Friday, January 27, 2012

Men Vs. Chaos

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2007):

Either The Imago Sequence and Other Stories or something I ate gave me a screaming-to-awake nightmare, so that's a recommendation. I even fell out of bed. If I were blurbing this, I'd write "The Imago Sequence and Other Stories made me fall out of bed with horror!!!"

Barron collides at least two things -- the wounded, jaded, unheroic, macho American tough guy from Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy with a Lovecraftian secret history -- that haven't been collided much before to my knowledge.

There's a certain sameness in the overall conception of several of the stories (first-person-narrating tough guy encounters horribly, horrifyingly awry cosmos, gets stripped of his manhood by cackling representative of chaos), but the imagery and the characterization really carry the day. Also, there's a lot of violence towards men. It's like he's trying to balance the scales. Cracks appear in reality. Cracks appear in traditional constructions of masculinity.

It's hard to summarize any of the stories without giving away the surprising horrors that await. Several appear to occur in pretty much the same universe, one that's Lovecraftian without explicitly name-checking Lovecraft's alien pantheon. Much of the action occurs in Washington State and other West Coast areas (Alaska and Northern California both figure), where real-world oddities (the Mima mounds) jostle up against assorted incursions into everyday reality by some truly awful things. Barron's characters are generally doomed, beset by forces that can't be stopped, incapable of action until it's far too late.

One thing done well here is making characters sympathetic whose backgrounds are anything but (a ruthless real-estate tycoon, a leg-breaker, an aging CIA operative, a right bastard of a Pinkerton detective) -- thus, the stories don't reduce down to EC-Comics-style revenge horror, in which the supernatural takes vengeance where the natural has failed. And yet that's the basic concept that Barron uses in some of these stories. But what's coming is so awful that no man deserves it. Or maybe he does. I'll be damned if I know. Tough and poetic and occasionally very funny, Barron really is already one of horror's brightest talents. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sleepy, Hollow

The Best Horror of the Year Volume One (2008), edited by Ellen Datlow (2009) containing:

Cargo by E. Michael Lewis
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
The Clay Party by Steve Duffy
*Penguins of the Apocalypse by William Browning Spencer
*Esmeralda: The First Book Depository Story by Glen Hirshberg
The Hodag by Trent Hergenrader
Very Low-Flying Aircraft by Nicholas Royle
When the Gentlemen Go By by Margaret Ronald
*The Lagerst├Ątte by Laird Barron
Harry and the Monkey by Euan Harvey
Dress Circle by Miranda Siemienowicz
The Rising River by Daniel Kaysen
Sweeney Among the Straight Razors by JoSelle Vanderhooft
Loup-garou by R. B. Russell
Girl in Pieces by Graham Edwards
It Washed Up by Joe R. Lansdale
The Thirteenth Hell by Mike Allen
The Goosle by Margo Lanagan
Beach Head by Daniel LeMoal
The Man from the Peak by Adam Golaski
The Narrows by Simon Bestwick

Being the most subjective of genres, horror lends itself to argument when 'best of' selections are made. What scares one person may make another person chortle. Based on my encounters with multiple-award-winner Ellen Datlow's horror and dark-fantasy editing, the two of us don't have particularly complementary tastes. The first volume of this 'Year's Best Horror' anthology series from Night Shade Books seems to me to be an awfully scattershot assortment of stories, with only three stories I'd pick myself for such an anthology (I've starred them, if you're interested).

On the bright side, the technical side of horror writing seems in good shape -- there's nothing badly written here. Some of the stories are dark fantasy stories that aren't particularly horrific; others use tired tropes to unnoteworthy effect; a few offer nothing in the way of endings or even adequate set-up, instead falling into the nouveau-tired school of artsy fragments possessed of a few startling images but nothing in the way of character, plot, or cumulative horrific effect. These last examples remind me of Henry James's 100+ years-old-advice to ghost-story writers: "Write a dream, lose a reader."

The inclusion of two poems doesn't really help things either, while "Beach Head" gets the Ramsey Campbell "In the Bag" award for mislabelling a horrific story with a jokey title. I note this while also noting that Campbell himself flagged himself for the "In the Bag" mistake in the introduction of one of his short-story collections.

