Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Run run away

City of the Dead by Brian Keene (2005): Keene's sequel to his first novel, The Rising, is every bit as visceral, gonzo and thoughtful as that outing. Zombies have risen, but their lineage is of the Return of the Living Dead/ Evil Dead 2 variety. They talk, they think, they plan, and they use weapons. And they're not limited to human form: everything above the level of insects rises once it dies unless its brain is sufficiently destroyed. They're the first wave of body-possessing demons released by a particle accelerator experiment gone horribly awary, and there are trillions of them.

We follow the ragtag handful of survivors from the first novel as they try to find shelter. Or at least a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Humanity's last redoubt is a high-security New York highrise run by someone a lot like Donald Trump. A second wave of demons that can possess plants and insects is on its way. Things are bad.

Keene's novels have the audacious scale and pacing of pulp apocalypses, but it's the care taken with sympathetic (or at least empathetic) characterization that really drives the engine, making us care about characters who are doomed. There's a greater whiff of Stephen King's The Stand in City of the Dead than there was in The Rising -- supernatural good exists and makes its presence (or at least its reasons) felt. Be warned, though: the violence is graphic and unrelenting, and there are no easy outs from the seemingly unwinnable situation Keene puts his dwindling cast of characters in. As they say in Preacher, "All hell's a coming." Highly recommended.

When Homeowners Attack

The Association by Bentley Little (2001): There's a great idea here, handled perhaps too much in the mode of occasionally clumsy social satire rather than straightforward horror. Barry, a horror writer, and his accountant wife Maureen move into what seems to be an idyllic gated community, complete with a Community Association, in Utah. But the rules for residents get stricter and stricter. People start dying mysteriously. And how does the Association always know when someone's violated its phonebook of rules?

One of the points of the novel is that 'groupthink' can cause even very good people to ignore the problems around them, to become passive. The gated community causes both Barry and Maureen to make bad decisions, and even bad indecisions, but this passivity in the face of an escalating threat becomes tiring after a couple of hundred pages. One one finds out that one's community association is mutilating and even killing troublesome residents, how long is one still going to fret about whether or not the association is going to play fair with oneself, or obey its own rules?

As social satire or even simply commentary on how good people can let bad things happen, the novel works, but the passivity and gormlessness of Barry and Maureen becomes wearisome as the danger to them and their friends escalates into all-out bloodshed, bloodshed they put up with because they're worried about how running away from their house (and their mortgage) would affect their credit rating. See what I mean about social satire?

Little's really in the territory of the late, great Thomas Disch and his four satiric horror novels of the 1980's and 1990's here, but the sharpness of Disch's wit and the efficient poeticism of Disch's prose allowed him to be scathingly funny and scary simultaneously. Little isn't a nuanced enough writer to pull off such a dual feat successfully.

The ending, when it comes, comes with a rush, and Little does a nice job of logicking out just how Barry can win against the sinister Board of the Association, though here, as in The Return, Little seems to be a little too enamoured of electricity as the great ward against evil. Tightened up and focused on either horror or more pointed social observation, this book could be terrific -- as is, the dragginess of the middle section caused me to skip entire pages of placeholder dialogue and description, which is what I call pages where we find out what everyone's eating and how they feel about it. Recommended with reservations.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Planet Lovecraft

Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos, edited by Robert M. Price (1992): This is a lovely historical exercise by editor Price, as it collects about 20 stories in the Lovecraft mode, primarily from the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's, when Lovecraft's widespread Affinity Group, created in large part by Lovecraft's own inexhaustible letter-writing to aspiring writers asking for advice, was still in its infancy. Never has so peculiar a writer-as-person been so generous of his time with other writers. It's all part of the weirdness of HPL.

Price does a nice job selecting little- or never-before-anthologized stories by both significant writers working with Lovecraft's concepts and cosmology (August Derleth, Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, Clark Ashton Smith) and by writers whose names and stories have been long forgotten. I can't say as I was scared by the stories here, but a lot of them do evoke that existential dread and instability that is one of the hallmarks of the "cosmic horror" that Lovecraft tended to prefer.

Price's lengthy introduction is also invaluable, as it sets forth both a timeline for extra-Lovecraftian additions to the Cthulhu Mythos and an explanation of the manner in which certain writers and editors (most notably Derleth, Lovecraft's unbelievably important literary executor and Boswell in all but title) helped shape the Mythos after Lovecraft's death in 1937, giving it the now-familiar shape and hierarchy it didn't have during Lovecraft's lifetime.

