Saturday, December 20, 2014

King Rat (1998) by China Mieville

King Rat by China Mieville (1998): The prolific and gifted China Mieville's first novel is an urban fantasy that's about as subterranean and cloachal as they come. It's also a clever, subversive riff on that overused fantasy and science-fiction trope of The Chosen One and his Journey to Adventure

Saul Garamond, a somewhat aimless 30-something living in London with his left-wing, widower father, wakes up to discover that his father has been murdered and that he's the prime suspect. The police lock him up. And then Something rescues him from lock-up and reveals his True Nature to him. 

He's a rat.

In the universe of King Rat, the various animal species all have their avatars, avatars that can appear to be human but are ultimately (supernatural) animals. But Saul is a hybrid of rat and human, his lost mother a member of the Rat's ruling family. He's Prince Rat.

And so off Saul and King Rat go, with King Rat showing Saul a rat's eye view of London and Saul beginning to learn the powers and abilities he has as Prince Rat. Saul sometimes sees these abilities as super-powers, but they're not the sort of powers with which King Arthur or Luke Skywalker or Neo are blessed. Saul flourishes and gains strength by eating rotten food. He moves through the sewers and cracks of the city with ease. And being covered in muck and filth doesn't bother him -- indeed, he enjoys it. 

King Rat has partial allies among the other animal kingdoms, though we meet only the bird and spider kings here. And all three have an Ancient Enemy who's come to London, and against whom they must unite or die. Saul is needed for the war, for reasons that are revealed about halfway through the text.

As a left-wing subversion of traditionally right-wing or conservative fantasy tropes, King Rat is a delight. It's a satisfying read with surprising shifts and turns, and an unusual protagonist in Saul Garamond. The Ancient Enemy's plan for world domination is off-beat but, given the Enemy's real identity, perfectly logical. 

There are some problems -- Mieville's postmodern aversion to closure ends up looking a lot like a plan for a sequel, or at least a young writer's aversion to killing his darlings even when they need to be killed. But it's a grand, effluvium-covered adventure in any case. Recommended.

The Witches (1983) by Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl (1983): Roald Dahl's zippy, scary, funny, Whitbread-Award-winning children's novel about the efforts of a plucky boy and his grandmother to thwart the Witches of England in their quest to turn all children into mice is a humdinger. It's also got some disturbing psychological elements that the excellent 1990 Nicholas Roeg film version eliminated, understandably so. The changes prompted Dahl to publicly trash the movie, but it's a darned good movie and you should see it anyway. 

The novel is also darned good. Dahl, a great writer of both horrifying short stories and weird children's novels, had a great imagination. And he didn't patronize his intended readers with fake scares. The witches in his story are terrible beings, which doesn't stop them from breaking out into song from time to time. And for whatever reason, childhood gluttony is once again a target of Dahl's writerly wrath. 

There are also a number of nicely gross scenes calculated to make children giggle in between the scenes of fantasy and horror. For example, to witches, a human child smells like dog poo. Hee hee hee. The protagonists are a brave pair, and Dahl's witches are a fascinating bunch with some fascinating peculiarities (why don't they have toes?). Recommended.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Domain (1979) by James Herbert

Lair by James Herbert (1979): Late, prolific English horror novelist James Herbert really had a gift for blending left-leaning social commentary into his blood-spattered works. Lair, the second novel in his Rats trilogy, isn't quite as agit-proppy as The Rats or Domain. Nonetheless, it takes a lot of shots at upper-class twits, self-serving politicians, and money-grubbing corporate types.

The two co-dependent sub-species of giant rats that brought London to its knees in The Rats seem to have been vanquished when this novel opens. Four years have passed. But in the idyllic private forest of Epping Wood, a protected green space just a few miles from the centre of London, England, something is stirring. The two-foot-long black rats and their two-headed, nearly immobile overlords have adapted to life in the forest. And boy, are they hungry!

This time around, a plucky male biologist who works for the world's biggest rat-catching corporation (the Rat Invasion of London created some great business opportunities) and a plucky female forest guide are our main protagonists. This is an early James Herbert novel, so be assured that they will engage in a graphic five-page-long sex scene before the story's over. 

The super-rats soon create lots of mayhem and a lot of headless bodies stripped of all flesh. As a second book in a trilogy, Lair is a bit more restrained than the first and third novels. The action stays confined to the forest. Really, it's a pastoral from Hell. 

The gruesome scenes are very gruesome and quite inventive. The bureaucrats and politicians are dangerous idiots. The adaptation of the super-rats seems logical and well-thought-out, as do the social frictions between the two sub-species of super-rats. There's trouble in Rat Paradise! But they're still super-hungry! And, in what I think is a first for Herbert, the supporting pervert character doesn't die. Or does he? In any case, Herbert really didn't like Phys. Ed. teachers. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Strange Highways (1995) by Dean Koontz

Strange Highways by Dean Koontz (1995): Short novel sees the prolific Koontz on a rare foray into supernatural horror. It's pretty bad. Things start off promisingly, as a 40-year-old never-was returns to his small Pennsylvania hometown for the first time in 20 years to bury his father. Something happened two decades ago to drive him away from home, something he doesn't want to think about. But think about he will, as visions and supernatural events begin to point him towards a long-delayed reckoning with Evil. Evil so Evil it is the Fruits of the Devil, it is.

The first forty pages or so of Strange Highways are quite promising, establishing a real sense of place in Pennsylvania mining country, in an area where underground coal-vein fires have forced the evacuation of a village near the protagonist's hometown as the ground begins to crack, explode, and subside.

However, the supernatural events, when they really start coming, quickly veer into complete goofiness. Why? Something wants our protagonist to change the past. So it sends him into the past. And it provides a magical way for him to know whether or not he's changing the past for the better. And then, at the climax, after numerous speeches in which the protagonist is guilted by another character for not Having Faith, time keeps resetting itself until he gets everything right. It's like Live Die Repeat, Now With 100% More Satan.

We're left with a hero who seems like a dunderhead. Given the supernatural events going on all around him, he doesn't really need to have faith: empirically speaking, God does seem to have been proven to exist. And two plot devices ripped from the headlines of the early 1990's -- Satanist teenagers! Repressed Memory Syndrome! -- look awfully threadbare with the benefit of hindsight. So, too, the repeated and increasingly mawkish sermonizing. Koontz is a lot of things, but an interesting philosopher he is not. Not recommended.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Shadows Over Innsmouth (1995/2012) edited by Stephen Jones

Shadows over Innsmouth: edited by Stephen Jones (1995/Rev. ed. 2012), containing the following stories: A Quarter to Three   (1988)  by Kim Newman;  Beyond the Reef   (1994)  by Basil Copper;  Dagon's Bell  (1988)  by Brian Lumley; Daoine Domhain (1992)  by Peter Tremayne; Deepnet  (1994)  by David Langford; Down to the Boots  (1989)  by D. F. Lewis; Innsmouth Gold  (1994) by David Sutton;  Only the End of the World Again (1994) by Neil Gaiman; Return to Innsmouth (1992) by Guy N. Smith; The Big Fish (1994) by Kim Newman [as by Jack Yeovil ]; The Church in High Street (1962) by Ramsey Campbell; The Crossing (1994) by Adrian Cole; The Homecoming (1994) by Nicholas Royle; The Innsmouth Heritage (1992) by Brian Stableford; The Shadow Over Innsmouth  (1936) by H. P. Lovecraft; The Tomb of Priscus (1994) by Brian Mooney; and To See the Sea (1994) by Michael Marshall Smith.

Innsmouth, H.P. Lovecraft's fictional Massachusetts port town, seems to have more of a claim on the imagination of writers and readers than most of Lovecraft's concepts. While mentioned in passing in an earlier story, Innsmouth didn't really come into its own until the publication of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" in a small-press chapbook in 1936. And as that publication sold very few copies, it wasn't really until the magazine publication of the story in the early 1940's that any significant readership got to visit this curious and unwelcoming New England seaside community.

This is the first in what will soon be a trilogy of Innsmouth anthologies edited by the prolific anthologist Stephen Jones (the third arrives in January 2015). Here, the writers are all British with the exception of H.P. Lovecraft and his original story. Some of the stories occur in the British Isles, some return to Innsmouth, and some are darned peculiar.

Once upon a time, Innsmouth was just another New England fishing village. But then, Captain Obed Marsh brought back something from the South Seas. Perhaps plenty of somethings. And gradually, as the years passed and new generations were born, more and more citizens developed The Innsmouth Look. To be succinct, as people aged, they looked more and more disquietingly like giant, bipedal frogs. 

