Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dreams with Sharp Penises


Beast House by Richard Laymon (1986): I've generally enjoyed the late Laymon's horror stories when I've come across them in anthologies. This is the first novel of his I've read. It comes from relatively early in his career. A small coastal California town offers the 'Beast House' as its main tourist attraction, a house wherein terrible murders have periodically taken place since the early 20th century.

In 1979, two female friends -- Tyler and Nora -- travel there so that Tyler can reconnect with an old flame who's now a police officer in the coastal town of Malcasa. Along the way, they're saved by two recently discharged Marines from an angry driver. At the same time, a successful writer of non-fiction books about hauntings shows up in Malcasa with his assistant at the invitation of a young woman who's found a diary by an early 20th-century woman who writes about her violent sexual encounters with the beast, which she calls 'Xanadu.' Soon, various horrors, many of them violently sexual, are visited upon our group of characters. This is what happens when some bizarre subspecies of humanity develops a penis with teeth. I would love to understand the evolutionary mechanics behind that particular adaptation, especially since the (male) creatures appear to be able to eat with those befanged penises. Oh, the humanity!

Laymon's novel is a fairly brisk page-turner, as much a thriller as a horror novel. There are a few too many coincidences to allow for a complete suspension of disbelief, and there's a certain unbelievable laissez-faire feeling to the after-climax that seems designed solely to allow for a sequel without taking into account what the authorities would actually do when confronted by the revelations of the final pages. Enjoyable but pretty slight.


Batman: The Black Casebook by Bill Finger, Edmond Hamilton, Sheldon Moldoff, Dick Sprang and others, selected and introduced by Grant Morrison (1953-1964; collected 2009): During the 1950's and early 1960's, Batman and Robin appeared in hundreds of stories that are now considered uncharacteristic and, frankly, a little goofy as they travelled to other planets, fought bizarre creatures both alien and Earthly, encountered various forms of mind control and in general just had a lot of bizarre adventures. Most Batman readers and writers since the late 1960's have considered these stories to be 'out of continuity' as they're difficult to reconcile with the urban vigilante Batman who fights grotesque but human villains in a quasi-realistic milieu.

When Grant Morrison started writing Batman in 2006, he began dealing with a number of these adventures as if they'd actually happened in one way or another to the in-continuity Batman and Robin of 2006. He brought back the Club of Heroes -- costumed crime-fighters from various lands who try to emulate Batman's career that include England's The Knight and the Squire, Italy's Legionary and France's Musketeer. And his Batman suddenly turned out to have a 'Black Casebook' which contained all the cases that didn't comfortably fit into Batman's 'normal' crime-fighting duties. Ultimately, the villain behind Morrison's Batman R.I.P. storyline would turn out to be a minor, unnamed character from the paranoiac early 1960's story "Robin Dies at Dawn" (included here), while part of Batman's emergency defense against mind control proved to tie into the 1950's story "Batman - The Superman of Planet 'X'", in which Batman apparently travels to another world to help the Batman of that alien planet.

Most of the stories in this collection are almost defiantly loopy, suggesting Batman as a precursor to such outrageous later heroes as The Creeper, The Tick and The Flaming Carrot. That isn't to say that the stories are knowingly skewed -- they're more like Atomic-Age fairy tales featuring Batman and Robin, fantasies of transformation, instability, dread and wonder. And there's a strange but undeniable logic to these sorts of adventures being published when they were, during nuclear fear of the 1950's, with the first hysteria about flying saucers kicking off in the U.S. in the late 1940's and early 1950's, and with space travel appearing more plausible every day. This certainly isn't a Batman collection for people who want the character to at least somewhat resemble Christian Bale's version. Or Adam West's version, for that matter. But it is a wild ride. Highly recommended.

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