Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Satan's Music Box

The Conjuring: written by Chad and Carey Hayes; directed by James Wan; starring Vera Farmiga (Lorraine warren), Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren), Lili Taylor (Carolyn Perron), and Ron Livingston (Roger Perron) (2013): This haunted-house movie is based on a true story to only a slightly greater extent than Thor: The Dark World is based on my experiences at Kitchener-Waterloo's Oktoberfest in 1990. It kicks off what looks to be a whole series of movies about the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren, self-proclaimed ghost-hunters and demonologists who have been part of a number of what turned out to be America's great ghost hoaxes, including The Amityville Horror.

James Wan directs with a certain amount of skill, though much of it has been borrowed from other movies, most notably Poltergeist and The Exorcist. And the narrative lifts so many specific points from The Amityville Horror (book and movie) that it sometimes seems like a remake. Family buys a new house which makes them house-poor, setting off financial difficulties? Check. Little girl has imaginary playmate that turns out to be a supernatural entity? Check. Family dog hates ghost house? Check. Events seem to repeatedly spike at a time just after 3 a.m. in the morning? Check. Secret room? Check. Entire house unnaturally cold? Check.

Unfortunately, there's no invisible marching band, which I think is a goddamned shame.

The secret room caused the first moment of incredulous hilarity for me. See, the secret room they discover behind a false wall isn't just a room -- it's the entire basement. WHERE THE FURNACE IS LOCATED! I mean, they were going to find it at some point, weren't they? Either that or freeze.

Ghostly and/or demoniac shenanigans ensue. The ghost-hunters are brought in. At this point, the movie slides from simply annoying to offensive for two solid reasons, reasons made much more solid by The Conjuring's claims to be "true."

For one, an exorcism occupies at the climax of the movie. And we've had too many real-life incidents involving people killed by enthusiastic exorcists revealed over the past few years for this sort of thing to be at all dramatically compelling. Nauseating and disturbing, yes.

Secondly, at least some of the supernatural happenings end up supporting the idea that the Salem Witch Trials executed actual Satan-worshipping, magic-using, evil witches. Give me a fucking break. Just because those women have been dead for several centuries doesn't make their terrible fate any less horrifying. What a revolting development!

The actors do what they can with the material -- the four main adult characters are decently acted. Another blow to my ability to even remotely suspend disbelief came when I realized that Patrick Wilson's period hair and get-up (the movie is set in 1971) makes him look like Bob Odenkirk. So I thought, geez, what a great movie this would be with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross playing the paranormal investigators!

By the time we get to a scene in which Wilson must act as an "amateur" exorcist (the Roman Catholic "professional" being unavailable), we're perilously close to the hilarious exorcism of Jonah Hill in This is the End. And let me tell you, this movie really could have used Jay Baruchel clutching a crucifix improvised from two spatulas and spouting the lines he remembered from The Exorcist. Not recommended.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Killer, the Architect, and the Assassin

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003): If this non-fiction book were fiction, it would seem ridiculously over-determined. As historical fact, it's ridiculously creepy and weird.

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair, dubbed the 1893 Columbian Exposition in honour of the 400th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas, was also a hunting ground for one of history's most prolific serial killers AND a mentally disturbed would-be assassin with a fixation on Chicago's popular mayor. The fair itself was the greatest spectacle of modern history up to that point. Envisioned as a showcase for modern industry, architecture, and good old Chicago pluck by chief architect Daniel Burnham, the fair delivered against all odds.

"H.H. Holmes" is the Devil of the title. That's his preferred assumed name, not his birth name. He was a charismatic conman, pharmacist, businessman, doctor, and land speculator who came to Chicago in the late 1880's and discovered that he liked it there. The rapidly growing metropolis offered fertile ground for Holmes's endless grifting. It also offered a steady supply of anonymous young women who'd come to the big city to get jobs and found themselves the prey of this horribly prolific serial killer.