Marsh and his businesses flourished. A new church set up shop in Innsmouth, dedicated to the Esoteric Order of Dagon. And out on the Devil's Reef in Innsmouth harbour, strange beings gibbered and frolicked in the waves. Normal people began to flee Innsmouth or to disappear mysteriously, never to be seen again. This is the point in the 1920's that Lovecraft's novella begins, its narrator a man with Innsmouth heritage travelling to the town for the first time and discovering horrors.

I don't think there's a real stinker among this array of first appearances and the occasional reprint. Neil Gaiman's entry is a bit too arch to be effective as horror and not really funny enough to be effective as humour. But it's not awful. Basil Copper's period piece, set in HPL's equally fictional Massachusetts city of Arkham in the 1930's, invests the bipedal amphibians (aka the Deep Ones) with just a few too many new and plot-convenient powers, but it's still a fun read.

The Ramsey Campbell piece, from his impressively early-career collection of Lovecraft pastiches, has only a peripheral connection to Innsmouth. Going further (and farther) abroad, Nicholas Royle's "The Homecoming" uses Lovecraftian terminology and imagery in the disturbing and disquieting service of a story about just-post-Ceausescu Romania. 

Recurring supernatural investigators battle ancient menaces in several of the pieces, including those by Gaiman, Newman, and Mooney. Brian Lumley contributes a nearly pitch-perfect modern-day pastiche of Lovecraft by way of August Derleth. Michael Marshall Smith's "To See the Sea," while not a stylistic homage to HPL, is nonetheless a fairly straightforward frightener that demonstrates once again that in horror fiction, you can go home again, but you really shouldn't.

Originally, this was one of the Lovecraftian anthologies that helped kick off the revival of publications that tipped their rugose caps to the Revelator from Providence. The Titan books revised edition is a nice piece of work, as have been all their Lovercraft entries over the past couple of years. And the range of fiction here demonstrates much of the range possible when dealing with Lovercraft's legacy: pastiches are but a small portion of the fictional spectrum available to those gazing upon Innsmouth. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Infernal (2005) and Harbingers (2006) by F. Paul Wilson

Infernal (Repairman Jack 9) by F. Paul Wilson (2005): Things continue to get dire for libertarian pulp hero Jack (no last name), as family and friends are again targeted as part of the build-up to armageddon. This time around, terrible events at New York's LaGuardia airport bring Jack's older brother back into his life for the first time in nearly 20 years.

But Jack's brother, a judge, is a self-involved, corrupt, drunk bastard. Nonetheless, Jack agrees to help him disappear before he's arrested by the authorities. But there's also the matter of a mysterious map and an even more mysterious treasure. Inimical to human life, the Otherness is on the move.

Jack's brother makes this a more enjoyable outing in this series than most -- he's a refreshing breath of sleaze and terrible decision-making. I'd have liked more of the historical flashbacks that explain how the mysterious treasure ended up sunk in the waters off Bermuda, but so it goes. There's a scene in which a character whips up a magical antidote that seems like a parody (pretty much all the ingredients can be bought in the course of a couple of hours). Is it a parody? I don't know. Recommended.

Harbingers (Repairman Jack 10) by F. Paul Wilson (2006): The history of the war between the Otherness and the Ally on Earth gets sketched in, as Jack runs into a secret society that's been doing the Ally's bidding for several hundred years. Perhaps more. That secret society believes Jack is The Heir, the fancy title for the guy who will be granted super-powers and immortality to act as the enemy to the Otherness's similarly powered Adversary. But no superpowers yet.

So we get more dire familial events, more appearances of the strange and prophetic woman and her dog, and a whole lot of explosions and shooting. We also finally see the Adversary, Rasalom, begin to move more openly against his enemies. And the cosmic near-indifference of the Ally -- still better than the cosmic malevolence of the Otherness, but not by much -- finally begins to be shown in full. Recommended.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Blacula! (1972)

Blacula: written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig; directed by William Cain; starring William Marshall (Blacula/Mamuwalde), Vonetta McGee (Tina/Luva), Denise Nicholas (Michelle), Thalmus Rasulala (Dr. Gordon Thomas) and Gordon Pinsent (Lt. Jack Peters) (1972): Blacula may be a cheesy slice of 1970's blaxploitation, but it's a lot of fun. It's also got a terrific performance in the title role by William Marshall, a stage actor otherwise best known in genre circles for playing computer genius Richard Daystrom in the original series Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer."

Credit to the film-makers for actually working the name in the title into the film once, and then never referring to it again. Dracula dubs the African prince Mamuwalde 'Blacula,' because why not? Then he locks him in a casket for 200 years. An unambiguously gay duo of antique dealers buy that casket in 1972, ship it back to Los Angeles, and then make the colossal error of opening it.

Thankfully, intrepid police scientist Gordon Thomas and Canada's own Gordon Pinsent are on hand to stop the vampire invasion of Los Angeles. Some pretty crazy and remarkable scenes occur along the way, including a completely bonkers vampire attack by an undead lady cabdriver and a warehouse battle that features a fortuitous crate of what appear to be explosive, vampire-killing light-bulbs. 

Marshall invests Mamuwalde with about as much gravitas as can be expected under the circumstances. He's certainly a far more sympathetic vampire than any Dracula up to the time of the movie. Blacula also throws in a reincarnation sub-plot that would later appear in Bram Stoker's Dracula, among other subsequent movies. That sub-plot will be familiar to anyone who's seen the original 1930's The Mummy. Is this the first time that particular sub-plot has vectored into the vampire genre? I don't know. There's also a groovy soundtrack/score and a brief appearance by Elisha Cook Jr. as a coroner with a hook for a hand. Cool. Recommended.

Friday, December 5, 2014

All the Rage (2000) and Hosts (2001) by F. Paul Wilson

All the Rage (Repairman Jack 4) by F. Paul Wilson (2000): F. Paul Wilson's libertarian super-fixer returns. Jack's life keeps getting weirder as the massive cosmic battle between the Ally and the Otherness continues to escalate on Earth, and specifically in New York and New Jersey, Jack's primary stomping grounds.

This time around, Jack seeks to discover the source of a designer drug that makes its users feel invincible, and then compels them to commit acts of random and extreme violence. It's a solid entry in the series, albeit one with several dozen pages of skimmable moments. Along the way, we get several speeches about gun control and individual rights that, along with being glib, tend to stop the action dead. Oh, well. Recommended.

Hosts (Repairman Jack 5) by F. Paul Wilson (2001): Jack's back. So is Kate, his older sister, a successful pediatrician he hasn't seen in years. Her lesbian partner has turned weird after a seemingly successful treatment for brain cancer, so Kate phones Jack's business number to get help not knowing that Repairman Jack is also brother Jack. So we learn a bit more about Jack's personal history along the way.

It's the invading reality dubbed The Otherness again. This time around, it's using viruses to further its Earth-conquering goals. It's all a fairly plot-intensive romp, though Wilson's love of killing supporting characters really begins to shift into high gear. Really high gear. So be warned. Also, more lectures about gun control (Jack's against it) and taxes (Jack's against them, too). Recommended.

The Haunted Air (Repairman Jack 6) by F. Paul Wilson (2002): The first half of The Haunted Air is deeply satisfying in its choice of subject matter -- psychic frauds and the methods they use to be frauds. It's fun stuff, especially as Jack has been hired by one such fraud because he seems to have developed a 'real' supernatural problem: a haunted house.

Wilson's choice of the world of mediums and psychics is inspired. So, too, is the bizarre and murderous cult he invents, a cult whose murderous shenanigans eventually tie into the haunted house plot. It's really fun, breezy stuff -- well, as fun as the grim subject matter can be. Stay tuned for more lectures on the libertarian lifestyle, and one of Wilson's recurring riffs on the evils of Marcel Proust. Bonus points arise from the title, a quote from John Keats that's actually explained in the text. All this and a guest appearance of the Keep from Wilson's The Keep. A literal guest appearance. The Keep comes to Brooklyn! Recommended.

CrissCross (Repairman Jack 8) by F. Paul Wilson (2004): Wilson balances some of his most enjoyable, conspiracy-oriented world-building with some of the most brutal violence of the Repairman Jack series in this novel. We're introduced to Dormentalism, a New-Agey cult with more than a passing resemblance to Scientology by way of Mormonism. We're also introduced to a malignant supernatural tome, a piece of human skin that can neither be destroyed or lost by Jack, a nun with a problem, a squirmy blackmailer, an intrepid reporter, and the Opus Omega.

That last, the secret goal of Dormentalism, gets explained by the end of the text. Wilson's inventiveness really sings in the explanation of Dormentalism's secret history, its organizational structure, and its surface philosophy.Just don't get too attached to any of the supporting characters. Wilson's got a fever, and the only cure is more dead supporting characters! Recommended.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt: adapted by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville from a story by Gordon McDonell; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Teresa Wright (Charlie), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie), Macdonald Carey (Graham), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), and Hume CRonyn (Herbie Hawkins) (1943): Perhaps Hitchcock's most nuanced and humane exploration of human evil, Shadow of a Doubt casts its shadow forward on similar explorations of small-town America that include Blue Velvet, Fargo, and many other seriocomic films and television shows.

