Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When Wallpaper Attacks

Midnight Frights: A Collection of Ghost Stories edited by Charles Eastman containing "The Signal-man" by Charles Dickens, "Man-size in Marble" by E. Nesbit, "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Cigarette Case" by Oliver Onions, and "The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant (1980): Nifty little collection of ghost stories that doesn't really seem to have been selected for the audience it nonetheless ostensibly seems to be aimed at. The chills are a bit rarefied. And Onions deploys Britishisms that gave me pause at certain points. Odd selection for a young-adult collection put together in 1980.

The Dickens story is an understated character study. The Nesbit story goes pretty much exactly where one thinks it's going to go, and does so in style. "The Cigarette Case" is a nice little piece, though not one of Onions' scarier offerings (the scariest being "The Beckoning Fair One", one of the ten or twenty greatest ghost stories ever written in English). "The Horla" is a fascinating bit of proto-science fiction from the prolific de Maupassant, himself doomed to die young and insane.

And there's "The Yellow Wallpaper." It's scary as Hell. It's also considered a piece of proto-feminist fiction (as indeed it is), so it gets a lot of love in the Academy. It's a terrific story that, while traditionally read as a tale of pure psychological horror, does leave a slight amount of room for a supernatural explanation. Totally bravura, one might say, in its first-person narration that slides gradually into horrifying madness, a madness that seems somewhat justified by the way the female narrator is treated by her well-meaning but controlling husband. You can also read it as a parable about post-partum depression. Seriously. Overall, recommended.

Solomon Kane: The Hills of the Dead by Robert E. Howard with Ramsey Campbell

Solomon Kane: The Hills of the Dead by Robert E. Howard with Ramsey Campbell containing the following stories:"The Hills of the Dead",  "Hawk of Basti" (Completed by Ramsey Campbell), "The Return of Sir Richard Grenville" (poem), "Wings in the Night", "The Footfalls Within", "The Children of Asshur" (Completed by Ramsey Campbell), "Solomon Kane's Homecoming" (poem) and "The Mystery of Solomon Kane" (Introduction) by Ramsey Campbell (1928-1968; 1979):

Bantam's second (and last) 1970's volume of the adventures of Robert E. Howard's quasi-Puritan monster-fighter takes place mostly in Africa. Not historic Africa, but an Africa almost as fantastic as the world of Conan the Barbarian. Howard aficiando and acclaimed horror writer Ramsey Campbell finishes two Howard fragments here, to solid effect -- the seams don't show.

This time out, Kane battles an army of vampires, an army of carnivorous hawkmen, a couple of lost civilizations, and an unnameable Cthulhuian horror. He gets a lot of help from his African magician pal N'Longa and from the ancient staff N'Longa gives him to fight evil with, a staff the stories tell us may predate the existence of the Earth itself. Solomon Kane fights for an ostenibly Christian God, but he does so within a fantastic framework that resembles H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, one in which evolution is taken as a given.

Howard's racial sensibilities will offend some, though they seem surprisingly progressive in a "White Man's Burden" sort of way. N'Longa is a great help, and Kane spends a lot of time liberating African slaves or fighting to save villages from terrible supernatural menaces. He's a real gent. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Godzilla's Roman Holiday

20 Million Miles to Earth: written by Bob Williams, Christopher Knopf, and Charlotte Knight; directed by Nathan Juran; starring William Hopper (Colonel Calder), Joan Taylor (Marisa Leonardo) and Bart Bradley (Pepe) (1957): One watches this movie for the Ray Harryhausen-directed stop-motion animation, which still has the power to amaze. Actually, it may amaze more now: the creature effects were painstakingly done by hand with models. CGI didn't exist. And Harryhausen (perhaps most famous for his work on the Sinbad movies and Jason and the Argonauts) is in rare form in what was his favourite of all his movies.

A returning American Venus expedition rocket gets hit by a meteor and subsequently crashes off the coast of Sicily. Some intrepid Sicilian fishermen rescue the only two survivors before the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean. One survivor subsequently dies from the toxic effects of the Venusian atmosphere, but team leader Col. Calder survives. Where's that two-foot-long specimen bottle we brought back from Venus, asks the Colonel?

Alas, annoying fishermen's child Pepe sold the blobby contents of that bottle to a travelling zoology professor and his M.D. daughter in exchange for the money to buy a cowboy hat. I feel like there are hidden depths of symbolism and allegory already at work here. And from that blob hatches a two-foot-tall bipedal lizard creature with a face like a catfish, an Ymir, one of the natives of Venus.

And then the Ymir starts to grow at a rate only slightly slower than the Blob, but with no eating of people. The Ymir gains mass simply by breathing Earth's atmosphere. Frankly, this is something you'd think would excite the scientists, but no one even blinks at this astonishing ability. People in the 1950's were idiots.

