Friday, May 20, 2016

Constantine X 4

Constantine's first appearance, c. 1984, in SWAMP THING

Oh, occult investigator/magician/former punk-rock musician John Constantine. Invented by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben in the pages of Swamp Thing in the mid-1980's, he's become an eminence grise at DC Comics. His first series ran an impressive 300 issues at what became DC's adult-horror imprint Vertigo, though Constantine started before Vertigo existed. That 300-issue run had an impressive array of writers come and go over the years, along with an army of artists. 

That DC cancelled Constantine's Vertigo title to bring him back into the mainstream DC Universe continues to gall me: the two non-Vertigo Constantine series have been at best pale reflections of Constantine at his best. He looks like Sting. He probably sounds a lot like John Lennon, as they both hail from Liverpool. He fights Heaven, Hell, and assorted supernatural and human forces in between!

John Constantine Hellblazer: Son of Man (1998-99/Collected 2004): written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by John Higgins: Early 1990's Constantine scribe Garth Ennis returns for an arc with gritty artist/colourist John Higgins. Higgins' characters are stocky and brutal, befitting the story. As with many Constantine stories, it begins at the Ravenscar psychiatric facility in which Constantine spent a couple of years recuperating after the disastrous magical events in Newcastle in the early 1980's. A South London crime boss springs the young, unstable Constantine because he needs a magician to bring his five-year-old son back to life. 16 years later, an older Constantine gets pulled back into the crime boss' story again. There are repercussions to raising the dead.

Ennis, the most grotesque and splattery of all Constantine writers, brings the grue here. Higgins is an able collaborator, though he's not the world's best drawer of babies. The regrets of a misspent youth jostle for prominence with the regrets of a misspent present. The climax is comically anti-climactic, as Ennis always enjoyed taking the piss out of all of his protagonists and antagonists. But boy, the one demon we see here is surprisingly talky, given what sort of demon it turns out to be. Recommended.

John Constantine Hellblazer: Good Intentions (2000-2001/ Collected 2002): written by Brian Azzarello; illustrated by Marcelo Frusin: One of a very few Americans to write Constantine's book, Brian Azzarello takes the Hellblazing magician on a tour of rural America. Marcelo Frusin's art is maybe a shade too cartoony at points for the events it depicts. It also gets cheesecakey at an unfortunate point involving Constantine's rescue of a woman who was being kidnapped so as to be raped and killed: maybe not the time for the hot underwear shots. Overall, the story is both weird and occasionally revolting. Constantine screws up, of course, but under the circumstances, almost anyone would. Infamous at the time for strongly implying a sex act between a drugged and drunken Constantine and a dog. I kid you not. Lightly recommended.

John Constantine Hellblazer: Stations of the Cross (2004/Collected 2006): written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Leonard Manco, Marcelo Frusin, Chris Brunner, and Steve Dillon: Mike Carey's lengthy run as Constantine writer concludes here with an amnesiac Constantine beset by foes human and demoniac. Even without his memory, Constantine is dangerous to foes and allies alike. The climactic story, from the double-sized 200th issue, gives us Constantine at his most vulnerable. It's a fine finish to Carey's tenure. The art works throughout, and is especially dark and evocative during Constantine's voyage into the labyrinth below the church of a malign cult. Recommended.

John Constantine Hellblazer:  The Roots of Coincidence (2008/Collected 2009): written by Andy Diggle; illustrated by Leonard Manco, Giuseppe Camuncoli, and Stefano Landini: This volume ends Andy Diggle's run as Constantine writer with a recontextualization of just who Constantine's greatest enemy was and is. Diggle draws effectively on Constantine's long comic-book history for this revelation. It works, though the mechanics of John's battle with his arch-nemesis never become crystal clear. It's a solid end to a solid run of comics, though the horror elements are mostly muted this time out and one of the lesser opponents, Mako, just doesn't have a name that strikes fear into me. Lightly recommended.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Vanishing (2007) by Bentley Little

The Vanishing (2007) by Bentley Little: This is either a terrible novel by the usually reliable Bentley Little or a terrific parody of a horror novel. The weirdness starts on the cover, where Stephen King proclaims Little "the poet laureate" of modern horror. Really? Because Little's prose is about as anti-poetic as it gets -- sometimes it's barely prose.

Little's strengths have been in his strange ideas and sudden plot twists. And those are certainly in evidence here. This is a novel that twists right at the title, which doesn't seem to have any major relevance to the novel it's the title of. So it goes. Is this too some sort of joke about Little's preference for one and two word titles for his novels?

Rich white men start going crazy and killing people. Children with the heads of animals are being found in various West Coast cities. A flashback narrative follows an early 19th-century wagon train into an American West found on no map. It all seems sort of intriguing.

Buckets of blood will be thrown about. Even vaguely alternate sexual practices will be linked to Evil. Some evil monsters will show up. But those monsters are also, and I quote, "sexy"! People will bang monsters. People will be banged by monsters. An elite force of mercenaries will suddenly show up to help set things right. They will be tempted to bang those monsters, but they will resist!

