Saturday, March 31, 2012

Your Own Republican Vampire: Night Life by Ray Garton (2005)

Night Life by Ray Garton (2005): In 1987's Live Girls, nebbish Davey Owen ended up battling  vampires in New York -- and becoming one. In this sequel, the story picks up 18 years later, with Owen and fellow vampire (and lady love) Casey Thorne living in Los Angeles, making a nice living as screenwriters of romantic comedies, and staying on the straight-and-narrow as 'good' vampires who neither kill nor exploit humans. 

But the bad vampires of Live Girls -- 'brutals' -- still have it in for Davey and Casey. When a millionaire horror novelist enlists private investigators Gavin Keoph and Karen Moffett to find out if vampires are real, the trail leads to Davey and Casey and fellow (though non-vampiric) Live Girls survivor Walter Benedek. Thus, a dirty little war breaks out.

Garton's vampires aren't supernatural. Though they can shapeshift, they're not affected by religious icons. They're hard to kill, but sub-machine-gun fire will do the trick, as will anything that destroys the head, or separates it from the body.

The rhythms of this novel resemble those of a thriller or a hard-boiled detective novel. The stakes are relatively intimate, the battles relatively small in scale. The thematic concerns here lie both with the cost of taking a stand, and the larger societal cost of NOT taking a stand: the brutals operate mostly with impunity while the good vampires try to stay out of their way unless directly attacked by them. It's a situation that's morally unsustainable for the good vampires; pragmatically speaking, the status quo can't be maintained forever anyway. The brutals are rapacious and invasive: they want theirs, and they also want yours. Really, they're almost perfect capitalists.

Night Life deftly and concisely sketches out the parameters of this vampiric sub-society, connecting it to more 'normal' human vices while making the brutals live up their nickname: they are indeed brutal, creatures indulging in their desires without worrying about the consequences for others. They're like neo-conservative hyper-capitalists, though at least the brutals were infected by something real, and not simply an idea -- and they're not hypocritical about their sub-Darwinian struggle to devour everything. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hollywood Undead

They Thirst by Robert McCammon (1981; this edition 1988): McCammon may have been the most Kingian (Kingesque?) horror novelist of the late 1970's and early 1980's, probably because of sensibilities shared with Stephen King and not out of simple imitation. He was good at creating sympathetic characters and then running them through the grinder, and most of his 1970's and 1980's output seems to echo one Stephen King novel or another, and sometimes two or three at the same time. They Thirst seems to have been bounced off both Salem's Lot and The Stand as well as Dracula. Certainly the Vampire King -- Conrad Vulkan, a Hungarian prince who 'died' in the 14th century -- recalls Bram Stoker's Dracula more than he does any of King's vampires. But this vampire has specific, on-stage help from Satan, or at least an adequate stand-in, as a powerful supernatural being referred to as the Headmaster (a name that doesn't really work in the 'Inspires Dread' category) is backing the Vampire King's play for earthly dominion with some heavy magical mojo.

McCammon's cleverest idea here lies in his choice of location for the Vampire King's D-Day: Los Angeles. McCammon's vampires can't tolerate sunlight, but Los Angeles appeals to the Vampire King because he/it, having been 'turned' at the age of 17, is forever obsessed with youthfulness. Los Angeles, home to both gleaming, artificial youth and a sordid, violent underbelly, is a perfect match for this vampire. No old people need apply for admission to this army of vampires. I'd guess no fat chicks either.

The vampires herein exist within a supernatural framework: they are most definitely not viral in origin. Set against the vampires are a ragtag but plucky mismatched group of heroes (is there any other kind of group in popular culture?) who must work together to save the planet from becoming a scrumptious, bloodsoaked buffet: a terminally ill Roman Catholic priest; an 11-year-old boy who loves monster movies; a successful but troubled young comedian; a middle-aged cop who escaped from vampires in his childhood home in Hungary; a mystical young woman; and a handful of other supporting characters. The last third of the book sails straight into the epic, recalling King's The Stand in its elevation of the stakes of the battle. The climax is apocalyptic: McCammon doesn't back down.

I can see why McCammon withdrew this, his fourth novel, from publication for nearly 20 years, citing the idea that his early novels, while good, marked a writer who was still learning. There's much that's derivative in They Thirst, and a bit that's silly, but McCammon's strength at propulsive plotting and at sympathetically drawn characters makes this well worth seeking out. Recommended.


