Friday, January 31, 2014

Morning Wood

Came the Dawn and Other Stories (The Fantagraphics EC Comics Library): written by Al Feldstein, Gardner Fox, and others; illustrated by Wally Wood and Harry Harrison (1951-53; 2012): These recent Fantagraphics volumes of legendary EC Comics material arranged by writer, editor, and/or artist are absolutely splendid. The black-and-white reproduction is crisp, allowing the details of the artwork to stand out. And detail is one of the keys to the greatness of that tragic giant Wally Wood.

This volume presents Wood's horror and suspense work for EC Comics, the 1950's American comic-book publisher that towered above all others in terms of the quality of its writing and art. Over the course of about three years represented in this volume, Wood rapidly becomes the detailed, evocative artist he would remain for the rest of his career. It's a stunningly fast development of an artist.

Despite the appearance of a few werewolves and ghosts early on, the volume mostly focuses on Wood at his most realistic. The lion's share of the stories come from EC's Shock Suspens-Stories title, which offered thrillers and pointed social critiques which often resembled the Warner Brother agit-prop movies of the 1930's. And while Wood was a gifted science-fiction and superhero artist, he really shines in rendering the (relatively) ordinary in all its detailed, shadowy, and often big-bosomed glory. No one drew women like Wood.

Many of the stories here are what the writers and artists and editors of EC themselves referred to as "preachies", stories meant to teach a point. The handful of anti-racism stories still pack one hell of a wallop because of both the writing and Wood's exquisite artwork, capable of both beauty and brutality in the same panel. The editors are correct in noting that EC did stories that television and movies wouldn't tell, at least in such graphic and wrenching detail.

In all, this volume is a wonder, as was Wood when he was operating at full capacity. This is marvelous stuff, and a revelation to anyone who believes that all American comic books ever did or can ever do is superheroes. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Wendigo in the Willows

The Ithaqua Cycle: edited by Robert M. Price (1998), containing the following stories:
The Wendigo (1910) by Algernon Blackwood; The Thing from Outside (1923) by George Allan England;; The Thing That Walked on the Wind (1933), The Snow-Thing (1941), and Beyond the Threshold (1941) by August Derleth; Born of the Winds (1975) by Brian Lumley; Spawn of the North (1975) by George C. Diezel, II and Gordon Linzner; They Only Come Out at Night (1975) by Randy Medoff; Footsteps in the Sky (1986) by Pierre Comtois; Jendick's Swamp (1987) by Joseph Payne Brennan; The Wind Has Teeth (1990) by G. Warlock Vance and Scott H. Urban; Stalker of the Wild Wind (1993) by Stephen Mark Rainey; The Country of the Wind (1994) by Pierre Comtois; and Wrath of the Wind-Walker (1999) by James Ambuehl.

In addition to producing The Call of Cthulhu rpg and its offshoots (tendrils?), Chaosium Press also releases mostly reprint volumes of Cthulhu Mythos and Cthulhu-Mythos-adjacent short stories. So kudos to them!

This anthology focuses on one of the more minor Mythos beings, Ithaqua, added to the Mythos by August Derleth and not H.P. Lovecraft himself. It's a wind deity and a spirit of the North. It's also a weird and accidental illustration of how myths -- real myths -- can alter over time, represented in the condensed timeline of 80 years of stories.

Because it all starts with Algernon Blackwood's very European reconfiguration of the myth of the Wendigo, a story with variants among various Native-American peoples of North America's Northcentral and Northeast. As generally constituted in those myths, the Wendigo is both a legendary reinforcer of the taboo against cannibalism and a cautionary fable about the evils of greed and hoarding.

Blackwood, though, reconstitutes the being as instead a sort of embodiment of the dangerous appeal of Going Wild, of surrendering to a sort of Rapture of the Empty Woods and running away from civilization. Blackwood also beefs up the idea of the Wendigo's association with the wind.

And we're off.

Derleth takes some of his cues from Blackwood and further distances his Wendigo (known now also as Ithaqua the Wind-Walker) from its mythological roots. Now it's a malign wind elemental. And that, pretty much, is what the post-Derlethian stories in this anthology work with, to lesser or greater effect.

The stories are all enjoyable, though none are major -- most are pastiches of Lovecraftian style and structure rather than their own unique takes on the Mythos, and that's true of Derleth as much as anyone else. Great post-Lovecraftian stories in the Cthulhu Mythos tend to strike out on their own paths, finding personal approaches. Letting some air in.

