Thursday, March 26, 2015

Grendel and the Tape-worm Were Hard Up For Cash

The Troop by Nick Cutter (pen-name of Craig Davidson) (2014): Falstaff Island gets relocated from Nunavut to two miles off the coast of Prince Edward Island in this ambitious, uneven, but enjoyable Canadian horror novel. 

An adult Scoutmaster and five Eagle Scouts in their early teens go to the uninhabited island every year for a camping trip.  This will probably be the last trip for the troop as they're close to outgrowing Boy Scouts. Boy, will it be the last trip.

An emaciated stranger shows up at their cabin on the first night, skeletal and so all-consumingly hungry that he starts to eat the couch on which he sits. The Scoutmaster, a GP, realizes the man is sick. Indeed he is -- and about to become extremely infectious as mutated tapeworms large and small start erupting from pretty much everywhere inside and on his body.

The Troop quickly turns into a tale of survival horror, its menace a science-fictional one in the manner of John Wyndham that rapidly creates human monsters that riff on everything from zombies to JRR Tolkien's Gollum. There's also a governmental menace to be dealt with -- or not dealt with. Canadian naval ships and boats surround the island, black helicopters repeatedly fly over -- but help does not arrive.

The novel succeed in its sympathetic characterization of the boys of the troop, though Cutter does draw upon stereotypes for their basic configurations (the Alpha-Jock and the Nerd being the most notable). But some of those roles change over the course of the novel. One of the missteps, though, is Cutter's choice to make one of the boys a nascent serial killer. Certainly this ups the stakes, but the effects of the worms are so dire that there's no need to posit a psychopathic sadist. It's really a case of too much, especially once that character pretty much turns into a cross between Gollum and Monty Python's Mr. Creosote.

Cutter notes in his acknowledgements that he got the idea of including interpolated material from after the main events of the book from Stephen King's Carrie. The Troop similarly uses interviews and excerpts from newspaper and magazine articles to give background on the true origin of the worms. Suspense is also nodded to as the number of boys who will survive the main narrative appears in this interpolated material. 

I'm not sure this structure is entirely successful, as sometimes in horror any information is too much information. Or as Ramsey Campbell once noted, "Explanation is the death of horror." That the stereotypes of the evil military commander and the mad, evil, super-intelligent misfit scientist appear mostly in these sections doesn't help the horror quotient either.

Nonetheless, The Troop is an enjoyable, fast-paced horror novel. The main characters are nicely fleshed out for the most part. Well, until they start losing that flesh to the parasitic worms. Recommended.

Grendel Vs. The Shadow: written and illustrated by Matt Wagner (2014): Writer-artist Matt Wagner returns to his 35-year-old character Grendel for a story-line involving that master criminal's battle with pulp hero The Shadow in early 1930's New York. 

Do people younger than 35 or so even remember Grendel? Dark Horse Comics has released four omnibus volumes of his adventures, and I can recommend at least the first two from first-hand experience, having read Grendel back in the day, that day being the late 1980's.

Of course, the Shadow is much older, a character created in the early 1930's. The battle between the two does seem like a natural, however -- both characters kill, and both characters have quasi-mystical abilities to go along with their physical and mental prowess. And this crossover is actually fun. The grimness of the Shadow plays off nicely against the deadly good humour of Grendel.

Wagner's art is smooth and illustrative, straightforward, though with a few stylistic flourishes as we proceed through the narrative. He uses multiple POV first-person narration to mostly good effect, though I wish someone doing a Shadow comic book would go back to the pulp novels (or even the DC comics of the 1970's) and realize that the Shadow works best as a supporting character in his own book. 

The pulps (unlike the radio show) focused on the Shadow's various operatives working a case, with the Shadow dropping in and out of the story to administer justice or give orders. And as he's a nigh-omnipotent character, this is a pretty good idea -- especially as it leaves the reader wondering what is going on inside the Shadow's head. 

Most modern comic-book Shadows, going back to Howard Chaykin's glorious revisionist take for DC Comics in the mid-1980's, also make the Shadow's romantic relationship with operative Margo Lane explicit in a way the pulps did not. Here, we get a B-plot about Margo Lane debating whether or not to leave the Shadow. It seems wildly out of place in an event crossover like this, and is the only real misstep in the book.

