Friday, September 27, 2013

Short Rounds

Ten Tales Calculated to Give you Shudders (1972): edited by Ross Olney containing the following stories: Sweets to the Sweet (1947) by Robert Bloch; The Waxwork (1931) by A. M. Burrage; Used Car (1932) by H. Russell Wakefield; The Inexperienced Ghost (1896) by H. G. Wells; The Whistling Room (1910) by William Hope Hodgson; The Last Drive (1933) by Carl Jacobi; The Monkey's Paw (1902) by W. W. Jacobs; Second Night Out (1933) by Frank Belknap Long; The Hills Beyond Furcy (1966) by Robert G. Anderson; and Floral Tribute (1949) by Robert Bloch.

This little reprint anthology was a staple of my childhood, and probably the childhood of a lot of other Americans and Canadians, given that it was a Whitman book for older kids, or 'Young Adults' as the publishing industry now names them.

And it's a very good ten-story assortment, though the inclusion of two Robert Bloch stories, the second one a bit of Bradburyian supernatural nostalgia that won't make anyone shudder, seems odd. Maybe Olney and Bloch were buddies. Other than that oddity, the selection can stand beside that of pretty much any decades-spanning anthology I can think of. It's certainly still relevant today. I wonder if Wakefield's story is the first haunted used-car story? Recommended.


Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks (1987) by Richard Christian Matheson containing the following stories: Third Wind; The Good Always Comes Back; Sentences; Unknown Drives; Timed Exposure; Obsolete; Red; Beholder; Dead End; Commuters; Graduation; Conversation Piece; Echoes; Incorporation; Hell; Break-Up; Mr. Right; Cancelled; Mugger; The Dark Ones; Holiday; Vampire; Intruder; Dust; Goosebumps; Mobius; Where There's a Will; and Magic Saturday.

Horror and fantasy great Richard Matheson's son Richard Christian Matheson is no slouch either, having carved out a prominent career for himself in television, movies, and short stories by the time he was 30.

Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks is the younger Matheson's first collection of short stories (and one teleplay for Amazing Stories). As he pretty much specialized in very short stories, there's quite a range of stories included here, with supernatural horror, realistic horror, science fiction, and gentle whimsy all showing up. And one disturbing narrative that doubles as a poem ("Vampire").

The impact of such short stories requires a certain type of writer: terse and concise in his style, imaginative and unusual in the subjects he deals with and the POV he uses to view those subjects. Matheson is astonishingly good at these things at a very young age, an engaging mutation from the schools of O. Henry and Dennis Etchison (who provides one of the two glowing-with-praise forewords, the other coming from a similarly enthusiastic Stephen King). Recommended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Last Whispers

Whispers VI: edited by Stuart David Schiff (1987) containing the following stories:

The Bones Wizard by Alan Ryan: Supernatural musical shenanigans. Extremely subtle to the point of attenuation, with little actual horror.

Leaks by Steve Rasnic Tem: Quintessential Tem: mysterious, disturbing, rooted in the real.

Everything to Live For by Charles L. Grant: Almost a Philip K. Dick science-fiction horror story both in execution and in its treatment of its themes.

Bogy by Al Sarrantonio: Poetic, Bradburyesque piece with the sort of nasty ending that Bradbury specialized in back in the 1940's.

The Fool by David Drake: Lengthy novella echoes the regional dialects and themes of Drake's friend, horror legend Manly Wade Wellman, but with its own peculiar spin on magic and justice. Really a good, convincingly regional piece, and quite different from much of Drake's other output.

Repossession by David Campton: Enjoyable ghost story with a couple of interesting concepts. Would probably work better if it developed the narrator more.

The Years the Music Died by F. Paul Wilson: Bleakly humourous conspiracy tale about Rock-and-Roll.

The Woman in Black by Dennis Etchison: Typically elusive Etchison tale of mysterious horrors in the suburbs turns into an almost surreal freak-out at the end. This is not an ending you will see coming. Disturbing.

My Name Is Dolly by William F. Nolan: Concise, ably narrated in the first-person by a child, straddles psychological and supernatural horror.

