Thursday, September 29, 2011


A Drop of the Hard Stuff written by Lawrence Block (2011): It's been 35 years (!) since Block's hardboiled Manhattan-based detective Matt Scudder came on the scene. Scudder's adventures have been one of the high points of detective fiction over those years, taking him through near-fatal drinking bouts to hard-won and hard-maintained sobriety, all while solving cases the police have given up on.

Herein, Block returns to a format he first used with Scudder in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, with the present Scudder narrating a much earlier case. We go to Scudder's first year of sobriety in the early 1980's, just after the events of Eight Million Ways to Die. Sympathetic Irish gangster Mick Ballou cameos as the person to whom Scudder tells the story.

An acquaintance from Scudder's childhood comes back into his life, a small-time hood who's gone sober and now, per the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, is in the 'Amends' phase of his eternal recovery. But someone kills him. His guilt-stricken sponsor, who'd pushed him to work fairly quickly through the 12 Steps, hires Scudder to find out who and why. And off we go.

Block does a lovely job of fleshing out Scudder's early-recovery self throughout the narrative. We also get an in-depth look at the workings of Alcoholics Anonymous and those who've sought it out to save themselves. Booze is as much a nemesis as the hidden murderer for Scudder, and the two dovetail neatly in a climactic sequence.

The ending may not satisfy everybody -- there is closure, but not of the bow-wrapped, justice-always-prevails variety. It satisfied me, but, then, I'm always glad to reacquaint myself with Scudder, and after the super-smart serial killer adversary of a couple of the most recent Scudder novels, I liked seeing things return to a more normative scale. Highly recommended, though it you've never read a Matt Scudder mystery before you should probably start at the beginning with A Stab in the Dark and work your way forward.

Conan in the Hands of an Angry Thesaurus

The Chronicles of Conan Volume 2: Rogues in the House and Other Stories, written by Roy Thomas, illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith, Sal Buscema and Others (1970-71; collected 2003): This second volume of Thomas and Windsor-Smith's pivotal Conan Marvel comic-book work of the early 1970's offers one fairly faithful adaptation of a Robert E. Howard Conan novelette (the eponymous "Rogues"), a lovingly rendered adaptation of short story "The Frost-Giant's Daughter", and several other stories of young Conan as he wanders around thieving, getting arrested, escaping arrest, and fighting wizards, gods and monsters.

Windsor-Smith's art grows more splendid and idiosyncratic throughout this volume as he changes from Kirbyesque super-hero artist to lush, pre-Raphaelite-influenced illustrator at a fairly astonishing rate of progression. He wouldn't stay on Conan much beyond this point, but he'd remain the acknowledged, definitive comic-book Conan artist ever afterwards, though John Buscema would soon surpass him in page count if not in overall effect.

Writer Roy Thomas thuds along as if he were paid by the word (which he wasn't). He'd work on Conan's comic-book adventures at Marvel for a decade and become the "definitive" Conan comic-book writer through sheer weight of output. Occasionally, the artwork creaks and shudders under the weight of all that obscuring prose. Uk wuk. Recommended.

The Face That Must Diet

Dark Passage, written and directed by Delmer Daves, based on the novel by David Goodis, starring Humphrey Bogart (Vincent Parry), Lauren Bacall (Irene Jansen) and Agnes Moorehead (Madge Rapf) (1947): Enjoyably loopy film noir sees Bogart play a San Francisco businessman wrongly imprisoned for his wife's murder. He escapes from San Quentin. Shenanigans ensue. And for the first 45 minutes or so, we get first-person camerawork from Bogart's perspective, seeing his character only fleetingly in a newspaper photo.

I'm guessing film cameras got smaller some time after the end of WWII, as first-person POV shows up in a couple of other films of the time, only to be abandoned because, frankly, it's annoying as hell. And you can't see your star. Though here the POV serves the story -- Bogart's character gets plastic surgery to change his face, and once he's got that new face (Bogart's normal face) the POV switches to the traditional third-person. Got all that?

Coincidences drive the plot. Lauren Bacall's character is obsessed with Bogart's character being railroaded. Luckily for him, she's driving around near San Quentin when he escapes so she can pick him up. Luckily for Bogart, the first cabbie he hails later in the film knows a good plastic surgeon who makes a living operating on criminals and the wrongly accused innocent. Unluckily, there are so few characters that the revelation of the real murderer's identity lands with something of a dull thud. Really, who else could it be?

Nevertheless, it's all quite a bit of fun, with the level of coincidence and accident reaching a crescendo so as to resolve pretty much everything. Lauren Bacall is cute as a button, and Bogart stretches a bit here, playing a guy who's definitely not cool under pressure until the last few minutes of the film. Not a great film, but worth watching. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Loved Dead

Vertigo Resurrected: Petrefax, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Steve Leialoha (originally published 2000; this edition 2011): Enjoyable nouveau-fairy-tale romp starring Petrefax, the young mortician from the Sandman arc World's End. Petrefax hails from Litharge, the land of morticians, and he's struck out on his own to see the world and offer his services as a journeyman.

He comes to the land of Malegrise, where magic reigns, and soon finds himself caught up in the efforts of a young woman, Calcinia, to bring the awful man to whom she's promised to justice for the murder of his brother and nephew. Naturally, he falls in love with her.

