Saturday, July 28, 2012

At the Mountains of Madness (1931) by H.P. Lovecraft

At the Mountains of Madness (1931) by H.P. Lovecraft : When Frankenstein's Creature went bounding off into the Arctic wastes at the end of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in the early 1800's, ostensibly to commit suicide, he helped start a small but rewarding sub-genre of horror: the Sublime voyage into the Arctic (or Antarctic) wastes. Shelley's unnatural Creature was repeatedly associated in Shelley's novel with the great Romantic obsession, the Sublime in nature: he inexorably leads his creator on a chase after him into the Arctic, and he's repeatedly seen against the backdrop of the Swiss Alps, nimble as a goat but much, much, much larger.

One of the uses of the Sublime in literature and art of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was as a statement on the ephemerality of humanity's constructions. This use explains why there are so many paintings from that period featuring a ruined building of some sort with a mountain looming in the background. Seriously. You can look it up. And the first age of Arctic exploration was underway as the 19th century began, leading to an entire landscape of the Sublime, rather than just one looming mountain.

That a lot of these real expeditions suffered grievous losses while looking for things like the Northwest Passage just increased their literary appeal -- as did the gradual exploration of the Antarctic coast during the middle part of the century. Those first tentative forays into Antarctic exploration led to Edgar Allan Poe's Antarctic nightmare The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Further Antarctic exploration would be one of the exploratory high points of the early 20th century, as would the seemingly Sisyphean race to climb Mount Everest. From these two contemporary Sublime enterprises -- and literary forebears that included Coleridge, Shelley, and Poe -- H.P. Lovecraft would forge his extraordinarily influential short novel, At the Mountains of Madness. The DNA of Lovecraft's creation would have many ancestors -- including the indifferent science fictional universe of H.G. Wells, in which humanity just isn't all that important -- but the final product would be something new and enduring.

Much of the pleasure of the novel lies in its gradual, vise-tightening approach to revelations both visceral and existential, accompanied by, and accomplished by, the accumulation of telling detail. Its bare bones would be in use soon after its mid-1930's magazine publication, in John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?", which would be adapted three times and counting into movies, always as The Thing. There, as in At the Mountains of Madness, an Antarctic expedition encounters something alien. Bad things happen. Very bad things.

Lovecraft deploys his signature documentary meticulousness here, as his narrator grinds through detailed descriptions of the foreboding landscape in order to build to the introduction of the fantastic. The details seem plausible even now, even the biological ones -- more plausible than, say, the similarly themed Prometheus. This is quite a feat for Lovecraft, as neither DNA nor the true timescale of the universe were known when he was writing. His narrative even goes all-in on plate tectonics, which in the 1930's was a theory held in contempt by mainstream geologists. So, like, score one for HPL's prescience.

At the Mountains of Madness really is a joy to read, perhaps Lovecraft's most sustained and modulated piece of horror writing. The final revelation may fall a bit flat, but I'm not sure it can do anything else, given the revelations already in play. Lovecraft's intrepid explorers find themselves not only dwarfed by a Sublime landscape -- they find themselves poised over a cyclopean Time Abyss which becomes more unsettling and unnerving the farther they physically travel into the unknown. In the end, only one revelation is comforting. And it's not that comforting.

Given how much of the novel is given over to description and exposition and people walking through tunnels looking at stuff, I'm not sure how Guillermo del Toro intended to adapt it as a movie. Like Moby Dick, which I'm pretty sure also brought some influence to bear on Lovecraft, this is an adventure novel of ideas and philosophical speculation. But what awaits at the literal and figurative bottom of the world is ultimately one step beyond rational explanation. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Croning by Laird Barron (2012)

The Croning by Laird Barron (2012): Laird Barron has fairly quickly made a name for himself in horror fiction with a unique blend of cosmic horror, graphic depictions of horrific violence, and a constant concern with masculinity and its discontents, satisfactions, and challenges when faced by maggot-like, child-eating horrors from beyond the rim of conventional space-time. Some of Barron's male protagonists (sort of) break even in their confrontations with gibbering, capering, nigh-omnipotent horrors, though generally only through escape or death. Most of them are either destroyed or subverted.