While the rest of the movie is solid and workmanlike, the Ymir sequences are terrific. The creature is cleverly integrated into a number of shots of the actors, but it's when he's off on his own that he really shines: fighting a dog, fighting an elephant, climbing the Colosseum, yelling a lot. Our friend the Ymir isn't a naturally hostile fellow, though his colossal growth rate soon threatens Rome. Indeed, unlike King Kong he isn't even interested in eating humans: he prefers elemental sulfur.

So the movie turns into an at-least-partially intentional indictment of man's violence against the unknown. The Ymir is caged, electrocuted, attacked by a dog, attacked by an elephant (!!!), bombed, grenaded, rocketed, gassed, pursued by helicopters, and pretty much given the worst welcome to a planet any creature could have. He even gets a pitchfork stuck in his back by an angry farmer. Honestly, we're approaching the Deliverance category of bad vacations. Thank God he didn't land in the Appalachians.

And all because the U.S. government wants to understand how his lungs filter out Venus' toxic atmosphere so that men can return and strip-mine the place for rare minerals. Oh, allegory, where is thy sting? So far as I can tell, the Ymir just wanted to see the sights of Rome, but while he does tour the Colosseum, he never gets to relax in a sidewalk cafe. Scenes of the soldiers firing rockets, machine guns, and grenades willy-nilly into the Colosseum are unintentionally hilarious. It's like something out of a Michael Bay movie. Or Team America: World Police. Recommended.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Emotional Rescue

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993): This solid little Young-Adult-targeted dystopia has sold a gajillion copies and spawned three more novels set in the same fictional universe. Lowry's dystopic model is far more Brave New World than 1984, though not entirely either.

Neil Postman suggested that dystopias tend to fall between the two poles of pain-based (1984) and pleasure-based (Brave New World) control of the citizenry. Lowry's citizens are taking something a lot like Huxley's Soma, only moreso: they feel nothing strongly, and some things they feel not at all. It's a dystopia of emotional and physical subtraction: no pain, no pleasure, no problem.

The trade-off for the full range of human feelings is a peaceful, well-ordered existence in which even physical pain and accidental death are almost non-existent. But our young protagonist Jonas will soon learn both the secrets of his community and the secrets of himself.

The Giver is a dystopia, not dystopic science fiction: many of the qualities of Jonas's world fall apart when examined too closely. The same can be said of a number of classics of dystopian literature that include Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Orwell's 1984. A dystopia may be an allegory about a condition that already exists and/or of a condition that could exist if things keep on going the way they're going (The Handmaid's Tale satisfies those criteria). It doesn't necessarily hold together as a plausible imagination of a workable society (again, The Handmaid's Tale satisfies that criteria: it really isn't science fiction).

Figuring out what the conditions are that Lowry sees in the here-and-now as deeply disturbing enough to imagine a dystopia around them is part of the enjoyment of reading the novel. It's concise and moving and possessed of appealing characters. Its only real problem is that it ends in a rush. It doesn't overstay its welcome. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Silent House (2012)

Silent House: adapted by Laura Lau from the Uruguayan movie of the same name written by Gustavo Hernandez; directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau; starring Elizabeth Olsen (Sarah), Adam Trese (John), Eric Sheffer Stevens (Peter), Julia Taylor Ross (Sophia), Adam Barnett (Stalking Man), and Haley Murphy (Little Girl) (2012): In the tradition of both Hitchcock's Rope and the Uruguayan horror movie it remakes, Silent House was shot in a series of continuous takes that were then edited so as to look as if there were no edits at all.

The seams don't show as much as in Rope, in which Hitchcock had to have the camera dive into a wall or door every eight minutes to hide the edit. That's because of digital effects and the murkiness of much of this movie, most of which takes place inside a house without electrical power.

Twentysomething Sarah, her father John, and her father's brother Peter are working to clean and repair the family cottage/lakeside house, which has been sold to new owners. Commence the escalating horrors! Is it a ghost story? A slasher movie? Could there be a twist ending?

Elizabeth Olsen, the younger and considerably bustier sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, does a pretty good job here running the emotional gamut from screaming to trying not to scream to running to hiding. She definitely looks at the handheld camera a couple of times, though, which knocks one a bit out of the film world. But this is a tough acting assignment, as the camera is either on her or looking over her shoulder for the entire movie.

Olsen does a good job overall establishing both viewer sympathy and a growing sense of unease at what she's seeing, though given where the plot goes, a higher-cut, darker-coloured top might have been a good idea. Or not. This is a movie in part about voyeurism and objectification, which means that the amount of time the movie spends centered on Olsen's cleavage can ultimately be read as an attempt to increase the discomfort of the viewer at the pronouncedly anti-erotic climax of the film. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It Only Seems Like Eternity

The Chronicles of Conan Volume 16: The Eternity War and Others: written by Roy Thomas and J.M. de Matteis; illustrated by John Buscema, Bob McLeod, and Ernie Chan (1980; collected 2008): Workmanlike Dark Horse reprints of Conan adventures originally published by Marvel Comics in the early 1980's. The only item of historical note is that this collection bridges the transition from writer Roy Thomas to other writers on the Conan colour comic book.

