Monday, February 28, 2011

Creatures of the Pool by Ramsey Campbell (2009)

Creatures of the Pool by Ramsey Campbell (2009): Gavin Meadows, self-employed as a walking-tour guide of historic Liverpool, finds out more about the city's long (founded in the 13th century) and somewhat bizarre (even in non-fiction) history as he searches for his missing father. 

Ramsey Campbell grew up in Liverpool, and a number of his previous novels have been set either there or in his early-career Liverpool stand-in, Brichester. Here, he visits all-out historical horror on his home, blending real and fictional in an unnerving, escalating fashion that builds upon the quasi-documentary accumulation of detail so central to H.P. Lovecraft's best work.

Campbell uses first-person narration here as he did in his previous novel, The Grin of the Dark. As first-person narration had previously been rare in Campbell's long-form output, I wonder if he had more ideas related to unreliable narration than The Grin of the Dark could profitably address. Gavin Meadows is much more reliable than the narrator of the previous novel, but we do get some (self-doubting) moments as Meadows tries to wrestle with whether or not what he's glimpsing is real or somehow an ongoing hallucination brought on by stress.

See, Liverpool was built partially on reclaimed marshland and, indeed, a reclaimed pool. Beneath the ground, ancient tunnels proliferate, some now being rediscovered, some still hidden. Above the ground, the rain seems to fall incessantly. And everywhere and increasingly, Gavin starts to see things that don't appear to be quite human, even as the police seem to take his father's disappearance lightly. And as Liverpool gradually succumbs to a rising damp, Meadows struggles to keep his own thoughts straight against the onslaught of historical facts that sometimes threaten to overwhelm his reason.

Long-time horror readers will recognize Campbell's nods to Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and "The Festival", though this is in its own odd way a much 'gentler' story, or at least a more ambiguous one related to the malignity of Liverpool's 'other' residents. Still, if you're ever in Liverpool, you may want to avoid drinking the water. Or bathing in it. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Best American Comics 2007 (collected from mid-2005 to mid-2006), edited by Chris Ware and Anne Elizabeth Moore:


Jerry Moriarty. Dad Watches (Endpapers) from Kramer’s Ergot

ii : Ivan Brunetti. The Horror of Simply Being Alive from Schizo

* iv : Art Spiegelman. Portrait of the Artist As a Young %@#*! from Virginia Quarterly Review and The New Yorker

xii : Anne Elizabeth Moore. Foreword

xvi : Chris Ware. Introduction

* 1 : R. and Aline Crumb. Winta Wundaland from The New Yorker

4 : Sophie Crumb. “Hey, Soph, Whazzup?” from Mome

* 5 : Alison Bechdel. The Canary-Colored Caravan of Death from Fun Home

33 : C. Tyler. Just A Bad Seed and Once, We Ran from Late Bloomer

* 40 : Lynda Barry. Ernie Pook’s Comeek (Excerpt) from Ernie Pook

44 : Lauren Weinstein. Skate Date, Waiting, and John and I Go to the Movies from Girl Stories ix

49 : Vanessa Davis. Untitled Diary Strips from Kramer’s Ergot

* 53 : Gabrielle Bell. California Journal from Mome

65 : Ivan Brunetti. Six Things I Like About My Girlfriend from Schiz0

66 : Jeffrey Brown. These Things, These Things from Little Things

75 : Ron RegĂ© Jr. fuc 1997: We Share a Happy Secret, But Beware, Because the Modern World Emerges from Kramer’s Ergot

91 : John Porcellino. Country Roads—Brighton from King-Cat Comics and Stories

95 : Jonathan Bennett. Needles and Pins from Mome

* 106 : Kevin Huizenga. Glenn in Bed from Ganges

118 : David Heatley. Sambo from Mome

* 121 : Sammy Harkham. Lubavitch, Ukraine, 1876 from Kramer’s Ergot

* 132 : Miriam Katin. Untitled (The List) from We Are on Our Own

144 : Ben Katchor. Shoehorn Technique from Chicago Reader

* 156 : Adrian Tomine. Shortcomings (Excerpt) from Optic Nerve

175 : David Heatley. Cut Thru and Laundry Room from Mome

* 177 : Gilbert Hernandez. Fritz After Dark from Luba’s Comics and Stories

* 201 : Kim Deitch. No Midgets in Midgetville from The Stuff of Dreams

219 : Anders Nilsen. Dinner and a Walk from Big Questions #7: Dinner and a Nap

* 230 : Charles Burns. Black Hole (Excerpt) from Black Hole

240 : Gary Panter. Untitled (Discrete Operations Vehicle—Burning Gall) from Jimbo’s Inferno

