Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Live Twee or Die Hard

Poe's Children: The New Horror: An Anthology: edited by Peter Straub, containing the following stories:

The Bees by Dan Chaon
Cleopatra Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand
The Man on the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem
The Great God Pan by M. John Harrison
The Voice of the Beach by Ramsey Campbell
The Body by Brian Evenson
Louise's Ghost by Kelly Link
The Sadness of Detail by Jonathan Carroll
Leda by M. Rickert
In Praise of Folly by Thomas Tessier
Plot Twist by David J. Schow
The Two Sams by Glen Hirshberg
Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story by Thomas Ligotti
Unearthed by Benjamin Percy
Gardener of Heart by Bradford Morrow
Little Red's Tango by Peter Straub
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet by Stephen King
20th Century Ghost by Joe Hill
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages
The Kiss by Tia V. Travis
Black Dust by Graham Joyce
October in the Chair by Neil Gaiman
Missolonghi 1824 by John Crowley
Insect Dreams by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson

I'd like this anthology a lot better with 'horror' removed from the title, though what one would replace that word with could lead to some debate: several stories don't feature the supernatural, so that's out; ghosts don't appear in all the stories, so there goes 'ghost story.' Even The New Fabulists fails, despite the broad net of that term.

"The New Horror" seems to have started around 1980 for Straub, though several writers (Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, and Straub himself, among others) have published careers that stretch back up to 15 years before that. Again, odd: there are at least two generations of writers here, maybe even three. 130 years after Poe, the title seems a bit odd as well, and unintentionally dismissive of those 130 years of horror between Poe's death and the appearance of the first story here.

And horror, no -- about half the stories here fail to horrify, terrify, gross out or (per S.T. Joshi) unnerve. And not just because I've read too much horror. Some of the choices -- maybe none moreso than Straub's choice for his own story -- simply aren't horror, though all the stories in this anthology are well written.

One of the strangely dominant modes here is the sort of dark, fantastical whimsy that John Collier and Roald Dahl, among others, were masters of -- perhaps the most acceptable literary form of the fantastic through much of the 20th century if one bases one's analysis on the slick magazines and what they tended to publish for decades on end. Neil Gaiman, Straub, Jonathan Carroll and a few others offer this sort of project, in which the whimsy can sometimes be smothered in twee, never moreso than in Kelly Link's "Louise's Ghost", a treacly, twinkly botch of a story.

King's uncharacteristic entry here -- I can't recall ever seeing it anthologized since its first appearance in 1984 -- is much better than I remember it, but still undercut by the sheer, well, whimsy of the basic premise. The fantastic element simply can't bear the weight of the story's exploration of madness and addiction. The story would be better without any nod to the fantastic.

I did enjoy many of the stories I'd never encountered before, even many of those that aren't really horror at all. But it's a darn peculiar anthology: peculiarly skimpy on contextual material, and peculiarly spotty in terms of satisfying the 'horror' portion of its title. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fever Dream

A Scanner Darkly: adapted by Richard Linklater from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name; directed by Richard Linklater; starring Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor); Robert Downey Jr. (James Barris); Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck); Winona Ryder (Donna Hawthorne) and Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman) (2006): Adapter/director Richard Linklater achieved at least three remarkable things with A Scanner Darkly: he created the most faithful movie adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel or short story ever; he created an outstanding science-fiction film; and he maximized the limited acting ability of Keanu Reeves by casting Reeves as a burnt-out case in the midst of a drug-fueled mental breakdown.
Reeves plays Bob Arctor, a near-future California undercover government narc charged by his superiors with helping win the war against Substance D, a highly addictive illegal substance that rapidly causes irreversible brain damage in those addicted to it, partially by severing the connection between an addict's left and right brain hemispheres.

Arctor is deep undercover, sharing a house with two other addicts and buying Substance D from a third in increasingly difficult-to-supply mass quantities in the hopes of moving up the supply chain. The government knows what the main ingredient of Substance D derives from -- a small, blue-flowered plant -- but it doesn't know who is growing it, refining it, and putting it on the street.

