Friday, January 18, 2019

Elevation (2018) by Stephen King

Elevation (2018) by Stephen King: A novella set in Castle Rock -- much like King's low-key 2017 collaboration with Richard Chizmar, Gwendy's Button Box -- Elevation is a story about a kinder, gentler Castle Rock, though not one without its flaws and magical weirdnesses.

In this case, our middle-aged protagonist discovers that he's losing weight. Not mass, weight. Steadily and perhaps even increasingly rapidly, he's gone from 240 pounds to 210 pounds without looking as if he's lost any weight. And anything he carries or wears loses ALL its weight. A recognizable medical condition, this is not.

However, unlike the vaguely similar Thinner, Elevation is not a horror story. It's a quieter fable of smaller kindnesses and redemption spurred by that weight loss. I'd compare it to Ray Bradbury if King were a poetic writer like Bradbury. In this case, though, King's own dedication -- to genre great Richard Matheson -- seems apt, at least for Matheson in his quieter moments. 

Rod Serling's Twilight Zone would also be an apt comparison, with one Changed Premise illuminating the good parts of the human condition as well as the bad. Think "A Passage for Trumpet" or "In Praise of Pip," two gentle, sad TZ episodes starring Jack Klugman. And a middle-aged Klugman would actually make a good fit for our protagonist!

It's a slight work but an enjoyable one, and it's not going to take you long to read. I'd almost swear that an embattled lesbian couple in Elevation may have appeared in the first draft of King and his son's Sleeping Beauties before being cut. They're embattled because small-town Maine isn't ready to patronize the restaurant of two openly gay women. Or is it? Recommended

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Sleeping Beauties (2017) by Stephen King and Owen King

Sleeping Beauties (2017) by Stephen King and Owen King: Not the worst novel Stephen King has either written or co-written (that would be The Tommyknockers). But it shares some commonalities with that terrible work. 

One is that it's less a novel than a screed -- in the case of Sleeping Beauties, a screed against the patriarchy. There's nothing wrong with that, and the two Kings score a number of points against our male-dominated world. But screeds need to be relatively short. At nearly 700 pages, Sleeping Beauties is not short, and one wearies of the same points being hammered again and again and again, with little variation. We get it. Men are assholes.

The novel was so wearying that I put it down with 50 pages to go and didn't pick it up again (except to move it) for eight months. And that in the middle of an action-packed climax that seemed to be written with all four eyes of the writers squarely on a movie or television version. Explosions, gunfire, dogs and cats living together.

King has also never been good when he moves too far into pure fantasy rather than dark fantasy. The wheel of the plot turns on a magical woman named Eve who has magical powers and talks like a Buffy villain. She's not a villain. Or is she? In any case, she's tied to a worldwide phenomenon in which all women, regardless of age, go into a coma and sprout a cocoon as soon as they fall asleep. Attempts to get them out of their cocoons result in homicidal action by the otherwise still-comatose women/girls/babies.

All this worldwide turmoil focuses on the small Appalachian town in which the novel is mostly set, where the fate of the world will be decided by what the women of that town decide, and what the increasingly desperate men do.

I think maybe this would have been a dandy, angry yawp of a novel at about 300 pages. But the characters are all so flawed and so often unsympathetic -- men and women -- that things get pretty dire, pretty fast, and then go on forever. 

Sleeping Beauties has its moments. But I can't shake the feeling that the genesis of the novel came when King and son Owen were discussing Y: The Last Man, the comic-book series in which all men on Earth die in the first issue, all men but one. King called this entertaining, poppy series, written by TV guy Brian K. Vaughan, the greatest graphic novel in history. That comment tells you a lot about King's tastes, or at least that maybe he needs to read more graphic novels. 

But Vaughan's anti-patriarchal comic was nuanced and subtle compared to Sleeping Beauties. Indeed, the scariest thing about Sleeping Beauties is a reference in the acknowledgements to a much longer first draft of the novel. Please, God, let that not be released! Not recommended.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Dark Masters Trilogy (2018) by Stephen Volk

The Dark Masters Trilogy (2018) by Stephen Volk, containing the following novellas:

Whitstable - 1971 (2013): The first of the three fictional novellas featuring real people stars Peter Cushing, days after losing his beloved wife to emphysema in 1971. 

While sitting on the beach near his home in Whitstable, Cushing is approached by a boy who thinks Cushing IS Van Helsing, vampire fighter and nemesis of Dracula. And the boy believes he is being preyed on by a vampire -- his stepfather.