251 : C.F. Blond Atchen and the Bumble Boys from The Ganzfeld

263 : Ivan Brunetti. My Bumbling, Corpulent Mass from Schizo

264 : Tim Hensley. Meet the Dropouts from Mome

267 : Paper Rad. Kramer’s Ergot from Kramer’s Ergot

280 : David Heatley. Walnut Creek from Mome

* 285 : Dan Zettwoch. Won’t Be Licked! The Great ’37 Flood in Louisville from Drawn & Quarterly Showcase

315 Contributors’ Notes

326 100 Distinguished Comics from August 31, 2005 to September 1, 2006

Endpages Seth, Wimbledon Green

Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, Acme Comics Novelty Library) may need to be kept away from the editing desk. He's a brilliant writer/artist, but his writerly tendency towards tales of woe pretty much informs this entire collection. So too does an overemphasis on autobiographical comics -- and autobiographical comics dominate the Indy comix scene in much the same way that superheroes dominate the mainstream. Fine, non-autobiographical stories by Kim Deitch and Gilbert Hernandez surface towards the middle of this collection like welcome oasises of comedy and sorrow.

There's other good work here, though I'm not a fan of excerpting longer works to shoehorn them into a collection like this. There's also some truly godawful experimental comics work included, Kramer's Ergot being the worst offender -- it's like a Victor Moscoso piece as translated by an unartistic child. I'd forgotten that Gary Panter had disappeared for awhile. The piece here reminds me why this was a good thing. I've starred the stuff I liked. For the most part, the best pieces avoid the obsessive and often humourless navel-gazing of a lot of autobiographical comics, through talent or subject matter or both. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21 (2009), edited by Stephen Jones (2010):


Stephen Jones – Introduction: Horror in 2009

Michael Kelly – The Woods
Joe Hill & Stephen King – Throttle
Barbara Roden – Out And Back
Ramsey Campbell – Respects
Simon Stranzas – Cold To The Touch
M. R. James & Reggie Oliver – The Game Of Bear
Chris Bell - Shem-El-Nesime: An Inspiration In Perfume
Michael Marshall Smith – What Happens When You Wake Up In The Night
Nicholas Royle – The Reunion
Simon Kurt Unsworth – Mami Wata
Richard Christian Matheson – Venturi
John Gaskin – Party Talk
Terry Dowling – Two Steps Along The Road
Mark Valentine – The Axholme Toll
Robert Shearman – Granny’s Grinning
Rosalie Parker – In The Garden
Stephen Volk – After The Ape
Brian Lumley – The Nonesuch
Michael Kelly – Princess Of The Night
Stephen Jones & Kim Newman – Necrology: 2009

Another fine 'Best of Year' collection from uber-editor Jones. The page count seems to have been clawed back by about 100 pages, though Jones seems to have compensated by choosing fewer novellas and more short stories. The Necrology and Year in Horror sections are exhaustive and invaluable as always, while I can't fault the wide-ranging selection of horror and dark fantasy contained herein. I actually liked all of these stories; the selection seemed more influenced by M.R. James than usual, perhaps fitting for a collection that includes a posthumous (for James) M.R. James collaboration.

The first team-up between Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill (that's Joe King's nom de plume) is a hoot, an homage to Richard Matheson's "Duel" (adapted into an excellent movie directed by Stephen Spielberg). Canadian Michael Kelly gets two (!) short entries; Ramsey Campbell offers a thematic sequel to his much earlier short story "The Sneering"; creepy goings-on occur at university reunions ("The Reunion"), the Canadian North ("The Woods"); Cairo ("Shem-El-Nesime: An Inspiration In Perfume"); Africa ("Mami Wata"); Viet Nam ("Two Steps Along The Road"); and in New York after the death of King Kong ("After the Ape"). Highly recommended.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Evil Self is At the Door!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath, based on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, starring Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and Rose Hobart (1931): Fredric March deservedly won an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde, though it's his Hyde that still has the capacity to astonish. Jekyll's dark side, released by a potion Jekyll has developed, is played by March as a malignly energetic simian, a movie monster who generates neither sympathy nor pathos but only revulsion and horror. There really is something scary about March's Hyde, something I can say about very few movie monsters. Also, he has something of a conehead. That's scary in and of itself.

