Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Black Mirror

Oculus: written by Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, and Jeff Seidman; directed by Mike Flanagan; starring Karen Gillan (Kaylie Russell), Brenton Thwaites (Tim Russell), Katee Sackhoff (Marie Russell) and Rory Cochrane (Alan Russell) (2014): Competent horror thriller that uses some fairly effective narrative tricks rather than 'found-footage' for its scares. It's not easy to make a seemingly haunted mirror into a worthy antagonist, but Oculus manages this feat.

The leads are all solid, the reality-bending games are sometimes startling, and the stupid decisions made by Karen Gillan's character are totally explicable within the cinematic universe. She has motivation for how she does what she does, and all motivation in the film is suspect: the mirror manipulates people subtly as well as through illusions. If only someone had brought a fire extinguisher. Recommended.

Land of the Dead: written and directed by George Romero; starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), Eugene Clark (Big Daddy) and Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy) (2005): George Romero's fourth Dead movie gave him a mostly name cast and a decent budget; Romero's own quirky muse caused him to use these things on what wasn't a horror movie at all, or at least not the horror movie the studio thought it would be getting.

Instead, Land of the Dead is part-satire, part-social commentary. The zombies aren't really the villains any more: indeed, they don't seem to have any interest in hunting humans until the humans piss them off. And piss them off, they do. I don't know that the movie benefitted from having known actors in some of the roles, though I am sure that this was necessary to secure funding. Dennis Hopper just seems miscast as a scheming businessman, but Leguizamo, Baker, and Asia Argento are all fine. But the real hero is the massive zombie (former) gas-station owner dubbed Big Daddy. He's the Robinson Crusoe of zombies. Recommended.

Lovecraft Again

Future Lovecraft: edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles, including the following stories and poems (2011):

In This Brief Interval by Ann K. Schwader
In the Hall of the Yellow King by Peter Rawlik
Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep by Nick Mamatas
Tri-TV by Bobby Cranestone
Do Not Imagine by Mari Ness
Rubedo, an Alchemy of Madness by Michael Matheson
People are Reading What You are Writing by Luso Mnthali
Harmony Amid the Stars by Ada Hoffmann
The Comet Called Ithaqua by Don Webb
Phoenix Woman by Kelda Crich
PostFlesh by Paul Jessup
The Library Twins and the Nekrobees by Martha Hubbard
Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee by Molly Tanzer
Skin by Helen Marshall
The Old 44th by Randy Stafford
Iron Footfalls by Julio Toro San Martin
This Song Is Not For You by Avery Cahill
Tloque Nahuaque by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas
Dolly in the Window by Robyn Seale
A Cool, Private Place by Jen White
Venice Burning by A. C. Wise
A Day and A Night in Providence by Anthony Boulanger
A Welcome Sestina From Cruise Director Isabeau Molyneux by Mae Empson
Lottie Versus the Moon Hopper by Pamela Rentz
The Damnable Asteroid by Leigh Kimmel
Myristica Fragrans by E. Catherine Tobler
Dark of the Moon by James S. Dorr
Trajectory of A Cursed Spirit by Meddy Ligner
Transmigration by Lee Clark Zumpe
Concerning the Last Days of the Colony At New Roanoke by Tucker Cummings
The Kadath Angle by Maria Mitchell
The Last Man Standing by Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso
Exhibit at the National Anthropology Museum in Tombouctou by Andrew Dombalagian
The Door From Earth by Jesse Bullington
The Deep Ones by Bryan Thao Worra
The Labyrinth of Sleep by Orrin Grey
Deep Blue Dreams by Sean Craven
Big Bro by Arlene J. Yandug

This really is a collection of short stories and poems, which explains why a 350-page book has so many entries jammed into it. No novelettes allowed, much less novellas! Most of the works appear here for the first time, with a few exceptions.

As the title isn't Future Cthulhu, some selections have only a vague aura of Lovecraftian menace hanging about them. "The Last Man Standing," for example, is a nice little story that would perhaps be better found in an anthology called Future (Mary) Shelley.

Other stories pile on the references to the work of Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, and others of their ilk to such an extent that they read like hypermanic fan fiction -- "In the Hall of the Yellow King" probably most of all reaches a level of intertextual inertia that starts off amusingly and ends up in the Hall of Inutterable Goofiness (a female spawn of Cthulhu! With boobs! Seducing...oh, never mind).

There's some nice work here, whether the droll offering from Nick Mamatas, the documentary riff by Tucker Cummings, or the pitch-perfect "The Damnable Asteroid," whose author gets the fact that while most of Lovecraft's stories were downbeat, their endings were not necessarily so -- conditional victory over the forces of darkness was a recurring plot point, no matter how dire the overall situation. A lot of stories here instead go for the destruction or conquest of everything by dark forces; that gets pretty tiring after awhile.

