Friday, August 31, 2012

This is the End

Nightworld: A Repairman Jack/ Adversary Cycle Novel by F. Paul Wilson (2012): If you've seen the mostly godawful Michael Mann movie The Keep, then you've met the Anti-Christ of F. Paul Wilson's apocalyptic Repairman Jack/ Adversary Cycle. The novel was much better. But that was him, rassling Scott Glenn after escaping from centuries of imprisonment thanks to those damn Nazis. Scott Glenn played Glaiken, Rasalom's equally old nemesis.

Well, here we are now, after more than 30 years, with the end of the whole shebang. Nightworld is a major revision of an earlier novel of the same name, changed to increase Repairman Jack's role in the apocalypse, among other things.

The Earth's days get impossibly shorter, day by day. In a week or so, the sun will set for the last time. Massive pits begin opening up across the planet. When night falls, giant carnivorous insects pour from the pits. Worse, larger things soon follow. Volcanoes erupt. Earthquakes shake the planet. And it's all just a preview of life on Earth once the Otherness fully arrives and Rasalom emerges from his cocoon to preside over the fallen Earth.

And so a ragtag group of heroes must find and reassemble a thingie that might allow them to defeat Rasalom and drive away the Otherness. Rasalom draws power from fear and despair in his cocoon below Central Park. And his former followers discover that he never intended them to share in the power on the day after Doomsday.

Nightworld mostly satisfies, though the massive body count of the previous installment leaves sympathetic characters a bit light on the ground, and the gathering of items (or 'plot coupons') is a fantasy trope that, much-used, is also pretty much standard at this point in the genre. Still, things remain tense and compulsively readable right to the end. Recommended.

Penultimate

The Dark Before the End: A Repairman Jack Novel by F. Paul Wilson (2011): One of the good things about the Repairman Jack series (which overlaps with the accompanying Adversary Cycle) is that one can pick it up well into the overall narrative and nonetheless be engaged by the goings-on. Even so, this is really The Empire Strikes Back of the series: it doesn't exactly have an ending, it just ends.

The ragtag group that opposes Rasalom (aka the Adversary) seems to have found a way to stop the apocalypse from occurring. And they'd better. If Rasalom's millennia-long plans come to fruition, Earth will be overrun by an inimical reality called the Otherness. That is so not good.

The plot hangs together, though things do get a bit touchy towards the end of the novel, and a certain amount rests on a slight bit of the old Idiot Plot formula, in which people do a stupid thing. Wilson's major characters are likeable, which makes the fate of some of them a bit hard to take. Wilson's peculiar and distinctive mix of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and thriller fiction goes down smoothly. Action Cthulhu!

It might be fairer from a packaging standpoint to combine this novel and the following Nightworld into one text, though I don't think Wilson will do so. After 30 years and more than 20 novels, his work seems to finally be almost done. Though three Repairman Jack prequels are promised in the afterword, so who knows? Recommended, though really only if you've read at least a couple of the previous Repairman Jack novels.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Horrotica

Walk on the Wild Side: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner Volume 2 edited by Stephen Jones (2012): Centipede Press has done readers of horror and dark fantasy a tremendous service with the release of its two-volume collection of the late Karl Edward Wagner's best horror fiction. This is the weaker of the two volumes, collecting Wagner's shorter works with an emphasis on his late-life burst of often pornographic short stories.

Wagner started his writing life as a dynamo, both in horror and in heroic fantasy, much of the latter featuring his time-jaunting anti-hero Kane. He also worked on his own short-lived specialty press (Carcosa), wrote a licensed Conan novel (The Road of Kings), and took over editorship of DAW Books' excellent Year's Best Horror series in the early 1980's, a job he'd hold until his death in 1994.

Along the way, something happened. It involved the consumption of astounding amounts of alcohol and the growth of an intermittent writer's block that would persist from the late 1970's until his death. Trained as a psychiatrist, Wagner must have known something was going on. But what? We'll never entirely know, and the prose pieces in these two volumes by Wagner's friends suggest that he was ultimately a mystery to them as well.

We know that Wagner wrote at least one pornographic novel, and an awful lot of his late output collected here ranges into the territory of erotic horror (or 'horrotica!!!). I really wish he hadn't.

Gone for the most part is Wagner's marvelous sense of place and psychological depth, replaced with spurting penises in foaming hot tubs and more girl-on-girl action than normally found in a frat boy's hashish dream. There are a few gems here -- the creepy asylum story "Into Whose Hands" and the sad homage to The King in Yellow, "I've Come to Talk to You Again, are excellent, as is the punk-rock nightmare "Did They Get You To Trade?"