Many of Barron's stories share the same mythology, in which a race of cosmic horrors collectively known as the Children of Old Leech lurk in the lost places of the Earth, spiritually and physically feasting on humans while occasionally offering a small handful of people the "honour" of joining them. Technically speaking, the Leech are both endo- and exocolonists: they conquer from without and within, all in preparation for the day Old Leech itself wakes up hungry and devours the populations of whole planets. Which is what happened to the dinosaurs, among other lost Earth populations.

Yes, he's the feel-good writer of 2012!

The Croning is Barron's first novel, and it's a doozy. For the most part, the narrative follows hapless geologist Don Miller who, in the present day, is in his 80's and plagued by gaps in his memory that, when encountered, his mind scrambles to either explain or forget that such a discovery ever happened (he's even forgotten that he ever knew Spanish well enough to translate Spanish documents).

Don's uncannily young-looking wife of more than 50 years, Michelle Mock, has always pursued the anthropology and archaeology of "lost" tribes, periodically leaving Don for weeks or even months at a time. And as the narrative swings back and forth in time and space, we begin to see why Don's mind is so screwed up -- and why, despite his great love for Michelle, he also occasionally fears her.

The horrors here are indeed horrible, the worst coming from the failures of human morality when confronted by terrible tests. Barron weaves history and mythology and legend (including a crackerjack origin for the story of Rumplestiltskin) into this backwards-and-forwards-looking opus, presents the horrors of the flesh and the soul, and gives us scant light in the face of world-annihilating darkness. It's a brilliant debut, but not for the physically or philosophically squeamish. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Armagideon Time for Mack the Knife

Excalibur, Orlando, Anti-Christ, and Mina Harker (l-r)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century (1910, 1969, 2009): written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Kevin O'Neill (2009-2012): In the otherworld of Moore and O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LOEG) series, our fiction plays out as that world's fact. Focused on the myths and stories of Great Britain, LOEG may or may not be Moore's last comic-book series. This volume is now done, but an earlier story mashing up Captain Nemo's daughter, the crew of the Nautilus, and H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness awaits.

Literary mash-ups aren't new, and LOEG has been compared to many of its forebears (Silverlock, the Harold Shea series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, and the Wold Newton universe of Philip Jose Farmer are three prominent ancestors) and contemporaries (Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's Planetary).

No one in my experience, however, has gone more metafictionally mashy to such bizarre and telling effect. This can be frustrating at times (who the hell are some of these characters?), but overall the effect has been thrilling -- indeed, more and more thrilling, at least in a intellectual sense, as the series has continued to become less interested in the bones of conventional superhero narrative and more interested in the nature of story itself, its care and feeding, its rises and falls.

At first, Century seems straightforward: the League of 1910 (now comprising Mina Harker, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Allan Quatermain, William Hope Hodgson's occult detective Carnacki the Ghost-finder, and British super-thief Raffles) seeks to stop sinister mystic Oliver Haddo from creating both a Moonchild and the Anti-Christ itself.

Subsequently, things go galloping off madly in all directions, including the direction of Bertholt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. There's a lot of singing in the three chapters. That Brecht's play was a major reference point for Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen probably shouldn't go uncommented. Andy Capp walks through several panels. Fictional characters crowd the background and foreground, most of them staring at the reader.

And there's 1969, and then there's 2009. Some of the major plot points are so weird and ultimately rewarding that there's no point in me spoiling them. The identity of the Anti-Christ manages to be hilarious, horrifying, and perfectly apt within this world of Great Britain's fictions, the narrative dream-time of an Empire's rise and fall. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Bartlet administration of The West Wing gives way to the Palmer administration of 24. Lost's Driveshaft releases a new album. The armies of different fictional Moon-dwellers clash on the Moon, observed by characters from The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. Whew.

