Saturday, December 24, 2011

Three

They Live, written by John Carpenter, based on the short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson; directed by John Carpenter; starring Roddy Piper (Nada), Keith David (Frank) and Meg Foster (Holly) (1988): John Carpenter's snarly dystopic satire looks as fresh and relevant now as it did in 1988. Maybe moreso, given the increasing ascendancy of corporations Uber Alles in the interim, the Occupy movements, and all the other stuff that's happened since then.

Wrestler Roddy Piper makes an engaging hero as Nada, an umemployed manual labourer who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work and instead discovers a conspiracy aimed at destroying the middle-class and working-class. Nada's a man of action (he is played by a professional wrestler, after all), and soon he and his initially reluctant compadre Frank (the always marvelous Keith David) are going toe-to-toe with the Secret Rulers of the World.

Is this a perfect movie? No. Some of Piper's witticisms fall pretty flat, though others ("I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum.") have justifiably become classics. The cinematography looks amazingly crummy, which fits the film without necessarily being intentional (Carpenter's films often look crummy, as if they were shot on videotape and then transferred to film).

Nonetheless, this is one of the two or three best science-fiction films in the sub-genre of Paranoid Conspiracy That's Actually True. It may not look as good as The Matrix, another film in that sub-genre, but the eight-minute fight between Nada and Frank, as Nada tries to get Frank to on the sunglasses that allow a person to see what's really going on in the world, beats almost any fight sequence I can think of for sheer stubbornness on the part of both the characters and the filmmakers. Highly recommended.


 


The Muppets, written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, based on characters created by Jim Henson; directed by James Bobin; starring Jason Segel (Gary), Amy Adams (Mary), Chris Cooper (Tex Richman), and the Muppets (2011): The Muppets return to the big screen after more than a decade away thanks to the slightly unlikely Muppet-love of Jason Segel. It's great to see all of them again, and the gossamer-thin plot doesn't get in the way of an assortment of great Muppet moments and the occasional song. Segel, Adams, and Cooper strike just the right note of earnestness mixed with gently self-mocking metafictionality. Recommended.

 









Waiting for Guffman, written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; directed by Christopher Guest; starring Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Fred Willard (Ron Albertson), Catherine O'Hara (Sheila Albertson), Parker Posey (Libby Mae Brown), Eugene Levy (Dr. Allan Pearl) and Bob Balaban (Lloyd Miller) (1996): It's Blaine, Missouri's 150th anniversary, and resident little-theatre guru Corky St. Clair will write and direct a musical tribute to the history of the small town. Oh, boy, will he ever.

Writers Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy hit pretty much all the right notes in this affectionate but clear-eyed tribute to the delusions that theatre can bring on in people who long to be something other than what they are, even if they dream of being something they're not actually good at. It now looks like a satire of the American Idol generation, though of course it isn't -- in tone and execution, it hews closer to Stephen Leacock's scathing, sympathetic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Uncanny Banquet (1992) edited by Ramsey Campbell



Uncanny Banquet (1992):

edited by Ramsey Campbell, containing Russell Kirk - Behind The Stumps;; Dorothy K. Haynes - A Horizon Of Obelisks ; Alison Prince - The Loony ; Henry Normanby - The First-Nighter; Fritz Leiber - The Hill And The Hole; Robert Aickman - Ravissante; Donald Wandrei - The Lady In Gray; Walter de la Mare - A Mote ; Ramsey Campbell - McGonagall In The Head, and Adrian Ross - The Hole Of The Pit : 

Leave it to Ramsey Campbell to create a horror story oriented around the malign effects bad poetry has on the mind of a young newspaper writer, complete with a tribute to one of the world's worst poets in the title ("McGonagall In The Head"). It's one of Campbell's most playfully sinister stories, as the possibly supernatural mania affecting the protagonist manifests itself in the character obsessively finishing every sentence he hears or thinks of with a rhyme.

Campbell's second reprint anthology had as its stated goal the reprinting of lesser-known stories by major horror writers, along with offerings from a few lesser-known talents and one lost novel, The Hole Of The Pit, of which more in its own entry. My only complaint would be that I'd like more, though the anthology still clocks in at about 350 pages.

As Campbell notes in his introduction, none of the stories are blood- or grue-filled ('Splatterpunk' was in the middle of its ascent at the time Uncanny Banquet appeared). Instead, terror and suggestion reign throughout, whether the setting is a lonely backwoods area of rural America in Russell Kirk's offering, or the salons of Paris in Robert Aickman's. Campbell selects one of the late, great Fritz Leiber's eeriest offerings, an emblematic collision of ancient horror and modern technology oriented around surveying ("The Hill and the Hole"). Two 'young adult' horror stories are solid ("The Loony" and "The First-Nighter"), as indeed are the rest of the entries . Along with Adrian Ross's odd, haunting novel, a solid collection. Recommended.

The Hole of the Pit by Adrian Ross (1914)

Adrian Ross

The Hole of the Pit by Adrian Ross (1914; reprinted in Uncanny Banquet, 1992):

"Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged." Isaiah 51:1.

Ramsey Campbell unearthed this hitherto never-reprinted gem of a novel and had it serve as the capstone to his 1992 horror anthology Uncanny Banquet. It is, figuratively and somewhat literally, one hell of a novel. Ross, who primarily wrote librettos for operettas, wrote this one horror novel as a tribute to contemporaneous ghost-story giant M.R. James. Indeed, many of James's stylistic trademarks -- especially a strict attention to suggestion rather than showing, and the framing of the horror within a narrative from the past -- are fully at work here.

However, as Campbell notes in his introduction to the novel, The Hole of the Pit seems more comparable to the horror works of equally contemporaneous William Hope Hodgson, whose monsters and spirits tended to have some sort of quasi-scientific (or at least rationalized supernatural) underpinning. Did Ross read The Ghost Pirates or The Night Land?

But to the novel itself.

The narrator is one Hubert Leyton, a Puritan scholar living during the English Civil War of the 17th century between the Cavaliers (those loyal to the King) and the Roundheads (those loyal to Oliver Cromwell). The narrator abhors violence and has stayed out of the conflict, though he knows Cromwell. A resident of his cousin the Earl of Deeping's lands shows up on his doorstep one day to ask Hubert to attempt to stop the Earl and his men from plundering the supplies of his tenants.

The Earl, a Cavalier, is being pursued by the Roundheads and has taken up residence -- along with several dozen soldiers and one peculiar Italian witch -- in his ancestral home, a castle set on a small island in the midst of a tidal inlet and some pretty treacherous marshes.

Hubert goes in the hope that he can avert further bloodshed. Soon, though, he's captive in his cousin's castle along with the late countess's cousin Rosamund. Actually, everyone's a captive to the tides, the approaching Roundhead force...and something that's come boiling out of 'the Hole', a mysterious underwater cave. Both Hubert and his cousin know that a bit of prophetic doggerel predicts that the Earl of Deeping will be destroyed by some supernatural punishment sent by the Devil. Neither believed such a thing -- until now.

One of Ross's great triumphs here is the first-person characterization of Hubert, who really is a good man, which is not the same thing as being a man without a backbone. Ross manages to make Hubert sympathetic in part by making Hubert sympathetic -- to the criminals and mercenaries fighting alongside the Earl, and to the violent, murderous, but also honourable Earl himself. Hubert is no stranger to violence -- indeed, he's a much better swordsman than anyone else in the Castle, thanks to fencing lessons -- but he abhors it nonetheless, and takes no joy in the deaths that begin to pile up. Because there is something awful stalking the inhabitants of the castle, kept mostly off-screen by Ross.

I don't know how accurate Ross's depiction of the time and place is, but the novel's verisimilitude seems to me to be unassailable. The creature, or thing, or whatever, gains dramatic heft by Ross's parsimony in using it and showing it. Many of its most sinister actions occur unobserved, with only the startling aftermath attesting to its presence and its malevolent powers and intent. All in all, this really is a gem of a historical horror novel. It's a shame Ross didn't write more of them. Highly recommended.