Toad, Singular by Juleen Brantingham: Well-written but intensely unpleasant story in what I generally find to be an unrewarding sub-sub-genre of horror: the tale of a sympathetic nebbish who's been brutalized by the normal world...and now gets further brutalized by the supernatural! It all feels awfully sadistic.

Sleeping Booty by Richard Wilson: Droll short-short: black comedy, not horror.

Privacy Rights by J. N. Williamson: Really disturbing bit involving rape and abortion. Verges on the exploitative, and the madness of the main character doesn't seem fully earned by the story.

One for the Horrors by David J. Schow: Great, nostalgic piece about old movies and lonely people. Not horror.

The Black Clay Boy by Lucius Shepard: Super-duper creepy tale of sex, death, magic, and what I'd describe as Hagar Shipley goes to Hell.

Where Did She Wander? by Manly Wade Wellman: The last John the Balladeer story by the then-recently-deceased Wellman. Lovely and somewhat mournful.

In all: highly recommended.

Fears Unnamed by Tim Lebbon (2004)

Fears Unnamed by Tim Lebbon (2004) containing the following stories:

Remnants: A really lovely combination of eerie, cosmic, Time-Abyss adventures in a mysterious lost city and psychological realism, as the problems and disappointments of two life-long friends -- one an adventurer and archaeologist, the other a sedentary writer depressingly disappointed by the choices he's made -- are examined and evaluated during a descent into the unknown.

White: An apocalyptic story of the 'Ten Little Indians' variety. Several acquaintances become snowbound in Northern England while the world rapidly plunges into chaos and mysterious destruction, and the snow keeps coming. And weird, weird, half-glimpsed creatures prowl the snow. Or are the gruesome murders being committed actually the work of someone inside the house?

Naming of Parts: Lebbon takes what initially seems to be a zombie plague observed by a 12-year-old boy and turns it into an apocalypse in which everything -- humanity, one's family, all of nature -- seems to be afflicted by entropy and rapid, irreversible decay. The ending in this one is a bit of a dud, as the story seems to demand some sort of closure that is instead given up to mysterious ambiguity. Nonetheless, very good and very sad.

The Unfortunate: Occasionally almost surreal weird-out about the sole survivor of a plane crash, and the supernatural forces behind his survival. The weirdness of the supernatural universe could use more development -- to the extent that this novella would probably make a wonderful novel -- though the bleakness of the material is never less than daunting. All four of these novellas evade and confound catharsis in a manner peculiar to the best horror fiction: there is no satisfying purgation here, only greater mysteries and sublime abjection.

In all: highly recommended.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mama (2013)

Mama: written by Andy Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, and Neil Cross; directed by Andy Muschietti; starring Jessica Chastain (Annabel), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Lucas/Jeffrey), Megan Charpentier (Victoria), Isabelle Nelisse (Lily), Daniel Kash (Dr. Dreyfuss) and Javier Botet (Mama) (2013): Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Mama has some of his tropes scattered throughout, most notably the linkage of insects with the supernatural. It's not the most brilliant of horror movies, as at least two characters do really stupid horror-movie cliche things, and a sub-plot turns out to exist because it makes the main plot run more smoothly towards the end.

On the other hand, the movie looks great. The set design is impressively functional insofar as it's atmospheric while also serving the plot and not being ridiculous. Jessica Chastain is never less than fully invested in her lead character, almost unrecognizable in a black short-cut wig and raccoon eye make-up. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones) has an oddly thankless dual part as twin brothers, both of whom disappear for the middle of the picture so thoroughly that one wonders if he was called away to do reshoots on that HBO series. And the two little girls do about as good a job of playing semi-feral girls abandoned in the woods for five years as one could ask.

The movie really succeeds or fails, though, on how one feels about the eponymous monster. Or ghost. Or ghost-monster. There are a couple of really nice aspects to the visualization of Mama: her hair perpetually seems to float as if she's underwater (and metaphorically speaking, she is). And she occasionally comes at people while almost completely submerged in the floor, with only her ghostly hair marking her approach like some ghastly shark's fin. There's more imaginative CGI in her creation than in all of Peter Jackson's last three films put together.

And there are also several imaginatively shot dream/memory sequences from Mama's standpoint that are seriously disturbing. It would be lovely if as much care had been taken with the story as is taken with the visuals, but at least the movie is neither found-footage nor 'based on a true story.' Recommended.

