Monday, April 5, 2010

From Hell's Heart

Books:

Hunger for Horror ed. Robert & Pamela Crippen Adams & Martin H. Greenberg: The 1970's and 1980's were the Golden Age of genre reprint anthologies, before the bottom starting dropping out on a lot of things in the publishing business (most of them related to short stories). Thanks to his work with Isaac Asimov and others, Martin H. Greenberg has his name on an awful lot of those genre anthologies, primarily in the realms of science fiction, fantasy and horror. This theme anthology collects horror stories that feature food and eating, and it's an enjoyable jaunt from the always acidic Ambrose Bierce to the 1980's. I'm not sure that Michael Bishop's bizarre bit of metafiction about a man who turns into a planet-sized tomato qualifies as horror, but it is pretty funny. Recommended.


Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber (1977): Leiber was a restless giant of genre writing, producing major work in science fiction, fantasy and horror from the 1930's until his death in the early 1990's. His mature prose style managed to be allusive without being overwhelmingly dense, with a narrative tone that foreshadows Neil Gaiman, only tougher minded. He wrote one of the seminal "bridge" works in American fantasy fiction, 1940's "Smoke Ghost", which suggested that an industrial age would spawn its own peculiar new horrors rather than simply regurgitating the ghosts and vampires of the past. Much of his horror fiction worked within that vein which he helped to create, positing modern incarnations of vampires ("The Girl with the Hungry Eyes") and witches (Conjure Wife) that were no longer tired, anachronistic tropes.

This novel manages to gently satirize cosmic Lovecraftian horrors while at the same time seriously investing in the possibility of new horrors that far outstrip the old in malevolence and power. Two books purchased at a used book store in San Francisco turn out to be a seemingly loopy explanation of how cities breed new supernatural horrors called "paramentals" and a lost diary of real-world fantasy writer Clark Ashton Smith. And then things start to get strange for the protagonist, a fantasy writer and recovering alcoholic in his late 40's. My only complaint about this novel is that one wants it to be longer -- it clocks in at under 200 pages, leaving one wishing for more but also impressed at Leiber's brevity in a world dominated by 500-page horror novels. Highest recommendation.


Comic:


Marvel Illustrated Presents Moby Dick, adapted by Roy Thomas and Pascal Alixe: Herman Melville's Moby Dick resists adaptation in movies and comics, partially because of its great length and partially because of its idiosyncratic content -- a number of lengthy chapters explain at great length the nuts and bolts of things like whaling, rope-making and what-have-you, making it one of the most expository novels ever written.

Writer Roy Thomas has been the king of comics adaptation for decades now, beginning with his lengthy run on Conan the Barbarian, so he's a pretty good choice for any literary adaptation that one doesn't want to see diverge too much from the source. He does a nice job here of boiling down the narrative to fit into a 130-page comic, partially (as he notes in the foreword) by throwing out most of the exposition and expanding the length of the final battle with the Great White Whale in relation to the rest of the text. Thomas mainly resticts his writing to selections culled from the novel to supply both dialogue and Ishmael's narration, foregrounding the neo-Shakespearean Gothic of Melville's prose.

Pascal Alixe's art is a bit too cartoony and large-eyed to be wholly successful -- there are times when the characters are way too cute for what's happening to them. However, he effectively renders Moby Dick himself as a sinister, almost impressionistic force seen mainly as a series of inhuman body parts: the sublime and terrifying head, the tail, the harpoon-studded back with a dead man accidentally lashed to it. Recommended.

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