One story -- "The Narrows" by Simon Bestwick -- is especially frustrating because it's basically two good stories smashed together to make one frustrating one, as Lovecraftian shenanigans and nuclear holocaust work together in a way that never coheres. The standout here is William Browning Spencer's "The Penguins of the Apocalypse", which uses an old (and unlikely) monster to startling, quirky effect. Spencer's horror novels and short stories generally show a mind attuned to absurdity as well as horror -- he's the closest thing the genre currently has to Philip K. Dick, and God bless him for it. Not recommended.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Jane Eyrehead

Jane Eyre; adapted by Moira Buffini from the novel by Charlotte Bronte; directed by Cary Fukunaga; starring Mia Wasikowska (Jane), Michael Fassbender (Rochester), Jamie Bell (St. John Rivers), and Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax) (2011): Everyone in this good-looking but increasingly dumb-as-it-goes-along adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 English 101 staple is a lot dumber and less interesting than their counterparts in the novel. And I'm not a big fan of the novel. But it does look great!


Structuring the movie as a frame tale with a lengthy flashback of a middle section is the smartest thing the movie does, though it did cause me some confusion initially as to when Jane was fleeing across the moors to the house of repressed clergyman St. John Rivers and his two nice sisters. Poor old St. John Rivers gets reimagined as Sexual-Harassment Panda by the filmmakers and a weirdly creepy looking Jamie Bell, something of a disservice to the doomed, repressed, but well-meaning character of the novel.

Mia Wasihowska does yeoman's service as Jane, though the British accent occasionally seems to cause her to swallow her dialogue whole. In no recognizable universe is Wasikowska 'plain' as Jane is meant to be, which pretty much throws one of the proto-feminist concerns of the novel right out the window: the Rochester/Jane relationship isn't a meeting of like minds that overcomes class and physical impediments, but rather a relationship of two good-looking people who eventually hook up. Oh, those crazy kids!

Michael Fassbender is suitably Byronic as Rochester, though he too gets dumbed down. The central Gothic horror of the novel -- the madwoman in Rochester's attic -- virtually disappears in this narrative. So too does the family relationship of St. John Rivers and his sisters with Jane, a relationship that better explains Jane's late-movie generosity with that family. Judi Dench plays Judi Dench playing Judi Dench. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Troll Management

Trollhunter; written by Andre Ovredal and Havard Johansen; directed by Andre Ovredal; starring Otto Jespersen (Hans), Glenn Erland Tosterud (Thomas), Johanna Morck (Johanna), Tomas Alf Larsen (Kalle), and Hans Morten Hansen (Finn) (2010): This Norwegian film takes the 'found footage' horror movie sub-genre and makes a funny, scary, large-scale adventure out of it. Norway has trolls, as a student film-making camera crew finds out while tailing a man whom they assume to be a bear poacher.

He isn't. He's the government's official trollhunter. And, pissed off at the bureaucracy, the secrecy, and the increasingly endangered status of the trolls he's hired to contain, Trollhunter Hans decides to take the students along with him as he tries to figure out why a number of trolls have escaped from Norway's largest troll preserve and are running around eating sheep and German tourists and the occasional car tire. Trolls, as Hans notes, will eat almost any crap -- traps are baited with sheep and goats, but also with concrete and charcoal.

Hans is the centrepiece of the movie -- the cameraman gets stuck offscreen for the most part, understandably, while the other two students primarily act scared and baffled until they get something of an understanding of the bizarre world of trolls that the Norwegian government has been hiding from its citizens for centuries.

The visual effects are mostly excellent, especially for a low-budget movie. More importantly, they're 'fantastic': the trolls don't look literalized the way that, say, CGI King Kong in Peter Jackson's King Kong looks literalized (he's simply a larger version of an existing gorilla species) rather than fantastic as the original King Kong did, a 40-foot ape clearly NOT of any known species.

The trolls, CGI though they obviously must be, are clearly in the tradition of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation and not the mainstream of CGI, where apparently imagination has been all but outlawed in the past few years. One species even looks like muppets -- if Muppets were 12-feet tall, had been sleeping rough for twenty years, and enjoyed eating people. Will there be a sequel? I sorta hope so, though I'd also like to see the filmmakers tackle other fantastic creatures in a modern context. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book 'em, Cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (2011), containing:

Caitlin R. Kiernan - Andromeda among the Stones
Ramsey Campbell - The Tugging
Charles Stross - A Colder War
Bruce Sterling - The Unthinkable
Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Flash Frame
W. H. Pugmire - Some Buried Memory
Molly Tanzer - The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins
Michael Shea - Fat Face
Elizabeth Bear - Shoggoths in Bloom
T. E. D. Klein - Black Man With A Horn
David Drake - Than Curse the Darkness
Charles R. Saunders - Jeroboam Henley's Debt
Thomas Ligotti - Nethescurial
Kage Baker - Calamari Curls
Edward Morris - Jihad over Innsmouth
Cherie Priest - Bad Sushi
John Hornor Jacobs - The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife
Brian McNaughton - The Doom that Came to Innsmouth
Ann K. Schwader - Lost Stars
Steve Duffy - The Oram County Whoosit
Joe R. Lansdale - The Crawling Sky
Brian Lumley - The Fairground Horror
Tim Pratt - Cinderlands
Gene Wolfe - Lord of the Land
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. - To Live and Die in Arkham
John Langan - The Shallows
Laird Barron - The Men from Porlock

An excellent anthology of mostly reprinted Lovecraftian stories, all of them dating from 1976 onwards. The Book of Cthulhu is quite heavy on 21st-century Cthulhuiana, which is fine -- most of the stories are excellent, several are harrowing, and many come from relatively small-press magazines and anthologies I would otherwise not have encountered.

There's some thematic grouping here, noticeable from the titles of what I call the Innsmouth Dining section (starting with "Calamari Curls" and running through "The Doom that Came to Innsmouth"), but also apparent in sections devoted to shoggoths, historical Lovecraft, and invasion from space and other dimensions.

The original-to-this-anthology concluding story, Laird Barron's "The Men from Porlock" (Google the title -- it's a literary reference), is one hell of a capper; standouts from writers other than the old reliables like Ramsey Campbell, David Drake, Joe Lansdale, Caitlin Kiernan, TED Klein, and Michael Shea include "Cinderlands", "Flash Frame", "The Oram County Whoosit", "The Shallows", "Bad Sushi" and "A Colder War." Editor Ross Lockhart does a splendid job of selecting a very broad range of approaches to Lovecraftian themes and variations.

Many stories specifically reference the Cthulhu Mythos not at all, instead building upon what Ramsey Campbell has called the first principles of Lovecraft's approach to horror -- the accumulation of telling, often quasi-documentarian detail in service to an overarching concern with the sublimely horrific. Lovecraft's children include all those 'found footage' horror movies currently dominating the marketplace, and stories like "The Oram County Whoosit" present a similar approach, one that's both contemporary and emergent from similar Lovecraftian constructions like "The Colour Out of Space" or "The Whisperer in Darkness."

But we also get some brilliant new takes on familiar themes and creatures in "Shoggoths in Bloom" and "A Colder War", both of which provide a fascinating blend of the Mythos and a fairly 'hard' science fictional approach. The shoggoths in bloom become surprisingly sympathetic; the shoggoths in Michael Shea's nauseating (in a good way) "Fat Face" really aren't sympathetic at all -- but the humans may be worse. A nice juxtaposition of stories using everybody's favourite freight-train-car-sized slaves of the Great Old Ones.

I could quibble with the selection of the stories from some of the writers (I'd pick Gene Wolfe's "The Tree is my Hat" over the already-reprinted "Lord of the Land", which has a somewhat clunky exposition section towards the end; the Lumley story is too much of an early, Lovecraftian pastiche from a writer who improved remarkably over his long career). I could quibble with the selection of some of the stories, though there's really only one clunker here. I will quibble with the copy editing, which is strangely awful in a handful of stories and perfectly fine in others. Weird!!! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Solomon Kane (2011) by Ramsey Campbell


Solomon Kane (2011):
By Ramsey Campbell,  based on the screenplay by Michael J. Bassett and the character created by Robert E. Howard (2011): Based on a well-regarded movie that I haven't seen yet, Solomon Kane gives Conan creator Robert E. Howard's 17th-century Puritan ghost-and-demon-buster an actual origin story.

Featured in about a dozen stories, poems and fragments from the early 1930's, Solomon Kane predates Conan by a few years. Robert E. Howard created a LOT of heroes during his short, prolific life. Unlike many of those heroes, Kane moves within an actual historical context. His adventures take place in the 16th and 17th centuries, though many of them are in an Africa as fanciful as any of the wholly fictional lands of Conan.

Campbell finished up several Kane fragments for publication in the 1970's, there demonstrating an ability to approximate Howard's prose style without sliding into parody. He does the same here. His Kane is a brooding, haunted hero, and the environment is bloody and filled with the violence of men and supernatural beings. Campbell nicely echoes Howard's occasionally wonky diction (there's a stretch involving the repeated use of the word 'supine' that almost does slide into parody) and seriousness of purpose.