Bits and Pieces

Strange Things and Stranger Places by Ramsey Campbell containing Cat and Mouse, Medusa, Rising Generation, Run Through, Wrapped Up, Passing Phase, A New Life, The Next Sideshow, Little Man and Needing Ghosts (collected 1993) : A rather odd collection from Campbell, seeing as nearly two-thirds of its length comes in two novellas ("Medusa" and "Needing Ghosts") while most of the rest of the stories are homages of some sort to classic horror tropes that include the Mummy, Frankenstein's monster, cats from hell, and zombies.

Of necessity, the two novellas are the main attraction here. "Medusa" is unusual in that it's straight science fiction, a genre Campbell writes within infrequently at best. It's an interesting story, reminiscent in some ways of Stanislaw Lew's Solaris. The short stories are fine for the most part, though mostly brief. The longest of them, "Little Man", could really be longer -- the put-upon teenaged protagonist's plight could use more fleshing out, especially given the unique, creepy weirdness of the supernatural entity in the story.

"Needing Ghosts" is one of Campbell's great short works, a novella in which the presence of the seemingly surreal in the midst of daily life gains greater and greater terror as the novella progresses. As in many of Campbell's strongest works, reality itself seems perched on the edge of dissolution throughout, with the most normative things and events weighted with frightful portent. Recommended.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Vampire Weakened

Priest, written by Cory Goodman, based on the graphic novel series by Min-Woo Hyung, directed by Scott Charles Stewart; starring Paul Bettany (Priest), Karl Urban (Black Hat), Cam Gigandet (Hicks), Maggie Q (Priestess), Brad Dourif (Salesman) and Christopher Plummer (Monsignor Orelas) (2011): If the writing on this movie were a lot better or a lot worse, it could be pretty interesting. However, all dialogue was written by the Dialogamatic 3000, which means that you won't actually hear a line of dialogue you haven't heard a hundred times before in other movies. That's an impressive feat of dialogue writing for a movie set in an alternate, steam-punky universe in which super-powered Catholic priests fight a species of eyeless vampires that look like the reimagined Pig-monster from the rebooted Doom video-game franchise.

I'm assuming Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, and Christopher Plummer all had bills to pay. They all do what they can with this amazingly derivative piece of junk, which is not much. Movies this movie rips off for plot, characterization, visuals, set design, and monsters include (but are not limited to!) The Searchers, The Matrix series, Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name trilogy, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, the Alien movies, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and pretty much the entire steampunk genre.

In what must be an alternate universe, thousands of years of war between humanity and vampires (which are not, I repeat, not human, and not derived from humans, a fact the movie doesn't really establish fully until there are only ten minutes left) are seemingly over. The remaining vampires are on reservations, which must have been a hell of a relocation effort given that at no time are the vampires shown as being able to reason, much less talk.

They are afraid of the sun, however, which is a good thing given that they don't have eyes, meaning that they know the sun's there when their skin starts burning. These vampires really are nature's cruelest mistake. Move over, Bottomless Pete!

The super-powered ninja Catholic Priests who won the Great Vampire War have been decommissioned and given menial jobs, because when you have superpowered people around, it's always a good idea to piss them off by having them clean toilets and shovel coal. The church hierarchy now denies there's any vampire problem. Pretty much everybody lives in walled, smoke-filled cities, though there are settlements out on the endless desert that surrounds these cities. The citizens in the cities all dress like urchins from a road company production of Oliver. They have invented the elevator, the television, and the computer, but not soap or fashion.

Oh ho! Vampires kidnap the Paul Bettany Priest character's niece (the only name he gets is Priest, which is really a title, isn't it?) and kill his brother and sister-in-law. Like John Wayne in The Searchers, off he goes. The Church doesn't want him to go, but he goes anyway. Because that's what a man does when vampires kidnap his niece.

He knows it's a trap because otherwise the vampires would have just eaten his niece, but he goes anyway. The Church recommissions four other priests to follow him and stop him. He teams up with a young sheriff to hunt the vampires. The vampires, meanwhile, are all riding around on a train headed straight for one of the cities. Or maybe The City.

Yes, the villains are all riding around on a train. This makes for a pretty linear chase narrative, as there appears to be only one train line in the whole world. If this civilization had radios, cellphones or even telegraphs, the movie could end around the 45-minute mark. However, this does not appear to be the case.

While the city (or The City) is a smoky Blade Runner industrial dystopia, the country appears to be the 1850 Old West with motorbikes instead of horses, but otherwise invested in oldey timey clothes and phonographs and 19th-century cotton dresses. I would love to know how history ended up here, but I'm not sure the writers of either the movie or the comic book know the answer to that any more than I do.

Priest instead really seems more like an intentional mash-up of visual styles without any attendant brainpower devoted to figuring out how such visuals could ever have occurred. One shot shows the keen intellect at work here. After Priest intones portentously that there's no sun in the city any more, we see a shot of the city as seen on the horizon. It's no wonder that the city has a smog and smoke problem because its designers didn't invent an industrial district -- instead, there appears to be a gigantic smokestack looming over ever city block. And you thought your city was badly planned!

Much chasing of the train ensues on the solar-powered motorbikes everyone seems to ride when they're not riding the train, cars also apparently not having been invented. Also, I can't think of a better vehicle to ride across a rock-strewn wasteland than a motorbike travelling at 300 miles per hour. Can you? Karl Urban shows up, looking pretty much exactly like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. Much CGI ensues.

I didn't NOT enjoy Priest. Like Terminator Salvation but at one-tenth the budget, it offers a rich array of swipes, steals and homages to mull over. Okay, laugh over. Paul Bettany struggles manfully to invest his ill-written role with something remotely actorly -- with this and his role in the equally bad and derivative Legion, Bettany is threatening to become the Peter Weller of the 21st century. We know that, like Weller, Bettany can act. But we don't want to see him acting in movies like Priest or Legion (or in Weller's case, Screamers and Shakedown. Note how all these movies have one-word titles?).

Christopher Plummer does his old hambone in a bad movie routine, and Karl Urban does about what he can with a character who doesn't even have a proper name or in lieu of that, a title. He's Black Hat. Brad Dourif is Salesman! Maggie Q is Priestess! And Priest is Movie! Paradoxically recommended.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hell Cows

Hellboy Volume 11: The Bride of Hell and Others, written by Mike Mignola, illustrated by Mignola, Richard Corben, Kevin Nowlan and Scott Hampton (Collected 2011): Mignola continues to alternate between advancing Hellboy's contemporary adventures (which now pretty much occur entirely in terms of the series' overall arc about Hellboy's destiny) and filling in Hellboy's exploits in the past.

 
Hellboy's past on Earth gives Mignola a pretty wide and deep canvas to paint on, as Hellboy operated across the globe for about 50 years as an investigator for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence.

 
Here, we get a big helping of the past, including a now rare (and always appreciated) appearance by artist Kevin Nowlan in a change-up story involving cattle mutilations and aliens. Richard Corben does visceral work on stories that involve Mexican wrestlers, Egyptian mummies, and an extinct rival for the Templars (in a story Mignola notes was partially inspired by Seabury Quinn's stories of occult detective Jules de Grandin, who battled ghostly Templars in one story and, in his only novel-length adventure, took on the case of The Devil's Bride).

 
Elsewhere, Scott Hampton illustrates a fascinating story about why vampires on Earth-Hellboy aren't more prevalent, and Mignola himself takes up the pen for a story that first appeared on-line at the USA Today site (!).

 
Mignola's interest in myth, popular culture, and genre antecedents that include H.P. Lovecraft and the aforementioned Seabury Quinn again shine through, as does his ability to mix the absurd with the deadly serious. Highly recommended.

