Sunday, May 31, 2015

Soul Cages & Batting Cages

How Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell (1976-1981; collected 1982): Thomas Boswell became one of our two or three greatest regular chroniclers of baseball in the mid-1970s when he was about 30 and has continued as such ever since. He manages something extraordinarily rare in sports writing -- a mix of the poetic and the carefully observed normative. 

He's also extremely but unfussily literate in these essays, most of them stories and columns for the Washington Post. And while he's a poetic fellow, he's also statistically inclined. One of the stories included herein has Boswell introduce one of the first new baseball stats in years at the time, Total Average, as a better indicator of baseball hitting greatness than the batting average, on-base percentage, or slugging percentage.

As these essays were written in the late 1970's and early 1980's, they at times shine a light on a baseball world that's still dominated by players that include Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose, and managers that include Earl Weaver. These and others are profiled sympathetically but occasionally critically by Boswell. So, too, owners, innovators, Cuban baseball, the enigmatic Steve Carlton, Boswell's own history in baseball, the vanishing adult hard-ball leagues which are being supplanted by softball leagues, the care and feeding of baseball bats, and many other topics. Boswell's style is a joy to read, and his subject matter never disappoints in the general or the specific. Highly recommended.

The Wild Night Company: Irish Tales of Terror (1971): edited by Peter Haining, containing the following stories: 

A Wild Night in Galway (1959) by Ray Bradbury
'Hell Fire' [Section of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)] by James Joyce
Julia Cahill's Curse (1903) by George Moore
Legends of Witches, Fairies and Leprechauns (1919) by Lady Wilde
Teig O'Kane and the Corpse (1918) by Traditional
The Banshee's Warning (1862) by Charlotte Riddell
The Canterville Ghost (1887) by Oscar Wilde 
The Coonian Ghost (1970) by Shane Leslie
The Crucifixion of the Outcast (1897) by William Butler Yeats
The Dead Smile (1899) by F. Marion Crawford
The Fairies' Revenge (1970) by Sinead de Valera
The Friendly Demon (1726) by Daniel Defoe
The Haunted Spinney (1904) by Elliott O'Donnell
The House Among the Laurels (1910) by William Hope Hodgson
The Legend of Finn M'Coul (1830) by William Carleton
The Man from Kilsheelan (1923) by A. E. Coppard
The Man Wolf (1970) by Giraldus Cambrensis
The Moon-Bog (1926) by H. P. Lovecraft
The Parracide's Tale (1820) [Section of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)] by Charles Maturin 
The Soul Cages (1825) by Thomas Crofton Croker
Wicked Captain Walshawe of Wauling (1864) by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Witch Wood (1947) by Lord Dunsany

One of those many Peter Haining-edited anthologies with a fundamental problem in the title. These are tales by or about the Irish. Many feature the supernatural, though not all. But there's not a whole lot of terror involved. Throw that false claim away and enjoy instead a pretty enjoyable mixture of folk tales, excerpts from novels, and short stories.

Haining certainly gets bonus marks for including the terrifically horrifying sermon from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and a grimly jocular section from Charles Maturin's seminal 19th-century Gothic Melmoth the Wanderer. And if you know the Sting song "The Soul Cages," you'll be intrigued to discover a much less sinister Irish version of the story from folklore, recorded in the early 19th century, that nonetheless still involves the souls of dead sailors kept in lobster traps by a supernatural being. But it won't be "magical wine" that knocks the creature for a loop -- it will be Irish poteen. Oh, go look it up. I'll wait.