Joseph Cotten, cast against type as a monster, does great work as Uncle Charlie, a serial killer who returns home to his older sister's house just one step ahead of the law. Once there, his 'twin' -- Teresa Wright as his niece Charlie (Charlene), named in honour of him -- swiftly moves from hero worship to growing horror at what she gradually perceives her uncle to be. Wright is also excellent as the increasingly horrified Charlie who nonetheless must weigh what to do about her uncle as she fears what the monstrous allegations would do to her mother, who adores her baby brother.

There's a tremendous breadth to Shadow of a Doubt. Comic scenes with a young Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers offer commentary on an audience's love of thrills and murder. Hitchcock and his writers also examine the somewhat stultifying family dynamic of the younger Charlie's household. As is common in Hitchcock films, the law is a step slow and a day late throughout the film. The final confrontation will be between the two Charlies and no one else. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Paying for It: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (2011)

Paying for It: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (2011): This autobiographical comic from Toronto's own Chester Brown (Yummy Fur, Ed the Clown, Louis Riel) details more than a decade of Brown paying for 'it' -- 'it' being sex. Paying for It is  certainly not salacious: Brown strips his style down to near-minimalism, limiting the eroticism. We observe meetings with more than 25 prostitutes over the years. Worried about 'outing' any of the women, Brown neither shows faces nor, as he notes in the introduction, gets too specific with the details of what they talked about. The conversations with the assorted prostitutes are therefore more of a representative amalgamation of more general observations and opinions offered in different encounters.

The book is really more of a philosophical exploration of Brown's libertarian-based views on prostitution, offered to the reader through both Brown's internal monologues and his conversations with friends that include fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth and former Bob's Your Uncle frontwoman and Muchmusic VJ Sook-Yin Lee, Brown's girlfriend at the beginning of the book, which starts in 1997.

As noted, the graphics are minimalist, and represent some of Brown's cleanest linework. They're also quite funny at times. As Robert Crumb notes in his introduction, Chester Brown the cartoon character has a face that never changes expression regardless of the situation. Over the course of the book this becomes quite droll even as it offers a commentary on Brown's own apparent emotional reserve. 

Complete with lengthy notes and an appendix, Paying for It offers a pretty convincing argument for decriminalizing prostitution in Canada without legalizing it (which is to say, without the government regulating it). Brown's sweeping generalizations can become exhausting every once in awhile (he really, really hates romantic love) as certain elements, especially his arguments against romantic love, get stated and re-stated over the course of 300 pages. 

The strongest element of Paying for It remains Brown's depictions of the encounters with the prostitutes, all of which have the absolute and minutely observed status of engaging and rewarding verisimilitude regardless of the edits and conflations and omissions Brown chose to make to protect the identity of the women. Highly recommended.

Abraxas and the Earthman: written and illustrated by Rick Veitch (1981-83; collected 2006)

Abraxas and the Earthman: written and illustrated by Rick Veitch (1981-83; collected 2006): Writer-artist Rick Veitch's love letter to Moby Dick and space opera packs quite an illustrative wallop, with dazzling visuals and some pretty peculiar interstellar shenanigans.  Also giant space whales, a villainous Alien Ahab named Rottwang, giant astronauts who look like Al Capp's Schmoos, a six-breasted alien catwoman, a talking head, some musings on the bicameral mind, and a lot of other interesting stuff. Really a lot of fun from Veitch's early career. Recommended.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Several Pounds of Horror Stories

The Giant Book of Ghost Stories (Edited version of The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories): edited by Richard Dalby (Original version 1995/This version 2005), containing the following stories::

Ghosts (1887) by Anonymous; Schalken the Painter (1851) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; M. Anastius (1857) by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik; The Lost Room (1858) by Fitz-James O'Brien; No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman (1866) by Charles Dickens; Haunted (1867) by Anonymous; The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868) by Henry James; John Granger (1870) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; The Ghost in the Mill  (1870) by Harriet Beecher Stowe; The Ghost in the Cap'n Brown House (1870) by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Poor Pretty Bobby (1872) by Rhoda Broughton; The New Pass  (1870) by Amelia B. Edwards; The White and the Black (1867) by Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian; The Underground Ghost (1866) by John Berwick Harwood; Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk (1889) by Frank Cowper;  Dog or Demon? (1889) by Theo Gift; A Ghost from the Sea (1889) by Dick Donovan; A Set of Chessmen (1890) by Richard Marsh; The Judge's House (1891) by Bram Stoker; Pallinghurst Barrow (1892) by Grant Allen; The Mystery of the Semi-Detached (1893) by E. Nesbit; Sister Maddelena (1895) by Ralph Adams Cram; The Trainer's Ghost (1893) by Lettice Galbraith;  An Original Revenge (1897) by W. C. Morrow; Caulfield's Crime (1892) by Alice Perrin; The Bridal Pair (1902) by Robert W. Chambers; The Watcher (1903) by R. H. Benson; The Spectre in the Cart (1904) by Thomas Nelson Page; H. P. (1904) by Sabine Baring-Gould; and Yuki-Onna (1904) by Lafcadio Hearn.

Enjoyable and wide-ranging anthology of 19th and early 20th century ghost stories selected by the always reliable Richard Dalby. One will run across this volume and a few others with a fair bit of regularity, as it's an edited-down version of an earlier anthology, created by Barnes&Noble as an "instant remainder."

Dalby goes for breadth as well as non-typical selections in many cases -- while the Dickens story is oft-anthologized, entries from Fitz-James O'Brien, E. Nesbit, Robert W. Chambers, Amelia Edwards and other stalwarts are much less typical, which is to say I haven't come across them before.

Among the stand-outs are Grant Allen's "Pallinghurst Barrow", a fascinating entry in the Sinister Hidden British Race sub-genre that Arthur Machen would make his own, and "Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk" by Frank Cowper, which has one of the greatest titles ever. "Schalken the Painter" by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is my top pick of the bunch, an early effort by the fine and prolific Mr. Le Fanu that actually gave me a nightmare after I read it the first time.

There are a few piffles here, many from the better-known writers. The Nesbit story, for example, is almost a fragment. In all, though, and even truncated by the last eleven stories of its original version, the anthology offers a solid overview of time and writers, with an eye towards reprinting stories by the legion of female ghost-story writers that dominated the genre in the 19th century. Recommended.

Masters of Horror & the Supernatural: The Great Tales (Edited version of The Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural): edited by Bill Pronzini, Martin H. Greenberg, and Barry N. Malzberg (Original version 1981/ This version 2010), containing the following stories:

"Man Overboard!" (1899) by Winston Churchill; A Teacher's Rewards (1970) by Robert S. Phillips; Bianca's Hands (1947) by Theodore Sturgeon; Black Wind (1979) by Bill Pronzini; Call First (1975) by Ramsey Campbell; Camps (1979) by Jack Dann; Come and Go Mad (1949) by Fredric Brown; Hop Frog (1849) by Edgar Allan Poe;  If Damon Comes (1978) by Charles L. Grant; Namesake (1981) by Elizabeth Morton (aka Rosalind M. Greenberg); Passengers (1968) by Robert Silverberg; Pickman's Model (1927) by H. P. Lovecraft; Rappaccini's Daughter (1844) by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Sardonicus (1961) by Ray Russell; Squire Toby's Will (1927)by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu [as by J. Sheridan Le Fanu ] Sticks (1974) by Karl Edward Wagner; The Crate (1979) by Stephen King; The Doll (1980) by Joyce Carol Oates; The Explosives Expert (1967) by John Lutz; The Fly (1952) by Arthur Porges; The Girl with the Hungry Eyes (1949) by Fritz Leiber; The Hand (1919) by Theodore Dreiser; The Jam (1958) by Henry Slesar; The Jolly Corner (1908) by Henry James; The Middle Toe of the Right Foot (1890) by Ambrose Bierce; The Mindworm (1950) by C. M. Kornbluth; The Oblong Room (1967) by Edward D. Hoch; The Party (1967) by William F. Nolan; The Roaches (1965) by Thomas M. Disch; The Road to Mictlantecutli (1965) by Adobe James; The Scarlet King (1954) by Evan Hunter; The Screaming Laugh (1938) by Cornell Woolrich; The Squaw (1893) by Bram Stoker; The Valley of Spiders (1903) by H. G. Wells; Transfer (1975) by Barry N. Malzberg; Warm (1953) by Robert Sheckley; You Know Willie (1957) by Theodore R. Cogswell; and Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper (1943) by Robert Bloch.