Shadows 2: edited by Charles L. Grant (1979; this edition 1984) containing the following stories:


Saturday's Shadow by William F. Nolan
Night Visions by Jack Dann
The Spring by Manly Wade Wellman
Valentine by Janet Fox
Mackintosh Willy by Ramsey Campbell
Dragon Sunday by Ruth Berman
The White King's Dream by Elizabeth A. Lynn
The Chair by Alan Dean Foster and Jane Cozart
Clocks by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini
Holly, Don't Tell by Juleen Brantingham
The Old Man's Will by Lee Wells
The Closing Off of Old Doors by Peter D. Pautz
Dead End by Richard Christian Matheson
Seasons of Belief by Michael Bishop
Petey by T. E. D. Klein

The late Charles L. Grant was both a talented writer and one of the four or five finest anthologists the horror genre has had. His original anthology series -- Shadows -- was a high point for horror short fiction in the late 1970's and early 1980's, sometimes reading more like a 'Best of' than anything else. Most stories in Shadows are contemporary in setting, as the mandate seemed to focus thereon, but beyond that, anything seemed to go.

There isn't a clunker in the bunch in Shadows 2. Moreover, there are at least two all-timers that appeared here for the first time: Ramsey Campbell's unnerving tale of childhood horror, "Mackintosh Willy", and T.E.D. Klein's "Petey," a novella about a house-warming party that plays enjoyably as both social satire and a Lovecraft-infused horror of suggestion and accumulation of detail. Entries by Michael Bishop and William F. Nolan are also excellent, and the whole anthology is well worth the read. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Dark Delicacies III: Haunted: edited by Jeff Gelb and Del Howison (2009) containing the following stories:

"Though Thy Lips Are Pale" by Maria Alexander
A Haunting by John Connolly
A Nasty Way to Go by Ardath Mayhar
And So with Cries by Clive Barker
Children of the Vortex by Simon Clark
Church Services by Kevin J. Anderson
Do Sunflowers Have a Fragrance? by Del James
Fetch by Chuck Palahniuk
Food of the Gods by Simon R. Green
How to Edit by Richard Christian Matheson
In the Mix by Eric Red
Man with a Canvas Bag by Gary A. Braunbeck
Mist on the Bayou by Heather Graham
One Last Bother by Del Howison
Resurrection Man by Axelle Carolyn
Starlets & Spaceboys by Joseph V. Hartlaub
The Architecture of Snow by David Morrell
The Flinch by Michael Boatman
The Slow Haunting by John R. Little
The Wandering Unholy by Victor Salva
Tyler's Third Act by Mick Garris


Fairly solid original anthology from editors Gelb and Howison, with a number of stories by writers and directors better known for their Hollywood work.

Mick Garris, who's directed about half of all Stephen King adaptations (with King's blessing -- Garris seems to be King's director and occasional screenwriter of choice), offers a caustic piece about the new realities of television and the Internet as seen by a screenwriter who's rapidly circling the drain; Eric Red, another prolific screenwriter, takes on the music industry instead.

The prolific Canadian-born and bred novelist David Morrell (forever to be blurbed as "the creator of Rambo") gives the reader the most original riff on the Haunted theme in a story that touches on the new realities of publishing and a celebrated, reclusive writer who resembles J.D. Salinger.

More traditional supernatural horrors are nicely rendered in "The Wandering Unholy" (Nazis vs. Something Awful). "Starlets & Spaceboys" is a lovely little zinger, as are the bioengineered terrors of Simon Clark's "Children of the Vortex." And Richard Christian Matheson, who's successfully straddled the worlds of print and screen horror for decades (much like his father, Richard Matheson), presents a horror-story about obsessive editing. Recommended.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Black Raven

The Raven, 'inspired' by the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, written by David Boehm, Florence Enright, Michael L. Simmons, Dore Schary, Guy Endore, Clarence Marks, Jim Tully, and John Lynch; directed by Louis Friedlander; starring Boris Karloff (Edmond Bateman) and Bela Lugosi (Dr. Richard Vollin) (1935): Bela Lugosi's increasingly buggy surgeon loves the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

He loves it all so much that he's built a hidden torture chamber in his house filled with torture machines suggested by Poe's short stories and poems. He keeps stuffed ravens everywhere. And he loves quoting Poe. The nine-hundred writers who worked on this hour-long movie really went all out in the 'Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe' department.

