Friday, October 31, 2014

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978)

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978): Top-notch melding of the horror and hard-boiled detective genres by Hjortsberg, whose bibliography seems to contain more unproduced screenplays than anything else. He did adapt this novel into the 1987 movie Angel Heart (a.k.a. the movie with controversial nude sex scenes featuring The Cosby Show's Lisa Bonet playing a voodoo priestess), though there are significant differences between the two works. In terms of location, the novel stays pretty much in New York while the movie headed to New Orleans, I'd assume to make the voodoo action more... believeable?

Hjortsberg nails the cynical prose-poetry of the classic hard-boiled detective novel, with P.I. Harry Angel handling the world-weary, occasionally cruel but mostly well-meaning first-person narration. Angel repeatedly comes off as the world's oddest New York City tour guide as we move in and around the New York of the late 1950's.

A mysterious client hires Angel to track down a popular singer in the Frank Sinatra mode who was supposed to be in an upstate mental asylum after injuries sustained during World War Two left him mentally and physically disabled. The only problem is, the singer -- stage name Johnny Favorite -- isn't at the asylum, and hasn't been for years. And the trail is cold. But as Angel pursues Favorite, everything starts to heat up, and people start dying in increasingly horrible ways.

Variations are worked on the usual suspects and usual characters of hardboiled detective fiction and film, from shadowy businessmen through shady lawyers to jilted heiresses. As Angel's case proceeds, odder characters arise, and previously introduced characters get odder. There will be voodoo. There will be Satanism. There will be horoscopes and morphine addicts and one weird trip to the theatre.

Hjortsberg's period and genre-specific style works wonderfully throughout Falling Angel, falling always just on the serious side of near-parody. Angel's a tough customer with no friends and his own troubled past, but like all great hardboiled detectives, his essential quality is absolute stubbornness. He'll solve the case regardless of the cost. And what a cost! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Horror Comics Old and New

John Constantine Hellblazer: Reasons to be Cheerful: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Leonardo Manco, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Lorenzo Ruggiero (2004-2005; collected 2007): Excellent but frustratingly short collection of Constantine stories really ends halfway through an arc. This is something DC used to do a lot with its adult-oriented Vertigo collections, I'd assume in order to squeeze as much money as possible out of the trade paperback reprint market. They're now re-collecting Constantine's Vertigo title in lengthier collections from the start of the comic. I'd assume this arc and the subsequent The Gift will appear in one reasonably priced volume some time in about 2016.

Carey's an excellent writer, and really the second-last great writer of Constantine's now-cancelled Vertigo Universe title. The art by Leonard Manco and others is solid and moody, and the horrors suitably horrific. Of course, Constantine is Odysseus-like in his on-going ability to get everyone associated with him killed. As the main arc partially collected here deal with a threat to Constantine's relatives, friends, acquaintances, and people and things he only met once, a high death toll is assured. Who will survive and what will be left of them? Recommended, but you should probably wait for a new, more complete collection.

The EC Comics Library: Shock SuspenStories Volume 2:  written by Al Feldstein and Ray Bradbury; illustrated by Johnny Craig, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Jack Kamen, Reed Crandall, George Evans and others (1952-53; collected 2007): Shock SuspenStories was the Whitman's Sampler of EC Comics during that comic-book company's brief, brilliant run as the best comic-book company in the United States in the early 1950's. Stories reflected the breadth of EC's comics line, from social agit-prop stories (known as "preachies") to science fiction, horror, and suspense.

If one wants to see EC in all its glory, Gemstone's over-sized SuspenStories collections are the way to go. Grotesque horror stories with terrible puns in the title include "Beauty and the Beach" (illustrated by Jack Kamen), in which two jealous husbands enact ridiculous yet appropriate vengeance on their sunbath-loving wives, and "Seep No More", a riff on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart."

