Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The City at the End of Things

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks (1985): Banks' second quasi-mainstream novel (as opposed to his science-fiction novels as Iain M. Banks) follows three seemingly, initially unconnected narratives through to their conclusive collision.

Or maybe not entirely a collision, because while two of the narratives herein are set in 1983 England, the third is set in some weird, distant future. The possibility exists that this third existence has been imagined by one of the protagonists of the other two narratives, but nothing is clear. The third narrative may simply be the fictional conclusion of the imaginative journey of the second narrative's protagonist. Or not. Elements of surrealism and absurdism occur throughout the third narrative; the other two narratives seem to be relatively straightforward realism.

In any case, Walking on Glass does a fine job of depicting time, place, and various states of mind. While the protagonist of the first narrative finds himself pining for a platonic love, the second protagonist appears to be a paranoid schizophrenic caught within his own self-created delusions of persecution and otherness.

In the third narrative, warriors from opposite sides of some cosmic battle find themselves imprisoned in a Kafkaesque castle until such time as they can correctly answer the question, "What happens when an irresistable force meets an immovable object?"

But to earn the right to answer the question once, they must successfully play and complete a game for which they have no rules: one-dimensional chess and invisible dominoes being two such games that we see, with the successful completion of each allowing for one answer. Should the answer prove wrong, they must start again at a new game. Rinse. Repeat.

While assorted postmodern games abound within the narrative and its metafictional tropes as well, the plights of the various characters are nonetheless compelling and even tragic. One thing that a awful lot of critics seem to have completely missed is the basic importance of the last name of the middle protagonist, Grout.

Like grout, his story binds -- in this case, it binds the other two narratives together; they meet only through his story. Make of that, and an assortment of other peculiarities and oddities, what you will. The last fifty pages or so are quite harrowing, for all the game-playing that has gone on before, and for all the revelations of other games that will come before the end. Highly recommended.

Rocketeers, Hellblazers, and Super-sons

John Constantine Hellblazer: Empathy is the Enemy: written by Denise Mina; illustrated by Leonardo Manco and others (2006): Scottish novelist Denise Mina did a year-long stint or so on Hellblazer, Vertigo's then-longest-running title about occult investigator/pissed-off magician John Constantine and his endless mission to protect humanity from Heaven and Hell alike. And she really nails Constantine's character in this tale of sinister not-quite-Christianity simmering off the coast of Scotland.

The only down side? This is only the first part of a year-long story, and ends on something of a cliffhanger. Leonardo Manco's art is suitably moody and impressionistic, though his lay-outs sometimes become a bit confusing. That may not be his fault, as non-comic-book writers often have trouble early on in their comic-writing careers describing sensible lay-outs. Nonetheless, enjoyable and sharply observed horror, with just enough of Constantine's acerbic cynicism. Recommended.

Superman and Batman: The Saga of the Super-sons: written by Bob Haney with Denny O'Neil; illustrated by Dick Dillin, Curt Swan, Ernie Chan, Rich Buckler, Kieron Dwyer, and others (1974-1980, 1999; collected 2013): Once upon a time in the 1970's, DC Comics posited an alternate timeline in which Superman and Batman had teen-aged sons who themselves had started haltingly into the family business of crime-fighting. And lo, it was groovy.

I mean, really groovy. Writer Bob Haney never got a grip on the speech patterns of youth culture, but that never stopped him from trying here or on Teen Titans. The art by Justice League of America mainstay Dick Dillin was solid, as it always was from him, with some able fill-ins by Curt Swan and Ernie Chan. Superman and Batman Jr. just wanted to find their own way in life. So they set out across America. And then they didn't. And then they set out across America again.

Well, the whole picaresque, Easy Rider bit does stop and start a bit. Nonetheless, there are some solid stories here, and they are, generally, 'fun,' which is more than I can say for most modern comic books. If nothing else, this is the series in which, inexplicably and jarringly, Superman starts referring to everyone as "fellers" for a couple of issues. Getting in touch with his rural past, I guess.

DC caught the continuity bug late in the 1970's, leading to a nonsensical story which eliminates the Super-sons from 'existence' in fairly brutal fashion. A 1999 story restores them to their rightful writer, Haney, and suggests that they're still out there somewhere, as this year's Grant Morrison-penned universe-hopping series apparently will also establish. Groovy indeed. Recommended.