Dick based much of A Scanner Darkly on his own drug experiences of the 1960's and 1970's, experiences which saw him committed to a mental asylum for a time, and experiences which caused him to interact with a large number of doomed and mostly doomed addicts. Indeed, the movie appends a portion of the novel's afterword to the end of the movie -- a roll call of the dead and damaged.

The hyper-colourful, rotoscoped animation Linklater uses here (he first used it in Waking Life) suits the material and the tone of that material -- the movie looks like a fever dream, a pulsating nightmare in which nothing is stable. All the principals deliver outstanding performances, including Reeves, and perhaps most notably Robert Downey Jr., who presents us with a jittery speed freak (Substance D appears to be at least partially an amphetamine) over-bursting with his own paranoid delusions and fantasies.

The title is a play on the Biblical phrase 'Through a glass, darkly': there are scanners in this movie, but they aren't the Cronenberg variety. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Adam Raised a Cain

The Seven Days of Cain by Ramsey Campbell (2010): Young Liverpool couple Andy Bentley and Claire are struggling to conceive a child. Andy works at his father and mother's photography studio; Claire works for a government-sponsored charitable organization that tries to provide homes and job training for the homeless. Things seem to be going OK, despite the fact that doctors can't figure out why Claire can't conceive.
Elsewhere, someone has murdered a playwright with the somewhat goofy name of Penny Scrivener in New York. One of Barcelona's "living statues" has been murdered in Barcelona; her name was Serena Paz. Soon thereafter, Andy begins getting emails about something he did in the past, apparently something awful, from an unknown sender with a flair for puzzles and word games. An old schoolmate of Claire's shows up outside her workplace, homeless, and very odd. A self-important writer shows up at Andy's studio, looking to get memorable photographs of himself, eventually offering Andy a chance for mainstream publication of his photos.

After 150 pages, one may think one knows where this novel is heading, but one really doesn't.

On the beach near Claire and Andy's house, the (real), and really odd Liverpudlian metal statues of the same figure repeated dozens of times, staring out to sea, sometimes seem to have one less member, or perhaps one more. On the horizon, giant windmills tilt at the sky, always intruding into Claire and Andy's perceptions of that environment.

Campbell's novels have often tugged and pulled at the nature of reality, perhaps most notably and successfully in Incarnate and The Grin of the Dark. Well, he's back at reality again, in a novel that functions as a sequel of sorts -- or perhaps more accurately a shared-universe tale -- as related to a previous but recent novel and a 40-year-old short story that turned out to have a concept within it that adapted well to the Age of Internet. Naming that novel and that short story would reveal too much, too soon of the novel's clever shift midway through, and knowledge of the two isn't necessary to enjoying The Seven Days of Cain, though that knowledge does add to the enjoyment -- and the level of existential disturbance.

The Seven Days of Cain supplies a lot of Campbell's trademarked description, both vivid and intensely allusive, that can sometimes make a story seem disturbingly dream-like, as background and midground and foreground collapse into one (the story does feature a photographer as a protagonist, after all). No one will be punished for anything resembling a "real" crime here, but punishment -- or judgement -- is coming nonetheless. Why and for whom? Read the emails carefully. Don't stand too long on the beach. Don't check your spam box too often. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Giant-size Swamp Thing

The Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 5: written by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben; illustrated by Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Alfredo Alcala (1986; collected 2011): The penultimate collection of Alan Moore's career-making run on DC's Saga of the Swamp Thing sees Rick Veitch take over as primary penciller. As previous Swamp Thing penciller (and then-continuing cover artist) Steve Bissette notes in the informative introduction, Veitch's interest in science fiction over horror helped shift the book to a more science-fiction-oriented direction. But first Swamp Thing would travel to Gotham City for a fateful encounter with Batman. Then it was off into space for several issues for an odyssey that would conclude in the next volume.