Thomas had written the Marvel Conan pretty much by himself since the comic started publication in 1970. But 1979-1980 saw Thomas out at Marvel and in at DC, where he'd soon be writing his self-created sword-and-sorcery book, Arak, Son of Thunder. While two Conan Annuals present some of Thomas' last Conan work for the next ten years or so, a young J.M. de Matteis does nothing to embarass himself here on the included issues of the monthly book: but Marvel's Conan was, like a a lot of other Marvel comics of the time, pretty bland gruel.

Long-time Conan artist John Buscema was only doing breakdowns by this point, leaving it to other inkers to put perhaps too much of a hard edge on the final art (Buscema was apparently chronically dissatisfied with Ernie Chan's work as an inker/finisher which, given the eternal perversity of Marvel Comics, probably explains why Chan finished so much Buscema work). Chan would be a good inker for Buscema if super-heroes were involved but on Conan a lighter hand (or maybe a moodier one like Alfredo Alcala) would have added some sorcery to the cleanly, blandly depicted swordplay.

I'll tell you, though, Buscema really had problems with drawing horses. And don't get me started on the Manotaur, a creature as badly designed as its name was badly chosen. Only recommended for Conan completists.


21 Jump Street: based on the television series created by Stephen J. Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh, written by Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill; directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; starring Jonah Hill (Schmidt), Channing Tatum (Jenko), Brie Larson (Mollie), Dave Franco (Eric), Rob Riggle (Mr. Walters) and Ice Cube (Captain Dickson) (2012): Hilarious comedy reboot of the not-so-good 1980's TV series that introduced Johnny Depp and Richard Grieco to the world. Cops pretend to be teenagers and bust crimes at a high school. What could go wrong?

Almost obsessively filthy-mouthed, the movie makes good use of Jonah Hill's weirdly earnest nebbish personality by setting it off against Channing Tatum's seemingly dumb but well-meaning jock. They weren't friends in high school, but they become so in police academy. And now they're assigned to take down the suppliers of a dangerous new super-drug at a local high school. Will they also purge the demons that have haunted them since senior year?

Ice Cube swears and fulminates as the captain. Dave Franco stirs up echoes of the early, burn-out charm of his older brother James. Actors from the TV series make surprise cameos. Hill again shows his gift for slapstick, but Tatum also demonstrates comic timing and physical prowess. Who knew he was funny? Oh, and a guy gets his dick shot off. Also, Korean Jesus. Recommended.

The Raven: written by Richard Matheson, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe; directed by Roger Corman; starring Vincent Price (Craven), Peter Lorre (Bedlo), Boris Karloff (Scarabus), Jack Nicholson (Rexford Bedlo), Hazel Court (Lenore) and Olive Sturgess (Estelle Craven) (1963): Screenwriter Richard Matheson is an American treasure for his short stories, novels, and screenplay work, pretty much all in the thriller, horror, and fantasy genres. You can look him up.

Here, he takes Edgar Allan Poe's poem and turns it into a horror-comedy about dueling wizards (Karloff and Price), a snivelling second banana (Lorre), and a shockingly young Jack NIcholson as a young romantic lead. The wizard's duel is witty and surprisingly good-looking given the technical and budgetary limitations the film faced. Roger Corman's direction is relatively sharp. The acting is pretty much all first-rate, with Karloff uncharcteristically loose and funny as the nefarious Scarabus.

Price is great as he usually was. Holy crap, though, The Raven really highlights his height -- Price, an uncharacteristic-for-Hollywood 6'4" towers over 5'11" Karloff and dwarfs the 5'5" Lorre. Everyone seems to be having a good time, and Matheson even sneaks in a reference to The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie he had nothing to do with. The only creepy moments involve the really nice make-up design on a couple of corpses. And by 'nice', I mean 'grotesque.' Recommended.

Get on the Bus

Inspector Morse 1: Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter (1975): Before Inspector Morse became a beloved PBS franchise that would have its own acclaimed run of episodes and then two spin-off series currently on the air, it was a series of mystery novels by Colin Dexter.

This first installment shows Dexter's early brilliance in combining an American mystery trope (the hard-drinking, tarnished knight of a detective) with the enduring British trope of the detective story per: Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Detective-Inspector Morse is moody, mercurial, and the highest of all high-functioning alcoholics. He solves crimes in and around the Oxford University area, which apparently has the highest murder rate east of Detroit.

In Last Bus to Woodstock, he teams up with stoic, salt-of-the-Earth Detective-Sergeant Lewis for the first time, a match made in heaven as Lewis remains grounded and methodical even as Morse's investigation wanders all over the map. Morse, erudite and self-pitying, almost blows the case, in part by doing something that would definitely blow the case if he did it and was found out in a contemporary investigation. Lewis puts up with insults and Morse's occasionally bizarre need to keep secrets from his own partner until he's proven right. Like many self-pitying people, Morse has an enormous ego and an attendant fear of appearing to be wrong or misguided.