The story delivers a lot of wit in its depiction of the magic-based Malegrisean society, where demons and ifrits rub elbows with citizens and Roma. Apparently, gypsies are some sort of constant in the universe. Petrefax's mastery of ways of dealing with dead bodies comes in extremely handy on more than one occasion. He has to keep Calcinia, whose body has died, mobile and at least semi-unputrefied, and he has to deal with a few other unwieldy bodies along the way.

Old pro Steve Leialoha's art remains fantastic and yet grounded, and the muted colour scheme suits the storyline. Carey's deft hand with the fantastic is on display here; the fire-demon lawyer is an especially nice touch. Recommended.

Hell House of Lords

John Constantine Hellblazer: Original Sins (Revised Edition), written by Jamie Delano and Rick Veitch, illustrated by John Ridgway, Rick Veitch, Tom Mandrake, Alfredo Alcala, Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy (1988-89; collected 2011): Liverpudlian occult investigator and magician John Constantine's first solo adventures (he'd been introduced in Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette and others in the mid-1980's) get a new collection here, with two stories from Swamp Thing added to the volume.

Writer Jamie Delano really made the character his, giving Constantine an even more jaded and cynical bent. But Constantine, a dangerous man who gets his companions killed, a lot, nonetheless fights the malign schemes of Heaven and Hell alike. And protecting humanity requires a lot of booze and a lot of cigarettes.

And a lot of politics. Thatcher's Great Britain and Reagan's America are the primary settings for Delano's initial 40-issue run on the title, and both places are drenched in blood and intimately and intricately tied to the apocalyptic plans of Heaven and Hell. Good times, good times!

Delano had a real flair for twisted updatings of traditional supernatural threats. His demons are stockbrokers in souls and day traders in damnation, literally at points. Soccer hooligans get transformed into hideous monsters. Computers strain to reach the shores of Heaven. Heaven has put a new group on the board, the Resurrection Crusade, believing it destined to create the next Messiah. Hell has countered with the Damnation Army, led by long-time Constantine nemesis Nergal.

Constantine also faces an ancient hunger demon in New York and a horrifying resurrection of Viet Nam veterans in the American heartland when he's not stalking the nightmarish streets of jolly old England. John Ridgway's art is, for my money, the best Constantine ever had in his own book -- grimy, realistic, grotesque. It perfectly suits Delano's exploration of Constantine's damned yet heroic psyche, and the terrible new ways evil works in the go-go 1980's. How Hollywood got a Keanu Reaves movie out of this is anyone's guess. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Screamy on the Beach

Journey into Darkness by Frank Belknap Long (1967): Long was one of H.P. Lovecraft's closest friends. He also had a long writing career, one that extended from the 1920's until his death in the 1990's. He's most notable now as a memoirist who defended Lovecraft's memory in Dreamer on the Nightside and as one of the earliest contributors to HPL's "shared universe" that would come to be known as The Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft's death.

Long's "The Space-Eaters" and "The Hounds of Tindalos" would help establish the more outre, non-representational otherworldly denizens of Lovecraft's sinister universe (the eponymous hounds appear to be sentient geometric shapes rather than more 'normal' beings). And his "Second Night Out" is one of the great short stories in that surprisingly robust sub-sub-genre of horror stories that take place on cruise ships. It certainly gave me nightmares for months after I first read it as a child in the Shudders horror anthology for children.

Freelance writers don't have pension plans or the promise of steady employment, and so Long had to keep writing and publishing long past retirement age (which would have fallen in 1966) just to keep himself and his wife afloat. Only a charity drive by fans after he died got his name inscribed on his family tombstone in the Bronx.

In this too-short novel, Long seems to have been handicapped by limitations on the length of the project. It really feels like fifty or more pages have been summarily cut from the manuscript to make it fit into a small, cheap paperback, resulting in a pretty jarring jump from gradually escalating horror to a rushed and somewhat anti-climactic climax.

Journey into Darkness depicts the beachfront  invasion of "our" universe by some nebulous, murderous entity or entities from Outside who have been accidentally summoned by a psychiatrist's experiments with what basically seems to be the most dangerous proto-Power Point Presentation ever put on screen. Colours and shapes projected on a screen by a weirdly complex slide projector can summon extra-dimensional Death, can, indeed, BE extra-dimensional death.

With this explicitly referenced Lovecraftian set-up (one character mentions the HPL short story "The Colour Out of Space") in place, Long throws in some other vaguely real material, including Jung's theory of archetypes and the always bizarre saga of Wilhelm Reich's Orgone Box. Some of the material also recalls William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and his battle with the extra-dimensional demon known as "The Hog."

I wouldn't describe this a great book, or even a very good one. Long was always a workmanlike prose stylist at best, and his intellectual reach generally far out-extended his writerly grasp. The horror remains fairly firmly in the realm of exposition, in part because much of the second half of the novel IS clumsily delivered exposition. Still, there are some interesting ideas here, and I was never bored. Occasionally frustrated, but never bored. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Science Fiction Terror Tales, edited by Groff Conklin, containing
"Punishment Without Crime" by Ray Bradbury, "Arena" by Fredric Brown, "The Leech" by Robert Sheckley, "Through Channels" by Richard Matheson, "Lost Memory" by Peter Phillips, "Memorial" by Theodore Sturgeon, "Prott" by Margaret St. Clair, "Flies" by Isaac Asimov, "The Microscopic Giants" by Paul Ernst, "The Other Inauguration" by Anthony Boucher, "Nightmare Brother" by Alan E. Nourse, "Pipeline to Pluto" by Murray Leinster, "Impostor" by Philip K. Dick, "They" by Robert A. Heinlein and "Let Me Live in a House" by Chad Oliver (Collected 1955):

Conklin was one of the kings of mid-to-late-20th-century science-fiction anthologies, primarily of the reprint variety. As one of the first editors to get a chance to present science fiction to the growing market for paperbacks, Conklin introduced a lot of readers to both early and contemporary science-fiction greats.