Waking Nightmares by Ramsey Campbell

Waking Nightmares by Ramsey Campbell (1991) containing "The Guide" (1989) "Next Time You'll Know Me" (1988) "Second Sight" (1987) "The Trick" (1980) "In the Trees" (1986) "Another World" (1987) "Playing the Game" (1988) "Bedtime Story" (1986) "Watch the Birdie" (1984) "Old Clothes" (1985) "Beyond Words" (1986) "Jack in the Box" (1983) "Eye of Childhood" (1982) "The Other Side" (1986) "Where the Heart Is" (1987) "Being an Angel" (1989) "It Helps If You Sing" (1989) "The Old School" (1989) and "Meeting the Author" (1989): This mid-career collection from Campbell contains a lot of dandy stories published over the space of ten years and written over the space of about 20.

 

It opens with one of the odder 'inspired by a true story' horror stories I've ever read, "The Guide", which takes the fact that British ghost-story writer M.R. James also wrote a guidebook to the Lancashire area of England and uses that starting point in one of Campbell's most Jamesian, antiquarian horror stories. It closes with a tale of a disturbing children's book writer, a disturbed child, and a story in which the presence of the supernatural remains ambiguous throughout, "Meeting the Author."

 

In between are some fairly horrifying meditations on childhood horrors ("The Trick", "Eye of Childhood", "Bedtime Story", "The Old School"), zombies ("It Helps If You Sing"), religious nutjobs ("Another World"), writers with major problems ("Beyond Words", "Next Time You'll Know Me"), supernaturally altered landscapes (the increasingly malign nature trails of "In the Woods"), guardian angels ("Being an Angel"), and what appear to be a possessed raincoat ("Old Clothes"), a sinister-yet-familar board game ("Playing the Game"), and a malign pub washroom ("Watch the Birdie").

 

Throughout, Campbell's eye for telling detail and sympathetic characterization shines. The endings of many of the stories may be ruthless, but the impact of many of them relies on Campbell's ability to elicit sympathy for a character within the confines of a few thousand words. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

11/22/63 (2011) by Stephen King




11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011): According to his Afterword, King originally conceived of this novel in 1972 but decided not to work on it then because of the enormous amount of research involved in presenting the lead-up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. At the time of the novel's conception, King was still a part-time writer employed full-time as a high-school English teacher, the success of Carrie that allowed him to write full-time still some time in the future.

So it's perhaps fitting that the protagonist of 11/22/63 is one Jake Epping, Maine high-school English teacher in 2011 and soon to be a time traveller to the world of Ago (as he calls it) -- September 1958.

Basically, the premise of 11/22/63 is that there's a mysterious gateway in time located in the supply closet of a greasy-spoon restaurant in 2011. The proprietor of the restaurant, a friend of Jake's, has been using the gateway for years to buy cheap supplies from 1958 stores. The gateway always goes back to the same exact time, the duration of one's 1958 visit is always two minutes in 2011 no matter how long you stay in 1958, and every time you travel back in time, everything you did on your previous visit is erased. The restaurant owner has been buying the 'same' hamburger from 1958 for years, for example.

But now Al, the restaurant owner, is dying of cancer, having failed to live long enough starting in 1958 to make it to 1963 and save JFK, which he believes will fix almost everything that went wrong following JFK's assassination. So he convinces Jake to take up the torch. Both men want solid confirmation that Oswald acted alone (in both the novel and in King's mind, Oswald's status as a lone gunman is almost completely certain), so killing Oswald before there's some nearly complete proof of his approaching guilt isn't justifiable.

Al dies, leaving Jake with a large stash of money he's picked up in repeated trips to 1963 and copious notes on where and when Jake needs to be to confirm or disprove Oswald's guilt. And off we go, with an early sidetrip to demon-haunted Derry, Maine (location, most notably, of King's 1986 novel It) before the main event.

The laws of the time bubble mean that this isn't a science-fiction novel -- the past tries to protect itself from change, and some of the rules governing cause-and-effect would seem to require a conscious, self-correcting mechanism. That's OK, as King has never been all that good at science fiction.

That he sticks us in Derry a couple of months after the main 1958 events of It also points to the fact that this novel takes place in a universe where the supernatural works. And there are other potential complications. A seemingly harmless drunk always hangs out at the 1958 exit point of the bubble. But the drunk, Al has observed, actually seems to be vaguely aware that time is being mucked with. Is someone or something monitoring Jake once he makes his way to the past? Some of his nightmares suggest this may be true.

King's plotting is sharp here, free of most of the longeurs that plagued Under the Dome and a few other recent novels. The Derry sequence seems like the best section of the novel to me, partially because we revisit It from a slightly different perspective, and partially because Jake's double-outsider view of Derry as both a non-resident and a time traveller adds another layer to It. Derry really does resemble one of H.P. Lovecraft's supernaturally skewed towns herein. The town scares Jake for the months he spends there, despite the fact that the child-killing creature from It is (mostly) somnolent by the time of Jake's stay in Derry.

Once his business is done in Derry, Jake moves on, first to Florida and ultimately to Texas to begin gathering information on Lee Harvey Oswald. King leaves plenty of room for both exposition on the Kennedy assassination and for Jake's late idyll in a small Texas town where he works as a teacher and eventually falls in love. But time (or maybe Time would be more accurate) continues to try to stop Jake. Worse, strange coincidences and nightmares start to plague him. Can history be altered in such a large way? And what will 2011 look like when Jake returns to it, if he does return?

Well, that's the point of the whole later stretch of the novel, isn't it? King keeps the plot chugging along, and the final stages of the struggle to stop Oswald are as tense as any sustained sequence he's ever written. The novel also makes the historical characters explicable if not necessarily sympathetic -- even Oswald becomes a figure of pity as well as of wrath, as do his Russian wife and young daughter. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Unnerved

New Terrors I, edited by Ramsey Campbell (1980; 1982), containing the following stories:

The Stains by Robert Aickman; City Fishing by Steve Rasnic Tem; Yare by Manly Wade Wellman; A Room With a Vie by Tanith Lee; Tissue by Marc Laidlaw; Without Rhyme or Reason by Peter Valentine Timlett; Love Me Tender by Bob Shaw; Kevin Malone by Gene Wolfe; Chicken Soup by Kit Reed; The Pursuer by James Wade; The Spot by Dennis Etchison and Mark Johnson; The Gingerbread House by Cherry Wilder; .220 Swift by Karl Edward Wagner; The Fit by Ramsey Campbell; and Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game by Stephen King.

 

American paperback cutdown of Campbell's massive British anthology of new horror stories. Pocket Books seemed to be keeping one eye on the bottom line, so the limited page count in this and the subsequent volume caused several novelettes from the British anthology to be left out of the two American volumes. So it goes.

The stories are mostly excellent. The late, great Robert Aickman's novelette dominates the anthology -- it's weird and unnerving and inexplicable in that peculiar Aickman way that seems to be some odd combination of Franz Kafka and M.R. James. Gene Wolfe, Campbell himself and Karl Edward Wagner all contribute solid, disparate stories. Wolfe's echoes Shirley Jackson and Edith Wharton. Wagner's novelette feels like a novel that's collapsed into itself -- it needs more length to avoid the sudden narrative shifts and jumps that threaten to completely undo suspension of disbelief, but it ultimately holds together.

Dennis Etchison supplies a story that could be held up as an exemplar of Etchison's dry, allusive work about the assorted weirdnesses of Los Angeles life. Tanith Lee supplies a less dire, funnier story than I'm used to from her, about a very oddly haunted hotel room.

And there's Stephen King's surreal little gem "Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game," which Campbell cites as King's strangest story circa 1980 and which remains so circa 2011. All in all, a fine anthology (or at least part of one), and a testament to Campbell's underrated excellence as an anthologist. Highly recommended.

Bitten by a Radioactive Ayn Rand

DC Archives: Action Heroes Volume 2, written by Steve Ditko, Roger Stern, Steve Skeates, and others; illustrated by Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Frank McLaughlin, John Byrne and others (1965-68; collected 2007): This collection contains a pretty clear moment at which comic-book great Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange for Marvel, crossed the line into Ayn Randian propagandist. It occurs towards the end of the Charlton Comics 'Action Heroes' line from which these archives take their name.
It's a mind-boggling moment because it marks one of the few times that mainstream Ditko and self-published Ditko would merge into one angry, Objectivist loudspeaker. Ditko's two streams of output -- one for himself and one to pay the bills -- would pretty much permanently diverge after the demise of the Charlton superhero line, and others would pretty much handle all the scripting on his mainstream superhero titles.