Back in 1969, a rejuvenated Allan Quatermain suddenly looks a whole lot like Moore's John Constantine. Back in 1910, revelations about the Jack the Ripper killings fly by, almost unnoticed. From Hell? So it goes. Boy, does Moore ever seem to hate James Bond. Highly recommended, though on-line annotation sites are also highly recommended.

New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird: edited by Paula Guran (2012)

New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird: edited by Paula Guran (2012) containing the following stories:

"The Crevasse", Dale Bailey & Nathan Ballingrud; "Old Virginia", Laird Barron; "Shoggoths in Bloom", Elizabeth Bear; "Mongoose", Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette; "The Oram County Whoosit", Steve Duffy; "A Study in Emerald", Neil Gaiman; "Grinding Rock", Cody Goodfellow; "Pickman’s Other Model (1929)", Caitlin Kiernan; "The Disciple", David Barr Kirtley; "The Vicar of R'lyeh", Marc Laidlaw; "Mr. Gaunt", John Langan; "Take Me to the River", Paul McAuley; "The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft", Nick Mamatas & Tim Pratt; "Details", China Mieville; "Bringing Helena Back", Sarah Monette; "Another Fish Story", Kim Newman; "Lesser Demons", Norm Partridge; "Cold Water Survival", Holly Phillips; "Head Music", Lon Prater; "Bad Sushi", Cherie Priest; "The Fungal Stain", W.H. Pugmire; "Tsathoggua", Michael Shea; "Buried in the Sky", John Shirley; "Fair Exchange", Michael Marshall Smith; "The Essayist in the Wilderness", William Browning Spencer; "A Colder War", Charles Stross; "The Great White Bed", Don Webb.

Editor Paula Guran's mandate here is focused -- the best Lovecraftian stories of the first 11 years or so of the new millennium. If there's a disappointment here, it lies in something that's only going to be immediately apparent to a reader who buys a lot of Lovecraft-influenced anthologies and collections.

However, as I imagine a high percentage of people who read this sort of thing do just that, I'll note the disappointment: too many stories taken from the same original anthologies (eight of the stories herein appear in just three other original anthologies) and a fairly significant overlap (four stories) with the 2011 anthology The Book of Cthulhu, the mandate of which was to collect Lovecraft-influenced stories from the last thirty years or so.

In a pinch, I'd suggest going with The Book of Cthulhu. Its overall quality is higher, though that's obviously a factor of a longer span of time to choose from. Furthermore, choosing a lot of stories from other anthologies strikes me as somewhat problematic -- I've got several of these stories in three anthologies already, a pretty heavy load for a story published in, say, 2008 to be carrying. This may indicate taste rather than laziness, but it feels like laziness. And a couple of the multiple stories from other anthologies really sort of stink. Others are a stretch for the anthology, especially for one with a big picture of Cthulhu on the cover.

Nonetheless, there are some corkers here, both too often repeated ("The Oram County Whoosit" is a terrific tale -- so terrific I've now seen it in three different anthologies) and relatively new to this anthology (the offerings from old pros Michael Shea and John Shirley are especially gratifying). Shirley's almost reads like a Cthulhu Mythos story semi-sarcastically super-collided with a Young Adult novel. Shea's story about Clark Ashton Smith's blobby toad-god addition to the Lovecraft pantheon (subsequently described by HPL in At the Mountains of Madness) is squishy and, thankfully, not the over-anthologized, excellent "Fat Face".

Neil Gaiman impresses with a Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos crossover, but not only was it in a fairly high print-run anthology, the story also appeared on Gaiman's website free of charge for several years. China Mieville's terrific "Details" also appeared in an anthology that, ten years later, remains in print.

There's a problem of over-fishing the same ponds over and over again. Ponds filled with the Deep Ones. What is it with all the stories about people who identify with Lovecraft's Deep Ones? Yeuch. Alan Moore was on to something with Neonomicon. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tainted Love with the King of the Vampires

John Constantine: Hellblazer: Tainted Love: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Steve Dillon (1993; collected 1998): Writer Garth Ennis made his name at DC with his violent, moody work on DC's horror flagship title John Constantine: Hellblazer prior to creating the popular and influential Preacher series with artist Steve Dillon.