But Morse is also devastatingly insightful, which explains why he's stayed on the force so long. He's also a lonely bastard throughout this first novel. Dexter's portrayal of both character and British police procedure is top-notch, and the novel never less than engaging.

While it's set in the relatively recent mid-1970's, the novel gives us a mystery that simply couldn't happen today thanks to changes in society and technology. It's a murder that relies to a great extent upon the difficulty of making a truly private telephone call in Oxford circa 1975. Lend it to your kids to show them what telecommunications was like in the Oldey Timey days. Skype would scuttle the entire plot. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Happily Ever After, In Hell

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels (1995): Pagels adapts some of her scholarly material on the social dynamics of early Christianity into a book for laypersons, with admirable results. The origins recounted here are not of the mythological variety; rather, Pagels explores the human and social origins of Satan in particular and demons in general.

Part of this exploration must go into the Old Testament, in which "the satan" was an angel of the Lord tasked with putting obstacles in the path of a good person who was straying. The Book of Job and subsequent works gradually altered this dynamic, making the satan -- or perhaps just Satan -- into an angel who tests the faithful. But it wouldn't be until the development of various first-century cults, and ultimately Christianity, that an actual independent Adversary of God would arise.

Pagels clearly explains, develops, and supports her argument as we move through the synoptic Gospels and other early books of the New Testament. Christianity tended to demonize its early opponents, first the Jews and then heretical components of early Christianity, especially those with Gnostic tendencies.

The demonization of the Jews in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John increases as a component of how long after Christ's life they were written; the guilt of the Roman authorities decreases along the same timeline, until Pilate -- historically a real bastard of a Prefect, even for Roman Prefects -- has become an ineffectual man who sought to save Jesus, a portrayal that seems extraordinarily unlikely given the non-Biblical historical record's evidence both of how the Roman Empire worked and how Pilate himself governed.

And by demonize, Pagels means to literally demonize -- religious opponents of Christianity were the servants, pawns, and possessed creatures of the newly posited cosmic evil of Satan and his angels; the universe itself was a battleground for actual demonic forces and the forces of Good, though one where the battle was already won by Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Even the word 'demon' was a demonization of the Latinized Greek term for non-human spirits who were not necessarily good or evil.

All in all, clearly written and extremely informative. As noted, this is not a mythological exploration per se, but instead a sociological and social one with applications that range far beyond early Christianity through the discussion of how particular religions construct the face of the enemy, and make 'it' inhuman. Satan is as much human as angel. Highly recommended.

Skulls and Bones

Solomon Kane: Skulls in the Stars: written by Robert E. Howard and Ramsey Campbell containing the following stories: "Skulls in the Stars:, "The Right Hand of Doom", "Red Shadows", "Rattle of Bones", "The Castle of the Devil", "The Moon of Skulls", "The One Black Stain", "Blades of the Brotherhood." (1928-1968; Collected 1979): Solomon Kane was Conan-creator Robert E. Howard's 16th-century Puritan monster-fighter whose adventures ranged from the English moors to deepest, darkest, most fictional Africa, there not actually being a lot of vampire cities in real Africa. That we know of. Because Solomon Kane wiped them all out.

Unlike Conan, whose battles against evil came mostly came as a by-product of his battles for money and power, Kane intentionally sought out evil. Howard is already more canny at a young age (the Kane stories were all written before the age of 25) than many pulp writers ever are: there are a number of fascinating writerly observations about Kane's personality throughout these tales, most of them about Kane's non-self-aware fanaticism and its pros and cons when it comes to fighting evil.

Kane is obsessive, and his faith is unshakeable -- and it often seems that that unshakeable faith brings powerful forces to his aid when he needs it. He can, however, fight his way out of almost any situation. And unlike Conan, he has the benefits of gunpowder and muskets.

Ramsey Campbell does a nearly seamless job of finishing up one Kane fragment ("The Castle of the Devil") in this late 1970's collection. The rest of the stories (and one poem) were finished by Howard himself, with the remaining Kane stories and fragments in a second volume. The adventures here aren't quite as fantastic as those in the second volume. Kane fights 'normal' brigands in one story, while in another the foes are human and the help from an African magician the only magical part of the narrative.

Howard's racism is noticeable throughout, though later stories set in Africa would make Africans much more sympathetic as Kane battled to save tribespeople from supernatural threats (again with the help of the canny African magician he first meets here). The action is involving, the portrayal of Kane fascinating, and the events sometimes move into the realm of the epic. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Needs Repairs

Aftershock and Other Stories by F. Paul Wilson (1990-2008; collected 2009): Wilson is the sort of literal-minded champion of plain-style prose whom some fans of fantasy and science fiction go completely gaga for. Stylistically, he makes Stephen King look like Thomas Ligotti and Thomas Ligotti look like James Joyce, thus pushing James Joyce into another prose universe altogether. At his best, he's a competent writer with some interesting ideas. He's also blazingly fast. If you don't like the new F. Paul Wilson novel, wait six months and read the next one.