The truth is just as horrible. Cushing begins by trying to shirk responsibility, and then tries getting the authorities to help out. But in the end, the actor has to discover how to face Evil himself, as himself -- though the art of acting does come in handy.

It's a marvelous, sympathetic character study in which the metaphor of vampirism is explored sensitively through one of the real-world evils that it can be a metaphor for. Despite the grim and mournful subject matter, Volk injects appropriate humour throughout -- especially when it comes to people mixing Cushing up with his oft-time co-star Christopher Lee, or to only recognizing him from cameos on current comedy TV shows. Highly recommended.

Leytonstone - 1906 (2015): Alfred Hitchcock's anecdote about his father having him put in jail for a night as a young boy in order to teach him to be good is the spark for this meditation on childhood fears and the peculiar character of the world's greatest thriller and suspense director. As he notes in his afterword, Volk alters the real nature of Hitchcock's family to make him an only child, doted upon by his mother and worried about by his father, who decides on the police visit.

Needless to say, the police visit does not yield the expected results. Volk examines the roots of fear here in childhood trauma, while also having what seems to be a good time coming up with precursors for many of Hitchcock's most famous film scenes. His Boy Hitchcock isn't entirely sympathetic, but he is certainly sympathetically drawn when it comes to his motivations and fears. Highly recommended.

Netherwood - 1947 (2018): In the last year of his life, 'The World's Wickedest Man,' Aleister Crowley, summons England's most popular post-war horror novelist -- that would be Dennis Wheatley -- to a peculiar hotel in Netherstone. Why? 

Because Crowley believes a recent apprentice has gained enough magical power to conquer the world -- and, more importantly to Crowley, who lost a daughter at a young age, to fully claim that power the apprentice will sacrifice his own infant daughter.

This really is a great work, straddling reality and the supernatural without ever conclusively establishing that Crowley's fears are "real." One of the things that links the two men is a concern with permanence -- as a philosopher and thinker for Crowley, as a novelist for Wheatley. The third-person narrative focuses on Wheatley's thoughts and reactions, leaving Crowley to be imagined throughout from the outside by Wheatley. This choice generates suspense (is Crowley really on the level or is he just 'aving a laugh?). 

But this narrative POV also allows the reader to judge Wheatley as he's judging Crowley -- and equivocating in that judgment. This seems fitting because one's assessment of Crowley relies a lot on just how much one believes in what he supposedly did, and how much one believes HE believed in what he supposedly did. It all makes for a fascinating fictional trip through the lives of two people who are increasingly forgotten as the decades slip by. Highly recommended.

In all: A great book of 2018. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Bird Box (2018)

Bird Box (2018): adapted by Eric Heisserer from the novel by Josh Malerman; directed by Susanne Bier; starring Sandra Bullock (Malorie), Trevante Rhodes (Tom), John Malcovich (Douglas), Sarah Paulson (Jessica), Jacki Weaver (Cheryl), Rosa Salazar (Lucy), Danielle Macdonald (Olympia), Lil Rey Howery (Charlie), and BD Wong (Greg):

Apocalyptic horror gives us monsters who cause people to commit suicide when they see them. Daredevil, where art thou? 

The movie generates a fair amount of tension throughout, though improbabilities related to Sandra Bullock's ability to navigate the outside world without recourse to sight eventually swamp all credibility.

Alas, Bird Box is also one of those movies that curdles somewhat in the remembering. This is partially because at the heart is a very, very conservative story of how a single woman finds redemption in the ARMS OF A GOOD MAN and MOTHERHOOD

Speaking as someone with bipolar disorder, I also found some stuff involving the mentally ill is tremendously iffy in the most retrograde way imaginable (and not needed in the story). And not one but two self-sacrificing African-American men! And one of them is literally named 'Tom'! Get out! By the end, you may feel Bamboozled. Lightly recommended.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Annihilation (2015) by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation: Book One of the Area X: Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer: Interesting, cosmically horrifying ideas are relentlessly stripped of all horror and weirdness by the attenuated, flat nature of both characterization and description in this first, shortest novel of Jeff VanderMeer's double-named Area X/Southern Reach trilogy.

VanderMeer seems to be striving for the sort of vague horror of his Weird Fiction touchstone M. John Harrison, specifically in the vein of Harrison stories that include "The New Rays" and "Egnaro." Which is to say, the two Harrison stories included by VanderMeer in his massive and massively flawed anthology The Weird. Harrison's stories take place in places that seem contemporary, but vaguely so, with both time and place being disturbingly off-kilter.