The double-sized issue featuring Swamp Thing's battle with Batman is a doozy, showcasing as it does longtime Swamp Thing inker John Totleben's second full-art stint on the comic book. It's gorgeous: Totleben's art often looked like he was cutting his fine lines into wood or perhaps copper. It's elegant and old-school without being stiff or anachronistic. This was the time of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, so Batman gets a really, really big Batmobile. However, Moore's Batman is much more sympathetic and fallible than Miller's -- and reasonable, in the end, as he and Swamp Thing ultimately resolve their differences without killing each other.

Subsequent issues further develop the character of Swamp Thing's beloved Abigail Cable, reintroduce two horribly transformed characters from Martin Pasko's early 1980's run on Saga, and bring us Swamp Thing's first foray into space travel. One can see Moore straining at the chains of the endless status quo of the mainstream superhero universe here. Things may return to the baseline at the end of each seemingly world-changing event, but logically they shouldn't.

Even if DC wouldn't soon anger Moore and cause him to leave the mainstream forever, one can't really believe, reading these stories, that he would have been much longer satisfied with 'The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same.' Highly recommended.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 6: written by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and Rick Veitch; illustrated by Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Alfredo Alcala, and Tom Yeates (1986-87; collected 2011): And so Alan Moore's time as writer of DC's Saga of the Swamp Thing comes to an end after four years and nearly 50 issues'-worth of adventures. When he took over with issue 20, Moore was a British comic-book writer making his American debut. When he finished, he was the most praised writer of mainstream comic books in North America.
Swamp Thing's space odyssey continues, as the muck-encrusted Plant Elemental desperately seeks a way back to Earth and the arms of his beloved Abby. Meanwhile, on Earth, Abby believes Swamp Thing to be dead and starts to gradually move on with her life. Yes, they are literally star-crossed lovers.

The move into space brings Swamp Thing into contact (and occasionally conflict) with some of DC's Silver Age space characters, most notably Earth hero Adam Strange and a couple of really jerky Hawkpeople from Hawkman's planet of Thanagar. Swamp Thing also encounters a creepy machine entity in an artistic tour-de-force for Totleben, who illustrates an entire issue in the sort of heavy-duty collage that really does have to be seen to be appreciated, an issue that also allows Moore to cut loose with a long burst of prose-poetry meant to show the alien-ness of the issue's narrator, a world-sized machine intelligence pining for love in the lonely abyss of space.

Swamp Thing also encounters some of Jack Kirby's New Gods in an issue written by Veitch, one that showcases the more satiric, blackly comic and irreverent Swamp Thing that Veitch would be writing a lot more of when he took over from Moore as Saga writer with issue 65. Bissette's first full script sees Abby back on Earth encountering a character from the very beginnings of Swamp Thing back in the early 1970's, when it was written by Len Wein and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. And there's a Green Lantern to be met before our hero returns home and Moore's stint as writer concludes with the lovely, elegaic "Return of the Good Gumbo." It was one hell of a ride. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Horns of a Dilemma

Horns by Joe Hill (2010): Ignatius "Ig" Perrish wakes up from an alcohol-fueled black-out to discover that horns have sprouted on his head overnight. A year earlier, somebody murdered his longtime girlfriend Merrin, a murder most people believe that Ig committed. So begins Horns, the second novel by Joe Hill (after Heart-Shaped Box).

Ig's horns give him some (mostly) useful powers. People will tell him pretty much anything bad they've ever done, without prompting, and not remember doing so (or seeing Ig, for that matter) afterwards. And when he touches people, he can see every bad thing they've ever done in exhaustive detail. When you're investigating a murder, powers like these seem almost heaven-sent.

Merrin had suddenly broken up with Ig the night of the murder, which was also the night before Ig was set to fly to London, England to work for Amnesty International for six months. She said they should see other people, as they'd been dating steadily for ten years -- since Ig was 15 and Merrin 14.

After an argument in a roadhouse, Ig stormed out, leaving Merrin to find her own way home. And soon thereafter she was dead. There wasn't enough evidence to link Ig to the crime, but pretty much everyone in Ig's small New England town "knows" he did it and got away with it. Everyone except Ig and the murderer.