Holmes killed about 50 men, women, and children over a 5-year-period before getting tracked down and arrested by the freelance detectives of the Pinkerton Agency for insurance fraud in Philadelphia and subsequently revealed as a mass murderer. An awful lot of conclusions arise from his career. For one, policing was extremely crude in late 19th-century Chicago. Trained police detectives were few and far between not just in Chicago, but in America. And while several people suspected Holmes of being a serial murderer for years, they did nothing, in part because no one really believed the police were capable of catching anything other than a bribe. The relative anonymity created by an America in which transportation had outstripped communication also helped Holmes. So, too, did his charisma. Many of these women walked into the lion's den, leaving their husbands behind in a couple of cases, taking their own children to their attendant dooms.

And Holmes is more a premonition of Adolf Hitler than an echo of Jack the Ripper. He has henchmen, though none were ever brought to trial for the murders. He's eerily charismatic. He's committed to his version of an ideology, his grifting and speculation ultimately being Capitalism in its purest form. I'm surprised Ayn Rand didn't idolize him. He's the serial killer of the American Dream.

He's also immensely cowardly. He tends to kill with either gas or chloroform. And then he would make money from the bodies of the dead, selling four bodies he had reduced to skeletons to medical practitioners. Waste not, want not. Once captured, he spun out a series of partial truths, with the lies and facts changing each time. Thus, no final determination can ever exist of his murder total.

Meanwhile, the World's Fair came together to showcase Chicago to America and the world as a first-class city (this was, of course, New York's put-upon Second City). Daniel Burnham orchestrated the Fair, the White City of the title. The buildings were massive and imposing and painted white. The construction schedule was breakneck. The number of employees needed to make Opening Day a reality was enormous, and enormously beneficial during a period of world economic recession.

The politicking and negotiating and organizing that made the World's Fair a reality are a marvel themselves. Massive buildings went up in the time it now seems to take to fill a pothole. Things burned down or blew down or fell down and were rebuilt. Arguments over architectural style were had, most of them won by Burnham with his pseudo-classical, monumental perferences. People were stunned simply by the massive presence of the Fair. America's finest architects and engineers pitched in, including the legendary, crotchety landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central Park. The Fair became a monument to progress and to Chicago's emergence as a worthy civic rival to New York.

And the White City brought a flood of visitors who needed a hotel. And H.H. Holmes ran a hotel in a building he had designed with the aim of making murder easy and fun. For him, anyway.

Above it all rose the world's first Ferris Wheel, created by an engineer named Ferris (natch) and almost cyclopean in its scale: 270 feet high, with 36 giant cars capable of carrying several dozen people apiece. It was as if the first tall building had been the Empire State Building. And Burnham also had a hand in one of New York's most famous early skyscrapers, the distinctively nicknamed Flatiron Building.

Erik Larson -- who also wrote the excellent Isaac's Storm, about the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas in 1900 -- does a fine job here of marshalling and orchestrating facts in an entertaining fashion. He makes a number of interesting connections and suppositions. And he makes engineering, planning, and architecture fascinating subjects while also situating the narrative in its historical context of the rise of unions, suffragettes, and an increasingly integrated global economy.

Larson does go somewhat over-the-top in a couple of sections in which he tries to imagine things for which there were no historical records. This tends to lead him to speculate on unknowables such as 'What was this person thinking?' It's a hallmark of the history written for popular consumption. Given the horror of what we know of Holmes' actions, these attempts to depict crimes which we don't know the details of seem like overkill. Nonetheless, despite those reservations, this is a splendidly readable history. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why a Duck?

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man: The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library Volume 12: written and illustrated by Carl Barks (1952; collected 2012): While it's chronologically the 12th volume in the Fantagraphics Books Carl Barks Library, Only a Poor Old Man is the second of these volumes to be published. That's because the general consensus among critics is that the Golden Age of writer-artist Carl Barks started about ten years into his comic-book career, as he fleshed out the character and motivations of Donald Duck's Uncle Scrooge, a character created by Barks for the Disney comic books in the 1940's.