The anthology ranges from folklore to genre writers to the famous literary elite and back again. I can criticize Haining for his odd choices in titling, but I can't criticize his range as an anthologist or his enthusiasm as an essayist introducing the tales. The drollness of the Ray Bradbury story that concludes the anthology is something to behold. I'm pretty sure no other ostensive horror anthology selection has so hilariously undercut a brief spate of terror with the revelation that the story serves up as its epiphanic (or is it anti-epiphanic?) moment about just what a wild night in Galway entails. Recommended.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Fighting 'round the World (1933)

Doc Savage: The Polar Treasure  by Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson; restored and edited by Will Murray and others (1933/This edition from Nostalgia Ventures 2007): From the first year of the adventures of pulp superman (and partial inspiration for Superman) Doc Savage comes The Polar Treasure, a fairly bloody voyage into the North Polar regions in search of a lost ship and a buried treasure. 

Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, was already a physical and mental marvel early in his career, as were his five compatriots. Doc's main chronicler, Lester Dent, had done a lot of research on polar exploration for other projects before penning this novel, and the research certainly came in handy: it's a compellingly eerie and dangerous landscape for a Doc Savage adventure.

These reprints from Nostalgia Ventures offer Doc's adventures in something close to their original magazine size of the 1930's, along with reproductions of covers from their original appearances and in some cases from the Bantam reprints that started in the early 1960's and ran until the early 1990's (!). Pulp Maester Will Murray and others also restore sections to the novels when there have substantive changes to Dent's manuscript dating all the way back to the original publication. Here, that adds about 1000 words to the novel. It's all good though occasionally racist fun, with Doc's violence not yet toned down by Dent. Also, Doc Savage beats up a polar bear. Recommended.

Doc Savage: The Pirate of the Pacific  by Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson; restored and edited by Will Murray and others (1933/This edition from Nostalgia Ventures 2007): Fairly bloody and somewhat racist Doc Savage adventure from Doc's first year of publication, lovingly restored and presented by the fine people at Nostalgia Ventures. Doc and his five merry pranksters foil the attempt of a modern-day pirate to stage a coup in a thinly disguised Philippines (here dubbed the 'Luzon Union'). 

All the stuff involving Mongols and 'half-castes' and 'yellow people' speaking pidgin English can be pretty tough sledding at times, and the narrative does get stuck on a ship (literally) for what seems like an interminable number of pages before we finally reach the Luzon Union. Maybe the weakest of the early Doc Savage novels, with an atypically un-weird super-villain behind everything. It really feels more like a job for the Shadow or Terry and the Pirates or those guys who fought Fu Manchu all those times. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tales of (Mild) Interest

Tales of Twilight and the Unseen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1922) containing the following stories: The Great Keinplatz Experiment (1885); The Los Amigos Fiasco (1892); The Lift (1922); De Profundis(1892); Lot No. 249 (1892); How It Happened (1913); Playing with Fire (1900); B. 24 (1899); The Usher of Lea House School (1899); The Brown Hand (1899); The Ring of Thoth (1890); and A Literary Mosaic (1886).

This handsome reprint of a 1922 Arthur Conan "Sherlock Holmes" Doyle collection looks swell and, with large print and lavish line-spacing, is darned easy to read. And the stories themselves are mostly easy to read, even allowing for changes in general style and idiom over the last 100 years. Alas, the main problem is that Doyle's two best horror stories -- "The Parasite" and "The Horror of the Heights" -- aren't here. Neither is the suspenseful "The Brazilian Cat."

We do get "Lot No. 249," which besides possibly giving Thomas Pynchon an idea (and me an idea for a Thomas Pynchon novel about vengeful mummies and the U.S. Postal Service), also gives us a dangerous revived Egyptian mummy. Later Mummy movies would seem to draw upon the story, which is aces at build-up but not so great at a pay-off: I've seen people compare the story to M.R. James, but James would have given the world at least twice the scares at half the length.

Other stories operate as either light satire ("The Los Amigos Fiasco") or non-supernatural suspense ("The Lift"). The other notable tales of the supernatural don't really involve horror at all, though "Playing with Fire" does offer us an extremely angry supernatural unicorn (!). "The Brown Hand" and "The Ring of Thoth" are instead relatively gentle supernatural tales, devoid of threat or menace. Most of these stories were written before Doyle became a believer in the supernatural himself. Make of that what you may. 