Conklin claims that this is the first general anthology to present the mixed genre of science-fiction horror stories, and I can't see any reason to dispute him. Several of the stories would go on to become acknowledged classics, with "Arena" supplying a plot for a similar Star Trek: TOS episode and Dick's "Impostor" being turned into a lousy movie with Gary Sinise.

Paranoia, always a major trope of science fiction, and especially American science fiction, dominates the proceedings in disturbing tales like "They" and "Let Me Live in a House", while various alien invasions and infiltrations occur in several other stories. Boucher -- better known as the early editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction -- contributes a 1953 tale of U.S. politics that wouldn't seem out-of-place if it were published now. All in all, a solid collection. Recommended.

Albino Gnome

The Chronicles of Conan Volume 3: The Monster of the Monoliths and Other Stories, written by Roy Thomas, Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn, illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith, Gil Kane and others (1971-72; collected 2006): It took awhile for Marvel's comic-book Conan the Barbarian to gain sales traction, but once it did it ran for about 30 years in both colour and black-and-white magazines. For fans, the high point of the series came early, when long-time writer Roy Thomas was teamed with up-and-coming artist Barry Windsor-Smith for the first twenty issues or so of the colour comic.

Windsor-Smith's art became increasingly refined, complex and painterly as the series went on, evidenced in part here by the decision to try printing one issue directly from his pencils (it doesn't work that well here reproduced and remastered in a high-quality format, so I shudder to think what it looked like on pulp newsprint).

Thomas was (and is) an almost self-parodically verbose writer, and it becomes quite trying here after awhile, though this was admittedly also Marvel's house writing style at the time. Which is to say, every damn panel has to have dialogue or captions in it. When your book is about a taciturn barbarian, this seems especially annoying.

Included here is the two-part cross-universal team-up between Conan and Michael Moorcock's anti-Conan sword-and-sorcery character, Elric of Melnibone. The Windsor-Smith art achieves some startling effects in this story, especially in a battle between two god-like beings, though it suffers somewhat from Windsor-Smith's misunderstanding of what Elric's headgear was supposed to look like. As is, Elric ends up wearing a hat that seems to have been borrowed from a garden gnome. How does Conan keep from laughing?

Other artistic high points occur throughout this reprint collection, including a two-parter illustrated by Gil Kane. The writing can be a really heavy, purple slog at points, but the art makes this worth picking up. Recommended.


Narcopolis, written by Jamie Delano, illustrated by Jeremy Rock (2008): Jamie Delano's one of those fine comic-book writers who never seems to be on anybody's radar to the extent that he should be despite terrific runs on titles that include John Constantine Hellblazer and Animal Man. Here he goes the dystopia route with a future world that mixes elements of 1984, Brave New World, and, um, tentacles.

In the future world of Narcopolis, every good citizen spends much of the day medicated in some way. The city of Narcopolis periodically launches devastating military attacks on any human settlements that exist outside itself, branding these humans as 'BadEvil' (the Orwellian homages reside mostly in the language of Narcopolis).

Citizen Gray Neighbour, one of the few people left who questions how things work and why, finds himself in a relationship with one of Narcopolis's security agents. Soon, he's been inducted into the security agency itself. But he's also on a quest to break the hold that Narcopolis's various drugs have on human consciousness in order to literally see what's really going on behind the scenes but really out in the open.

Delano does a nice job of writing future dialogue, with a host of new or mutated terms the meaning of which must be gained by paying attention to their context. Jeremy Rock's hard-eged, representational art falls into what I'd call the Avatar Press 'house style' -- cleanly depicted and seemingly mimetic, it wouldn't be out of place in a Vertigo title of the early 1990's. The miniseries ends on something of a cliffhanger, which is a bummer, so hopefully more will be on the way. Recommended.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Stage Fright, written by Whitfield Cook, Alma Reville, James Bridie and Ranald MacDougall, based on a novel by Selwyn Jepson, starring Jane Wyman (Eve Gill), Marlene Dietrich (Charlotte Inwood), Michael Wilding ("Ordinary" Smith), Richard Todd (Jonathan Cooper), Alastair Sim (Commodore Gill), Sybil Thorndike (Mrs. Gill) and Kay Walsh (Nellie Goode) (1950): One of Hitchcock's lesser-known efforts is enjoyable but a bit overlong and draggy. Jane Wyman tries to save ex-boyfriend Richard Todd from being arrested for a murder he says he didn't commit. Shenanigans ensue. The cast -- especially Marlene Dietrich and Alastair "Scrooge" Sim -- is topnotch. Lightly recommended.

