Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Bojeffries Saga: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Steve Parkhouse

The Bojeffries Saga: written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Steve Parkhouse (1983-1991, 2013; Collected 2013): At less than 100 pages, The Bojeffries Saga is a short collection that's a lot of fun. The original series of short stories about the Bojeffries clan appeared in the early 1980's; it wasn't until this volume in 2013 that writer Alan Moore and artist Steve Parkhouse finished up these adventures with a final (for now) 24-page story. Parkhouse is a winning, droll cartoonist. He's perfectly suited to Alan Moore in satiric-comic mode, as he is here. 

The Bojeffries are a very English riff on the Addams Family or the Munsters, a family of freaks and monsters living mostly unnoticed among normal people. Their ranks include a werewolf, a vampire, a nigh-omnipotent woman, and a Lovecraftian thing that used to be Grandpa living in a well in the backyard. 

Moore was already experimenting with comics form in the early 1980's -- there's a 'musical' installment, and one structured as a series of photographs with captions. The humour is cutting when it comes to racial and social issues, but there's an essential sweetness to the proceedings, especially when it comes to the malaprop-spewing, poodle-devouring werewolf. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Horror Comix Anthologies: The Big Book of Taboo

Taboo Issue 4 (1990): edited by Stephen Bissette and Nancy O'Connor, containing the following comics: Text pieces, interviews, and bios by Steve Bissette with Jean-Marc Lofficier; Front cover by Moebius; Back cover by Brian Sendelbach; Frontispiece by Nancy O'Connor; "Dreaming And The Law" written and illustrated by Phillip Hester; "1963" illustrated by Dave Sim; Untitled written and illustrated by Charles Burns; "Babycakes" written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Michael Zulli; "Cholesterol" written and illustrated by D’Israeli"; "Davey’s Dream" written by Mark Askwith and illustrated by Rick Taylor; "Eyes Of The Cat aka Les Yeux Du Chat" written by Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrated by Moebius (originally printed in France in 1978); "El Topo" written by Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrated by Spain Rodriguez (originally printed in Europe in 1979);  "Retinal Worm" written and illustrated by S. Clay Wilson; "La Fugue {The Escape}" written and illustrated by P. Foerster;  "Blue Angel" written by Tim Lucas and illustrated by Steve White; "Morrigan Tales" written by Elaine Lee and illustrated by Charles Vess; "These Things Happen" written and illustrated by  Rick Grimes; "Neither Seen Nor Heard" written by L. Roy Aiken and illustrated by Mike Hoffman; From Hell, Chapter Three: Blackmail or Mrs. Barrett written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell; From Hell Pin-Up illustrated by Alan Moore.

The fourth oversized paperback issue of the late, much-lamented Taboo contains a wealth of great horror and weird comics material. The high point is a reprint of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius's 1978 collaboration "The Eyes of the Cat," a lengthy weird horror tale made up entirely of gorgeous and occasionally disturbing full-page panels by Moebius. Combined with interviews with the two, it makes for quite a treat. Spain Rodriquez's odd 'tie-in' to the Jodorowsky film El Topo completes this part of the package.

The rest of the anthology is excellent as well, from the third serialized chapter of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's epic graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, From Hell, to a horrifying bit of insect craziness from underground comix mainstay S. Clay Wilson. Elaine Lee writes a fascinating new-wave fairy tale illustrated by Charles Vess in his old-school, Hal Foster by way of N.C. Wyeth style. Most of the short pieces are genuinely horrific, and it's interesting to see relatively early, non-Sandman Neil Gaiman as illustrated by the fine, overlooked Michael Zulli, and very early Phil Hester writing and drawing. Taboo was very much cutting-edge horror for its time, and rewards reading now if one can find issues of it. Highly recommended.

The Big Book of the Unexplained: written by Doug Moench; illustrated by Russ Heath, Sergio Aragones, Brent Anderson, Joe Sacco, Steve Leialoha, and many others (1997): Another enjoyable entry in Paradox Press' 'Big Book of' series of single-author, multiple-artist comics anthologies from the 1990's. This foray into the world of UFO's, cryptids, and general all-around Fortean madness (indeed, a cartoon version of Charles Fort is our narrator) is fun stuff with a wide variety of artists working in a wide variety of styles to alternately creep the reader out and make the reader laugh while, perhaps, thinking a little, at least about the credulity of the human animal. Recommended.