And there were turfwars over Lovecraft's legacy -- Derleth was quite possessive of the Mythos, for good and ill, though overwhelmingly good: without the publishing house, Arkham House, Derleth initially created to preserve Lovecraft's work in hardcover, both Lovecraft and a lot of other fantasy writers might have vanished forever before the early 1960's boom in fantasy brought them widespread renown and paperback sales for the first time in their careers.

If Lovecraft's work now seems potentially immortal -- and possibly the single most important American fantasy corpus of the 20th century -- then Derleth deserves a lion's share of the credit. Often compared to Edgar Allan Poe, HPL possessed one major, posthumous difference from Poe: he had a great and tireless champion of his work taking care of it. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 27, 2011

First, They Killed All the Masked Wrestlers

Monsters, written and directed by Gareth Edwards, starring Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (2010): Made for something on the order of $800,000, Monsters manages to weave desktop special effects and found footage into an enjoyably creepy trek through a Mexico "infected" by alien life brought back on a U.S. space probe from Europa. Right now, all the best horror movies seem to be made for almost no money at all. Kudos!

In Monsters, an American photojournalist gets tasked by his boss to find and return the boss's vacationing daughter to the U.S. before the annual shutdown of the land route back to the U.S. through the Infected Zone occurs. So they try to make it back behind the giant wall that's been erected across the U.S. border with Mexico. That's pretty much the entire movie.

The "monsters" are cleverly kept mostly off-stage until the last five minutes or so, while the effects of their occupation of what looks to be the entire Yucatan Peninsula are nice bits of cinematic misdirection and appropriation (ruined hotels and skyscrapers, sunken fighter planes, and a whole lot of death).

The leads are affable, though Scoot McNairy's resemblance to Skeet Ulrich gets distracting at certain points. You'll want to rewind to the beginning and watch the first five minutes again once you're done, and get ready to freeze frame. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Return of the Monster with the Orange Afro

The Return by Bentley Little (2002): So far as I can tell, this is the prolific Little's worst-reviewed novel. I thought it was great, though the gonzo, cuckoobanana stuff that I like probably turned a lot of people off. There haven't been a lot of supernatural beings in the history of literature who spend a fair amount of time turning people into porcelain-statue versions of themselves, or a lot of horror novels in which people get attacked by animated Anasazi mortar-and-pestles, fetishes, shards of pottery and assorted knicknacks.

Actually, none that I can think of. This is the only mainstream horror novel I've ever read which could realistically be described in a cover blurb as "Stephen King meets The Flaming Carrot."

Western writer Zane Grey (yes, the real Zane Grey) shows up early to be terrified by some crazy-ass something-or-other in Arizona back in the early 20th century. Then we jump to the present. Various Southwest-Native-American artifacts are starting to come to life across the Southwest. A mysterious monster kills a Boy Scout counselor. Dogs and cats are living together. Scary, non-human skeletons with still-growing orange afros have been excavated or found in various places. Denver is burning. Boulder is burning. Entire towns vanish from the map, never to return.

What eliminated the Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, Anasazi, Olmecs and every other civilization ever, including perhaps the Hittites and Saxons? A race of superbeings with orange afros. And they are back with a vengeance!

Crazy shit happens. A plucky group of plucky people assemble to save humanity from these civilization-destroying creatures. Things get so rushed at the end that I'm going to assume editorial interference occurred. I'm not sure really how good this novel is, but it kept me reading quickly, and it was never boring. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The Shining, written by Stephen King (1977): I've read this novel four times now, and didn't notice until this time around a somewhat hilarious piece of inexplicable business that I'm going to leave to you to figure out. It has nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with the logic of everyday life, and I'm pretty sure King kept the scene as-is because he needed several things to happen plot-wise and couldn't figure out a way to have them happen otherwise. Think of it as an Easter Egg.

The Shining was King's first foray into a ghost story at novel length, and its many strengths epitomize King's own strengths over the years, most especially the sympathetic characterization of his main characters and the verisimiltude of their reactions to supernatural phenomena. The basic set-up -- telepath (or 'sensitive') vs. haunted house -- comes directly from Shirley Jackson's classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, a novel King has his characters explicitly mention during the course of The Shining. Here, though, the telepathic character -- five-year-old Danny Torrance, gifted with the telepathic gifts similarly gifted hotel cook Dick Halloran calls 'The Shining' -- is able to contest the haunted house, and not be seduced by it as in Jackson's novel.