There's even a modern-dance sequence that interprets Poe's poem "The Raven." They don't make horror movies like this any more.

Lugosi's Dr. Vollin becomes obsessed with the young dancer he saves with his surgical skill. With the unwilling help of escaped murderer Karloff (who gets the more sympathetic role here), he intends to revenge himself on everyone who's wronged him in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Much hilarity and scenery-chewing ensues, along with some woeful comic relief, some ingenious death traps and hidden rooms (and rooms with hidden properties), and one of Karloff's subtlest performances.

As a strange bonus, Karloff's character ends up looking a lot like the inspiration for the Batman villain Two-Face, just as the protagonist of an earlier horror movie, The Man Who Laughs, is the spitting image of The Joker. Recommended.

Fear of a Black Cat

The Black Cat, written by Peter Ruric and Edgar Ulmer, 'inspired' by the short story by Edgar Allan Poe; directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Werdegast) and Boris Karloff (Poelzig) (1934): Karloff and Lugosi made seven movies together for Universal in the 1930's. This is the best of them, thanks in large part to B-movie auteur Edgar Ulmer's direction and set design. Lugosi's Werdegast was a Hungarian soldier imprisoned by the Russians for 18 years after World War One; Poelzig was his nemesis, a Russian military officer.
Lugosi's unusually heroic (for him) character tries to save an American couple from the Satanic Poelzig, now living in a Hungarian military fort turned into a manion, while also trying to discover the fate of his wife and child at the hands of the former enemy military commander.

The set design, lighting, and costuming all present a sort of Art Deco Gothic look that suits the material. Poelzig really is the leader of a Satanic cult. He also married Werdegast's wife after his imprisonment. And where is the daughter?

As with every one of the Karloff/Lugosi collaborations I've seen, the romantic leads are bland and forgettable, and the comic-relief bits are excruciating. Thankfully, Karloff and Lugosi aren't. Lugosi is uncharacteristically subdued here, possibly because he finally gets to play the hero. The movie looks great and has some nice, snappy dialogue ("Even the phone is dead" being my favourite one-liner). And there are dead women preserved in giant glass bottles and a high-stakes chess game! No killer apes, though.

The Poe elements are almost non-existent, limited pretty much to hints of heterosexual necrophilia and a black cat that wanders through at points to scare Werdegast, who suffers from fear of cats. Highly recommended.

Defend the Block!

Attack the Block: written and directed by Joe Cornish; starring John Boyega (Moses), Jodie Whittaker (Sam), and Nick Frost (Ron) (2011): Fun, brisk alien invasion movie that bits some of the younger residents of a low-income London (England) housing project (or 'block') against furry, eyeless aliens with sharp, pointy, fluorescent teeth.
Will a non-British viewer have some problems with slang and accents? Probably -- I did, and I'm pretty good with these things. But the movie is clearly plotted and laid out. You'll know what's going on at all times.

The early stages may be a bit rough going for some people, as most of the heroes start off, unsympathetically, mugging a young nurse who also lives on the block. But alien invasions have a way of changing people. Or so I've learned from the movies. The protagonists all live in Wyndham Block -- I don't know whether this is a real housing project or an homage to British science-fiction great John Wyndham or both.

There are clever elements of other classic British alien-invasion movies and novels to note along the way, while the climax reminds me (in a good way) of the denouement of a lot of Dr. Who episodes. John Boyega is charismatic as the leader of the youth gang who learns better through adversity, Jodie Whitaker is suitably spunky as the nurse, and Simon Pegg's perennial on-screen and off-screen collaborator Nick Frost shows up to lighten things up as the flunky of a drug dealer. Recommended.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sins and Portents

The Long Lost by Ramsey Campbell (1993): Married couple David and Joelle Owain take a weekend trip to Wales from their home in Chester, a suburb of Liverpool. While David is of Welsh background, he doesn't speak the language -- really, they're just doing the bed-and-breakfast thing. But while hiking around, they find an abandoned village, and beyond the abandoned village, a small island that they can walk to when the tide's out.

And on the small island, a small house, and in the small house an old woman who seems somewhat addled and in need of help. And she says she's a distant relative of David's, and shows him a photograph that seems to confirm this. So after checking with local authorities, they take Gwendolyn back to Chester with them, and install her in a retirement home near their house.