Robert Crumb and Jack Jackson: Horror Comix, Funny Comix

God's Bosom and Other Stories: The Historical Strips of Jack Jackson: written and illustrated by Jack Jackson (1967-1992; collected 1995): The late and much lamented Jack Jackson was a Texas cartoonist of terrific ability with an unusual-for-comics interest in history. Much of his best work from the 1960's onwards, including several novel-length comics works, examines the history of Texas and some of its most famous and infamous characters.

God's Bosom collects the eponymous piece and more than a dozen other pieces devoted to history. These include cartoon op-eds on then-current Texas problems, comic strips about why Texans hate Yankees, and brief histories of Zap Comix and Apex Novelty Press. The bulk of the volume comprises lengthier historical pieces that range from G-rated histories of famous Texas highways and the Colt revolver to graphic treatments of both fictional and factual horrors of the past.

The two masterpieces of the collection are "God's Bosom" and "Nits Make Lice." The first is a partially fictionalized retelling of a Spanish shipwreck in the New World in the early 16th century. The survivors undergo a harrowing quest for safety that goes almost as badly as such a quest can go. It's a graphic, stomach-turning tale of survival and death. "Nits Make Lice" is, if anything, even more graphic and disturbing. It tells of the massacre of a band of Cheyenne in pre-statehood Colorado by the U.S. military in the late 19th century. It's as tragic and awful as it sounds in its indictment of America's genocidal foundation. The other pieces don't come up to these levels, but very few short works in comics do. 

Throughout the collection, Jackson's art -- mostly realistic, but with a clever gift for caricature and 'cartoonyness' when appropriate -- shines. It's beautiful stuff even when it depicts the horrible, with a sure command of line and an attention to telling detail. Jackson was a master with an unflinching eye. One can't unsee some of the things he depicts here. Highly recommended.

Complete Crumb Comics Volume 5: written and illustrated by Robert Crumb (1968/Collected 1990): It took four volumes for Fantagraphics to get to the public beginning of Robert Crumb's career in cartooning. Volume 5 of the Complete Crumb Comics offers a grab-bag of Crumb's late 1960's "Hippy Comix," with such familiar characters as Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat making early appearances. And the infamous Angelfood McSpade. Can't forget her. And the cover to that Big Brother and the Holding Company album.

This is a series for completists, after all. It's all fascinating stuff, and while much of it really is for completists only, Crumb is such a towering talent in the history of cartooning that even his throwaway material is worth pondering. Some of the material here is graphic and disturbing, and Crumb's problematic 1960's and early 1970's use of violence (sexual and non-sexual) towards women is on full display. Never has one cartoonist so unapologetically, exhaustively and fearlessly exposed the contents of his own Id, to such great and disturbing artistic effect. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (1978)

The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (1978) by J.G. Ballard (Introduction by Anthony Burgess), containing the following stories: "The Concentration City" (1957); "Manhole 69" (1957); "The Voices of Time" (1960); "Chronopolis" (1960); "Billennium" (1961); "Deep End" (1961); "The Overloaded Man" (1961); "The Subliminal Man" (1962); "Thirteen for Centaurus" (1962); "End Game" (1962); "The Cage of Sand" (1962); "The Garden of Time" (1962); "The Drowned Giant" (1964); "The Terminal Beach" (1964); "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1966); "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D" (1967); "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (1966); "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" (1967); and "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan" (1968)

The great British writer J.G. Ballard had a writing career that spanned more than 50 years before his death in 2009. He turned some of his experiences as a boy in a WWII Japanese internment camp in China into the 1980's novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in the late 1980's. His odd late 1960's novel Crash, about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes and the wounds caused by them, was oddly filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996. Well, there's some range right there. He also wrote more than a dozen other novels in a variety of genres.

Ballard was also a prolific and terrific short-story writer, beginning in the 1950's. This volume, originally published in the 1970's, obviously omits Ballard's later work. There is a two-volume Complete Stories in print for those who want more.