With three stories removed from its previous edition as one of the Library-Ubiquitous Arbor House treasuries of the early 1980's, Masters of Horror & the Supernatural: The Great Tales remains a bit of a Frankenstein's Monster of an anthology.

Co-editor Bill Pronzini's background was primarily in mystery and suspense at the time, while Martin H. Greenberg and Barry Malzberg worked primarily in the science fiction field. How this got them a gig editing a comprehensive horror anthology is anyone's guess. Well, actually my guess would be that they worked on other Arbor House treasuries as well.

So many of the selections aren't, in my appraisal, actually horror. Instead, they're short thriller and suspense stories. They shouldn't be in a horror anthology. One of these mis-selected stories is by Pronzini himself ("Black Wind"), which doesn't increase my appreciation of the selection criteria. Two other slight, very slight, selections come from Malzberg ("Transfer") and Greenberg's wife Rosalind ("Namesake"), the latter appearing under a pseudonym. Apparently, Rosalind Greenberg has only published three stories in her life. One of them is here! And it's sort of pointless!

There are some worthy entries here, from perennials like Stoker's "The Squaw" and Henry James' "The Jolly Corner" to re-discoveries like Theodore Dreiser's "The Hand" and to then-recent stories like Jack Dann's haunting "Camps". For an anthology dedicated to the prolific and influential Cornell Woolrich, however, its Woolrich selection is completely baffling. "The Screaming Laugh" is an overlong mystery story; its one horror element has been seen before and since in much better stories, including Ray Russell's "Sardonicus," reprinted in this same anthology!

As this book seems to have been created as an instant remainder (it's a mainstay of the ChaptersIndigo Remainder pages, anyway), it shouldn't set a person back much in the purchasing. The selection is odd and self-serving, but there are many fine stories here. There's also Stephen King's "The Crate," adapted by King and George C. Romero for the movie Creepshow but never included in any of King's prose collections. Lightly recommended.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Shiny Beasts: written and illustrated by Rick Veitch with Alan Moore and S.R. Bissette (1979-1985; collected 2009)

Shiny Beasts: written and illustrated by Rick Veitch with Alan Moore and S.R. Bissette (1979-1985; collected 2009): Back in the long-lost days just before Marvel launched Epic, its own comics anthology magazine to compete with Heavy Metal, young turks like Rick Veitch and Steve Bissette were graduating from the first classes of the Joe Kubert School for Comics Art and entering the American comic-book industry. Veitch brings together his early-career short pieces done for Heavy Metal and Epic here, and they're a dazzling bunch for such a young writer and artist.

Veitch's interests have always tended towards science fiction and satire, and this book offers a heady dose of both. However, the mostly eponymous story, "Shiny Beast", points more towards Veitch's 21st-century graphic novel Can't Get No, with its reliance on pictures to carry the narrative.

Veitch would get better, and quickly, but there's a real charge to watching him play around with various illustrative techniques. His cosmic spacescapes dazzle in a couple of stories, making me wish someone had commissioned him to do a fully painted and airbrushed New Gods story. Blackly humourous twist endings abound, a legacy of both Veitch's work with editor Robert Kanigher at DC and of the long history of twist endings in short comic-book horror pieces, going back to EC Comics.

A generous afterword offers insight about Veitch's grwoth as an artist, his influences and mentors, and his collaborators. Several of those early Kubert School graduates were a close-knit bunch, sometimes living together to be able to afford the rent, and so a lot of work contains material from whoever was able to help out on a given day. It's a short and enjoyable volume, and would go well as a lead-in to some of Veitch's longer work from the same period, especially Abraxas and the Earthman and The One. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

John Constantine Hellblazer: The Gift: written by Michael Carey; illustrated by Leonardo Manco, Fraser Irving, Tim Bradstreet, and others (2004-2005; collected 2007)

John Constantine Hellblazer: The Gift: written by Michael Carey; illustrated by Leonardo Manco, Fraser Irving, Tim Bradstreet, and others (2004-2005; collected 2007): Mike Carey's fine run on what was DC-Vertigo's flagship title for various stretches of its 300-issue run comes to a mournful close. It's a volume that really needs to be read immediately after the previous collection, Reasons to be Cheerful, as the two collect what is really one long arc. 

Pissed-off, post-punk, Liverpudlian magician John Constantine finds himself in the crosshairs of an entire demonic family, three of whom are his children by a particularly sinister form of magical rape (!!!). And they're the grandchildren of his longest-running demonic foe, Nergal, who's been messing things up for Constantine since the early 1980's Newcastle incident that sent John to the Ravenscar psychiatric facility for several months.

But Nergal needs help against his daughter and grand-children to regain his kingdom in Hell. And John needs Nergal's help before all of John's remaining friends and relatives end up murdered by John's demonic hellspawn.

The whole thing is marvelously written and illustrated, though I occasionally wish that Leonardo Manco would let go a bit in his visuals, especially in those occasionally photo-referenced urban backgrounds. But his character work is exquisite, and in that 300-issue-run, I'd rank him below only John Ridgway and Steve Dillon as long-time artistic chroniclers of the Hellblazer.

Mike Carey's swan song on the title is as gritty and imaginative as ever, with the politics of Hell never so tellingly and squalidly depicted, nor John's anguish. Really a fine end to a fine run, and hopefully DC will collect this and Reasons to be Cheerful in one volume when they reach that point in the re-reprinting of Constantine. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986): edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert

The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986): edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert, containing the following stories:

The Tapestried Chamber (1828) by Sir Walter Scott
The Phantom Coach (1864) by Amelia B. Edwards
Squire Toby's Will (1868) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
The Shadow in the Corner (1879) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford
A Wicked Voice (1890) by Vernon Lee
The Judge's House (1891) by Bram Stoker
Man-Size in Marble (1886) by E. Nesbit
The Roll-Call of the Reef (1895) by Arthur Quiller-Couch
The Friends of the Friends (1896) by Henry James
The Red Room (1896) by H. G. Wells
The Monkey's Paw (1902) by W. W. Jacobs
The Lost Ghost (1903) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1904) by M. R. James
The Empty House (1906) by Algernon Blackwood
The Cigarette Case (1910) by Oliver Onions
Rose Rose (1910) by Barry Pain
The Confession of Charles Linkworth (1912) by E. F. Benson
On the Brighton Road (1912) by Richard Middleton
Bone to His Bone (1912) by E. G. Swain
The True History of Anthony Ffryar (1911) by Arthur Gray
The Taipan (1922) by W. Somerset Maugham
The Victim (1922) by May Sinclair
A Visitor from Down Under (1926) by L. P. Hartley
Fullcircle (1920) by John Buchan
The Clock (1928) by William Fryer Harvey
Old Man's Beard (1929) by H. Russell Wakefield
Mr. Jones (1928) by Edith Wharton
Smee (1929) by A. M. Burrage
The Little Ghost (1922) by Hugh Walpole
Ahoy, Sailor Boy! (1933) by A. E. Coppard
The Hollow Man (1933) by Thomas Burke
Et in Sempiternum Pereant (1935) by Charles Williams
Bosworth Summit Pound (1948) by L. T. C. Rolt
An Encounter in the Mist (1949) by A. N. L. Munby
Hand in Glove (1952) by Elizabeth Bowen
A Story of Don Juan (1941) by V. S. Pritchett
Cushi (1952) by Christopher Woodforde
Bad Company (1955) by Walter de la Mare
The Bottle of 1912 (1961) by Simon Raven
The Cicerones (1967) by Robert Aickman
Soft Voices at Passenham (1981) by T. H. White

Lengthy reprint anthology with numerous flaws, including the annoying omission of biographical information and publication dates for the individual stories at the beginning of each story.

There's also a certain nebulousness to the volume's construction of an "English ghost story." It's not necessarily written by an English-person. It isn't necessarily set in England. And it doesn't necessarily involve a ghost.

The editors' introduction does indicate where they come down on the issue of graphic violence in horror -- they're against it. Huzzah! I'll tell you, if nothing else, the introduction comes across as almost parodically upper-class-academic English. Blah blah, woof woof.

There are some excellent stories here. There's also an awful lot of time-wasting with stories that are very polite with their ghosts and don't seem to have any interest in scaring anbody. We get a few sentimental stories of sad, lost ghosts. We get a lot of one-twist stories in which the twist is, there's a ghost! Oh my heavens! That character is actually a ghost? Really? I did not see that one coming.

Thankfully, there are also some old stand-bys. "The Upper Berth" by F. Marion Crawford is a genuinely great story in one of my favourite horror sub-genres, that of the story in which someone gets into a fist-fight with a ghost. "The Cicerones" is one of horror-master Robert Aickman's shortest stories, and one of his most enigmatically potent.