Wilson promises in the notes included with this collection of short pieces that this will be his last original collection of short stories and novellas, as he's lost interest in the form. This claim may be a good thing if Wilson sticks to it, as the stories here range from the competent (the bafflingly award-winning title story) to the thuddingly bland (that would be at least half the collection). If the ideas aren't strong and strongly developed, Wilson has nowhere to fall back -- his is a plain and often cliche-ridden style with a tendency towards personal macro-phrases that pop up again and again in his work along with certain tropes and plot mechanisms.

For instance, a lot of women in Wilson's universe have breasts that are not too small and not too big but just a perfect handful. Common criminals tend to be physically ugly. Horror stories often centre around the punishment of a lazy male, sometimes guilty of murder, sometimes guilty of, um, laziness enabled by inherited money or the occasional bout of physical incompetence that the universe inevitably punishes with death. Most people other than the heroes and their close acquaintances tend to be either scum or sheep, something one sees in Wilson's Repairman Jack novels as well.

After all, Wilson has won about a million Prometheus Awards for fiction that champions the libertarian ideal. And Wilson's introductions and notes here show us just how concerned he is with productivity and money. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and apparently a lot of people like relatively unornamented, occasionally sentimental prose. So it goes. Not recommended.

Undead Puritans in the Hands of an Angry God (Showcase Presents The Spectre)

Showcase Presents The Spectre Volume 1: written by Gardner Fox, Neal Adams, Steve Skeates, Michael Fleisher and others; illustrated by Murphy Anderson, Jerry Grandenetti, Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, Jim Starlin and others (1966-1983; collected 2012): The first collection of the Spectre's Silver- and Bronze-Age adventures at DC Comics is quite a bargain at over 600 pages for less than $20. It's also a bargain because of the 20-year period spanned by the collection. It's like a miniature cross-section of DC Comics in three different decades.

The Spectre was created in 1940 by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and artist Bernard Baily. He began as a murdered detective -- Jim Corrigan -- who was brought back to a sort of un-life by a mysterious voice whom most writers have strongly hinted was God.

Charged by the voice with seeking revenge on evil, Corrigan found himself host to one of the odder-looking superheroes of any age of comics, the Spectre. He seems to be dressed in white with green trunks, cape, hood, and boots. He isn't. The white part is the Spectre's body colour, ectoplasm or dead white flesh, depending on the writer. Yeesh.

The Spectre started off as judge, jury, and often very creative executioner. But he wasn't all that popular, though I've always been a bit confused about how companies assessed popularity in the 1940's comic-book industry. The Spectre never had his own book, and his adventures were usually eight to ten page shorts published in the anthology book More Fun Comics. They don't title comics the way they used to!

In any case, the powers that be at the comic-book company that would eventually be known as DC Comics soon changed the tone of the Spectre's adventures and paired him with a comic sidekick who eventually became the lead in the strip, with the Spectre as a helpful ghost. It was quite a comedown. The Spectre continued to act more like his original self in the Justice Society's adventures, but the late 1940's and early 1950's would soon end the ghostly creature's adventures.

Then came the Silver Age, and two Earths of DC characters, one being established as the home of the Golden-Age versions of everyone from Superman to Green Arrow. And finally the Spectre returned in the mid-1960's, less vengeful and more cosmic, in what seemed to be an attempt to emulate Marvel's supernatural hero Dr. Strange. The literal-minded Murphy Anderson was mysteriously chosen for the first few adventures collected here, written by the high-speed human typewriter of DC's Silver Age, Gardner Fox. They're certainly interesting stories, though the Spectre is a bit off a stiff. And not in a good way.

Different artists and writers followed in relatively quick succession, all sticking to the Spectre's new role as lovable cosmic avenger. Only towards the end of the Spectre's short-lived 1960's series does the character's vengeful streak come out, resulting in the hero being reprimanded by that Voice again just prior to cancellation.

There's some splendid cosmic art here from Neal Adams, along with some weird stuff from Jerry Grandenetti, who seems to be channeling the art of Dr. Strange's Steve Ditko in some of his more outlandish character designs, and the spirit of unintelligibility in some of his weirder page and panel layouts. Grandenetti can't make undead Puritans scary but he gives it the old college try, God bless him.

Five years after that 1969 cancellation came the character's post-Golden-Age career highlight: ten adventures in Adventure Comics (briefly retitled Weird Adventure) written by Michael Fleisher with help from Russell Carey and mostly illustrated by perennial Batman artist Jim Aparo. Fleisher returned the Spectre to his violent roots, in the process getting away with a surprising amount of graphic violence for a 1970's comic book.

The Spectre turned people into wood and then buzz-sawed them into pieces. He reduced them to skeletons. He melted them into screaming pools of dying goo. He cut them in half with giant scissors. He chopped them up with flying cleavers, fed them to alligators, and had magically animated stuffed gorillas tear them limb from limb. It was awesome.