Overall, though, this is an entertaining visit with two old friends. Or fiends. And it was also an entertaining visit with Wagner as both writer and artist, his art gigs being much rarer than his writing gigs. He's streamlined his writing and drawing styles since the 1980's, mostly to good effect -- the occasional murkiness, clutter, and confusion of 1980's book like his Demon miniseries for DC isn't evident here. This may be the smoothest book he's ever done. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cottage Country (2013) and Lone Star (1995)

Cottage Country: written by Jeremy Boxen; directed by Peter Wellington; starring Malin Akerman (Cammie Ryan), Tyler Labine (Todd Chipowski), Lucy Punch (Masha), Dan Petronijevic (Salinger Chipowski), Benjamin Ayres (Dov Rosenberg), and Kenneth Welsh (Earl Chipowski) (2013): Ontario's cottage country mostly plays itself in an amiable, occasionally blackly comic bit of horror-satire. Cast against type as a buttoned-down office drone, Tyler Labine is appealing. Malin Akerman, while about 1000 times too attractive for her role as Labine's obsessive girlfriend, also does solid work as an increasingly demented Bridezilla wannabe.

More gore and more laughs would be nice, but I've certainly spent 90 minutes with far worse movies with far bigger budgets. And there's a bit involving the extrication of an ax from someone killed with said ax that's both funny and weirdly authentic. Lightly recommended.

Lone Star: written and directed by John Sayles; starring Chris Cooper (Sam Deeds), Elizabeth Pena (Pilar), Kris Kristofferson (Charlie Wade), Matthew McConaughey (Buddy Deeds), Ron Canada (Otis), Joe Morton (Del), and Miriam Colon (Mercedes Cruz) (1995): Perhaps the most satisfying of all the films of writer-director John Sayles. While the backbone of its plot is a fairly traditional mystery, that mystery allows Sayles to move back and forth across a gulf of 40 years as Chris Cooper's Sheriff of a small Texas border town investigates a murder linked to his late father, the much beloved former sheriff of the town.

Sayles assembles a fine cast and gives them lots to work with. As in most of Sayles's films, there are very few villains -- in this case, exactly one, Kris Kristofferson's odious sheriff, seen in flashbacks to the late 1950's, when Chris Cooper's father was a young deputy played by Matthew McConaughey. 

Several plots intertwine over the course of the movie, all of them tied into the murder plot because in this small town, everything is connected. And while Cooper tries to figure out this particular bit of the past, the larger history of Texas, particularly Texas in regards to race relations, also gets argued over in local politics and in a meeting of parents with the school over its "controversial" attempt to offer something other than a valedictory to white people during history classes. In all, it's a fine piece of writing, directing, and acting, true to its genre antecedents but also grasping at something larger than just the solution to a mystery. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Big Book of Martyrs: written by John Wagner; illustrated by various (1997)

The Big Book of Martyrs: written by John Wagner; illustrated by Colleen Doran, Frank Quitely, Win Mortimer, Dan Burr, Gahan Wilson, Rick Geary, Joe Staton, and others (1997): Slightly less irreverent than the other entries in Paradox/DC's "Big Book of..." series of comics anthologies from the 1990's, The Big Book of Martyrs is nonetheless a lot of fun even if you're just there for the pictures of terrible things being done to martyrs of the Roman Catholic Church.

John Wagner generally keeps his tongue out of his cheek, instead staying serious, at least when the various gruesome deaths are a matter of historical record. Of course, a lot of Roman Catholic saints are very close to being fictional characters (actually, some, like the much-beloved St. Christopher, are fictional characters; others, such as St. George, might as well be). 

As a compendium of 'terrible things people do to other people,' The Big Book of Martyrs offers a pretty wide range of awfulness. People get thrown out of boats with anchors around their necks, get riddled with arrows, beaten to death with truncheons, immolated in a variety of ways, eaten by bears, eaten by lions, stabbed, poisoned, blown up, beheaded, drowned, immersed in boiling lead, slow-roasted over a fire, thrown down wells, and so on, and so forth.

Indeed, due to the on-again, off-again invulnerability exhibited by some saints like St. Sebastian or St. George, many of them have more than one of these usually fatal things done to them. A decent amount of relevant information comes along with the mayhem, as more than fifty different artists illustrate more than 50 different tales of martyrs singular and plural (though the story of the Mongols and the 11,000 virgins is almost certainly apocryphal).