"A Visitor from Down Under" by L. P. Hartley contains one of the most sinister (yet morally justified) ghosts in the genre, deployed in a story that has its droll moments (the ghost takes public transit) amidst the awfulness. And the short, very short, "The Clock" by  William Fryer Harvey is a neglected masterpiece of brevity and ghastly wit, with one of the more remarkably quick-witted and quick-moving protagonists in the history of ghost stories.

The editors really aren't all that interested in ghosts stories after about 1950. The entry by the usually fine de la Mare is neglible. The entry by T.H. White that closes the book was actually written in the 1930's, meaning that the editors don't bother with any writers of ghost stories between 1967 and 1986, the time of the greatest horror boom in publishing history. Nice work, boys. Recommended for many of the stories but not all of them, and what a lazy bit of editing and scholarship this book turns out to be. Editorial hackwork.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Horror of Dracula (a.k.a. Dracula) (1958)

The Horror of Dracula (a.k.a. Dracula): adapted by Jimmy Sangster from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Peter Cushing  (Doctor Van Helsing), Christopher Lee (Count Dracula), Michael Gough (Arthur Holmwood), Melissa Stribling (Mina), Carol Marsh (Lucy), John Van Eyssen (Jonathan Harker), and Olga Dickie (Gerda) (1958): Deft hyper-condensation of Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel introduced the horrors of England's Hammer Studios to the world -- along with actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Their appearances in Star Wars and (for Lee alone) the Lord of the Rings movies can be traced directly to their beloved work in movies such as Horror of Dracula.

Or just Dracula. Hammer changed the title for the 1958 American release because the Bela Lugosi 1930's Dracula still made the rounds of movie theatres at the time, though it would soon be sold in a package to television and mostly vanish from conventional theatre chains.

Did Stanley Kubrick watch a lot of Hammer horror movies? Because Horror of Dracula is a horror movie with very little darkness in its scenes of horror -- instead, we've got colourful sets and colourful cinematography that anticipate The Shining's super-saturated palette. Castle Dracula is very brightly lit. Especially given that it's 1888.

I'll leave a dissection of alterations to the original text to the viewer. They mostly work. And they're pretty necessary, given that the market of the late 1950's pretty much required that Horror of Dracula clock in at 90 minutes or less. So the movie hits the ground running.

Lee is terrific as Dracula, far and away his defining genre role (sorry, Count Dooku and Saruman). The film-makers use his height to good effect. Smooth and charming in the opening scenes set at Castle Dracula, Lee's Dracula becomes a mute monster once the action shifts to nemesis Van Helsing's home-town. Once Dracula's status as a vampire has been confirmed, he no longer has the need for social niceties. Or dialogue.

Peter Cushing is also terrific as vampire-fighter Van Helsing, investing this version of the character with a sort of Holmesian stature. His final battle with the bloody Count now seems iconic and much-imitated. A young Michael Gough does solid work as Arthur Holmwood, and Melissa Stribling is suitably conflicted as Dracula's final object of exsanguination, Mina. Terence Fisher keeps things moving at a rapid pace. Probably the best official adaptation of Stoker's novel, for all its changes to the text. Did I mention it's 82 minutes long? Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut: adapted by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael from the novel Dream Story (1926) by Arthur Schnitzler; directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Tom Cruise (Dr. William Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), and Todd Field (Nick Nightingale) (1999): Stanley Kubrick's last film had an infamously long shooting schedule, one which some people view as being the deciding factor in the break-up of stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kubrick handed in the final cut and then died less than a week later. Yikes!

Some critics at the time seemed to become more confused by the events of a movie based on a Freudian dream-journey of a novella than could really be explained. So I'll explain it. Kubrick was generally viewed as being a cool, emotionless film-maker constantly striving for some form of cinematic objectivity. He wasn't, but he was viewed this way by the critical hive-mind. Had the dreamily subterranean sub-conscious David Lynch released the exact same film, reviews would have been much different: we expect a mind-fuck from David Lynch. We expect the inexplicable and the subjective.

In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, the viewer's detective story could be summed up as a quest to understand what events in the film objectively 'happen' and what events are components of the Tom Cruise character's internal, dream-like, occasionally nightmarish voyage of self-discovery. And the answers to that quest I'll leave to you, the viewer. If answers are even needed. You could just strap in and feel the G's.

In many ways, this is Kubrick's most enjoyably absurd movie since Dr. Strangelove, if you let it be. Cruise's quest may take him into the bipolar dream realms of Eros and Thanatos, but Kubrick et al. offer mounting absurdities at every turn. An opener of the gateway named Nightingale. A comically sinister Eastern European provider of masquerade costumes and his nymphomaniac daughter. The much-maligned, endlessly loopy Secret Order of Rich Sex Perverts and their comically portentous sex games.

The comic parts curdle to nightmare, of course, with the various threads of Cruise's journey ending in rejection, illness, humiliation, death, and the contemplation of the abject, naked, dead body of what was earlier a sexualized object . The voyager into the dream world must be shocked back to the land of the real. And with the events set at Christmas, one can note, among other things, the importance of A Christmas Carol to understanding the proceedings. Though Dickens never gave us this much full-frontal nudity.

Kubrick's choice of then-reigning Hollywood Power Couple Cruise and Kidman makes perfect sense, as he wanted a pair who could play superficially pretty, seemingly bland people who would soon be revealed to contain hidden depths. I think they're both very good, especially Cruise, who gets to play a character who is both exactly his cinematic type on the surface, and a regret-plagued mess under the surface.

The supporting players are also fine, with the occasional wooden performances tending to be linked to characters who are there as adjuncts to Cruise's journey and not essential, emotional encounters. I wouldn't recommend watching it in one sitting. It's long, and there's a lot to think about. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Solo (2013)

Solo: written and directed by Isaac Cravit; starring Annie Clark (Gillian), Daniel Kash (Ray), Richard Clarkin (Fred), and Steven Love (Marty) (2013): Surprisingly competent straight-to-video cheapie filmed in the terrifying woodlands of Ontario, Canada. 17-year-old Gillian, nursing some tragedy that one knows will be revealed before the end credits, takes a job as a camp counselor somewhere in Ontario's cottage country. She knows nothing about camping.

Before the kiddies arrive, new counselors have to spend two nights alone on a small island to prove their camping ability. As all the counselors seem to be at the camp when this Solo occurs, I guess that either the camp never hires more than one new counselor a year, or the experienced counselors have a lot of down time before the kiddies arrive.

Anyway, 25 years earlier, a girl disappeared on that island, never to be seen again. Now, it has a reputation as being haunted. Man, this is the best summer job ever! So Gillian goes camping, and various things happen.

Annie Clark does a solid job as Gillian, and the rest of the acting is fine. The plot creaks a bit at times -- there's nothing really new here, but writer-director Isaac Cravit shows talent throughout. And at about 80 minutes, the movie certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. Lightly recommended.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror (1990): edited by Paul M. Sammon

Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror (1990): edited by Paul M. Sammon, containing the following stories and essays:  Night They Missed the Horror Show (1988) by Joe R. Lansdale; The Midnight Meat Train (1984) by Clive Barker; Film at Eleven (1988) by John Skipp; Red (1986) by Richard Christian Matheson; A Life in the Cinema (1988) by Mick Garris; Less Than Zombie (1989) by Douglas E. Winter; Rapid Transit (1985) by Wayne Allen Sallee; While She Was Out (1988) by Edward Bryant; Meathouse Man (1976) by George R. R. Martin; Reunion Moon (1990) by Rex Miller; I Spit in Your Face: Films That Bite (1989) essay by Chas. Balun; Freaktent (1988) by Nancy A. Collins; Crucifax Autumn: Chapter 18-The Censored Chapter (1988) by Ray Garton; Goosebumps (1987) by Richard Christian Matheson; Goodbye, Dark Love (1986) by Roberta Lannes; Full Throttle (1990) by Philip Nutman; City of Angels (1990) by Jay Russell; and Outlaws (1990) essay by Paul M. Sammon.

Flawed but immensely enjoyable anthology about the 'It' sub-genre of horror in the 1980's, splatterpunk, and the men and women who would define it. Released only four years after the term had been coined by David Schow in emulation of science fiction's cyberpunk, Splatterpunks sees Sammon attempting to define the sub-genre in several essays while also offering a selection of splatterpunk and proto-splatterpunk work. The basic definition of splatterpunk -- stories of extremely graphic horror with an 'outsider's' attitude -- gets stretched, folded, spindled, and mutilated herein, however, by the very people trying to define it.

