Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hammer Times

Sleepy Hollow: adapted by Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker from the Washington Irving short story; directed by Tim Burton; starring Johnny Depp (Ichabod Crane), Christina Ricci (Katrina), Miranda Richardson (Lady Van Tassel), and Christopher Walken (The Horseman) (1999):

Tim Burton's homage to the Hammer horror films of the 1950's and 1960's looks terrific -- it's a triumph of muted cinematography, if nothing else. And after another 13 years of macho heroes, Johnny Depp's perennially frightened Ichabod Crane seems a lot more palatable than he did in 1999. He's another twitchy Depp freakshow, but he's at least plausibly freaky and refreshingly low on testosterone.

The film turns the old Washington Irving tale into a somewhat creaky supernatural detective story without much mystery -- you may figure out who's behind everything in the first 15 minutes or so. And that's OK. It's really a movie about fog and darkness and creepy things.

Burton, as usual, goes too far at a couple of points with the visual effects. An homage to his own Beetlejuice is especially annoying. And the McGuffin is almost laughably banal. However, the cast is terrific, and Christina Ricci is both lovely and, as a heroine, has actual important things to do other than screaming. Recommended.



Pacific Rocket Punch

Pacific Rim: written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro; directed by Guillermo del Toro; starring Charlie Hunnam (Raleigh Becket), Idris Elba (Pentecost), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Burn Gorman (Gottlieb), Charlie Day (Geiszler), and Ron Perlman (Hannibal Chau) (2013): Pacific Rim is a hoot, an expensive homage to every Japanese movie and cartoon that gave us gigantic, city-destroying monsters and/or giant, man-shaped, world-saving robots and cyborgs. There's even a rocket punch, and monsters that could clearly beat the crap out of Leonard Maltin AND Sydney Poitier. But not Robert Smith!!!

The movie even mostly hangs together as a thought experiment, though it overcomplicates the plot in a couple of ways. The most problematic overcomplication is the movie's premise that humanity has stopped making Jaegers -- the giant human-run robots that are the only effective defense against the monstrous Kaiju that periodically come striding out of a dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean floor -- and instead turned to building a giant, and soon-to-be-proven useless, wall around the Pacific (!!!!!!!!). It would have been a lot simpler to note that the defense program is temporaily short on Jaegers due to the increase in period and frequency of Kaiju attacks, and move on.

Other than that, though, the movie is a lot of fun, with an emphasis on teamwork over individuality, and a multi-national cast that may have hindered its box-office performance in the United States. Either that, or they should have just titled it Transformers: Pacific Rim, even though the robots don't actually transform.

The main cast of Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, and Idris Elba is tremendously likeable; the twitchy scientists played by Burn Gorman and Charlie Day are intermittently amusing and ultimately heroic; the Kaiju organlegger played by Ron Perlman is a welcome jolt of energy. The robots look great, as do the Kaiju, though I wish the filmmakers had spent a bit more on visual effects and given us one extended Jaeger vs. Kaiju battle staged entirely in the day-time. The murkiness of the night battles and the undersea battles sometimes gets a bit annoying.

The best Kaiju sequence, as if from a postmodern fairytale, involves one of the gargantuan monsters -- this one vaguely crab-like -- chasing a little girl through the streets of Tokyo. It's scary and funny, and better than pretty much any visual effects sequence from any other blockbuster this summer. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rats and Wyrms

Death Drives a Semi by Edo van Belkom, containing the following stories: The Rug; But Somebody's Got to Do It; Death Drives a Semi; The Basement; Mother and Child; Mark of the Beast; Scream String; S.P.S.; The Cold; Blood Count; Ice Bridge; No Kids Allowed; The Piano Player Has No Fingers; And Injustice for Some; Roadkill; Lip-O-Suction; Afterlife; Family Ties; Rat Food (with David Nickle); and Baseball Memories (Collected 1998): Prolific Canadian writer Edo van Belkom's first collection of short stories is terrific, a fine assortment of horror stories from the first ten years of his writing career.

Robert Sawyer's introduction strains a bit in its attempt to compare van Belkom to too many disparate writers. The range of stories here, in terms of style and approach, probably most resembles the early stories of Richard Matheson, or Robert Bloch after his initial Lovecraftian pastiche stage, or even New England horror writer Joseph Payne Brennan. Van Belkom is very much plot-oriented, and very much a writer in the plain style favoured by so many genre authors.

Van Belkom has a droll, black sense of humour that suits some of the stories, and his attempts to breathe new life (or unlife) into tired horror tropes such as the Vampire reflect that sense-of-humour, as we encounter vampires in the professional wrestling circuit and in the weight-reduction business. While many of the stories are gruesomely graphic, others are more traditional suspense ("Ice Bridge"), science fiction ("S.P.S."), or plain-style Bradburiana ("The Basement") with a touch of the gentler Twilight Zone episodes.