I certainly wasn't bored while reading the stories, but most of them were very effective at lulling me to sleep when read prior to nap-time. "A Literary Mosaic [a.k.a. "Cyprian Overbeck Wells") is the true outlier here, an amusing bit of play with the style and content of writers that include Daniel Defoe, Sir Walter Scott, and Jonathan Swift. People who want to sample the supernatural, non-Sherlockian works of Conan Doyle would be better served with a 'Best of' collection that includes "The Brazilian Cat," "The Horror of the Heights," and "The Parasite." Lightly recommended.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Your Penis is a Vampire

The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson (1976): Wilson mentions Canadian Golden-Age science-fiction great A.E. Van Vogt in this novel's acknowledgements section. That reference clarifies a lot of the zaniness of this novel's construction, not to mention its philosophizing. 

Even in his first short story, "Black Destroyer" (1939), one of two Van Vogt stories that allowed him to get a settlement from the makers of Alien (1979), the Winnipeg revelator combined horror, science fiction, and some exposition-heavy stretches of philosophizing about human society and social engineering. And a lot of Van Vogt's protagonists ended up as supermen in the end.

The Space Vampires starts off, much like the later Alien, with the discovery of a derelict alien ship by an Earth ship. We're at the end of the 21st century, and humanity continues to explore the solar system. These first fifty pages or so give us an effective shot of cosmic horror and wonder. The derelict is cyclopean in size and mysterious inside. Humanoid aliens rest in what seem to be tombs. But if the crew was human, why does the interior scale of the ship, like the exterior, suggest a dark cathedral made for giants? 

And what's up with the frozen, alien octopi?

So far, so good. The horror elements remain effective when the explorers return to Earth with three of the preserved alien bodies. A horrific event occurs in London, England, which for some reason seems to be the headquarters of Earth's space command (shades of the Quatermass series and Doctor Who!). 

And then Colin Wilson does the writerly equivalent of crapping his pants over and over again in an explosive diarrhea spout of increasingly ridiculous theories spouted by talking heads that only occasionally pause so that the plot can lurch along for a few pages in its inevitable path to a Deus ex machina.

What's impressive about Wilson is that his writing keeps one reading throughout the later stretches of the novel, even as one's suspension of disbelief fades and the tedious stretches of his philosophizing go on and on and on. 

To condense everything into a few lines, everything that lives has a life-force. Male and female life forces are like the negative and positive leads on a battery. 

The ultimate sexual characteristic of a woman is to submit to the male, which allows for a balancing of the male and female sexual forces. Somewhat counter-intuitively, Wilson's system means that men suck power from women at the moment of orgasm. Among other things, that last bit explains why old men with young wives are virile powerhouses who age more slowly than puny, ordinary men who are stuck with wives their own age (or, I guess, gay men). 

There's a whole lot more where that came from, all of it increasingly dire and laughable as the novel shudders to its close. The eponymous aliens can suck the life-force out of anyone, though the learned man can turn the tables on them. So of course our protagonist rapidly goes from alien food source to sex-powered Superman. 

Then he learns more about space vampires from an anomalously virile and sexy nonagenerian with three sexy young women living with him. He also realizes that all women are simply expressions of the Eternal Feminine, and that they're there to give him power because he's a man, and men receive power from women either telepathically or sexually because That's the Way It Is!  Ha ha whee. 

Even though the protagonist is married, he bangs one of the sexy young women because the space vampire is messing with his mind from a great distance because Telepathy! He also mind-melds with another guy's wife to such a level of intimacy while they're just holding hands that she contemplates leaving her husband. Also, she offers some of her life-force energy to him because That's What Women Do! They enjoy having their life energy drained by, um, a man's ejaculating penis. Or just a manly man reading their minds. That's enough. Oh, baby, take my lifeforce!