Ballard was one of those nominally science-fiction writers who really transcended genres because of his stylistic, thematic, and structural complexity. The stories included here would be in many cases classified as 'Weird' now, or even as horror in a couple of cases. Absurdism, cut-and-paste, dystopia, fable, fin de siecle fantasy -- they're all here, often in the same story. Philip K. Dick and M. John Harrison's works are probably most like Ballard's, and as those two writers aren't much alike at all... well, you get the idea. These are J.G. Ballard stories, and they're mostly terrific.

Ballard's concerns throughout these stories touch upon certain things again and again. Many of the futures he depicts are run-down, sometimes to absurdly satiric and telling degrees. The stories set in the then-present-day, or the then-near future, often portray increasingly mechanized and bureaucraticized societies. "The Subliminal Man," for example, may not be a perfect prediction of the future as seen from the early 1960's, but many of its observations and extrapolations of the future of cars, advertising, and industrial America are somewhat harrowingly spot on. 

Certainly many of these stories qualify as science fiction. Some of them even have rocket ships in them! Though generally those rocket ships are either shams or occupied by dead astronauts. Strange ideas bubble and bend. 

But as weird as some of the ideas get in the stories that are science fiction, most contain enough actual science to seem plausible, if not possible. Ballard wasn't a writer of 'hard science fiction,' but he had a broad knowledge of both the hard and soft sciences. And when dealing with science and technology, his interests remained focused on the personal, social, and cultural effects of changed circumstances caused by scientifically enabled innovation and exploration. Many of the stories go beyond the initial effects of innovation and exploration all the way to the other end -- to the exhaustion of an idea, its depletion, or in a couple of cases (most notably in "Chronopolis") to humanity's Bartleby-esque decision to not do a thing, or to stop doing it.

The more apocalyptic science-fiction stories show worlds slowly grinding out in decay and over-population, in new diseases, in infinite ranks of urban development, in the loss of all water on Earth. There aren't really many heroes in Ballard's work -- if so, they're supporting characters, and they're either already dead or about to be. His people are set off against the Sublime Giganticism of Time and Space; so, too, is humanity so set off. They are all dwarfed. They are not going to win. But they may not lose, either.

As downbeat as the stories can be, they're not depressing. Ballard's wit keeps things from bottoming out, as do the cleverness of his ideas and the occasional stubborn refusal of some of his characters to simply lie down and die. They keep going, seeking understanding, until they're overwhelmed or finally gifted with some chance out from a terrible situation. Some of the stories are funny -- "Billennium" is a surprisingly jaunty story about over-population and the ways in which human concepts of spaciousness and privacy are endlessly malleable. 

Striking images abound, whether of infinite cities or cloud-carving gliders or Martian dunes brought home to Florida. "The Drowned Giant" seems more like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story than anything else, but with a British spin. "The Garden of Time" seems like a less baroquely written Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance story set in a weirdly magical, decayed, medieval setting of the far future's Dying Earth. An endless wave of barbarians advance on a beautiful house, a beautiful garden, a beautiful couple. 'When' and 'why' aren't questions that the story will answer. The imagery and the melancholy of the story, a melancholy for the dying future, set the Sublime and the nostalgic against each other.

And the late 1960's stories that end the volume, including "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1966), "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (1966), "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" (1967), and "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan" (1968) see Ballard moving into the fragmented, cut-and-paste, self-reflexive world of post-modernism (and William S. Burroughs). They're also very funny at points. Especially the one about Ronald Reagan, the image of whose head, affixed to female bodies, inspires elevated lust in Republican loins. And when you replace an image's genitalia with an image of Reagan's head -- well, watch out! Highly recommended.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Little Man: Collected Short Pieces 1980-1995 written and illustrated by Chester Brown

The Little Man: Collected Short Pieces 1980-1995 written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1973-2006/ This revised edition 2006): Canada's most lovable, prickly, occasionally misanthropic cartoonist collects a decade-and-a-half of short pieces here, along with new notes on the origins and meanings of those short pieces. 

Chester Brown also spends a fair bit of space writing about the significance of Doug Wright's Family in the End Notes. Truly, Chester is Canadian, born and raised in an Anglo Montreal suburb but more identified with Toronto, his home for much of the last 35 years.