I wouldn't call this a great anthology -- the poems especially are a real drag. But I've certainly read higher profile homages to Lovecraft that were worse, and the shortness of the works allows one to sample an awful lot of writers one may not have heard of. In general, though, I'd argue that homages to Lovecraft -- and the Cthulhu portion of his body of work -- are best attempted at novella length. Recommended.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bash and Pop

The Purge: written and directed by James DeMonaco; starring Ethan Hawke (James Sandin), Lena Headey (Mary Sandin), Max Burkholder (Charlie Sandin), Adelaide Kane (Zoey Sandin), Edwin Hodge (Bloody Stranger), and Rhys Wakefield (Polite Leader) (2013): Efficient little dystopic pot-boiler that would probably have benefitted from having a no-name cast. Still, the actors are fine in this story of an America that purges its violent tendencies every year with 12 hours of state-sanctioned violence. Yes, it's the Red Hour from the original Star Trek episode "The Return of the Archons." Rich people either hide behind fancy security systems or go out hunting the poor; the poor run around and hide. The allegory is so transparent that I'm not sure it qualifies as allegory. Less than 90 minutes long, though, including credits! Huzzah! Lightly recommended.

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): Still fun the second time around, even on the home screen. About the only problem is that on a smaller scale, a couple of the giant robot-armour fighters are virtually indistinguishable from one another in the final battle scene. Or maybe I'm just getting old. Still, pretty much the modern gold standard for giant robots punching giant monsters. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mazes and Monsters

The Devil's Labyrinth by John Saul (2006): John Saul's horror-thriller writing career spans about 35 years (and counting). Somehow I've avoided him until now, primarily because there are only so many hours in the day. This mid-to-late career novel is an entertaining dandy, however, a slice of Roman Catholic horror that manages to wring some new scares and concepts out of the nearly exhausted sub-genre of possession and exorcism.

Be aware that Saul works very much in the plain style. His strengths lie in plot and characterization, with style being pretty much kept as quiet as possible. This works for Saul because he indeed does have strengths in those two areas. A couple of plot twists truly do surprise, and the characterization, especially of the teenagers trapped in the titular labyrinth, rings true throughout.

Bullied and beaten at his regular high school, a 16-year-old boy gets sent to a private Roman Catholic high school in Boston by his mother on the advice of her new boyfriend. St. Isaac's sprawls across several acres, and its underground rooms and tunnels, built and rebuilt-upon over a couple of hundred years, form one of the meanings of the 'labyrinth' of the title.

The new kid, still suffering over the death of his soldier-father in Afghanistan several years earlier, soon begins to see that something odd is going on. And as the oddities and sinister activities increase, so too does the Vatican's interest in St. Isaac's. One of the new pope's main interests is the history of exorcism in the Roman Catholic Church. And when one of the priests at St. Isaac's send the papal office a videofile of what appears to be an ancient, near-mythical ritual involving demons, the Pope's interest is piqued.

But the kids are not all right. To resurrect an old phrase yet again, this novel is a page-turner and a humdinger. The climax gets a little bit too gimmicky, but otherwise a solid read. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


The Conqueror Worms by Brian Keene (2005): Brian Keene enjoys ending the world. A lot. And while he's a very specifically American horror writer, many of his novels fall more comfortably into the disaster-horror sub-genre perfected by writers like Brit James Herbert, with his apocalyptic rats and fogs and crawling dark. Keene's scenarios tend to involve the supernatural far more than Herbert's, but their love of squishy, brutal scenes of ultraviolence -- and the occasional sex scene -- cause me to link them, if only in my own mind.

Keene's fictional multiverse contains many of his novels, along with a multiplicity of Earths, many of them under siege by the forces of darkness, all of them apparently working for one of several demon-kings exiled from the physical universe(s) eons ago by, I guess, God. Or gods.

It's a Lovecraftian set-up that touches at points upon real-world mythologies. Earth is under siege, anyway. A lot. And the cause in many of the novels (though not all) is generally hopeless. What the horror novels explore is grace, and the lack thereof, under supernatural pressure: the human heart in conflict with giant monsters, if you will.

In The Conqueror Worms, a seemingly supernatural rain devastates the planet. And it won't stop. Coastal cities fall to tsunamis; humanity flees to the hills. And then the mountains. And then, entire houses start disappearing into what look like sinkholes, but are not. While land-based humanity comes under siege by increasingly giant, carnivorous worms, sea-based humanity faces sea monsters that seem to have swum right out of mythology.

Keene keeps our sympathy throughout with his narrators -- an 80-year-old man whose West Virginia mountain residence has endured 41 days of rain when the novel opens, and a much-younger man and woman who endured the terrrors of flooded Baltimore for several weeks. Along the way, the reader can piece together the probable cause of the apocalypse, but there's never a moment of epiphanic exposition. This is a worm's eye view of the end of the world, not one from from the heights (or narrative centre) of understanding.

There's brutality here, and grandeur, and a lot of WTF? Boy, those worms are cranky. Recommended.