The early stages of Horns see Hill working in the somewhat familiar territory of Thomas Disch's Minnesota Quartet, four vaguely linked, blackly humourous and satiric supernatural novels from the 1980's and 1990's. Ig's early adventures with his horns lead to terrible revelations set within a storyline dotted with social and political satire directed at the Right and, more generally, the seemingly 'good' pillars of any community. Everyone has secrets: pathetic secrets, awful secrets, blackly comic secrets.

However, Hill is a much softer touch than Disch, and the novel moves into more humanistic territory even as the supernatural grows in importance. Lengthy flashbacks gradually fill us in on what really happened, while all the time Ig's powers -- and resemblance to a traditional Christian devil -- grow. It's an enjoyable ride, chock full of pop culture references and allusions, and possessed of a truly awful, pathetic antagonist. The action gets a bit repetitive towards the end, but it's nonetheless a solid read and a pretty impressive second novel. Recommended.

Best New Horror 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 22 (2010), edited by Stephen Jones (2011), containing the following stories:

*What Will Come After by Scott Edelman
Substitutions by Michael Marshall Smith
A Revelation of Cormorants by Mark Valentine
*Out Back by Garry Kilworth
*Fort Clay, Louisiana: A Tragical History by Albert E. Cowdrey
Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls by Brian Hodge
*Fallen Boys by Mark Morris
The Lemon in the Pool by Simon Kurt Unsworth
The Pier by Thana Niveau
*Featherweight by Robert Shearman
Black Country by Joel Lane
*Lavender and Lychgates by Angela Slatter
*Christmas with the Dead by Joe R. Lansdale
*Losenef Express by Mark Samuels
Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside by Christopher Fowler
*We All Fall Down by Kirstyn McDermott
*Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge
*Telling by Steve Rasnic Tem
*As Red as Red by Caitlin R. Kiernan
*With the Angels by Ramsey Campbell
Autumn Chill by Richard L. Tierney
City of the Dog by John Langan
*When the Zombies Win by Karina Sumner-Smith

Series editor Stephen Jones gives us 23 stories this year, along with the lengthy annual 'Year in Horror' and encyclopedic 'Necrology' (the latter consisting of obituaries of writers, actors and others with some affiliation to horror, written by British horror expert Kim Newman).

I've starred the stories I think are really exceptional. The writing level is, as always for this series, high. Stories range from nouveau-Cthulhu by way of hardboiled Jim Thompson (Norman Partidge's "Lesser Demons") to the surreal ("Featherweight"), from zombies (three stories) through Lovecraftian ghouls ("City of the Dog") to unwanted, menacing fruits and vegetables ("The Lemon in the Pool"). Ramsey Campbell supplies a story about old family grievances and wounds that may or may not involve the supernatural. Caitlin Kiernan and Albert E. Cowdrey give us fine examples of closely observed historical horror -- or maybe historical-research horror would be a better moniker, as the protagonists dig deeply, too deeply, into the undead past.

Angela Slatter delivers a story that reminds me favourably of some of Tanith Lee's best work. Scott Edelman and Karina Sumner-Smith both deliver elegaic farewells to, well, zombies; Joe Lansdale gives us zombies and Christmas; Mark Samuels delivers a disturbing tale focused upon a character based on deceased horror writing and editing great Karl Edward Wagner. All in all, another good year. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pale Horrors

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie; written by Michael McDowell and George A. Romero, partially based on stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Stephen King; directed by John Harrison; starring Deborah Harry (Betty), Christian Slater (Andy), David Johansen (Halston), William Hickey (Drogan), James Remar (Preston), Rae Dawn Chong (Carola), Robert Sedgwick (Lee), Steve Buscemi (Bellingham), Julianne Moore (Susan), and Robert Klein (Wyatt) (1990): The 1983 Stephen King/George Romero movie Creepshow, an anthology of five horror shorts, was once supposed to become a TV series. That fell through, and the Romero-produced Tales from the Darkside series of the 1980's ultimately resulted. A second, lesser Creepshow movie came out in 1987. And then came this film, which horror effects guru Tom Savini called "the real Creepshow 3." Got all that?

