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.