Saturday, December 24, 2011


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


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.