This collection prints about a dozen one-page 'gags,' but the meat of the book comes with the longer adventures. And they truly are adventures on land, on sea, and in the air. These are some action-packed ducks.

Barks remains a wonder. The cartooning and the writing are both still fresh and funny. There are moral lessons here, but they're not rammed down the readers' throats. And the story of the hidden city of Tralala is about as pessimistic a tale about human nature as I can imagine in a comic book aimed squarely at children. Capitalism turns out to be toxic, but there's no conceivable escape from it. Whee, fun! That story remains funny nonetheless even as it verges on being a Jonathan Swift satire, with ducks.

Once upon a time in the 1950's, these were the best-selling comic books in North America. It's a tribute to the pop-cult sensibilities of Carl Barks that they're also rewarding, breezy entertainments that make the typical superhero comic book of the time look ham-fisted by comparison. Mmm. Ham. Highly recommended.

 

Solomon Kane Volume 3: Red Shadows: adapted from the work of Robert E. Howard; written by Bruce Jones; illustrated by Rahsan Ekedal and Dan Jackson (2013): Solid work from Bruce Johns and Rahsan Ekedal in adapting two stories from Conan creator Robert E. Howard about the heroic 16th-century Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane and his crusades against evil in England, Europe, and Africa. Jones eschews the wordiness of some adapters of Howard in favour of letting the artist draw what Howard has described, and it works for the most part, though some captions explaining Kane's thoughts would make the adaptation more true to Howard. Recommended.


Jonah Hex: No Way Back: written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray; illustrated by Tony DeZuniga with John Stanisci (2010): Ill-served by an egregiously awful Hollywood movie, Jonah Hex nonetheless remains a terrific comic book character who's had extraordinary luck in terms of writers and artists. Set in the post-Civil War American West, the original graphic novel Jonah Hex: No Way Back brings legendary (and, sadly, soon-to-be deceased) Hex artist Tony DeZuniga back for a look at Hex's dark past.

Hex may be a homicidal, bounty-hunting anti-hero, but he still possesses a rudimentary moral code. His origins suggest that code was a reaction to the complete amorality of his father and adandonment by his mother. It's certainly a place to start, anyway. Palmiotti and Gray have been writing Hex's regular comic-book adventures for a decade now, and they're worthy successors to such previous Hex scribes as John Albano, Michael Fleischer, and Joe Lansdale.

Their West is a nightmarish place, part-spaghetti-Western, part-horror-show, just as it as been since Albano first wrote the character in the early 1970's. And while DeZuniga's art is somewhat inconsistent at first, by the time the book gets into ultraviolent second half, DeZuniga is operating with his familiar gritty, weathered artistry intact. Recommended.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Stoned Immaculate

Shrine by James Herbert (1983): Late British "chiller" writer James Herbert is in fine form here with this lengthy supernatural thriller about miracles and monsters and money-grubbing. In a small town near Brighton, a 12-year-old girl seems to start performing miracles, from levitation to healing the sick. She says she's operating on the behest of the Virgin Mary. But if so, why does she seem so focused on the ancient, weirdly twisted oak tree near her parish church?

Herbert deftly juggles a fairly large cast of characters, keeping things in the air while he also develops the supernatural and possibly psychic manifestations that begin to cause people from across Great Britain and, ultimately, the world, to flock to the small church. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic authorities fast-track their investigation into whether or not these events can be classified as 'true' miracles worthy of endorsement by the Church.

The miracles are a bonanza for the town's businesses and for the Roman Catholic Church. But as the girl seems to become more powerful, the skeptical parish priest seems to noticeably weaken and wither the longer he remains in close proximity to either her or the church. And whenever the girl heals people, terrible things happen to nearby livestock, a fact that goes unobserved by the general population.

A strange alliance will be created between the two priests who are skeptical of the whole affair and the ambitious, agnostic small-town journalist who first reported the story and has become famous because of it. But their efforts may be impotent, given the power the girl appears to possess.