There are also two excellent adaptations of Ray Bradbury stories here -- "The Small Assassin" and "The October Game", both suitably under-stated and horrifying in their implications. Notable "preachies", which were pretty much always illustrated by the great Wally Wood, include "Fall Guy," a gimmicky story with a visual bit riffed upon in Watchmen; "Came the Dawn!", a loopy ax-murderer tale with the sexiest woman Wood ever drew for EC; and "...So Shall Ye Reap!", a justifiably much-lauded tale with dual, unreliable narrations.

Also included is artist Reed Crandall's terrifically grotesque "Carrion Death," a story of murder and vengeance meted out by the natural world. We also get not one, not two, but three stories about Martians -- and only two of those Martian races hostile -- and for unintentional laughs the bizarre and ridiculous anti-drug "preachie" "The Monkey," in which recreational marijuana usage inevitably leads to murder, as it so often does. In all, highly recommended.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Book of Horrors (2011), edited by Stephen Jones

A Book of Horrors (2011), edited by Stephen Jones, containing the following stories, all original to this volume:

  • A Child's Problem by Reggie Oliver: Brilliant English ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James, with a neat extrapolation from a real painting and real-world historical events during the Victorian era.
  • Alice Through the Plastic Sheet by Robert Shearman: An increasingly surreal and perhaps a bit overlong tale of some very bad neighbours.
  • Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint by Caitlin R. Kiernan: Almost a vignette or mood piece of a woman who's drawn to fires.
  • Getting It Wrong by Ramsey Campbell: Black comedy about trivia contests and a lonely, misanthropic movie buff.
  • Ghosts with Teeth by Peter Crowther: Enjoyable piece overstuffed with increasingly omnipotent ghosts. The flash-forward at the beginning negates much of the suspense.
  • Last Words by Richard Christian Matheson: Short gross-out. Maybe it's supposed to be profound.
  • Near Zennor by Elizabeth Hand: Absolutely brilliant, muted piece that sends a widower on a voyage into rural England in search of answers about a part of his wife's childhood that he was unaware of until she'd died. Both a lovely character study and a detailed, slowly building work of quiet but unmistakeable horror.
  • Roots And All by Brian Hodge: The Wendigo vs. Breaking Bad: The Road to Victory.
  • Sad, Dark Thing by Michael Marshall Smith: Sad, moving story of loss and depression.
  • Tell Me I'll See You Again by Dennis Etchison: Typically excellent, under-stated, odd story from one of a handful of the greatest American horror writers of the last fifty years.
  • The Coffin-Maker's Daughter by Angela Slatter: An interesting, unpleasant bit of dark fantasy set in an alternate world, or perhaps yet another world of The New Weird.
  • The Little Green God of Agony by Stephen King: The supernatural elements are a complete dud; the sections on physical rehab after a horrifying accident are excellent: this would be a lot better as a non-supernatural story.
  • The Man in the Ditch by Lisa Tuttle: Some very nice M.R. James-like supernatural events in a story that really lacks the sympathetic characters that can carry this sort of thing.
  • The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer by John Ajvide Lindqvist: Disturbing tale with some fascinating, Sweden-specific supernatural elements from the writer of Let the Right One In is also Lindqvist's first story written expressly for English-language publication.

Overall, this is a top-notch, all-original horror anthology. None of the stories are terrible, and several (Reggie Oliver's and Elizabeth Hand's entries, to name two) are absolutely top-notch all-timers. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Beyond the Curtain of Dark (1967/1972): edited by Peter Haining

Beyond the Curtain of Dark (1967/1972): edited by Peter Haining, containing the following stories:

Lizzie Borden Took an Axe... (1946) by Robert Bloch: Interesting but a bit long and fairly obvious; a sort of thematic companion piece to Bloch's earlier, superior "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper."
The Snail Watcher (1964) by Patricia Highsmith: Brilliant, gross, and very short from the creator of the talented Tom Ripley.
Chickamauga (1889) by Ambrose Bierce: Haunting and horrible tale of war as observed by a child.
At Last, the True Story of Frankenstein (1965) by Harry Harrison: A mostly funny, EC Comics-like entry in the school of 'that story was actually sorta true!'
Fever Dream (1948) by Ray Bradbury: A creepy tale of infection still resonates with body-fear in the Age of Ebola.
The Other Celia (1957) by Theodore Sturgeon: A fascinating character study of a voyeuristic loner and the strange fellow lodger in a boarding house whose oddities attract his attention.
The Oval Portrait (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe: Short-short from Poe, and not all that rewarding.
The Monster-Maker (1887) by W. C. Morrow: One crazy scientific monster story from the late Victorian Age.
Come and Go Mad by Fredric Brown: Brilliant piece of science-fictional paranoia, and an unusually long story from the often terse Brown, one of the two or three absolute masters of the shock-short.
The Survivor (1954) by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth: Derleth expands brief notes from Lovecraft into a story. You will see the ending coming. Fun but derivative.
The Ancestor (1957) by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth: Derleth expands brief notes from Lovecraft into another story. You will see the ending coming. Also fun but derivative.
The Mortal Immortal (1833) by Mary Shelley: A melancholy non-Frankensteinian work from Shelley. The ending suggests a possible future team-up between the eponymous protagonist and the Creature.
Dr. Heidegger's Experiment (1837) by Nathaniel Hawthorne: One of Hawthorne's funnier excursions into a bleak assessment of human character.
By These Presents (1953) by Henry Kuttner: Clever deal-with-the-devil story.
Whosits Disease (1962) by Henry Slesar: Brief and disposable.
King Pest (1835) by Edgar Allan Poe: Another of Poe's less-anthologized works is a funny-nightmarish walkabout in a plague-ridden port town. The extreme physical oddities of most of the characters, and the oddly jolly, macabre situation of the story suggest Tim Burton.
Mayaya's Little Green Men (1946) by Harold Lawlor: Very much telegraphed and pointlessly nasty.
For the Blood Is the Life (1905) by F. Marion Crawford: Maybe the prolific Crawford's oddest horror story, with a really striking revelation of a ghost as seen from afar.
The Human Chair (1925/translated from the Japanese 1956) by Edogawa Rampo: Very creepy little tale from a Japanese master of horror.
The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh (1838) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: The great Le Fanu plays with narrative points of view.
Return to the Sabbath (1938) by Robert Bloch: Relatively early Bloch melds Hollywood and the Satanic in an early indication of how Bloch's horror writing would develop.
The Will of Luke Carlowe (1906) by Clive Pemberton: You will see the ending coming.
Eyes Do More Than See (1965) by Isaac Asimov: Nifty and unusual inclusion of a science-fiction story set in a far, far future in which humanity has evolved into immortal energy beings.

Typically eclectic and wide-ranging anthology from the prolific anthologist Peter Haining. Not everything hits hard, but the breadth and occasional rarity of the selections make it a worthwhile read. Recommended.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4 (2011): edited by Ellen Datlow

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4 (2011): edited by Ellen Datlow, containing the following stories: The Little Green God of Agony by Stephen King; Stay by Leah Bobet; The Moraine by Simon Bestwick; Blackwood's Baby by Laird Barron; Looker by David Nickle; The Show by Priya Sharma; Mulberry Boys by Margo Lanagan; Roots And All by Brian Hodge; Final Girl Theory by A. C. Wise; Omphalos by Livia Llewellyn; Dermot by Simon Bestwick; Black Feathers by Alison Littlewood; The Final Verse by Chet Williamson; In the Absence of Murdock by Terry Lamsley; You Become the Neighborhood by Glen Hirshberg; In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos by John Langan; Little Pig by Anna Taborska; and The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine by Peter Straub (all stories 2011):

Ellen Datlow's Best Horror anthologies tend towards an area of the horror axis in which weirdness and relationship problems are the highest values. It's not my favourite area of horror, but if it's yours, you may find Datlow's anthologies more rewarding than I do.

