Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Two out of Three are Bad

Book:

The 13th by John Everson (2009): Everson's first novel, Covenant, was an interesting horror novel with a bit too much sexual violence for my tastes. His second, Sacrifice, was something of a bollocks -- the characters were paper-thin and annoyingly giggly and coy at the most inappropriate points in the narrative, and it seemed like the only two constants in the novel were increasingly grotesque yet oddly perfunctory scenes of sexual atrocity, and the construction of protagonists who were as banal as they were incompetent. 'People who get hit in the head a lot' seems to be Everson's second-favorite trope, right after 'Every female character will get sexually assaulted.'

There were enough flashes of originality in the first two novels (and especially the first) that I figured I'd give Everson a chance when his next novel came out. And for the first 200 pages of this 320-page novel, it seemed like I'd made the right choice. Oh, the heightened level of sexual violence was still there, but it at least seemed to be hitched to an interesting story that justified the events, if not the lengthy descriptions of some of them. And then, around page 200, The 13th went off the rails as completely and spectacularly as any novel I can remember reading.

The 13th is a gobbledegooky, supposedly Babylonian ritual meant to incarnate the Babylonian god Ba'al in human form. To do so requires human sacrifice. A lot of human sacrifice involving mothers and babies. Fun stuff. 25 years before the main narrative of the novel, a cult in a small town tried and failed to complete the ritual. Now, the cult is back, kidnapping and impregnating women in order to try again. And only a callow, Olympic-level bicyclist and a plucky but inexperienced female cop can, maybe, stop the ritual.

What threat does a completed ritual pose to the world? I have no idea. The novel never lays out the stakes. I have a feeling that it may guarantee a good corn harvest, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. And I READ the fucking novel.

Everson's most annoying tics throughout his three novels are that no major female character can be anything less than spectacularly alluring, male protagonists have great difficulty controlling their libidos, and the heroes, perhaps in a nod to realism gone horribly wrong, generally prove to be amazingly incompetent by the time the novel ends. The 13th adds a new toy to Everson's toybox: the 120-page climax.

Yes, more than a third of this novel can justifiably be called the climax. That's a lot of climax. And almost all of it takes place in basement of the evil hotel where an evil stem-cell researcher is attempting to finish the ritual of the 13th with the help of the evil cult which turns out to comprise pretty much everyone in the stupid small town the novel is set in.

During those 120 pages, which take place over the course of about 6 hours, the heroes get knocked out and imprisoned at least twice; they pretty much fail to save any of the imprisoned women and babies from being tortured, mutilated and killed; and the disembodied gods Ba'al and Astarte show up to spout dialogue that sounds like rejected wacky-god dialogue from Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the heroes run around in circles a lot, in the nude (don't ask), getting sexually assaulted by incorporeal gods and demons, while various awful things are described at great length. But really, once you get to the third or fourth sacrifice scene, not only is the power to shock gone, but the whole megilla starts to feel more like an outsized parody of your typical torture horror film than it does like serious horror.

Everson also gives us another relatively new trope that I reflexively blame on Buffy, specifically Season 7 -- that's the obligatory Half-Assed Internet Search Scene. Certain horror stories once relied on forbidden occult knowledge that one at least had to go to a library to access. Unfortunately, the age of the Internet has brought us the scene in which a character learns everything he or she needs to know by typing in a few terms on Google. I realize that if The Necronomicon existed it would be available for download on Project Gutenberg, but the search scene here rivals Buffy's Season 7 Google of 'evil' for 'search least likely to yield the results you need without further clarification.' Give me a moldy set of the Revelations of Glaaki any day.

On the bright side, the hero now drinks a lot of Guinness. Everson's protagonists in his first two novels spent so much time ordering Miller Genuine Draft that I began to wonder of the Miller Brewing Company was a sponsor. So I guess that's a step up. Really, not recommended at all except as a study in how a horror novel can go horribly, horribly, horribly, horribly, horribly, horribly wrong.


Comics:

Essential Captain America Volume 2 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Gene Colan, John Romita, Frank Giacoia, Joe Sinnott and others (1967-70): Captain America becomes increasingly Spider-man-ized in this second collection of his early post-1960's-resurrection adventures. Translation: he's plagued by various self-doubts and woefully hung up over a woman. Thankfully, he also has a number of cool adventures with great art by Kirby, Steranko and Colan, though if you're like me, you're starting to wish Modok and the Red Skull would take a vacation for several years, and that the Cosmic Cube, one of Marvel's all-time Ultimate Plot Devices, would never, ever, ever appear in a comic book again. No such luck. Fun, though occasionally a bit grating.


Onslaught: The Complete Epic Volume 4 (2nd edition) by everyone at Marvel and their dogs (1996): Onslaught was meant to be the Marvel crossover to end all crossovers (well, at least for a year), as a villain born in the X-Men books would ultimately threaten the entire Earth. Part of the editorial mandate of the crossover was to set up Marvel's 'Heroes Reborn' titles, with new adventures of non-X-men Marvel heroes to take place on a new Earth sans X-Men. Marvel's top-selling books (basically the Spider- and X-titles) would steam along on their own in the regular Marvel universe along with all those Marvel characters deemed too minor to reboot (hey, Dr. Strange!).

Sometimes one can only evaluate a megacrossover constructed as much by marketing and sales decisions as by artistic decisions the same way Samuel Johnson evaluated a dog that can walk on its hindlegs -- one isn't amazed that it does it well but that it does it at all. The plot mechanism that creates two different Marvel universes doesn't make a lot of sense, and has the added misfortune of setting up a final battle that would be completely incomprehensible without an awful lot of captions to explain what's going on.

Oh, yeah -- Onslaught is an evil psionic being created when Professor Xavier's evil impulses collide with Magneto's evil impulses. So he's sorta like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, only nigh-omnipotent. As ultimate comic-book villains go, he makes the Anti-Monitor look and sound like Milton's Satan. Not recommended.

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