If nothing else, one can see why film-makers re-titled the movie adaptation Lifeforce. And the movie, wacky and bad as it was, is far superior to the book. By the last fifty pages of the novel, I was hoping the space vampires would kill the protagonist and that annoying nonagenerian (or maybe he was just a late octogenerian. Really, who cares?). Because they are so sexy and virile and hyper-competent. And they'll tell you all about it. 

Not recommended unless you stop reading at the 50-page mark and then go off and write your own, better conclusion to the novel. Or if you enjoy masturbating to weird metaphysical/biological fantasies of male sexual power as being an expression of the Infinite.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Late-Early Robert R. McCammon Takes a Mystery Walk

Mystery Walk by Robert R. McCammon (1983): By the mid-1980's, Robert McCammon was a best-selling horror writer whose publishers very firmly positioned him in the tradition of Stephen King. He eventually got tired of being pigeon-holed and all but vanished for about a decade before returning in the early oughts. It's actually a brave moment for a writer -- McCammon could have kept writing contemporary horror for years, as he'd become a very popular writer when he changed. 

Mystery Walk is late-early McCammon, a big jump forward from his first few enjoyable but very pulpy novels of the late 1970's and early 1980's. Is it Kingian? Not consciously, I don't think, and McCammon was always interested in the nuts and bolts of things, whether those things were science-fictional or supernatural in nature. A fair bit of Mystery Walk explores how the supernatural powers of its linked protagonists work, and why, in a metaphysical sense.

The novel follows dirt-poor half-Choctaw Bill Creekmore and seemingly magical faith healer Wayne Falconer into their early twenties in the 1960's and early 1970's. Both hail from a racist, somewhat toxic small town in Alabama. Both must come to terms with supernatural powers: while Falconer can sometimes call upon healing powers, Creekmore can interact with the ghosts left behind by violent deaths and convince them to move on to the afterlife. Both are pursued by a malign supernatural other known to them as the Shape Changer.

McCammon's characters are finely and sympathetically drawn here for the first time in his career. There's a real sense of dread to the supernatural set-pieces that dot the novel. My favourite is a battle between Billy and a supernaturally infected carnival ride. McCammon manages to create sympathy for Falconer as well, as he goes down the wrong path for understandable reasons and ends up under the sway of a somewhat cartoonish Los Angeles mobster with a fear of contamination that makes Howie Mandel look like Pigpen.

Despite its scenes of horror, Mystery Walk occupies the borderlands between horror and dark fantasy. Even early in his career, McCammon resisted being just one thing, and the novel shows an affinity for Ray Bradbury as much as it does a resemblance to Stephen King. The Bradbury influence shows up in content, not in style, and it would again and again throughout McCammon's career. Billy's time spent working for a magician at a traveling carnival is the most Bradburyian stretch here, and it's the most enjoyable of the novel.

McCammon also does a fairly sensitive job of using Native American mythology (or at least the semblance of Native American mythology) to supply the underpinnings of the supernatural forces at work in the novel. The Shape Changer's motivations only come into complete focus in the novel's climax, and they make perfect sense. The journeys to self-awareness of Falconer and especially Billy are the eponymous 'Mystery Walk.' 

Certain things are problematic. The aforementioned mobster doesn't fit organically into the novel, and his almost cartoonish qualities make him seem like a James Bond villain from the Roger Moore era by the time we're done with him. The set-up for the climax stretches credibility to its limits, even in a novel in which we must accept the presence of the supernatural. But you're watching a young but capable writer figure out how to put things together. It all ends up feeling like the somewhat uneven but ultimately rewarding start to a series of novels that never materialized. Recommended.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Half a Global Frequency is Better Than None

Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Garry Leach, Glenn Fabry, Steve Dillon, Roy Martinez, John J Muth, David Lloyd, and David Barron (2002-2003/ This edition 2004): This collection of the first half of writer Warren Ellis' early-oughts 12-issue miniseries gives us six different artists and the most TV-friendly of all of Ellis' comic-book projects. Indeed, Global Frequency did get a TV pilot made, though it wasn't picked up for series. That's a shame because it's a solid take on a solid, much-used concept in TV. In a way, this is Mission: Impossible for the post-industrial, post-governmental, Internet age.

