Monday, November 14, 2016

Dark Entries by Robert Aickman

Dark Entries (1964/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "The School Friend" (1964); "Ringing the Changes" (1955); "Choice of Weapons" (1964); "The Waiting Room" (1956); "The View" (1951); and "Bind Your Hair" (1964); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Ramsey Campbell: This is Faber and Faber's reissue of weird-fiction master Robert Aickman's first solo collection of short stories, novelettes, and novels. See also my parallel review of Aickman's The Unsettled Dust.

Aickman amazes insofar as it's very difficult to distinguish between stories written in 1950 and stories written in 1979: his style and subject matter emerge seemingly fully grown and developed. Obviously, they didn't really -- Aickman started publishing in his 30's, after years of work on his art.

For all the strange and disturbing mystery of Aickman's stories and the cool, detailed nature of his prose, Aickman nonetheless often took tired horror tropes and rendered them fresh and new by re-investing them with that unexplained mystery rendered so cleanly and clearly that one feels as if one has simply missed an explanation somewhere in the story: Aickman doesn't create mystery with obfuscations of prose style. You're watching a magic trick performed without smoke and without mirrors.

Take "Ringing the Changes." It's a zombie story. But what a zombie story! Or "The School Friend": is it a Jekyll and Hyde story? Sort of. "The Waiting Room" seems like a traditional ghost story until one gets to the ghosts, whose behaviour is both inert and cosmically threatening. "Bind your Hair" makes witchcraft scary and mysterious. 

These are great, mid-career stories from one of weird and horror fiction's prickly, mysterious greats. Highly recommended.

The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman

The Unsettled Dust (1990/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "Bind Your Hair" (1964); "No Stronger Than a Flower" (1966); "Ravissante" (1968); "The Cicerones" (1967); "The Houses of the Russians" (1968); "The Next Glade" (1980); "The Stains" (1980) [Winner, 1981 British Fantasy Award] ; and "The Unsettled Dust" (1968); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Graham and Heather Smith: 

The Unsettled Dust is a bit of a curiosity in Faber and Faber's recent four-volume reissue of Robert Aickman collections as The Unsettled Dust is a posthumous reprint collection that duplicates one story from both F&F's Dark Entries AND The Wine-Dark Sea reissues ("Bind Your Hair") and two more from just The Wine-Dark Sea ("The Stains" and "The Next Glade"). Given that the F&F volumes are now the only Robert Aickman short-story collections available in mass-market editions, little or no duplication among collections would be ideal.

Nonetheless, any in-print, readily available Aickman is good. He's the master of a fairly rarefied type of ghost story, one for which he preferred the term "strange story." His stories will enthrall a (relatively) small readership. Most of Aickman's stories are too subtle for most readers, leaving them unmoved and confused as to Aickman's importance. And that's fine. He's one of the Boss Levels of horror/weird fiction. 

Those who like him, like him a lot -- but not liking him doesn't make one a 'bad' reader. Indeed, Aickman's hypercritical views caused him to dislike or dismiss many stories and writers considered by many (including myself) to be classics and masters -- almost the entire oeuvre of M.R. James, much of Henry James, all of H.P. Lovecraft, to name three writers whom Aickman found seriously wanting. So if you find Robert Aickman seriously wanting, you're just following in the footsteps of... Robert Aickman.

The stories here are mostly excellent. The one misfire is "No Stronger Than a Flower," a strange story about female vanity that seems both dated and obnoxiously sexist. But that's more than offset by the strange and disturbing wonders of such stories as "The Cicerones." That story is almost a short model of the Aickman approach: the events of the story are rendered clearly and precisely, but no emphatic explanations are offered as to why things are happening. It's immensely disturbing. So, too, "The Stains," in which horror, romantic rapture, and erotic fixation combine in a story about a recently widowed man who falls in love with... well, that's a good question.

In all, this is probably the best Faber and Faber volume to introduce yourself or others to Aickman, covering as it does more than a decade of Aickman's best stories. And when you've read them, please explain to me what the Hell is actually going on in "The Stains." Or "The Cicerones." Highly recommended.