White Heat, written by Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts and Virginia Kellogg, directed by Raoul Walsh, starring James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), Virginia Mayo (Verna Jarrett), Edmond O'Brien (Hank Fallon) and Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett) (1949): Classic gangster flick pits undercover cop O'Brien against crazy con James Cagney. And boy, does Cagney's character have mother issues! Some scenes play out like CSI: 1949, as the FBI uses the latest in high-tech tracking devices and crime-solving techniques to find the criminals before they pull off their next big heist. A lot of fun, with great performances by Cagney, O'Brien and Virginia Mayo. Look, Ma, top of the world! Highly recommended.

The Green Hornet, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, based on characters created by George W. Trendle, directed by Michel Gondry, starring Seth Rogen (Britt Reid/The Green Hornet), Jay Chou (Kato), Cameron Diaz (Lenore Case), Tom Wilkinson (James Reid) and Christoph Waltz (Chudnofsky) (2011): Well, I laughed a lot, and I don't give a shit about the original radio-series Green Hornet, so any blasphemies committed upon it by the filmmakers didn't irk me. Seth Rogen makes an unlikely masked hero, but that's sorta the point. Lightly recommended.

30 Days of Night: Dark Days, adapted by Steve Niles and Ben Ketai from the comic book by Niles and Ben Templesmith, directed by Ben Ketai, starring Kiele Sanchez (Stella), Rhys Coiro (Paul), Diora Brand (Amber), Harold Perrineau (Todd), Mia Kirshner (Lilith), Troy Ruptash (Agent Morris) and Ben Cotton (Dane) (2010): This straight-to-DVD sequel to 30 Days of Night contains no original cast members. Good on them. The world's stupidest vampire hunters take on the world's stupidest vampires in Los Angeles. Something's gotta give! The movie may set the record for most aerial shots of L.A. in one movie, or at least in one vampire movie. Mia Kirshner looks sorta cool as vampire-queen Lilith. Not recommended.

Pet Sematary (1989)

Fred Gwynne reacts to his first reading of the screenplay for PET SEMATARY.

Pet Sematary, adapted by Stephen King from his novel of the same name, directed by Mary Lambert, starring Dale Midkiff (Louis Creed), Fred Gwynne (Jud Crandall), Denise Crosby (Rachel Creed) and Brad Greenquist (Victor Pascow) (1989): I'd forgotten what a lousy movie this was until I watched it again for the first time since its release.

Boy, it's a lousy movie.

It's not Graveyard Shift or Maximum Overdrive lousy -- those movies set a bar so low they may never be under-passed in the 'Worst Stephen King Movie Adaptation' competition -- but it's pretty close.

Anyway, stupid parents move to a new house in Maine that's located six inches from a highway down which go barreling lumber trucks at breakneck speeds every 30 seconds. First the family cat and then Gage, the two-year-old son, get smushed on the highway.

Ah, but idiot neighbour Fred Gwynne knows a secret! Behind the 'Pet Sematary' in which local residents bury their pets (I'm assuming they bury a lot of them because of the aforementioned highway and lumber trucks) is another cemetery...a Micmac cemetery that brings the dead back to life if you bury them there! Hoo ha!

Is a cemetery still a cemetery if everything that gets buried there comes back to life?

Now, Idiot Neighbour knows that what comes out of the cemetery isn't what goes into it, as he explains in a flashback about how his dog came back all crazy and mean and homicidal, as did a local-boy casualty of war. "The ground went sour," he tells us, which explains why the Micmac Indians aren't still immortal.

But he explains this after he's got Idiot Father to bring the cat back. And the cat comes back...crazy and mean and homicidal! Boy, what a great idea that was!

Despite the unholy evilness of the resurrected cat, Idiot Father brings back dead Gage. Dead Gage is crazy and mean and homicidal and possessed of a much larger vocabulary then when he went into the ground, so there is that silver lining: the Micmac burial ground apparently comes pre-loaded with Baby Einstein vocabulary lessons. Gage kills some people. Idiot Father comes to his senses. Or does he? Do I actually care?

Poor Fred Gwynne does what he can with his role as Idiot Neighbour. In one scene, he repeats the phrase "Sometimes dead is better" so many times that I don't know how he kept a straight face during the filming. Dale Midkiff looks blank, as he did in pretty much every role he ever played, and Denise Crosby looks like she's reading from cue cards in most scenes.

Besides the plot stupidity and the awful acting from Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby as the idiot parents, the direction and cinematography stink. This is a lousy looking movie. Frankly it looks like it was shot on videotape. There is one, count 'em, one startling shot which would never appear in a horror movie today, involving the immolation of a child. That's it. The moral of the movie is, don't listen to your stupid neighbour. Not recommended.

Friday, September 9, 2011

End of Dazed and Confused

Promethea Book 5, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray and Jose Villarrubia (2003-2005; collected 2006): Promethea, the 1600-year-old demi-goddess whose current host/personality is young college student Sophie Bangs, will end the world if Bangs allows her to manifest again. So Bangs hides from the government and from herself in New York under an assumed name.

But the paranoid, increasingly militaristic U.S. government has recruited science-hero Tom Strong to track Promethea down because Strong knew one of Promethea's previous avatars back in the 1950's. Strong reluctantly agrees, but he doesn't believe that Promethea really means to end the world.

But she does. She has to. That's her job.

And so the end comes to the Earth of Moore's America's Best Comics imprint, ushered in by the unstoppable Promethea despite the best efforts of Tom Strong and the rest of that world's heroes. From the realms of fiction and poetry and magic and gods descends judgment on everything. But what does the end of the world actually look like?