Friday, September 20, 2013


Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories: edited by Gary Groth, written by Harvey Kurtzman; illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman, Gene Colan, Ric Estrada, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Dave Berg, John Severin, and others (1951-54; collection 2012): Harvey Kurtzman was one of the giants of American comics and American cartooning from the late 1940's until his death in the early 1990's. His most wide-ranging, influential creation was Mad magazine (originally an EC comic book) in the early 1950's, which he edited and wrote and partially drew over the first five increasingly popular years of its existence.

And then there were the dramatic stories for EC, contained in the other two comic books Kurtzman edited for EC at the time -- Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. The focus of these comics tended towards historical and contemporary stories of war.

Kurtzman would be labelled an obsessive micromanager if he edited a comic book today. He drew the covers. He spent immense amounts of time researching these short tales for narrative and artistic accuracy. He gave immensely detailed instructions to the artists. And he drew a number of stories himself.

The result was extraordinary. This volume brings together two seemingly disparate story streams from those two EC titles in an instructive way. These are the stories Kurtzman both wrote and illustrated, and the stories illustrated by artists, many of them to become famous later, whom Kurtzman didn't judge good enough at the time to become regular artists for his war books.

Interviews included in this volume give some of Kurtzman's reasons for not making certain artists regulars (Alex Toth eschewed detail for shadowy suggestion, thus driving the detail-oriented Kurtzman nuts; Joe Kubert was sloppy and occasionally imprecise). Keep in mind that Toth and Kubert are critically lauded giants of the American comic book. Kurtzman isn't necessarily "right" or "wrong" in his judgment -- they just didn't fit his aesthetic ethos. Nonetheless, their stories included in the volume are excellent.

More excellent, though, are the stories Kurtzman both wrote and drew. His command of both detail and shadow is extraordinary -- the stories look absolutely terrific in black-and-white, so much so that colour would seem a distraction from the artistry, though the colour covers included here show the sort of effects Kurtzman's colourist, Marie Severin, could achieve with the limited palette available to comic books at the time.

While a couple of stories descend into patriotic goofiness that Kurtzman himself derides in the interview, most are concerned more with the horror, and the horrific decisions and subsequent results, of war. The Korean War raged during Kurtzman's time at EC, and the three most striking, essential stories -- "Big 'If'", "Corpse on the Imjin", and "Air Burst" -- all focus on incidents during that war. But Kurtzman's sensibilities are more Ambrose Bierce than Sgt. Rock.

Kurtzman's best stories are thick with absurdity and sorrow, beautifully observed and executed, haunting as Hell. These are the best stories about war that American comic books would generate for decades afterwards, and really should be read by anyone who doubts the ability of comic books to be 'adult.' They're adult, without a trace of profanity or graphic violence; short, concise, laden with meaning and metaphysics. Highest recommendation.

Remember the Monsters?

Four Color Fear - Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950's: edited by John Benson and Greg Sadowski; written and drawn by Wally Wood, Bob Powell, Joe Kubert, Jack Cole, George Evans, Al Williamson, Basil Wolverton, and others (Collected 2010): The early 1950's were the heyday of the American horror comic book, at least those specializing in five-to-eleven-page stories. EC Comics was the gold standard.

But there were many, many more during this period when the American comic book strove to become mainstream entertainment for adults and children alike, just prior to governmental scrutiny in the U.S. and Canada motivated by the juvenile delinquency scare of the time lobotomized comic books for decades.

This Fantagraphics Books anthology collects non-EC stories from the post-WWII, pre-Comics Code era, that time that was too short a season. The stories range from good to great, and a fair number are extraordinarily disturbing. Basil Wolverton's art could make anything freaky -- he was a true American original of the comic-book grotesque. So, too, was Bob Powell. And many others collected here, ranging in art style from primitive to baroque.

So if you want to sample this lost and truncated time when comic books in the U.S. and Canada almost made the transition into being mass-cultural entertainment as they still are in Japan, buy this book. The historical essays and cover gallery are swell, too.