To summon these monsters people want to bang, one has to go to certain places and yell out at least slightly obscene rhymes. Or as one of the rhymes goes in the novel, "Engine Engine Number Nine, Take me quickly from behind." I'm not making this up. One of the sexy things these monsters do is a sexy dance consisting primarily of stripper-like gyrations. The monsters look like giant hybrids of lizards, people, and other animals, with Giant-Size sexual organs that everyone keeps staring at with lust. I told you they were sexy, and sexy means Big!

At one point, a character thinks the New York skyline at night looks like a bunch of rectangular Christmas trees, while the cars below look like glowing ants. I'm not making that up, either.

The monsters are a sort of quasi-mystical holdover, in a tradition going back in horror to Arthur Machen's malign little people. They live with their human sex-buddies in a magical land hidden in the Pacific Northwest in which a giant mountain of sewage and offal looms over the landscape. Sex and shit. Get it? Cloachal?

A trio of ten-year-old girls get raped by the monsters in a flashback. Women are kept as milking animals by one of the monster's half-human offspring.  Besides reciting some obscene rhyme, people who want to attract the monsters also rub themselves in their own urine and possible feces. Get it? Cloachal! Thank god for that mercenary group. They really come in handy for our protagonists, a reporter haunted by childhood trauma and a socially retarded social worker.

Did I mention that a priest gets raped to death in his church by monsters? Oh, yeah! If nothing else, The Vanishing makes Clive Barker's "Rawhead Rex" look like "The Turn of the Screw" by comparison. Not recommended, or recommended a lot.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Night & Demons (2013) by David Drake

Night & Demons (2013) by David Drake, containing the following stories:

  • The Red Leer (1979): Deftly characterized 'werewolf' story with a science-fictional twist.
  • A Land of Romance (2005): Enjoyable, twee nod to one of Drake's favourite writers, L. Sprague de Camp.
  • Smokie Joe (1977): A horror story not for the squeamish.
  • Awakening (1975) 
  • Denkirch (1967): The venerable August Derleth bought this early Drake story for Arkham House. It's a slight but enjoyable pastiche of Derleth and Lovecraft.
  • Dragon, The Book (1999)
  • The False Prophet (1989): The longest story involving Drake's classical Roman times characters Vettius and Dama (V&D), who repeatedly stumble into supernatural situations.
  • Black Iron (1975): V&D
  • The Shortest Way (1974): V&D
  • Lord of the Depths (1971)
  • The Land Toward Sunset [Cormac Mac Art] (1995) : Highly enjoyable novella featuring Robert E. Howard's Celtic hero Cormac Mac Art and a remnant of Atlantis.
  • Children of the Forest (1976): Marvelous 'cryptid' story set in late medieval Europe.
  • The Barrow Troll (1975)
  • Than Curse the Darkness (1980): One of the ten or fifteen greatest Cthulhu Mythos stories not written by H.P. Lovecraft. Drake's attention to the details of history creates a Belgian Congo turned into a house of horrors, not by ancient gods, but by European atrocities committed in the name of the rubber trade.
  • The Song of the Bone (1973)
  • The Master of Demons (1975)
  • The Dancer in the Flames (1982): Viet Nam horror.
  • Codex (2003)
  • Firefight (1976): One of Drake's horror stories informed by his time in Viet Nam.
  • Best of Luck (1978): Short-short resembles the superior "Something Had to Be Done."
  • Arclight (1973): Viet Nam horror.
  • Something Had to Be Done (1975): Brilliant horror story draws on Drake's Viet Nam time to deal with a very old horror trope.
  • The Waiting Bullet (1997): A nod to Drake's friend and mentor Manly Wade Wellman in its rural mountain setting.
  • The Elf House (2004)
  • The Hunting Ground (1976): A great piece of urban horror pits a crippled Viet Nam vet against... something. Reads like a blueprint for elements of the Predator and Alien movies. 
  • The Automatic Rifleman (1980): Drake nods to Fritz Leiber with the title of this science-fiction story, and to Leiber's Changewar series in the story's premise.
  • Blood Debt (1976)
  • Men Like Us (1980): Great piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction that uses some of the most persistent Atomic and Golden Age science-fiction tropes in refreshingly new ways. 
  • A Working Bibliography of David Drake's Writing (2012) by Karen Zimmerman 

* The note "A shorter version of this volume appeared in 2007 as Balefires" is found on this book's copyright page, and was published by Night Shade Books. The added stories are: "Dragon, the Book", "The Land Toward the Sunset", "Codex" and "The Waiting Bullet".

One of the great bargains of all time in its mass-market paperback version. Night & Demons collects a tonne of the prolific, thoughtful Drake's short works from the past 40 years. They fall broadly into the horror and dark fantasy genres, though science fiction also plays a part on its own or in several of the horror stories. Along with the stories comes about a hundred pages of Drake's musings on the genesis of the stories. The recollections are both amusing and informative. Highly recommended.