Aparo illustrated all this with a weirdly unsettling matter-of-fact style augmented by suggestion rather than illustration at certain points due to the censorious Comics Code Authority: scissors man, for instance, is shown as being cut in half at the waist, but curtains are wrapped around the character below that waist. The empty area where the legs were is just a deflated expanse of curtain. Fleisher also works around things by having a character turned to wood before being segmented into pancakes of flesh, though Showcase's B&W reprint eliminates the colouring that made the character woody in the original publication. Now he's just a pile of flapjacks made out of person. Mmm.

After Fleisher and Aparo's delightful run (also collected on its own, in colour), the Spectre returned to a slightly less violent form of himself, guarding the boundaries of the universe and playing nice with other superheroes. The character's recurring omnipotence and near-omnipotence always seems to make him a hard sell. Later attempts at Spectre solo books have run longer than the attempts here, but none of them for that long.

The character has been rebooted an astonishing number of times, with different characters (including Green Lantern Hal Jordan during his dead phase) acting as hosts for the Spectre. Different explanations have been given for the Spectre's role in the universe, and why he needs a human host in the first place (short explanation: the Spectre, God's second attempt at a cosmic spirit of vengeance, goes completely loopy without a human host to ground him). As of 2012, he seems to be back again as the deceased Jim Corrigan, and sorta pissed about it. At least he's not comic relief. Yet. Recommended.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Screaming and Eels

The Woman in Black: adapted by Jane Goldman from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill; directed by James Watkins; starring Daniel Radcliffe (Arthur Kipps) and Ciaran Hinds (Daily) (2012): By all rights, this should be a movie about a young, early-20th-century British solicitor who travels to a small English sea-side town only to discover the town deserted, the residents all having moved to the United States, or perhaps even the Moon.

Given what's going on in the gloomy English east-coast town of Crythin Gifford, nobody would continue to live there. I don't care how good the fishing is. So one has to take this improbability and run with it, as one sometimes must when the devil vomits into one's tea-kettle.

Set just prior to World War One, The Woman in Black follows Daniel Radcliffe as that young solicitor, a widower whose wife died giving birth to their now-4-year-old son. Radcliffe isn't done any services by the early part of the film, during which he plays chronic grief as if it were chronic constipation.

He gets better as he's allowed to emote more, though he never seems to emote quite enough under the circumstances, which involve an isolated, supremely creepy mansion; children who keep committing "suicide" by jumping out windows, drinking lye, or lighting themselves on fire; a serial-child-killing ghost who enjoys screaming and sudden bursts of quick movement; a room full of creepy toys and an extremely disturbing rocking chair; and the tormented and occasionally screaming ghosts of dozens of dead children.

Both the movie and the novel it's based on are homages to something more literary than filmic -- the classic British ghost story as practiced by writers that include J. Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James. The mansion is the scariest character here, a marvel of set design, with the ghosts and the mise-en-scene coming a close second: a lot of the scares in the movie rely on something somewhat indistinct edging into the background before becoming more distinct and/or getting closer and closer...

Ciaran Hinds really has the only other role in this movie with any substantial lines, as a resident of the town who's been touched by tragedy but persists in not believing in ghosts. Also, he has a motor car that comes in handy towards the end. But would anyone be surprised that a place named Eel Marsh House is a bad place? Anyone? Recommended.

Sean Penn Not Included

Dead Men Walk: written by Fred Myton; directed by Sam Newfield; starring George Zucco (Dr. Lloyd Clayton/ Dr. Elwyn Clayton), Mary Carlisle (Gayle Clayton), Nedrick Young (Dr. David Bentley) and Dwight Frye (Zolarr) (1943): Noticeably cheap B-movie from PRC, the bargain basement of 1940's film production, Dead Men Walk takes place on about five sets. Maybe four. One of them is a patch of 'forest' that is apparently exactly as wide as will fill the screen when it's filmed.

The oddly famous George Zucco plays the two main characters, good Dr. Lloyd Clayton and evil vampire Dr. Elwyn Clayton. You can tell them apart because Lloyd wears glasses except when he doesn't, which is on at least four occasions by my count.

There's nothing really good about this movie, though it does feature some of the most inept vampire-fighting ever put on screen and Zucco is competent in his dual role. A fiery climax is surprisingly realistic looking, making one wonder if someone accidentally set fire to the sets and the director said to Hell with it and just started filming.

The fact that the young male love interest for Lloyd's vampire-beset niece is named Dr. David Bentley will be funny to a lot of UWO English department graduates. Weirdly compelling and only 62 minutes long, though not exactly recommended.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Early Adventures of Moore and Davis

Captain Britain: Jasper's Warp: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Alan Davis (1982-83; 2005): Alan Moore wrote one Marvel Comics character, and that was a character who at the time of the writing was almost exclusively only seen in Marvel's occasionally bizarre UK line: Captain Britain.

