Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Mask of Cthulhu (1958) by August Derleth

The Mask of Cthulhu (1958) by August Derleth, containing the following stories: "The Return of Hastur" (1939);  "The Whippoorwills in the Hills" (1948); "Something in Wood" (1948);  "The Sandwin Compact" (1940); "The House in the Valley" (1953); and "The Seal of R'lyeh" (1957).

August Derleth's Lovecraftian stories can send some people into a rage. The rage seems to stem from Derleth's attempt to recast the Cthulhu Mythos (a term which he coined, not Lovecraft) as a conflict between Good and Evil. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories generally suggested that the ancient aliens/gods that threatened humanity were amoral, not immoral: basically, they just wanted their universe back, and humans were the ants that were getting in the way.

So it goes. A lot of writers have continued in the Derlethian vein of Cthulhu Mythos, though -- among them, Brian Lumley, Lin Carter, and Colin Wilson. It's a subset of Lovecraftian horror, and one that's no more or less legitimate than the far larger school of Lovecraftian horror that ends every story in absolute despair and defeat for humanity. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories ended with humanity still hanging in there, somehow, though his protagonists often took it in the chin. Both schools diverge from Lovecraft's vision, then.

But as to this collection of some of Derleth's wanderings in Lovecraft-land. Well, Derleth was superior to Lovecraft in at least one aspect: his depiction of rural life. His small towns and the countryside around them generally seem fairly believable, and his rural dialects aren't absolutely bananas the way that Lovecraft's forays into self-invented rural dialect in stories that include "The Colour out of Space" and "The Dunwich Horror" tend to be.

Beyond that, there's a sort of comforting nature to Derleth's Cthulhu Mythos stories. His monsters aren't particularly scary. Indeed, he goes to the well of the Deep Ones (from Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth") so many times in his stories that they lose all capacity to shock. 

So, too, one of Derleth's preferred narratives, in which a person moves into a house or a region and subsequently either gets possessed by ancient, resident evil or at least severely threatened by it. Five of the six stories in this volume follow that pattern; there are an awful lot of the same type of story throughout the rest of Derleth's work as well. It's an interesting psychological obsession: Derleth, working in someone else's milieu, again and again writes about people who end up... working in someone or something else's milieu. Lovecraft himself used this plot on several occasions, though not nearly as many times as Derleth did -- and in Lovecraft's case, the affected parties are related to the ancestors who plague them in the present.

The one story here that doesn't follow this pattern, "Something in Wood," instead has its doomed character gradually possessed by a statue of Cthulhu. I guess we're really six for six in this vein, aren't we? This subset divides into two categories: people who are related to previous occupants of the house and people who aren't. The subset that cuts across these are people who are overwhelmed by the evil in the house and people who defeat it. 

Another thing that happens several times in the collection is a scene in which it's discovered that someone has vanished somehow from inside their clothes, leaving an empty outfit on the floor or on a chair as if they'd been sucked right out of it. It's a nice image when used sparingly. I enjoyed these stories, though they're not frightening and some of the breathless, italicized concluding paragraphs seem almost intentionally self-parodic. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Cutie (1960) by Donald E. Westlake

The Cutie (a.k.a. The Mercenaries) by Donald E. Westlake (1960): Early novel from beloved crime novelist Donald E. Westlake, handsomely re-released in paperback by Hard Case Crime. It's also been given Westlake's preferred title, though the Cutie of the title is not what you'd think from the cover.

Westlake's strengths include a talent for intricate plots, apt bits of metaphoric description, and precise and concise characterization. Even this early in his career, all those strengths are present in The Cutie: you don't need to read this just to be a Westlake completist. You don't even need to care who Westlake is, though you will by the end.

Standalone novels like this one put Westlake firmly in the line of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. The Cutie's first-person narrator, a troubleshooter (pretty much literally) for a mob boss in New York, impresses the reader with his determination to find a killer even as his own almost split personality when it comes to violence becomes more and more apparent. He's not a dead soul, but he's probably damned.

Nonetheless, the narrator's pursuit of a murderer who's made things hot for his mob boss hums with menace and moral rot. And the narrator grows just enough in his own self-assessment that the ending comes as a grim epiphany: the things that the narrator  assumed worked one way may instead work completely differently, at least when you're the boss. 

Verisimilitude makes this sort of street-level thriller work. I don't know how accurate Westlake's depictions of the working of crime in 1960 really are, but they seem real. One of the best bits is a classification of all cops into one of four categories, with the pros and cons of each type. It seems like the sort of thing a killer who's always been too evolved for his econiche might formulate during his downtime. And it's moments like that, among others, that make Westlake worth reading decades after what were supposed to be disposable novels were published. Recommended.

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla: written by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, based on the Toho Studios character; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Serizawa), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody) and Elizabeth Olsen (Elle Brody) (2014): Even on a large small screen, the newest Godzilla is almost incomprehensibly dark at times. I"m glad I saw it on a big screen. 