Rocketeer Adventures 2: written and illustrated by a cast of dozens (2012): IDW's anthology of short pieces featuring Dave Stevens' 1930's hero The Rocketeer is all kinds of fun. And if you don't like one story, there are plenty of others to look at instead. It's an approach that a lot of characters could use more of, which is I guess why DC has been trying it with digital-first anthology comics devoted to Batman, Superman, and soon Wonder Woman. I suppose the only problem is that some of the 'pin-ups' leave you wishing the artists had had time to do whole stories (especially Mike Mignola's lovely, creepy illustration). A third series soon, please! Recommended.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

100 Years of H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft's Legacy: edited by Robert E. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg, (1990) containing the following stories:

  • A Secret of the Heart by Mort Castle: Solid tale written in a convincing homage to 19th-century diction, with a tip of the cap to all those ancient white-male antagonists in Lovecraft's stories.
  • The Other Man by Ray Garton: Garton combines something Lovecraft didn't really deal with (romantic relationships) with a suitably surreal and sinister voyage through the Dreamlands.
  • Will by Graham Masterton: Terrific piece of history-based Lovecraftiana featuring shenanigans in England during the Renaissance.
  • Big "C" by Brian Lumley: Fun, too long, slight. The ending seems to be telegraphed from about the second page of the story.
  • Ugly by Gary Brandner: A Lovecraftian object figures in another story of a (non-Lovecraftian) romantic relationship gone wrong.
  • The Blade and the Claw by Hugh B. Cave: Interesting voodoo tale from the venerable Cave would seem more at home in a tribute to Frank Belknap Long due to its subject matter (and Long's classic short story "Second Night Out", aka "The Dead, Black Thing."
  • Soul Keeper by Joseph A. Citro: A nod to the New England landscape and the sort of weirdos hiding in it that often showed up in Lovecraft stories that include "The Shunned House" and many others.
  • From the Papers of Helmut Hecker by Chet Williamson: Delightful comic romp takes shots at a few modern writers.
  • Meryphillia by Brian McNaughton: Pitch-perfect riff on Lovecraft's ghouls from his 'Dream Cycle' period.
  • Lord of the Land by Gene Wolfe: Haunting, disturbing tale of cosmic horror and Egyptian mythology in the American heartland.
  • H.P.L. by Gahan Wilson: Out-and-out comedy reads almost like a sitcom pilot for a really weird show about Lovecraft and friends/fiends.
  • The Order of Things Unknown by Ed Gorman: Tenuously Lovecraftian but still enjoyable and terse.
  • The Barrens by F. Paul Wilson: Absolutely top-level novella by the prolific Wilson combines very specific period- and regional detail about New Jersey's Pine Barrens with the sort of quasi-documentary search seen in many of Lovecraft's stories, and a fascinating extrapolation of regional ghost stories into a basis for cosmic horror.

A very solid anthology celebrating the 100th anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft's birth in 1990, this one, like most HPL-related volumes, remains in print today. There really isn't a bad story in the bunch, though a few seem very weakly related to Lovecraft's work. This possesses the most weirdly jaunty cover to a Lovecraft-related volume I've seen in a long time, because of colour choices and not subject matter. Also includes a useful, poignant introduction from Lovecraft's friend Robert (Psycho, Star Trek's Jack the Ripper episode) Bloch, and similarly useful and enjoyable afterwords by the assorted authors. Recommended.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Endure or Avoid

Madame Crowl's Ghost: written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited and introduced by M.R. James (Original edition 1923; this edition 2006) containing the following stories: Madam Crowl's Ghost, Squire Toby's Will, Dickon the Devil, The Child That Went with the Fairies, The White Cat of Drumgunniol, An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street; Ghost Stories of Chapelizod, Wicked Captain Walshawe, Sir Dominick's Bargain, Ultor de Lacy, The Vision of Tom Chuff, and Stories of Lough Guir.

Mid-to-late 19th-century Irish Protestant writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu is really the second giant with a career output mostly in what we'd now call horror, dark fantasy, and the supernatural (or even Weird) fiction, after Edgar Allan Poe. It's a testament to his skill and vision that this is a fantastic collection, even though it omits the two horror stories he's best-known and most-anthologized for, the seminal vampire novella "Camilla" and the psychological chiller "Green Tea."

Dracula's Bram Stoker clearly knew Le Fanu's work, as Dracula borrows mightily from "Camilla" (which remains a far superior story) and from Le Fanu's recurring occult investigator Dr. Martin Hesselius, the latter in the person of Professor Van Helsing.