You even find out which martyrs saw themselves purged from the liturgical calendar for being a little too fictional, along with the feast days of various saints and situations in which one invokes a patron saint. One of the bizarrely, blackly comic facts one starts to realize is that an awful lot of saints were made the patron saints of the things that killed them, including a patron saint of tanning who was himself skinned alive. 

How are the saints supposed to feel about this sort of thing? Because based on this book, there are an awful lot of patron saints of arrows, including St. Sebastian, who you'd think would have dibs on that position. Recommended.

Maleficent (2014)

Maleficent: adapted by Linda Woolverton from previous material written by the Brothers Grimm, Milt Banta, Ralph Wright, Ted Sears, Bill Peet, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Erdman Penner, and Charles Perrault; directed by Robert Stromberg; starring Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Elle Fanning (Aurora), Sharlto Copley (Stefan), and Sam Riley (Diaval) (2014): 

First-time director Stromberg was a production designer, and it shows: Maleficent's main charms lie in the design of its magical world. Well, that and the CGI flying sequences. Clearly we can now make a Hawkman or Hawkwoman movie a live-action reality. Somebody notify Time Warner.

Maleficent is a revisionist retelling of Sleeping Beauty -- specifically Walt Disney's 1959 animated Sleeping Beauty. Angelina Jolie is the evil witch (now Queen of the Fairies, I think) from that movie, only now she has an origin story and a change of heart. Sharlto Copley is the evil king who was once Maleficent's beloved but ultimately treacherous peasant boy. Elle Fanning barely registers as Princess Aurora, aka Sleeping Beauty.

Really, this movie stinks when it comes to plot, characterization, motivation, pacing... you know, all that old-fashioned stuff. Jolie is fine, I guess. And it's definitely progress that a big box-office hit (about $800 million world-wide) can be headlined by a female star. Now if we could just get our female stars some decently written and directed blockbusters, we might really be onto something. Male stars, too. Not recommended.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Savage Night (1953) and Pop. 1280 (1964) by Jim Thompson

Savage Night by Jim Thompson (1953): Prolific thriller writer Jim Thompson wrote the sort of pulp that literary critics came to love over the course of his lengthy career. There's a fully realized sense to the worlds he created in his novels, even an early one like Savage Night, that makes them unforgettably bleak. 

He most often focused his narratives on murderers and monsters; Savage Night makes its first-person narrator, a Mob hit-man who's been on the run for years only to be pulled back in for one more assassination, pitiful and human and utterly awful. But so is almost everyone around him, as is typical in a Thompson novel: there are very few good people in the world his characters inhabit.

For more than half a decade, the narrator 'hid' inside the guise of a poor but honest man. And he truly believes that he was a decent person for those years. But by the end of the novel, even that assessment will be in doubt. Thompson's characters often possess radically destabilized senses of self. Nothing is certain. 

Savage Night hums along in its brevity. Our narrator becomes, if not sympathetic, than at least pitiable. And the oft-discussed final thirty pages take the characters into the realms of broken consciousness and the almost surreal. It's one hell of a denouement. Highly recommended.

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (1964): Famously moved to French Africa and  adapted to film by Bernard Tavernier in 1981 as Coup de Torchon, Pop. 1280 occurs in novel form in the pre-World-War-One American South, in the smallest county in its state. And possibly the most corrupt.

Our first-person narrator, the sheriff of this small county, makes the psychotic narrating lawman of Thompson's earlier The Killer Inside Me look like Sherlock Holmes by comparison. His sole redeeming feature is disgust at the racism of the poor whites around him. That's it. That's all he's got.

Well, perhaps he's redeemed also by his role as Nemesis to some pretty terrible people -- but as he also wipes out the innocent, he is, ultimately, no saint. Our narrator has spent his life as a lawman gliding by, doing little, taking bribes, protecting the status quo -- and pretending to be far, far stupider and more guileless than he truly is. Or maybe he's always been doing terrible things behind the scenes.

Among other pleasures, Pop. 1280 offers the reader a grad course in unreliable narration -- an escalating, almost vertiginous lesson in this by the end of the novel. The inside of the narrator's head turns out to be a labyrinth. But the Minotaur seems to be all the bloody, terrible, despicable things people do to one another because they're damned and because they can. There is no Theseus, and no thread leading to safety. This is perhaps Thompson's bleakest depiction of humanity in general and America in particular. Highly recommended.