The benefit of hindsight suggests that the greatest triumph of splatterpunk lay in how quickly it became mainstream. Indeed, Sammon views Clive Barker as being the formative, game-changing writer whose Books of Blood essentially started the sub-genre. And Clive Barker, thanks in part to that ubiquitous quote from Stephen King, "I have seen the future of horror and its name is Clive Barker", became a best-selling writer with great rapidity after the publication of Books of Blood in 1984.

Of course, therein lies the rub. Maybe several rubs. Thoughout the anthology, Sammon claims ground-level, outsider status for splatterpunk as a whole. Its two essential qualities are "enthusiasm" and "truthfulness." Like early punk as related to the rock-and-roll of the 1970's, it operates at the fringes of established horror.

However, Clive Barker, Sammon's pivotal writer, was a sales success almost overnight once he started publishing horror -- and that was with two giant volumes of short stories as his initial offering in horror, which is about as unusual as it gets in a publishing market centered around novels. By 1990, Barker had vectored almost completely out of horror writing, instead working on movies, comic books, and gigantic fantasy novels. And all along, Barker maintained he wasn't a splatterpunk.

Actually, pretty much everyone in this anthology whom Sammon asks to define themselves as splatterpunks refuses to do so. Some are willing to claim that some of their stories are splatterpunk. Others are not. And the person who coined the term? Well, while David Schow's excellent first short-story collection in the 1980's, Lost Angels, named him on the cover as the father of splatterpunk, none of the stories included therein could justifiably be viewed as splatterpunk (though Sammon tries really hard to make the case for Schow's award-winning "Red Light", a quiet horror story that Sammon tries to sell as splatterpunk because it's "enthusiastic" and "truthful.").

So it goes. But Barker's success with graphically violent supernatural and non-supernatural stories of sex and horror wasn't a one-off. By the early 1990's, splatterpunk had been absorbed into mainstream horror. Or perhaps re-absorbed. Bleak or blackly comic, ground-level gross-outs have been part of horror for just about forever, as Sammon very briefly gestures towards in one of his essays. But Sammon champions splatterpunk while dismissing the "quaint", "archaic" horrors of Poe and Lovecraft. But Poe wrote a lot of stories in which ridiculously bloody and grotesque things happened, with no moral in sight. Lovecraft, too, had his bodily horrors. So, too, so many others.

Sammon repeatedly tries to establish splatterpunk as the avant-garde, an impossible task given its rapid sales success and the existence of extremely popular antecedents. Sammon even cites James Herbert as an obvious proto-splatterpunk, and Herbert was Great Britain's best-selling native horror writer of the late 1970's and early 1980's. This is the gritty avant-garde?

Splatterpunk makes more sense as a reaction against the "quiet horrors" championed by American horror anthologist Charles L. Grant in the late 1970's and early 1980's in a variety of anthologies, most notably the Shadows series.  And there was definitely a literary feud going on there. Graphic short horror certainly began to become more prominent in horror anthologies, partially because self-defined splatterpunks such as Sammon, John Skipp, and Craig Spector started editing anthologies. And the splatter eventually got into everything, often mixing with the "archaic" types of horror that Sammon views condescendingly at points.

Sammon's book touches upon some of the real-world reasons for a new taste for sex and violence in the 1980's. A reaction against the hypocritical nostalgia of the Thatcher and Reagan regimes and their attendant censorship campaigns against 'Video nasties' and naughty song lyrics looms largest, aided by a gradual loosening of restrictions on what mainstream publishers would publish. And movies -- especially independently produced movies -- had been feeding an increasing appetite for gore since the late 1960's saw George Romero's Night of the Living Dead lumber onto the screen.

In any case, the anthology itself is a lot of fun, regardless of where one stands on the question of 'What is Splatterpunk?'. Joe Lansdale's "Night They Missed the Horror Show" still shocks the most, with its escalatingly brutal depiction of human horrors in a small Texas town.  Pieces by Mick Garris, Ray Garton, and Jay Russell all use babies or fetuses to horrific effect... hoo ha! Philip Nutman's "Full Throttle" may be the finest story in Splatterpunks, a kitchen-sink bit of social realism, telepathy, and graphic violence and sexuality that stings more with its social commentary, and its ability to arouse sympathy for a couple of self-pitying, unsympathetic teenagers, than with its moments of horrific physicality. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978)

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978): Top-notch melding of the horror and hard-boiled detective genres by Hjortsberg, whose bibliography seems to contain more unproduced screenplays than anything else. He did adapt this novel into the 1987 movie Angel Heart (a.k.a. the movie with controversial nude sex scenes featuring The Cosby Show's Lisa Bonet playing a voodoo priestess), though there are significant differences between the two works. In terms of location, the novel stays pretty much in New York while the movie headed to New Orleans, I'd assume to make the voodoo action more... believeable?

Hjortsberg nails the cynical prose-poetry of the classic hard-boiled detective novel, with P.I. Harry Angel handling the world-weary, occasionally cruel but mostly well-meaning first-person narration. Angel repeatedly comes off as the world's oddest New York City tour guide as we move in and around the New York of the late 1950's.

A mysterious client hires Angel to track down a popular singer in the Frank Sinatra mode who was supposed to be in an upstate mental asylum after injuries sustained during World War Two left him mentally and physically disabled. The only problem is, the singer -- stage name Johnny Favorite -- isn't at the asylum, and hasn't been for years. And the trail is cold. But as Angel pursues Favorite, everything starts to heat up, and people start dying in increasingly horrible ways.

Variations are worked on the usual suspects and usual characters of hardboiled detective fiction and film, from shadowy businessmen through shady lawyers to jilted heiresses. As Angel's case proceeds, odder characters arise, and previously introduced characters get odder. There will be voodoo. There will be Satanism. There will be horoscopes and morphine addicts and one weird trip to the theatre.

Hjortsberg's period and genre-specific style works wonderfully throughout Falling Angel, falling always just on the serious side of near-parody. Angel's a tough customer with no friends and his own troubled past, but like all great hardboiled detectives, his essential quality is absolute stubbornness. He'll solve the case regardless of the cost. And what a cost! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Horror Comics Old and New

John Constantine Hellblazer: Reasons to be Cheerful: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Leonardo Manco, Giuseppe Camuncoli and Lorenzo Ruggiero (2004-2005; collected 2007): Excellent but frustratingly short collection of Constantine stories really ends halfway through an arc. This is something DC used to do a lot with its adult-oriented Vertigo collections, I'd assume in order to squeeze as much money as possible out of the trade paperback reprint market. They're now re-collecting Constantine's Vertigo title in lengthier collections from the start of the comic. I'd assume this arc and the subsequent The Gift will appear in one reasonably priced volume some time in about 2016.

Carey's an excellent writer, and really the second-last great writer of Constantine's now-cancelled Vertigo Universe title. The art by Leonard Manco and others is solid and moody, and the horrors suitably horrific. Of course, Constantine is Odysseus-like in his on-going ability to get everyone associated with him killed. As the main arc partially collected here deal with a threat to Constantine's relatives, friends, acquaintances, and people and things he only met once, a high death toll is assured. Who will survive and what will be left of them? Recommended, but you should probably wait for a new, more complete collection.

The EC Comics Library: Shock SuspenStories Volume 2:  written by Al Feldstein and Ray Bradbury; illustrated by Johnny Craig, Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Jack Kamen, Reed Crandall, George Evans and others (1952-53; collected 2007): Shock SuspenStories was the Whitman's Sampler of EC Comics during that comic-book company's brief, brilliant run as the best comic-book company in the United States in the early 1950's. Stories reflected the breadth of EC's comics line, from social agit-prop stories (known as "preachies") to science fiction, horror, and suspense.

If one wants to see EC in all its glory, Gemstone's over-sized SuspenStories collections are the way to go. Grotesque horror stories with terrible puns in the title include "Beauty and the Beach" (illustrated by Jack Kamen), in which two jealous husbands enact ridiculous yet appropriate vengeance on their sunbath-loving wives, and "Seep No More", a riff on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart."

There are also two excellent adaptations of Ray Bradbury stories here -- "The Small Assassin" and "The October Game", both suitably under-stated and horrifying in their implications. Notable "preachies", which were pretty much always illustrated by the great Wally Wood, include "Fall Guy," a gimmicky story with a visual bit riffed upon in Watchmen; "Came the Dawn!", a loopy ax-murderer tale with the sexiest woman Wood ever drew for EC; and "...So Shall Ye Reap!", a justifiably much-lauded tale with dual, unreliable narrations.