The hoo-ha about Godzilla being the protector of natural balance on Earth still seems pretty silly -- the big lizard and his vaguely machine-like enemies seem more like alien doomsday machines than natural beings, and such a change would make the movie make a lot more sense. Certainly the two 'bad' monsters didn't need to evolve electro-magnetic pulses to fight anything in nature. Or fight Godzilla. Turn up the lights! Recommended.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


Eerie Archives Volume 1 : edited by Archie Goodwin; written by Archie Goodwin and others; illustrated by Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Reed Crandall, Gene Colan, Johnny Craig, Alex Toth, Angelo Torres, and others (1966-67/collected 2009): Warren Publishing's magazine-sized, black-and-white comics anthologies survived from the 1960's to the early 1980's. Their creative heyday came early, however, when a young Archie Goodwin edited and wrote an awful lot of stories for Creepy, Blazing Combat, and Eerie.

One can see the over-worked Goodwin grow as a writer in this collection of the first five issues of Eerie. However, it's the art that's the star here (and throughout the Warren anthology books, at least during the 1960's). 

Eerie was one of the places Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange) landed after he left Marvel in the 1960's. He plays around with washes in his work for Warren, and it's lovely stuff, adding a new dimension to the work of one of the ten finest artists produced by American comic books. 

Veteran artist Reed Crandall also found work at Warren, and his meticulous, fine-lined artwork worked best on period pieces. There's a somewhat silly story about a mummy in Victorian London included here that's elevated by Crandall's artwork to the status of a minor masterpiece. Crandall's work on adaptations of stories by Poe and, perhaps most memorably, Bram Stoker's "The Squaw," is wonderful stuff that merits a Crandall-specific reprint anthology.

Other artists also found ways to express themselves at Warren, free of the choke-hold of super-heroes and lousy colour reproduction. Gene Colan's stories in this collection demonstrate that he was always better when he didn't have to worry about super-heroes but could instead be moody and demotic. Angelo Torres, perhaps unjustly neglected, also did fine work on these short tales of horror.

And as a bonus, Wally Wood produced some one-page bits, while that towering force of paperback covers, Frank Frazetta, produced a number of covers for Eerie. One of the covers in this volume gives away what seems to have been intended to be a surprise in the story it was drawn for. So it goes. 

Eerie and Creepy tried to emulate the great EC horror comics of the 1950's. The writing may not have always been top-notch -- Archie Goodwin and the other writers simply weren't capable of the extraordinary heights of the EC writers, though Goodwin's work on Blazing Combat was far superior to his horror work. The art, though, is terrific. You may not want to pay full list price for this or other Warren horror volumes (I know I didn't), but they're certainly worth a look if you can avoid bankrupting yourself on them. Recommended.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Beetlejuice (1988)

Beetlejuice: written by Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson, and Warren Skaaren; directed by Tim Burton; starring Alec Baldwin (Adam), Geena Davis (Brenda), Michael Keaton (Betelgeuse), Catherine O'Hara (Delia), Jeffrey Jones (Charles), Winona Ryder (Lydia), and Glenn Shadix (Otho) (1988): Beetlejuice stands as testimony to the occasional correctness of the original formulation of Auteur Theory: that the Hollywood system allowed directors to be more stylistically themselves by taking away at least some of the decision-making about the manifest content of a film. Tim Burton certainly adds something to the mix, a very good something, but he's controlled in part by a witty, imaginative (and much rewritten) script. The result is one of the ten great horror-comedies of all time, concise yet packed with amusing detail and amusing performances. 

That the afterlife posited by the film is undeniably awful is part of the joke. All the performances sparkle, from Michael Keaton's anarchic Betelgeuse (more Joker than Batman) through skinny Alec Baldwin and young Amazon Geena Davis's bemused recently dead couple all the way to a young, Goth Winona Ryder, her annoying parents (including Catherine O'Hara in a rare film role as her art-world-pretentious mother), and the late, great character actor Glenn Shadix as unctuous hanger-on Otho (!). Cartoony as hell, and spiked throughout with amusingly rubbery stop-motion monsters and real-world monster make-up. The oddball insertion of a whole lot of calypso music just adds to the anarchic weirdness of the enterprise. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber (1977)

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber (1977): The last of the prolific and long-lived Leiber's truly great horror-dark-fantasy novels, and for my money the best, Our Lady of Darkness plays with themes and concepts Leiber first explored nearly 40 years earlier in his seminal horror story "Smoke Ghost" (1940). 

In that dark and terrific story, we discover that the multiplying and expanding  urban landscapes of the 20th century breed their own peculiar types of ghosts, spirits, and perhaps even gods. In Our Lady of Darkness, we begin to learn just what sorts of entities may haunt the 20th century, and why, and to what ends. The list of writers who owe a debt to Leiber's concept includes such luminaries as Neil Gaiman, Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, and a veritable plethora of others.

Leiber's semi-autobiographical stand-in of a protagonist, writer Franz Westen, is a recovering alcoholic who lives in a somewhat odd, old apartment building in San Francisco in the late 1970's. Two books he purchased while in a near-blackout state several years earlier begin to occupy his mind: a bizarre Depression-era screed about the supernatural dangers posed by the existence of cities, and an unsigned journal from the same time period which Westen comes to believe belonged to (real) horror writer Clark Ashton Smith. 