Herbert really does a lovely job here of mixing deft characterization, social commentary, occasionally gruesome horror effects, and more rarefied moments of existential and psychological terror. A scene in the church basement amongst ancient, broken statues really does the job. So, too, does the finale, an apocalypse that manages to evoke pity as well as horror. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Satan Strikes Up the Band

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson and the Lutz Family (1977): The Amityville Horror was a hoax that most people don't realize was a hoax because of all the movies and sequels and books claiming to be "based on a true story."

Basically, it appears as if the Lutz family and the lawyer for the mass murderer who lived in the house before them cooked up a story of a haunting -- the lawyer in order to get a new trial for his client (and to make money from a book), the Lutz family to get out from under the crippling mortgage that had made them house-poor. In the real world, the day after the Lutzs reportedly fled the house for good thanks to demonic forces, they returned to...hold a garage sale.

So it goes. The Amityville Horror is, then, an amazingly successful hoax. That it's ineptly imagined and written is beside the point.

But the ineptness does makes it weirdly endearing. The Devil, in the Amityverse, has a Swiss Army Knife of malign powers, the most hilarious of which is 'Invisible Late-Night Marching Band.' He also makes prank phone calls, summons up flies, disguises himself as a giant robed figure and a giant red-eyed pig, gropes people, slams doors, opens windows, tears down front doors and garage doors, fills rooms with the smell of poop, threatens people with a ceramic lion, causes green goo to ooze out of keyholes, summons thunderstorms, levitates sleeping people, loosens the wheels on cars, and generally makes a nuisance of himself.

Anson's pronounced tendency to throw in everything and the kitchen sink leads to a breathless description of how someone showed up at the Lutz's door claiming to be a neighbour welcoming them to the neighbourhood. He had a six pack with him. But he was too poorly dressed to be from the neighbourhood...and then he left, TAKING HIS SIX PACK WITH HIM. And he was never seen again!!!

I want a book about that guy. Was he the Devil? Was he drunk? Where did he come from? Where did he go? Oh, well. Recommended because it's hilariously bad and ridiculous.
 


Friday, March 7, 2014

L.A. Meltdown

Dark Seeker by K.W. Jeter (1987): Subtle and gradually building horror novel about the aftermath of a California incident that managed to combine something like the Manson Family with a psychoactive drug that seemed to create a shared consciousness among those who used it.

The charismatic, insane psychiatrist who ran the drug trial -- and created the murderous group -- now languishes in an asylum for the criminally insane. Several of the participants who did not actually murder anyone are free, but they need to take a pharmacopia of drugs several times a day to remain sane: the consciousness drug's effects on the human body are permanent and persistently intrusive.

While the main narrative thread follows recovering cult member Michael Tylers's attempts to remain sane and build a new life with his girlfriend and her son, other plotlines (all of which will eventually dovetail with Tyler's story) show us the journalist who made a ton of money with the True Crime book about the cult and a homeless man named Jimmy who's been enlisted by one of the most dangerous, uncaptured cult members to take care of a mysterious child stolen by that cult member from Michael's ex-wife, who's finally been re-arrested by the police after hiding out in L.A. for several years.

Jeter does a nice job of keeping things at least somewhat ambiguous throughout. Those who take the drug believe that they encounter a being they call the Host, which exhorts them to commit terrible acts. But is it real, and if so, is it supernatural (which is to say, some sort of demon), or is it some sort of psychic projection of the shared consciousness of the drug users? From the outside, though, the verdict of the legal system, and of popular opinion, is that everything about the drug is fake, including the shared-consciousness effect. The cult members went bananas. That is all.

Dark Seeker manages to make even the mercenary, grasping journalist sympathetic, at least towards the end, as he finally gets to experience violent events first-hand. Jeter's characterization of the occasionally unlikeable Tyler, homeless Jimmy, and girlfriend Steff, who's recovering herself from a life of terrible relationship choices and physical abuse, is both strong and subtle. The Host itself is a disturbing presence when it appears (or seems to appear), and Jeter describes the sensory distortions of the drug with hallucinatory elan. And the book ends with a stunner of a final ten pages.