Nonetheless, the anthology is quite enjoyable, as noted. The most startling story herein is George Allan England's "The Thing from Outside" -- it's basically a Cthulhu Mythos story before Lovecraft had truly begun the Mythos, a sort of bridge between Blackwood's proto-Lovecraftian "The Wendigo" and "The Willows" and H.P.L.'s "The Call of Cthulhu" and everything after. Recommended.

Reassuring Tales (2006) by T.E.D. Klein

Reassuring Tales (2006) by T.E.D. Klein, containing the following stories: Camera Shy (1988); Growing Things (1999); Curtains for Nat Crumley (1996); Magic Carpet (1976); One Size Eats All (1993); Ladder (1990); Well-Connected (1987); S.F. (1975); They Don't Write 'em Like This Anymore: A TV Treatment in Two Versions (1989); and The Events at Poroth Farm (1972).

Oh, T.E.D. Klein. One of the four or five great editors of horror of the past fifty years. Writer of a handful of the scariest novellas ever written. Writer of one great horror novel, The Ceremonies (1984), which should be read by anyone who enjoys reading literate horror. And so, so, so writer's-blocked since the mid-1980's, though rumour has had it for years that lurking somewhere in Klein's house is a lengthy, unfinished horror novel which may yet be completed and see the light of day.

This relatively recent volume collects pretty much every piece of short fiction not collected in Klein's cyclopean masterpiece of a collection of four novellas, 1985's Dark Gods. And Reassuring Tales is for Klein completists, really, and perhaps no one else. Though the great, early novella that Klein would expand into The Ceremonies, "The Events at Poroth Farm," is indeed collected here.

Some of the other stories are close to being juvenilia ("S.F.") while others are short gimmick stories ("One Size Eats All"). Klein's introduction to the volume is hilariously, almost troublingly self-deprecating -- if you've ever wanted to read a writer mercilessly trashing his own work even when it's decent material, then this is the collection for you.

But, "The Events at Poroth Farm." Pop pop! Some intelligent person at a publishing house great or small or in-between needs to publish a new edition of Dark Gods, with "...Poroth Farm" installed in its more reasonable place among those four other great novellas. Klein's output has been relatively tiny, but he still looms as a giant over American horror fiction for this exact handful of novellas and that one dynamite novel (and the editorship of Twilight Zone magazine for five years in the 1980's). Recommended for the novella, and for Klein completists.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Horrors Old and New

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 24 (2012) (published 2013): edited by Stephen R. Jones with non-fiction material by Kim Newman, containing the following:

Witch Work by Neil Gaiman: It's a poem. And not a good one.

The Discord of Being by Alison J. Littlewood: Solidly written, but I actually can't remember what it was about. And I just read it a week ago.

Necrosis by Dale Bailey: Enjoyable, somewhat enigmatic "Club Tale."

The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath by Joe R. Lansdale: Lansdale creates a plausible new horror for the Zombie crowd. The disturbing elements build throughout to a truly gut-wrenching final few pages.

The Cotswold Olympicks by Simon Kurt Unsworth: Nice variation on the whole Town With a Secret sub-genre of horror.

Where the Summer Dwells by Lynda E. Rucker: Well-written but fatally inconclusive bit of what I've started to think of as Lifestyle Horror rather than The New Weird. Something Happened, but Not Much, and It Didn't Really Change Anything Anyway.

The Callers by Ramsey Campbell: Campbell makes Bingo scary, and is that Tubby Thackeray from The Grin of the Dark as the bingo caller?

The Curtain by Thana Niveau: Deep-sea horror builds to an apocalyptic climax.

The Fall of the King of Babylon by Mark Valentine: Nicely written but underplotted and underdeveloped bit of Magical History.

Nightside Eye by Terry Dowling: Interesting use of a paranormal detective with an extremely odd power within the long-standing trope of the Haunted Hotel.

The Old and the New by Helen Marshall: Nicely written but seriously underdeveloped bit of relationship horror somehow makes the bone-filled catacombs of Paris seem mundane.

Waiting at the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem: Creepy bit of American Lovecraftiana with some startlingly odd images.

His Only Audience by Glen Hirshberg: Fun paranormal detective adventure riffs on The Deal with the Devil.

Marionettes by Claire Massey: Weirdly, this is basically a much better version of "The Old and the New." Compares favourably to the work of Robert Aickman.