Ditko helped revamp or create most of the always lame-duck Charlton Comics' superheroes, co-creating Captain Atom, Nightshade, and The Question and revamping Golden-Age crimefighter Blue Beetle into a nifty mix of Spider-man and Iron Man. This archive collects his later work on those Charlton superheroes. Captain Atom is a lot of fun, especially once inker Frank McLaughlin comes on board, and it's mostly free of cant. Blue Beetle is also jolly, zippy fun until the aforementioned Rand Moment, at which point the Blue Beetle becomes a Ditko mouthpiece. Not for long, mind you -- cancellation of the entire superhero line loomed.

And then there's the Question, a visually inspired Ditko creation whose main costuming as a superhero was a face made perfectly blank by a special mask. Alan Moore would base Rorchach in Watchmen on this guy, and you can see why. While the Question begins life as a fairly normal urban vigilante (albeit one wearing a suit, tie, and hat), he rapidly turns into Ditko's spokesperson for his Ayn Rand-derived ethics.

And boy, does he speak. A lot.

The Question's only book-length adventure from the 1960's, from the pages of Charlton's Mysterious Suspense, is one of the wordiest slogs you'll ever encounter in comic books of this or any other time. The sheer volume of verbiage crowds out much of Ditko's visual dynamism, leaving us with talking heads and the Question demonstrating that, for a brief time, he was the stuffiest of all stuffed shirts on the superhero scene. And his hatred of hippies was positively Cartmanesque.

The Blue Beetle also develops advanced Randitis and, in a memorable two-story team-up, he and the Question battle both evil, non-heroic Art and an evil, non-heroic Art critic. I kid you not. It's like Philosophers at Work played straight. Fascinating stuff. Come for Ditko's visual excellence, stay for the interminable lectures. Recommended.

Beware the Stare


Village of the Damned, written by Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla and Ronald Kinnoch; based on The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham; directed by Wolf Rilla; starring George Sanders (Gordon Zellaby) and Barbara Shelley (Anthea Zellaby) (1960): Dandy adaptation of John Wyndham's even dandier novel. A mysterious force knocks out everyone in the small English town of Midwich for several hours. After they awaken, they eventually discover that every woman of child-bearing age is pregnant.

The pregnancies advance far too quickly to be normal. And the children that are born, who mature far too quickly -- well, they're a bunch of blond-haired, super-intelligent beings with strange, menacing, and rapidly increasing powers of telepathy and telekinesis. Earth has been invaded through a form of cosmic rape. What will the outcome be?

John Wyndham was Great Britain's best-selling master of the apocalypse in the late 1940's and 1950's, though in The Midwich Cuckoos the (near) end of the world is implied but not observed as it was in other Wyndham novels like The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes. Rilla and his army of screenwriters do a solid job here of condensing the character list and the timeline for a short, tense film -- a lot of things are left out, but you wouldn't note their absence unless you had read the novel.

George Sanders and Barbara Shelley are solid as protagonist Gordon Zellanby and his much-younger wife, who gives birth to David, the leader of the 12 quasi-alien children born in Midwich. Sanders's character is a high-profile scientific consultant to the British government, so he has a seat at the table as debates occur about what to do with the children.

The representation of the children has become something of a pop-cultural icon, even for people who've never seen the film. They're blond, they're eerily well-spoken, and their eyes glow when they're using their mental powers. Zellanby believes they can be educated about human morality and become a boon to mankind. Pretty much everyone else watches in horror as the body count mounts -- like Texas, these kids don't like being messed with. Followed by a lackluster sequel and a pointless 1995 remake starring Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Underground Horror

The Chosen Child by Graham Masterson (1997): Solid and mostly riveting horror-thriller from the prolific and talented Masterson. And you'll learn tons of interesting things about the history of Poland, where the novel is set in the present day! It's like a twofer -- come for the horror, stay for the history of Warsaw.
In the late 1990's, something or someone periodically emerges from the sewers of Warsaw to kill and behead seemingly random victims. The murder as the novel begins threatens to derail the construction of an American hotel group's new Warsaw location, so Sarah Leonard, the Polish-American woman in charge of the hotel's construction, ends up inserting herself into the investigation, led by old-school detective Stefan Rej.

Soon, all hell is breaking out on a number of fronts as corporate and civic corruption, organized crime, and office politics threaten to derail the investigation. And the body count continues to mount both beneath the streets and above them.

The main characters here are surely drawn and sympathetic when they need to be, while the horrors caused by the killer -- dubbed The Executioner by the press -- are evocatively and brutally shown in several setpieces. The revelation of what The Executioner really is may strain one's suspension of disbelief -- it certainly did mine -- but overall Masterson manages a fairly fascinating mix of the police procedural and the supernatural thriller.

Rej is an especially well-drawn character, occasionally mourning the moral clarity of the bygone days of Communism while doggedly continuing his investigation regardless of opposition from above or danger from below. And the history of Warsaw, especially its opposition to the Nazis, really is gripping stuff. With a number of key scenes set in reeking, filth-clogged sewers, The Chosen Child generates a real sense of dread and bodily horror: it's about as cloachally horrible as a thriller can be. Recommended.

Thrillogy!!!

Unknown, written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert; directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; starring Liam Neeson (Dr. Martin Harris), Diane Kruger (Gina), January Jones (Elizabeth Harris), Aidan Quinn (Martin B), Bruno Ganz (Jurgen), and Frank Langella (Rodney Cole) (2011): Serviceable action-thriller with Liam Neeson as a man who wakes up in a hospital after an accident to discover that no one seems to know who he is -- including his wife. Coincidences and absurdities abound and proliferate, and the whole thing seems to have been Frankenstein-assembled from parts of Total Recall, Regarding Henry and Frantic. Still, mostly competent and enjoyable, with excellent supporting turns from a weathered, mournful Bruno Ganz as a former Stasi investigator turned P.I. and Frank Langella as one of Neeson's university colleagues. Lightly recommended.


The Lincoln Lawyer, written by John Romano, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly; directed by Brad Furman; starring Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin) and Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor) (2011): Solid legal procedural makes excellent use of McConaughhey's somewhat seedy charm, casting him as an ambulance-chasing defence lawyer who finds himself belatedly fighting for actual justice. Director Furman keeps everything moving nicely, and the whole thing feels like a throwback to the 1970's, when thrillers didn't involve massive explosions and giant robots. A talented cast certainly doesn't hurt, with Phillippe, Tomei, and Macy doing superlative supporting work. Recommended.






Limitless, written by Leslie Dixon, based on The Dark Fields by Alan Glyn; directed by Neil Burger; starring Bradley Cooper (Eddie Morra), Robert De Niro (Carl Van Loon), Abbie Cornish (Lindy), and Anna Friel (Melissa) (2011): Failed writer Eddie Morra gets an IQ-boosting pill from an old acquaintance and suddenly turns into a hyperactive super-genius. Director Burger does a solid job of conveying the fast, weird rhythms of Morra's altered state of consciousness, and there are a number of clever setpieces. The ending is far too pat, and a major plot thread never gets resolved. Still, an enjoyable time-waster. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Airplane 3: The Bloodening

Quarantine 2: Terminal, written and directed by John Pogue, based on Quarantine, written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, which was based on REC, written by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo and Paco Plaza; starring Mercedes Masohn (Jenny), Josh Cooke (Henry), and Mattie Liptak (George) (2011): Straight-to-DVD sequel to solid scarer Quarantine, which was itself a remake of the excellent Spanish horror movie REC.

This sequel abandons the first-person, found-footage approach of both Quarantine and the Spanish original for a more conventional narrative approach, one that's familiar whether you've seen it in Alien (1979) or Stagecoach (1939): a group of disparate strangers are trapped together in an enclosed space by menacing forces, in this case fellow travellers infected by the genetically engineered super-rabies of the first film.