The Little Man offers a pretty useful guide to the changes in Brown's cartooning interests over the 15 years covered by the book. His early work consisted of often grotesque, boundary-pushing fantasy and absurdism, embodied by his Ed the Clown series. Shorter pieces included here show that grotesque cartoony portion of Brown's body of work, with some very funny pieces and some of the more disturbing short horror pieces to ever appear in comic form. 

Indeed, the horror pieces involving funny animals Gerbil and Bunny become even more disturbing (as Brown acknowledges in his notes) when one discovers that 'Gerbil' and 'Bunny' were the pet names Brown and one girlfriend had for one another at the time the pieces were created. And around the same time, Brown was working on an illustrated story of Jesus from which we get an outlier -- a Gnostic story of Jesus and his twin. This is range, folks.

Brown would get bored with fiction as the 1980's waned, turning instead to often painfully honest and closely observed chronicles of his own life. But he'd also become interested in comics as a vehicle for historical and social observation. Sometimes he melded general discussions with the personal. Here, Brown discusses theories about schizophrenia in concert with a discussion of his own mother's struggles with schizophrenia; we would see this structure again in the graphic novel Paying For It. Brown would also do a relatively 'straightforward' historical graphic novel in the oughts, Louis Riel, but even that meshed at points in the text with the piece about his mother's schizophrenia through Brown's discussion in the notes of his theories about madness, whether that madness was Riel's or his mother's.

In the short pieces, one also sees the changes in Brown's artwork. He becomes looser and more adept at a simplicity of linework as time goes by. Nonetheless, it's all of a piece artistically, even the very early stuff. The Notes are generous in their contextualization of the works, and in Brown's deadpan, prickly self-evaluation. He will pick his nose. He will eat it. He will draw it. He will publish that drawing. And you will go, 'Eeww!'. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Terminator: Genisys (2015)

Terminator: Genisys: written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, based on characters and situations created by James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd, some of which were inspired by Outer Limits episodes written by Harlan Ellison; directed by Alan Taylor; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Guardian), Jason Clarke (John Connor), Emilia Clarke (Sarah Connor), Jai Courtney (Kyle Reese) and J.K. Simmons (O'Brien) (2015): Oh, what a terrible movie. About all one can charitably say about Terminator: Genisys is that it's competently directed and that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a few good moments as the old good-guy Terminator.

Otherwise, the movie makes a terrible hash out of the first two movies with a time-travel plot designed to negate all the significant events of the previous Terminator films and replace them with new, shoddier versions. It also gives us a strange, far-flung future of, um, 2017 in which everyone from the U.S. military to adolescent boys are ga-ga about a Cloud-based app that, umm, integrates all your computer-based systems. This is Genisys. Hoo ha.

There are mental workarounds to make the plot work, though they involve positing things the film doesn't seem to have thought of yet. And it's not an enjoyable enough film to give the benefit of fannish thought to. It's also perhaps the worst-cast big-budget movie I've seen in, perhaps, ever. Jason Clarke is vaguely serviceable as John Connor, who's now been played by almost as many different people on screen as Sherlock Holmes, but there's nothing in him to suggest the charismatic leader of the human resistance to Skynet and its machine army. Emilia Clarke (no relation, so far as I know), Daenerys in Game of Thrones, seems to have invested so much effort into creating an American accent that she can't reliably furnish adequate line readings.  And Jai Courtney is utterly without charisma or interest as Kyle Reese. 

The script compounds the problem by giving them almost nothing to work with. The movie spits out the famous lines from earlier Terminator movies in different forms and coming from different characters. This is what passes for wit. 

What also passes for wit is that Arnold's old Terminator (the 'Guardian' of the credits) now repeatedly plays Mr. Spock to Courtney's Dr. McCoy. Well, Star Trek and The Terminator ARE both Paramount properties. The action sequences are competent except in situations that give us cartoon physics. Oh, cartoon physics. How many human characters would die in action movies without you?