The stories collected here span the 1840's, 50's, and 60's, but for all their period-appropriate language and narrative approach, they are nonetheless imaginatively modern on the topic of ghosts. Le Fanu's ghosts seem to obey certain nebulous rules, even as to who they can or cannot appear to. They are not, however, easy to get rid of. Mid-19th-century Great Britain may have been a more Christian place than it is today, but there are no exorcisms here, and no deus ex machina endings. Ghosts are things to be either endured or avoided.

The Fairie also appear in some stories, most strikingly in "The Child That Went with the Fairies." They aren't nice. Really, really, really not nice, and this story really works as an epitomal tale of stolen children, a recurring trope in traditional stories of the Fairie in the British Isles. One calls them The Good Folk or The Kind Folk in the hopes of flattering them, not because they are.

Throughout the stories, Le Fanu deftly establishes setting and regional dialect, regardless of where the story is set. There are both urban and rural tales of the supernatural here. There are disturbingly fluid spectres, at least one Devil, ghosts whose touch corrupts and kills, innocent lives stolen or ended by all manner of unearthly beings, and terrible discoveries behind hidden doors.

Le Fanu has what would be now called a "cinematic eye" at points -- there are some marvelous visual descriptions in "Squire Toby's Will" of strangely mutating, threatening shadows that resolve into figures but dissolve when closely regarded; this skill manifests in several other stories as well. Some of Le Fanu's ghosts resemble those 3-D posters that suddenly resolve into an image when looked at the correct way. Except the posters aren't out to kill you.

M.R. James originally selected and introduced this collection in the 1920's, which is fitting given James' place as perhaps the most accomplished and influential writer of ghost stories in history. All in all, an excellent collection. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Demon, Barf

The Demon: written by Matt Wagner; illustrated by Matt Wagner, Art Nichols, and Bernie Mireault (1986-87, 1992; collected 2013): Matt Wagner's done fine work on his own characters and on characters for DC. Alas, his work on The Demon, while sometimes lovely to look at, is also a wordy, needlessly labyrinthine, bleak mess.

As originally conceived and executed by writer-artist Jack Kirby in the early 1970's, Etrigan the Demon was a surprisingly jolly demon who enjoyed beating the Hell out of supernatural menaces but otherwise seemed like a loveable scamp. Kirby's Demon is the clearest, most obvious forerunner of Mike Mignola's Hellboy, another good demon.

However, when Alan Moore reimagined Etrigan in a thrilling, disturbing three-part story in Saga of the Swamp Thing in the early 1980's, the ramifications of that reimagination would be an eternal souring of the pot. Moore's Demon was a barely controlled monster. He also spoke in rhymes all the time, where Kirby's Demon only rhymed to cast spells. Thus was unleashed thirty years and counting of an astonishingly misguided reinterpretation of an enjoyable but minor Kirby character.

Wagner's 4-issue-miniseries revamp of Etrigan makes Alan Moore's version look like a sun-filled romp in a jolly, jolly park by comparison. Jason Blood, the Demon's 'host,' is now a bumbling, easily manipulated fool whose personality in no way resembles either Kirby's dedicated occultist or Moore's tragic, sardonic hero. Etrigan is a monster who speaks in rhymes that often, in their utterly confusing diction, pretty much form an airtight case for why Etrigan should not speak in rhymes all the time. At least not when Matt Wagner's writing him.

The art has some flashes of surreal brilliance, especially in a sequence in which demons invade an apartment through the walls.  The annoyingly intrusive frame narration becomes an unwelcome Greek Chorus very, very quickly. The whole thing is dense and unpleasant, and that narrative density serves a story that's actually paper-thin.

Alas and alas and alas, the depressing view of Etrigan has won out over the last 30 years. A Wagner-penned and illustrated standalone issue from the Demon's early 1990's series is a lot looser and more fantastic artistically. Unfortunately, the whole thing is narrated by Etrigan in a series of rhymes. Somebody please make sure Matt Wagner never, ever writes anything in rhymes again. It's horrible. Wagner can be a compelling writer and artist, especially on his own wonderful Mage and Grendel books. Seek those out, not this. Not recommended.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Monumental Sausage Party

Prime Evil edited by Douglas Winter, containing the following stories (1988):

The Night Flier by Stephen King: One of King's five or six worst short pieces (and it's a long short piece, by the way) seems to have been written solely for the central image. What a terrible, dumb, illogical story otherwise.

Having a Woman at Lunch by Paul Hazel: A weak bit of misogynistic whimsy from someone whom Winter notes has never written a horror short story before. It's like a bad EC Comics horror short, right down to the misogyny, but at least EC could defend itself by noting the time it existed.

The Blood Kiss by Dennis Etchison: Solid bit of Hollywood weird from Etchison, though with nothing particularly scary in sight.