The super-rabies spreads fast and makes its victims tremendously anti-social, much like texting. Who will survive and what will be left of them? The answer shades way more to the high-body-count Alien end of the dynamic than the Stagecoach end, where almost everyone survives. Like Alien, this one also involves a cat as one of the threatened.

A mid-sized passenger jet flight out of L.A. has unwanted passengers of both the rat and human variety. Hilarity ensues, as the super-rabies of the first movie makes its appearance while the plane is in the air, ultimately forcing an emergency landing in Kansas City. There, the plane is...quarantined!!! At a terminal!!!

Hence the title!!!

Much monstrous mayhem ensues. This isn't a great movie, but it delivers some scares and shocks and a couple of clever action-horror setpieces. The monsters are of the fast-zombie variety seen in the first, better Quarantine, though they're a lot easier to kill this time around. That's unfortunate, as the Pythonesque Black Knight quality of the original monsters was one of the more effective and horrific things in that film. Oh, well. Not great, but certainly an adequate time-waster, and superior to a lot of higher-budget horror movies of the last ten years. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Last Voice They Hear (1998) by Ramsey Campbell



The Last Voice They Hear (1998) by Ramsey Campbell: Geoff and Gail Davenport are the proud parents of three-year-old Paul and co-workers on a British news show called The Goods, which exposes corruption and abuse at schools, workplaces and other venues. They live in London, England, though Gail is originally from San Francisco and Geoff from Liverpool. Gail's parents are about to visit.  

And Paul is about to get a phone call from someone he hasn't talked to in twenty years -- his estranged, older half-brother Ben, the product of terrible emotional and physical abuse from Ben's step-father (Geoff's father), Ben and Geoff's mother, and their grandparents.

And that phone call means the end to domestic bliss, as Campbell puts another happy family through Hell.

When they were children, Geoff tried to shield Ben from their parents' wrath whenever he could. But he was a kid, and he failed. A lot. And now Ben blames him as much or more for his woes than he does their late parents and late grandparents. But there's more. Over the last seven years, someone has been killing elderly couples in a particularly gruesome way, staging the bodies to make a comment about...something. 

Now Ben tells Geoff that he's the killer, and that Geoff has to play an even worse version of a bad childhood 'game' Ben cooked up in order to divine Ben's new identity, stop the killings -- and protect young Paul, in whom Ben is inordinately interested. And so we're off.

Ben's ability to operate freely, at least for awhile, is bought by threats against Geoff's wife and child -- terrible things are promised should Geoff bring the police into the loop -- but also by Geoff's own empathy and sense of guilt for Ben, empathy and guilt Ben has been using to emotionally leverage Geoff since childhood.

The novel doesn't waste much space hiding Ben's new identity from the reader. The Last Voice They Hear is a mystery about how people become the way they are, not who they are. Ben's treatment as a child and as a teenager is indeed awful -- but the mystery of why he blames Geoff more than anyone else informs much of the narrative.

Campbell deftly uses multiple third-person limited POVs to jump between first two and then three threads of the story to maintain suspense until shrinking the narrative back down at the end to one tense, focused final chase. Ben isn't sympathetic, but one feels pity for him throughout.

More importantly, while the novel shows Ben to be an extremely bright and competent killer, he's never shown to be a Lecter-style Superman. He has flaws, and his competence is ultimately as much a part of his psychic scarring as are his more pitiable traits. Geoff, as the nominal hero, may not be as interesting, but he's also flawed and almost fatally compromised by his desire to protect his family -- his entire family. It's his most decent, humane qualities that just might get everyone killed. Just as Ben wants it. Highly recommended.

Closet Case

Boogeyman, written by Eric Kripke, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White; directed by Stephen Kay; starring Barry Watson (Tim), Emily Deschanel (Kate), Skye McCole Bartusiak (Franny), Tory Mussett (Jessica), Lucy Lawless (Tim's Mother) and Charles Mesure (Tim's Father) (2005): Somewhat blah horror film with a screen story and partial screenplay credit for Supernatural TV series creator Eric Kripke. Childhood boogeyman kidnaps young Tim's father and, as it turns out, dozens of other people over the intervening years until Tim returns home upon the death of his mother to finally confront the creature that's made him afraid of closets for the last 15 years.

There are some solid scare moments here that don't simply rely on Old Reliable 'something jumps out at you!!!', but not enough of them. Barry Watson is curiously bland as the protagonist, while the decision to have two female leads (played by Tory Mussett and Bones's Emily Deschanel) means that neither of them has enough lines to make much of an impact, though it is nice to see Deschanel in a role that doesn't require her to speak like a human computer.

The ending, apparently much-hated by everyone on the Internet, actually goes somewhere interesting, though a greater fleshing out of how and why Tim finally turns the tables on the boogeyman might have helped things. Nonetheless, it's a use of logical magic, and may have signalled what was to come in Supernatural. Well, if Kripke actually wrote the ending. Somehow they followed this with two sequels. Not recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coma Chameleon


Insidious, written by Leigh Whannell, directed by James Wan, starring Patrick Wilson (Josh Lambert), Rose Byrne (Renai Lambert), Ty Simpkins (Dalton Lambert), Barbara Hershey (Lorraine Lambert), Lin Shaye (Elise Rainier), Leigh Whannell (Specs) and Angus Sampson (Tucker) (2011): Surprisingly 'old-school' ghost story given that the writer and director are best known for their work on the hardcore Saw films. If it weren't for the last twenty minutes and the subsequent, exhausted 'twist' ending, this would be a really solid film.

Young Dalton Lambert goes into a medically inexplicable coma. His family searches for answers. Weird things happen. A psychic is consulted. More weird things happen. That's the movie with the major twists and revelations unrevealed.

Wan and Whannel get a lot of productive mileage out of showing little and suggesting a lot, of quick scares and odd things lurking in the outskirts of the frame. The cosmology introduced by the psychic to explain what's going on makes a certain amount of sense, though it's not developed enough to be all that convincing for long. A visual homage to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series is a bit jarring; that one supernatural entity looks an awful lot like Darth Maul undercuts a certain amount of tension.

Rose Byrne is a stand-out as the worried mother. Byrne's face in repose tends to look sad anyway -- I think it's her eyebrows -- and the look suits the material. Patrick Wilson is fine as the father, who has supernatural secrets of his own, though he appears to lose about 50 IQ points in the last twenty minutes. When the psychic tells you not to draw attention to yourself, don't run around yelling at every supernatural entity you encounter, that's all I've got to say.

The movie also joins the horror sub-sub-sub-genre of 'Monsters who love novelty songs,' as one entity really likes Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," which was already terrifying enough on its own. Hell's playlist must be really awful. Recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Verdict on Satan: Quite a Guy!!!

Lucifer Volume 6: Mansions of the Silence, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, Dean Ormston and David Hahn (2003; collected 2004); Lucifer Volume 7: Exodus, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly (2003-2004; collected 2005): Mike Carey's version of Lucifer, created by Neil Gaiman in his Sandman series, almost seems like a conscious upping of the ante with Gaiman's award-winning title about Dream of the Endless. Dream wasn't all that likeable. Indeed, he was something of a jerk. Indeed, the whole series was in part about Dream coming to terms with the fact that he was a jerk in the self-pitying Byronic mode.

And here we have Lucifer, who is even more of an anti-hero, though a fascinating and shaded one, and definitely not one to be burdened by guilt or self-pity. In such a situation, one's sympathies will be engaged not by the titular protagonist but by the supporting characters, though Lucifer occasionally comes across pretty well simply because so many of his opponents are such monsters and assholes by comparison.

Lucifer gave up his kingship of Hell fairly early in the Sandman series, wandering the Earth for awhile before opening a night-club (aptly named Lux) in Los Angeles. But his out-sized ambitions returned, and by the time of these volumes he's created his own universe, apparently hoping to learn from the mistakes of his Father -- that is, God, or the Presence as he is generally called herein.