Certainly nothing here is badly written. The entries from Glen Hirshberg and Laird Barron are typically excellent. I like how Hirschberg lays out the long-term psychological effects of a brush with the supernatural, while Barron's world of muscular protagonists faced with an enormity of perverse, hidden horrors always gives me a kick. "Blackwood's Baby" seems like the sort of fever dream Hemingway might have had after getting punched in the mouth by Cthulhu.

The John Langan story is also good, though the ending is telegraphed all the way back to the title. Stephen King's story seems to be included solely to get King's name on the cover -- it's a curiously limp affair in which one can call all the plot points several pages before they occur and be right every time.

Peter Straub's story disappoints in a much different way. It's weird and creepy for awhile, but the eponymous couple's peculiar sexual fetish, once revealed, acts to distance one from any investment in the narrative's outcome. The ending comes several paragraphs too late, as a third-party explanation of what we've just read blunts whatever horror remained in what we'd previously read. Chet Williamson's otherwise excellent "The Final Verse" also has a problematic ending, as it veers into a sort of jokey, EC-Comics nihilism that doesn't fit the rest of the story.

Stylistically, the stories are well-written. Would I like more stories that are actually scary? Oh, yeah. I do like that Datlow includes a list of stories as 'Honourable Mentions' at the end of the volume. There's something weird and off-putting about it.  I could also probably go to the end of my days without reading another Bradburyesque story with the plot-engine removed, or another Weird Incest Tale. Weird Incest Tales: the worst fantasy magazine ever. Lightly recommended.

Conspiracies (2000) by F. Paul Wilson

Conspiracies (Repairman Jack #3)  by F. Paul Wilson (2000): Easily the zippiest, lightest of F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack novels that I've read. The setting for the 'A' plot helps with this, as Jack has to infiltrate a convention of conspiracy theorists in order to find a missing woman. He's never met that missing woman, but she left a message with her husband that if she disappeared, only Repairman Jack would be able to help help her. So against his better judgement, off Jack goes to the convention.

There, he'll meet and mingle with an assortment of One World, UFO, Hollow-Earth, Christian fundamentalist, and various and sundry other seriously invested conspiracy theorists. The missing woman had announced prior to the convention that her Sunday keynote speech would reveal a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory that would explain everything. Did someone kidnap or kill her to shut her up?

In what was then the third of the Repairman Jack books, Conspiracies does a certain amount of heavy lifting so as to make Jack's adventures part of the overarching Adversary Cycle. The Adversary himself, Rasalom, shows up in disguise to deliver a chapter worthy of Basil Exposition, laying out the framework of the massive secret war going on behind the scenes to Jack so as to judge whether or not Jack knows anything about it. He doesn't. But boy, is he going to learn.

A draggy B-plot detracts from the shenanigans -- with all these conspiracy theories floating around, the hiring of Jack to solve a domestic abuse situation just seems like a prosaic time-waster. More conspiracy theories! More weird events! More Tesla! More of the Blues-Brothers-like agents of Order known only as the Twins! And most of all, more of Rasalom's evil talking monkey! Recommended.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Misapplied Titles

The Devil Commands: adapted by Robert Andrews and Milton Gunzburg from the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane; directed by Edward Dmytryk; starring Boris Karloff (Dr. Blair), Cy Schindell (Karl), Amanda Duff (Anne), Anne Revere (Mrs. Walters) and Richard Fiske (Richard) (1941): Moody, atmospheric horror film with Karloff as a Mad Scientist, or more accurately a sane scientist driven mad by his wife's death and the subsequent revelations about the afterlife as revealed by his investigations into brain function.

Frame narration from Karloff's daughter doesn't really help with suspense, but the movie as a whole is enjoyable. Karloff is more mournful and far less threatening than usual as the increasingly loopy scientist who believes that he can build a machine to communicate with the dead in general and his wife in particular. And what a machine! The final form of his 'Dead Set' really makes the whole movie worthwhile. It's Vacuum-Tube Gothic.