With stories ranging from the deeply disturbing (Wolverton's "Swamp Monster") to the bizarre and surreal (Powell's "Colorama") to the WTF (a beautifully cartooned entry from Nostrand about an anthropomorphized germ (!)), the range is terrific, the material is terrific, the total package is handsome and scrupulously produced. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wasted Lives

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths: written and illustrated by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Jocelyne Allen (1973/English edition 2011): A seminal Japanese manga in terms of dealing with World War Two and Japan's role in it, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is certainly one of the most depressing, emotionally draining graphic novels I've ever read. It marked something of a departure for its creator, Shigeru Mizuki, who previously had been best known for much more fantastic, whimsical manga work.

Mizuki does one of those things I tend to associate most with manga, in that he juxtaposes cartoony humans in the foreground with backgrounds that are often clearly copied from photographic material. This methodology can obviously have an awful lot of meanings. Here, it tends to highlight the transitory state of any human being when set against nature itself, and the world in its sublime giganticism. At points, though, photorealistic depictions of the dead whom we'd previously seen only as cartoons hammer home their basic, shattered humanity.

The book follows the horrifying adventures of Japanese soldiers trying to defend one of the islands in what is now Papua New Guinea from an invasion by the Allies during the waning days of World War Two. Mizuki himself survived such a scenario, and draws on his experiences and others for this bleakly comic look at the horrors of war, and the horrors of being an enlisted man in the Japanese Imperial Army.

If you thought your war was bad, keep in mind that suicide attacks were considered a terrific idea by many of the officers in the Japanese army. So, too, were regular beatings and absurd orders. Part of the plot hinges on a Catch-22 that makes most Western military Catch-22's look positively benign. A pointless suicide charge has been reported as complete, with all men nobly lost, to the island's central Japanese command.

But in reality, several dozen men didn't die in the assault for a variety of reasons. But their deaths have been reported. In order to save face at the command level, they have to die one way or another. The two surviving officers in charge of the group are expected to commit ritual suicide. The rest, including the grieviously wounded, must march back into enemy fire that they have no chance of surviving.

Good times!

This is a harrowing book, spiced with moments of humaneness and humanity, spiked with horrific, sometimes oddly funny moments of trauma and death. The translation could have used a defter hand at points. Anachronisms like "Meh." appear throughout, and there's no poetic ability shown in the recurring translations of popular Japanese songs that the soldiers occasionally sing. But the power and pathos of the narrative survive this, as does the deceivingly simple cartooning. But be warned: there is no catharsis here. There is ultimately no point to the deaths, no redemption. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

More Whispers in the Dark

Whispers IV: edited by Stuart David Schiff (1983) containing the following stories:

A Night on the Docks by Freff: One of the oddest vampire stories I can think of, with echoes of the classic tale "Call Him Demon" by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore

Into Whose Hands by Karl Edward Wagner: Terrific, moody piece that draws on Wagner's experiences as a psychiatrist working in public mental health facilities. Maybe Wagner's most subtle piece.

Out of Copyright by Ramsey Campbell: Droll bit of supernatural revenge by Campbell, working in a very literary version of his EC Comics revenge mode.

Elle Est Trois, (La Mort) by Tanith Lee: I think this is the prolific, multi-talented Lee's crowning achievement in short works. It's really an essential piece of dark fantasy/horror.

Come to the Party by Frances Garfield: Fun short from the writer also known as Mrs. Manly Wade Wellman.

The Warrior Who Did Not Know Fear by Gerald W. Page: Odd choice, as it's really a piece of a longer work of heroic dark fantasy, a piece without an ending. Still enjoyable.

Fair Trade by William F. Nolan: Another short exercise in the EC vengeance mode, with Nolan doing spot-on dialect for the first-person narrator.

I Never Could Say Goodbye by Charles L. Grant: Mysterious.

The Devil You Say! by Lawrence Treat: More humour than horror.

Diploma Time by Frank Belknap Long: Interesting ghost story from long-time writer Long, with one of his typically jarring moments in which he eschews transitions, though here it's intentional.

Tell Us About the Rats, Grandpa by Stephen Kleinhen: Minor bit of gross-out horror.

What Say the Frogs Now, Jenny? by Hugh B. Cave: Unpleasant insofar as the female victim of sexual harassment is somehow made out to be the antagonist of the piece. I don't think that was Cave's intent, but it's a really ugly, somewhat cliched story.

