Friday, October 29, 2010

Six-Gun Justice

Shadow Kingdoms by Robert E. Howard (1927-29; collected 2005): This collection reprints many of Howard's pre-Conan stories and poems for Weird Tales. Boy, did he publish a lot of poetry! And the poetry isn't bad, all things considered, and it's certainly of a piece with Howard's prose work: lots of lost kingdoms and ghosts and monsters. This is not Emily Dickinson.

On the prose end of things, Howard arrived on the scene surprisingly close to fully formed. He'd become a better prose stylist over the next ten years of his tragically short writing career and life, but his interests are all pretty much here. Ancient kingdoms, solitary heroes, the general depravity of all races other than Caucasians, the primacy of violent action over thought...yep, it's all here. Two of Howard's pre-Conan heroes, Puritan monster-fighter Solomon Kane and Atlantean-born King Kull of time-lost Valusia, make their first appearances here. Several horror stories also appear, one of which features Howard at his worst, trying to write British dialogue. It's bally ridiculous, blighty!

The short novel "Skull-face" dominates the collection in terms of length. The eponymous villain, an odd mix of Fu Manchu and Howardesque/Lovecraftian elder race (he's even called Kathulus!), seeks to unite all the non-white races to destroy the white race. Everyone, regardless of religion or culture, is pretty much immediately on-board with this because non-whites are a treacherous lot. Racially speaking, the story is godawful, so godawful that it becomes funny by the end. Vaguely Oriental women (Howard's definition of the Orient pretty much stretches across the entire non-white globe) are occasionally OK, just so long as they're not black.

Howard's gift for narrative drive overcomes the loathsomeness of his subject matter, but only barely. I really felt like I needed a shower after "Skull-face." It's about as guilty a pleasure as one can get unless you're a member of the Aryan Nation, in which case I guess it would be a documentary. But within this volume, Howard also would give Solomon Kane a super-powerful, super-helpful African medicine man as what would be Kane's only recurring ally in the war against supernatural evil. Howard definitely did contain contradictions. This isn't, for the most part, great Howard, but most of the works reprinted here are compelling. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Horror and War

Books:Nailed by the Heart by Simon Clark (1995): I'm pretty sure this is the prolific and gifted Clark's first novel. As debuts go, it's a dandy. Clark's strength as an idea man in all his novels is, basically, what I think of as the ability to 'turn left.' What one thinks is going on isn't what's actually going on, and Clark isn't afraid to go with wild and wooly explanations for the supernatural events in his novels. That he's a deft hand at characterization on the fly doesn't hurt either -- like Stephen King, Clark gives the reader sympathetic, flawed characters trapped in extraordinary circumstances.

Here, a young family purchases an old sea fort on the east coast of England with the hopes of turning it into a hotel. The view is spectacular, as is the fort itself. The residents of the adjacent small town are friendly enough, though no one's all that happy about the fort being occupied again. And then, of course, things start to happen. In ancient times, the site of the fort was a pagan holy place. Now, something seems about to visit. More than one something.

There are monsters here, though not all the supernatural forces are monstrous. Old and new human evil drives the plot, while terrible and pitiful things come out of the sea. Clark's later novel Darkness Demands forms a companion piece to this one, as both are concerned with the sorts of sacrifices old gods demanded of their followers. There are a few rough patches of prose here, but overall Clark produced a really admirable first novel. Recommended.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20 (2008) edited by Stephen Jones (2009): The sad, early death of American writer and anthologist Karl Edward Wagner in 1995 ended Wagner's superlative series of DAW Books Year's Best Horror anthologies. Jones's series has picked up the slack in recent years. With a larger, longer format, the Mammoth series can include more story pages than DAW ever could, and supplement them with detailed 'Year in...' sections and an exhaustive necrology for the year in question.

This all leads to the old 'If you buy one horror anthology this year...' chestnut. This year is no exception. Entries from big names that include Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell sit alongside excellent stories by lesser known writers (to me, anyway). Horror today seems perpetually on the cusp of being drowned by lame series novels about vampires, werewolves and zombies; the Mammoth anthology is one antidote to this feeling. Cleverly imagined new horrors and cleverly retrofitted old horrors abound. Also one sinister Hobby Horse, a Cthulhu by way of Robert Service piece, and a disturbing reverse werewolf. Highly recommended.


The Losers, written and pencilled by Jack Kirby, inked by Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry (1974-75; collected 2009): Among the many oddities of Jack Kirby's early 1970's tenure at DC Comics was his 12-issue run on Our Fighting Forces, a WWII book starring four C-List DC war comics heroes (Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge) collectively called The Losers (the name would later be used for the ex-CIA team comic adapted into the 2010 movie).