And the artists are all boss. Global Frequency (the agency) employs 1001 agents across the globe, though they're really more heavily compensated consultants than actual employees. Global Frequency (the agency) is sponsored by the G-8 countries (among other sources named or implied) but run independently by a mysterious woman. Global Frequency (the comic book) shows us six missions, rendered by six great artists.

Held together by phone and Internet, members of the team await the call to either consult on a problem or to jump into the fray. They're 1001 experts in thousands of fields, from parkour (no kidding) to quantum physics to assassination. The crises they face arise from both intent and neglect -- forgotten and now-malfunctioning Cold-War super-weapons can represent as great a threat to the world as crazed death-cultists, insane bionic men, or an invading meme from outer space.

It's all fast-paced and breezy, almost Warren Ellis-lite in terms of characterization and plot density. Done right, it would have made a hell of a TV series. As a comic-book series, it's still a lot of fun. Going with different artists each issue increases that fun, whether it's Preacher's Steve Dillon, V for Vendetta's David Lloyd, or the normally painterly Jon J Muth doing something a lot more sketchy. Recommended.

Action Allegories

The Purge: Anarchy: written and directed by James DeMonaco; starring Frank Grillo (Sergeant), Carmen Ejogo (Eva), Zach Gilford (Shane), Kiele Sanchez (Liz), Zoe Soul (Cali) and Justina Machado (Tanya) (2014): The second Purge movie ditches the name actors and heads to the streets for the near-future America's favourite annual pastime: raping and killing without consequence for one night of the year. 

Instead of one somewhat unlikable upper-middle-class family under siege, we get the tried-and-true Stagecoach formula of disparate strangers bonded by shared danger. It works beautifully. There's nothing subtle about the Purge movies, in which the poor are victims of violence and the State loves it. But there is something bracing about this movie, something very early John Carpenter in its angry protagonist, known only as Sergeant (for his former rank as a police officer).

Frank Grillo nails the frustrations of a man who doesn't want to be a hero but is forced to because of his own morality. The four people he leads on this little night-sea journey are appealing. We even get periodic left-wing civics lectures from Zoe Soul's Cali. The allegory is paper-thin but surprisingly sturdy: it all seems like a brand that's built to last, a similarly agit-proppy successor to Carpenter's Escape from New York and They Live. Recommended.

Snowpiercer: adapted by Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson from Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette; directed by Joon-ho Bong; starring Chris Evans (Curtis), Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo), Ed Harris (Wilford), John Hurt (Gilliam), Tilda Swinton (Mason), and Octavia Spencer (Tanya) (2013): Visually startling and dumb as a post. 17 years after a 2014 attempt to stop global warming freezes the Earth, humanity's survivors live on a train that never stops chugging along through an icy landscape that stretches throughout every continent on Earth (well, except Australia -- the train doesn't go there). Mad billionaire Wilford connected nearly 500,000 kilometers of railway track some time before everything got really chilly and then  got a bunch of people together on his train. 

At the front of the train, the engine and the rich people. At the back of the train, the poor. Captain America Chris Evans leads a rag-tag group of poor people towards the front of the train in hopes of overthrowing the existing social order. Shenanigans ensue, many of them very cleverly staged. Characterization and subtlety (not to mention science and engineering) aren't parts of the program. It's not science fiction. It's barely allegory. The dialogue thuds along. Tilda Swinton plays Tilda Swinton playing a Tilda Swinton character.

If Michael Bay had directed this rather than the critically beloved Joon-ho Bong, I think the movie would be reviled for being stupid eye candy. It's a movie that gets small, detailed things right within a much larger framework of gross unbelievability: those 500,000+ kilometres of track, for example, are needed so that it takes exactly a year for the train to complete one circuit while traveling at a relatively constant 75 kph. Why? Um, so they can celebrate New Year's Day every year at the completion of the circuit? So it goes. Lightly recommended.

