a short story: "Fair Extension," in which a man dying of cancer makes a deal with the devil to prolong his life. The action here chugs along with inevitability, the horror not so much arising out of the cost of such a deal but from the seemingly casual way in which King reveals the loss of the protagonist's soul, a loss the character remains unaware of throughout.

This story hews most closely to King's 'subtext' theory of horror (or at least some horror), in which the surface value (a deal with an actual devil) is a stand-in for something 'real' (the ways in which people get ahead and, in doing so, casually and cruelly harm both the people they know and the people they don't). The devil here is equal parts Leland Gaunt from Needful Things and the man in the black suit from "The Man in the Black Suit." Like Ray Bradbury's sinister carnival owner in Something Wicked This Way Comes, this devil claims not to be buying souls at all, though the results suggest he's lying.

All in all, Full Dark, No Stars made for a good weekend spent with Mr. King. This isn't King's grimmest volume (that would probably be Pet Sematary), but it's awfully close. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cthulhu on the Gulf Coast


South Park: Coon and Friends Three-Parter: I'd guess this three-parter will get its own DVD release in the near future, just as Imaginationland did. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have managed, for what seems like the millionth time, to combine topical satire (of BP and, much more recently, LeBron James's 'What should I do?' Nike ad) with hilarious and rigorously worked-out fantasy. Because for the first time in South Park history, H.P. Lovecraft's ultrapowerful dark "god" Cthulhu makes an appearance.

The Cthulhu Mythos material that spans the three episodes is fairly true to its sources, and in its weird way more respectful of Lovecraft's Mythos than a lot of "straight" takes on the subject. And of course the Goth kids and Cartman would be on Cthulhu's side. And of course Kenny's white-trash parents would have once accidentally belonged to a South Park Cthulhu cult because free beer was offered at the meetings.

Can the world (and specifically hippies, Jewish people and Whole Foods Markets) survive the wrath of Cthulhu and Cartman? Does Kenny's inability to stay dead somehow tie into the Mythos couplet "That is not dead that can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die"? Thank the Elder Gods for Mysterion and Mint-Berry Crunch!!! Brilliant and essential viewing. Highest recommendation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Secrets and Histories

Novels:

Ground Zero: A Repairman Jack Novel by F. Paul Wilson (2009): I've somehow avoided reading F. Paul Wilson novels until recently, perhaps because the film version of his novel The Keep was so traumatically bad that I subconsciously avoided Wilson's longer works. The Repairmen Jack novels tie into Wilson's Secret History of the World cycle of novels and stories, the major events of which are part of the Adversary Cycle, of which The Keep is one novel. The climax to these series has already been written (Nightworld), but will apparently be rewritten and re-released once the last two Jack novels appear in the near future.

The interlocking cycles cannily play with conspiracy stories, Lovecraftian alien 'gods' and lost civilizations. Repairman Jack -- Jersey born and bred, Manhattan residing -- is a knight errant 'fixer' of people's problems who finds himself drawn increasingly into the secret, universal war between The Ally and the invading Otherness. The Adversary -- Rasalom by name -- is a millennia-old servant of the Otherness, working tirelessly to bring about the corruption of the Earth, opposed throughout history by various champions.

Ground Zero pulls the events of 9/11 and the Truther movement into the massive, pan-historical conspiracy that underpins the Jack and Adversary stories. For a late novel in a lengthy series, it's extremely reader-friendly -- I was able to jump onboard without much effort, and the suspense and horror of the novel (along with its fascinatingly wonky explanation for 9/11) make we want to read more of Wilson's novels. Highly recommended.



Scavenger by David Morrell (2007): Morrell's emotionally wounded hero Balenger, from the earlier thriller Creepers, returns here in a fast-paced, thoughtful novel involving some truly interesting and odd facts about time capsules and video games. One might think that a thriller that uses the history of time capsules as a major plot element would be a tad boring, but Scavenger is anything but. One of Morrell's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to make 'real-world' information a fascinating part of his thrillers.

Here, the history of time capsules made me want to know more about such ambitious projects as The Crypt of Civilization. Even better, time capsules work really well when tied into the video-game elements of the novel: a criminal mastermind sets several people on the trail of a lost thing known as the Sepulcher of Worldly Desires, a hidden memorial from the end of the 19th century that may explain how the residents of a mining town in the Rockies simply disappeared one winter, leaving no clue as to their whereabouts.

The hunt for a hidden item is a key element in many video games, as are the sort of trials and tests that await the various characters. The mastermind himself also has aspects of the traditional Dungeon Master figure of Dungeons and Dragons. Of course, these plot elements would be irrelevant if Morrell weren't capable of creating sympathetic, believable characters. He does that, while also supplying a 'set-piece' climax that combines horror with suspense. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Six-Gun Justice


Shadow Kingdoms by Robert E. Howard (1927-29; collected 2005): This collection reprints many of Howard's pre-Conan stories and poems for Weird Tales. Boy, did he publish a lot of poetry! And the poetry isn't bad, all things considered, and it's certainly of a piece with Howard's prose work: lots of lost kingdoms and ghosts and monsters. This is not Emily Dickinson.

On the prose end of things, Howard arrived on the scene surprisingly close to fully formed. He'd become a better prose stylist over the next ten years of his tragically short writing career and life, but his interests are all pretty much here. Ancient kingdoms, solitary heroes, the general depravity of all races other than Caucasians, the primacy of violent action over thought...yep, it's all here. Two of Howard's pre-Conan heroes, Puritan monster-fighter Solomon Kane and Atlantean-born King Kull of time-lost Valusia, make their first appearances here. Several horror stories also appear, one of which features Howard at his worst, trying to write British dialogue. It's bally ridiculous, blighty!

The short novel "Skull-face" dominates the collection in terms of length. The eponymous villain, an odd mix of Fu Manchu and Howardesque/Lovecraftian elder race (he's even called Kathulus!), seeks to unite all the non-white races to destroy the white race. Everyone, regardless of religion or culture, is pretty much immediately on-board with this because non-whites are a treacherous lot. Racially speaking, the story is godawful, so godawful that it becomes funny by the end. Vaguely Oriental women (Howard's definition of the Orient pretty much stretches across the entire non-white globe) are occasionally OK, just so long as they're not black.

Howard's gift for narrative drive overcomes the loathsomeness of his subject matter, but only barely. I really felt like I needed a shower after "Skull-face." It's about as guilty a pleasure as one can get unless you're a member of the Aryan Nation, in which case I guess it would be a documentary. But within this volume, Howard also would give Solomon Kane a super-powerful, super-helpful African medicine man as what would be Kane's only recurring ally in the war against supernatural evil. Howard definitely did contain contradictions. This isn't, for the most part, great Howard, but most of the works reprinted here are compelling. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Horror and War

Books:Nailed by the Heart by Simon Clark (1995): I'm pretty sure this is the prolific and gifted Clark's first novel. As debuts go, it's a dandy. Clark's strength as an idea man in all his novels is, basically, what I think of as the ability to 'turn left.' What one thinks is going on isn't what's actually going on, and Clark isn't afraid to go with wild and wooly explanations for the supernatural events in his novels. That he's a deft hand at characterization on the fly doesn't hurt either -- like Stephen King, Clark gives the reader sympathetic, flawed characters trapped in extraordinary circumstances.

Here, a young family purchases an old sea fort on the east coast of England with the hopes of turning it into a hotel. The view is spectacular, as is the fort itself. The residents of the adjacent small town are friendly enough, though no one's all that happy about the fort being occupied again. And then, of course, things start to happen. In ancient times, the site of the fort was a pagan holy place. Now, something seems about to visit. More than one something.

There are monsters here, though not all the supernatural forces are monstrous. Old and new human evil drives the plot, while terrible and pitiful things come out of the sea. Clark's later novel Darkness Demands forms a companion piece to this one, as both are concerned with the sorts of sacrifices old gods demanded of their followers. There are a few rough patches of prose here, but overall Clark produced a really admirable first novel. Recommended.



Books:
The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20 (2008) edited by Stephen Jones (2009): The sad, early death of American writer and anthologist Karl Edward Wagner in 1995 ended Wagner's superlative series of DAW Books Year's Best Horror anthologies. Jones's series has picked up the slack in recent years. With a larger, longer format, the Mammoth series can include more story pages than DAW ever could, and supplement them with detailed 'Year in...' sections and an exhaustive necrology for the year in question.

This all leads to the old 'If you buy one horror anthology this year...' chestnut. This year is no exception. Entries from big names that include Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell sit alongside excellent stories by lesser known writers (to me, anyway). Horror today seems perpetually on the cusp of being drowned by lame series novels about vampires, werewolves and zombies; the Mammoth anthology is one antidote to this feeling. Cleverly imagined new horrors and cleverly retrofitted old horrors abound. Also one sinister Hobby Horse, a Cthulhu by way of Robert Service piece, and a disturbing reverse werewolf. Highly recommended.


