Thursday, December 27, 2012

I without a Face

'V' for Vendetta: written by Alan Moore, illustrated by David Lloyd (1981-89; collected 1990): Now that V's Guy Fawkes mask has been appropriated by both the Occupy movement and Anonymous, it's getting hard to remember what a violent, anarchic fellow Alan Moore and David Lloyd's original character was. The dystopia of the graphic novel is about ten times worse than that seen in the movie adaptation, and V himself (herself? itself?) ten times more violent and ten times more problematically justified in that violence.

The story started life in the pages of England's Warrior comic magazine in the early 1980's, alongside Moore's other early opus Marvelman (aka Miracleman). If Miracleman was Moore's push-the-limits take on Superman, then V was his Batman: a Batman fighting a dystopic future Britain that strongly resembled the world of George Orwell's 1984. A Batman whose true face and true identity remain forever hidden from the characters in the story and from readers as well. When you put on a mask, you become a symbol.

Moore was initially reacting to the heightening nuclear tensions of the early Reagan/Thatcher era, and to the ruthless economic and social policies of those two genial abominations. The dystopia of the graphic novel is a Great Britain that avoided direct nuclear conflict thanks to its Labour Government severing all nuclear ties with the United States in the 1980's.

The U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. are presumably smoking, irradiated ruins. Great Britain fell into chaos and was soon under the control of a far-right party which now rules with an iron fist and a hatred of civil liberties and anyone different. There are no non-white ethnic groups left in this Great Britain; gays and lesbians have also been exterminated or forced underground.

And so rises V, a mysterious, anarchic freedom fighter who possesses the improbable fighting and planning skills of Batman and the homicidal justice-seeking of the Shadow. Also, he loves Motown music and Thomas Pynchon. He's Anarchy personified, set against Fascism. And he knows he's a monster, which makes him oddly sympathetic, and the ending quite moving. Moore has given him some of the qualities of Mary Shelley's hyper-educated Creature in Frankenstein.

The reactions to the book have been quite telling over the years -- this is, ultimately, a book with a terrorist as its protagonist. But he's a terrorist fighting a terrorist government, a monster set against monsters. And Moore is fairly clear throughout that V's violence isn't to be romanticized, and that there must a price, a price V knows. Having lost his essential humanity at some point, V fights now to allow people the Free Will to choose their own humanity. But Moses cannot enter the Promised Land.

In any case, this book remains thrilling and bracing today, and perhaps even more relevant in a world of perpetual war with shadowy terrorist groups. David Lloyd's moody art hits the right notes, though the book would be better if the entire thing was done in the Black and White of its early Warrior episodes: colour really does nothing to improve Lloyd's art, and indeed somewhat mutes it at points. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Blue World

Blue World: written by Robert R. McCammon: containing "Yellowjacket Summer", "Makeup", "Doom City", "Nightcrawlers", "Yellachile's Cage", "I Scream Man!", "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door", "Chico", "Night Calls the Green Falcon", "Pin", "The Red House", "Something Passed by" and "Blue World" (1981-89; collected 1989): Superior collection of Robert McCammon's 1980's non-novel-length work (though the title story is nearly the length of a short novel). The collection encompasses psychological, science-fictional, and supernatural horror, along with two works of suspense ("Blue World" and "Night Calls the Green Falcon").

One of the standouts is "Nightcrawlers," filmed for an episode of the 1980's Twilight Zone revival. A Viet Nam veteran walks into a highway diner, and bad things happen. It's an excellent bit of science-fictional horror, and also seems to be the precursor to a novel that never materialized.

Many of the other stories are set in McCammon's home-state of Alabama, generally in small towns you really don't want to visit ("Yellowjacket Summer," "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door," and "Something Passed By."). The latter is an extremely effective bit of Cthulhuesque cosmic horror that dwells on the effects of a dimensional incursion without worrying about the how, why, or who.

"Night Calls the Green Falcon" is another stand-out that would make a terrific movie. An aging, forgotten, and psychologically damaged former star of a children's superhero serial about crimefighter the Green Falcon finds himself dropped into a real-life mystery that he initially has no real desire to tackle.

But tackle it he does, sometimes literally, dressed in the faded remnants of his movie costume. The story strikes a nice balance between the childish idealism of the superhero and the realities of the real world that's much more heart-breaking (and ultimately heart-warming) than the vast majority of adult superhero comics of the last thirty years.