Mad Max, or, There and Back Again

Mad Max: Fury Road: written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris; directed by George Miller; starring Tom Hardy (Max Rockatansky), Charlize Theron (Imperator Furiosa), Nicholas Hoult (Nux), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Immortan Joe), Zoe Kravitz (Toast the Knowing), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (The Splendid Angharad), Riley Keough (Capable), Abbey Lee (The Dag), and Courtney Eaton (Cheedo the Fragile) (2015): 

Gigantic in a way that the previous three Mad Max movies couldn't be because of budgetary restraints, Mad Max: Fury Road puts that money on the screen, and does an amazing number of things without CGI. When CGI does stroll in to dominate, it actually does so in a sublime way, as a dust super-storm that seems more true to Dune than anything that's ever been put on the screen as Dune.

A sort of soft reboot of the original Mad Max films, this one slots in after the original Mad Max, though some of Max's flashbacks suggest that the original film doesn't supply quite the same origin narrative for the series. Tom Hardy's Max, a former police officer, does have his familiar Interceptor from the first two movies, though. For awhile, anyway. 

Hardy is a much quieter presence than the young Mel Gibson, though at least some of that seems to be by design: Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa is the movie's hero, and a very compelling one. Max is along to learn to be heroic again.

Of the 110 story minutes of the film, about 80 involve various iterations of a car chase. Here in the post-apocalypse, the cars have been assembled from anything that works and engineered to be as dangerous to others as possible. Along the way, Miller throws in a visual homage to fellow Aussie Peter Weir's early film, The Cars That Ate Paris. And a nod to one of the iconic stunts in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And a guy playing a flame-throwing guitar while chained to the front of a truck. There's a lot going on.

The chase, or The Chase, or whatever you want to call it, is dizzying at times but fully comprehensible. Miller and his storyboard people, including comic-book writer/artist Brendan McCarthy, who's co-credited on the script, have figured out everything and where everything needs to go. And go it does. 

Is this a feminist film? Well, when compared to pretty much every other blockbuster movie of the last 25 years, yes. The main plot riffs on Boko Haram and its kidnapping of young girls to be brides, on arranged marriages and institutionalized rape, and on the utter cruddiness of many men with power. 

The main antagonist, Immortan Joe, is a wheezing blob of a dictator who needs to be poured and prodded into a suit that makes him look fearsome. He keeps young women to produce offspring in the reproductively challenged future. Imperator Furiosa, who has worked for Joe for years, has hatched a plan to get the women and herself to safety. Max finds himself along for the ride, acted upon for about the first 40 minutes of the movie before he finally starts to act. 

Visually impressive and kinetic as hell, Mad Max: Fury Road also offers some clever twists and some nicely observed flashes of characterization and world-building along the way. It's a great action movie that doesn't insult the eye or the brain. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Don't Look Down

As Above, So Below: written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle; directed by John Erick Dowdle; starring Perdita Weeks (Scarlett), Ben Feldman (George), Edwin Hodge (Benji), Francois Civil (Papillon), Marion Lambert (Susie), and Ali Marhyar (Zed) (2014): Minor but enjoyable horror movie that would have benefited from not being 'found footage.' But I've got a soft spot for any movie that involves a descent into the Paris Catacombs in search of that Moby Dick of alchemists, the Philosopher's Stone. 

And they're the real catacombs! And there's almost as much graffiti down there as there are human remains! Also, in case you've got a bet going, the black guy does not die first, though he does attract an inordinate amount of attention from whatever's down there. Demerit points for referring to something from Dante's Inferno as being something from "legend"; bonus points for actually incorporating a number of concepts from the Inferno into the descent. My biggest complaint is that they don't end up surfacing in Australia. Lightly recommended.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Don't Go in the Water

Beneath Still Waters by Matthew J. Costello (1989): Fast-paced, entertaining horror novel from the 1980's with flawed but sympathetic characters and some spooky underwater action. This was apparently made into a cheapie horror movie in the mid-2000's, so avoid that. On the other hand, the edition I read was a tie-in to that movie, so the reprint did result in me reading it. 