The Beholder by Richard Christian Matheson: Unusually supernatural story for the master of shocking short-short stories.

Creative Coverage, Inc. by Michael Shea: Bleak comedy about corporate malfeasance. Really, really, really bleak.

The Dancer in the Flames by David Drake: Evocative piece draws on Drake's time in Viet Nam, but uses a somewhat clumsy 'footnote' ending to fully explain what has happened.

The Reflex-Man in Whinnymuir Close by Russell Kirk : Lovely period piece/pastiche by the always elegant Kirk.

In all: recommended.

Toads and Snakes and Ghostly Apes

Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors: written by Robert E. Howard; edited by David Drake (1987); containing the following stories and poems: Arkham (poem); The Black Stone; The Fire of Asshurbanipal; The Thing on the Roof; Dig Me No Grave; Silence Falls on Mecca's Walls (poem); The Valley of the Worm; The Shadow of the Beast; Old Garfield's Heart; People of the Dark; Worms of the Earth; Pigeons from Hell; and An Open Window (poem).

Nice little collection of Robert E. Howard horror stories, some but not all of them additions to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Howard added Nameless Cults, another evil tome of lore that should have been forgotten, to the Mythos, along with a few creatures, characters, books, and quasi-gods.

Among the Mythos tales, "The Black Stone" is by far the strongest. It places the action in Eastern Europe rather than North America, where much of Lovecraft's work was set. Besides introducing some of the poetry of Justin Geoffrey, who would be driven mad by the cosmic horrors he experienced and die screaming in an asylum, the story also gives us an extremely unpleasant toad-thing. It also introduces Muslims as, if not heroes, then not as villains -- their sweep into Hungary results in the destruction of a particularly horrible witch-cult. And in the Cthulhu universe, witch-cults aren't worshipping anything as mundane as Satan.

The other stories include a desert adventure into a lost city reputed to be guarded by something awful ("The Fire of Asshurbanipal") and a couple of heroic fantasies with major horror elements ("The Worms of the Earth" and "The Valley of the Worm"). "The Worms of the Earth" also ties in with "People of the Dark", as both present a subterranean race of reptilian 'men' driven underground by humanity some time in the dim past. These stories echo some of Arthur Machen's prototypical dark fantasies about the 'Little People', but with a typical Howard flavour (snakes and snake-like beings were one of Howard's most-favoured tropes).

"The Thing on the Roof" and "Dig Me No Grave" are fairly standard Mythos stories, although the former doesn't really achieve shock in its final revelation. "The Shadow of the Beast", one of Howard's many posthumously published stories, conjures up some nice atmospherics in a haunted house. The thing doing the haunting turns out to be quite interesting, partially because Howard's hard-bitten narrator shows some pity for its plight.

And then there's "Pigeons from Hell," adjudged by Stephen King to be one of the scariest stories ever written. It is quite a creep-out, and may be made even more creepy by the heavy lifting required to make a story with that somewhat goofy title legitimately scary.

Here, Howard seemed to be riffing on Lovecraft's repeated use of whippoorwills as psychopompic omens of death and the supernatural in the New England states, substituting pigeons for the Southern United States. It's the only thing about this horror story that doesn't quite play -- otherwise, this is a masterpiece of building tension and repeated shocks. It's Howard's finest horror short story, and one that stands up well against anyone else's horror stories, anywhere, anytime. In all, recommended.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Most Peculiar Mummy

Whispers (1977) edited by Stuart David Schiff, containing the following stories:

"Sticks" by Karl Edward Wagner: One of Wagner's four greatest stories, "Sticks" is a terrific piece of Cthulhu Mythology, with an absolutely riveting first half.

"The Barrow Troll" by David Drake: Typically tough-minded piece of revisionist historical fantasy from Drake.

"The Glove" by Fritz Leiber: Blackly humourous San Francisco-era piece from Leiber, set in a familiar apartment building for Leiber fans.

"The Closer of the Way" by Robert Bloch: Droll bit of meta-fiction from the creator of Psycho.

"Dark Winner" by William F. Nolan: Fascinating bit of Bradbury-tinged horror-nostalgia that would have been right at home on The Twilight Zone.