Between Four Yews by Reggie Oliver: A prequel to M.R. James' "A School Story" works well in the shadow of James by dealing with a facet of the supernatural that James himself would have avoided because of era and inclination.

Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars by Gemma Files: Marvelous homage to The King in Yellow via Pitcairn Island.

The Other One by Evangeline Walton: Posthumous doppelganger horror.

Slow Burn by Joel Lane: Police detective investigating the paranormal; you'll wish it were longer.

Celebrity Frankenstein by Stephen Volk: Funny commentary on our current celebrity/reality-show culture.

Blue Crayon, Yellow Crayon by Robert Shearman: Weird, not entirely successful piece starts strong and then takes the train to WTF?

October Dreams by Michael Kelly: Solid little mood piece tips a Halloween hat to Bradbury.

The Eyes of Water by Alison J. Littlewood: Build-up of mystery and suspense ends in a sort of nothing rather than the Sublime it seemed to be aiming for. Let-down.

In all: Lots of good and nothing really 'bad,' though the fatal inconclusiveness of the New Weird appears to be seeping more and more into the choices. As always, the Necrology listing of deceased writers, artists, actors, and others is comprehensive and useful. Recommended.

Witch House by Evangeline Walton (1945): Almost forgotten Haunted House novel reads like an odd sort of bridge between sub-genre Megaliths The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House. Walton's version of the supernatural would now be called New Agey, though it really draws on a long tradition of mysticism and pseudo-science that's been cropping up in horror stories and novels since J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Familiar" and "Green Tea."

What this means for the novel is that the supernatural, while not having a scientific basis, nonetheless obeys mystical rules rather than the basic rules of the Personal Haunting. Walton's psychic investigator herein has a solid grounding in both Eastern Mysticism and pseudo-scientific technobabble. He's also a little too infallible to allow for much suspense, a trait shared by Algernon Blackwood's similarly hyper-competent mystic John Silence.

Walton's interest in building a consistent mystical background to explain the goings-on at Witch-House leaves the novel oddly sketchy in the development of a historical narrative for the house in question. The horror doesn't really build -- it just flares up, only to be dealt with again and again by the psychic detective.

The engine of the plot is a little girl in peril who only sporadically seems to be really be in peril. But this is really a Novel of Ideas, expounded upon at length. Walton throws in reincarnation, Buddhism, telepathy, a brooding seascape, Orientalism, telekinesis, poltergeists, a couple of wizards' battles, ectoplasm, a giant black rabbit, a supernatural kitten, paintings that seem to look at people, a Family Curse, a malign Will, sadomasochism, and a bunch of other stuff. The novel might actually be twice as good at twice the length. Lightly recommended.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Red List

Redshirts by John Scalzi (2012): Scalzi's metafictional ode to Star Trek and other television science-fiction shows starts as a discursive romp and ends on a somewhat unworkable serious note with three "codas" that are fatally undercut by what has gone before. I enjoyed it, but the metafiction of the main narrative made me incapable of caring about the characters covered in the Codas: sometimes drawing attention to the Storyness of Story makes empathy for the Story's characters impossible.

There are a lot of laughs here, many of them dependent on at least some familiarity with the storytelling tropes of Star Trek and its progeny, many based on a much more general appraisal of television production. You probably know who the Redshirts are already even if you've only got a passing familiarity with Star Trek; now, you get to meet them up close and personal.

A lot of people at the 2013 World Convention of Science Fiction must have really loved Redshirts, as it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2012. I didn't love it, and I kept waiting for more narrative and metafictional twists that never arrived, but Redshirts is still an enjoyable if slight and somewhat facile read. Like certain science-fiction television shows, it acts a lot smarter than it really is. Finding out in the acknowledgements that Scalzi worked on the woeful Stargate: Universe (which he praises here) really doesn't help. Recommended.

The Book of Lists: Horror: edited by Amy Wallace, Del Howison, and Scott Bradley (2008): Fun, mostly recent assortment of lists about the horror genre in film, television, movies, and other media. Most of the lists are heavily annotated, which is a good thing if you haven't seen, say, Cannibal Holocaust, but would like to know what it's all about. Some descriptions are not for the squeamish or faint of heart, with film-maker Eli Roth's list of favourite moments of genital mutilation in horror movies probably being the prime example of this caution. Recommended.