Other elements are perhaps a bit more rote, from the grieving daughter and her boring love interest to the wily sheriff. Karloff's hulking henchman Karl possesses a bit more pathos than most such characters, as we see the accident that 'creates' him. An unscrupulous 'fake' medium who turns out to have real psychic powers (shades of Ghost!) rounds out the major players.

Director Edward Dmytryk is better at mood and atmospherics than he is pacing -- the whole thing drags a bit, which shouldn't really happen with a 65-minute movie. Nonetheless, a grim and surprisingly downbeat movie for its time. Recommended.


The Tomb (2nd revised edition) by F. Paul Wilson (2004/ previously published in different form in 1984 and 1998): Originally the first appearance of Wilson's Repairman Jack character, The Tomb would later be substantially revised, along with a number of other Wilson novels, as the writer fleshed out his Adversary Cycle and the Repairman Jack series that wove in and out of that Cycle.

But originally, this was a 1984 one-off. There wouldn't be another Jack novel for about a decade. In the revised version, its timeline moved up to the 21st century, The Tomb has been retconned into the 21st century.

Jack is a sort of altrusitic, libertarian superman. Or supercompetentman. He's off the grid. He fixes problems for people, sometimes violently, sometimes not. 'The Tomb' wasn't Wilson's preferred title -- it was meant by the publisher to echo the title of Wilson's previous hit, The Keep, even though there's no actual tomb in the novel. Instead, there are mysterious disappearances in New York, flashbacks to mid-19th-century India, and terrible things hidden inside a mysterious freighter. There are monsters. Smelly, seemingly invincible monsters.

The good parts of The Tomb are very good: Jack's investigation is suspenseful, and both the historical sections and the horror sections of the novel are skilfully written. About three-quarters of the novel is thus an occasionally thoughtful page-turner. Unfortunately, about one-quarter of the novel focuses upon the love of Jack's life, Gia, and her idiot daughter Vicky. But by God, even though Wilson doesn't write children well doesn't mean he's not going to keep trying! And ditto for Gia, whose personality consists of about equal parts worrying about Vicky and mulling over Jack. That's all you're going to get, so don't wait around for wit. Well, she really enjoys cleaning things. I kid you not.

Vicky may be central to the plot, but you can still skim much of the material focused upon her and her mother. They're a tremendously dull pair (and will continue to be dull yet hazardous for every Repairman Jack novel) when they're not getting into trouble. And when Vicky gets into trouble late in this novel, it's through doing something stupid that spins off from Jack doing something stupid by not fully explaining something because if he'd fully explained something, we wouldn't have a hostage for the second climax of the novel. Oh, well. A lot of the Gia/Vicky sections don't feature Jack, meaning that skimming is pretty easy. Real, real easy. Recommended.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Back to Cthulhu

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012): edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories: And the Sea Gave Up the Dead by Jason C. Eckhardt; Appointed by Chet Williamson; Bloom by John Langan; Casting Call by Don Webb; Correlated Discontents by Rick Dakan; Dahlias by Melanie Tem; Dead Media by Nick Mamatas; Houndwife by Caitlin R. Kiernan; King of Cat Swamp by Jonathan Thomas; The Abject by Richard Gavin; The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with the Hundred Knives by Darrell Schweitzer; The History of a Letter by Jason V Brock; The Other Man by Nicholas Royle; The Skinless Face by Donald Tyson; The Wilcox Remainder by Brian Evenson; View by Tom Fletcher; Waiting at the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem; and When Death Wakes Me to Myself by John Shirley.

When it comes to both the general (horror fiction) and the specific (H.P. Lovecraft), S.T. Joshi's credentials are impeccable. His emendations and annotations to Lovecraft's fiction have been a gift to the reading public, as has his other work.