The novel is fun, but it's not funny or light-hearted or campy, though Campbell does seem to get stuck with what seem to be a couple of campy, Bondian missteps from the original screenplay. The worst of these comes when a necromancer says 'How do you like what I've done to the place?' to Kane as Kane regards with horror what the necromancer has done to his ancestral home. Augh! This is what Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn flagged as "deadly jolite" in their study of fantasy, Wizardry and Wild Romance, a terrible bleedover from the Bond films.

Overall, though, this is one of the ten best non-Howard, Howard novels I've read. Ramsey Campbell deserves praise for sublimating his own peculiar style and thematic concerns to the service of telling a fairly straightforward sword-and-sorcery novel in the Howard tradition. And screenwriter Bassett does, for the most part, lay out a plausible background for this Renaissance Man, whose greatest Howard moment (in my eyes) came when he physically beat the crap out of a ghost. Recommended.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Batman vs. Cthulhu: The Road to Victory

The Doom That Came To Gotham; written by Mike Mignola and Richard Pace; illustrated by Troy Nixey, Dennis Janke, and Dave Stewart (2000): For a time in the 1990's, DC seemed to release a new 'alternate history' take on Batman every week. Many of them were very good, but the sheer weight of stories about Batman in various historical and fictional locales eventually crushed the whole Elseworlds line that had been meant to showcase alternate takes on all DC's heroes.

Hellboy creator Mike Mignola salvages the concept here in a nice riff on H.P. Lovecraft's (never-named-herein) Cthulhu Mythos, with the title bouncing off the HPL short story "The Doom That Came To Sarnath." Mignola sets the story in the 1920's, when Lovecraft was shifting into high gear on the Cthulhu Mythos, and runs Batman, DC, and pop-culture history through a blender. The story homages both Lovecraft and the Lovecraft-derivative John Campbell novella "Who Goes There?", which would go on to be the basis for three movies named The Thing.

Out of the Antarctic comes a universe-threatening menace, and only globe-trotting adventurer Bruce Wayne can stop it, possibly by putting on that Bat costume he's made. Mignola comes up with some pretty clever, Lovecraftian riffs on familiar Bat-family characters that include the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, King Croc, Ra's Al Ghul, and Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, and mixes in Jack Kirby's Demon, the Green Arrow, and some of his own Hellboy -- which itself homages Lovecraft in its very foundations -- with a plague of lizards and some very Hellboyish tweaks to the Demon and Batman himself.

Fun this definitely is. I don't know much about Canadian penciller Troy Nixey, but he's a good fit for the material: this is a grungy world of Jazz-Age grotesques and squamous, batrachian horrors. It's fitting that Nixey ended up directing a film for producer Guillermo del Toro, 2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Recommended.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Catching Up Is Hard To Do

Shock Rock (1992), edited by Jeff Gelb; containing

Stephen King - You Know They've Got a Hell Of A Band
F. Paul Wilson - Bob Dylan, Troy Jonson, and The Speed Queen
David J. Schow - Odeed
Nancy A. Collins - Vargr Rule
Ronald Kelly - Blood Suede Shoes
Don D'Ammassa - The Dead Beat Society
Graham Masterton - Voodoo Child
Paul Dale Anderson - Rites Of Spring
Michael E. Garrett - Dedicated To The One I Loathe
Brian J. Hodge - Requiem
R. Patrick Gates - Heavy Metal
Rex Miller - Bunky
Bill Mumy & Peter David - The Black '59
Richard Christian Matheson - Groupies
Michael Newton - Reunion
Mark Verheiden - Bootleg
Ray Garton - Weird Gig
John L. Byrne - Hide In Plain Sight
Thomas Tessier - Addicted To Love
John Shirley - Flaming Telepaths
 
Very uneven original anthology of rock-and-roll horror stories from the early 1990's. I've always liked King's contribution, an ultimately nihilistic story from the 'We stumbled across a weird town' sub-genre of horror. John Shirley's story cleverly inverts the stereotypes that too many of the other stories play straight with (specifically, 'Rock-and-roll is the Devil's music!'), as does Ray Garton's "Weird Gig." The Wilson, Tessier, Verheiden, Masterson, and Schow stories are also solid work. The graphic sex and violence in a couple of the stories manages to be unpleasant without really being horrifying (or terrifying, for that matter). Lightly recommended.
 

 

Shatner Rules by William Shatner and Chris Regan (2012): What seems like Shatner's umpteenth non-fiction book goes down as smoothly as a Romulan Ale Smoothie. More anecdotes, more self-promotion, more pointed comments about George Takei's Shatner obsession, and so on, and so forth. Recommended.