Comic:



The Losers, written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, inked by Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry (1974-75; collected 2009): Among the many oddities of Jack Kirby's early 1970's tenure at DC Comics was his 12-issue run on Our Fighting Forces, a WWII book starring four C-List DC war comics heroes (Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge) collectively called The Losers (the name would later be used for the ex-CIA team comic adapted into the 2010 movie).

Kirby served in Europe in WWII, so there's a certain amount of verisimilitude herein, but it's Kirby's wild imagination applied to the traditional war comic that yields most of the pleasure here, whether in big two-page action spreads or in a series of fascinating supporting characters and odd but vaguely plausible stories that touch on everything from the 1936 Berlin Olympics to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to a science-fiction fan PFC with a science-fiction plan to destroy a massive piece of Nazi artillery. The stories boom along, thrilling and over too soon. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Esperanto A-Go-Go


Movie:

Incubus, written and directed by Leslie Stevens, starring William Shatner (1965): Original Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens decided to do a horror movie after the cancellation of that seminal anthology show, with cinematographer Conrad Hall and composer Dominic Frontiere coming along with him. The result was Incubus, starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner and no one else I've ever heard of. A small town in a vaguely unreal setting is menaced by succubi serving the Devil. They send bad men to their damnation. But can one of them corrupt saintly war hero Shatner?

Oh, and everyone speaks Esperanto, the constructed language that was meant to help bring about world peace through everyone speaking a global language. There are sub-titles. Still. Esperanto? Leslie Stevens had balls! Esperanto's synthesis from a number of other 'real' languages makes it either eerily off-kilter or eerily goofy, depending on your POV.

The movie, a short one (78 minutes), nonetheless drags in the middle: it might actually have made a pretty interesting 50 minute episode of The Outer Limits, but feels padded at its running time. Either because there wasn't money for stunt men or because Stevens was aiming for an otherworldly feel, the concluding fight scenes between Shatner and the Incubus are languid and unconvincing. Nonetheless, Incubus is worth at least 45 minutes of your time -- some scenes work quite well at evoking an other-worldly feel, and Esperanto does sort of work as an unsettling mechanism, as familiar words jostle with unfamiliar ones. Recommended.


Books:


The 5th Witch by Graham Masterson: Fast-paced action-horror novel about criminals using witchcraft to seize control of Los Angeles. The gangs have four witches from different magical backgrounds, including one who's pushing 400 years old and was supposed to have been burned at the stake centuries earlier. The police have one detective who realizes what's really going on and his friend, yet another practicing witch. Who will win and what will be left of them?

There are a lot of nice moments in this breezy, fast read. Most of them involve various forms of witchcraft and superstition which, in the world of the novel, are really real. Things wrap up a bit too quickly for my liking, but I was certainly never bored. Recommended.



Live Girls by Ray Garton (1987): The boredom caused me by about 95% of all vampire novels was lifted by this early novel from the prolific Garton. If nothing else, Live Girls demonstrates that Ramsey Campbell has good taste in the novels he blurbs. (Relatively) traditional vampires stalk the New York sex trade, both in a seedy nude show (the eponymous Live Girls) and an upscale club catering to people who want to be bitten and the vampires who bite them.

Nebbishy protagonist Davey Owens' lack of spine drives a lot of the action (or the inaction and bad decisions that cause bad things to happen to a number of good people). Garton manages to tuck a bildungsroman for Davey in among the other elements of the novel, and it's a pretty good one. Live Girls also manages the difficult feat of combining the occasionally erotic nature of vampires with their murderous, abject reality. Unlike Ann Rice's bloodsuckers, these vampires are not wish-fulfillment figures, though at times they briefly appear to be. After all, who doesn't want to live forever? Highly recommended.



Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell (2008): Along with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, writer/artist Steve Ditko pretty much created the Marvel Universe of super-heroes in the 1960's. Ditko co-created (with Lee) Spider-man and Dr. Strange, and had influential runs on the Hulk and Iron Man. Like Kirby, Ditko was pretty much frozen out of any level of decent profit-sharing as Marvel rose to become the most popular US comics firm, leading Ditko to leave the company in the late 1960's. He would return in the late 1970's to do fairly basic work-for-hire pencilling on titles that included Rom: Space Knight, but he'd keep his creativity to himself, with his more personal work coming out from an almost bewildering array of small publishers and fanzines.

Ditko's two, somewhat paradoxical, strengths as an artist were the ability to convey normality and the normative (the original Peter Parker is scrawny, a convincing high-school nerd; Ditko populated all his work with ordinary-looking people striving to be extraordinary), and an unprecedented ability to depict the fantastic (the worlds and dimensions of Dr. Strange are truly alien and magical looking). Ditko's five years on Spider-man as sole artist (except for a couple of covers) yielded pretty much the entire mythology of Spider-man, a supporting cast still used today, and most of Spider-man's major villains. Lee's bombastic dialogue and captions certainly helped shape the Spider-universe, but it was Ditko who gave it its odd, realistic yet fanciful soul.

Bell's main task in this biography seems to be to help the reader understand how Ditko's increasing fascination with the philosophy and writings of Ayn Rand helped shape a career that, weirdly un-Rand-like, moved farther and farther away from money-making as the decades went by. Like many of Rand's characters, Ditko would withhold his 'true' creations from the publishers who would have unjustly profited from them, instead trying to release them in ways that would avoid editorial interference and selling out to a large company.

However, Ditko's idiosyncrasies made him progressively more difficult to work with, and his writing progressively more impenetrable: by the 1980's, Ditko's 'real' work was almost impossible to purchase even when it managed to be published, and his disagreements with those trying to publish him generally ended most projects after only a handful of issues, and sometimes less.

Unlike Kirby, Ditko never had a family to support. His decisions could be made in a near-vacuum of responsibility to others, so he pursued his own odd path. Many of his creations for Charlton Comics and DC have proved fairly successful in the long term (Captain Atom, a revamped Blue Beetle, The Question, Hawk and Dove) while others yielded short but intriguing Ditko runs that are now being collected into hardcover editions for the first time (the weird Creeper and the even-weirder Shade, The Changing Man). Bell's book does a fine (and abundantly illustrated) job of explaining Ditko's odd career and enduring genius. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ghosts and Grisly Things (1998) by Ramsey Campbell


Ghosts and Grisly Things (1998) by Ramsey Campbell: A collection of excellent short stories from the 1970's, 80's and 90's by the world's best horror write, Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell. Both supernatural and mundane menaces threaten the characters in these stories, from a defunct factor town turned into an amusement park (!) to an ancient Druid holy site now located directly below an overpass. Campbell makes the decaying industrial zones and housing developments of modern England into a world of menacing and destabilizing forces.

Campbell has always been best at building terror out of slightly skewed perceptions of reality which build through the course of a story. As some reviewer or another once noted, it often seems that narrative voice and/or characters are tripping on something that no one should ever be tripping on; this occurs quite literally in "Through the Walls." Bad moments in tourism inform the worlds of "The Same in Any Language" and "Where They Lived."

An M.R. James trope that Campbell mastered very early in his career (he's been publishing since he was 16) involves slightly askew things glimpsed in the middle or far distance, things which at first appear mundane until one realizes that they keep appearing and disappearing as they (whatever they are) move closer and closer without ever being seen clearly. Do you want to see that strangely distorted human figure clearly? No, you do not, but some of the characters will, and they will not enjoy the experience.

The skewed perceptions of both "ordinary" people and people with mental health issues drive some of the horror as well. The narrator of "The Dead Must Die" is a murderous religious fanatic whose beliefs about blood transfusions and organ transplants are only a few beats off the Jehovah's Witness party line; the xenophobic senior citizen of "The Sneering" finds the supernatural building on his most basic fears for him and his wife. There isn't a weak story here. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Out of the Past


Shutter Island, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from a novel by Dennis Lehane, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow (2009-2010): Scorsese's best film in a decade or more is a slightly overlong and a bit overbaked but still fascinating thriller.

The year is 1954, and DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal sent to a high-security psychiatric facility on the otherwise unpopulated Shutter Island to discover how a female patient managed to disappear from a locked room. Only a once-a-day ferry connects the island, 11 miles off the East Coast, to the mainland. Where did she go? And why is everything and everyone so gosh-darned sinister?