Picking up where the Fear and Loathing storylineleft off, Tainted Love takes John Constantine about as low as he can go, homeless onto the streets of London where old enemies and new come to believe he can finally be finished off.

Constantine is in terrible emotional and physical trauma for much of this collection, in which we discover that his real super power is the ability to fight supernatural evil even while falling-down drunk. Will he pull out of it before the seemingly eternal King of the Vampires or Satan himself finally get their revenge on him? And what's going on with the archangel Gabriel? And how's former lover Kit doing back in Belfast? All will be revealed. Well, some anyway. Highly recommended.


Fear and Loathing in Heaven and Hell

John Constantine: Hellblazer: Fear and Loathing: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Steve Dillon (1992-93; collected 1997): Writer Garth Ennis made his name at DC with his violent, moody work on DC's horror flagship title John Constantine: Hellblazer prior to creating the popular and influential Preacher series with artist Steve Dillon.

Ennis is one of those writers who seems to have arrived fully formed, primarily because his early development took place in British comics that weren't readily available in North America in the early 1990's. By 1992, Ennis really was pretty much fully formed -- for good and ill (mostly good), his voice is as distinctive here as it is today.

As only the fourth person to write John Constantine (after co-creator Alan Moore and Rick Veitch in Swamp Thing and, on Constantine's own book, Jamie Delano for the first 40 issues), Ennis quickly put his stamp on the character, upping the violence and writing in a more direct, less poetic style than Moore and Delano. Constantine now seemed more of an aged punk and less of a dandyish mod -- he was straight out of Liverpool.

Ennis' peculiar and fairly rare (at least in the early 1990's) synthesis of ultraviolent splatterpunk with a detailed and increasingly harrowing portrayal of the supernatural still packs a punch in the stories collected in Fear and Loathing. The world is an awful one whether the violence is being perpetrated by monsters human or supernatural -- and even the highest of angels can be a monster in Constantine's world. Constantine works ceaselessly to thwart the plans of Heaven and Hell alike, because both Heaven and Hell seek control over the fragile, fallen human world.

In this collection, Constantine's personal life -- his rewarding relationship with Kit -- comes under fire even as he attempts to stop a British Neo-Nazi group from gaining favour with the archangel Gabriel. Constantine also celebrates his 40th birthday with a party involving most of DC's supernatural characters -- Hellblazer was still nominally part of the mainstream DC universe at this point, despite the fact that thematically this made absolutely no sense.

So we get such supernatural stalwarts as Zatanna, Swamp Thing, and the Phantom Stranger involved in a surprise birthday bash for the 40-year-old Liverpudlian (or Scouser). That issue is one of the few blessedly free of tension, and involves instead some of Ennis's funniest (and earliest) scenes taking the piss out of mainstream superhero characters. But damnation, as always, looms. Highly recommended.

Closing Time for the Human Race

The Time Machine: adapted by David Duncan from the novel by H.G. Wells; directed by George Pal; starring Rod Taylor (H. George Wells) and Yvette Mimeux (Weena) (1960): H.G. Wells didn't name the Time Traveller in his 1895 novel The Time Machine after himself -- that's a liberty this 1960 film adaptation takes, among many, with Wells' original story. Still, this is an enjoyable science-fiction movie, earnest and a bit dull at times but with some intellectual and emotional heft.

As in the novel, much of the story is told in flashback (which, as the traveller moves forward in time, is really a flashforward) to a group of men sitting around the traveller's house eating and drinking. The traveller tells them of his forward plunge through time, punctuated by stops at later points in the 20th century (the movie is set in January 1900) prior to a mad rush to the year 802, 701 A.D. where the main action of the film takes place.