 












Hellboy: House of the Living Dead, written by Mike Mignola; illustrated by Richard Corben (2011): Fun original graphic novel set during Hellboy's "lost months" while on a bender in Mexico during the 1950's, during which time he professionally wrestled and fought various supernatural menaces, generally while either drunk or severely hung over. Forced to kill a young wrestling, monster-fighting ally after vampires turned the young man into a bat-headed monstrosity, Hellboy went on a blackout-inducing bender, the end of which we see here.

Richard Corben's art combines the grotesque and the voluptuous in a variety of fun, pleasing ways, while Mignola's script strikes the right balance between humour and heartbreak. Hellboy has to face his guilt before he can get out of Mexico, but the whole voyage of self-discovery avoids the usual rote, Afterschool Special platitudes and lessons we often see in such a story. Recommended.

 

 

Fright Night, written and directed by Todd Holland, starring William Ragsdale (Charlie Brewster), Chris Sarandon (Jerry Dandridge), Amanda Bearse (Amy Peterson), Roddy McDowall (Peter Vincent) and Stephen Geoffreys (Evil Ed) (1985): About as good as I remembered it, which is to say spotty but with a great performance by Roddy McDowall as a horror-movie actor turned late-night horror-movie television host.

 

A vampire moves in next door to high-school student Charlie. With remarkably little set-up, Charlie is soon battling for his life and the lives of friends, family, and everyone else with a neck and a pulse against 1980's fashion-victim vampire Chris Sarandon. For a vampire, Sarandon eats an awful lot of fruit. The movie picks up once McDowall comes on the scene as a vain, failed actor who is nonetheless the only vampire hunter Charlie has access to.

 

80's-style cheese gets smeared across the lens by the soundtrack (mostly awful) and some awful 'sexy' scenes between Chris Sarandon and Charlie's girlfriend Amy. There's also full-frontal nudity and lots of swearing, two things that are probably missing from the 2011 remake, along with Roddy McDowall. Writer-director Todd Holland seems to have lifted all his vampire lore directly from Stephen King's Salem's Lot. Retro fun. Recommended.
 

 

Twilight Zone: The Movie, written by John Landis, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Melissa Mathison, Jerome Bixby, and Robert Garland, based on the TV series created by Rod Serling; directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller; starring Vic Morrow, Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Scatman Crothers, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Cartwright, Donna Dixon, Abbe Lane, Dick Miller, and Bill Mumy (1983): Veteran TV actor Vic Morrow and two children died while filming the John Landis segment of this movie when a helicopter blade decapitated them thanks to a special-effects explosion that should never have been green-lighted but was because John Landis is a big fucking idiot. That the segment, a ham-fisted bit about prejudice, is awful only adds a last insult to the injury.

 

This Hollywood tribute to that mostly unHollywoodish writer-producer Rod Serling and his 1960's TV series is pretty uneven. Well, the Landis segment and the Spielberg segment stink on ice. The Joe Dante sequence and the George Miller sequence are good, owing a lot of that goodness to veteran TZ screenwriter Richard Matheson's screenplays.

 

Dante remakes the famous "It's a Good Life" episode of TZ with a lot less menace and realism but a lot more visual effects zing, while Miller directs a remake of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", a great TZ episode starring William Shatner as an airplane passenger who sees something walking on the wing of the plane...at 20,000 feet.

Lithgow's screaming, sweating performance makes Shatner's original turn look restrained by comparison -- the 1980's version now seems much more campy than the original, though it remains fun. Recommended if you skip the first two segments. The Albert Brooks/Dan Aykroyd frame story is pointless, probably because it, too, was written and directed by John Landis, who as I mentioned before is a big fucking idiot.
 

 

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, written by Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, based on the series created by Bruce Geller; directed by Brad Bird; starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jeremy Renner (Brandt), Simon Pegg (Benji), Paula Patton (Jane), and Michael Nyqvist (Hendricks) (2012): Pretty much every Mission: Impossible movie involves the Impossible Mission Force being disgraced, framed, discarded, and/or hunted by its own employers while nonetheless tracking down the real miscreants.

 
And that's the plot of this movie.

 
The globe-trotting seems more James Bondian than ever, and animation director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) makes a nice transition to live-action directing, especially in several snazzy, convoluted action sequences. The movie does invoke Hudson Hawk in its utopian vision of the life-saving power of airbags. And no, that's not how ballistic missiles work during the descent stage. Extra marks for blowing up a landmark I haven't seen blown up in a spy-thriller before. Recommended.