Sunday, August 28, 2016

GoTopless Day: August 28, 2016

Fin Fang Foom!

Simply because I love this Jack Kirby-created Marvel Monster...

Cover by the great Walt Simonson!

Nevermore (1996) by William Hjortsberg

Nevermore (1996) by William Hjortsberg: The 1990's paperback version of Nevermore was clearly designed to resemble the paperback of The Alienist, Caleb Carr's riveting 1990's murder mystery set in New York that combined real people (most notably Teddy Roosevelt and William James) with fictional characters in pursuit of a serial killer. The interior front cover/two-page illustration actually seems to have come from the same photograph as the cover of The Alienist. Hmm.

The resemblance mostly ends there: Hjortsberg does combine fact and fiction, but the mystery and the serial killer are only a part of what the novel explores. As with Hjortsberg's more famous Falling Angel (made into the controversial 1987 movie Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro), Nevermore is invested in mysteries and morality and the oddities of human nature, not in the prime importance of the aims and methods of detection.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives in 1923 New York to begin his United States lecture tour on the Spirit World and his many attempts to communicate with the dead. Meanwhile, with vaudeville dying, Harry Houdini searches for a new money-making model for his magic shows while also waging a very public war against the mediums and spiritualists whom he views as being dangerous frauds. Despite their radical disagreement on spiritualism, however, Houdini and Doyle were friends. 

And a mysterious string of murders, each based on a different work by Edgar Allan Poe, soon seems to be working its way towards either Houdini or Doyle as the final victim.

Hjortsberg does a marvelous job of combining fact and fiction. He deploys a lengthy and detailed set of historical events and personages while keeping the novel light on its feet and often movingly dark and poetic. But Nevermore is also very funny at points. Nevermore's depiction of Houdini and Doyle makes them lively, fascinating individuals. And the sexy spirit medium who has dubbed herself Isis -- what's her game?

Nevermore is more of a novel with a mystery than a mystery novel. Still, it's satisfying in its fictional and factual elements. And you'll find out how a couple of Houdini's famous tricks were accomplished (though not all of the ones depicted in the novel). Hjortsberg even throws in a climax that's wittily movie-like. All this and the morose ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, visible only to Doyle. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Rosedale Horror (1980) by Jon Ruddy

The Rosedale Horror (1980) by Jon Ruddy: This Canadian paperback original from defunct Canadian paperback imprint Paperjacks is shocking in its goodness. It's a haunted-house story with a twist, set in Toronto's tony Rosedale neighbourhood in 1974. Ruddy was a long-time newspaper reporter, and it shows: he grounds all the horror elements in detailed, specific, and often quite funny and illuminating glimpses of life at a failing Toronto newspaper in the 1970's. 

The specifics of newspaper work on a variety of fronts from daily news columnist to police reporter to freelance writer give the proceedings a real verisimilitude. That the book is often scathingly funny about life at a tabloid and about Toronto the Good really helps things.

Ruddy also carries off a difficult bit of structure. The Rosedale Horror is told in six sections, each focused in the third-person on a specific character, though there is also some first-person narration by way of a tape recorder. And it all works both as characterization and as a builder of suspense.

There are elements in the text which at times seem sexist. Some of them fall into the realm of a sort of R-rated Leacockian satire directed at certain men and women alike, including a female relationship columnist and a male news columnist. Ultimately, the novel isn't sexist, though some of its characters are sexist and, in a couple of cases, somewhat predatory.

Ruddy manages several scenes of horror shot through with the occasional bit of grotesque humour. That tape-recorded first-person monologue is one of the two deftest bits of horror, revealing gradually a mind both ill and toxically malign. A rape scene also manages to horrify without seeming exploitative -- no small feat in any novel, and Ruddy amplifies the effect by having the rapist himself under the malign mental influence of something awful.

The Rosedale Horror certainly has its pulpy elements, but they never undercut the horror and the comedic in Ruddy's novel. As both horror and pointed, satiric social commentary, The Rosedale Horror is far superior to many, many novels I've read by far more celebrated authors. It's also hard to go wrong with a novel in which a character is murdered by being telepathically forced to urinate on the third rail of the Toronto subway line. Recommended.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Northern Frights 3 (1995): edited by Don Hutchison

Northern Frights 3 (1995): edited by Don Hutchison; contains the following stories:

Wild Things Live There by Michael Rowe
Silver Rings by Rick Hautala
A Debt Unpaid by Tanya Huff 
Imposter by Peter Sellers 
Exodus 22:18 by Nancy Baker 
The Suction Method by Rudy Kremberg 
Sasquatch by Mel D. Ames 
Grist for the Mills of Christmas by James Powell 
Tamar's Leather Pouch by David Shtogryn 
Snow Angel by Nancy Kilpatrick 
The Perseids by Robert Charles Wilson 
Widow's Walk by Carolyn Clink 
If You Know Where to Look by Chris Wiggins 
The Bleeding Tree by Sean Doolittle 
The Dead Go Shopping by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime 
Family Ties by Edo van Belkom 
The Pines by Tia V. Travis
The Summer Worms by David Nickle 

Solid third volume in Canada's Northern Frights series of mostly original anthologies has one moment of editorial fright early on -- not only is the Table of Contents regrettably centre-justified, but it lacks page numbers for the stories. What the H?