It's not Moore's first comic-book work, or even his first work on someone else's character. Nonetheless, this collection of Moore's Captain Britain work is fascinating both as a better-than-average early 1980's superhero story and as a foreshadowing of some of the themes and plot twists that would soon define Moore's career.

Moore picks up the narrative half-way through a story started by another writer, with Captain Britain and a ragtag bunch of friends and acquaintances trying to jump-start the development of a parallel Earth (Earth-238 to be exact; normal Marvel Earth is 616). Things rapidly go FUBAR.

As some of the pleasure of this volume lies in the plot twists, including the very early ones, that's really all I can say about the events of this volume. We do get some pretty wacky stuff -- the Captain Britains of all the parallel Earths essentially form a Captain Britain Corps charged with protecting the Omniverse from destruction. Of course, they're not really the Captain Britain Corps because not all of them are named Captain Britain: we meet Captain U.K., Captain Albion, Captain England, Captain Airstrip-One...and I'm not joking about that last one.

Moore seems more fully formed here than his artistic collaborator, Alan Davis, whose first major comic-book work this is. But the volume is worth looking at for Davis as well, and maybe moreso if one enjoys his pleasing, Neal Adams-influenced art (though Davis was and is a much better panel-to-panel storyteller than Adams ever was). Davis grows with astonishing rapidity here, and by the end of the volume he's recognizably entering his mature phase as an illustrator.

My one complaint...what the Hell went on with lettering in the Marvel UK line in the 1980's? This might actually be the worst lettered comic-book from a mainstream company I've ever read. Perhaps later editions fixed this problem with re-lettering. Boy, is it awful. Nonetheless, recommended.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Kraken: An Anatomy by China Mieville (2010)

Kraken: An Anatomy by China Mieville (2010): A wild romp from a writer who seems to have an IQ of about 200, Kraken is the best contemporary fantasy novel published in years. Allusive and metatextual, it also manages a thrilling plot, interesting characters, and some of the weirdest conspiracy theories ever floated. And the Church of Kraken Almighty, the decadent Chaos Nazis, the Londonmancers, the Gunfarmers, the London Embassy of the Sea, and two terrifyingly unpleasant guns-for-hire, the seemingly unkillable Goss and Subby.

Billy Harrow, a biologist working at the Darwin Centre at the British Museum in London, England, takes a regularly scheduled tour group into the centre's largest public-display preservation room to see the Centre's crown jewel -- a 40-foot-long giant squid preserved in a giant bottle (this is really there in our world, by the way, if you're in England and want to see a giant squid).

But the squid isn't there, bottle or otherwise. And then a dead body shows up impossibly jammed inside a smaller bottle. And then all Hell breaks loose. Or Heaven. Or Judgment Day. All of it revolving around that lost squid. For squids are baby gods. To the Church of Kraken Almighty, anyway. And with faiths and religions and beliefs overlapping and struggling for supremacy, the God in a Bottle becomes the McGuffin everyone is chasing.

Soon Billy is caught up in a struggle to either cause the End of the World or prevent it, depending on what side one is on. For London is the city of both gods and cults, with magic bubbling away just beneath the surface, a fragile ceasefire now broken as various groups -- including a special police division meant to deal with magical doings -- start to stake their claims on Doomsday. And everyone agrees that Billy Harrow has some major part to play.

Oh, and the familiars are on strike for better pay and working conditions, led by their ancient Egyptian union leader Wati, the spirit of an emancipated ancient Egyptian tomb-statue created to serve the mummified dead in the afterlife. And Wati's one of the more normal characters.

Mieville balances comedy with horror and drama here, one of the more difficult feats a writer can pull off. The result vaguely resembles a Douglas Adams novel, only much smarter and with actual emotional depth among the weirdness.

The allusions and references and intertexts come quickly and in great profusion throughout, adding to one's appreciation of Mieville's giant and eccentric brain (a late Phil Collins reference really kills). The precognitive mystics all agree -- if things go the wrong way, the universe will not only cease to exist: it will cease to have ever existed. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Literary Geography

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Yukio Shimizu, and others (2009-2010); The Unwritten: Inside Man: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Yukio Shimizu, and others (2010):; The Unwritten: Dead Man's Knock: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Yukio Shimizu, and others (2010); The Unwritten: Leviathan: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Yukio Shimizu, and others (2010-2011); The Unwritten: On to Genesis: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Yukio Shimizu, and others (2011); The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Yukio Shimizu, and others (2011-2012):

Carey and Gross's epic metafantasy pulls out a lead character modelled upon Christopher Milne and Harry Potter and throws the whole of fiction, poetry, myth, legend, and religion at him. Tom Taylor starts the narrative as the bored, drifting son of mysteriously vanished children's literary titan Wilson Taylor. Wilson seemingly modelled the hero of his incredibly popular series of children's books upon his own son, much as A.A. Milne did with Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh.