There are several stories across both volumes that deal with writers, writer's block, and writers either grown old or old before their time. How autobiographical these stories are is ultimately unknowable, but the cumulative effect certainly feels autobiographical. As an editor and a writer, here lies a fallen giant, an indispensable part of 1970's and 1980's horror, dark fantasy, and heroic fantasy. And if Karl Edward Wagner never became as great as he could have been -- well, the tragedy of his personal fall outweighs literary concerns. Recommended.

Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2010)


Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron (2010) containing the following: "Introduction" by Michael Shea; "The Forest", "Occultation", "The Lagerstatte", "Mysterium Tremendum", "Catch Hell", "Strappado", "The Broadsword", "-30-", "Six Six Six.": Barron really is a relatively new wonder in the horror world, an American writer who's been greeted with the sort of astonished critical praise I last remember being attached to a young John Varley in science fiction in the 1970's.

Barron works in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, but he brings to the cosmic tradition of horror his own muscular, cloachal, sadomasochistic vision of evil. Many of his stories take place on an Earth much like ours, only behind the walls lurk the horrifying emissaries and representatives of the Children of Old Leech.

There's much that's Cthulhian about Old Leech, a world-ravaging god-monster whose followers have a pronounced fondness for torturing and eating children. But many of Barron's stories center around the horror of metamorphosis -- the Children want some humans to become them and share in their terrible ecstasies. There aren't many heroes in Barron's stories, but there are a lot of victims, and a lot of normal people doing the best they can when faced with evil of sublime and abyssal gravity.

Barron also makes some truly bizarre forays into more traditional supernatural tropes here, but they're as distinctive as the tales set in the world of Old Leech. He's got the fearlessness and the distinctiveness of a truly great writer, and his horrors aren't quite like anything I've read before. And trust me, I've read a lot of horror. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dim Bulbs

The Darkest Hour: written by Jon Spaihts, Leslie Bohem, and M.T. Ahern; directed by Chris Gorak; starring Emile Hirsch (Sean), Olivia Thirlby (Natalie), Max Minghella (Ben) and Rachael Taylor (Anne) (2011): Bastard great-grandchild of John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, The Darkest Hour even lifts the Wyndham novel's celestial lightshow that ushers in apocalyptic events.

A bunch of bland American visitors to Moscow (well, I think Rachael Taylor's character is either British or Australian, but as almost no characterization beyond the Marvel comic-book level occurs in this movie, it's pretty much moot) get caught in an invasion of lights from outer space. The lights disintegrate people and are pretty much invulnerable to all Earthly weapons. Or so it seems! Luckily, the aliens don't check the basement the visitors hide in. Huzzah!

Other stuff happens, including the revelation that the aliens are basically really greedy leprechauns from outer space. What is it with movie aliens and their new obsession with strip mining (see also the naked space leprechauns of Cowboys and Aliens)? And why do highly developed alien species never wear clothing? And I'm looking at you, too, E.T. Put some pants on!

The movie is short and vaguely watchable, with a few interesting visual effects. It's not bad enough to be fun very often, and not good enough to be good. Full-frontal nudity from Olivia Thirlby would have made things a lot more interesting. Not recommended.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Where the Summer Ends: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner Volume 1


Where the Summer Ends: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner Volume 1 edited by Stephen Jones (2012): Centipede Press has done readers of horror and dark fantasy a tremendous service with the release of the two-volume collection of the late Karl Edward Wagner's best horror fiction. This is by far the strongest of the two volumes, collecting Wagner's longer short works, including his finest stories -- "Sticks", "In the Pines", "Where the Summer Ends", and "Beyond All Measure."

Wagner started his writing life as a dynamo, both in horror and in heroic fantasy, much of the latter featuring his time-jaunting anti-hero Kane. He also worked on his own short-lived specialty press (Carcosa), wrote a licensed Conan novel (The Road of Kings), and took over editorship of DAW Books' excellent Year's Best Horror series in the early 1980's, a job he'd hold until his death in 1994.

Along the way, something happened. It involved the consumption of astounding amounts of alcohol and the growth of an intermittent writer's block that would persist from the late 1970's until his death. Trained as a psychiatrist, Wagner must have known something was going on. But what? We'll never entirely know, and the prose pieces in these two volumes by Wagner's friends suggest that he was ultimately a mystery to them as well.