Secret World

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: based on the short story by James Thurber, written by Philip Rapp, Everett Freeman, and Ken Englund; directed by Norman Z. McLeod; starring Danny Kaye (Walter Mitty), Virginia Mayo (Rosalind van Hoorn), Boris Karloff (Dr. Hollingshead), Fay Bainter (Mrs. Mitty), Ann Rutherford (Gertrude Griswold) and Thurston Hall (Bruce Pierce) (1947): Hit film of 1947 follows James Thurber's short story almost verbatim for the first 20 minutes or so until it (necessarily) expands into a narrative involving spies, art theft, and a Nazi mastermind named The Boot.

The patience of some people (including James Thurber) was tested by the inclusion of several musical set-pieces for star Danny Kaye. Fast-paced, comical, tongue-twisting songs were Kaye's speciality, and he performs two here in their entirety. If you hate them, fast forward.

Kaye plays well-meaning, eternally day-dreaming Walter Mitty with real charm. The rest of the cast is solid as well, with Virginia Mayo as a love interest who pulls the engaged and somewhat infantilized Mitty into the world of espionage and, ultimately, adult-hood. Boris Karloff makes a great villain, as always, and ubiquitous character actor Thurston Hall sputters and fulminates nicely as Mitty's magazine-editor boss.

One of the things that marks this as a non-contemporary Hollywood movie is that Mitty's awakening doesn't turn him into a superheroic Everyman. He has to use his brains and a bit of luck when the plot reaches full boil. Adulthood didn't require hypercompetent ultraviolence in 1947. Recommended.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dial Hard

Dial H (Issues 0-15, JL 23.3): written by China Mieville; illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli, Mateus Santolouco, and others (2012-2013): China Mieville's Dial H series for DC Comics would probably have lasted longer in the 1990's, when there was a certain commitment by DC to odd superhero books. In the second decade of the 21st century, it never really had a chance. But it was fun while it lasted, warts and all, as Mieville learned how to write comic books and the readers got to watch.

How odd was this series? Well, the two heroes are a 30-ish overweight man and a woman in her late 50's or early 60's. The villain is a Canadian. The Hero Dial, a concept from DC's Silver Age, works pretty much as it always did. You dial H-E-R-O and you become a different hero for a limited time every time you dial.

From this basic set-up, Mieville took off running with an exploration of how the dials work and where they come from. And even though cancellation came without much warning, the powers that be gave Mieville enough time to supply a mostly satisfying, though somewhat open-ended, wrap-up to what I would have marketed as the War of the Dials. Because by the end of the series, there were a lot of different dials (this a commentary on DC's recent obsession with there being a power ring for ever colour of the spectrum and more in the Green Lantern books). Dial to be a Sidekick. Dial for world-shattering Doom. And so on. And it's an analog Dial in a digital age. Why?

Mieville's characterization of his oddball (for superhero comic books, that is) protagonists was sympathetic and engaging, as was the depiction of the supporting characters who appeared throughout the series. If there were problems, they lay partially in Mieville's inexperience at writing comic books: the first few issues are a bit too murky in their proceedings, the engaging weirdness obscured by, well, just plain narrative weirdness and a bit too much off-putting narration from some deeply weird H-E-R-O characters.

Another problem lay in the choice of the first artist for the series, Mateus Santolouco. He's a lovely draftsman, but his storytelling sense wasn't all that strong (or Mieville was giving him odd instructions that he couldn't overcome). Alberto Ponticelli cleaned things up a lot when he came on-board, but the series might have benefitted from a bit more traditional, Silver-Agey grid-structure art. One of the things that made Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol (the DC book most like Dial H) so enjoyable in the early 1990's was that penciller Richard Case was a fairly straightforward storyteller. In some cases, the weirdness needs to be delivered 'straight,' especially weirdness in the post-modern Silver-Age school of metafictionally recursive superhero comics.

By the last few issues, Mieville and Ponticelli were really pretty much all there. Issue 13, in which one of the characters interacts with an alternate universe composed entirely of chalk drawings on walls, was the best single issue of the series, and a classic of post-modern superhero comics in any decade. I'd say it's the best single issue of any superhero comic book published in DC's mainstream New 52 line since that line started in autumn of 2011. It's a hell of a high point. No wonder the book got cancelled. Recommended.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Horrors by the Dozens

Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron, containing the following stories: The Forest; Occultation; The Lagerstatte; Mysterium Tremendum; Catch Hell; Strappado; The Broadsword; --30--; and Six Six Six (2010): Laird Barron's second collection of short stories shows a writer unafraid to broaden his reach and his grasp. He's a fine horror writer committed to his craft.