Costello writes in multiple genres (including TV and video games). This horror novel is very much in the Stephen King tradition in terms of setting (a small North-eastern town, here in New York state rather than Maine) and set-up (ancient evil invades small town; problem must be dealt with decades after the fact). The protagonists are both reporters, which gives them reason to investigate why a small town was hurriedly drowned by a hastily built dam back in the 1930's. 

I'm assuming there were edits made to get it to a required length, as the conclusion is a bit rushed. I'd have enjoyed more of the historical 'archival' research into the origins of the horror -- it's the sort of thing Lovecraft did perfectly in many of his stories, and which Stephen King made his own in novels such as It. Recommended.

The Boats of the Glen Carrig by William Hope Hodgson (1907): William Hope Hodgson's life was cut short in his mid-40's in the trenches of World War One. Nonetheless, he left quite a literary legacy, one that wouldn't really begin to take effect until the 1930's and 1940's, when lovers of the weird started to unearth and publish his out-of-print novels and short stories.

Hodgson spent years as a sailor, and many of his best works feature a maritime setting. His novels also tended toward the archivally inclined: here, the story is 'written' in 1757 by a former passenger of the British sailing ship Glen Carrig, with the recounted adventures occurring some time earlier  in the 18th century. We start with the action already underway, the Glen Carrig sunk and the survivors in two lifeboats. They're somewhere in the South Atlantic, and things are going to get weird.

Hodgson's model seems to be the works of writers such as Daniel DeFoe, whose Robinson Crusoe stands a sort of Ur-text for all tales of sailors and shipwrecks and strange islands. But Crusoe, while alone, faced nothing so weird as these sailors will face. Their odyssey takes them to a strange island or perhaps continent, unmarked on their maps, where extraordinarily odd plant life exists and menace seems to wait over every hill. They'll soon face storms and another strange continent. They're about to get trapped by a vast assemblage of sea weed. And in and beneath the seaweed, more strange men and monsters. 

The final third of the novel drags a bit as the sailors get stuck in the seaweed and plan to get out while being besieged by weird creatures of the sea and land, pretty much all of them with a whole lot of tentacles waving around. Still, this is a rewarding journey. Hodgson's description of the sailing life rings with authenticity. 

Characters other than the narrator are sketchily constructed; our interest in them instead comes from the horrors they face and their general bravery and resourcefulness in finding ways to escape from the problems they're presented with. The scenes set in the first place they land showcase Hodgson's skill at the creations of disturbing, uncanny landscapes while the later adventures in the land of seaweed focus more upon a sort of literature of grace under weird pressure, much of it expressed by detailed descriptions of the various plans the sailors enact to get home. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Stately Boobs of Ireland

Playmates by J.N. Williamson (1982): J.N. Williamson is a nice story -- a writer whose published career began in his late 40's with what soon seemed to be about ten horror novels a year. I assume some of them may have been written years or even decades earlier, but he may just have been incredibly prolific. Until now, I'd never actually read one of his novels. 

Playmates alternates between crazy, purple-prose badness and long stretches of tedium which, if you're like me, you'll skim like crazy. Set in Catholic Ireland, it's a horror story about Fairies and an old family secret. Intentionally or not, it also veers into anti-feminism in its choice of who dies and who lives, among other things.

Only a minor character who seems to have been intended for more, based on his lengthy introduction, is remotely sympathetic to anyone who's not a dink. We instead get a couple of selfish men, a fantasy woman for all those who dream of a wife who's delighted to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, and a callous and horrible child. One roots for everyone to die. Spoiler alert: one does not get what one wishes.