Some stories would make fine tales in the old E.C. horror comics of the 1950's, centered as they are around ironic supernatural revenge ("The Rug", "Roadkill"). Three of the best stories -- "The Rug," "The Basement," and the award-winning "Rat Food" -- sympathetically portray the plight of the elderly. "Rat Food" is one of those horror stories that may not be horror at all: I guess it depends on one's tolerance for rats crawling all over one's body. In summation, a collection that any serious reader of horror fiction really should pick up. Highly recommended.

 

 

The Wyrm by Stephen Laws (1987): Page-turner of a horror novel in which a terrible Something (the eponymous "Wyrm") escapes from centuries of imprisonment to takes it vengeance on the small Northern English bordertown whose residents defeated it in the early 17th century.

While The Wyrm doesn't have the depth or complexity of similar novels of the 1980's that include Stephen King's It and Ramsey Campbell's The Hungry Moon, the novel nonetheless kept me reading quickly through to the end. The characters are sympathetic if a bit flatly drawn at times.

The Wyrm itself is an interesting creation, though as with other such super-monsters (such as Pennywise in It), it talks too much and the novel reveals too many of its thoughts, making it less terrifying than a more silent creature might have been. Still, a worthwhile light read. Recommended.

Friday, July 19, 2013

When We Was Weird

More Weird Tales edited by Peter Haining (Collected 1975) containing the following stories, poems, and essays:

The Valley Was Still (1939) by Manly Wade Wellman; A Weird Prophecy [It Happened to Me] by Ken Gary; Winter Night [It Happened to Me] by Alice Olsen; San Francisco [It Happened to Me] (1940) by Caroline Evans; Heart of Atlantan (1940) by Nictzin Dyalhis; The Phantom Slayer (1942) by Fritz Leiber; The Beasts of Barsac (1944) by Robert Bloch; Bang! You're Dead! (1944) by Ray Bradbury; Cellmate (1947) by Theodore Sturgeon; The Familiars by H. P. Lovecraft; The Pigeon-Flyers (1943) by H. P. Lovecraft; Roman Remains (1948) by Algernon Blackwood; Displaced Person (1948) by Eric Frank Russell; To the Chimera (1924) by Clark Ashton Smith; From the Vasty Deep (1949) by H. Russell Wakefield; The Shot-Tower Ghost (1949) by Mary Elizabeth Counselman; Take the Z-Train (1950) by Allison V. Harding; The Little Red Owl (1951) by Margaret St. Clair; Ooze (1923) by Anthony M. Rud.

Peter Haining probably edited about a thousand anthologies in his lifetime. This, the second half of a hardcover collecting stories from pulp magazine Weird Tales' first iteration, which ran from 1923 to the early 1950's, is a very good one.

Weird Tales was the first true American pulp magazine devoted to fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Its heyday was the 1920's and early 1930's, but it still offered a viable market for short-story writers right up until its death during The Great Dying of the pulps in the late 1940's and early 1950's.

Haining does a nice job of finding stories from female writers, of which Weird Tales had more than a few, and of offering reprints of some of the non-fiction features of the magazine (It Happened to Me and the letters column The Eyrie), along with some decent poems from writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith (who really was a good poet), and Conan creator Robert E. Howard.

Haining also seemed to have an eye on what had been collected before, as the Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, and Ray Bradbury selections are relatively little-known. Leiber's "The Phantom Slayer" is the strongest from one of those four stalwarts, an urban nightmare that characterizes Leiber's reimagining of the horror genre in the 1940's as something set in urban landscapes bleak and otherwise, where people try and sometimes fail to connect with one another.

Among the lesser known writers, the improbably named Nictzin Dyalhis offers an enjoyable lost-world story much in the vein of Clark Ashton Smith and A. Merrit. Margaret St. Clair, a fairly well-known genre author of the 1940's and 1950's, impresses with the childhood fantasy nightmare "The Little Red Owl," which essentially pits a psychopathic uncle against a fictional character. The anthology finishes with a story from the first issue of Weird Tales, "Ooze," a fun story of amoebas gone wrong. Or is that amobae? Recommended.

Contusions of a Dragonslayer

Smax: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Zander Cannon, Andrew Currie, and Richard Friend (2003): Moore and Cannon send big, blue, nigh-indestructible Smax and techno-whiz partner Robyn ("Toybox"), two of the super-powered cops of Moore, Gene Ha, and Cannon's Top 10, to Smax's alternate Earth for the funeral of Smax's uncle, after the events of Top 10 issue 12. Well, adopted uncle, as he was a dwarf and Smax is...well, the book explains his origins.