So some time in the near future in the Southern United States, a research team of five women ventures into an area called Area X. They're the 13th such team. Or are they? Is this the near future or is this going on 'now'? Do the characters have names or are they only referred to by their occupations? 

Our Biologist narrator lost her husband to Area X. Just getting into Area X somehow wipes one's memory of getting into Area X. The whole place is a sort of mutated dimensional space caused by Something from Outside crashing into a lighthouse some time in the past. Or that's what it appears to be. To the lighthouse, then!

Ciphers squabble with other ciphers. No one figures much out. There's a weird thing in an underground complex. There are signs of bloody battle at the lighthouse. The narrator's husband nicknamed her Ghost Bird, a nickname that doesn't seem to apply much to our characterless main character.

VanderMeer throws around italicized words and phrases like August Derleth editing H.P. Lovecraft stories. Is that intentional? Because the set-up of Area X is pretty much the set-up of Lovecraft's 1928 classic "The Colour Out of Space," in which the titular something mutates and destroys a New England landscape and everything in it.

It takes a special sort of genius to make events and things as weird as are posited in this novel so boring, so enervating to this reader that there is no way I'm reading the second and third books. Your results may vary. It all feels like horror for people too refined for horror. Not recommended.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

It Comes At Night (2017)

It Comes At Night (2017): written and directed by Trey Edward Shults; starring Joel Edgerton (Paul), Christopher Abbott (Will), Carmen Ejogo (Sarah), Riley Keough (Kim), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Travis), and Griffin Robert Faulkner (Andrew):

Tense, claustrophobic thriller is set during some sort of zombie-plague apocalypse but uses that apocalypse to explore the horrors of human beings under pressure. Father, mother, and teen-aged son hide in a house in the woods. A stranger arrives. Charity fights with fear.

Anyone expecting pitched battles with the walking dead will be disappointed in It Comes At Night. But if you're in the mood for a downbeat tale of character and failure, the movie is a solid effort. It's a use of the zombie to comment on human frailties that the Grandfather of Zombie Movies, George 'Night of the Living Dead' Romero, would have thoroughly enjoyed and endorsed. Recommended.

Monday, December 17, 2018

House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski: Danielewski's ambitious first novel spawned a sort of cult following that is itself metafictional, given that the text within the text spawns a sort of cult following. 

And that text is a lengthy examination of a movie that doesn't seem to actually exist within the world of the text, supplemented by lengthy, autobiographical footnotes from the man who found and assembled the examination of the movie after discovering it in the apartment of a recently deceased, blind writer. 

Who himself also supplied lengthy footnotes to supplement the text he had spent decades writing. A text about a documentary about the House of Leaves. A documentary that doesn't seem to have ever existed. Got all that?

House of Leaves is postmodern and experimental and avant-garde and All That Jazz. It's a horror novel about a house that grows room upon room within itself, within which lurks, perhaps, a monster. Or perhaps the monster is simply the house itself. It does at times appear to be intelligent. It's a love story about a man and his lost, mentally ill mother. It's a satire of academic writing. It's a satire of epics, epic catalogues, epic odysseys. It's an epic itself.

It even turns into a concrete poem for a few dozen pages.

And oh, those footnotes!

The movie at the heart of the narrative is a documentary about attempts to explore and understand those hidden, ever-shifting rooms. The family who owns the house consists of a revered photojournalist, a former model, and two children. One day, when they return from a holiday, their house has somehow acquired a new hallway. And things get weirder from there.

If there's a flaw here, it's the tendency of the text to draw every woman other than the mentally ill mother and, for the most part, the former model as sexy, sexy sex objects. But all those sexy 'librarians' and strippers are part of the frame narrative, the footnote narrative, written by an increasingly unstable 24-year-old man. Are any of these women real? As the sex scenes involving these women all read like Penthouse Forum wish fulfillment, I'd say a conditional 'No.' Or at least I hope not.

However, House of Leaves is otherwise a fine piece of work. A horror story, a love story, a description of a documentary, a family drama, a mystery, an epic. And a convincing portrait of mental illness, if your interpretation goes that way. If your interpretation goes a long way, that way, the whole text is a delivery from a fictional writer who's suffered a monumental break with reality. Or it really is a cosmic horror piece, and so on, and so forth. It can support a whole bag of overlapping interpretations. It has many mansions.

Set aside time to read it. It's a marvelous piece of work. Highly recommended.