Needless to say, bad things start to happen soon thereafter, for pretty much everyone in the Owain's social circle. But they seem to be doing the bad things themselves. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn (if you want to have fun, go look up the possible meanings of the Welsh name 'Gwendolyn' or 'Gwendolen'), while occasionally socializing with the other residents and with the Owains and their friends, mainly stays in her room and waits.

While The Long Lost is a tale of supernatural horror, that horror plays itself out in the terrible things people can do to other people, especially loved ones. And many of these horrors may simply arise from happenstance. In this way, The Long Lost is a companion piece to Campbell's earlier Obsession, in which the source of what seems to be evil turns out to be far murkier than either the reader or the characters assume. Where does sin come from, and how much blame does any person assume for being unable to resist it?

There are several lengthy setpieces of wrenching horror in the later stages of the novel, made more horrific by Campbell's skill at creating sympathetic victims and perpetrators. And as is perhaps proper in a novel dealing with Wales, birthplace of seminal, often mystical horror writer Arthur Machen, the climax of the novel is more of a mystery than anything that has come before as the mystic and the sublime move into the forefront. Those seeking horror with a clearcut resolution are warned to stay away. Highly recommended.

Lex Talionis

361 by Donald Westlake (1962): Ray Kelly finishes his European stint in the U.S. Air Force and returns home to meet his father in New York City before returning to their hometown in Upstate New York. And then hell breaks loose, and keeps breaking loose for the rest of the novel.

An early novel from thriller maestro Westlake, 361 offers a lot of hardboiled thrills and reversals in its 200 pages. The strength of the novel lies in its plot, and in Westlake's sympathetic, somewhat genre-busting characterization of Ray Kelly. Events force him to be a tough guy. That doesn't mean he likes it, or likes committing violence. Kelly throws up a lot both before and after moments of violence, though there are subtler bits of characterization as well.

One can see, in Kelly's characterization, Westlake working against the dominant mode of hardbitten, almost sadistic protagonists of similar novels of the 1950's and 1960's that include the super-popular Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Indeed, during a lull in the action Kelly tries to kill time by reading some (unnamed) paperback thrillers, only to discover that he can't suspend his disbelief at how violence has no lasting psychological effects on the protagonists. It's a lovely, subtle moment of metacommentary on the genre that Westlake would soon be an acknowledged, boundary-pushing master of. Recommended.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Don't Mess with His Cat

The Filth: written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine (2002-2003): It's helpful to know that 'the Filth' is British slang for 'the police.' Morrison and Weston present a world in which a secret police force called The Hand works to preserve Status: Q, the normative state of affairs in which most humans remains blissfully unaware of the extraordinarily strange world they really inhabit. Or so it seems, anyway.

Greg Feely is a normal, porn-loving fellow with a boring job and an ailing, beloved cat named Tony. Then he finds out that 'Greg Feely' is a parapersona, a hiding place for Hand operative Ned Slade. The Hand cleans up the messes that threaten the body politic, monsters and tyrants and murderers whose crimes resemble diseases and bodily frailties.

Giant, flying spermatozoa attack Los Angeles. A giant cruise-ship becomes a floating madhouse populated by hive-mind anti-persons. Normal citizens are found hideously and improbably aged to death.

The Hand's headquarters exist in a strange place over which looms what appears to be the hand of a dead God, clutching a pen. Time moves with hyperrapidity there, with unprotected life living and dying in minutes. In the Hand's HQ, agents come and go at the behest of over-constables Man Green/Man Yellow, given orders by strange, cybernetic beings. And one of the Hand's best agents, Spartacus Hughes, has gone rogue. The world shudders on the brink of destruction and revelation.

As with Morrison's earlier, longer The Invisibles, The Filth rewards multiple readings. The art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine is clean and straightforward -- the grotesque and the sublime completely in focus (well, except for some pixelated male penises, as DC Vertigo apparently won't show them if they're erect). It's a darned peculiar book, yet it all makes sense in the end. Highly recommended.

Brain Candy: Not So Dandy

iZombie Volume 1: Dead to the World: written by Chris Roberson; illustrated by Mike Allred (2009-2010; collected 2010): Breezy, fun DC Vertigo series about the adventures of Gwen Dylan, reluctant zombie, and her natural and supernatural friends.

Gwen looks relatively normal most of the time, but she needs to eat human brains once a month to avoid turning into a more standard shambling, drooling zombie. As she doesn't like the taste of brains, this is something of a drag. At least her job as a gravedigger gives her easy access to the gray matter she needs but doesn't crave.