Well, it doesn't look like the end of the world in Moore's Watchmen. Promethea is a much different bringer of catastrophe than Ozymandias. And violence is not a solution or a means to a solution.

Moore's 32-issue exegesis on magic and the nature of reality comes to a stunning end here, beautifully imagined by both Moore and his artistic collaborators J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray and Jose Villarrubia. This may be one of the most visually beautiful comic books ever created, and one of the most visually complex. It's not for everybody -- this is a didactic essay about Moore's actual beliefs ever since he decided to become a practicing magician (!) in the 1990's.

Images and iterations of the Kabbalah, the Tarot Deck, various occultists and pretty much every religion under the sun get combined and recombined within Moore's apocalyptic vision -- with the caveat that 'apocalypse' derives from the Greek word for "revelation" or "lifting of the veil."

Never has Aleister Crowley made so many appearances in a comic-book series not named Aleister Crowley. Hurry down doomsday! Highly recommended.

Rural Rout

Hellboy Volume 10: The Crooked Man and Others, written by Mike Mignola and Joshua Dysart, illustrated by Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Jason Shawn Alexander, and Duncan Fegredo (2007-2008; collected 2009): Giving Hellboy several decades worth of adventures to draw upon allows Mike Mignola to offer new readers a "jumping-on" point with miniseries that stand (mostly) apart from the ongoing "contemporary", epic Hellboy narrative. We get four such adventures here, most notably the title three-parter.

Mignola pays homage to American supernatural-fiction great Manly Wade Wellman with an adventure in the American Appalachians of the 1950's, Wellman's setting for the first few stories of supernatural battler John the Balladeer (Who Fears the Devil?, The Hanging Stones). It's a lovely, respectful homage to the singular Wellman's tales of rural good and evil.

Hellboy and a young man whose personality and background (but not his name) suggest those of John before his adventures began fight witches and devils in backwoods country, to pleasing and disturbing effect. Richard Corben's art has never been better, at least from a horror standpoint -- the Crooked Man himself is a truly creepy creation, as are many of the monsters and ghosts and bizarre insect things which assault Hellboy and company. As Wellman did, Mignola skillfully blurs the line between invented terrors and terrors derived from actual Appalachian folklore and myth.

The rest of the volume sees Hellboy and Abe Sapien take on Blackbeard's ghost (well, skull) in a story penned by Joshua Dysart, and a confrontation with the ancient, child-eating god Moloch in Spain, the latter in a story with conscious echoes of Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model" and J. Sheridan LeFanu's "Green Tea." Oh, and Hellboy plays cards with some ghosts and worries over a suspicious-looking mole on his hand. Highly recommended.

Two-Fisted Ghouls

More Macabre, edited by Donald A. Wollheim, contains "Mother by Protest" by Richard Matheson; "The Wheel" by H. Warner Munn; "The Yellow Wall Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; "The Cookie Lady" by Philip K. Dick; "The Spider" by Hanns Heinz Ewers; "The Curse Kiss" by Theodore Roscoe; "Fungus Isle" by Philip M. Fisher; and "The Copper Bowl" by George Fielding Eliot. (1961): Nifty little paperback anthology from the dawn of American paperback horror collections. Wollheim would go on to have an entire imprint named after him (DAW Books, natch).

The value of this, for me, is the inclusion of horror stories from the early days of Weird Tales and other American horror/fantasy pulp magazines. I loved "Fungus Isle" with its great title and icky mushroom horrors and gradual development of the uncanny. "The Spider" is a startlingly original what-was-it? story of possession or ghosts or, unh, I'm not sure. And that's good: repeat after me, "Explanation is the death of horror." Too much explanation, anyway.

The early Phil Dick story is also fun, a poisoned bit that echoes Ray Bradbury before Bradbury got soft and fuzzy-poetic in the 1960's. It's also one of a small number of Dick stories about the horrors of childhood. And overeating. Its final image echoes a similar, disturbing revelation in Dick's horror masterpiece "The Father Thing", one of my nominees for some mythical "100 Best Horror Stories Ever" List that I keep meaning to draw up.

The Matheson story is also a lot of fun, with a concluding line that apparently stuck in my mind ever since I read it first 30 years ago. One of the interesting things about More Macabre is its focus on"adventure-horror", a staple of the pulps that isn't seen that much any more, as explorers and colonial have rousing adventures while also facing some scabrous demon horror. Or in the case of the awkwardly titled "The Curse Kiss," a character from the Old Testament. Or in the case of the Rube Goldbergian Grand Guignol of "The Wheel", vengeance from beyond the grave of...The Spanish Inquisition!!!

Two vastly different, often reprinted classic round out the collection, the always enjoyable psychological, proto-feminist piece "The Yellow Wall Paper" and the gruesome tale of French colonialism in China, "The Copper Bowl." For $5 or$6, this is well worth picking up. Recommended.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Magnetic Fields Forever

The One, written and illustrated by Rick Veitch (1985-86; this edition 2003): Veitch's satiric look at superheroes in a quasi-realistic (though blackly comic) setting predated such better-known, similar offerings like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns by several months in the mid-1980's. It's an unjustly neglected entry in this sub-sub-genre of comic books, alternately funny and heart-felt.