Smith pretty much permanently moved to the country in the late 1930's, avoiding cities thereafter. Why? What did his brief friendship with the writer of the screed reveal? Looking out across San Francisco with his binoculars to the top of Corona Heights, a wooded hill in the middle of developed urban space, Westen sees a strange, brown figure capering and dancing -- and then taking notice of his attention.

And we're off. Leiber blends the real and the fictional into a fascinating mix of horror, dark comedy, and supernatural speculation. Jammed with enough material for a novel ten times its modest length, Our Lady of Darkness remains light on its feet throughout. Spiked with fine and occasionally shocking moments of horror, the novel nevertheless presents a protagonist who never stops trying to think his way through the bizarre events he's been dropped into because of these two books of (seemingly) accidental purchase.

Westen's friends in the hotel are also well-drawn, as is the libertine expert on the supernatural whom Westen turns to for information on San Francisco's occult past. Real-world figures that include H.P. Lovecraft, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce are woven plausibly into the story, their fictions and their lives making the events of the novel seem more plausible in a completely loopy way with each passing page. Leiber's fictional occult speculations become more convincing than most of our world's real occult writings.

Leiber was one of the 20th century's most gifted cross-genre writers. He helped create the sword-and-sorcery genre with his wry and long-running Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, wrote piercingly good science fiction with his The Big Time, "A Pail of Air," and "Coming Attraction" (to name just three), and helped modernize horror in a way that still hasn't completely taken hold, as the current proliferation of all those tired vampires and werewolves continues to show. 

His theatrical background informed works that include "Four Ghosts in Hamlet," while his life-long fascination with chess gave us one of the two or three finest chess-horror pieces ever written, "Midnight by the Morphy Watch." That he could also do pitch-perfect homages to his old pen-pal H.P. Lovecraft or move seemingly effortlessly into post-modern strangeness while already in his 50's with stories that include "The Winter Flies" and "Gonna Roll the Bones" seems almost unfair to other writers. Our Lady of Darkness may be his finest novel -- in any case, it's one of no more than twenty or so of the finest novels ever gifted to the horror genre to call its own. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Nightrunners by Joe R. Lansdale (1987)

The Nightrunners by Joe R. Lansdale (1987): One of the prolific Lansdale's first novels (third by my count, if you are counting) is a gas-guzzling monster of horror. It fits comfortably into the splatterpunk sub-genre of horror, though it's also simply a gory, tightly plotted piece of supernatural horror. Its closest genre antecedent is Stephen King's early, flawed, but compelling novella "Sometimes They Come Back."

For all his goriness, Lansdale knows when to show and when not to show: a rape scene central to the novel never appears in its entirety, but the emotional horror of the rape victim is described throughout, and quite sensitively. But this is also a novel of revenge: the rape victim will stop being a victim before it's all over, or die trying.

The horrible gang of teens who act as antagonists throughout the novel are both natural terrors and supernaturally guided horrors. Through the 'present-day' events of the novel and the lengthy flashback sequence in the middle of the narrative, we see dead-end, lower-income teens turn into vicious rapists, killers, and necrophiliacs. But they're also increasingly in thrall to Lansdale's recurring supernatural entity The God of the Razor, who feeds on bloodshed and terror offered up to him.

The Nightrunners follows the gang's pursuit of the rape victim and her husband, trying to pull themselves and their marriage back together months after the rape. The novel takes shots at right-wing bigots and left-wing apologists for criminals along the way -- it's an equal-opportunity scream of outrage.

There are dire economic, social, and familial reasons for the way the teens turned out, but they are still responsible for their actions. Or at least the non-psychotic ones are. Their leader and his lieutenant appear to be sadistic sociopaths from the beginning. Some of the rest of the gang is dead inside; the others, to their cost, just went along for the ride.

Everything builds to a climactic siege that's gratifyingly messy and, at points, almost slapstick in its portrayal of the occasional clumsiness of desperate people. Despite their supernatural backing, the teens aren't the hyper-competent, indestructible killers of so many slasher movies. There's a fog of violence to the last thirty pages or so, a realistic portrayal (in its supernatural, blood-soaked way) of the manner in which the plans of both protagonists and antagonists can go astray. It's like that old chestnut about warfare: no battle-plan survives intact the first moment of engagement with the enemy.

There's an admirable ruthlessness towards characters here, bolstered by Lansdale's already solid grasp of characterization. The scenes of real-world violence can be jarringly sudden. The scenes of supernatural congress with The God of the Razor work nicely as well (which is to say, not nicely at all) -- it's a god of violence that seems almost plausible in a religious sense, and eclectically imagined in a visual sense. A couple of years after this novel, Lansdale would pit the God of the Razor against Batman in a prose anthology. Batman would prevail there. Here, there's only ordinary people faced with extraordinary cruelty. Who or what will prevail here? Recommended.