Producer/director Pal keeps the bones of Wells' original story intact. The traveller meets the Eloi and the Morlocks, two vastly different permutations of evolved humanity. Wells' Eloi and Morlocks were parables of how he saw class division going: the Eloi are a child-like, waifish race of pleasure-seekers who lack knowledge, drive, and basic survival skills. They frolic in the sun while below, with the machines, the Morlocks keep things running, feed and clothe the Eloi -- and harvest them for food.

The film makes the Eloi more recognizably human, primarily so that the traveller can fall in love with one of them (Weena, a name derived from the book). The Morlocks are made more horrible. Perhaps most significantly, the film removes Wells' bleak ending, in which the traveller moves far enough into the future to see only a lone, giant crab scuttling across a beach lit by Earth's dying red sun.

The Time Machine works as an action-adventure movie, though Pal has stripped it of Wells' bleaker view of humanity as just another species within a gigantic, mechanical structure of evolution and entropy. Some of the stop-motion and optical effect are still quite impressive, though others look, well, a bit goofy. The acting is serviceable, though I've never understood the appeal of Rod Taylor, who is the most stolid and blocky of blockhead actors. Recommended.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cthulhu Everlasting

Black Wings of Cthulhu: 21 Tales of Lovecraftian Horror: edited by S.T. Joshi (2011) containing:

"Pickman’s Other Model (1929)" by Caitlin R. Kiernan
"Desert Dreams" by Donald R. Burleson
"Engravings" by Joseph S. Pulver, Jr.
"Copping Squid" by Michael Shea
"Passing Spirits" by Sam Gafford
"The Broadsword" by Laird Barron
"Usurped" by William Browning Spencer
"Denker’s Book" by David J. Schow
"Inhabitants of Wraithwood" W.H. Pugmire
"The Dome" by Millie L. Burleson
"Rotterdam" by Nicholas Royle
"Tempting Providence" by Jonathan Thomas
"Howling in the Dark" by Darrell Schweitzer
"The Truth about Pickman" by Brian Stableford
"Tunnels" by Philip Haldeman
"The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash" annotated by Ramsey Campbell
"Violence, Child of Trust" by Michael Cisco
"Lesser Demons" by Norman Partridge
"An Eldritch Matter" by Adam Niswander
"Substitution" by Michael Marshall Smith
"Susie" by Jason Van Hollander

An excellent anthology of all-new stories inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Lovecraft expert S.T. Joshi. Joshi wisely didn't limit his writers to the Cthulhu Mythos, or even to explicit references to Lovecraft's work. Instead, there's a more general mandate of the weird and the cosmic (or 'cosmicism') at work here, though the explicitly Cthulhuesque is also welcome.

There really isn't a bad story in the bunch, and there are a number of standouts. Laird Barron's "The Broadsword" works within Barron's own Children of Old Leech mythology of terrible doings behind the walls of our world. Norman Partridge serves up a monstrous invasion within a narrative that works within the hardboiled parameters of the novels of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. Ramsey Campbell has some fun with Lovecraft's near-obsessive letter-writing, while the protagonist of Jonathan Thomas's "Tempting Providence" seems to meet the ghost of HPL...or is something much more cosmic and sinister going on? Oh, that three-lobed burning eye!

One of the interesting things about the collection is that three stories -- "Pickman’s Other Model (1929)" by Caitlin R. Kiernan, "Inhabitants of Wraithwood" W.H. Pugmire, and "The Truth about Pickman" by Brian Stableford -- all deal with Lovecraft's transitional-phase short story "Pickman's Model" in various ways. It's a story that was adapted in a mediocre fashion for Night Gallery, but it's also probably the Lovecraft story with the most-quoted final line. Hell, Joanna Russ turned that line into the title of a story!

HPL's original story is transitional in the sense that while it looks ahead to the Cthulhu universe in which horror is all around us, waiting to be discovered, it also uses beings -- Lovecraft's version of ghouls, to be specific -- which are treated in a somewhat more whimsical, less horrific fashion in Lovecraft's Dunsanian novel The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, in which they actually aid the narrator during his voyage through the Dream Lands. These stories offer radically different takes on the original material: the authors definitely don't think the same way about the stately ghouls of Boston.