Mansions of the Silence depicts Lucifer's repayment of a debt to the human/angel hybrid named Elaine Belloc, who saved Lucifer's life in a previous installment but whose soul was subsequently kidnapped and dragged off into the eponymous Mansions, a vast expanse inhabited by various supernatural beings who have no interest in living in any of the codified afterlifes of the spiritual universe.

Belloc's soul has been used to bait a trap for Lucifer; he despatches a ragtag group of allies into the Mansions both to reveal the extent of the threat and to preserve the integrity of this spiritual space, at least until he retrieves Elaine. Lucifer's power is too great for the Mansions to support his presence -- if he enters them, the entire realm will quickly disintegrate.

The quest is weird and wooly, with lots of mythical overtones, undertones, and shout-outs to a wide assortment of world religions. Exodus then follows Lucifer's subsequent moves, and the fall-out from God's big announcement at the beginning of Mansions. Lucifer plays the hero, to an extent, in both volumes, though always for his own reasons -- reasons which are not entirely revealed at the time. He's a right bastard, but less so than any of the gods (or God) we meet, and Lucifer's creation seems remarkably benign and pleasant under the circumstances.

Carey deftly combines humour and pathos and the epic throughout both these volumes -- a 'mini-arc' about an odd and very sympathetic demon who spins webs out of emotions he steals from human souls is the stand-out in Exodus, a weird little heart-warmer about families and friendship. The art by Peter Gross and others is crisp throughout, expressively managing to convey menace, the Sublime and a pleasing level of cartoony humour at the appropriate moments with equal skill. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

War is Hello!


Army@Love Volume 2: Generation Pwned, written by Rick Veitch, illustrated by Rick Veitch, Gary Erskine, and Jose Villarrubia (2007-2008; collected 2008): Hilarious, scabrous satire of war and culture in the near future ("A few years from now," we're periodically told), as American troops in the country of 'Afbaghistan' fight to win hearts and minds, and to make the Armed Forces of the near-future a cool thing for American youth to join by any means necessary, including subliminal advertisements and shiny, happy multimedia depictions of the sex- and drug-drenched wonderland of modern warfare.

War isn't like a video game. War has become a video game, but the participants are still prone to the age-old problems of stress disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, separation from loved ones back home, and the occasional enemy infiltrator.

Veitch's career-long love of occasionally goofy, satirically pointed names (Beau Gest and Flabberghast, to cite two) still manifests from time to time, which can be a bit jarring when those names brush up against the more normative elements of the narrative. Otherwise this is Veitch's sharpest, most well-observed satire in a career with many high points in that too-small subgenre of comic books.

In a perfect world, this series would have gone on for a long time. Unfortunately, we only got 18 issues of it. So it goes. Gary Erskine's inks eliminate pretty much all the occasional shagginess of Veitch's pencils, giving the book a sort of hard-edge hyper-reality that well serves the subject material and the treatment thereof. Great satire, and a great war book. This isn't for the drooling old codgers sitting around watching The Hitler Channel. Highly recommended.

The Raw and the Cooked

Night of the Claw (aka The Claw) by Ramsey Campbell (writing as 'Jay Ramsay') (1983): Horror great Ramsey Campbell's only pseudonymonous novel sees thriller novelist Alan Knight, his wife Liz and their daughter Anna threatened by a supernatural relic Alan was tricked into bringing back from a research trip to West Africa. This is the eponymous Claw of the Leopard Men, a real African secret society which committed ritual killings back in the 1940's in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Marlowe (note the shout-out to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"), an anthropologist investigating the origins of the cult, discovered the Claw -- and was supernaturally infected by it. Passing it off to Knight doesn't save Marlowe, however, and he commits suicide rather than kill his daughter. The Claw causes any post-adolescent who touches it to eventually kill children, preferably his or her own.

After a set-up back in England, where Alan grows increasingly angry at Anna, and an innocent who accidentally touched the Claw goes on an animal-killing spree, the narrative divides into two main threads. Alan returns to Africa where, with the help of Marlowe's African contact, he'll try to seek out both the cult and the means to end the curse. The Claw, stolen by a person or persons unknown, remains in England, somewhere in the seaside town in which the Knights live. The Claw's malign influence begins infecting everyone around Knight, including his wife, and the novel becomes a race against time to save Anna from her increasingly bloodthirsty mother.

Campbell handles the African material quite sensitively under the circumstances. The Leopard Men Cult is viewed by normal African society as a horrifying aberration, one which Marlowe's African contact Dr. Banjo (who himself has two daughters) is willing to do anything to eradicate. Banjo and Knight must figure out the rules of fetishistic magic in order to defeat the Claw's power once and for all time.

The strength of the English narrative lies in Campbell's realistic third-person evocation of the mindset of six-year-old Anna as first her father and the her mother start becoming monsters who seem to want to hurt her. Anna may be plucky, but she's no unrealistic super-kid, and her helplessness in certain situations as the peril grows -- and as no one outside the family offers much help -- will be familiar to anyone who's read about real-life child abuse.

This is horror about a fractured family dynamic, and while the African narrative could be more developed, the English portion of the narrative is top-notch psychological horror. It's not one of Campbell's great novels, but it has a lot of terrific scenes and a really strong and sad depiction of a family fragmenting into violence and attendant terror. Recommended.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Superhorror

The Far Reaches of Fear (previously published as Superhorror [1976]), edited by Ramsey Campbell (1980) containing:

The Viaduct by Brian Lumley; Fog in My Throat by R. A. Lafferty; Christina by Daphne Castell; The Case of James Elmo Freebish by Joseph F. Pumilia; The Hunting Ground by David Drake; The Petey Car by Manly Wade Wellman; Wood by Robert Aickman; The Pattern by Ramsey Campbell and Dark Wings by Fritz Leiber.

Campbell's first original anthology really sees him come out of the gate running. Hell, his first three original anthologies (this, New Terrors and New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos) show a keen mind in the unfortunately not-all-that lucrative world of original horror anthologies. But the 1970's and early 1980's were somewhat financially kinder to the purveyors and writers of short stories.

As with New Terrors, the range of the stories is impressive: Castell's melancholy, M.R. James-tinged ghost story; Drake's terrifically tense tale of a wounded Viet Nam vet come home to a war with something inhumanly worse than the Viet Cong; Pumilia's homage to the EC horror comics of the 1950's; Lafferty's surprisingly understated (for Lafferty) tale of existential science-horror; Wellman's slice of homespun Appalachian creepiness; Leiber's X-rated tale of dopplegangers; Lumley's perfect, awful piece of childhood horror; Aickman's typically mysterious tale of clockwork toys and malign wood-working; and Campbell's own unusual take on predestination and fate.

It's a solid selection of stories under either this name or its original title of Superhorror (the latter hardcover has an awesomely creepy cover). I originally got the latter for 25 cents from the Tillsonburg library in about 1982. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Terrors

New Terrors II, edited by Ramsey Campbell (1980; 1984), containing:

Sun City by Lisa Tuttle; Time to Laugh by Joan Aiken; Bridal Suite by Graham Masterton; The Miraculous Cairn by Christopher Priest; The Rubber Room by Robert Bloch; Drama In Five Acts by Giles Gordon; The Initiation by Jack Sullivan; Lucille Would Have Known by John Frederick Burke; The Funny Face Murders by R. A. Lafferty; Femme Fatale by Marianne Leconte; Can You Still See Me? by Margaret Dickson; One Way Out by Felice Picano; The Ice Monkey by M. John Harrison; Symbiote by Andrew J. Offutt and Across the Water to Skye by Charles L. Grant.

Second half of Campbell's British New Terrors anthology of original horror stories divided for American paperback publication. The stories range from the solid and familiarly M.R. Jamesian "Lucille Would Have Known" (though James never wrote a ghost story about bus tours) to the brooding, Kafkaesque "The Miraculous Cairn" and the post-modern prose-poem "Drama in Five Acts." Range is indeed what we have here, without sacrificing terror, horror or the occasional gross-out seen most prominently in "Bridal Suite." "Symbiote" and the grotesque "Femme Fatale."