Also included is artist Reed Crandall's terrifically grotesque "Carrion Death," a story of murder and vengeance meted out by the natural world. We also get not one, not two, but three stories about Martians -- and only two of those Martian races hostile -- and for unintentional laughs the bizarre and ridiculous anti-drug "preachie" "The Monkey," in which recreational marijuana usage inevitably leads to murder, as it so often does. In all, highly recommended.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Book of Horrors (2011), edited by Stephen Jones

A Book of Horrors (2011), edited by Stephen Jones, containing the following stories, all original to this volume:

  • A Child's Problem by Reggie Oliver: Brilliant English ghost story in the tradition of M.R. James, with a neat extrapolation from a real painting and real-world historical events during the Victorian era.
  • Alice Through the Plastic Sheet by Robert Shearman: An increasingly surreal and perhaps a bit overlong tale of some very bad neighbours.
  • Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint by Caitlin R. Kiernan: Almost a vignette or mood piece of a woman who's drawn to fires.
  • Getting It Wrong by Ramsey Campbell: Black comedy about trivia contests and a lonely, misanthropic movie buff.
  • Ghosts with Teeth by Peter Crowther: Enjoyable piece overstuffed with increasingly omnipotent ghosts. The flash-forward at the beginning negates much of the suspense.
  • Last Words by Richard Christian Matheson: Short gross-out. Maybe it's supposed to be profound.
  • Near Zennor by Elizabeth Hand: Absolutely brilliant, muted piece that sends a widower on a voyage into rural England in search of answers about a part of his wife's childhood that he was unaware of until she'd died. Both a lovely character study and a detailed, slowly building work of quiet but unmistakeable horror.
  • Roots And All by Brian Hodge: The Wendigo vs. Breaking Bad: The Road to Victory.
  • Sad, Dark Thing by Michael Marshall Smith: Sad, moving story of loss and depression.
  • Tell Me I'll See You Again by Dennis Etchison: Typically excellent, under-stated, odd story from one of a handful of the greatest American horror writers of the last fifty years.
  • The Coffin-Maker's Daughter by Angela Slatter: An interesting, unpleasant bit of dark fantasy set in an alternate world, or perhaps yet another world of The New Weird.
  • The Little Green God of Agony by Stephen King: The supernatural elements are a complete dud; the sections on physical rehab after a horrifying accident are excellent: this would be a lot better as a non-supernatural story.
  • The Man in the Ditch by Lisa Tuttle: Some very nice M.R. James-like supernatural events in a story that really lacks the sympathetic characters that can carry this sort of thing.
  • The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer by John Ajvide Lindqvist: Disturbing tale with some fascinating, Sweden-specific supernatural elements from the writer of Let the Right One In is also Lindqvist's first story written expressly for English-language publication.

Overall, this is a top-notch, all-original horror anthology. None of the stories are terrible, and several (Reggie Oliver's and Elizabeth Hand's entries, to name two) are absolutely top-notch all-timers. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Beyond the Curtain of Dark (1967/1972): edited by Peter Haining

Beyond the Curtain of Dark (1967/1972): edited by Peter Haining, containing the following stories:

Lizzie Borden Took an Axe... (1946) by Robert Bloch: Interesting but a bit long and fairly obvious; a sort of thematic companion piece to Bloch's earlier, superior "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper."
The Snail Watcher (1964) by Patricia Highsmith: Brilliant, gross, and very short from the creator of the talented Tom Ripley.
Chickamauga (1889) by Ambrose Bierce: Haunting and horrible tale of war as observed by a child.
At Last, the True Story of Frankenstein (1965) by Harry Harrison: A mostly funny, EC Comics-like entry in the school of 'that story was actually sorta true!'
Fever Dream (1948) by Ray Bradbury: A creepy tale of infection still resonates with body-fear in the Age of Ebola.
The Other Celia (1957) by Theodore Sturgeon: A fascinating character study of a voyeuristic loner and the strange fellow lodger in a boarding house whose oddities attract his attention.
The Oval Portrait (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe: Short-short from Poe, and not all that rewarding.
The Monster-Maker (1887) by W. C. Morrow: One crazy scientific monster story from the late Victorian Age.
Come and Go Mad by Fredric Brown: Brilliant piece of science-fictional paranoia, and an unusually long story from the often terse Brown, one of the two or three absolute masters of the shock-short.
The Survivor (1954) by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth: Derleth expands brief notes from Lovecraft into a story. You will see the ending coming. Fun but derivative.
The Ancestor (1957) by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth: Derleth expands brief notes from Lovecraft into another story. You will see the ending coming. Also fun but derivative.
The Mortal Immortal (1833) by Mary Shelley: A melancholy non-Frankensteinian work from Shelley. The ending suggests a possible future team-up between the eponymous protagonist and the Creature.
Dr. Heidegger's Experiment (1837) by Nathaniel Hawthorne: One of Hawthorne's funnier excursions into a bleak assessment of human character.
By These Presents (1953) by Henry Kuttner: Clever deal-with-the-devil story.
Whosits Disease (1962) by Henry Slesar: Brief and disposable.
King Pest (1835) by Edgar Allan Poe: Another of Poe's less-anthologized works is a funny-nightmarish walkabout in a plague-ridden port town. The extreme physical oddities of most of the characters, and the oddly jolly, macabre situation of the story suggest Tim Burton.
Mayaya's Little Green Men (1946) by Harold Lawlor: Very much telegraphed and pointlessly nasty.
For the Blood Is the Life (1905) by F. Marion Crawford: Maybe the prolific Crawford's oddest horror story, with a really striking revelation of a ghost as seen from afar.
The Human Chair (1925/translated from the Japanese 1956) by Edogawa Rampo: Very creepy little tale from a Japanese master of horror.
The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh (1838) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: The great Le Fanu plays with narrative points of view.
Return to the Sabbath (1938) by Robert Bloch: Relatively early Bloch melds Hollywood and the Satanic in an early indication of how Bloch's horror writing would develop.
The Will of Luke Carlowe (1906) by Clive Pemberton: You will see the ending coming.
Eyes Do More Than See (1965) by Isaac Asimov: Nifty and unusual inclusion of a science-fiction story set in a far, far future in which humanity has evolved into immortal energy beings.

Typically eclectic and wide-ranging anthology from the prolific anthologist Peter Haining. Not everything hits hard, but the breadth and occasional rarity of the selections make it a worthwhile read. Recommended.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4 (2011): edited by Ellen Datlow

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4 (2011): edited by Ellen Datlow, containing the following stories: The Little Green God of Agony by Stephen King; Stay by Leah Bobet; The Moraine by Simon Bestwick; Blackwood's Baby by Laird Barron; Looker by David Nickle; The Show by Priya Sharma; Mulberry Boys by Margo Lanagan; Roots And All by Brian Hodge; Final Girl Theory by A. C. Wise; Omphalos by Livia Llewellyn; Dermot by Simon Bestwick; Black Feathers by Alison Littlewood; The Final Verse by Chet Williamson; In the Absence of Murdock by Terry Lamsley; You Become the Neighborhood by Glen Hirshberg; In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos by John Langan; Little Pig by Anna Taborska; and The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine by Peter Straub (all stories 2011):

Ellen Datlow's Best Horror anthologies tend towards an area of the horror axis in which weirdness and relationship problems are the highest values. It's not my favourite area of horror, but if it's yours, you may find Datlow's anthologies more rewarding than I do.

Certainly nothing here is badly written. The entries from Glen Hirshberg and Laird Barron are typically excellent. I like how Hirschberg lays out the long-term psychological effects of a brush with the supernatural, while Barron's world of muscular protagonists faced with an enormity of perverse, hidden horrors always gives me a kick. "Blackwood's Baby" seems like the sort of fever dream Hemingway might have had after getting punched in the mouth by Cthulhu.

The John Langan story is also good, though the ending is telegraphed all the way back to the title. Stephen King's story seems to be included solely to get King's name on the cover -- it's a curiously limp affair in which one can call all the plot points several pages before they occur and be right every time.

Peter Straub's story disappoints in a much different way. It's weird and creepy for awhile, but the eponymous couple's peculiar sexual fetish, once revealed, acts to distance one from any investment in the narrative's outcome. The ending comes several paragraphs too late, as a third-party explanation of what we've just read blunts whatever horror remained in what we'd previously read. Chet Williamson's otherwise excellent "The Final Verse" also has a problematic ending, as it veers into a sort of jokey, EC-Comics nihilism that doesn't fit the rest of the story.

Stylistically, the stories are well-written. Would I like more stories that are actually scary? Oh, yeah. I do like that Datlow includes a list of stories as 'Honourable Mentions' at the end of the volume. There's something weird and off-putting about it.  I could also probably go to the end of my days without reading another Bradburyesque story with the plot-engine removed, or another Weird Incest Tale. Weird Incest Tales: the worst fantasy magazine ever. Lightly recommended.