The stand-outs include "Wild Things Live There" by Michael Rowe, a dandy bit of horror that anticipates some of the horrors of Laird Barron's terrific series of stories about the Children of Old Leech while remaining steadfastly Canadian -- the story even involves a migration from Ontario to British Columbia by, well, some things. Oh, Canada!

Another fine story is "The Perseids" by Robert Charles Wilson. Wilson is known as a highly regarded Canadian writer of fairly 'hard' science fiction. Here, some of that scientific and astronomical 'hardness' is present in what is otherwise a subtle, unnerving piece of cosmic horror. Or at least cosmic weirdness.

"If You Know Where to Look" by Chris Wiggins is also a nice piece of dread set in the Maritimes and involving a Scottish legend that seems to have migrated to Nova Scotia along with the Scots. And yes, he's that Chris Wiggins, Canadian actor. And he really shows an ear for believable dialogue and dialect in this story.

None of the stories are duds, though there are a few bits of whimsy that don't work as horror, weird, or whimsy. Editor Don Hutchison does his normal good work, even without page numbers on that Table of Contents. Recommended.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Strangers (1984) by Mort Castle and Under the Lake (1987) by Stuart Woods

The novel sez Strangers got red auras... 
The Strangers (1984) by Mort Castle: Depressing, nihilistic, pointless, nauseating, and a tad rapey horror novel that ends where it should have begun. 

Technically, Mort Castle isn't a bad writer. Indeed, just from this brief exposure I'd rate him above beloved horror writers that include Richard Laymon and Douglas Clegg. But this is one of those horror novels that some people might confuse with splatterpunk given the violence. It isn't -- sociologically, it's about as reactionary a thing as one can find in the horror genre. 

Bad things happen because a small percentage of people are Strangers -- bloodthirsty psychopaths who pretend to be normal people as they await The Time of the Strangers. While waiting, they account for pretty much all human atrocity in the world. Luckily, you can spot them by their Auras! Well, not luckily, because no one's going to do much of anything productive in this novel who isn't a Stranger. If you enjoy a pointless catalogue of atrocities and boring characters who are either monsters or victims, this is the novel for you. Not recommended.

Under the Lake (1987) by Stuart Woods: Jesus, what did Stuart Woods have on Stephen King, Pat Conroy, and Andrew Greeley to get the glowing back-cover quotes this novel received? Woods still writes, so far as I can tell, in the thriller genre. That's probably a good idea. Ostensibly a Southern Gothic ghost story, Under the Lake wanders off into ill-advised thriller territory when it should be developing its more gothic elements. Why pay off on atmosphere when you can have a couple of pitched gun battles and an exploding plane? Why indeed. 

There are brief moments of interest here, but the horrific revelation towards the end lands with a dull thud. After all the perfunctory murders, seances, incest, and mopey drunk writers, this is all there is? An unpleasant bit in which a 12-year-old girl is presented as a sexy, sex-starved sexual predator really, really, really doesn't help things. Not at all. Not recommended.

Sinister 2 (2015)

Sinister 2 (2015): written and created by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Ciaran Foy; starring James Ransone (The Deputy), Shannyn Sossamon (Courtney Collins), Robert Sloan (Dylan Collins), and Dartanian Sloan (Zach Collins): Any and all name actors having been eradicated in the first movie (or in between the first and second movie in the case of Vincent D'Onofrio's literally phoned-in professor in Sinister), Sinister 2 comes across as comfortably anonymous. 

That's a good thing for some horror movies, this one included. Bughul the demon still remains regrettably visualized from the neck down, the scary face of the early scenes of Sinister burdened with a blazer-and-pants combo that suggest the Sumerian boogeyman just got off his yacht and is about to offer the viewer a gin-and-tonic. But the performances by the kids are pretty good, Shannyn Sossamon has a sweet desperation to her character, and James Ransone brings a goofy charm to the hero of this one. 

Yet another stupid 'stinger' ending ruins some of my good feelings towards this movie. Stop it, horror movies. Stop it right now. In a demonstration of 'less is more' in horror, the scariest scene in the movie involves a ham radio's creepy broadcast. Recommended.