Here we get three shorts and a frame story starring Deborah Harry as a suburban housewife with a shocking secret. She's actually a retired pop star! Well, no. Then we get three shorts: "Lot 249", loosely adapted from an Arthur Conan Doyle short story; "The Cat from Hell", based on a Stephen King story; and "Lover's Vow", an original penned by horror novelist Michael McDowell.

The last one is the best, with the first two (and the frame tale) partially submerged by too much campiness and jokeiness. As with Creepshow and Creepshow 2, most of the makers seem to have confused the jokeiness and punniness of the frame narration of the1950's EC horror comics from which these movies draw their inspiration with the content of the actual stories, stories which were generally played straight up and gruesome. It's the frame that's supposed to be jokey, not the tale itself. Thus horror gets repeatedly undercut by that deadly, deadly jolite. Oh, well.

The cast, especially of "Lot 249", is very good -- Julianne Moore and Steve Buscemi would soon be on their way to better things. "Lover's Vow" highlights the fact that Rae Dawn Chong and Jaye Davidson (of The Crying Game) bear a fairly startling resemblance depending on the camera angle. Short, vaguely enjoyable, and occasionally interesting. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Work Sucks

My Work Is Not Yet Done: Three Tales of Corporate Horror by Thomas Ligotti containing "My Work Is Not Yet Done", "I Have a Special Plan for the World", and "The Nightmare Network" (2007): Frank Dominio is a team supervisor at a corporation called New Product. On his own initiative, he comes up with, well, a new product, and briefly presents his idea to his fellow supervisors and their boss, Richard (nicknamed "The Doctor" for initially unknown-to-Frank reasons).

And here Frank's troubles begin in the lengthy titular novella.

Thomas Ligotti gets to be described as a unique voice in horror because he really is a unique voice in horror. He can be approximated by imagining some bizarre mash-up of two or three or four other writers (for the record, I'd go with Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Clark Ashton Smith, and Roald Dahl) , but there's no single writer who's truly like him. He's an American original, writer of some of the bleakest, bleakly funniest horror stories of the past thirty years.

His take on corporate horror is singular and tricky. The novella initially seems to exist in the realm of the workplace revenge fantasy, something we've all seen. But the means of Frank's revenge are extraordinarily odd, and become odder as that revenge progresses. This is not Office Space With Ghosts.

People who've read other Ligotti stories may realize around the halfway mark that "My Work Is Not Yet Done" takes place in the same bleak universe as 1999's "The Shadow, The Darkness." One doesn't need to know this to understand what's going on, but it does deepen the experience as we plunge into the Magical Nihilism that is Ligotti's dominant mode of discourse.

But the novella is also horribly funny, as are the two short stories that complete this triptych. Frank Dominio begins the novella with a bleak outlook on humanity in general and his co-workers in particular, and the events of the story show that bleakness to not be enough. The world is much worse than Dominio ever imagined. The revenge scenarios initially carry a certain grotesque zing, but they quickly lose their enjoyability for Frank as he realizes who and what he's up against -- or working for.

Ligotti's fiction can truly unnerve one (as S.T. Joshi has observed), leading one to question the parameters of one's own existence, and the meaning of existence itself. But it's strangely, blackly refreshing because if one rejects the nihilistic cosmos of many of Ligotti's stories, one finds one's own cosmos to be that much more welcoming and benign by comparison. Highest recommendation.

Friday, February 3, 2012

No Exit

Spider, written by Patrick McGrath, based on the novel of the same name by Patrick McGrath; directed by David Cronenberg; starring Ralph Fiennes ("Spider" Cleg), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Cleg/Yvonne/Mrs. Wilkinson), Gabriel Byrne (Bill Cleg), Lynn Redgrave (Mrs. Wilkinson) and John Neville (Terrence) (2002): David Cronenberg, bless his soul, likes to go places other filmmakers don't, won't, or can't. In the case of Spider, he heads back into the territory of Dead Ringers, giving us a horror story in which there is no catharsis, no growth, and no hope. It's an astonishingly bleak film.