Several of the stories are almost perfectly representative of their authors, especially M. John Harrison's "The Ice Monkey" -- suggestive but ultimately nebulous terror set in a relentlessly broken urban wasteland counterpointed with the dangerous Sublime of nature --and R.A. Lafferty's weird-ass, Chestertonian "The Funny Face Murders." Old masters like Aiken, Bloch and Lafferty rub shoulders here with both the up-and-coming (Masterson, Tuttle, Harrison and Priest) and the relatively obscure to the horror genre (Dickson, Picano and Gordon). In all, a wide-ranging and often deeply disturbing anthology. Or at least half of one. Highly recommended.

Strange Choices

DAW Year's Best Horror Stories Series V (1976), edited by Gerald W. Page (1977), containing:
The Service by Jerry Sohl; Long Hollow Swamp by Joseph Payne Brennan; Sing a Last Song of Valdese by Karl Edward Wagner; Harold's Blues by Glen Singer; The Well by H. Warner Munn; A Most Unusual Murder by Robert Bloch; Huzdra by Tanith Lee; Shatterday by Harlan Ellison; Children of the Forest by David Drake; The Day It Rained Lizards by Arthur Byron Cover; Followers of the Dark Star by Robert Edmond Alter; When All the Children Call My Name by Charles L. Grant; Belsen Express by Fritz Leiber and Where the Woodbine Twineth by Manly Wade Wellman.

An odd entry in DAW's long-running horror annual with a lot of previously unpublished stories and several stories that aren't really horror at all, the latter most notably those by Munn, Bloch, and Cover. The best stories here are by Wagner, Drake, Lee, and Leiber, the last of which is one of the oddest and most affecting Holocaust stories I can think of. Manly Wade Wellman contributes a fairly representative tale of backwoods supernatural goings-on, more tall tale told around the cracker barrel than actual horror.

The Cover story is something of an unpleasant mess, while Brennan's story starts strong with weird occurences in shunned places before veering into what almost seems like self-parody with the revelation of the hidden menace. Munn's novella -- the longest piece in the anthology -- is a somewhat overripe bit of Westernized Orientalism. Lee and Wagner offer us intriguingly offbeat riffs on fairy tales and legend. Not a great volume in the series, but fairly solid. Recommended.

Docudramamine

Paranormal Activity 3, written by Christopher B. Landon, based on characters and situations created by Oren Peli, starring Chloe Csengery (Katie), Jessica Tyler Brown (Kristi), Lauren Bittner (Julie), and Dustin Ingram (Randy Rosen) (2011): The 'documentary/found footage' subgenre of horror films, so popular right now, harks back to the 19th-century beginnings of what we now recognize as the horror story. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was told in the form of letters and diary entries; Bram Stoker's Dracula added fake newspaper clippings to that mix; Edgar Allan Poe played with fiction and fact within stories that were sometimes published as 'fact.'

H.P. Lovecraft moved the documentary style in a more holistic fictional direction, having his narrators tell ostensibly true tales about fictional events and mythologies and framing everything inside the conceit that the fiction was the real truth about the universe, and recognized fact the fiction.

I have a great fondness for these attempts at documentary horror -- at their best, they're much better than almost every other filmed attempt at horror in the last twenty or thirty years, in part because they move so resolutely away from the grapohic violence of the slasher films that have dominated the horror film genre since the late 1970's. Suggestion and subtlety are what work best in these movies, and Paranormal Activity 3 comes up with some lovely moments of 'found' horror.

The fictional backstory of the three Paranormal films situates the entire narrative within the subtext of long-term child sexual, physical and emotional abuse, abuse that spans generations and is part of the horror. It's a classic example of Stephen King's 'sub-text school' of horror, in which the supernatural stands in for something too mundanely awful to be depicted on film.

Thankfully, one can also say 'pooh!' to sub-text and simply enjoy the movies as a depiction of the pervasive and perhaps unkillable influence of supernatural evil. That the threatened protagonists are spiritually and intellectually unsuited to a confrontation with elemental and generational evil is part of the point of the movies, I think -- no one is coming to save them because they're too dumb, or too conditioned to an unintellectual passivity, to make any real effort to save themselves. They're reactive, not pro-active.

I won't bother with the plot of the movie, or even the characterization. It all makes more sense if you've seen the first two films, though if you haven't you may be a lot more shocked at some of the plot developments. There is clever, killer use of a camera mounted on a rotating fan within the story world, with menace building as we move at a set pace back and forth from foyer to dining room and back again, and things start to appear that shouldn't be there.

There's also one of the smarter, more realistic character reactions to a haunting that I've seen in some time -- a secondary character seems to have seen Eddie Murphy's hilarious bit about The Amityville Horror and reacts accordingly when threatening weirdness occurs. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why Go There?


The Thing, written by Eric Heisserer, based on the novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. and The Thing (1982), written by Bill Lancaster, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Kate Lloyd), Joel Edgerton (Sam Carter), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Jameson) and Ulrich Thomsen (Dr. Halvorson) (2011): Totally pointless prequel to John Carpenter's gory, gonzo adaptation of John Campbell, Jr.'s 1938 sci-fi-horror novella "Who Goes There?", which itself bore more than a few suspicious resemblances to H.P. Lovecraft's 1936 sci-fi-horror novella "At the Mountains of Madness." Here, we follow the adventures of the (mostly) Norwegian Antarctic base scientists who first discover the eponymous Thing and who, reduced to two guys in a helicopter at the very start of Carpenter's Thing, try to stop the creature from reaching the American base of that film. Got all that?

Carpenter's film wasn't truly great -- the dialogue and plotting needed a bit more zip for that -- but it was improved immensely by its cast of character-actor All-Stars and its ground-breaking alien special effects work, which still looks amazingly creepy and goopy and disturbing even now. Unfortunately, the CGI here suffers from underdone CGIitis, with the alien, while far more complex in several of its manifestations, lacking weight and heft regardless of its size on the screen.

It doesn't help that the Thing has lost about a 100 IQ points, bursting out of hiding at several points when pretending to stay human would have secured its supposed goal: getting off the isolated Antarctic base to a more populated place with better transporation options so that it could, given its biology, eventually replace everything biological on the planet with itself. Instead, it pops out at inopportune moments so often that one eventually believes that it's actual purpose on Earth is to run around scaring people and breaking shit.

The people aren't much brighter. At one point, a group of them locks two suspicious helicopter-crash survivors in a shack because doing so will protect the group in the event that the survivors are really the Thing. But we've already seen the Thing shoot twenty feet into the air and through a roof from a standing start inside a giant block of ice that it's been trapped in for 100,000 years. How is the shack going to stop it? Oh, well.

Perky young protagonist Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the roller-skating, Amazon-package-delivering love interest in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) plays a character from the Bones school of incredibly young bone experts. Everyone else is pretty much interchangeable except the actor who played Mr. Eko on Lost, criminally underused here, and the guy playing the base commander, the latter of whom looks like Sting during his Mandolin-playing German-pimp stage. Boy, Sting makes a lousy Antarctic base commander. No wonder the Police broke up. Not recommended.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Let the Wild Wild Remain

Hellboy Volume 9: The Wild Hunt, written by Mike Mignola, illustrated by Duncan Fegredo (2008-2009): Cleverly (and for new readers welcomingly), Mignola's Hellboy output now splits almost evenly into two categories -- standalone stories of one to three issues about Hellboy's past, and the 'mythology' stories about Hellboy's role in the coming apocalypse.

The Wild Hunt is one of the latter. I'd imagine it's almost impenetrable to a newbie (hence the standalone stories to bring new readers in without requiring them to buy a whole trade if they don't want to). It's pretty essential for those who've followed The Story Thus Far, though.

Having left the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence several years earlier, Hellboy begins the volume chilling at the home of some dead friends. Well, the ghosts of dead friends. Some Upper-Class British Twits convince Hellboy to join in the Wild Hunt, which they maintain is a periodic hunt for newly awakened giants in the British countryside. But they may not be telling the truth. Meanwhile, other foes -- including Merlin's femme fatale Nimue -- are running their own game.