For example, this time around we get three female protagonists, two stories with gay protagonists, and one gay narrator. All are handled sympathetically, all ring true to my ears. Of course, even Barron's least likeable protagonists can be made sympathetic when juxtaposed with the horrific entities and situations they are set against. Barron's fictional cosmos is a cruel abattoir shot through with brief flashes of hope and defiance -- to quote Michael Ondaatje, very faint, very human.

Which stories sing the loudest? "The Lagerstatte" deals with mourning and depression subtly, though there's some nebulous form of cosmic horror amplifying the human loss in the story. "Mysterium Tremendum" grants the reader a greater understanding of the Necronomicon of Barron's fictional universe, The Black Guide. That The Black Guide is a malevolent guide to tourist sites that tends to be found in homey country stores is deeply hilarious and practical at the same time.

Really, all the stories are tremendous, whether dealing with mysterious insect intelligences ("The Forest"), rundown hotels formerly of glorious aspect ("The Broadsword"), or monsters wearing human disguises with detachable heads (a Barron staple, and an attribute of the horrible Children of Old Leech, about whom I will only add AIM FOR THE CENTRE OF BODY MASS!!!). "The Broadsword" may be the most weighted with tragedy, along with "The Lagerstatte," but both are tragedies of the loss of self, and whether or not one can stop that loss before greater horror sets in.

To quote a doom-fraught line from another Barron work, "They enter as slaves and emerge as kin." It's not just that characters in Barron's universe have to make decisions about remaining human or becoming monster -- it's that sometimes even that decision is stripped from them. Their transformations will be terrible. But what price has the reader paid to become what he or she is? Highly recommended.



Cults of Horror, edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, containing the following stories: The Feast of St. Dionysus (1973) by Robert Silverberg; Devils in the Dust (1935) by Arthur J. Burks; The Questing Tycoon (1954) by Leslie Charteris; The Peacemaker (1983) by Gardner Dozois; The Legend of Gray Mountain (1979) by Emily Katharine Harris; Sword for a Sinner (1959) by Edward D. Hoch; The Shaker Revival (1970) by Gerald Jonas; The Red One (1918) by Jack London; The House of Eld (1895) by Robert Louis Stevenson; Sticks (1974) by Karl Edward Wagner; Overkill (1990) by Edward Wellen; In the Abyss (1896) by H. G. Wells; and Fear Is a Business (1956) by Theodore Sturgeon (Collected 1990):

Fun and typically wide-ranging anthology from master anthologists Waugh and Greenberg. Boy, is it wide-ranging both in time and genre! There's an excellent novella by Robert Silverberg from Silverberg's artistic peak of the early 1970's. There's an adventure of Leslie Charteris's Saint. There's a story by science-fiction pioneer H.G. Wells. There's a weird bit of extraordinarily racism and misogynism from Jack London. There's Karl Edward Wagner's legendary "Sticks." And there's a piece from the 1930's by Arthur J. Burks about the Dust Bowl that reads like one of Robert E. Howard's fever dreams (if he had such things). Well worth picking up should you see it in a used bookstore. Recommended.


Just Behind You by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories: Fear the Dead; Digging Deep; Double Room; The Place of Revelation; The Winner; One Copy Only; Laid Down; Unblinking; Breaking Up; Respects; Feeling Remains; Direct Line; Skeleton Woods; The Unbeheld; The Announcement; Dragged Down; Raised by the Moon; Just Behind You; and Safe Words (Collected 2009):

Strong collection of Campbell's early 21st-century short stories with the usual generous and explanatory afterword by Campbell. Cellphones become instruments of horror, though perhaps in "Digging Deep" there's as much bleak humour to the proceedings as anything. Homages to M.R. James (the title story) and Arthur Machen ("The Place of Revelation") work marvellously while maintaining that slightly hallucinatory Campbellian diction. "Safe Words" plays as non-supernatural comedy of embarrassment, as its narrator's life goes off the rails thanks to a few mistaken assumptions about a fellow teacher.

"Skeleton Woods" is also a marvel of narration, as it uses first-person present-tense in a way that amplifies the horror of the last few paragraphs. Teen-aged fears and social class help form the horrors of "Dragged Down," while "Fear the Dead" gives us a little boy with some very unnerving problems involving bullies, squabbling parents, and a grandmother who doesn't seem to want to stay dead. In all, another strong outing from Campbell. Recommended.