The Overlook Hotel, way up in the Rockies and apparently next door to Hell, is a great character in its own right, a malign entity with no clear origin for its evil (in the movie, the hotel's malignity is attributed to that old chestnut, the Indian burial ground; here, as in other King works like "The Monkey" and Christine, there is no clear cause for the malice of this particular inanimate object: it just is, a productive evocation of Ramsey Campbell's dictum for good horror, "Explanation is the death of horror."

King conjures up a terrible sympathy for failed writer Jack Torrance, plagued by alcoholism and the memories of his physically abusive father, and eventually tested to destruction by the hotel, eroded into a killing machine aimed at his own wife Wendy and son Danny. Our more recent knowledge of King's struggles with substance abuse until the 1990's lends extra poignance to the novel, even as one also notes that Torrance, with his somewhat unpractical writing aims (he's a playwright and high-end short story writer) and literary pretensions (he dismisses Edgar Allan Poe as "The Great American Hack") is most certainly not a King-surrogate. But this novel is also about Danny's courage, and the growth of his mother Wendy into someone who can oppose both the horribly undone Jack and the hotel itself.

The building of dread is this novel is skilfully accomplished, with some truly startling set-pieces of horror. King goes a bit over the top towards the end, though a lot of what happens can (as in Jackson's novel) be explained as malign hallucination rather than actual physical attack. In any event, this is one of King's novels that, warts and all, rewards multiple readings. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Imaginary Gods in Real Gardens

Promethea Volume 2, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by J.H. Williams III, Jose Villarubbia, and Mick Gray (2000-2001): Moore's loopy, brain-twisting, gorgeously illustrated metasuperheroine series continues, as fictional god Promethea and her human host Sophie Bangs learn more about how magic works, and what the nebulous realm of the Immateria really is in relation to the material world.

The whole thing basically plays like Neil Gaiman's The Sandman on magic mushrooms...or maybe peyote...as written by someone who really does believe in, and practice, magic. After we finish our tour of Promethea's past incarnations, Moore takes us on a jaunt through the history and theory of magic, and the history and theory of Everything as represented by the 22 face cards of the Tarot deck. You don't have to believe this stuff to enjoy it.

Moore's probably the only comic-book writer alive who can make what amounts to a crazy-ass essay about the Tarot deck both enthralling and dramatically satisfying. Magician Jack the Faust gets fleshed out more (somewhat literally), looking for all the world like an extremely weathered Harvey Pekar. We also find out that the private parts of a goddess have sparkly stars floating around them. Good to know. You never can tell when knowledge like that can come in handy. Are those stars around your vagina or are you happy to see me? Boom! Highly recommended.

Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives Volume 1, written by Gardner F. Fox, illustrated by Howard Sherman and others (originally published 1940-44): Muscly superheroes and supervillains are often captains; magical superheroes and supervillains are often doctors: so goes the unwritten code of the Golden and Silver Age superhero comic book, with the necessary caveat that there are exceptions (Flash villain Captain Cold being one of those exceptions that prove the rule).

Doctor Fate has one of the great Golden Age, four-colour superhero costumes, all blue and yellow with the yellow standing in (we assume if we're grounded in representational four-colour coding) for gold. He begins life as a sort of science magician, using "lost secrets of the Chaldeans and Egyptians" that are really super-science to battle an array of quasi-supernatural foes.

Fate's golden, full-head helmet stays exclusively on for the first year-and-a-half of his adventures, only coming off when he finally reveals his secret origin to oddly named gal-pal Inza Carmer. The removal of the helmet does not bode well, as Fate quickly gains a new half-helmet (the top half, btw) and a much less interesting career as a two-fisted crime fighter whose primary opponents are gangster types who wouldn't be out of place in a Batman and Robin story from the same era.

Then Fate (real name: Kent Nelson) becomes a 'real' doctor, by which we mean medical doctor and not Ph.D., loses his cape somewhere, and slouches towards a 17-year hiatus from superheroing. The first third of the book, in which Fox exhibits his love of 1930's science fiction and horror, is terrifically entertaining; after that, only the appearances of Professor Hugo Strange-like Mr. Who are really interesting beyond a historical sense. One of the oddest things about early Fate is that nowhere in these stories is there much support for later characterizations of Doctor Fate as a sentient, god-like helmet with a person pretty much just along for the ride. There's the real mystery. Recommended.