Basically, everybody wants to somehow fulfill the nebulous prophecy that Hellboy will bring about the end of the Earth except Hellboy, who manfully wrestles with his destiny (indeed, even the meaning of his destiny) as he always has. We get one shocking revelation, some extreme giant-fighting, some creepy and a bit inexplicable stuff in what seems to be the land of the Faerie, and a slight increase in the murkiness surrounding Hellboy's future. An enjoyable installment in all, though not a jumping-on point. Recommended.

Swamp Thing


DC Comics Classics Library: Roots of the Swamp Thing, written by Len Wein, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, Nestor Redondo, Mike Kaluta and Luis Dominguez (1972-1974, 1991; collected 2009): Swamp Thing (who never calls himself that) is one of those DC characters with a loyal following that stretches back 40 years to his first appearances. That's mainly thanks to the spectacular artwork of Bernie Wrightson, with an assist to the melodramatic writing by Wein, who makes Swampy into a brooding, quasi-Byronic hero. Well, if Byron were a scientist who'd been changed by a lab accident into a 7-foot-tall "muck-encrusted mockery of a man."

DC was cooking with gas in the early 1970's, the result of an influx of astonishing new writing and artistic talent. Marvel, mostly moribund, was in the process of becoming what DC had been -- a conservative comic-book company with a highly controlled house style for both art and story. Meanwhile, DC seemed to keep stumbling and bumbling along into mostly short-lived by influential and critically revered series. Swamp Thing was one of those.

Wrightson was great at grotesques, at horror and the macabre, and Wein supplied him with a ten-issue run of horror tropes for Swamp Thing (really Alec Holland, or so he thought at the time) to shamble into battle against, including a Frankenstein's monster, a werewolf, a witch, and a Cthulhoid monstrosity living in a mineshaft in Maine. Here, of course, the misunderstood monster is the hero, as are some of the monsters he first battles and then befriends. It's a horror-tinged paean to outsiders. Wrightson also gave of one of the most interesting artistic imaginings of Batman up to the time.

Some moments clunk, of course -- Wein was a young writer, and his solutions to some of the problems he creates for Alec Holland can be a bit on the ridiculous side. I'm also not entirely convinced Wein knew what "brackish" meant. So it goes. Wrightson would leave after ten issues, followed by Wein three issues later after a capable but not Wrightsonesque artistic run by Nestor Redondo.

The book would go on for several more issues, be cancelled, and return in the early 1980's to accompany the release of the woeful Swamp Thing movie. Eventually would come writer Alan Moore (Watchmen), with his entry into American comic-book writing coming on Saga of the Swamp Thing. But that was still nearly a decade away. This stuff, though, is golden. Muck-encrusted gold, but still. Highly recommended.

Going Ape


Murders in the Rue Morgue, based on the story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by Robert Florey, Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, John Huston and Ethel M. Kelly, directed by Robert Florey, starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Mirakle), Sidney Fox (Camille) and Leon Ames (Pierre Dupin) (1932): This could be Exhibit 1A of how Hollywood has always wreaked strange havoc when it adapts a movie from another medium (Exhibit 1 would be any version of Moby Dick prior to the John Huston version).

Poe's original mid-19th-century short story is considered by many to be the first true detective story, featuring as it does seasoned Parisian crime-solver C. Auguste Dupin matching wits with a homicidal orangutan dressed up as a woman. This movie gives us some sort of ape, callow Parisian medical student Pierre Dupin, and Bela Lugosi as perverse scientist Dr. Mirakle. Oh, well.

Dr. Marakle's obsession is to crossbreed an ape with a human woman. He kidnaps women and injects them with ape blood from the ape in question to see if they're biologically compatible. The woman dies, Dr. Mirakle dumps the body in the Seine, and the process starts over again. Pierre Dupin figures out what he's up to and the chase is on to save Pierre's fiancee from the clutches of Lugosi and ape alike. Either Jack Pierce (Frankenstein) achieved remarkable heights with his ape makeup, or the extreme close-ups of the ape are actually of a real ape. It's sorta hard to tell.

Filmed before the Production Code but released after, Murders in the Rue Morgue required an astonishing 19 minutes of cuts from its original 80-minute running time to get it up to Code standards. It's still a pretty perverse exercise at points, and the sets and cinematography are moody and expressionistic. Universal's army of German expatriates and other cinematic innovators were hard at work cooking up the look of the American horror film here as throughout the 1930's Universal horror catalogue.

Lugosi and the director got this movie as a sort of consolation prize for being denied starring in and directing Frankenstein, and it's pretty entertaining. And an hour long. I'd love to see that deleted footage, but it probably doesn't exist anymore. Recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Homicide Machines


Machines That Kill, edited by Fred Saberhagen and Martin H. Greenberg (1984) including "Killdozer!" (1944) by Theodore Sturgeon, "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" (1961) by Cordwainer Smith, "Hunting Machine" (1957) by Carol Emshwiller, "Auto-da-Fe" (1967) by Roger Zelazny, "Second Variety" (1953) by Philip K. Dick, "Under the Hammer" (1974) by David Drake, "Lost Memory" (1952) by Peter Phillips, "Making the Connections" (1975) by Barry N. Malzberg, "Steel" (1956) by Richard Matheson, "The Iron Chancellor" (1958) by Robert Silverberg, "The Wabbler" (1942) by Murray Leinster, "The Cruel Equations (1971) by Robert Sheckley, "Combat Unit" (1960) by Keith Laumer, "Fondly Fahrenheit" (1954) by Alfred Bester, and "Goodlife" (1963) by Fred Saberhagen:

Generously overstuffed, tiny-print 1980's paperback reprint anthology edited by Saberhagen, creator of the anti-life killer machines called Berserkers by the humans who have to fight them, and the ubiquitous anthologist Martin H. Greenberg.

The machines here aren't always self-willed in their attempts to kill people or animals, or even malevolent when they do so, and the tone of the stories ranges from hard-edged military drama like that seen in David Drake's "Under the Hammer" to the bleakly humourous and satiric "Hunting Machine", "The Iron Chancellor", "Auto-da-Fe" and "The Cruel Equations." We visit the odd and oddly believeable world of humanity's far future in "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard," one of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and the world of the now-past in Theodore Sturgeon's then-contemporary WWII-era "Killdozer!".

Some stories, like Cordwainer Smith's, form part of larger story and novel cycles, such as "Goodlife" (the aforementioned Berserker stories), " Combat Unit" (Laumer's Bolo series), and Drake's Hammer's Slammers military/mercenary science-ficton universe ("Under the Hammer"). At least three of these stories have been adapted at least once for television or movies -- "Steel" (as the Twilight Zone episode "Steel" and the 2011 movie Real Steel), "Killdozer!" (as a 1970's TV movie of the same name) and "Second Variety" (as Screamers). All and all, a solid anthology with a nice mix of the often-anthologized and the overlooked. Recommended.

Book-making

Needing Ghosts by Ramsey Campbell (1990): Dandy standalone novella about one incredibly bad, odd day in the life of a writer. Campbell's command of the limited third-person voice is, as always, razor sharp in terms of working through the thoughts of a protagonist while maintaining a slight, objective distance.

Campbell's recurring tropes get full play here: strange shapes just slightly off-centre, seen in the distance or through something obscuring vision; a reality which baffles the protagonist more and more as the narrative develops; cool or even hostile reactions from the people whom the protagonist meets. The story occupies a day in the life, but there doesn't really seem to be any day as time itself (or is it just light?) bends and collapses.

Some of the fears explored here are indeed writerly. The protagonist's attempt to speak to a writers' group goes nightmarishly wrong, as do his attempts to find copies of his books in the baffling number of bookstores he stumbles across in close proximity to one another. But these are all yoked to more universal fears of bodily and mental disintegration, of fight or flight, of terrible and increasingly justified paranoia. It's a lovely, dense little tale. Highly recommended.