This is certainly a mostly enjoyable anthology with a somewhat misleading title forced upon Joshi by his publishers. The first of these anthologies was simply entitled 'Black Wings' in its original hardcover publication, a quotation from an essay by Lovecraft about horror. 'of Cthulhu' was added to the paperback release to grab the eye of the reader. However, the addition makes the title of the anthology somewhat erroneous. Writers riff here on all of Lovecraft's output, and on the more general aspects of his approach to cosmic horror. This isn't a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology. So if you want a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology, look elsewhere. It will probably also have 'Cthulhu' in the title. They're not hard to find.

None of the stories selected by Joshi are bad in the way that Cthulhu Mythos pastiches can be bad (though I'm definitely not alone in my enjoyment of even the most clumsy of attempts to replicate both Lovecraft's style and content). Really, none of them are bad at all. They do fall within a range that also fails to ascend beyond the level of, 'Well, that was enjoyable.'

But wait. Was I frightened by anything here in a cosmic, metaphysical manner? No. Steve and Melanie Tem's stories do disturb on a metaphysical level. John Shirley's piece is a delightful romp, but not a scary one. Jason Brock's "A History of a Letter" does a solid job as an epistolary work of mounting unease, though the jokiness of the footnotes cuts against total investment. Caitlin Kiernan's story does invest totally in its horrific elements, but it's a character study, not an exercise in terror.

Another problem shared by several stories is, well, an absent middle -- "Dead Media" and "The Abject" pretty much jump from detailed introduction to loopy conclusion. And the loopiness of both sudden conclusions works against horror. It doesn't help that "The Abject" has been critically overdetermined, starting with that title, which is actually attached to a large, scary rock in the story. I kept waiting for a Phallic Mother to appear and, you know, it sort of does.

Dire consequences await many of the protagonists of these tales, at a much higher rate of Dire than that found in Lovecraft's whole output. One of the things that you can count on in modern Lovecraft-related fiction is that down endings and cosmic disaster are the norm and not something that may arrive in the near future but does not arrive in the text itself. When the disastrous ending becomes standard, that standard becomes cliche.

It's an interesting development in horror fiction, suggesting that at least when it comes to the fiction they produce, an awful lot of today's writers are far more misanthropic and defeatist than the notoriously misanthropic and "futilitarian" Lovecraft ever was. Some of them make me long for the Derlethian deus ex machina that ended many (but not all) of Derleth's Lovecraft pastiches.

There may be a fairly high level of literary acumen on display here, but the endings too often echo the endings of the last twenty years of horror movies, in which supernatural evil always triumphs. And when evil always triumphs, as T.E.D. Klein noted in a riff on an earlier critic's musings, then I don't see what the point of the point is other than knee-jerk nihilism. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Frank's Wild Years

I, Frankenstein: adapted by Stuart Beattie and Kevin Grevioux from the graphic novel by Kevin Grievioux based on characters and situations created by Mary Shelley; directed by Stuart Beattie; starring Aaron Eckhart (Adam Frankenstein), Yvonne Strahovski (Terra), Miranda Otto (Leonore), and Bill Nighy (Naberius) (2013): Jesus, what a crazy movie. It's like someone got drunk during a Gargoyles marathon, passed out, woke up during a showing of Blade 2, and was convinced that this was all the same narrative.

I sort of love it.

It's short, just a couple of ticks over 90 minutes. The CGI is occasionally crazy-bad (never moreso than in the opening shots of snow-topped mountains that look less realistic than the Alliance Films logo). Aaron Eckhart remains totally invested in his character throughout, which must have been difficult given the looniness of the script. He invests the Creature with a poignance that the writers didn't bother with.