This being what looks to be a failed attempt to generate more Terminator movies, I feel obligated to warn you that the ending is conditional. Well, if you watch until about halfway through the credits, anyway. It's just one more bad taste in a movie full of them. The film-makers even seem to crib an explanation of how time works from a Star Trek episode penned by Harlan Ellison, who once got an out-of-court settlement based on the original film's similarities to two Outer Limits episodes he penned in the 1960's. Is another Terminator lawsuit in the works? Not recommended.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Weird Detective Stories

Solomon Kane: based on the character created by Robert E. Howard and scripted by Michael J. Bassett; directed by Michael J. Bassett; starring James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith), Pete Postlewaite (William), Alice Krige (Katherine), and Jason Flemyng (Malachi) (2009): A second time through, and I again concluded it's a damn shame Solomon Kane didn't get at least a couple of sequels. Writer-director Michael J. Bassett plays a bit fast and loose with Robert E. Howard's quasi-Puritan demon-hunter to give him an origin story with a redemptive arc, but as a whole the movie is fairly true to the character. 

For a fairly low-budget fantasy film, Solomon Kane looks great, is jam-packed with good actors who seem to be invested in their roles, and has a suitably haunted James Purefoy as Kane. In terms of both sword-and-sorcery movies and Robert E. Howard adaptations, I might actually rank this over the original Conan the Barbarian, if only because its lack of pomposity hews much closer to Howard's writing than John Milius's bellicose sturm-und-drang. Highly recommended.

Marlowe: adapted by Stirling Silliphant from the novel The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler; directed by Paul Bogart; starring James Garner (Philip Marlowe), Gayle Hunnicutt (Mavis Wald), Carroll O'Connor (Lt. French), Rita Moreno (Dolores Gonzales), Jackie Coogan (Grant Hicks), Bruce Lee (Winslow Wong), and Sharon Farrell (Orfamay Quest) (1969): Enjoyable, typically twisty Raymond Chandler mystery gets updated by 20 years to late 1960's Los Angeles. James Garner is his typically low-key self as Philip Marlowe -- you could see this as an audition tape for the later Rockford Files. Bruce Lee shows up as a mob enforcer; what happens to him is actually pretty hilarious. Recommended.

The X-Files: Goblins by Charles L. Grant (1994): The first original X-Files novel has its pleasures. Released midway through the second season of the series, Goblins was written by veteran horror scribe Charles L. Grant. As with Grant's own work, Goblins is quiet horror for the most part, implying a lot and showing very little. Unfortunately, the 'monster' in Goblins would barely support an hour-long episode of the series, much less a nearly 300-page novel. Grant does a nice job of capturing the Mulder/Scully dynamic and the paranoid tone of the series. Suffice to say, though, that as in the dreadful movie Hollow Man, 'invisible' apparently means the same as 'invincible.' Lightly recommended.

Department 18: Night Souls by L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims (2010): Night Souls tools along for its first three-quarters as a fairly soapy occult procedural that's light on horror and originality and really long on really short chapters, I assume because it was meant to be read in installments during every trip to the bathroom.

Alas, with about 75 pages to go, it completely craps the bed. Despite the fact that its climax is rushed and sketchy and amazingly satisfaction-light, Night Souls nonetheless finds the space for back-to-back chapters in which major female characters are raped, murdered, and dismembered in graphic detail. Then it throws in the dismemberment of an old homeless guy in a subsequent chapter because the writers seem to have lost all interest in the procedural aspects of their own narrative. As we've already been shown how bad the antagonists can be, these chapters don't tell or show us anything we don't know -- and the later fate of the rapist-murderers comes and goes with so little effect that there's no sense of catharsis or justice or really much of anything.

Oh, and one of the women is raped by a lizard-like monster which we're told on more than one occasion has a foot-long penis with giant barbs on it. Hooray! As the only other horror-novel rape scenes involving monsters with barbed penises that I recall happen in terrible Richard Laymon novels (yes, more than once, barbed-penis-rape-scene fans!), I can only assume this is a grotesque tip of a grotesque hat. There are horror novels that effectively portray rape scenes; Night Souls is not one of them unless you're a rape fetishist or a connoisseur of unusually large barbed penises. Not recommended.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Victorian Secrets

Gaslit Nightmares: An Anthology of Victorian Tales of Terror (1988): edited by Hugh Lamb, containing the following stories:

  • The Undying Thing (1901) by Barry Pain
  • The Serpent's Head (1886) by Lady Dilke
  • The Phantom Model(1894) by Hume Nisbet
  • The Black Reaper (1899) by Bernard Capes
  • The Accursed Cordonnier (1900) by Bernard Capes
  • The Vengeance of the Dead (1894) by Robert Barr
  • The Beckside Boggle (1886) by Alice Rea
  • Maw-Sayah (1893) by Charles J. Mansford
  • In the Court of the Dragon (1895) by Robert W. Chambers
  • The Old House in Vauxhall Walk (1882) by Charlotte Riddell
  • The Drunkard's Death (1836) by Charles Dickens
  • Luella Miller (1902) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
  • A Psychological Experiment (1900) by Richard Marsh
  • The Mystic Spell (1899) by Dick Donovan
  • The Late Mr Watkins of Georgia (1898) by Joel Chandler Harris
  • The Ghost in the Mill (1870) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • A Derelict (1895) by J. A. Barry
  • The Haunted Mill (1891) by Jerome K. Jerome
  • An Unexpected Journey (1893) by J. H. Pearce
  • The Pride of the Corbyns (1875) by Isabella Banks
  • The Page Boy's Ghost (1896) by The Countess of Munster
  • Mysterious Maisie (1895) by Wirt Gerrare.

'Late Victorian Tales of Terror' would be more accurate, as the 1836 story by Charles Dickens is an outlier by nearly 40 years. This is the sort of anthology that I think would appeal more to someone with a historical interest in the horror genre. The stories aren't great for the most part, but I had only encountered four of the 22 stories before (oddly enough, those include the two worst stories in the anthology, by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Jerome K. Jerome, and the best, Mary Wilkins-Freeman's terrific all-timer "Luella Miller").

There's no general introduction, but editor Hugh Lamb is generous with the introductions to the individual stories, giving brief bios of the writers and publication information. You might be surprised how rare both those things are in anthologies. 

Some stories are barely vignettes masquerading as 'true' stories, representing the vast array of such ghost stories that appeared during the Victorian era, especially once the whole medium craze kicked off in the second half of the 19th century and ghosts were everywhere, pretending to be real.

Other than "Luella Miller," which is a great and unusual and under-stated vampire story that deservedly gets reprinted a lot, my favourite stories tend towards the pulpy and baroque. "Mysterious Maisie" by Wirt Gerrare(!) is fast-paced and pulpy as Hell, filled with monsters, a monstrous medium, and a 4-foot-long crocodile guarding the kitchen. It's the sort of story in which the ghost is the good guy. Or good girl, in this case.

I also enjoyed "The Pride of the Corbyns," a somewhat racist story set in the Barbados that involves angry white people rising in their mausoleum to protest the burial of mixed-race bodies among them (!!). "The Undying Thing" isn't quite as great as its title, but it still works. "The Accursed Cordonnier" is a bit of an oddity, dealing as it does with the Wandering Jew. Or is it the Anti-Christ? This being 19th-century England, we first encounter him in a Gentleman's Club.

If you're looking to be consistently scared, I'd probably look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a wide variety of approaches to horror, some excellent and some a little stinky, Gaslit Nightmares is well-worth seeking out. As should be the case, a decent number of female writers are represented here, as ghost stories were one of those genres in which women writers could successfully seek publication during the Victorian era. Oh, and that Dickens story, written when Dickens was a young writer, still packs quite a wallop. Recommended.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Under the Sea

Harbor [Manniskohamn] by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2008/Translated Marlaine Delargy 2010): On the fictional island of Domaro in the Stockholm archipelago, strange things have been happening for centuries. And all of those things have some relation to the sea that surrounds the island.

John Ajvide Lindqvist became an "overnight sensation" when the Swedish film adaptation of his terrific 2004 coming-of-age/vampire novel Let the Right One In appeared late in 2008, right around the same time as this novel appeared in Sweden. And the hype was well-deserved: Let the Right One In is a bold and inventive vampire novel that became a bold and inventive Swedish movie (and, later, a so-so American movie). 

The comparisons to Stephen King came thick and fast and just kept coming, though I think Lindqvist resembles other English-language horror writers as much if not moreso. Some of the supernatural creatures in Harbor remind me of the idiosyncratic magical beings and events in Clive Barker works, most notably The Great and Secret Show. The calculated, Sublime vagueness of the climax of the novel, in which things are explained but not to the extent that one is entirely certain what happened, made me think of similar endings in Ramsey Campbell novels that include Midnight Sun and The Long Lost

I realize that the King comparisons occur because a lot of mainstream reviewers have little or no experience reading horror -- King may be their only touchstone for what Lindqvist does. It's annoying, but there it is. Ignorance of a particular literary genre has never stopped a mainstream reviewer from generalizing ponderously about that same genre.