"Ladies in Waiting" by Hugh B. Cave: Solid haunted-house riff.

"White Moon Rising" by Dennis Etchison: A non-supernatural psychological thriller from Etchison. Stylistically precise, thematically mysterious.

"Graduation" by Richard Christian Matheson: Epistolary creep-out.

"Mirror, Mirror" by Ray Russell: Fun, minor piece.

The House of Cthulhu by Brian Lumley: Lovecraftian sword-and-sorcery.

"Antiquities" by John Crowley: Mummies wreak havoc in England in a most peculiar way.

"A Weather Report from the Top of the Stairs" by James Sallis and David Lunde: Adaptation of a famous Gahan Wilson cartoon ("And then we'll get him!") with two different endings.

"The Scallion Stone" by Basil A. Smith: A very M.R. Jamesian horror story from a writer who avoided publication until after his death.

"The Inglorious Rise of the Catsmeat Man" by Robin Smyth: Very much an Ambrose Bierce/Roald Dahl-like exercise in gross-out horror-comedy.

"The Pawnshop" by Charles E. Fritch: Entertaining deal-with-the-devil story.

"Le Miroir"by Robert Aickman: An even-more-ambiguous-than-usual story from the eternally ambiguous Aickman.

"The Willow Platform" by Joseph Payne Brennan: Nice bit of regional Maine Lovecraft-tinged cosmic horror in the backwoods.

"The Dakwa" by Manly Wade Wellman: The Southeast backwoods play host to a particularly gruesome Native-American monster.

"Goat" by David Campton: Really solid, evocative piece of particularly British small-town horror.

"The Chimney" by Ramsey Campbell: Award-winning story of childhood horrors that may or may not be real.

The first anthology of stories from Schiff's semi-prozine Whispers really almost bursts with heady goodness. In all: Highly recommended.

Mad Lives

The Mad Reader: written by Harvey Kurtzman; illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and Basil Wolverton (1952): This 50th anniversary edition of the first paperback collection of comic-book stories that originally appeared in Mad still has the power to amuse and amaze.

Kurtzman was the rare comic-book writer-artist-editor who was proficient at both comedy and drama. EC Comics created Mad to take advantage of Kurtzman's comic and satiric abilities, and the result was Mad -- first a comic book, later a magazine so as to escape the censorship of the Comics Code Authority. Kurtzman, along with his artistic collaborators, pretty much invented the entire language of Mad that would continue to this day, spilling out from the magazine into movies, television, and the Internet. The Airplane and Scary Movie movies are clearly the children of Mad. So is The Onion. So is SCTV.

The artists were really co-writers at certain points, especially Elder and Wood, who crammed the backgrounds and sides of the panels with various visual and linguistic jokes that weren't in Kurtzman's scripts or lay-outs. Those crammed panels became one of the hallmarks of Mad for generations of readers. How much stuff was going on in the margins?

Elder and Wood also set the artistic tone for decades to come. Wood could be an astonishing mimic of other artists when he wanted to be, but he also brought his own comic sensibilities (and Va-va-voom women) to the proceedings. Kurtzman and Wood's parody of Superman still stings today -- it could almost be a commentary on the recent Man of Steel movie.

Bill Elder could also parody the style of others, but he was really the exemplar of the crowded, kitchen-sink panel. While the main comedy goes on in the foreground, comedy and satire also pop off everywhere else in the panel, often with little or no relation to the main plotline. It's a brilliant stew that rewards repeated reading. Whole lotta squinting going on.

While the parodies here are of specific 1950's targets -- the radio and TV shows Dragnet and The Lone Ranger, Superman, Archie Comics -- some of those targets persist today, and even the Dragnet parody has its own relation to the present in its parody of jargon-heavy police procedurals. Parodies of print ads and a parody of the McCarthy-Army hearings (!!!) fill out the volume. This is really an essential bit of 1950's popular culture. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Game of Hellboy

Hellboy: Masks and Monsters: written by Mike Mignola and James Robinson; illustrated by Mike Mignola, Scott Benefiel, and Jasen Rodriguez (Collected 2009): Short volume collects two Hellboy miniseries team-ups with three other characters -- DC's Batman and Starman in one adventure and Dark Horse's own Ghost in the other.

