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.