But we do have the stories, and more than ten years of the DAW anthologies. At his best, Wagner conjured up an extremely specific and detailed sense of place populated with psychologically complex characters and character interactions. While I tend to associate his best work with the American Southeast, "Sticks" actually takes place in and around the Hudson River Valley. The first half of that award-winning novelette represents Wagner's high point, a pitch-perfect evocation of horror centered around a hiker's discovery of odd-looking arrangements of sticks. If the second half moves into too-literal Lovecraftiana -- well, it's still a competent finish to a brilliant beginning.

"Beyond All Measure" gives the reader one of the more fascinating spins on vampires I can recall, while ".220 Swift" plunges into the backwoods of the American Southeast in search of creatures and situations that recall some of the tales of Arthur Machen. "In the Pines" is a harrowing tale of ghostly obsession, maybe Wagner's most sustained work, and one fit to stand beside similarly themed stories that include "The Beckoning Fair One" and "How Love Came to Professor Guildea."

I'm not as stuck on the two dream-odyssey stories included here -- Wagner's greatest strengths didn't lie in the surreal or the purposefully vague -- and one later novelette suggests a massive deterioration in skill. But the riches here, handsomely assembled and with generous accompanying prose pieces and illustrations, are worth your time. Highly recommended.

Not Long Before The End

Fatal Error: A Repairman Jack Novel by F. Paul Wilson (2010): The penultimate Repairman Jack novel sees Jack and friends trying to unravel yet another plot to plunge the world into eternal darkness. Good times, good times.

With the Lady -- the physical incarnation of humanity's collective consciousness called the noosphere, per Teilhard de Chardin -- already seriously depleted by previous assassination attempts, the Earth hangs in the balance. Should the Lady be destroyed, the Earth's protection from the Otherness will be removed, and pretty much literally all Hell will break loose as local reality becomes hostile to humanity's continued existence.

There's a grand conspiratorial lunacy to the Repairman Jack novels that's quite engaging. While the previous volume (Ground Zero) folded many of the 9/11 conspiracy theories into a Grand Unified Theory that was much, much weirder than anything in our world, Fatal Error plays with doomsday scenarios that involve the Internet. Much of the action centres on New York, the locus for most of the Repairman Jack novels, along with Jack's home-state of New Jersey.

Jack and his allies try to stop the End of the Internet for reasons I'll leave anyone who wants to read this series to find out on his or her own. The arch-enemy of humanity, 15,000-year-old Rasalom, plots away at a variety of other schemes meant to usher in the Age of the Otherness. Wilson's cosmic schemata is vaguely Lovecraftian -- two vast and impersonal forces vie for control of individual planets in the multiverse.

It all makes for a fast-paced, occasionally thoughtful read. Wilson's prose is adequate -- he's a plot-and-idea man first and foremost. Jack is, as usual, extremely competent; his allies are less so, to varying degrees. Recommended.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft (1928/First published 1943)


The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft (1928): I've come to share the beliefs of recent Lovecraft scholars who see this short novel as perhaps H.P. Lovecraft's funniest joke (its only rival in the HPL canon being "Herbert West - Reanimator"). For decades, readers pretty much assumed that H.P. Lovecraft was a humourless fellow despite ample evidence in his published letters to the contrary. Not so much any more.

The case for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward being satire rather than straightforward horror rests on two main foundational stones -- the wonky shenanigans that take place within, and Lovecraft's oft-stated antipathy to many of the tired horror tropes he nonetheless deploys herein. I mean, there's even vampirism in this novel, and Lovecraft really didn't play that vampirism crap.

Take it straight or take it with a large supply of essential salts -- either way, this novel deploys an almost manic daftness when it comes to supernatural shenanigans. Sorcerers chant ostensibly real spells from 'real' books of magic (and not the beloved Necronomicon or other Cthulhian magic books either -- these are the quasi-Christian spell-books of some of history's 'real' magicians and alchemists and court sages).

But the sorcerers also seek to reconstitute the dead by doing something to their "essential salts." A supernatural grave-robbing ring seeks to plunder the graves of history's greatest men (including Ben Franklin) so as to force the risen dead to tell them their secrets. Ben Franklin! I kid you not!

Things escalate in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1920's, as only an aging family physician ultimately stands between Earth and utter destruction. There are some terrific, moody set-pieces -- especially a nightmare tour through one of the worst hidden sub-basements in horror history. There's some stuff that I find deeply, intentionally funny (there's a running bit with various writers trying to set down what assorted creatures cry out in extremis, and on at least one occasion the writer really seems to be trying to solemnly set down what really is just a non-linguistic scream as if it were yet another mind-freezing bit of sorcery).