And at least she has friends, most notably Ellie, a young woman/ghost who died some time in the early 1960's, and Scott, a were-terrier. Gwen gets stuck trying to figure out who killed the owner of the brains she eats near the beginning of this collection -- the memories of the deceased transfer to her, though understanding them can be something of a chore. And there will be other supernatural problems to face as well, including mummies and vampires and monster-hunters.

Roberson keeps things light without getting glib, and Allred's art is, as always, a clean-lined pleasure. It's funny that more straightforward, 'traditional' comic-book art continues to thrive in the Vertigo line while the 'mainstream' DC line gets ever murkier and ever more over-rendered and buried in a slop of full-process colour. So it goes. Recommended.

Tarot of Terror

Lucifer Volume 4: The Divine Comedy: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross and Dean Ormiston (2002; collected 2003): Lucifer, based on the version of Lucifer in Neil Gaiman's earlier Sandman series, has succeeded in creating his own universe. Humans and supernatural beings have flocked there from God's universe through any one of thousands of portals, there to live by only two commandments: Thou shalt not worship any gods, and thou shalt not attempt to be worshipped as gods.

And things seem to proceed swimmingly.

But Lucifer has enemies and rivals. He also has allies, though he doesn't have any friends -- he's a self-involved jerk, which means readerly sympathy has to be built upon the supporting characters and, negatively, by showing that Lucifer's enemies are much, much worse than he is.

Carey, Gross, and Ormiston succeed in this task -- Carey's writing zips along, combining inventiveness with a quirky oddness of original creation; Gross and Ormiston are deft cartoonists, cleanly rendering a world of wonders and terrors both supernatural and natural. And the fallen Cherubim Gaudium really is cute in a gargoyley way as he complains his way across two creations.

Lucifer's chief opponent here is the Basanos, a sentient Tarot Card deck created as a malign twin of the Book of Destiny. The Basanos can see all possible realities and force the outcome they desire; Lucifer is powerful enough to shrug off almost any and all attacks imaginable. But we're dealing with a deck of cards here -- They/It have something up Their/Its sleeve(s). Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

This Novel Sucks

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub (2010): Peter Straub has been a fine writer of the supernatural for decades. A Dark Matter, though, is a dreadful piece of work. It's structurally and metaphysically ambitious -- I'll give it that -- but Straub's reach has far exceeded his grasp here.
The only horror novel from a major writer I can think of that's this bad in the same way is William Peter Blatty's exhausting, overly precious Legion, with its dollar-store profundities and its precious little toe-dips into actual philosophy, religion, and cosmology.

Yes. Of a certain type of horror novel, from 35 years of reading horror novels, I can say this is the second worst one ever. No wonder it won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel of 2010 from the Horror Writers Guild. It must have stunned the voters into a stupor.

Back in 1966, a group of high-school and college students were taken in by figuratively and literally rambling guru Spencer Mallon. They did something in a meadow. One person died. One person disappeared. Everyone was changed forever. Now, the one member of this group of students who didn't go into that meadow, novelist Lee Harwell, sets out to find out what really happened.

This isn't an unusual set-up for a horror story -- M. John Harrison's great novella "The Great God Pan" similarly and far more evocatively deals with the aftermath of such a supernatural event decades later.

A Dark Matter, though...phew. Lots and lots of telling rather than showing (to cite one example, we're endlessly and repeatedly told how everyone just absolutely loves "the wondrous Eel", Lee Truax, Harwell's 1966 girlfriend and 2009 wife, but her wondrousness is sparingly, parsimoniously, sketchily depicted).

We're told how magnetic and amazing Spencer Mallon was and is, but given very little to convince us that he is magnetic and amazing beyond everyone's love and adoration of him. And when we move into the more and more overtly supernatural...hoo boy. You'll never look at that iconic painting of dogs playing poker the same way again, let's just leave it at that. Or AstroTurf.

Silly, sketchy, ponderous, pretentious, pompous. Oh, and Lee Harwell, novelist and frame narrator, boy what a drag he is. He wears expensive shoes. He drinks expensive liquor. His horror novel once got him on the cover of Time magazine in the 1980's. He's a crashing bore who often repeats himself and doesn't seem to be gifted with an editor who will actually edit anything. And there's that wondrous Eel, doing nothing particularly wondrous until the very end. But she is so very wondrous, unlike this lousy novel. Not recommended.