Coming to Grief by Clive Barker: A fairly gentle Barker piece about loss and childhood fears.

Food by Thomas Tessier: Slight but enjoyable gross-out.

The Great God Pan by M. John Harrison: Subtle and elliptical novella about the aftermath of some sort of supernatural event that's never fully explained; the connection to the great Arthur Machen story of the same name seems to me to be so faint as to be perhaps problematic.

Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity by David Morrell: Brilliant horror piece from a writer generally known for his thrillers (and for creating John Rambo). Painting and secrets and the danger of seeing what cannot be unseen.

The Juniper Tree by Peter Straub: Disturbing tale of childhood sexual abuse could use a stronger, or at least more direct, conclusion, but still effective.

Spinning Tales with the Dead by Charles L. Grant: A representative bit of elusive, elliptical dark fantasy from Grant.

Alice's Last Adventure by Thomas Ligotti: Great piece from Ligotti, though in some ways it reminds me more of Ramsey Campbell than Ligotti in terms of subject matter and the treatment thereof.

Next Time You'll Know Me by Ramsey Campbell: A copy-editing mistake screws up some of the humour of the story, though it's still a droll (though non-frightening) bit of business.

The Pool by Whitley Strieber: Blech. Terrible stuff.

By Reason of Darkness by Jack Cady : Viet Nam horror evokes Conrad and Apocalypse Now in equal measure; its effect is weakened by an overly long climax when more development of events 'In Country' would have been far more welcome.

Beginning in the late 1970's, horror fiction seemed to cough up at least one attempt at a genre-defining/re-defining original anthology every decade or so. Notable entries in this accidental enterprise include Ramsey Campbell's excellent New Terrors, Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces, and Al Sarrantonio's 999.

Douglas Winter seems to have been going for the same thing with Prime Evil, though it's a much shorter anthology than any of those mentioned above. And it's also a bit underwhelming. There are good stories included here, the best being David Morrell's terrific novella about painting, madness, and the supernatural. In the end, though, Prime Evil is an interesting, deeply flawed snapshot of some of what horror fiction was up to in the late 1980's. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Weird Science

The Complete EC Archives: Weird Science: Volumes 2 and 3: written and edited by Al Feldstein; illustrated by Al Feldstein, Wally Wood,  Al Williamson, Jack Kamen, Joe Orlando, Bill Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and others (1951-52; collected 2007): EC Comics' wild and wooly science-fiction anthology series stands the test of time, and testifies to what was lost in American comic books with the inception of the Comics Code in the mid-1950's. These are stories for adults that can be enjoyed by kids, with nary a superhero to be found.

There are, of course, a plethora of shock endings -- this is EC Comics, and EC specialized in shock endings in every genre. Most work, some don't, and some really weren't necessary. The overall standard of writing on both the original stories and on adaptations of stories by Ray Bradbury is consistently high thanks to Al Feldstein. Oh, a few zingers go awry, but the humour is generally appropriate.

Much of the art is wonderful, whether by the matter-of-fact Jack Kamen, the occasionally grotesque Joe Orlando, the romantic Al Williamson, or the phenomenal, lush, detailed Wally Wood. Wood entered what many consider to be the peak of his artistic career on the stories included here and in other EC Comics of the time. He was only 24. The dissonance between his humans -- gorgeous women and heroic men -- and the storylines they find themselves in generates a zingy level of cognitive dissonance.

It would all be over too quickly. But the stories that remain really are, on the whole, astonishing. Some are surprisingly criticial of the United States military, and of America's paranoia in general. Some are really, really bizarrely, almost anachronistically boundary-pushing.

We've got a sex-change story. We've got a time traveller who sleeps with his own mother. We've got beautiful alien women who impregnate human men. And we've got people being eaten all over the place. And stepped on. And tortured. And asphyxiated. All in bright, glorious colour, and rendered by some of the finest artists to ever work in American comic books.

Feldstein had a tendency to wordiness that was a symptom of the era -- these are really dense stories, most of them seven pages long but packed with the information of about 25 pages of modern comic-book information. That wordiness can sometimes be skimmed, as Feldstein often describes exactly what one sees in the panel, but it also allows for character-building and world-building. On a couple of notable occasions, somebody, whether Feldstein or publisher William Gaines, saw fit to actually explain the climax of a story. I don't think it was necessary in either case, but then again, I'm not eight years old. I'd also love to know what happened the first time an easily outraged parent took a look at the sex-change story. Hoo ha, indeed! Highly recommended.