Stevenson's original novella lacks many of the things Hollywood has always wanted -- a clear-cut conventionally moral lesson, a love story -- so the film adds these things, for the most part to good effect. Jekyll is a crusading saint in the movie, offering a free clinic to London's poor and working long hours there in between bouts of wooing his fiancee. But he's also obsessed with the idea that people have dual natures, and that the animal side of the consciousness can be released and perhaps even discarded with the administration of the right drugs. Well, you know how badly that goes.

Don't do drugs, kids. Especially drugs that release your dark side and cause you to physically transform into a monstrous, murderous pervert.

Yes, Dr. Jekyll has invented Red Bull.

The screenplay makes manifest the idea that Jekyll is driven in great measure by sexual frustration, and by frustration at the hypocritical propriety of late Victorian England: he wants to get laid, but he also wants to help people without being repeatedly pooh-poohed for his concern for the poor and working class. Hyde, once released, is a rapist and sexual sadist, a murderer -- but also "free" in the basest meaning of that word.

During Hyde's first appearance, March does a lovely bit of physical acting -- Hyde stretches again and again, apparently to work out the kinks from being confined for so long. And then he relentlessly pursues a music-hall girl whom Jekyll had earlier helped, ultimately to bring disaster down upon her (and, finally, himself). Hopkins, as the musical-hall girl, is first erotic and light-hearted and then progressively more terrified and broken-down. It's a gem of a performance, the most sympathetic and saddest in the film.

The movie was made and released before the Hays Office was created to censor movies, and so it's surprisingly frank for a 1930's picture. Mamoulian's direction is refreshingly ahead of its time for a sound film of this era -- the camera actually moves around quite a bit, and there's an odd but ultimately effective use of first-person camera at the beginning of the film. Given the size of a camera in 1931, the staging of the six-minute sequence must have been something of a nightmare. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Unknown Soldier: Haunted House

Unknown Soldier: Haunted House, written by Joshua Dysart, illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli (2008-2009): Unfortunately, low sales caused DC to cancel this phenomenal series after just 25 issues -- though it obviously wasn't designed to run indefinitely, one certainly thought that there were another 30 or 40 issues to go beyond that 2+ year run. Meanwhile, there are still a billion different X-Men books on the shelves. Ptah!

In any case, the first volume of this iteration of DC's Unknown Soldier character sends its reluctant and brain-altered hero into the heart of the wars spinning off of Uganda's political situation in the early oughts, with government soldiers and Christian militia battling it out in the south of the country. Helpful text pages in each issue sketch out the causes of, and players in, this seemingly endless war, while the book itself manages to make violence both thrilling and horrifying, sometimes at the same time. One of the five or six best mainstream war books ever, and that includes the 1950's EC anthology books. Highest recommendation.

Friday, February 11, 2011

My Bloody Hand!!!

My Bloody Valentine, written by Todd Farmer and Zane Smith, based on the screenplay for the 1981 film of the same name written by John Beaird and Stephen A. Miller, directed by Patrick Lussier, starring Jensen Ackles, Jaime King and Kevin Tighe (2009): 11 years ago, Tom Hanniger (Ackles) accidentally caused an explosion at the mine his father owned. One man survived by killing all the other trapped miners so as to conserve oxygen, though when he was found, he was in a coma. Ten years ago, that man awoke from his coma and went on a crazy killing spree, nearly killing Hanniger before being forced to flee into a collapsing mine tunnel.

Now, Tom Hanniger is back to sell the mine. Selling the mine will put everyone in town out of work because I guess in the universe of this movie, mines can be packed up and moved elsewhere, just like factories. This last is not the dumbest thing in this slasher-movie remake.

According to some wag on the Internet, the original My Bloody Valentine (1981) is one of the neglected high-points of the 'Golden Age of Slasher Movies', by which I assume he means the late 1970's and early 1980's, and not the age of 17, which is really the age at which these things seem interesting. Never has a Golden Age of any cinematic sub-genre produced fewer truly good films, though. That said, this is a pretty inept entry in the recent slasher-film boomlet.

Tonal shifts from horror-comedy to apparently serious melodrama jar the viewer right out of any ability to enjoy the movie on either level. Some of the CGI comes across so laughably that the gold old days of on-set special effects look awfully good by comparison -- a shot of a woman's head bisected by a shovel looks like something a talented 12-year-old whipped up in between Pizza Pops, for instance, while the nods to the 3-D this film was screened in are the same old throwing-stuff-at-the-camera crap we've been seeing from 3-D movies since the 1950's. ZZZZZZZZ.