Golden Age Plastic Man Archives Volume 2, written and illustrated by Jack Cole (1943-44): With all due respect to Will Eisner and company's The Spirit, Jack Cole's Plastic Man is the greatest superhero comic of the 1940's, and one of the ten best of all time. Maybe five best. Cole's talent was only matched by his life-long dissatisfaction with being a comic-book writer/artist, and once he made the "big time" of slick magazine cartoons and a syndicated comic strip, he would try to minimize his comic-book days in his CV.

But more than fifty years after his somewhat mysterious death, Cole's enduring legacy is that comic-book work on Plastic Man. It burns with the hard, gem-like, crazy-ass flame that denotes real art, absolutely serious in its committment to anarchy, hilarity, thrills, and the often untapped potential of the comic-book panel and comic-book page.

'Plastic' in this case comes from its original meaning -- fluid, changeable, protean -- and not how we understand the word now; Cole was originally going to go with 'India Rubber Man' until someone pointed out that this was the stupidest superhero name ever. Unlike later stretchable heroes that include the Fantastic Four's Mr. Fantastic and DC's risibly named Elongated Man, Plastic Man stretched and compacted to almost absurdist degrees -- he could compact himself to the size of a rubber ball, or alter his appearance.

Somewhat presciently, he was also the first superhero that I know of to work for a government agency (in this case, the FBI). His adventures had serious consequences, with murder and mayhem abounding, and yet it was all delivered with an anarchic, light-hearted flair: it's almost like one is looking at the model for much later pop culture confections such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which comedy and melodrama co-exist productively.

In any case, this is serious fun: it zips by, effortless to read, overstuffed with strange and comic images, a work of unduplicated genius from a genius who seemed to actually despise what he had created. As real-world Frankenstein stories go, it's a doozy. Highest recommendation.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Soft Monsters

DAW The Year's Best Horror Stories Series IX (1980), edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1981):

Introduction: The Year of the Anthology and Beyond by Karl Edward Wagner
The Monkey by Stephen King
The Gap by Ramsey Campbell
The Cats of Pere LaChaise by Neil Olonoff
The Propert Bequest by Basil A. Smith
On Call by Dennis Etchison
The Catacomb by Peter Shilston
Black Man with a Horn by T. E. D. Klein
The King by William Relling, Jr.
Footsteps by Harlan Ellison
Without Rhyme or Reason by Peter Valentine Timlett

As the introduction notes, 1980 was the year of the anthology in horror, with three 'one-off' original horror anthologies (Dark Forces, New Terrors and New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos) and the continuing Shadows series hitting the bookshelves. Wagner's selection here runs to some lengthy novelette-to-novella length entries (those by Klein, King and Smith) occupying about half the page length of this anthology.

King's "The Monkey" offers a King trope, childhood horror invading the world of the once-terrified child, in the titular toy, a cymbal-clashing mechanical monkey that causes people to die when those cymbals clash. It's a dandy. "The Propert Bequest," a posthumous appearance by Smith, manages a tricky feat -- expanding an M.R. Jamesian-style antiquarian ghost story to novella length -- and does so superbly (Peter Shilston's "The Catacomb" also walks in James's footsteps at less length but equal efficacy, as an English tourist makes an unfortunate unscheduled visit to a mysterious Italian church. France turns out to be even more unfortunate for an American in "The Cats of Pere Lachaise", while a visit to a medical clinic moves into undefined modern horrors in Dennis Ethison's piece.

The biggest gun here is T.E.D. Klein's "Black Man with a Horn", originally published in New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. In 1979, a (fictional) former associate of American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, returning from a disappointing horror convention in London, England, accidentally stumbles across a missionary who's returning to America from the Worst Missionary Posting Ever in Malaysia.

The narrator's realization that he's gradually being pulled into someone else's H.P. Lovecraft tale makes the story an occasionally sardonic delight, while Klein's careful delineation of the narrator's pervasive, systematic racism both makes cultural (the narrator was born in 1900) and narrative sense (Lovecraft was a notorious racist, and that racism informs certain aspects of his Cthulhu Mythos). And the black man with a horn -- not a man, and not actually carrying a horn -- is coming, stalking forth from a Lovecraft reference that the narrator had, until now, thought to be just another of Lovecraft's fictional creations. This story, and the anthology, highly recommended.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Amityville Horror All Right!