"Itchy" Itch, a leprous parody of Richie Rich all grown up, starts World War Three as a means to make a lot of money and hopefully seize control of pretty much all the world's financial markets. But things aft gang agley. He doesn't expect a nuclear exchange between the USSR and USA, and he really doesn't expect nuclear explosions to be neutralized -- and perhaps transformed -- by...something.

Traumatized by their inability to properly wage war, the USSR and the USA unleash their super-secret superheroes on the world. But why did a portion of the world's population fall asleep at the moment the bombs were supposed to go off? Who is the mysterious figure known as The One? And who or what is The Other?

The One fires away at such targets as mutually assured destruction and realpolitik, American consumerism and Soviet hypocrisy, greed and the will to power. It does so with a fair amount of humour, not all of it black, and an ending that manages to combine catastrophe and eucatastrophe into a pleasing, thought-provoking mix. Like the battles in Alan Moore's Miracleman/Marvelman, the conflict between the American and Soviet superbeings causes mass death and destruction: when gods cry 'War', humans suffer.

But humanity's hope lies in its own superiority to these clashing behemoths, its own ability to change or die.

Exhilarating and off-beat, The One suffers only from typos and annoying substitutions for swear words that remain from when it was originally published by Epic Comics, an adult division of Marvel that nonetheless discouraged strong language (but not violence or nudity -- What the H?). If I never read another character saying 'Mothershuking!', it will be too soon. Nonetheless, that's a quibble. Highly recommended.

Bogart Becoming Bogart

All Through the Night, written by Leonard Spigelgass, Edwin Gilbert and Leo Rosten, directed by Vincent Sherman, starring Humphrey Bogart ("Gloves" Donahue), Conrad Veidt (Ebbing), Kaaren Verne (Leda), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Donahue), Peter Lorre (Pepi), Judith Anderson (Madame), William Demarest (Sunshine), Phil Silvers (Waiter), Jackie Gleason (Starchie) and Frank McHugh (Barney) (1941): Released five days before Pearl Harbour, this movie's jokey tone and somewhat light take on foreign saboteurs didn't sit well with audiences once America entered World War Two.

Still, this is a jolly and involving comic-drama that sometimes seems way, way ahead of its time in its combination of action and comedy.

Bogart, on the cusp of superstardom (High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon came out earlier in 1941, while Across the Pacific and Casablanca would be out within the following 13 months), plays "Gloves" Donahue, a loveable gang leader in New York. He's from the Damon Runyon school of loveable gangsters, and comes complete with a loveable, interfering Irish mother played by Jane Darwell, who'd recently won an Oscar for playing loveable Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

Gloves and his men stumble across a Nazi spy ring, and soon only Bogart and the daughter of a concentration-camp prisoner stand between New York and Nazi saboteurs, partially because the police are idiots. Boy, are the police idiots.

It's all played breezily and, if you've watched a lot of classic television, you'll note that a lot of supporting actors would go on to rewarding television careers, most notably Jackie Gleason (The Honeymooners), Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko) and William Demarest (the grandfather in My Three Sons). Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt -- both of whom would reteam with Bogart in Casablanca -- and Dame Judith Anderson round out a surprisingly high-powered cast. Blink and you'll miss a miniature Nazi dachschund getting blown up. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham by Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas (2011): It's been a hell of a year for H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos with a Cthulhu three-part South Park arc, an appearance on Supernatural, Alan Moore's Neonomicon miniseries, and what now seems to be a self-sustaining Cthulhu-based publishing industry. Oh, and there's going to be a Cthulhu Mythos app for your iPhone. Ai! Lovecraft, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

OK, you'd be 121 now, but that's young for some of HPL's less human protagonists.

So I guess it was only a matter of time until someone collided the worlds of eccentric outcast Lovecraft and eccentric outcast Hunter S. Thompson, as Keene and Mamatas do here with a "previously unpublished" section from Thompson's coverage of the 1972 American presidential campaign, Fear and Loathing: The Campaign Trail '72.

Having discovered that ancient deity/alien Cthulhu backs Nixon for president in 1972, Thompson heads out from his Colorado cabin to cover the story. Or stop Nixon. Whichever comes first. Keene and Mamatas do a lovely job replicating Thompson's gonzo journalism and gonzo prose style while also working in enough references and allusions to the Cthulhu Mythos and its foundational stories and incidents that an annotated edition might actually prove helpful to the uninitiated.

Thompson's tolerance for drugs and alcohol serve him well as he tracks Cthulhu's influence across America, with stops in demon-haunted Arkham, decayed fishing-town Innsmouth, and squamous, leprous Washington, DC. The Republican Party serves Cthulhu. Whom do the Democrats serve? And can the world be saved? Does it deserve to be?

And what happened to the American Dream, depicted here as being as damned and monstrous and horribly malformed and mutated as any Lovecraft protagonist damned by fate or heredity or an accidental brush with the world-devouring Great Old Ones.

Keene and Mamatas weave together fact and fiction in rewarding, hilarious and surprisingly moving ways as they take their narrator straight into the heart of Hell...or at least some version of Hell. Events major (from J. Edgar Hoover's death to 9/11) and minor (Democratic hopeful Edmund Muskie's bizarre mispronunciation of 'Canuck' as 'Cannock' spins off into an entire sub-plot) butt up against Thompson's idiosyncratic personality and style, as well as Lovecraft's equally idiosyncratic personality and style. "We are all Cthulhu," Nixon tells Thompson at one point. Well, I hope not. I really hope not. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Blue Steele

In a Lonely Place, written by Andrew Solt and Edmund North, based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, starring Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray) and Frank Lovejoy (Detective Nicolai) (1950): An enjoyable and atypical vehicle for Bogart, who gets to play a protagonist whose guilt or innocence related to a murder is only one of the questions about him.