Ralph Fiennes, complete with hair that was apparently an homage to Samuel Beckett (the playwright, not the Quantum Leaper), plays the titular schizophrenic without the bells and whistles someone like, say, Robert DeNiro might have demanded. There's no showiness, no look-at-me-acting scene of yelling or imploring the audience for empathy. Spider is almost completely mute, and when he does talk, he mumbles incoherently.

Spider's been released from a mental asylum into a halfway house when the movie begins, in a rundown, vaguely 1980's-looking urban England. His nickname comes from a tendency he's had since childhood to weave elaborate webs out of string and pieces of rope. He's a pattern maker. But he's also schizophrenic. The patterns he makes, the viewer needs to remember, may look sound, but they're inherently flawed.

The movie takes us through Spider's reminscences of his childhood, of what seems to be an ogre-ish and unfaithful father and a saint of a mother. How reliable are Spider's memories? Therein lies the mystery of the movie, inevitable as death. This isn't a movie to enjoy in a normal way -- it's horrifying, and there's no attempt to make Spider warm and cuddly, a Hollywood madman. He's very sick. And schizophrenia doesn't spring from some easily understandable childhood trauma: it's a disease, a cancer of the mind.

I was exhausted by the end of the movie, and that was from watching it in 20-minute increments over several days. But it was a good exhaustedness. But this isn't Rain Man or A Beautiful Mind. There are no easy life lessons here, no Nobel Prize, no well-meaning brother who learns valuable things from someone with cognitive difficulties, though there are, even for Spider, flashes of clarity amidst the crushing horror. And the clarity just makes the horror worse. Highly recommended.

The Invisible Batman

Batman Unseen; written by Doug Moench; illustrated by Kelley Jones (2007-2008): Throwback to Moench's 1990's and 1980's work on Batman, some of it with Jones as illustrator. Batman, plagued by doubts about the efficacy of his Batman persona when it comes to frightening an increasingly unfrightened criminal lot, faces an invisible enemy -- a scientist driven crazy by his invisibility serum.

1980's Moench creation Black Mask, one of Gotham's criminal kingpins, plays a supporting villainous role. Jones's art is as interesting and grotesque as it's ever been, and Moench's Batman is a lot more human than most recent incarnations. The invisible villain isn't all that interesting, and Batman seems to have way more trouble fighting him than one would expect. Not a high point for either creator, but certainly diverting. Lightly recommended.

The 2009 Horror

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 2 (2009) edited by Ellen Datlow (2010) containing

*Lowland Sea by Suzy McKee Charnas
The End of Everything by Steve Eller
Mrs Midnight by Reggie Oliver
*each thing i show you is a piece of my death by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer
*The Nimble Men by Glen Hirshberg
*What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night by Michael Marshall Smith
Wendigo by Micaela Morrissette
*In the Porches of My Ears by Norman Prentiss
Lonegan's Luck by Stephen Graham Jones
*The Crevasse by Nathan Ballingrud and Dale Bailey
The Lion's Den by Steve Duffy
Lotophagi by Edward Morris
The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall by Kaaron Warren
Dead Loss by Carole Johnstone
*Strappado by Laird Barron
*The Lammas Worm by Nina Allan
*Technicolor by John Langan

Big, big improvement on the first volume of this series, with a lot more excellent stories and fewer boring ones. I've starred the high points, which run the gamut from near-future apocalypse ("Lowland Sea" by Suzy McKee Charnas) through a bad night at the movies ("In the Porches of My Ears" by Norman Prentiss) to, well, a bad night ("What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" by Michael Marshall Smith).

The Toronto-set Gemma Files/Stephen J. Barringer story does a lovely job of combining both the structure and the content of new media with one of the oldest structures for a horror story (the epistolary format), while John Langan's story presents us with a mountingly dread-filled college classroom lecture on Poe. Recommended.