Problems? I'd have liked some more development of what exactly happened with the cult and its charismatic leader -- it almost seems as if some more heavily expository sections were cut so as to keep the page count down. The only other real problem is the title, which really should be something like The Host or The Dark Host. Again, this seems like decision-making at the publishing or editorial level. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rocket to the Crypt


The Rocketeer/The Spirit: Pulp Friction: written by Mark Waid; illustrated by Paul Smith, Loston Wallace, and J. Bone (2013): The only real disappointment with this early 1940's crossover between the L.A.'s Rocketeer and Central City's The Spirit is that classic X-Men, Dr. Strange, and Nexus artist Paul Smith only ended up drawing one issue before bowing out. Loston Wallace picks up the baton admirably in issue 2 -- Dynamite should look at putting him on one of their pulp-hero titles, as his style works very well with retro-action -- and J. Bone finishes up on issues 3 and 4 in his pleasingly exaggerated, cartoony style.

Mark Waid's writing here is excellent, as it has been throughout his work on the resurrected Rocketeer comics. He'd also be a good pick for some pulp heroes over at Dynamite. One of the interesting things that Waid portrays throughout is that the Rocketeer, while a character 40 years younger than the Spirit in reality, is in the chronology of the two heroes the one who's been doing super-heroing for a longer time when they meet. That superheroing experience doesn't stop the Rocketeer from bring freaked out that the Spirit lives in a crypt within a cemetery, however.

The initial 'hook' riffs on either the beginning of Stephen King's The Colorado Kid or on the first chapter of a Doc Savage novel from the 1930's, Devil on the Moon -- take your pick -- but the destination is much different. Waid also gets a lot of comic mileage out of the byplay among the supporting characters of the two heroes, along with one perfectly understandable reaction to wearing a heavy metallic Rocketeer helmet inside for too long. In all, an enjoyable romp. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mr. X-Men

Mr. X by Peter Straub (1999): Very much a transitional novel for Straub between his particular form of literary horror and a much more postmodern, self-reflexive mode of weirdness that persists in his fiction to this day. While there are scenes of graphic violence early in the novel, they eventually give way to an increasingly loopy narrative involving doppelgangers, psychics, superpowers, time travel, jazz, precocious children, and the enduring appeal of the supernatural fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

Straub's novels since the late 1980's have been preoccupied with serial killers, for the most part in full pop-culture Omnipotent, Omniscient Killer Mode. Mr. X does play with that model to good effect at points, especially towards the end of the novel, as assorted secrets are revealed -- offering a mirror image to the hyper-competent serial killers of so many of Straub's previous and subsequent novels.

The narrator, who is (probably) not the eponymous serial killer, is an engaging fellow. There's a gigantic, never-explicitly-stated 'secret' to the characters in the novel which you may pick up as you're reading it, or if you consult interviews about the novel. I think the 'secret' causes more problems than it solves while also causing the novel to sidestep exploring the many ramifications of that secret, at least one of which actually needs to be addressed for the novel to fully make sense. It's a choice that's at once too clever by half and half as clever as it needs to be.

Other than that, readers may find that things get a bit twee as the novel progresses. Or a lot twee. There's a child character who is probably in the top ten of 'Most Annoying Peter Straub Characters Ever,' and a few eccentric aunts who come close. Your results may vary.

But if you want narrative closure, you should probably read another novel. As with so many of Straub's novels after this one, closure is not on the table, or certainty. We're questioning identity here, not resolving it. Recommended.

 

Harbinger: Children of the Eighth Day: written by Jim Shooter; illustrated by David Lapham and John Dixon (1991-92): Now that a rebooted Harbinger has been back in the comics marketplace for a year-and-a-half, it's interesting to look at Version 1.0. Created by ousted Marvel Comics EIC Jim Shooter as a theoretically more realistic riff on Marvel's X-Men, Harbinger is an odd mix of dense dialogue and sudden breakneck action.