A good time is pretty much had by all. Though I'm not familiar with Ghost -- a two-gunned female ghost fighting crime -- Hellboy's adventure with her makes a certain amount of sense given their supernatural backgrounds. Mignola's script presents an interesting mix of mythology and the mundane as organized crime gets mixed up with ancient gods who want Hellboy's giant hand for something nefarious. The art by Scott Benefiel, from Mignola's layouts, is fairly smooth, though perhaps a bit too representational for Mignola's blocky, occasionally impressionistic Hellboy.

The Starman/Batman team-up, plotted by Mignola and scripted by Starman's James Robinson, is really serious fun, with Mignola handling the art. Batman and Hellboy team up to fight magical Aryan Nation types in Gotham. With Batman temporaily sidelined by a re-appearance of the Joker, it's then up to Hellboy and second-generation Starman Jack Knight to rescue the Golden-Age Starman (who's also Jack's father Ted Knight) from a Nazi base in South America. There, the Nazis have supernaturally coerced Ted into helping them bring a very large, evil God back to Earth.

Oh, Nazis! Mignola's Batman is shadowy and bulky, while his Starman is quite a change from the more representational art generally seen in Jack Knight's own title. The whole volume goes down nicely, and is also an enjoyable break from the increasingly labyrinthine continuity of Hellboy's own adventures. Recommended.

The Sandman Volume 5: A Game of You: written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, George Pratt, Stan Woch, Dick Giordano, and Bryan Talbot (1991-92): The fifth volume of Gaiman's now twenty-year-old+ Sandman adventures presents a mostly self-contained tale concerned with gender, identity, race, and childhood dreams. Minor characters from previous story arcs do reappear here, along with the Lord of Dreams and his attendant (wise)-talking raven Matthew.

The six issues focus on one minor character from an earlier story arc, Barbie, whose previous encounter with the world of the Dreaming destabilized her marriage to Ken (!), along with her own carefully constructed self-image, and sent her to New York to figure out who she is. That previous interaction with the world of Dreams also had an unintended consequence. She's stopped dreaming.

However, somewhere in dreams, a ragtag group of talking and sometimes imaginary animals continue to search for the vanished Princess Barbara, who is the only person who can defeat the all-devouring Cuckoo and its conquering hordes. But she's going to need the help of her neighbours -- the lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove, the transvestite Wanda, and the mysterious Thessaly -- to negotiate an increasingly unstable fantasy world.

The real world and the dream world are, of course, connected, in both obvious and less-than-obvious ways. Things do not necessarily go well for everyone involved in this adventure, with its echoes of Narnia and Tolkien and The Wizard of Oz's game-changing tornado. We also learn an awful lot about the life-cycle of the cuckoo bird. Why did someone put these awful things in clocks to begin with? Recommended.

Friday, September 6, 2013

De Palma, Late and Early

The Black Dahlia: adapted by Josh Friedman from the novel by James Ellroy; directed by Brian DePalma; starring Josh Hartnett (Bucky Bleichert), Scarlett Johansson (Kay), Aaron Eckhart (Lee Blachard), Hilary Swank (Madeleine Linscott), and Mia Kirshner (Elizabeth Short) (2006): Apparently, postmodern crime-fiction writer James Ellroy, who wrote the novel this movie was based upon, really liked the 3-hour cut director Brian De Palma showed him. Unfortunately, the studio subsequently trimmed the movie by a full hour. What's left, Ellroy wouldn't comment upon.

Based on a real-life unsolved Hollywood murder mystery of the 1940's, The Black Dahlia looks great and contains solid performances by everyone involved, though Scarlett Johannson sounds way, way too modern for a period picture. De Palma gets in some of his signature camera movement, most notably in a long POV shot at a dinner party. But he's not overtly showy -- the more involved pans and tracking shots all serve the story, and there's a great, lengthy bit involving the discovery of the murdered, partially dismembered body of Elizabeth Short, the so-called 'Black Dahlia.'

What seems to have been cut are most of the scenes involving actual detection, along with at least a couple scenes fleshing out Detective Bleichert's growing obsession with the case. His partner, played by Aaron Eckhart, does become obsessed -- but Bleichert's later obsession seems to occur off-screen. And the revelation of the killer or killers falls somewhat flat, given that scenes introducing and explaining the role of that character seem to have been cut from earlier in the movie.