In any case, Joshi offers a pip of an anthology here, complete with a useful introduction. At least five of these stories (by my count) have already been anthologized in various 'Best of' and Cthulhu compilation volumes, which is pretty good for a book that's barely a year old. And the cover of the paperback is sweet. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Prometheus Unbound by Basic Logic

Prometheus: written by John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, based on characters and concepts created by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett, Walter Hill, and Ridley Scott; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Noomi Rapace (Liz Shaw), Michael Fassbender (David), Charlize Theron (Meredith Vickers), Idris Elba (Janek), Guy Pearce (Weyland), and Logan Marshall-Green (Charlie Holloway) (2012): The prequel to Alien (but only Alien and not the sequels or attendant Predator prequels), Prometheus looks fantastic and moves beautifully. I wasn't bored, and I didn't look at my watch for the whole two hours. Admittedly, that had something to do with the extremely comfortable theatre seats, but still...

On the other hand, Prometheus is a hilarious mess when it comes to science, character motivation, and basic plot logic. Somehow, this enriches the experience. You'll have a lot to talk about when you're done. Boy, howdy.

Billions of years ago, aliens start life on Earth. Well, maybe they start animal life on Earth because there's definitely vegetable life on Earth in the scenes we see. In truth, what they do makes no evolutionary sense, so I'm instead going to say that billions of years ago, an alien visiting Earth got drunk, passed out, and fell into Niagara Falls. Billions of years later and thousands of years ago, giant aliens left star maps all over the world pointing to a particular solar system.

And in the year 2091, a nefarious trillionaire named Peter Weyland (yes, the Weyland corporation, as of 2091 not yet joined with Yutani) sends a mission on the starship Prometheus to that star system for his own sinister purposes. The archaeologist who figured out the whole star map thing, Liz Shaw (Noomi Rapace), goes along, as does her partner/life-partner, a bunch of cannon fodder, an annoying business woman (Charlize Theron), a curious robot (Michael Fassbender), and an accordion-playing captain (The Wire's Idris Elba).

And in case you're wondering, the planet (well, technically a moon) they land on is not the planet from Alien. This is LV-223; that was LV-426. I note this to save you a lot of time trying to figure out how things ended up like they did for the beginning of Alien on this planet. It's not the same planet. Though if you want to believe they are the same planets to simulate our confused discussion at the end of the film, you'll have a good time coming up with scenarios that put the fossilized, gut-busted Pilot back in that funky space chair surrounded by giant eggs.

In any case, the Prometheus arrives at LV-223. Rather than survey the entire planet, it lands at the first visible structure. Against the Captain's warnings that sundown is coming (a warning that really only makes a huge amount of sense if the Captain's last mission was to the Planet of the Vampires), the scientists proceed to rush into the structure. Needless to say, shenanigans ensue, many of them caused by the simple fact that this is the dumbest crew of any Alien movie, dumber even than the crew in the godawful Alien Resurrection.

The pacing and visual design really carry this movie. It looks great. It moves like a rollercoaster. And Rapace (Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Fassbender as curious robot David, and Elba as the Captain put in strong performances. Fassbender especially stands out, his character ultimately sympathetic despite the crappy things he does, or is ordered to do. There are clever character bits throughout related to David's fascination with Lawrence of Arabia and the Captain's interest in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Theron is suitably icy playing, well, Paul Reiser in Aliens.

References and allusions are shovelled into the movie willynilly, and perhaps even higgily-piggily. Scott's own directorial efforts Alien (natch) and Blade Runner, Aliens, The Thing, several Doctor Who serials, the nightmarish Space: 1999 episode with the crazy-ass tentacle monster, David Cronenberg's The Fly, H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Quatermass and the goes on.

Does anyone connected with the writing of this movie show the faintest understanding of how evolution works and how DNA develops? Hell, no. But to paraphrase a line from another Ridley Scott movie, I was entertained. Recommended.