Jeff Smax's Earth is one on which fairy tales, legends, and myths have all happened, sort of. There are dragons, elves, ghosts, and about a zillion other things, many of them appearing in the background. Cannon's art often emulates the crowded panels of Mad magazine -- here a Troll, there Harry Potter, and over in that corner, Stewie Griffin holding a gun to Maggie Simpson's head.

In the midst of the violent yet comic shenanigans comes the dragon Morningbright, unfinished business from Smax's mysterious past as a dragonslayer who failed to earn his last 30% commission for killing Morningbright because he ended up running away right off his own Earth and onto Earth-10, where he eventually got a job as a cop with Precinct 10. While he's not bright, Smax isn't a coward: Morningbright was a debacle he doesn't want to think about.

Somewhat like the dragon of John Gardner's Grendel, Morningbright can see the future, or at least enough of it to be a real problem. That his powers make him nearly omnipotent is another problem. That Smax has to somehow figure out how to kill him to fulfill a prophecy -- which on a magic-driven Earth is somewhat binding -- is another problem. That Smax and Toybox have to assemble a heroic group while meeting affirmative action quotas is also a problem. There are a lot of problems here. But years before Robyn ever came to Smax's Earth, Morningbright gave Smax a message for her, apparently intended to spook her. Why?

Simultaneously zippy and dense, Smax is a lot of fun -- and the dragon is a fascinating creation both in the writing and in Cannon's depiction of it. Morningbright is super-creepy, especially once the specific nature of his hoard of gold finally becomes clear. Recommended.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Lovecraft's Brain

The Black Druid and Other Stories by Frank Belknap Long, containing the following stories: "Death-Waters", "The Ocean-Leech", "The Space-Eaters", "The Black Druid", "The Flame Midget", "Dark Vision", "The Elemental", "Fisherman's Luck", "Step Into My Garden", "It Will Come To You", and "The Peeper" (1924-1944; collected 1975): Technically, this is the second half of an Arkham House collection of stories from the first 20 years of Frank Belknap Long's lengthy writing career (it stretched until his death in the 1980's).

Long was a long-time correspondent with horror master H.P. Lovecraft, and that influence shows most noticeably in stories from the 1920's until Lovecraft's death in 1937. By the time Long was contributing to the legendary, short-lived Unknown magazine in the early 1940's, his writing style had experienced a marked jump in quality -- stories collected herein from the Unknown period include "The Elemental" and "It Will Come to You", and they're definitely in the Unknown mode of horror or fantasy presented in a contemporary and often serio-comic setting.

However, despite that improvement (though Long struggles throughout his career with smooth transitioning -- I'll often find myself wondering if an entire sentence, or even paragraph, has been lost in the typesetting process), it's Long's Lovecraft-period material that will probably make him immortal. Herein appears "The Space-Eaters", one of those stories by a Lovecraft comrade in which a thinly veiled version of Lovecraft meets a dire end.

Lovecraft would occasionally return the favour, though not to Long (and it seems to me that the elderly writer who narrates T.E.D. Klein's terrific early 1980's Cthulhu Mythos story, "Black Man with a Horn", is himself a thinly veiled homage to Long).

Many of the stories Long wrote during Lovecraft's lifetime are heavily, almost overwhelmingly, expositional in nature. They read as if two people had been having a spirited dialogue about some arcane thought-experiment. This sort of exposition isn't generally recommended to writers beginning or otherwise, but in Long's best early work it comes across as a bizarre, darkly fantastic sub-genre of the novel (or story) of ideas. It's just that the ideas only apply to the fictional universe of the story. I hope.

"The Space-Eaters" contains pages and pages of the stuff, in what almost seems like a sub-sub-genre in which Long has collided the story of ideas with the deus ex machina. Just talking about some arcane idea causes it to happen. And when that arcane idea involves extra-dimensional entities scooping out pieces of brain from living humans and then playing with the pieces, and even accidentally dropping one piece on the narrator...well, one is really in a weird, weird narrative world. And what I just described is just the first couple of pages. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

First the Horror

Best New Horror Volume 1 (1989) edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories: "Pin" by Robert R. McCammon; "The House on Cemetery Street" by Cherry Wilder; "The Horn" by Stephen Gallagher; "Breaking Up" by Alex Quiroba; "It Helps If You Sing" by Ramsey Campbell; "Closed Circuit" by Laurence Staig; "Carnal House" by Steve Rasnic Tem; "Twitch Technicolor" by Kim Newman; "Lizaveta" by Gregory Frost; "Snow Cancellations" by Donald R. Burleson; "Archway" by Nicholas Royle; "The Strange Design of Master Rignolo" by Thomas Ligotti; "...To Feel Another's Woe" by Chet Williamson; "The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux" by Robert Westall; "No Sharks in the Med" by Brian Lumley; "Mort au Monde" by D. F. Lewis; "Blanca" by Thomas Tessier; "The Eye of the Ayatollah" by Ian Watson; "At First Just Ghostly" by Karl Edward Wagner; and "Bad News" by Richard Laymon (Collected 1990):