Scorsese has created a loving homage to the first cinematic wave of film noir, the murky post-WWII thrillers that eventually became their own sub-genre of movies. The psychological and physical damage of World War Two to returning American soldiers was a prime constituent of first-wave noir, and it is here as well. The liberation of Dachau marked then-soldier Daniels for life; the murder of his wife in a fire set by an arsonist further damaged his psyche. And now he's on an island of severely damaged men and women, and severely creepy doctors and nurses.

Even Daniels's partner Chuck (Ruffalo) is a mystery, having just joined Daniels for this assignment. The chief psychiatrists, played by Kingsley and Von Sydow, seem weirdly menacing and unhelpful. The warden sounds crazier than the inmates. A hugely destructive storm traps everyone on the island. What will happen next? And what does a cryptic note left by the vanished patient, referring to a "Rule of Four" and a "67", really mean?

Paranoia seeps into everything. The landscape and settings drip with Gothic menace even in broad daylight. Daniels begins to see a larger conspiracy at work, one that reaches to the top levels of government. And what's inside the heavily guarded lighthouse? I guessed the major plot twist half-an-hour into the film, but that only added to my enjoyment of the way the whole thing unfolds, and the other twists that come along. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Things to Come


Comic:


Essential Marvel Two-in-One Volume 1, written by Roy Thomas, Bill Mantlo, Steve Gerber and others, illustrated by Ron Wilson, Sal Buscema, John Buscema and others (mid-1970's; collected 2005): Team-up books had their heyday in the 1970's and early 1980's, before continuity and endless crossovers essentially doomed them to extinction (with the exception of a few recent revivals). The Thing, the orange, rocky skinned strongman of the Fantastic Four, was the most popular member of that superhero team, and his team-up book ran for nearly a decade until it morphed into The Thing in the early 1980's.

Here, the Thing fights the Hulk, fights in World War Two, saves the timeline, stops a nuclear bomb from creating a giant tsunami, and generally fights evil in various guises. There are team-ups with now-forgotten Marvel horror comics heroes (Scarecrow and The Golem, anyone?), perennial second-tier heroes (Black Widow) and Marvel's heaviest hitters (Thor, the Hulk, Dr. Strange). Had Marvel managed to reacquire the rights for the reprint volume, there would also be a cool team-up with Doc Savage. Alas, it's not included here. But trust me, it was pretty cool.

Enjoyable and mostly light-hearted, this volume represents the superhero comics of a lost time, when standalone issues were the norm rather than the exception, and team-ups were still novel enough to warrant their own books. Recommended.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Up from Earth's Centre


Precious, directed by Lee Daniels, based on the novel Push by Sapphire and adapted for the screen by Geoffrey Fletcher, starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, and Mariah Carey (2009): High-octane melodrama in the Dickenisan mode, complete with complicatedly awful situations piled one on top the other and characters with improbable, descriptive names.

Terrible things happen or are described every few minutes, but the arc of the story is always upwards, to redemption or, to be all psychobabbly, to self-actualization. One can see why Tyler Perry and Oprah co-produced the movie: it's a feel-good story done in the broad strokes of a popular memoir; a schematic, life-affirming roller-coaster. Or maybe Haunted House ride.

Clareece Precious Jones (Sidibe) is an illiterate, overweight, sexually, emotionally and physically abused NYC teen. She's sorta like Little Nell or Little Dorrit, though she doesn't have to die like the former or be married like the latter to reach some sort of transformative apotheosis at the end of her story.

Pregnant with a second child created by incestuous rape, Precious finds hope in remedial schooling, a sympathetic teacher (Blue Rain [!], played by Patton) and a helpful counselor (Carey, deglammed to the point of unrecognizability). Lenny Kravitz wanders through as a sympathetic nurse's aide, to little effect, while Sidibe's classmates (all female) are cleanly and simply drawn, like Archie Comics characters -- each has a couple of defining character traits, but they aren't really characters.

The performances of Sidibe and Mo'Nique, as Precious's sad monster of a mother, sell the movie. Mo'Nique gets a couple of 'Big Speech' moments that helped earn her the Supporting Actress Oscar. She's a terrific, occasionally terrifying monster of a woman, her moral failings surpassed only by her Cyclopean self-pity. Sidibe's got a harder acting job that she pretty much pulls off, getting us to care about a character who initially shows almost nothing on the surface, her emotions hidden behind a mostly impassive face that will become more mobile and demonstrative as she gradually lifts herself up and out of her Dantean Inferno of a life.

Sidibe gives a marvelous performance -- she has the actorly reserve to pull off breakdowns without chewing the scenery. This is about as good as melodrama gets. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

These Zombies Are Making Me Thirsty


Books:
World War Z by Max Brooks (2007): Oh, zombie, where is thy sting? Brooks' novel was a sensation a few years back, in part because it unfolds the story of the great Zombie war within a fictionalized oral history modelled on Studs Terkel's structured oral histories of World War II, the Great Depression and other major American events. It's a clever conceit, though moving from narrator to narrator (and country to country) works against the development of suspense at points, much less horror.

More than 40 years after George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead started our never-ending fascination with zombies, the rightness of some of Romero's choices related to the wrongness of some of the choices of other zombie chroniclers only stands out more. Brooks goes with what's now become the almost cliched viral/rabies model of zombieism -- zombieism is spread by bite or by zombie body matter getting into an exposed cut or otherwise somehow getting into one's bloodstream. This probably seems like a good idea, but the number of pandemics in human history spread through these means is, roughly, zero. It's just not that effective a means of viral or bacterial propagation, which is why we don't all have rabies right now.

Romero, of course, never explained what was actually causing zombies in his first two zombie movies. More importantly, there was no 'Patient Zero' style beginning point -- one day, everyone who ever died and had enough flesh left on his or her bones to allow for mobility rose from the grave. And everyone who died after that, regardless of cause of death, would also rise from the dead. Now that's a disease vector that could overwhelm civilization!

Brooks' viral model, on the other hand, doesn't bear too much hard thinking because one realizes that between the limits of propagation and the modest limits of his zombies' intelligence (they are, if anything, much stupider than Romero's slow-moving hordes), most of the book's apocalyptic scenarios would be impossible. How do these slow-moving hordes which have a tendency to fall off, into or over any obstacle in their way manage to form up into gigantic masses of tens of millions of zombies in the American Midwest and other locations? I have no idea. It seems to me that these zombies would probably end up at the bottom of every cliff, hill, overpass and canyon in the world. So it goes. Several weeks into the zombie war, one would imagine the Grand Canyon would be full of zombies.

There are a lot of pleasures in this book, and the verisimilitude Brooks achieves with his technical research into weapons and various survival issues is impressive, but the whole thing falls apart if one thinks too hard about those million-zombie armies. So don't. Recommended.



The New Lovecraft Circle, edited by Robert M. Price (1996): Gleaned from thirty years of the second wave of Lovecraft-inspired horror writing, Price's anthology is sort of Fundamentalist Lovecraft. Many of the stories follow the same first-person narrative model of many of Lovecraft's major Cthulhu stories, with one man recounting the zany events and evil tomes of forbidden knowledge that led him to some terrible revelation or other. I tend to prefer somewhat looser interpretations of the Cthulhu Mythos, but there are some genuine thrills and chills here, along with some early Ramsey Campbell Lovecraft pastiches that I'd otherwise have to pay a couple of hundred bucks to read in his out-of-print first collection.

One of the problems a lot of the writers have is their overwhelming desire to roll out one of the Big Guns of Lovecraft's evil pantheon of alien gods, especially sea-dwelling Cthulhu, who's supposed to be in the South Pacific but who pays visits to New England and California prior to being vanquished by the usual dodgy means. A lot of the stories fall more into the August Derleth Cthulhu mode, in which the Cthulhu Mythos becomes a source for modern high fantasy and not for horror. There's nothing technically wrong with this approach, but it does mean that wonder and terror are a bit thin on the ground at times. Recommended for completists.


Comics:


Daredevil: Born Again, written by Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzuchelli (1986; collected numerous times): Miller (300, Sin City) came to prominence as writer and artist on Daredevil in the early 1980's. After a few years away, he returned to team with Mazzuchelli on what remains one of the great 'reset button' narratives in superhero comics history. Basically, criminal mastermind Kingpin discovers Daredevil's secret identity and proceeds to destroy his life. And that's just the first issue.

There are small story-telling glitches here and there that the editor should have fixed at the time (why Miller makes super-soldier Nuke blind like Daredevil but without the radar senses makes sense metaphorically but not literally), but overall this is 'the' Daredevil story, or at least 'the' Frank Miller Daredevil story. The hero gets stripped down to his basics, losing a lot of accumulated psychological baggage along the way, and even gets his first girlfriend back (Karen Page), albeit in dire straits herself.