Jensen Ackles, best known for TV's Supernatural, looks embarrassed and out-of-place here -- indeed, he looks like he's stuck in the Supernatural episode "Hollywood Babylon", in which his character hangs out on the set of a slasher movie that looks way more interesting than My Bloody Valentine. Some of the surprising slasher-film tropes expounded upon the the terrific film-criticism text Men, Women and Chainsaws play out here -- ultimately, the true protagonist (and only competent 'good' person in the entire movie) turns out to be a woman; Ackles, though he headlines the picture, is only in about half the movie, and his character is something of an incompetent boob. So it goes. Not recommended.

Ministry of Fear

Ministry of Fear, written by Seton I. Miller, based on the novel by Graham Greene, directed by Fritz Lang, starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond (1944): The film opens with Stephen Neale (Milland) being released from a mental asylum where he's been incarcerated for two years after being convicted of mercy-killing his terminally ill wife, though his wife actually dosed herself with the poison he'd purchased. Because this is a thriller, there's a Nazi spy ring at work in the carnival opposite the train station Neale goes to after being released. In a case of mistaken identity, he's given a cake intended for a spy within which is hidden what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin -- the thing everyone in the thriller is chasing. Hilarity ensues.

It really seems as if Paramount was trying to make Ray Milland into a poor man's Cary Grant at this time, possibly because of Milland's odd mid-Atlantic accent. Milland's tour-de-force performance as an alcoholic in Lost Weekend was still a couple of years away; here, he's a sort-of dashing Hitchcockian 'Wrong Man' trapped in a thriller plot somewhat resembling that of The 39 Steps.

The whole thing with the cake is handled with right amount of drollness, and there are some really lovely set pieces cooked up by director Fritz Lang, he of German film classics M and Metropolis and a number of classic films noir once he fled Nazi Germany in the mid-1930's.

This is indeed a 'dark film' in terms of photography, though incongruously light-hearted much of the time -- a comic-relief private detective is something of a botch. A gun fight in an English field being bombed by the Nazis looks terrific for something obviously done on a sound stage, and there are a number of other scenes in which the play of light and shadow creates an aura of menace the script can't quite maintain -- the narrative starts and stops a number of times, something quite odd for a film that's less than 90 minutes long. But Lang, strong on visuals, always seemed to be a bit weak on narrative momentum. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Best New Horror 15 (2003)

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 15 (2003) edited by Stephen Jones: The Mammoth series of annual 'Best of' horror anthologies has been a godsend for over two decades now, and even more of a godsend ever since the DAW 'Best of Horror' annual series ended with the sad and early death of its long-time editor Karl Edward Wagner. That the Mammoth series has at least twice the page count of the Wagner series, along with lengthy Necrology and 'Year in Horror' sections, makes it even more essential, if that's possible.

Stephen Jones is a voluminous and gifted anthologist, and the yearly Best New Horror has become one of the things I look forward to each year, like the Super Bowl or Fox TV's annual purge of all its best shows.

This anthology of stories from 2003 is the usual solid job, with good stories by perennials that include Ramsey Campbell, Glen Hirshberg, Caitlin Kiernan and Neil Gaiman, along with offerings from lesser-known and new writers. The great Gene Wolfe does one of his reality-bending bits with "Hunter Lake"; Hirshberg offers a melancholy new take on the Golem and the Holocaust in "Dancing Men"; Campbell expertly mines childhood fears in "Fear the Dead"; Toronto's Gemma Files comes up with a really awful innovation in the realm of puppetry with "Kissing Carrion" (also set in T.O.); Simon Clark and Tim Lebbon work wonders with a story about the great fantasist Arthur Machen's WWI story-turned-urban-legend "The Archers of Mons"; Joyce Carol Oates comes up with an atypically typical (for her) bit of nu-Gothic in "The Haunting." There's even a story set on an island in Lake Erie ("Lucy, In Her Splendour" by Charles Coleman Finley) and a creepy, M.R. James by way of H.P. Lovecraft story by Mark Samuels, "The White Hands." One of the pleasures of the Mammoth series is catching up with old friends; another lies in discovering "new" writers whose names you'll have to look out for, such as Samuels.

All in all, this is another fine addition to the Best New Horror series, and a useful reference book for the year in question. Jones is extremely catholic in his horror selection, with stories running the gamut from gruesome but natural horror to mind-bending examinations of the supernatural Sublime. Long may he run. Highly recommended.