And there's so much exposition in both voiceover narration and conversations among characters that sections of the movie feel like plot synopses for a longer, better movie. There are so many stupid things here that telling you about them would ruin the fun. But I was quite entertained, certainly moreso than with a lot of much bigger-budgeted blockbuster CGI fests. Weirdly recommended.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Return of the Yellow King

The Hastur Cycle (2nd revised edition) (1996; 2007): edited by Robert M. Price, containing the following stories: Carcosa (1969) by Richard L. Tierney; Halta the Shepherd (1891) by Ambrose Bierce; An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1886) by Ambrose Bierce; The Repairer of Reputations (1895) by Robert W. Chambers; The Yellow Sign (1895) by Robert W. Chambers; The River of Night's Dreaming (1981) by Karl Edward Wagner; More Light (1970) by James Blish; The Novel of the Black Seal (1895) by Arthur Machen; The Whisperer in Darkness (1931) by H. P. Lovecraft; Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley (1982) by Richard A. Lupoff; The Mine on Yuggoth (1964) by Ramsey Campbell; Planetfall on Yuggoth (1972) by James Wade; The Return of Hastur (1939) by August Derleth; The Feaster from Afar (1976) by Joseph Payne Brennan; Dreams from R'lyeh(1965)/Carcosa Story about Hali(1989)/King in Yellow: A Tragedy in Verse(1993) by Lin Carter.

Robert Price does a nice job in these Chaosium Press thematic Lovecraftian anthologies of putting together a broad assortment of related stories from a long time period. The 'Hastur' of the 'Cycle' began life as a bucolic god in a 19th-century allegory by Ambrose Bierce, was almost immediately thereafter lifted by Robert W. Chambers for his pre-Lovecraftian horror stories about the looming, supernatural city of Carcosa and the mysterious, malign King in Yellow, and then incorporated into the Cthulhu Mythos by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others. Earlier this year, Carcosa, the King in Yellow, Hastur, and other concepts riffing on Chambers and the Cthulhu Mythos played a major role in the HBO series True Detective. Rust never sleeps.

Price's notes can get a bit wonky in a breathlessly undergraduate-who-just-swallowed-nine-pounds-of-literary-theory way, no moreso than when he goes off on a riff about the true meaning of Chambers' play-within-a-story The King in Yellow, a riff not only lacking textual evidence but contradicting what evidence there is of that play's content. Oh, well.

The central importance of The King in Yellow to the development of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos is as follows: Chambers creates a malign, supernatural play named The King in Yellow in the short-story cycle also called The King in Yellow, first published in 1895. The play figures in that story cycle in a number of ways. In the two Chambers stories reprinted here, the play drives one already unstable person to violent, delusional madness ("The Repairer of Reputations"). In "The Yellow Sign," the play seems to have supernatural powers leading to the resurrection of the dead and malign consequences for the two people who read the play.

Lovecraft and his literary circle (or Affinity Group, if you prefer) began to follow Chambers' lead in creating fictional texts within their fictions beginning with Lovecraft in the 1920's and continuing to the present day, from Lovecraft's demonic compendium the Necronomicon through August Derleth's Ghoul Cults, Robert Bloch's Mysteries of the Worm, and Ramsey Campbell's Book of Gla'aki. However, while Chambers' The King in Yellow was a play, future fictional texts would be 'non-fiction.' All would carry with them some danger, often mortal, to anyone curious enough to seek them out.

Accreting around these fictional texts would be an assortment of fictional 'gods,' though in Lovecraft's world, the gods are aliens from other worlds and other dimensions in space and time. Their powers are god-like when compared to humanity's feeble abilities, but they are nonetheless natural beings, albeit of a nature utterly alien to humanity's world.

Price's selection traces the use and development of Bierce and Chambers' concepts over the course of a hundred years. Lovecraft briefly mentions some of the concepts in "The Whisperer in Darkness," and Price nicely lays out the critical basis for believing that the King in Yellow appears in that story, and that Lovecraft there makes explicit the idea that the King and Lovecraft's malign messenger of the Great Old Ones, Nyarlathotep, are one and the same.