One can see Mazzuchelli's art develop from issue to issue, sloughing off standard super-hero tics and moving towards the more European style he'd use when he soon hereafter collaborated with Miller on Batman: Year One. It's really all about faces and mood with Mazzuchelli at this point in his career, suiting a book that has a lot of explosions but which relies on character development for most of its major kicks.

The Kingpin has never been more demonic, and Miller also manages the neat trick of making the Avengers god-like again when he briefly drops them into the narrative -- they don't really belong in Daredevil's urban vigilante world, and that's the point, though a world-weary Captain America does lend Daredevil a helping hand in the last two issues. This is grim and gritty stuff from a time before endless dark reimaginings of superheroes had made "grim and gritty" a pejorative. Highly recommended.



El Diablo, written by Brian Azzarello, illustrated by Daniejel Zezelj (2001): This four-issue miniseries sees Azzarello reimagine one of DC's obscure Western characters as a possibly supernatural avenger. We don't really know, in the end, because El Diablo (if it is him) is only onstage for about three panels and never speaks, though he does hiss. And kill a whole lot of people. Or does he? Yes he does.

The narrative provides us with two big shocks and a lot of little ones, playing out like an expanded version of an old EC or even Jonah Hex morality tale, complete with a blackly comic (and just) ending. Zezelj's artwork is suitably murky throughout, sometimes to the point of resembling woodcuts more than pencil-and-ink. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Songs and Portents

Books:


Songbook by Nick Hornby (2003): This is a dandy little book of short essays by the author of High Fidelity, Fever Pitch and About a Boy. Hornby takes 31 songs he likes and explains why he likes them, with music and autobiography pretty much running neck and neck throughout. There are a lot of observational gems that will work pretty well with anyone who loves music, especially pop music in all its forms.

For example, Hornby observes at one point that his tendency to listen to a new song he likes over and over again amounts to an attempt to "decode" the song -- once the mystery has been solved, he can move on. My most recent foray int obsessive relistening was Arcade Fire's "Ready to Start", so I can relate, though unlike some people I've known, I generally don't subject others to my repetitive song-solving. That would be cruel.

Hornby also notes that if someone's favourite song is the song that was playing when some life-altering event occurred, that someone probably doesn't like music that much. You like the songs for the songs; all the other stuff is secondary or perhaps even irrelevant in most cases. If you've ever spent uncounted hours trying to make perfect mixed tapes/CDs/playlists, you'll understand a lot of what Hornby describes here. Highly recommended.


Shadows 7, edited by Charles L. Grant (1984): Grant's Shadows series of original horror-fiction anthologies were one of the high points for readers of dark fantasy in the 1970's and 1980's, each one crammed full of fine short horror fiction by writers well-known and unknown. This volume seemed half-familiar to me, but that's because at least half the stories herein have been anthologized elsewhere since their first appearance here.

Standouts include Tanith Lee's subtle, tragic "Three Days"; Ramsey Campbell's deceptively jolly take on the terrible boredom of watching other people's slide shows of their travels abroad, "Seeing the World"; and Dennis Etchison's cautionary tale about the dangers of meeting a writer one admires, "Talking to the Dark." There are some minor stories here, but no duds. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Vampire Sun


Comics:

Seven Soldiers of Victory Volumes 1-4, written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Doug Mahnke, Simone Bianchi, Fraser Irving, J.H. Williams III and many others (2006): The original Seven Soldiers of Victory were a super-hero team of the 1940's whose members were pretty much all non-powered superheroes of the masked vigilante school of crime-fighting. Indeed, DC's gun-slinging Western superhero of the time, The Vigilante, was a charter member.

Morrison's modern reconfiguration of the team turns the Soldiers into a fairly powerful lot who manage to be the only super-team in history whose members almost never meet one another. Yes, they're the post-modern Justice League. Two framing issues surround 7 different miniseries, each focused on one hero. Put together, this somewhat odd configuration follows the Soldiers as they defeat an ancient enemy of humanity, the Sheeda, who periodically destroy all civilization on Earth. Why? Because they're hungry. And dinks.

Prophecy says that the Sheeda can only be defeated by a superhero team comprising seven members, so the Sheeda side-project involves tracking down seven-person teams and eliminating them. The bizarre nature of the new Seven Soldiers pretty much makes this Sheeda strategy unworkable, and while things look crazy for awhile, the Seven Soldiers remain cool in the face of a super-powered army of what initially appear to be evil, blue-skinned elves (Sheeda = Sidhe, get it?) but which actually aren't. Elves, that is. They are blue-skinned and they are pretty evil. Even the original Vigilante has to come out of retirement to help in the fight. Twice!

Among other things, this maxi-series was a run-up to Morrison's Final Crisis of a couple years later -- his reconfiguration of The New Gods will play into that series, as will mysterious government agency SHADE and SHADE operative Frankenstein. Well, the creature Frankenstein created, who also now goes by the name Frankenstein and is a mighty, sword-wielding force for Good. Frankenstein is joined by The Bulleteer, Zatanna, Klarion the Witch-boy, The Manhattan Guardian, Mister Miracle and The Shining Knight in the Seven Soldiers. I think it's a great series with great art, but your results may vary depending on how many obscure DC heroes and villains you know (Mind-Grabber Man? Really?). Highly recommended.


Books:


The Essential Conan: The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard (1935), edited and with commentary by Karl Edward Wagner (1977): This is the only Conan novel written by Conan's doomed creator, Texan Robert E. Howard, before his suicide in 1936 at the age of 30. And for a first novel, it's surprisingly well-constructed and tight. Howard would write several more Conan adventures after this one, but in Conan's chronology, this is the last adventure (though not The Last Adventure -- Conan is in his mid-40's and hale and hearty when we leave him).

Here, we find Conan as the King of Aquilonia, Aquilonia being one of Howard's imaginary pre-Ice Age European countries during the time called The Hyborian Age. Conan is a surprisingly fair and just king, but that doesn't stop intrigue against him, as several native and foreign enemies bring an uber-powerful wizard back from the dead in order to further their political aims. Conan's army falls in battle to the magically aided enemies, Conan is captured, and soon the wizard's plans put the entire world in danger of being plunged into a second age of darkness. Only a mysterious magical item linked to the wizard can be used to defeat him.

In a lot of ways, this novel resembles the later Lord of the Rings, only with Conan and a lot shorter. Howard excels in the creation of oddly imagined supernatural threats, bloody battle scenes and, of course, the character of Conan himself -- alternately morose and jovial, fatalistic but unbowed. Howard's Conan was always more like a hardboiled detective than a traditional fantasy hero. Editor Karl Edward Wagner did the admirable job of restoring available Conan texts to their original published form with some emendations derived from Howard's own final drafts, and with period illustrations throughout. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Rag-and-Bone Shop


The Shining, written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers (1980): While watching The Shining over the course of three nights on my PVR, I realized that, for me at least, I'd found the perfect way to watch it. The Shining has always been a movie of dazzling parts held together by a plot that shudders and jolts to a complete stop at points. It may be that Kubrick wanted to make a much longer movie, or it may be that Kubrick never intended the plot to work all that well in the first place. This was not a film-maker that gave a crap about pleasing an audience in a traditional way, after all.

The basic plot is this: failed writer Jack Torrance, wife Wendy and five-year-old son Danny take the job as winter caretakers at a Colorado hotel located in the Rockies. The hotel closes from November 1 to April 30 for the winter, leaving the caretakers the only people for miles. Danny has a psychic talent called "The Shining" which gives him premonitions of the future, causes him to see things, and occasionally results in his body being taken over by the benevolent but creepy "Tony."*

Overlook head cook Halloran also has "The Shining." He cautions Danny about the hotel's ability to show people illusions, and tells Danny to signal him telepathically should anything go wrong over the course of the winter. The Overlook Hotel itself has been the site of a number of murders and atrocities over the years, not least of which was a previous caretaker murdering his wife and twin daughters before killing himself. Over the course of the first five weeks or so of caretaking, hilarity gradually ensues.

Certainly, enjoyment of the film requires one to forget about Stephen King's novel. In the novel, Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson in the movie) is a good man undone by alcoholism and circumstances and, of course, by the hotel. In the movie, Torrance is a physically abusive nutcase barely hiding his unravelling psyche from his wife Wendy (Duvall) and son Danny (Lloyd) even as the movie begins. There's very little sense that Torrance actually loves his family, and his fairly rapid descent into a homicidal fury suggests a sub-text of family violence and monstrous fathers that doesn't exist in the novel. Wendy, a blonde beauty in the novel, becomes the awkward Duvall in the movie, and Torrance-POV shots at key moments in the movie are probably the least flattering shots of Shelley Duvall ever put on screen. Of course, that's the point: Torrance's real view of his wife, allowed to fester by the hotel, is that she's a hideous shrew.