One of the problems here, corrected in the reboot, lies with the antagonist, Harada, and his evil Harbinger Foundation, which among other things collects and trains people with super-powers ('psiots' in the terminology of the Valiant universe). We're told he's bad, and we get a couple of pro forma superhero battles between the 'Renegades' who are the protagonists and Harada's forces, but that's about it.

And suddenly, rather than developing the ongoing battle between the Renegades and Harada, the book suddenly takes off for a superhero battle with aliens on the Moon in issue 3. Then the group breaks up and reforms in the space of an issue.

Events move so quickly that characters, and their decisions, become weightless. It doesn't help that the Renegades, all of them teenagers, are neither written nor drawn as such. They're pretty much your standard squabbling superhero group, one of dozens. They just use words like "slut" and "hosebag" a lot more than the X-Men ever did, and tell a lot more fat jokes at the expense of one of the characters. Recommended for historical purposes only.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Underground Horror

The Rats by James Herbert (1974): The late, prolific, popular horror/thriller writer Herbert gives us his first novel here. Americans often only know Herbert through Stephen King's section on him in the non-fiction horror survey Danse Macabre. That's a shame, because King severely underestimated Herbert there while praising him with faint damns as a pulp writer moving towards a more mainstream approach in the late 1970's.
As with a lot of British writers of horror and horrific science fiction, Herbert shows the mighty influence of John Wyndham in many of his novels, including this one. We regard apocalyptic events from the position of ordinary people who assume roles of importance in the novel. By the end, London (England, natch) comes under attack by a seemingly limitless army of giant rats swarming up from the sewers and subway lines. Think of it as the Return of the Repressed, but with giant, man-eating rats!

However, Herbert is also very much concerned with the plight of the working and lower classes in modern England. This leads to some keenly observed stretches in which those terrible rats attack poor people and others excluded by the traditional power structure, including gays and the mentally ill. The authorities pretty much ignore the terrible fates of these outsiders until the disaster suddenly erupts over everything. As above, so below: by not paying adequate attention to the living conditions of those who are most powerless, the powerful end up facing armageddon.

Ultimately, a schoolteacher from a working class background holds the key to defeating the vast army of giant, hyper-intelligent mutant rats that are the monsters of this particular Herbert novel. The plot moves at a blistering pace, with the disaster fleshed out by the experiences of minor characters other than the protagonist. And the rats -- well, the rats are a great antagonist. And as this is just the first novel in what's generally known as Herbert's Rat Trilogy (to be followed by Lair and Domain), you can be sure that they're a formidable foe. There are many horrific set-pieces of terror, the grotesque, the bloody, and the sad. It's a great, terse horror novel. Highly recommended.


The Fog by James Herbert (1975): The late, prolific, popular horror/thriller writer Herbert throws London under the bus again in his second apocalyptic horror novel. This time around, the horror moves inexorably towards London after being unleashed from the earth by a mysterious, improbable earthquake that devastates a small country town. The monster is...fog! How British is that?

Yes, fog. A growing and seemingly undispersable yellowish cloud of fog prowls the English countryside before heading straight for London. What is it? Where did it come from? Why won't it disperse? An investigator for the Ministry of Environment, having been literally plunged into events while driving through the village during the earthquake, is our protagonist as the forces of the government try to contain the fog.

Why contain it? Because the fog seems to magnify and unleash the worst personality traits of many of those who breathe it for even a few seconds. Rapes, murders, suicides, mass suicides, cannibalism, a guy getting his Johnson cut off with garden shears, a suddenly homicidal group of Hare Krishnas: this fog is a killing machine.

As with Herbert's other apocalyptic novels, scenes of horror and pity contrast with scenes of quiet characterization and a couple of graphic sex scenes. He was certainly an inheritor of the pulp tradition early in his novelistic career, but Herbert also looked with a critical eye on how governments treat the under-privileged and the excluded. His flair for the bloodily horrifying, while certainly a pulp staple, also points in some of its more graphically awful moments towards the rise of Splatterpunk. Highly recommended.