Besides the excellence of Bierce, Chambers, and Lovecraft, we also get solid though peripherally related stories by Arthur Machen and Richard Lupoff, and an assortment of other stories that work with either Chambers or Lovecraft in the development of The King in Yellow. James Blish contributes a startling, sly gem from 1970 in "More Light," in which he attempts to (re-)create the play The King in Yellow, from which Chambers only ever gave us a few short lines and vague descriptions of characters and action. It's dynamite. In all, highly recommended.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hardboiled Magic

Hexes by Tom Piccirilli (1999): Odd, engaging horror novel with a lot of black magic thrown into the mix. 24-year-old Matthew Galen returns to his relatively small hometown after five years away for a reckoning with the Satanic force that calls itself the Goat. Thanks to the subterranean presence of the Goat, the town of Summerfell is a supernatural hotbed, with demons and ghosts running around all over the place.

The novel's strengths rest almost entirely on the quality of its prose, which is suitably overheated without slipping into the purple too often. Red herrings and undeveloped plot and character threads abound to such an extent that the novel almost seems as if it's been heavily edited down from a much longer work. This isn't necessarily a bad thing once one realizes that many of the Chekov's Guns one would normally expect to go off by the end of the narrative are actually never coming off the wall.

Piccirilli, who also writes non-supernatural suspense novels, often gets cited as a sort of hybridized hardboiled horror writer. It's a suitable judgment for this novel, which has the structure and the atmosphere of a detective novel. And Matthew Galen is one of those tarnished knights.

If there's a major complaint, it's that Matthew and his friends seem much too young to support the mournful nostalgia of the 'You Can't Go Home Again' portions of the narrative. Magic and loss may have prematurely aged Galen and company, but the weight of lost time seems out of proportion to the actuality of the time passed. What festers in nearly everyone and everything associated with Summerfell never entirely feels earned by the diminished time-scale of the narrative. It's as if the kids in Stephen King's It returned to Derry right after college graduation to finish the job, rather than 28 years later.

That Galen has become a critically lauded New York playwright in the five years he's been away also seems odd. Actually, the whole idea that he's a playwright is never developed in his internal narrative -- we mainly have people saying things like 'Wow, you're a famous playwright now!' and nothing beyond that. Why is he a playwright? It's an occupation made anomalous by the lack of development in the text, suggesting either the removal of much of the material about his career, or a nod to Jack Torrance's writing career in The Shining that stays entirely at the level of a brief tip of the cap.

But this is an early-career novel, and there's much that's laudable about it. The sequences that deal with the theory and practice of magic suggest that Marvel could do an awful lot worse than to hire Piccirilli to revive Dr. Strange. Recommended.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy: adapted by John Balderston from a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer; directed by Karl Freund; starring Boris Karloff (Imhotep) and Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor) (1932): The first Universal Frankenstein movie had made Boris Karloff a big enough star by the time The Mummy was released that the legend 'Karloff!' dominated the posters. And Karloff and the set design are really the stars here -- Karloff's co-stars are a terribly forgettable lot. I've forgotten them already.

Of course, Karloff only appears in full mummy regalia for a couple minutes. For the rest of it, he's sinister but human-looking as the resurrected Egyptian priest Imhotep, mummified alive for the crime of loving the Pharoah's daughter. But you can't keep a good monster down.

Inspired by stories of the Curse of King Tut's Tomb, The Mummy sends Karloff on a tour of vengeance and love, as he seeks the reincarnation of his lost love. Yes, reincarnation. Not something the Ancient Egyptians were known for believing in, but what the Hell. Who can tell Hinduism from Egyptian mythology? You might as well just worship Hawkman!

Karloff is great as Imhotep. In one of his first full speaking roles as a horror star, Karloff seems to intuitively understand something that a lot of early sound actors did not: Less is More on the big screen. He has that great Grinch Karloff voice, and he knows how to use it -- for the most part, insinuatingly, softly. His movements are slow and patient, befitting a 3700-year-old man-mummy. Every time I see Karloff in a movie, major or slight, I'm again impressed by what a natural-seeming, finely tuned screen actor he was. I can pretty much happily watch him in anything. Recommended.