Production design and camera work are key here, as they are in all of Kubrick's films once he had complete creative control. The interior of the snow-bound Overlook Hotel is subtly alien and off-putting both due to size and colour scheme; the rugs alone might drive almost anyone off the deep end. Certain things work really well as horror -- the looming hedge maze is an improvement over the novel's homicidal hedge animals -- while others seem to verge on parody. The red-and-white washroom is really pretty hilarious.

That line between hilarity and horror -- or horror and horror-parody -- is crossed and recrossed throughout the film. One of Kubrick's stated aims -- to make a horror movie in which the lights stay on as much as possible -- is pretty much achieved. Certain scenes and images (especially the blood-torrent-spewing elevator) play more like parody, and the revelation that 'Redrum' is 'murder' spelled backwards lands with a dull thump, as does the 'shocking' photographic revelation that ends the movie. I believe these thuds are intentional: Kubrick seems to be aiming to scare people and make fun of horror tropes at the same time, maybe never moreso than in the fate of Halloran in the movie, much altered from the novel.

Nonetheless, there are enough startling moments -- the revelation of what Jack's been typing for weeks, Jack's pursuit of Danny through the hedge maze -- to allow the horror to outweigh Kubrick's parodic play with the horror. Kubrick's film also serves as a companion piece to his own 2001: A Space Odyssey: rather than watching humanity evolve from killer ape to Star Child, we watch Torrance devolve back into a killer ape chasing his own son through the hedge maze, his urge to do violence ultimately destroying him while Wendy and Danny are saved by Halloran's altruism and Danny's cleverness. Recommended.

* Who, in the novel, is Danny trying to telepathically warn himself from the future, Danny's middle name being 'Anthony.'

Saturday, July 31, 2010

10


Comics:


Tom Strong's Terrific Tales Volume 1
by Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Paul Rivoche, Alan Weiss, Art Adams and others (2002-2003):This anthology title puts Tom Strong, his family and friends, and far-future crime-fighter Jonni Future through a variety of adventures. Highlights include the tales of Tom Strong as an orphan growing up on tropical island Attabar Teru with the helpful Otu tribe, pretty much Moore's homage to the youthful Tarzan flashback book Jungle Tales of Tarzan (or if you want to go back to Tarzan's inspiration, Mowgli in The Jungle Book). Jonni Future, a 20th-century woman, uses the Time Bridge to battle evil 4 billion years in the future with the help of her leopard-like Paraman companion, a spaceship shaped like a Coelacanth, and a pair of the largest breasts in comic-book history.


Tom Strong's Terrific Tales Volume 2 Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Alan Weiss, Art Adams and others (2003-2005): The anthology title draws to a close with this collection of issues 7-12. Probably only Alan Moore could get artists like Peter Kuper, Jaime Hernandez, Peter Bagge and Sergio Aragones all working on what amounts to a superhero title, which is why Alan Moore is God. Maybe not the God, but definitely a God. Jaunty and fizzy, but with a surprising hit of poignance at the end as Tom leaves Attabar Teru (and, unbeknownst to him, future wife Dhalua) for Millennium City in the early 1920's in the final tale. But he'll be back. Highly recommended.


Legion of Superheroes: Enemy Rising by Jim Shooter and Francis Manapul and others (2007): Jim Shooter is one of the two most celebrated writers DC's 30th/31st-century super-hero teen team the Legion of Superheroes ever had (the other is longtime LSH scripter Paul Levitz), having helped make the Legion a cult favourite back in the 1960's, when Shooter became the youngest writer of a mainstream comic-book in, probably, ever (he was 13 (!)). Those 60's Shooter-scripted stories are still a delight today. Here, DC tries to catch lightning in a bottle again, bringing Shooter back to the book for the first time since a brief stint in the mid-1970's.

The result is actually pretty enjoyable, especially with the revelation in a whole other, later miniseries (Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds by Geoff Johns and George Perez) that this Legion is not the 'classic' Legion that once had Superboy as a member. No, this Legion, somewhat bizarrely, is the Legion of what is nominally 'our' world in the DC Universe, Earth-Prime. This at least explains all the Silver Age DC Comics Phantom Girl keeps reading.

Shooter develops an epic main plot (mysterious aliens attacking worlds throughout the galaxy) and copious melodramatic subplots with flair, though the results are a bit busy at times. Manapul's art is a bit too manga-influenced for me, but it goes down relatively smoothly, if occasionally a bit cutesy. Recommended.


Legion of Superheroes: Enemy Manifest by Jim Shooter and Francis Manapul and others (2008): Jim Shooter and the most-recent-until-three-months-ago Legion title go out together as the year-long "Enemy" storyline wraps up (and a bunch of subplots, like Princess Projectra's secret perfidy, do not). The ending seems a bit rushed, probably due to that whole cancellation problem, but overall it's a pretty nice ride. Recommended.


Doctor Who Classics Volume 3 by Dave Gibbons, Grant Morrison, Steve Moore, Steve Parkhouse, Bryan Hitch, John Ridgway and others (1981-89): A nice selection of original stories of the 4th, 6th and 7th Doctors from the B&W British Doctor Who magazines of the 1980's by some of the leading lights of British comic books. Nothing too fancy, though one possible origin story for the Cybermen is offered almost as a throwaway. Recommended.


Tom Strong Book 4 by Alan Moore, Geoff Johns, Chris Sprouse, Peter Hogan, Jerry Ordway and others (2003-2004): The alternate universe 'Tom Stone' three-parter is the centerpiece of this collection, as Moore's Doc Savage/Tarzan/Superman mash-up is shown a glimpse of a universe where he never was -- and where things initially seem to be much better than in the universe he lives in. The other stories in the volume are a bit more light-hearted. In the alternate universe in which Alan Moore never had his falling out with DC Comics, one imagines this is what Moore might have ultimately tried to do with Superman. Highly recommended.


Tom Strong Book 5 by Alan Moore, Mark Schultz, Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, Shawn McManus, Duncan Fegredo and others (2004-2005): "The Terrible True Life of Tom Strong" by Brubaker and Fegredo is the high point of this collection. It almost out Alan-Moores Alan Moore as Tom Strong realizes that the dismal reality he thinks he exists in is an illusion because nothing could be as awful as, well, something that looks a lot like our world. Which is one of those points Moore makes from time to time. Tom's real, real world, a high-tech, lost-jungle-city wonderland comprising pretty much every comic book and pulp story ever written, is the sunshiney yin to the broody yang of Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Highly recommended.


What If? Secret Wars by various (2008-2009): A bunch of up-and-coming writers and artists create new endings for a variety of Marvel Event Books, including The Death of Captain America and the 1980's Secret Wars miniseries. About as good as the What If? titles ever were, which is to say interesting, uneven, and prone to kneejerk bleakness.Sort of recommended, sort of not.


Supreme: Story of the Year by Alan Moore, Joe Bennett, Rick Veitch and Alex Ross (1995-96): Supreme, a Superman knock-off created by the much-reviled Rob Liefeld for his portion of Image Comics, gets the superduper metafictional treatment here from Alan Moore and a number of artists, including Rick Veitch in full homage/parody mode. Supreme discovers that his universe is prone to periodic revisions, revisions which mimic the changing styles of comic books from the 1930's to the 1990's. In the 'present' he tries to adjust to the Earth after having been away for decades; to do so, he reminisces about the 'past', rendered by Veitch and written by Moore to resemble various eras and genres throughout the history of comic books.

The lines between homage, parody, commentary and plagiarism are often razor-thin here, as a number of the flashback stories are modelled on specific stories from Superman's past (one which riffs on a late 1970's/early 1980's Jim Starlin Superman/Spectre team-up from DC Comics Presents is especially jarring in this regard -- it might as well BE the original story). One gets the feeling Moore was trying to write Superman out of his system. The result is enjoyable and occasionally frustrating, but now looks like a necessary transitional book between Moore's work for DC and his much later metafictional epics in Tom Strong and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Recommended.


DC vs. Marvel by Ron Marz, Peter David, Dan Jurgens, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Kevin Nowlan and others (1996): Continuity is the great ball-and-chain dragging down this 'epic' DC-Marvel crossover event from the mid-1990's. Fans voted on how various confrontations would turn out (Superman vs. Hulk, Batman vs. Captain America, and so on, and so forth), but the unwieldy machinery of the plot makes the various battles an afterthought. The book huffs and puffs to get the two universes together. Frankly, the 'crossover Earth' of earlier DC/Marvel events was a lot less unwieldy and had the added advantage of explaining why so few DC superheroes live in New York (because that's where the lion's share of Marvel superheroes live!).