Friday, November 11, 2016


The late, great Canadian poet Alden Nowlan wrote my favourite war-remembrance poem, "Ypres 1915."

"Sometimes I’m not even sure that I have a country.
But I know that they stood there at Ypres 
the first time the Germans used gas, 
that they were almost the only troops 
in that section of the front 
who did not break and run, 
who held the line."

Monday, November 7, 2016

Vampires, Deserts, Forests, and Christmas

Dracula (1931): adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from the play by Garrett Fort adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Tod Browning; starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing): This stagey, bloodless Dracula was a big hit in 1931. It has the hallmarks of early sound film -- that super-heavy, static sound camera pretty much necessitated a nearly immobile, stagey shot. 

Bela Lugosi is great, especially in the first section set at Castle Dracula. Dwight Frye is a hoot as Renfield, the foundational figure for so many crazed characters to come in horror movies. Once the action moves to England, things become a bit tedious. And the censorship people ensure that Dracula dies off-screen with barely an "Argh!" to mark his passing. F.W. Murnau's bootleg Dracula, Nosferatu (1922), is a far superior work, as are many of the later adaptations. Still, Lugosi remains a bracing presence. Recommended.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998): adapted by Don Jakoby from the novel by John Steakley; directed by John Carpenter; starring James Woods (Jack Crow), Daniel Baldwin (Montoya), Sheryl Lee (Katrina), Thomas Ian Griffith (Valek), Tim Guinee (Father Guiteau), and Maximillian Schell (Cardinal Alba): One of John Carpenter's crappier offerings. Oh, sure, it has its moments. But it's crippled by a totally uninteresting vampire antagonist (Thomas Ian Griffith), sloppy writing, and the perplexing choice to have Daniel Baldwin play a character named 'Montoya,' complete with dyed-black hair to, I suppose, trick the audience into thinking Baldwin is Hispanic. The treatment of women is a bit... problematic, given that women in this movie are either prostitutes or vampires (or in Sheryl Lee's case, both).  I was entertained, but not a lot. Lightly recommended.

Krampus (2015): written by Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields, and Todd Casey; directed by Michael Dougherty; starring Adam Scott (Tom), Toni Collette (Sarah), David Koechner (Howard), Emjay Anthony (Max), and Conchata Ferrell (Aunt Dorothy): Michael Dougherty's ode to Gremlins isn't as good as Gremlins (which was also set at Christmas), which may be more an indictment of studio interference than anything else. Krampus, which visits the Germanic anti-Santa Claus on a small American town that has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, needs sharper editing in its first half, which seems to run on forever while we wait for Anti-Claus to show up.

Thankfully, Krampus and his twisted minions -- horrible snowmen, horrifying toys, homicidal gingerbread men, and a really nice looking evil Christmas-tree Angel -- do arrive to scare and stalk Adam Scott's family, who are too angry and fractious for The True Meaning of Christmas to take hold. There are some lovely effects both mechanical and CGI animating the various monsters, including Krampus itself. And there's a real sense of menace as things roll towards the end.

Depending on one's interpretation, Krampus either manages a treacly happy ending, a slightly menacing happy ending, or a refreshingly bleak ending in which not even a baby is safe from damnation. Seriously. At 100 minutes, Krampus feels about 15 minutes too long and two sugar packets too sweet for some stretches. But I still enjoyed it. I also enjoyed that it offers an odd commentary on this year's U.S. election: Republican or Democrat, Krampus is taking none of your self-serving bullshit if you're committed to a world where only money matters. Recommended.

The Forest (2016): written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai; directed by Jason Zada; starring Natalie Dormer (Sara/ Jess Price) and Taylor Kinney (Aiden): Dull film set mostly in Japan's 'Suicide Forest' (but filmed in Serbia) wastes a solid turn by Natalie Dormer as twin sisters. That this movie is actually inferior to the straight-to-cable, bafflingly titled The Last Halloween/ Grave Halloween is an extraordinary feat of wasted opportunity. Among other things, features characters following a river by walking away from said river at a 90-degree angle. OK! Not recommended.