Kirby served in Europe in WWII, so there's a certain amount of verisimilitude herein, but it's Kirby's wild imagination applied to the traditional war comic that yields most of the pleasure here, whether in big two-page action spreads or in a series of fascinating supporting characters and odd but vaguely plausible stories that touch on everything from the 1936 Berlin Olympics to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to a science-fiction fan PFC with a science-fiction plan to destroy a massive piece of Nazi artillery. The stories boom along, thrilling and over too soon. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Esperanto A-Go-Go


Incubus, written and directed by Leslie Stevens, starring William Shatner (1965): Original Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens decided to do a horror movie after the cancellation of that seminal anthology show, with cinematographer Conrad Hall and composer Dominic Frontiere coming along with him. The result was Incubus, starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner and no one else I've ever heard of. A small town in a vaguely unreal setting is menaced by succubi serving the Devil. They send bad men to their damnation. But can one of them corrupt saintly war hero Shatner?

Oh, and everyone speaks Esperanto, the constructed language that was meant to help bring about world peace through everyone speaking a global language. There are sub-titles. Still. Esperanto? Leslie Stevens had balls! Esperanto's synthesis from a number of other 'real' languages makes it either eerily off-kilter or eerily goofy, depending on your POV.

The movie, a short one (78 minutes), nonetheless drags in the middle: it might actually have made a pretty interesting 50 minute episode of The Outer Limits, but feels padded at its running time. Either because there wasn't money for stunt men or because Stevens was aiming for an otherworldly feel, the concluding fight scenes between Shatner and the Incubus are languid and unconvincing. Nonetheless, Incubus is worth at least 45 minutes of your time -- some scenes work quite well at evoking an other-worldly feel, and Esperanto does sort of work as an unsettling mechanism, as familiar words jostle with unfamiliar ones. Recommended.


The 5th Witch by Graham Masterson: Fast-paced action-horror novel about criminals using witchcraft to seize control of Los Angeles. The gangs have four witches from different magical backgrounds, including one who's pushing 400 years old and was supposed to have been burned at the stake centuries earlier. The police have one detective who realizes what's really going on and his friend, yet another practicing witch. Who will win and what will be left of them?

There are a lot of nice moments in this breezy, fast read. Most of them involve various forms of witchcraft and superstition which, in the world of the novel, are really real. Things wrap up a bit too quickly for my liking, but I was certainly never bored. Recommended.

Live Girls by Ray Garton (1987): The boredom caused me by about 95% of all vampire novels was lifted by this early novel from the prolific Garton. If nothing else, Live Girls demonstrates that Ramsey Campbell has good taste in the novels he blurbs. (Relatively) traditional vampires stalk the New York sex trade, both in a seedy nude show (the eponymous Live Girls) and an upscale club catering to people who want to be bitten and the vampires who bite them.

Nebbishy protagonist Davey Owens' lack of spine drives a lot of the action (or the inaction and bad decisions that cause bad things to happen to a number of good people). Garton manages to tuck a bildungsroman for Davey in among the other elements of the novel, and it's a pretty good one. Live Girls also manages the difficult feat of combining the occasionally erotic nature of vampires with their murderous, abject reality. Unlike Ann Rice's bloodsuckers, these vampires are not wish-fulfillment figures, though at times they briefly appear to be. After all, who doesn't want to live forever? Highly recommended.

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell (2008): Along with Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, writer/artist Steve Ditko pretty much created the Marvel Universe of super-heroes in the 1960's. Ditko co-created (with Lee) Spider-man and Dr. Strange, and had influential runs on the Hulk and Iron Man. Like Kirby, Ditko was pretty much frozen out of any level of decent profit-sharing as Marvel rose to become the most popular US comics firm, leading Ditko to leave the company in the late 1960's. He would return in the late 1970's to do fairly basic work-for-hire pencilling on titles that included Rom: Space Knight, but he'd keep his creativity to himself, with his more personal work coming out from an almost bewildering array of small publishers and fanzines.

Ditko's two, somewhat paradoxical, strengths as an artist were the ability to convey normality and the normative (the original Peter Parker is scrawny, a convincing high-school nerd; Ditko populated all his work with ordinary-looking people striving to be extraordinary), and an unprecedented ability to depict the fantastic (the worlds and dimensions of Dr. Strange are truly alien and magical looking). Ditko's five years on Spider-man as sole artist (except for a couple of covers) yielded pretty much the entire mythology of Spider-man, a supporting cast still used today, and most of Spider-man's major villains. Lee's bombastic dialogue and captions certainly helped shape the Spider-universe, but it was Ditko who gave it its odd, realistic yet fanciful soul.

Bell's main task in this biography seems to be to help the reader understand how Ditko's increasing fascination with the philosophy and writings of Ayn Rand helped shape a career that, weirdly un-Rand-like, moved farther and farther away from money-making as the decades went by. Like many of Rand's characters, Ditko would withhold his 'true' creations from the publishers who would have unjustly profited from them, instead trying to release them in ways that would avoid editorial interference and selling out to a large company.

However, Ditko's idiosyncrasies made him progressively more difficult to work with, and his writing progressively more impenetrable: by the 1980's, Ditko's 'real' work was almost impossible to purchase even when it managed to be published, and his disagreements with those trying to publish him generally ended most projects after only a handful of issues, and sometimes less.