As screenwriter Dixon Steele, Bogart alternates between Bogartian charm and nearly psychotic menace as he woos next-door neighbour Grahame while simultaneously being investigated for the murder of a hat-check girl he hired to summarize the plot of a novel he'd been hired to turn into a screenplay.

Yes, he's lazy too, at least when it comes to reading things.

The movie gradually reveals Steele's troubling history. He was a good C.O. in World War Two, and he was also a good screenwriter before his military service. Now he stinks -- and he's got a history of violence towards women, and violence towards anyone who annoys him, that's hard for the police to ignore. Can love save him? And why is he so damned angry?

While offering a fairly cynical take on early 1950's Hollywood, the movie also seems more modern at times than one expects. Steele really is an anti-hero -- one could see Jack Nicholson playing the role if this were the 1970's -- and the film doesn't necessarily answer all the questions one has about the character. Nicely shot by Nick Ray (Rebel Without A Cause) and solidly acted throughout, this is an unusual film for Bogart and for the time period. Recommended.


Harper, based on The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald, screenplay by William Goldman, starring Paul Newman (Harper), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Pamela Tiffin (Miranda Sampson) and Robert Wagner (Allan Taggart) (1966): The Ross MacDonald novel this film adapts first appeared in 1949 and starred MacDonald's recurring private eye, Lew Archer. The film changes the PI's name to Harper and updates the setting to the go-go sixties, but Newman still embodies the tarnished virtues of Archer/Harper. The movie also bounces a number of ideas and characters off noir classic The Big Sleep, making Harper play sometimes like the missing link between The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski.

Hired to find a missing millionaire, Harper soon finds himself neck-deep in weird California shenanigans, from aging starlets and wheelchair-bound misfits to cult leaders, cult financiers, and trafficking in illegal immigrants. Harper takes a lot of punishment along the way, and dishes some out, while trying to put the pieces of an increasingly bizarre mystery together.

William Goldman's screenplay is sharp and funny, the sort of writing one doesn't get a lot of from Hollywood any more. Harper, another wounded knight errant, really does take an astonishing amount of physical punishment -- like Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, he takes so many blows to the head that he should probably start wearing a helmet.

A subplot involving Harper's soon-to-be-ex-wife (Leigh) offers some character depth, though it could probably have been jettisoned to streamline things a bit more -- in this sort of film, it's the twisty plot and weird characters we want more of, not the domestic travails of the hero. Newman is charming as ever. Harper chews gum with such violence throughout that one one wonders if he's quitting smoking -- or if Newman was. Followed by an inferior sequel, The Drowning Pool. Recommended.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Fungi Island

Yuggoth Cultures and Other Growths, written by Alan Moore and Antony Johnston, illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp, Bryan Talbot, Jacen Burrows, Hunt Emerson, Mike Wolfer, Oscar Zarate, Val Semeiks and others (collected 2009): 1/3 comic book, 2/3's fictional and non-fictional prose, Yuggoth Cultures comes shambling out of Alan (Watchmen) Moore's mind like one of those terrifying hybrids H.P. Lovecraft was always going on about.

Once upon a time, Moore was going to do a novel/short story cycle based on H.P. Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth* poetry cycle. Unfortunately, Moore left the bulk of his stories and notes in a taxi cab, never to be seen again. Years later, Avatar Press collected some of Moore's never-reprinted comics work, some of it Lovecraftian, and rounded it out with adaptations of Moore prose pieces and songs by Antony Johnston; Johnston's own comic-book miniseries Yuggoth Creatures; and several interviews with and articles by Moore. The result is an enjoyable, Lovecraftian hodgepodge.

The essays and interviews give an insight into Moore's creative process in the 1980's, while the more recent material at least sketches in his thoughts on the theory and practice of magic. Johnston's contributions are fairly solid -- he's a good adaptor of Moore's work, and his own miniseries suffers only from a need for greater length and depth. Lovecraftian pastiches generally don't benefit from an overabundance of plot (and Lovecraft himself noted that horrific effect, in his work, had nothing to do with the mechanics of plotting).

The Lovecraftian material is quite enjoyable -- one story, "Recognition", seems like a dry run for Moore's later neo-Lovecraftian horrors The Courtyard and Neonomicon, soon to be collected together by Avatar Press. As kooky as I find Moore's transformation into a practicing wizard, he's eloquent and fascinating on the topic of magic and mythology related to everyday human life (and scientific conceptions of the Fourth Dimension). Some fun Moore shorts from the early 1980's also pop up here, as does a mostly autobiographical epilogue to Moore's epic meditation on Jack the Ripper, From Hell.

I'd recommend this for Moore fans and fans of Lovecraftian Cthulhu material. There is some graphic sex and violence, so be warned.

* 'Yuggoth' was Lovecraft's name for the (former) planet Pluto; the Fungi in question were the Mi-Go, the moth-like sources of the Abominable Snowman myth.