Finally, there's the title novella, a plunge into a hard-boiled world of porn, sex, and serial killers with a Roman Catholic priest and a strangely innocent female porn star as its two protagonists. It verges on hard-core at points, but it's ultimately a story about conventional and unconventional morality set in San Francisco's famous Tenderloin district. McCammon's deft third-person narration is really on display here as the narrative moves seamlessly from the thoughts and actions of one character to another and another and then back again. Recommended.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Night Boat by Robert R. McCammon (1980)

The Night Boat by Robert R. McCammon (1980): This enjoyable, overstuffed, pulpy as all get-out early novel from McCammon gives us a World War Two U-Boat filled with undead Nazis terrifying a Caribbean Island in the late 1970's after the explosion of an old depth charge releases the U-Boat from its burial beneath tons of sand on the ocean floor.

One of McCammon's strengths throughout his career has been the density of his inventiveness in his novels -- stuff just keeps on happening even when it doesn't necessarily build from anything or to anything. Here, that density gives us three Ahabs in search of their great black-hulled Nazi whale, one of them suddenly appearing with about 60 pages to go. It also gives us a former Nazi Ishmael who shows up and then has almost nothing to do. Was this novel edited down from a much longer manuscript? I wonder.

Anyway, an expariate American scuba diver with a tragic past which will, of course, become a vital part of the story's machinery is compelled to unearth the submarine that's lain on the sea floor since 1942. It's the same sub that shelled the small Caribbean island of Coquina during World War Two before being sent to its apparent death by several sub-chasers and a lot of depth charges. But rise it does, to the astonishment of all, whereupon it drifts into the harbour and gets stuck on a reef. So the good people of Coquina elect to tow it into an abandoned military dock despite the fact that the sub managed to kill one fisherman during its trek into the harbour.

And from within the decades-sealed that the sound of someone pounding with a hammer? Well, let's open it up and find out!

Did I mention that Voodoo plays a role as well? Of course it does. And undead zombie Nazis with an unquenchable thirst for blood and the ability to use tools. They can smash you with a hammer or fix a submarine. These are not your garden-variety stupid zombies. They have an ethos, and it's called National Socialism!

All in all, The Night Boat is a wild romp that pays off on enough plot threads to be pretty thoroughly enjoyable. McCammon would write much better novels, but no more enjoyable ones on the basic level of pulp melodrama. Recommended.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sexual-Harassment Gargoyle

Burn, Witch, Burn (aka Night of the Eagle): adapted by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson from the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber; directed by Sidney Hayers; starring Peter Wyngarde (Norman Taylor), Janet Blair (Tansy Taylor), and Maragret Johnson (Flora Carr) (1962): It's an all-star writing team-up as genre greats Richard Matheson (Duel, Hell House, a lot of Twilight Zone episodes) and Charles Beaumont (a lot of Twilight Zone episodes) adapt Science-fiction-and-fantasy Grandmaster Fritz Leiber's terrific 1940's fantasy novel Conjure Wife for the big screen.

The action is moved to England and compressed in time, doing some violence to the original, but the result is still an enjoyable, fast-paced bit of modern horror-fantasy set in the cut-throat world of academia. Yes, academia. Professor Norman Taylor seems to have led a charmed life both personally and professionally. And he has. But he's about to find out the cost. And witchcraft is involved. And possibly Sexual-Harassment Panda.

Two bits of goofiness mar the very beginning and the very end, seemingly added by a nervous studio. But they're minor. This story of modern witchcraft has some real thrills and horrors awaiting, along with one pissed-off eagle-shaped gargoyle. The film-makers do a nice job of suggesting as much as possible, a necessity given the budget and visual effects limitations of the time. The most chilling scene relies on no visual effects whatsoever -- just Tarot cards, a match, and an increasingly panicked Norman Taylor.

My main beef with the movie would be that the scariest line of the novel -- and the events that flow forwards from it -- have been replaced here by a more conventional ending in which our protagonists are quite a bit less intelligent than they are in the book. Oh, well. Still a superior tale of magic and its discontents. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Moon Trap

Moon by James Herbert (1985): James Herbert has often been called England's version of Stephen King. This isn't a bad comparison, though King doesn't usually have at least one vaguely soft-core, five-page-long sex scene in almost every novel. The comparison is made more interesting by King's analysis of Herbert's early novels in King's non-fiction horror survey, Danse Macabre.