Conspiracies (2000) by F. Paul Wilson

Conspiracies (Repairman Jack #3)  by F. Paul Wilson (2000): Easily the zippiest, lightest of F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack novels that I've read. The setting for the 'A' plot helps with this, as Jack has to infiltrate a convention of conspiracy theorists in order to find a missing woman. He's never met that missing woman, but she left a message with her husband that if she disappeared, only Repairman Jack would be able to help help her. So against his better judgement, off Jack goes to the convention.

There, he'll meet and mingle with an assortment of One World, UFO, Hollow-Earth, Christian fundamentalist, and various and sundry other seriously invested conspiracy theorists. The missing woman had announced prior to the convention that her Sunday keynote speech would reveal a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory that would explain everything. Did someone kidnap or kill her to shut her up?

In what was then the third of the Repairman Jack books, Conspiracies does a certain amount of heavy lifting so as to make Jack's adventures part of the overarching Adversary Cycle. The Adversary himself, Rasalom, shows up in disguise to deliver a chapter worthy of Basil Exposition, laying out the framework of the massive secret war going on behind the scenes to Jack so as to judge whether or not Jack knows anything about it. He doesn't. But boy, is he going to learn.

A draggy B-plot detracts from the shenanigans -- with all these conspiracy theories floating around, the hiring of Jack to solve a domestic abuse situation just seems like a prosaic time-waster. More conspiracy theories! More weird events! More Tesla! More of the Blues-Brothers-like agents of Order known only as the Twins! And most of all, more of Rasalom's evil talking monkey! Recommended.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Misapplied Titles

The Devil Commands: adapted by Robert Andrews and Milton Gunzburg from the novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane; directed by Edward Dmytryk; starring Boris Karloff (Dr. Blair), Cy Schindell (Karl), Amanda Duff (Anne), Anne Revere (Mrs. Walters) and Richard Fiske (Richard) (1941): Moody, atmospheric horror film with Karloff as a Mad Scientist, or more accurately a sane scientist driven mad by his wife's death and the subsequent revelations about the afterlife as revealed by his investigations into brain function.

Frame narration from Karloff's daughter doesn't really help with suspense, but the movie as a whole is enjoyable. Karloff is more mournful and far less threatening than usual as the increasingly loopy scientist who believes that he can build a machine to communicate with the dead in general and his wife in particular. And what a machine! The final form of his 'Dead Set' really makes the whole movie worthwhile. It's Vacuum-Tube Gothic.

Other elements are perhaps a bit more rote, from the grieving daughter and her boring love interest to the wily sheriff. Karloff's hulking henchman Karl possesses a bit more pathos than most such characters, as we see the accident that 'creates' him. An unscrupulous 'fake' medium who turns out to have real psychic powers (shades of Ghost!) rounds out the major players.

Director Edward Dmytryk is better at mood and atmospherics than he is pacing -- the whole thing drags a bit, which shouldn't really happen with a 65-minute movie. Nonetheless, a grim and surprisingly downbeat movie for its time. Recommended.


The Tomb (2nd revised edition) by F. Paul Wilson (2004/ previously published in different form in 1984 and 1998): Originally the first appearance of Wilson's Repairman Jack character, The Tomb would later be substantially revised, along with a number of other Wilson novels, as the writer fleshed out his Adversary Cycle and the Repairman Jack series that wove in and out of that Cycle.

But originally, this was a 1984 one-off. There wouldn't be another Jack novel for about a decade. In the revised version, its timeline moved up to the 21st century, The Tomb has been retconned into the 21st century.

Jack is a sort of altrusitic, libertarian superman. Or supercompetentman. He's off the grid. He fixes problems for people, sometimes violently, sometimes not. 'The Tomb' wasn't Wilson's preferred title -- it was meant by the publisher to echo the title of Wilson's previous hit, The Keep, even though there's no actual tomb in the novel. Instead, there are mysterious disappearances in New York, flashbacks to mid-19th-century India, and terrible things hidden inside a mysterious freighter. There are monsters. Smelly, seemingly invincible monsters.

The good parts of The Tomb are very good: Jack's investigation is suspenseful, and both the historical sections and the horror sections of the novel are skilfully written. About three-quarters of the novel is thus an occasionally thoughtful page-turner. Unfortunately, about one-quarter of the novel focuses upon the love of Jack's life, Gia, and her idiot daughter Vicky. But by God, even though Wilson doesn't write children well doesn't mean he's not going to keep trying! And ditto for Gia, whose personality consists of about equal parts worrying about Vicky and mulling over Jack. That's all you're going to get, so don't wait around for wit. Well, she really enjoys cleaning things. I kid you not.

Vicky may be central to the plot, but you can still skim much of the material focused upon her and her mother. They're a tremendously dull pair (and will continue to be dull yet hazardous for every Repairman Jack novel) when they're not getting into trouble. And when Vicky gets into trouble late in this novel, it's through doing something stupid that spins off from Jack doing something stupid by not fully explaining something because if he'd fully explained something, we wouldn't have a hostage for the second climax of the novel. Oh, well. A lot of the Gia/Vicky sections don't feature Jack, meaning that skimming is pretty easy. Real, real easy. Recommended.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Back to Cthulhu

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012): edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories: And the Sea Gave Up the Dead by Jason C. Eckhardt; Appointed by Chet Williamson; Bloom by John Langan; Casting Call by Don Webb; Correlated Discontents by Rick Dakan; Dahlias by Melanie Tem; Dead Media by Nick Mamatas; Houndwife by Caitlin R. Kiernan; King of Cat Swamp by Jonathan Thomas; The Abject by Richard Gavin; The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with the Hundred Knives by Darrell Schweitzer; The History of a Letter by Jason V Brock; The Other Man by Nicholas Royle; The Skinless Face by Donald Tyson; The Wilcox Remainder by Brian Evenson; View by Tom Fletcher; Waiting at the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem; and When Death Wakes Me to Myself by John Shirley.

When it comes to both the general (horror fiction) and the specific (H.P. Lovecraft), S.T. Joshi's credentials are impeccable. His emendations and annotations to Lovecraft's fiction have been a gift to the reading public, as has his other work.

This is certainly a mostly enjoyable anthology with a somewhat misleading title forced upon Joshi by his publishers. The first of these anthologies was simply entitled 'Black Wings' in its original hardcover publication, a quotation from an essay by Lovecraft about horror. 'of Cthulhu' was added to the paperback release to grab the eye of the reader. However, the addition makes the title of the anthology somewhat erroneous. Writers riff here on all of Lovecraft's output, and on the more general aspects of his approach to cosmic horror. This isn't a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology. So if you want a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology, look elsewhere. It will probably also have 'Cthulhu' in the title. They're not hard to find.

None of the stories selected by Joshi are bad in the way that Cthulhu Mythos pastiches can be bad (though I'm definitely not alone in my enjoyment of even the most clumsy of attempts to replicate both Lovecraft's style and content). Really, none of them are bad at all. They do fall within a range that also fails to ascend beyond the level of, 'Well, that was enjoyable.'

But wait. Was I frightened by anything here in a cosmic, metaphysical manner? No. Steve and Melanie Tem's stories do disturb on a metaphysical level. John Shirley's piece is a delightful romp, but not a scary one. Jason Brock's "A History of a Letter" does a solid job as an epistolary work of mounting unease, though the jokiness of the footnotes cuts against total investment. Caitlin Kiernan's story does invest totally in its horrific elements, but it's a character study, not an exercise in terror.

Another problem shared by several stories is, well, an absent middle -- "Dead Media" and "The Abject" pretty much jump from detailed introduction to loopy conclusion. And the loopiness of both sudden conclusions works against horror. It doesn't help that "The Abject" has been critically overdetermined, starting with that title, which is actually attached to a large, scary rock in the story. I kept waiting for a Phallic Mother to appear and, you know, it sort of does.

Dire consequences await many of the protagonists of these tales, at a much higher rate of Dire than that found in Lovecraft's whole output. One of the things that you can count on in modern Lovecraft-related fiction is that down endings and cosmic disaster are the norm and not something that may arrive in the near future but does not arrive in the text itself. When the disastrous ending becomes standard, that standard becomes cliche.

It's an interesting development in horror fiction, suggesting that at least when it comes to the fiction they produce, an awful lot of today's writers are far more misanthropic and defeatist than the notoriously misanthropic and "futilitarian" Lovecraft ever was. Some of them make me long for the Derlethian deus ex machina that ended many (but not all) of Derleth's Lovecraft pastiches.

There may be a fairly high level of literary acumen on display here, but the endings too often echo the endings of the last twenty years of horror movies, in which supernatural evil always triumphs. And when evil always triumphs, as T.E.D. Klein noted in a riff on an earlier critic's musings, then I don't see what the point of the point is other than knee-jerk nihilism. Lightly recommended.