The first of the still-running Best New Horror anthologies is mostly excellent and manages to look at a broad slice of horror sub-genres. Cherry Wilder's Holocaust-tinged "The House on Cemetery Street" is literally and figuratively haunting, as is Thomas Tessier's Central American nightmare "Blanca." "The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux" by Robert Westall does a terrific job of homaging the style and content of M.R. James in a more modern context, while the Thomas Ligotti piece included here is an emblematic bit of WTF? embodying Ligotti's unnerving fictional universe.

Ian Watson's piece is a black-comic horror-satire dealing with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Ramsey Campbell's story also satirizes religious fundamentalism, in this case against the backdrop of a world-wide zombie apocalypse, while Kim Newman's tale visits death and destruction on people who colourize movies (sort of). Only the Karl Edward Wagner tale is a bummer from a formerly great talent on his tragic way down, an unscary, unfunny homage to TV's The Avengers that features yet another alcoholic, self-loathing, sexually charismatic Wagner protagonist. Recommended.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Horrors Real and Imagined

The Shapes of Midnight by Joseph Payne Brennan, introduced by Stephen King, containing the following stories: "Diary of a Werewolf" (1960); "Disappearance" (1959); "The Corpse of Charlie Rull" (1959); "Canavan's Back Yard" (1958); "The Pavillion" (1959); "House of Memory" (1967); "The Willow Platform" (1973); "Who Was He?" (1969); "The Horror at Chilton Castle" (1963); "The Impulse to Kill" (1959); "The House on Hazel Street" (1961); and "Slime" (1953) (Collected 1980):

Veteran dark-fantasy and suspense writer Joseph Payne Brennan, whose name sounds English but who was actually rural New English, penned about a hundred short stories over his career. Maybe more. Stephen King liked him a lot, which explains the generous King introduction to this, one of Brennan's few mass-market collections.

This constitutes a 'Best of' collection, bringing together most of Brennan's finest short stories and novellas. His style is mostly unornamented but flexible -- the best story here, "Canavan's Back Yard," echoes M.R. James, while other stories function quite thoroughly in the rural horror vein of someone like Manly Wade Wellman, only with a New England setting and reserve that King himself seems to have occasionally tried to emulate.

There are also a couple of fairly gentle bits of whimsy in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, "The House on Hazel Street" and "House of Memory," and one bit of rural Lovecraftiana, "The Willow Platform," which by the end seems like a much sharper and better written version of an August Derleth pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft.

The three best stories are often anthologized, with the aforementioned "Canavan's Back Yard" being a true and deservedly praised gem of gradually accumulating horror. "Slime" is a terrific bit of science-fictional horror, giving us one of the more disturbing visitors from the Briny Deep in horror history.

"The Horror at Chilton Castle" is also a delight, a bit of an homage to the English Gothic tale. Sharp and enjoyable, these stories suggest that Brennan deserves a wider readership now -- those who admire Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch would probably be most gratified by this collection. Highly recommended.


Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (The Gonzo Papers Volume 4) by Hunter S. Thompson (1994): Scattershot but enjoyable chronicle of the 1992 U.S. Presidential election from Gonzo journalist Thompson, who by this time was more eminence grise than enfant terrible when it came to political reporting.

There's the usual mix of reality, speculation, and confabulation one expects from Thompson, though the book is surprisingly thin -- illustrations and copies of notes and memos pad out the length, and it ain't that long to begin with.

Some sections bring that old Fear and Loathing magic, though, including a bizarre Arkansas bar experience with Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville and an even more bizarre lunch with Bill Clinton at the height of the campaign. And a description of George H.W. Bush as being some Lovecraftian leftover afterbirth from Reagan's 1980 win is terrific, and apt.

Thompson is, if anything, angrier and more cynical than ever about the American political process. He backs Clinton because he views George Bush as a dissembling monster, but he doesn't much like Clinton either, whom he views as a man without a sense of humour. More relevant to our present-day situation, Thompson now views all presidential candidates as essentially hollow men in the pursuit of power.

At least Nixon, as Thompson notes in the epilogue penned after his nemesis's death, was truly evil. Bush and Clinton (and third-party candiate Ross Perot) are vacuous power-seekers who will do anything to get and retain power but have no real underlying structure to what they want to do with power. Nixon, of course, wanted power so he could destroy all his enemies, real and imagined. Recommended.