The secondary miniseries spawned by this crossover -- The Amalgam Age of Comics, in which various heroes and villains were 'amalmagated' into new configurations (Captain America + Superman = Super-Soldier; Batman + Wolverine = Dark Claw) -- was a lot more interesting than the main event. Kurt Busiek and George Perez would later do this sort of epic mishmash a whole lot better in JLA/Avengers. For completists only, though the combination of Garcia Lopez on pencils and Nowlan on inks on Dr. Strangefate is surprisingly lovely: those two should team up a lot more often. Not recommended.

Porno for Pomos


Comic:


Lost Girls
, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Melinda Gebbie (2006): Moore and partner Gebbie worked on Lost Girls for over a decade. The end result might be the oddest book of Moore's career. It's certainly the most pornographic, though 'meta-pornographic' might be a better word -- this is an extremely graphic book of pornography that's about pornography, why people consume pornography, and the inter-relationship of fantasy and reality. I use the word 'pornography' rather than 'erotica' because it seems as if that's what Moore is aiming for here -- even the poetic sections are pushed so far into the explicit and the purple of prose that the whole enterprise really seems to be about What Gets People Off.

Moore's over-riding conceit here is that three women whose adventures resemble 'real-world' versions of the fictional adventures of Wendy from Peter Pan, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, meet as adults at a sexually exotic resort in Europe in the days leading up to World War One and proceed to have a variety of sexual adventures while also recounting their sexual histories, which themselves vaguely resemble the adventures of the fictional heroines, only without magic and with an awful lot of sex.

A couple of hundred pages of sex, primarily rendered in Gebbie's art-nouveau-influenced art, with periodic side-trips into imitations of various other illustrative styles. In the event you somehow miss the connections between 'real life' and fiction, most of the 30 or so chapters contain a full-page spread which makes the parallels between a sexual incident and an incident from the fictional adventures of one of the characters explicit in pretty much every meaning of that word.

Much of the hardcore material is somewhat undercut (or, to use a crappy lit-crit word, 'problematized') by several discussions of the relationship of pornography to the real world (fantasy, one character suggests, is in many cases never meant to be enacted in real life, and cannot thus be judged as if it were an idea about a 'real' incident. This commentary occurs during an orgy scene intercut with a particularly filthy bit of incest-pornography). In many ways, Moore has succeeded in doing for pornography what he did for superhero battles in Miracleman: he's pushed them logically to the point of fictional apocalypse while at the same time maintaining distance as a commentator throughout. Or, 'If this is what you like, what happens when we push it all the way to its logical conclusion?'

While it sometimes seems as if Moore has succeeded in creating the world's longest and most expensive Tijiuana Bible (and in a way he has), the super-saturation of sex scenes and the sheer wackiness of much of the conversation in the book makes it hard to take this seriously: it really seems more like a joke, despite the somewhat ham-handed epilogue that attempts to ground the book in the horrors of war. Or is that some sort of joke as well? Moore's such a cheeky bugger that it's impossible to figure him out sometimes. In any event, not for the squeamish or easily offended. Recommended.



Book:


The Cleft and Other Odd Tales
by Gahan Wilson (1998): Gahan Wilson was the natural inheritor of Charles Addams' title as "world's most macabre popular cartoonist", and he wore that title well for decades. He was also a writer of short stories and an occasional movie reviewer; it's products of the former occupation that The Cleft collects. It's a dandy bunch of short stories, reminiscent of the sort of droll horror of writers like John Collier or Roald Dahl, with the added bonus of illustrations by Wilson for each story. The collection spans more than 30 years, but Wilson's narrative tone remains remarkably consistent throughout. You may not be scared by any of the offerings here, but as with Wilson's best cartoons, you will be disturbed even as you laugh or at least chuckle. Recommended.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Monsters


Books:


The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezzi (2008-9): 'The Monster of Florence' was the name given to an Italian serial killer who murdered at least 16 people in the countryside around Florence in the 1970's and 1980's. Spezzi is the veteran Italian journalist who covered the story from its beginning, while popular American suspense novelist Preston got interested in the case after he discovered the villa he'd rented in 2000 was beside one of the Monster's murder sites and subsequently met with Spezzi to discuss the case. Ultimately, though, this isn't so much a non-fiction book about a serial killer as it is an indictment of the Italian legal system, from the polizia and carabinieri all the way to the prosecutors and judges operating at the national level.

Much of the pleasure of the book lies in the twists and turns of the real-life events, and so I won't give too much away. Florence itself becomes a major character, as Preston documents his own learning experience both about the city -- the centre of the Renaissance -- and about the Italian mindset both regionally and nationally. From the distant viewpoint of North America, it's easy to view Italy as a homogeneous state, rather than a collection of hundreds of tiny states that weren't joined as a nation until after Canada's own Confederation, and which used a wide variety of dialects (500 or more) which still linger in the individual regions. Besides Florence, Sardinia and its history plays a major role in the history of the Monster of Florence.

This is a very sad story in many ways, but the doggedness of Spezzi -- and the decency of at least some police officers and bureaucrats -- give one a little hope. The epilogue, written especially for the trade paperback edition, casts grave doubt on the rightness of the recent conviction of American student Amanda Knox for the murder of her room-mate. The Monster of Florence reads like a primer on how NOT to do police work: prosecutorial conspiracy theories, misconduct and child-like tantrums abound while a real killer remains unarrested and uncharged to this day. Highly recommended.


The Survivor by James Herbert (1977): A short, tense early horror novel from the writer most likely to be referred to as "England's answer to Stephen King." A horrific airplane crash in Eton leaves behind one survivor, the co-pilot, who can't remember the events leading up to the crash. People start dying. A medium shows up to try to help the co-pilot solve the supernatural mystery of how he survived and what's happening now. Shenanigans ensue. In the 'negative' column, Herbert gives us one of the ten clumsiest passages in literary history in the sub-sub category of 'Subtly establishing a person's race or ethnicity.' It's seriously hilarious. Recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Those Crazy Nazis


Comics:


Enemy Ace: War in Heaven, written by Garth Ennis and Robert Kanigher, illustrated by Chris Weston, Russ Heath and Joe Kubert: Hans Von Hammer, the WWI German "Enemy Ace" of 1960's DC war comics, gets a WWII send-off here, first on the Russian front and then in the Western European theatre as the Allies advance after D-Day. Ennis is fairly restrained here -- there is graphic violence, but for the most part this reads like an updated version of the Kanigher/Kubert stories from the 1960's (one of which is reprinted here). Like some members of the real Prussian military aristocracy, Von Hammer despises Hitler and the Nazi Party, but nonetheless feels obligated to fight for his country again after two decades of seclusion in his ancestral castle. There's plenty of airplane talk, not to mention a cameo from Sergeant Rock. Recommended.


Shade the Changing Man Volume 3: Scream Time, written by Peter Milligan, illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Bryan Talbot, Mark Pennington and Rick Bryant (1990-91; collected 2010): This third collected volume of early Vertigo hero Shade, revamped from his 1970's Steve Ditko creation with way more sex and violence, finally explains where the free-floating madness-generating American Scream actually came from, while also more fully explaining Shade's origins, Kathy's personal problems, and just what exactly Shade's solid-illusion-generating M-Vest is made of. Hint: it's not polyester. Heady, enjoyable stuff if you've read the first two volumes, and Jamie Hewlett's covers are as trippy as previous cover artist Brendan MacCarthy's. Recommended.


The Life Eaters, written by David Brin, illustrated by Scott Hampton (2003): Brin's aptly titled 1980's novella "Thor Versus Captain America" is the basis for this graphic novel; neither the novella nor this book are set in the Marvel Universe. Adapted for the first part of the graphic novel, the novella posits a world where the Nazis are on the brink of conquering the entire world in the early 1960's. The Holocaust was necromancy on an industrial scale, and it succeeded -- the Nazis summoned the Norse Gods on the eve of D-Day. The Normandy Invasion failed, the Allies were defeated again and again, and now the invasion of North America is imminent -- all because the Nazis now have Odin, Thor, the other Norse gods and various other Norse mythological creatures to call upon. Only Loki of all the gods stands with the Allies, and while his purposes are mysterious and probably self-serving, he did manage to evacuate the concentration camps and ghettos of Europe before the Final Solution had been entirely carried out.

Are the Norse Gods really Norse Gods? That's one of the first questions the novel tackles, before moving on to larger philosophical issues set against an escalating series of cataclysms. Humanity's hope ultimately lies in science and technology, something the mystical and increasingly addled servants of the gods just aren't good at, along with an alliance of the various world religions that refuse to practice the blood sacrifice which summons the gods and then sustains them: on this world, the Holocaust never ends because the gods live on human death in mass quantities. Other cultures summon their own pantheons in response to the Nazi threat, and things get worse and worse once we shift to the main action of the novel, in the 1980's.