50 States of Horror

American Supernatural Tales, edited by S.T. Joshi (2007)


"The Adventure of the German Student" by Washington Irving
"Edward Randolph's Portrait" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe
"What Was It?" by Fitz-James O'Brien
"The Death of Halpin Frayser" by Ambrose Bierce
"The Yellow Sign" by Robert W. Chambers
"The Real Right Thing" by Henry James

"Old Garfield's Heart" by Robert E. Howard
"The Call of Cthulhu" by H. P. Lovecraft
"The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" by Clark Ashton Smith
"Black Bargain" by Robert Bloch
"The Lonesome Place" by August Derleth
"The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" by Fritz Leiber
"The Fog Horn" by Ray Bradbury
"A Visit" by Shirley Jackson
"Long Distance Call" by Richard Matheson
"The Vanishing American" by Charles Beaumont
"The Events at Poroth Farm" by T. E. D. Klein
"Night Surf" by Stephen King
"The Late Shift" by Dennis Etchison
"Vastarien" by Thomas Ligotti
"Endless Night" by Karl Edward Wagner
"The Hollow Man" by Norman Partridge
"Last Call for the Sons of Shock" by David J. Schow
"Demon" by Joyce Carol Oates
"In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)" by Caitlin R. Kiernan


S.T. Joshi has been at the forefront of critical and academic evaluations and re-evaluations of American horror stories for the last 20 years, most notably in the field of Lovecraft studies. American Supernatural Tales has a list of writers it's mostly hard to argue with (OK, I'd argue against the inclusion of August Derleth and for the inclusion of Edith Wharton, whom Joshi dismisses as a Henry James imitator). OK, I'd also leave out Charles Beaumont. And where's Thomas Disch?


The trick with one of these anthologies is to somehow balance the unfamiliar with the familiarly essential, all within the confines of one volume. Virtually all the writers here really are signposts on the road of American horror fiction. Some represent a problem because of the sheer volume of their output; others do not.


"The Yellow Sign" by Robert W. Chambers, for instance, really is pretty much the only story one could choose from this prolific writer of a century ago, introducing as it does the trope of the Forbidden Book into American horror. "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" by Clark Ashton Smith is a fine selection from a writer who could supply any one of at least 20 stories for this volume. Henry James's "The Real Right Thing" works as an example of how James used the ghost story for psychological reasons -- and really didn't scare anybody outside of "The Turn of the Screw."


This is a great place to start if one hasn't read much horror fiction, American or otherwise. Modern masters such as Caitlin Kiernan and Thomas Ligotti get fairly representative examples. King's "Night Surf," a dry run for The Stand, seems a bit out-of-place, as does Robert Bloch's frankly goofy "Black Bargain," which has not aged all that well. Still, there's a wealth of supernatural fiction here -- solid stories, names to follow, decent biographical and historical information. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Great Chain of Being

Promethea Book 3, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray (2001-2002; collected 2003): Longtime comic-writing great Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell) now believes in Magic, and thinks you should too. The five collected volumes of Promethea lay out the structure and content of Moore's belief system with what's often very thin veneer of metafictional superheroics laid on top.

It's didactic, sure, but the material is so interesting -- and J.H. Williams' art so lush and engaging -- that the whole enterprise is terrifically entertaining regardless of how one feels about, well, Magic.

College student Sophie Bangs' research into the recurring mythological/fictional/comic-book character Promethea, who's been popping up in different incarnations in fiction and in the real world for centuries, caused her to become the current avatar of Promethea back in Volume 1. Now Bangs and Promethea seek to discover how magic works -- and, more importantly, why Promethea is slated to bring about the end of the world.

So we get a magical mystery tour through the levels of magical reality stretching from 'our' world all the way up towards the godhead from which all existence flows. Along the way, the Kabbalah, the Tarot Deck, Aleister Crowley and various other occult sources and forces help to shape Promethea's understanding of how things work, and how she works within this immanent, numinous cosmos.

It may sound a bit tedious and self important, but Moore and Williams keep things light at points and wring a certain amount of humour from the spectacle of human beings confronted by living symbols. There's enough stuff going on in the writing and the art to reward multiple readings both hermeneutically and erotically. Highly recommended, but not for everybody.

Apocalypse Rising

Promethea Book 4, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray (2002-2003; collected 2004): College student Sophie Bangs' research into the recurring mythological/fictional/comic-book character Promethea, who's been popping up in different incarnations in fiction and in the real world for centuries, caused her to become the current avatar of Promethea back in Volume 1.

Now Bangs and Promethea seek to discover how magic works -- and, more importantly, why Promethea is slated to bring about the end of the world. But a problem looms.

Bangs has left her friend Stacia and one of the previous, now-dead, Prometheas in charge of protecting the Earth while she goes on her cosmic odyssey. But this new kick-ass Promethea, having cleaned up a whole host of supernatural enemies, doesn't want to go back to normal life (and un-life). Promethea vs. Promethea action looms! However, Promethea's existence has raised red flags in the government and in other places. While the FBI seeks to track her and her friends down, Promethea must resolve her issues with, um, Promethea -- and come to metaphysical grips with her role in the coming apocalypse.

Heavily didactic and expositional, Promethea isn't for everyone -- but the art is gorgeous and complicated, as is Moore's writing. As Watchmen showed a group of limited heroes set against a looming apocalypse, so does Promethea: but the stakes and the meanings have all changed. And violence solves nothing. All this and Weeping Gorilla!!! Highly recommended, but not for everybody.