Unlike Kirby, Ditko never had a family to support. His decisions could be made in a near-vacuum of responsibility to others, so he pursued his own odd path. Many of his creations for Charlton Comics and DC have proved fairly successful in the long term (Captain Atom, a revamped Blue Beetle, The Question, Hawk and Dove) while others yielded short but intriguing Ditko runs that are now being collected into hardcover editions for the first time (the weird Creeper and the even-weirder Shade, The Changing Man). Bell's book does a fine (and abundantly illustrated) job of explaining Ditko's odd career and enduring genius. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ghosts and Grisly Things (1998) by Ramsey Campbell

Ghosts and Grisly Things (1998) by Ramsey Campbell: A collection of excellent short stories from the 1970's, 80's and 90's by the world's best horror writer, Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell. 

Both supernatural and mundane menaces threaten the characters in these stories, from a defunct factory town turned into an amusement park (!) to an ancient Druid holy site now located directly below an overpass. Campbell makes the decaying industrial zones and housing developments of modern England into a world of menacing and destabilizing forces.

Campbell has always been best at building terror out of slightly skewed perceptions of reality which build through the course of a story. As some reviewer or another once noted (probably Stephen King), it often seems that narrative voice and/or characters are tripping on something that no one should ever be tripping on; this occurs quite literally in "Through the Walls." Bad moments in tourism inform the worlds of "The Same in Any Language" and "Where They Lived."

An M.R. James trope that Campbell mastered very early in his career (he's been publishing since he was 16) involves slightly askew things glimpsed in the middle or far distance, things which at first appear mundane until one realizes that they keep appearing and disappearing as they (whatever they are) move closer and closer without ever being seen clearly. Do you want to see that strangely distorted human figure clearly? No, you do not, but some of the characters will, and they will not enjoy the experience.

The skewed perceptions of both "ordinary" people and people with mental health issues drive some of the horror as well. The narrator of "The Dead Must Die" is a murderous religious fanatic whose beliefs about blood transfusions and organ transplants are only a few beats off the Jehovah's Witness party line; the xenophobic senior citizen of "The Sneering" finds the supernatural infiltrating on his most basic fears for him and his wife. There isn't a weak story here. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Out of the Past

Shutter Island, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis from a novel by Dennis Lehane, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow (2009-2010): Scorsese's best film in a decade or more is a slightly overlong and a bit overbaked but still fascinating thriller.

The year is 1954, and DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal sent to a high-security psychiatric facility on the otherwise unpopulated Shutter Island to discover how a female patient managed to disappear from a locked room. Only a once-a-day ferry connects the island, 11 miles off the East Coast, to the mainland. Where did she go? And why is everything and everyone so gosh-darned sinister?

Scorsese has created a loving homage to the first cinematic wave of film noir, the murky post-WWII thrillers that eventually became their own sub-genre of movies. The psychological and physical damage of World War Two to returning American soldiers was a prime constituent of first-wave noir, and it is here as well. The liberation of Dachau marked then-soldier Daniels for life; the murder of his wife in a fire set by an arsonist further damaged his psyche. And now he's on an island of severely damaged men and women, and severely creepy doctors and nurses.

Even Daniels's partner Chuck (Ruffalo) is a mystery, having just joined Daniels for this assignment. The chief psychiatrists, played by Kingsley and Von Sydow, seem weirdly menacing and unhelpful. The warden sounds crazier than the inmates. A hugely destructive storm traps everyone on the island. What will happen next? And what does a cryptic note left by the vanished patient, referring to a "Rule of Four" and a "67", really mean?

Paranoia seeps into everything. The landscape and settings drip with Gothic menace even in broad daylight. Daniels begins to see a larger conspiracy at work, one that reaches to the top levels of government. And what's inside the heavily guarded lighthouse? I guessed the major plot twist half-an-hour into the film, but that only added to my enjoyment of the way the whole thing unfolds, and the other twists that come along. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Things to Come


Essential Marvel Two-in-One Volume 1, written by Roy Thomas, Bill Mantlo, Steve Gerber and others, illustrated by Ron Wilson, Sal Buscema, John Buscema and others (mid-1970's; collected 2005): Team-up books had their heyday in the 1970's and early 1980's, before continuity and endless crossovers essentially doomed them to extinction (with the exception of a few recent revivals). The Thing, the orange, rocky skinned strongman of the Fantastic Four, was the most popular member of that superhero team, and his team-up book ran for nearly a decade until it morphed into The Thing in the early 1980's.

Here, the Thing fights the Hulk, fights in World War Two, saves the timeline, stops a nuclear bomb from creating a giant tsunami, and generally fights evil in various guises. There are team-ups with now-forgotten Marvel horror comics heroes (Scarecrow and The Golem, anyone?), perennial second-tier heroes (Black Widow) and Marvel's heaviest hitters (Thor, the Hulk, Dr. Strange). Had Marvel managed to reacquire the rights for the reprint volume, there would also be a cool team-up with Doc Savage. Alas, it's not included here. But trust me, it was pretty cool.

Enjoyable and mostly light-hearted, this volume represents the superhero comics of a lost time, when standalone issues were the norm rather than the exception, and team-ups were still novel enough to warrant their own books. Recommended.