This later segment could almost be called "Hulk and Iron Man Versus All the Gods in the World", as human ingenuity and self-sacrifice and, indeed, humility finally start to turn the tide of war even as Loki's true plan -- even more horrifying than those of his man-eating brethren -- is finally revealed. There's certainly action and adventure here, all in service to quite a serious-minded premise -- can humanity outgrow its tribal-minded, bloodthirsty nature before it's too late? Highly recommended.


Books:


A Treasury of Modern Fantasy, edited by Terry Carr (1980): It's actually taken me thirty years to finish off this survey anthology that spans fantasy from the advent of fantasy-specific pulp magazine Weird Tales in the 1920's to 1979. Most of the major writers are here, though Carr's selection criteria can be pretty wonky at times (I'm not sure I'd even put "The Rats in the Walls" on a top-20 list of all the stories H.P. Lovecraft wrote, but here it is in all its clunky glory). This volume never caught on as an academic tome, even though its selection, odd as it is sometimes, is nonetheless more wide-ranging and useful than such academy-oriented anthologies as Fantastic Worlds.

The sheer scope of the work that Carr wanted to survey must have driven him bonkers at times -- it's not all that easy to cover 60 years of high fantasy, dark fantasy, light fantasy, sword and sorcery, horror and the cryptozoological in one volume, and I'm not sure why that last (represented by the solid but unspectacular "Longtooth" by Edgar Pangporn) is even included, as it's more properly science fiction, a genre not folded into this anthology. Recommended.


The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty (1971): William Friedkin's blockbuster film adaptation of Blatty's best-selling novel was remarkably faithful to the book, partially because Blatty -- a screenwriter before becoming a novelist -- wrote the screenplay. Some things were, of course, left out, though a few such scenes made their way into the 1990's Director's Cut, while others were recycled by Blatty in the sequel he both wrote and directed, 1990's underrated Exorcist III: Legion.

Blatty's novel is long on dialogue at points, befitting a novel by a screenwriter, though there are also lengthy internal monologues which were essentially unfilmable. Coming to the novel after having seen the movie, one finds out more about the significance of the Iraq-set prologue of the movie, and more about the ins and outs of exorcism itself (though the latter needs to be taken with a grain of salt, actual Roman Catholic exorcisms being few and far between in the West).

Tortured, doubting priest Damien Karras comes even more to the fore in the novel, while details of the past of both possessed Regan and her actress mother explain at least some of the murkier details of the possession and its possible origins -- though ultimately the possession is less about getting Regan and more about forcing a second exorcism battle with ageing, ailing Father Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow in the movie. Some of the philosophical and theological speculation is awfully wonky at times, and the scientific aspects of the novel when the characters speculate on how the brain works are even wonkier. Still, a gripping read after all these years, though it's worth noting that the "true case" the novel is "inspired by" bears almost no resemblance to the novel. Caveat lector! Recommended.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bruce Willis vs. The Moon


Movies:


Moon, starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey, written by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker, directed by Duncan Jones (2009): While it's no 2001, Moon is an intelligent and enjoyable science-fiction movie, an increasingly rare thing in these heady days of overwrought CGI and underwrought writing.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the only worker on a Lunar Industries moonbase on the far side of the moon tasked with mining Helium3 and shipping it back to Earth to power Earth's fusion reactors. Sam is only weeks away from the end of his three-year contract -- and a return to his wife and child on Earth -- when an accident leaves him wondering just what is really going on. The result is a tightly plotted science-fiction thriller with several surprises and a refreshing air of scientific verisimilitude.

Rockwell is fast becoming one of my favourite, slightly offbeat actors -- his Sam Bell is sympathetic and a bit wiggy, the latter perfectly understandable given his three-year isolation. Kevin Spacey lends his voice to GERTY, the base computer which knows...something. Spacey pitches his voice in HAL territory, leaving one wondering until the final scenes whether or not we have another homicidal computer on our hands. If you enjoyed the old Twilight Zone or the 1960's Outer Limits, you'll enjoy Moon's combination of existential dread, hope, and the joys of plot twists. David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, does a nice job of directing. Here's hoping he continues to make movies as enjoyable as this, and doesn't get sucked up into the Hollywood crap-making machine. Highly recommended.



Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Ving Rhames and James Cromwell, written by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, directed by Jonathan Mostow (2009): I'm not sure I'd call this a good movie, but it is fun. In a future world, cybernetics has advanced to the point that a person never has to leave his or her home -- a robotic surrogate, usually better looking than the original person, can do everything for you while you lie in a control chair, directing the surrogate's movements and experiencing whatever it experiences safely away from any possible harm. But then someone manages to murder a person by destroying his surrogate, and FBI agents Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell are called in to investigate. Ving Rhames shows up in a ridiculous dreadlock wig.

Bruce Willis's surrogate makes for some droll moments -- CGI de-ages Willis's face and gives him a full-head of somewhat ridiculous-looking blonde hair. The future society isn't drawn with enough care to be fully believeable (obviously, not everyone would be able to afford these things as they apparently do in the movie), but the metaphoric commentary on people and their avatars, whether those avatars are computerized or simply the fake faces we put on when we go out the door, is interesting and sometimes somewhat poignant. If you could live through a nigh-indestructible, better-looking version of yourself, would you? And would it be fair to criticize people who do so because of mental or physical problems? Recommended.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

4 X 2


Books:



The Shimmer by David Morrell (2009): Technically speaking, Morrell is a Canadian writer, though he hasn't lived here since he was in his 20's. Since leaving Canada, he's managed to become both a university literature professor (now retired) and a best-selling thriller writer. Oh, and he created Rambo in the 1972 thriller First Blood. Quite a resume. Morrell is an almost preternaturally gifted writer of thrillers -- his prose is smooth, his characters are sympathetic when they need to be, his plots are tight, his pace relentless without seeming forced, and his research lends both interest and verisimilitude to even his most outrageous scenarios.

Here, Morrell gives us a small Texas town with an open secret: weird lights appear outside the town on a mostly nightly basis, and have been doing so for as long as people have lived in the area. This aspect of the novel is pretty much true -- there is a small Texas town outside which weird lights, not yet satisfactorily explained by science, put on a nightly show for residents and tourists alike. Morrell combines elements of the supernatural thriller, the military-operation-gone-wrong and the historical into a pleasing melange. Our protagonists -- a nearly burned out LA cop and his wife -- are drawn to the town, she by some force emanating from the lights, he in pursuit of her. Others are also drawn there. A secret governmental installation registers an increase in the lights' energy levels which may portend a disaster on par with previous incidents dotted over the decades, incidents of mass hysteria. Inevitably, all hell breaks loose.

As I noted, Morrell shines when it comes to pace and versimilitude: what happens in The Shimmer is probably hooey, but it's convincing hooey. There's even a weird, thinly disguised (really thinly -- Morrell explains it all in the afterword) historical section devoted to the filming of the James Dean/Rock Hudson film Giant, though it's not called that here. But Giant was filmed near 'our' world's version of the lights, and Dean was fascinated by them. Weird stuff indeed. Highly recommended.


The Protector by David Morrell (2004): Don't call them bodyguards. They're personal security experts. And one of them is about to lose almost everything while trying to protect a scientist who says he's fleeing from Colombian drug gangs, but really isn't. Morrell's attention to detail drives a lot of the appeal of this book, as he explains (or, for safety's sake, explains with necessary omissions of detail) the ins and outs of car chases, exploding cars, proper handgun maintenance, surveillance techniques and witness protection over the course of this long but taut thriller. One of the appealing things about Morrell's tough and competent hero is his care in relation to innocent bystanders -- he actually works to avoid getting them hurt in the middle of his own adventures, something a lot of movie and TV heroes no longer seem to find necessary. Highly recommended.


Fireworks by James A. Moore (2001): Moore's horror-thriller shares certain elements with Stephen King's later Under the Dome (2009) -- the small Georgia town of Collier becomes isolated because of the incursion of an apparently extraterrestrial threat, though in this case a shadowy government agency called ONYX does the isolating after a UFO crashlands in the lake near the town during the fireworks celebration on the evening of July 4. The crash kills hundreds, and ONYX moves in almost before the emergency vehicles have started ferrying casualties to the local hospital. Cut off from the rest of the world, Collier begins to simmer as ONYX suspends basic rights while it tries to dig the UFO out of the lake. Some people behave well; other people behave badly.