Well, at least his own son's name and general appearance. And then Wilson vanished, leaving Tom Taylor to make his own way in the world by attending various literary and fantasy conventions as the "real" Tommy Taylor. He signs memorabilia. Sometimes he gets lucky. Mostly he's bored.

But why did Wilson make Tommy memorize an encyclopedic array of knowledge related to "literary geography" -- both the places where works were written and the places where works took place? When Tommy gets kidnapped by an obsessed fan who seems to be an actual vampire modelled upon the literary Tommy Taylor's vampiric nemesis Count Ambrosio, things start to get weird. Especially when he's saved by a young woman named Lizzie Hexam, who knows more about the real Tom Taylor than he does, though less about herself than she's aware of. And all this is just in the first issue of the ongoing series.

The Unwritten is a lot of fun as a narrative, as a metanarrative, and as a fictional meditation on the nature and meaning not just of stories, but of Story itself. And as conspiracies are revealed, the nature of Story assumes geopolitical significance: control a society's narratives about itself and one controls the society.

A complex, funny, and scary piece of work, with lovely art on the stories themselves by Peter Gross and the occasional helper, and by Yuko Shimizu on the gorgeous covers. Highly recommended -- I'd guess there are maybe 20 issues to go before the whole thing wraps up.


Desperation: adapted by Stephen King from his novel of the same name; directed by Mick Garris; starring Tom Skerrit (John Edward Marinville), Steven Weber (Steve Ames), Annabeth Gish (Mary Jackson), Charles Durning (Tom Billingsley), Matt Frewer (Ralph Carver), Henry Thomas (Peter Jackson), Shane Haboucha (David Carver) and Ron Perlman (Collie Entragian) (2006): Surprisingly enjoyable television adaptation of King's novel about supernatural shenanigans in the Nevada desert. Another 40 minutes or so would have helped make things run smoother, but overall this is one of the better King TV movies, and better than a lot of theatrical horror movies King-derived or otherwise.

A crazy cop (cast and played perfectly by Ron Perlman) abducts people on the highway running by the small Nevada town of Desperation, killing most of them but imprisoning some in the lock-up at the police station. But the imprisoned soon band together to try to escape. However, the cop isn't just some nut-job: he's possessed by something unearthed from the giant pit-mine outside town. As are most of the domestic and wild animals around town.

King has noted in interviews that he wanted to have a horror novel in which the forces of Good are explicitly working for the Judeo-Christian God (as per, say, The Stand) and not the more nebulous forces of Good found in most of his novels. So be ready for some praying and some occasionally ham-handed theological discussions. Also a somewhat anomalous silent movie that seems to suggest that the Judeo-Christian God has an awfully strange sense of humour when it comes to explaining issues of cosmic importance.

Overall, the cast is solid, though Steven Weber seems awfully miscast as a former roadie. Tom Skerritt's haunted writer character really needs more development (as he had in the novel) -- it really does seem as Skerritt probably figured in the majority of scenes cut from this movie to wedge four hours of air-time into three (originally planned as a two-night, four-hour affair, Desperation instead aired in one three-hour block, which translates to 131 minutes of movie instead of around 160 minutes). Recommended.


Silent Hill: written by Roger Avary; based on the Konami videogame series; directed by Christophe Gans: starring Radha Mitchell (Rose), Sean Bean (Christopher), Laurie Holden (Cybil), and Alice Krige (Christabella) (2006): If you ignore the basic things that make a movie traditionally good such as plot, dialogue, and characterization, Silent Hill can be pretty enjoyable though somewhat killingly long for a movie of its type (over two hours, with half-an-hour of Sean Bean wandering around in a sub-plot that really needed to be cut except that it was added at the request of studio executives who wanted more male characters in the movie).

However, the set design, character design, and visual effects really do work marvelously, albeit in service to a movie that makes less and less sense the more characters explain what's going on. The filmmakers lifted elements from pretty much every Silent Hill game while also adding their own lunacies to the proceedings, most notably placing the abandoned town of Silent Hill, West Virginia above a burning subterranean coal field.

But Silent Hill is also in another dimension where the remaining residents are besieged by assorted demons and monsters, most of them quite inventive and unnerving in their design. This all has something to do with a cult of witch-hunters who basically ran Silent Hill until the coal fire forced its evacuation in 1974. Which seems awfully late for a witch-hunting cult to have run a town, especially a bustling coal town with the world's largest hotel at its center. And a bus route! And portions of the town are played by Brantford, Ontario!

But anyway, for a bustling mining town, or perhaps city, Silent Hill only had one dinky little two-lane road running into it. I'd have hated to be on that road during rush hour. But now there are things running around, at least when you jump dimensions or whatever, including a giant monster with a pyramid for a head and a giant sword for a hand. And a lot of jittery, burned bipedal creatures. Also what seems to be a permanent snowfall of ash. And a really unpleasant sub-plot featuring pedophiliac rape. Hoo ha! The fun never stops! Lightly recommended, but you might want to turn the sound off, and also be liberal with the fast-forward.