But Lindqvist is his own writer, not simply  a synthesizer of influences. Harbor isn't a great novel of horror and dark fantasy, but it kept me reading to the end of its not-inconsiderable length. That everything is constructed on the Not Without My Daughter template makes the successes of the novel even more remarkable. It even manages to make a fairly late-in-the-text revelation of False Memory Syndrome (yes, how 90's!) work dramatically, if not entirely convincingly.

In the present day of Harbor (the mid-2000's), we follow Anders, the alcoholic father whose daughter Maja disappeared without a trace near Domaro two years earlier. We also follow Anders' grandmother and her lover of 40 years, Simon, a retired magician/illusionist, both of whom live on the island. Anders' father, a deceased herring fisherman, was also born on Domaro; his mother having divorced his father and gone to live in Stockholm soon after Anders was born, Anders himself is a man of two worlds, having spent portions of every vacation on Domaro with his father. The novel stresses the liminal nature of both Anders and Simon throughout, their status as Men of Two Worlds. Make of that what you will.

Two years prior to the main narrative, Anders, his wife Cecilia, and Maja were visiting Domaro from their home in Sweden, as they often did. Maja vanished during a visit to the nearby lighthouse, leaving no clue as to her whereabouts in the snow and ice. Anders fell apart and Cecilia eventually left him. With nowhere else to go, Anders returns to Domaro to live in the house his immediate family was using as a vacation home when on Domaro, the warped structure known as The Shack. It's close to the homes of both Simon and Anders' grandmother, who have been lovers for decades but choose to live apart.

Both Anders and Simon (who wasn't born on the island and is thus considered a tourist by the residents despite his own decades-long residency) gradually begin to re-investigate Maja's disappearance. Strange things have begun to happen: the body of a year-lost resident washes up one day, dead for only 24 hours or less. People aren't acting like themselves. Anders is having nightmares about his daughter. And Simon has begun to assemble a hidden narrative from a number of odd incidents over the years involving disappearances, deaths, storms, and strange creatures.

The stories about Domaro's past are the most interesting things in Harbor, mixing documentary-style exposition with confabulation and myth and anecdote in an effective way. The present day has its problems, although I (unlike a lot of reviewers) don't think the self-pitying Anders is one of them. Instead, Simon is the weakest part of the narrative. He's a magician who does stage one important escape act on Domaro several decades before the main narrative. And he does think about the crippled current state of his limbs and joints a lot. 

But he's also got a thing in a matchbox, introduced early in Harbor, which ends up being an underdeveloped key to the resolution of the story. It's there, and if anything in the text requires a lot more exposition, it's the thing in the matchbox. Several times, it acts as an almost-literal Deus ex Machina, never moreso than during the climax. What is it, and what is the antagonist? Well, while I appreciate Lindqvist's desire to avoid the pitfalls of too much horror-draining exposition about the meanings and origins of things, he goes too far the other way. The climax raises more questions than it answers, leading to a certain amount of readerly frustration at the end of 500 pages.

The Smiths are to Lindqvist as Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band were to a young Stephen King. One of the novel's initially charming oddities lies with two characters who speak almost entirely in Smiths lyrics. This works both amusingly and poignantly for much of the novel, though by the time someone has said "Please, please, please" for the second or third time, the welcome has been worn out and the horror replaced by irritation. Strangeways, here we come, indeed.

Overall, Harbor is flawed but enjoyable, rewarding but occasionally frustrating. Like Stephen King, Lindqvist has a real talent for normative characterization in the midst of abnormal events, though I do think many reviewers overstate his status as "Sweden's Stephen King." There are a lot of other influences, and, at least this (relatively) early in the career of Lindqvist, he shows a greater interest in supernatural elements that are more personal, idiosyncratic, and self-created than what one saw in King's work prior to It, which appeared about 20 years into King's writing career. Here, we're less than a decade into Lindqvist's. Recommended.