And then...well, and then things just sorta sputter out. I don't know if the lack of a climax came about because of editorial interference or authorial choice (the novel's structure initially suggests a much longer work, as we spend nearly half the novel focused on Collier's police chief, move to much shorter sections focused on an abused woman and one of the soldiers with an underwhelming secret, and then shudder to a halt with unlimited 3rd-person narration). In any case, while Moore is a skilled writer of characters, overall the novel seems frustratingly unfinished. Not recommended.


Possessed by James A. Moore (2004): This supernatural thriller seems almost like a structural apology for Fireworks: this novel is almost ALL climax, the last couple of hundred pages spent in an interconnected series of scenes of escape and battle, capture and escape. I enjoyed the vaguely Lovecraftian shenanigans (actually, this is almost H.P. Lovecraft's The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew in the Mystery of the Magical Necklace, albeit rated PG-13), though I was a tad exhausted by the time things wrapped up in a series of explosions and monsters and baleful extradimensional entities.

The 18-year-old male protagonist's mother dies at the start of the novel, setting off a wacky chain of events centered around a necklace the mother was hiding from forces serving Something Awful. Hilarity ensues. And indeed certain elements are hilarious, mostly intentionally -- the main character takes more physical punishment than Ash in the Evil Dead movies but keeps getting off the mat to Save the Universe. Or something. The whole thing almost seems written with more than one eye on a Hollywood treatment. So it goes. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Scary Stuff, Kids

Comics:


Haunt of Horror, written by Richard Corben and Chris Margopoulos, based on stories, poems and fragments by Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, illustrated by Richard Corben: Haunt of Horror brings together about two-dozen generally loose adaptations of an assortment of pieces by American horror-fiction Titans Poe and Lovecraft. Corben's best-remembered work is probably still Den, the sword-and-sorcery series from the 1970's that was adapted into the sword-and-sorcery segment of the Heavy Metal movie in which John Candy voiced the hero. Corben has become a supremely gifted horror and fantasy writer/artist over the intervening decades, and his work here really achieves some nicely creepy effects.

One of the decisions that makes this an interesting volume is that Corben doesn't try to adapt any of Poe's or Lovecraft's more famous, longer works. Instead, he focuses on short pieces that can be profitably adapted ("Dagon", "The Telltale Heart") and on poems and prose fragments which he adapts loosely, very liberally (Poe's "The Raven" doesn't much resemble its source, while several Lovecraft poems which were originally all about mood here become the inspiration for much more concrete scares.

Overall, I really liked this approach to adapting these two icons -- the pieces chosen were all of suitable length, and there are many suitably grisly, mysterious and cosmic vistas throughout the book. I wish Corben, who's already adapted William Hope Hodgson's minor masterpiece of a horror novel, The House on the Borderland, would turn his pen to Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" or Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." That would be sweet and tasty. Highly recommended.


Tom Strong Volume 6, written by Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, Joe Casey and others; illustrated by Chris Sprouse, Jerry Ordway, Paul Gulacy and others: Among other pleasures, Alan Moore's America's Best Comics (ABC) imprint at Wildstorm offered tantalizing glimpses of what Moore's comics career might have been like had he not vowed to never again work for DC Comics after a dispute over money owed (or not owed, from DC's perspective) to Moore and artist Gibbons for various knickknacks derived from, and special editions of, Watchmen. Justifiably or not, DC managed to alienate their most popular writer over a matter of what was probably a few thousand dollars, scuttling at least two series that were already in the planning stages: the Watchmen prequel Minutemen and the dystopic, apocalyptic DC Universe 'What if?' series Twilight of the Superheroes.

Tom Strong, the adventures of a long-lived 'science hero' and his family and friends, reads a lot like Moore's take on pulp hero Doc Savage, but there's also a fair amount of Superman thrown into the mix. Is this what a potential Moore Superman project might have looked like, just as Moore's Promethea looks a lot like a metafictional, apocalyptic take on DC's Wonder Woman? We'll never know.

Of all the ABC-Universe books, Strong is the one that's both the lightest in tone and the "straighest", for lack of a better term (as this has nothing to do with sexual orientation). Moore plays his usual metafictional games throughout the book's five-year run, but Tom Strong is pretty much a cynicism, parody-free zone -- in this sense, it prefigures Grant Morrison's nouveau-Silver-Age All-Star Superman.

Here, in the final Tom Strong volume (for now, anyway) Tom and his family and comrades must deal with the end of the world. But prior to that, guest writers that include long-time British fantasy great Michael Moorcock (Elric) and several guest artists put Tom through a variety of crises -- the Moorcock piece brings in characters from Moorcock's own multiverse of characters, including a sinister descendant of albino sword-and-sorcery character Elric, along with what appears to be the soul-eating sword Stormbringer from the same Elric series. The art and writing are all top-notch throughout, though one probably needs to start earlier in the series to get a full grasp of the dynamics. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Just Like Heaven


Books:


Getting into Death and other stories by Thomas Disch: Tom Disch's range as a writer was fairly breathtaking. He wrote in pretty much every genre imaginable, producing fine work in every case, including children's books (The Brave Little Toaster). Part of the American 'New Wave' of science-fiction writers in the 1960's, he never stopped branching out -- and he started branching out pretty early. This collection of Disch short stories from the 1970's shows off the writer at his wide-ranging best. The title story and several others have no fantastic elements at all, while other stories range from the darkly humorous rewriting of myth ("Apollo") to sad but weirdly funny ecodisaster ("The Birds").

All the stories are standouts, though some stories stand out more than others (ha ha). The title story gives one a dying novelist who can't really be said to have connected with anyone in her life, though her friends and children continue to attempt to connect with her (or believe they already have). "Getting into Death" ends in a thoroughly humane and human manner, though not in any way that one will see coming. "The Planet Arcadia" reads like a demolition of any number of standard science-fiction tropes (First Contact chief among them), its poisonous satire accentuated by the distancing effect of the elevated diction. "Slaves" reads like J.D. Salinger transplanted to the late 1960's college scene; "Yes" reminds one of the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick.

At least two of the stories could be seen as horror fiction. "Let Us Quickly Hasten to the Gate of Ivory" uses a basic situation we see in another Disch short story -- "Descending", not collected here. Quite simply, what happens when one can't find one's way out of what is supposed to be a finite space, in this case the graveyard where a brother and sister have gone to lay flowers at their parents' grave. It's a dandy and deceptively tricky story. Frankly, I have no idea what's really going on. "The Alien Shore", a novella of perhaps 15,000 words, is the masterpiece of the collection, a subtle and ultimately really disturbing tale of alienation, failure and the nature of reality. It's also a Grade-A mindfuck. This is pretty much as good as a collection of short stories gets. Highly recommended.


The Businessman: A Tale of Terror by Thomas Disch (1984): Disch produced a quartet of novels in the 1980's and eary 1990's that were marketed as horror (they'll return to print in August 2010, so mark your calendar). The Businessman was first, set at the dawn of the Reagan era. In it, the businessman of the title murders his wife Gisele and gets away with it until her ghost finally frees itself from its grave and begins trying to torment him.

Is it horror? Well, sort of. Horror elements abound (ghosts, a murderous husband, seances, ouija boards, psychic readings and a demonic possessing entity chief among them), as do horrific moments. However, so too do lyric moments, meditations on life and death, domestic comedy, farce, and the tragicomic presence of the ghost of the (real) poet John Berryman, who wanders the Earth as a ghost still bearing the injuries of his successful suicide, dying for a stiff drink or three.

Disch's book review columns for Twilight Zone magazine in the early 1980's repeatedly demonstrated that Disch had no time for certain horror-genre tropes (or most writers, for that matter -- Disch was an entertaining reviewer, but he was also a quintessential Mr. Grumpypants). The novel certainly takes the piss out of a lot of things -- ghosts and seances chief among them -- while managing to horrify at points even as it satirizes. For instance, stupid people make the best conduits for spiritual communication, we discover, while the purgatorial dyslexia inflicted upon Berryman's ghost makes his communications as seances pretty much completely nonsensical.

The most striking creation here is the afterlife, or at least the small portion of it that we see. See, there's what amounts to a greeting area, complete with recovery rooms where newly dead souls get used to their material deadness. The whole thing depends pretty much on the expectations of the dead person and the other souls he or she is dealing with, so that when Gisele's staunchly middle-American, middle-class Catholic mother arrives in first stage of the afterlife, she pretty much sees it as a cross between a hospital and a hotel. Some souls move rapidly on to the less corporeally oriented levels of heaven; some stick around in the waiting area for awhile; some are doomed to roam the Earth for one reason or another. Jesus makes a cameo, wearing a Salvation Army officer's uniform, flying in a dirigible. The gateway to heaven rests inside a potholder. It is, all in all, a wild and genre-busting ride. Highly recommended.