As well, there's the usual Lovecraftian documentary approach, and that attention to the gradual accumulation of telling detail. There are gambrel roofs. There's an evil twin. There's a bad guy who lives in Transylvania. There's a massive, pitched battle between Revolutionary era citizens and the sorcerer's monstrous legions. It's all terrific. Highly recommended.

Tripods: Actually More Stable Than Bipods

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Kevin O'Neill (2002-2003; collected 2003): The second volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen begins a few days before the first volume ended, on Mars, as an army of fictional Martians and emigre humans (most notably John Carter and his Martian allies from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian books and one of the Martian races from C.S. Lewis' John Ransom trilogy) push the blood-sucking, heat-beam-wielding 'Martians' of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds off Mars forever. Conditionally, they succeed -- but the 'Martians', who are not originally from Mars, launch their escape vessels towards Earth.

This second volume has a structure imposed upon it by Moore's choice of The War of the Worlds -- the Martian invasion of Great Britain proceeds pretty much as described in the Wells novel, though now we observe much of it from a new perspective, that of the League and the government trying to stop the invaders. Captain Nemo's revamped Nautilus submarine turns out to be a potent weapon against the Martians at first, but soon things become quite dire, as they do in the original novel.

Can Mina Harker and Alan Quatermain track down a mysterious scientist who perhaps has the only weapon that can defeat the invaders? Will one of the members of the League betray them? Will the Invisible Man discover that Mr. Hyde's bestial super-senses allow the beast-man to see the Invisible Man? Will Alan and Mina finally consummate their relationship? Will we get to see why Mina has hidden her neck within a scarf for nearly two whole volumes? Will Mr. Hyde get to dance while singing a jaunty tune?

Along with these pressing questions and some crackerjack cartooning from Mr. O'Neill -- Martian tripods have never looked so weirdly alien and baroque, nor Mr. Hyde so terrible and necessary -- comes a nearly 50-page prose piece on the historical geography of the world the League inhabits.

We learn more about previous Leagues (especially the ones led by Prospero and by Lemuel Gulliver), have our first meeting with soon-to-be major player Orlando (from Virginia Woolf), and visit the fictionally derived landscape of the League's world, in which the locations and characters and creatures of Herman Melville, Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, Jonathan Swift, Daniel DeFoe, Mary Shelley, and hosts of others all share the same world. Lots of fun, lots of rewardingly heavy lifting. Highly recommended.

The Fiendish Plot of the Devil Doctor

League of Extraordinary Gentleman Volume 1: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Kevin O'Neill (1999-2000; collected 2001): When it began, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentleman (LOEG) looked like a worthy successor to the such predecessors as Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp's Harold Shea stories and Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton works. The literary and legendary characters of many different authors and cultures would turn out to live in the same world, where they could interact. Warren Ellis and John Cassaday were even working on a similar, contemporaneous project, Planetary, at the same comic-book company.

But things changed. Or things were gradually revealed. And coming back to the first volume of LOEG after reading the most recent volume, Century, I find that these changes were always indicated by plot points and lines that seemed like throwaways at the time. Nonetheless, the first volume of LOEG still reads like a somewhat sarcastic team-up of characters from different literary works of the 19th century. The really bizarre stuff was still mostly two volumes away.

So in 1898, Dracula's now-divorced Mina Harker (nee Murray), H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, H. Rider Haggard's African adventurer Alan Quatermain, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Jules Verne's Captain Nemo are tasked by James Bond's grandfather Campion, who is working for the mysterious M., head of the British secret service, with stopping Fu Manchu from destroying England with the aid of the anti-gravitational Cavorite he's stolen from Professor Cavor (a substance and a character in H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon). During the course of this adventure, we'll also meet and mingle with Pollyanna, Moby Dick 's Ishmael (he's Nemo's first mate), Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes, Poe's French private detective C. Auguste Dupin, and a host of other fictional characters major and minor.

Artist O'Neill is called upon to do a lot of things -- stage epic battle scenes, keep things light when they're supposed to be light, reimagine Mr. Hyde as a giant, Hulk-like grotesque, draw hundreds of cameo appearances -- and he does them all well. He's a cartoonist of real wit and subversive tendencies.

Plot-wise, things get hinky very fast because things, as usual, are not what they seem. The at-least-slightly less metafictional aims of this first volume make for a slightly less introspective feel -- one doesn't feel like the whole enterprise of fiction is being interrogated on every page, even if it really is. The prose piece that concludes the volume takes us into some of the history of the members of the League, as we discover what led Alan Quatermain to the dire condition Mina finds him in near the beginning of this volume. Highly recommended.