So instead we're left with a weirdly off-balance detective film more focused on the love triangle between Hartnett and Eckhart's detectives and Johannson as Eckhart's live-in love interest. The mystery comes and goes. In attempting to trim the multiple plot lines of a novel, the studio chose the wrong ones to trim. Lightly recommended.

Carrie: adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Brian De Palma; starring Sissy Spacek (Carrie White), Piper Laurie (Margaret White), Amy Irving (Sue Snell), William Katt (Tommy Ross), John Travolta (Billy Nolan), Nancy Allen (Chris Hargensen), and Betty Buckley (Miss Collins) (1976): Wow, is there a lot of female nudity in Carrie. I'm pretty sure there won't be in the remake because in many ways Hollywood (and America) is far more prudish now than in 1976, at least when it comes to mass-market film releases. Nudity needs to stay in hardcore, niche pornography, where God intended it to be!

One of the quintessential movies about high-school alienation and bullying, Carrie is really cut to the bone from the novel. We see scenes of Carrie's traumatization by fellow high-school students and by her Jesus-Freak mother (played with eye-popping, scenery-chewing gusto by Piper Laurie). Then things seem to get better. Then all Hell breaks loose because some bullies never seem to know when to stop.

It all works, pretty much, and only the red filter for some of the concluding scenes comes across as dated in terms of actual film-making (as it does in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver from the same year). And there's a real, chilling, accumulating horror to the scene directly before the fireworks start at the end, as the camera circles around a fairy-tale ending lurching inevitably towards horror. The editing in these concluding scenes is top-notch. De Palma could give good montage when he wanted to.

What of Carrie? Sissy Spacek is way too pretty for the novel's version of Carrie, and with Chloe Moretz playing her in the (second) remake, this doesn't seem like a trope that's going to change any time soon. In Hollywood, pretty people get bullied too because no one's putting one of the less-pretty ones at the centre of a movie. So is the dominant ideology reinforced and reinscribed. Here endeth the lesson. Recommended.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

London and Mexico After Midnight

The Dark by James Herbert (1980): Herbert gives us an apocalyptic struggle between Good and Evil, though this time expressed in pseudo-scientific rather than religious terms. A somewhat Satanic cult leader commits mass suicide with his followers in a London (England) suburb. A year later, what appears to be a sentient cloud of pure evil begins to sally forth from the site of the suicide, corrupting many of those it meets to act on their worst impulses. And it's pretty much up to three paranormal investigators and a medium to stop the rising tide, as conventional methods prove insufficient.

Herbert seems to have a good time destroying large portions of London, with a cloud-fueled soccer riot probably the best set-piece. Herbert's protagonists have an astonishing ability to survive physical punishment (the oldest and wisest paranormal investigator seems to get strangled every ten pages), which is good, because they must endure a lot of it.

This is an enjoyable horror novel in which evil operates more like a plague than the sort of thing one normally sees in horror novels. The protagonists are sympathetic if somewhat broadly drawn, and the stakes convincingly high. While this is horror, the depiction of the civil authorities pitching in to fight a supernatural menace also contains echoes of an awful lot of the British science-fiction-disaster tradition seen in the Quatermass series, Doctor Who, and the novels of John Wyndham. The sudden ending is quite loopy. Recommended.


Tomb Seven by Gene Snyder (1985): Labelled a horror novel by its publishers, Tomb Seven contains almost no horror. It's really a pseudo-scientific, ancient astronauts archaeology thriller about a dig in Mexico that unearths a seemingly impossible array of artifacts...and one weird 8-foot-tall skeleton. There's an awful lot of telepathic woo-woo stuff, much of it in need of less woo and more plausibility (cited for the millionth time in a piece of fiction about archaeology is the [in truth non-existent] Curse of King Tut's Tomb).

The protagonists -- a handsome Welsh archaeologist and a sexy Hispanic-American telepath -- have sex because that's how these things happen. And she is the most beautiful woman in the world, because that's also how these things happen. The telepath promises the reader that something terrible is coming. It never actually does. Sort of a wet firecracker. Not recommended.