I've certainly enjoyed the half-dozen or so Herbert novels I've read, and I enjoyed Moon. Herbert's good characters are sympathetic, if occasionally a bit too aesthetically pleasing when they're women (the protagonist's girlfriend is stunningly beautiful...why is this necessary?). Come to think of it, there's a thematic reason it's necessary, one that constitutes a spoiler alert if I explain it further.

Herbert is generally more ruthless than King, or at least more arbitrary when it comes to the question of who dies, and when -- there are a couple of wrenching sequences here that derive a lot of their power from that surprising arbitrariness, and Herbert's decision to not tie certain plot and character threads up neatly.

The plot recalls King's The Dead Zone: protagonist Jonathan Childes has psychic flashes. They once helped him stop a serial killer. But they also made him a media flashpoint when people found out that he was the only useful psychic to ever work on a police investigation. So he moves from England to one of the Southern coastal islands to try to lay low, and to hope that the psychic flashes are a thing of the past. But then horrifying visions start again.

Childes' skepticism about his own powers generates a fair amount of drama as we go along, as do the apparent limits of those powers: he can see what the killer is doing in his mind, but he doesn't know where, and he can't glean the killer's identity from these psychic links. This last becomes quite a problem when the killer suddenly realizes that Childes is psychically observing the killer's actions, and manages to start pulling information out of Childes' head that immediately puts his ex-wife, his daughter, and eventually everyone around Childes in mortal danger. It all makes for a quick, enjoyable read with some moments of visceral and existential horror. Recommended.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Swedish Maiden

The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter (1992): Multiple-mystery-novel-award-winning mystery novel (whew) featuring Inspector Morse and the faithful Sergeant Lewis as they investigate a year-old murder case that lacks a body, a suspect, and quite possibly a murder.

A mysterious and possibly clue-filled poem from an anonymous source reboots the investigation when the poem appears in the newspaper, the allusive and elusive poem almost certainly related to the whereabouts of the 'Swedish Maiden', the young Swedish woman who disappeared in the Oxford area the previous summer. Soon, Morse will cut short his vacation in Lyme Regis (where parts of Jane Austen's Persuasion took place, everyone keeps telling everyone else) because when it comes to cases with weird twists, the opera-loving Morse is the Oxford PD's go-to guy.

The novel is almost fiendishly convoluted, and those convolutions lead Morse and Lewis into an even more labyrinthine-than-usual path through the assorted strata of Oxford society. Morse remains lonely and drunk for much of the novel, though also sometimes bafflingly attractive to women. It must be all the alcohol. And the opera. And the first name, initial 'E', that he never gives out.

The Way Through the Woods also explores the attitudes of Morse's colleagues towards him, along with the almost high-schooley politics within a police department. Of course, Morse in books and on TV, and Lewis's own spin-off series, all examine the social and political entanglements that connect everything in Oxford -- town and gown, high and low. As above, so below. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sinister Balls

Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell (1939; revised 1948): Probably the first science-fiction novel to be based on Charles Fort's pseudo-scientific speculations that human beings are the property of something alien, and Sinister Barrier is not shy about its influences -- there are pages of direct quotes from Fort's work, excerpts which consist mainly of quotes from various newspapers and what-have-you about unexplained phenomena. Specifically, Russell uses Fortean clips about flying energy balls (!!!) and mysterious disappearances to concoct a tale of flying energy balls that occasionally make people disappear.

Well, OK, there's more to the novel than that. And it's set in the then-far-flung future of 2015, when humanity has developed gyrocars and video-telephones but not television. Hunh?

Anyway, leading scientists start dropping dead from either heart attacks or suicide. A hyper-intelligent government investigator tries to find out why. They were experimenting with a drug combination (which included mescaline and methylene blue!). It caused the human eye to be able to see more of the visual spectrum. And what they saw killed them!

Enjoyable, fast-paced, and paranoid fun in its first half, the novel drags a bit when humanity launches its attack on the things that it couldn't previously see. Invisible balls of energy have been feeding on humanity's emotions for millennia. There's certainly more than a whiff of such later paranoid classics as They Live here, though both horror and social commentary are soon replaced by the mechanics of the science-fiction thriller. And several pages of quotes from Charles Fort. In any case, a lot of fun, and something Hollywood should look into adapting. It would make a great movie. Recommended.