The Amityville Horror, written by Scott Kosar, based on the screenplay by Sandor Stern, based on the book by Jay Anson, based on material by George and Kathleen Lutz, directed by Andrew Douglas, starring Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jesse James and Philip Baker Hall (2005): The original Amityville Horror (1979) was a financially successful, dramatically awful horror movie whose only greatness may lie in the Eddie Murphy comedy bit it spawned ("GET OUT!" "Too bad I gotta go!").

The "true story" it's based on has since turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by the Lutz family, though the original murders were tragically real. Subsequent residents of the house in question, in Suffolk County, New York, have reported nothing unusual about the house other than the hordes of tourists that stop by to look at it. Hoo ha!

This movie looks a lot better than the original, not much of a feat considering how crappily 70's the cinematography was in that original shitfuck. It's shorter, which pretty much eliminates any building of suspense. And it cuts the one scene I (and Stephen King in Danse Macabre) would cite as the first film's one moment of fully realized suburban terror, an incident in which the House appears to steal much needed money from George Lutz, cash needed to pay for a wedding. That was a good scene. So they don't even try to duplicate it.

So far as I can tell, the screenwriter realized how bad the original material was pretty early on and so decided to remake The Shining instead. I shit you not. So this is basically The Shining as written and directed by moronic hacks and produced by Michael Bay (seriously on that last one). Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George are spectacularly miscast as a young couple in the 1970's -- Reynolds's hairless hard-body alone pretty much erases all suspension of disbelief.

Philip Baker Hall struggles manfully with the underwritten priest part which caused Rod Steiger to devour the scenery in the original, and we don't even get the spectacularly bizarre bit involving Kathy Lutz's nun sister. Or the bit where the demon, its red eyes clearly light bulbs, perches at the window to glare at the Lutzes. Or the crazy part about the doorway to Hell in the basement.

Come to think of it, at least that godawful 1970's movie was sorta fun; this one is just sorta boring. The remake does have a terrific bit of fucked up continuity, though. At the end, Kathy Lutz spends all day at the Amityville library researching the house. When she returns home that night, George has turned into Mr. Cuckoobanana. What seems to be a real-time ten minutes of shenanigans ensues which ends with the family taking off in their motorboat...at which point the sun comes up. Because in Amityville, the nights are about 20 minutes long. Really not recommended.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Magic and Loss

Promethea Volume 1, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray (1999): Alan Moore's loopy, gorgeously illustrated meditation on the nature of stories and myth, told through the vehicle of a comic-book character whose roots extend back to the 5th century AD, when she was a real girl fleeing the early Christians who killed her magician father in Egypt.

Taken bodily by the amalgam god(s) Thoth-Hermes into the Immateria, the vast realm of human thought, dreams and stories, Promethea would show up in various forms over the centuries. Now, because of the interest of a young college essay writer, Promethea has a new avatar -- and apparently a mandate to end the world.

Moore has his mojo working here. Promethea has, at various points, been a (rough) analogue for such real-world creations as La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Wonder Woman, and Little Nemo in Slumberland. The protean nature of her/its appearances is part of the point, as Moore plays with the concept of archetypes, which may have different attributes to different people formed around a solid 'core' of universality. And of gods, which also change shape or bond together over time (Thoth-Hermes being the first example in this particular book).

The closest thing to this series is Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and I'd imagine if you liked one, you'd like the other. The art of J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray is astonishingly beautiful -- Williams really is one of the three or four best fantasy cartoonists to show up on the scene in the last 15 years, and he's equal to the often herculean drawing tasks Moore has created for him.

There are action sequences and deft characterization and wild and wooly fantasy creatures (including an oddly disturbing owl-headed demon), but the major attraction here is Moore's interest in the nature of stories themselves, how they grow into myths and legends and religions; how myths and legends and religions fall back into story over time; how everything thought-related works itself out with the spectre of armageddon hanging over both the Immateria and the Material World alike. Highest recommendation.

The Light-Darkness War, written by Tom Veitch, illustrated by Cam Kennedy (1987-88): Solid, offbeat science-fantasy adventure from Marvel's long defunct Epic Comics line, which offered at least marginally more adult, creator-owned fare during the 1980's and early 90's.

Veitch spins a tale of Viet Nam veterans dropped into another war in a galaxy far away, where the forces of darkness seek to overwhelm the forces of light. Or is this galaxy in our universe at all? Because the soldiers are, for the most part, already dead. So are Nicola Tesla and Leonardo da Vinci, who do weapons design for the forces of light. Cam Kennedy's painted art is solid and effective without being flashy. Recommended.