This is the sort of horror novel in which many terrible murders happen in a small town and no one outside that town takes any interest. Why should they? The people inside the town barely seem to notice. People do stupid things again and again. A child's fatness is short-hand for why he should die (and he does). Two young lovers die because of course they do.

Stylistically, Williamson throws some terrific howlers at us. The hills of Ireland are like many breasts being caressed by many hands. A naked woman's giant breasts remind our aroused protagonist of two scoops of ice cream with a cherry on top of each. Of course he marries her. Maybe he has an ice-cream fetish.

The greatest pleasure of the novel comes late in the game, with the revelation of the family secret that's been hinted at throughout the novel. It's a revelation so astonishingly unconnected to anything that's come before, and so ridiculous in its visual description and in its workings, that it helps end the novel on a high note of complete goofiness. 

The old SCTV show once did a skit called O. Henry Playhouse in which every story, regardless of its setting or content, ended with someone being killed by a tiger. Williamson's revelation of what's in the locked room of family secrets is at that level of unconnected shock value. Except that a tiger is straightforward. What's in the room makes about as much sense as The Devil's Coat-rack.

The fairies are pretty stereotypical when they show up. They're amoral and occasionally murderous. Hidey-ho. They also can't be fought in any meaningful way in the book's fantasy universe, so there's really not much point to any confrontation with them. In a move which gilds this awful novel with an extra layer of unearned pretension, every chapter ends with a lengthy quotation about fairy-riddled Ireland from writers that include Yeats and Colin Wilson. Got to use that research. Not recommended

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Holmes Vs. Evil

Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes (2008) edited by Charles Prepolec and J.R. Campbell, containing the following stories:

The Lost Boy by Barbara Hambly; His Last Arrow by Christopher Sequeira; The Things That Shall Come Upon Them by Barbara Roden; The Finishing Stroke by M.J. Elliott; Sherlock Holmes in the Lost World by Martin Powell; The Grantchester Grimoire by Rick Kennett and Chico Kidd; The Steamship Friesland by Peter Calamai; The Entwined by J.R. Campbell; Merridew of Abominable Memory by Chris Roberson; Red Sunset by Bob Madison; and The Red Planet League by Kim Newman.

The first of Canada's EDGE Publishing's anthologies of weird Sherlock Holmes homages is fun, for the most part, with a few stand-outs. When putting Holmes into supernatural situations, writers tend to either make Holmes a stubborn denier, regardless of the evidence, or to make his detection ethos flexible enough to admit any possibility. Sometimes writers go even further, generally by reimagining Holmes as someone who's always been a believer in the supernatural. 

The 'fantastic' herein involves a lot of stories that combine Holmes with other fictional or historical characters. Team-ups pair Holmes with Peter Pan ("The Lost Boy") , supernatural investigator Flaxman Low ("The Things That Shall Come Upon Them"), supernatural investigator Carnacki ("The Grantchester Grimoire") , and Arthur Conan Doyle's own Professor Challenger ("Sherlock Holmes in the Lost World"). Holmes also visits WW2-era Los Angeles to play a part in a horror/hard-boiled detective mash-up ("Red Sunset"). 

And it's a Holmes-homage tradition to have at least a couple of stories about cases briefly mentioned during Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories but never fully told. These references have always formed a sort of Black Casebook of Holmes adventures for later writers to imagine in their entirety. Here, "Merridew of Abominable Memory" and "The Steamship Friesland" develop these fleeting references of Doyle in unusual ways. 

Finishing the anthology is Kim Newman's blackly comic, Holmes-and-Watson-less adventure of Professor Moriarty and his right-hand man Sebastian Moran. Newman riffs on H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, but probably not in the way one expects. In all, an enjoyable anthology. Recommended.

Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes (2011) edited by Charles Prepolec and J.R. Campbell, containing the following stories:

Sherlock Holmes and the Diving Bell by Simon Clark; The Greatest Mystery by Paul Kane; The Adventure of the Six Maledictions by Kim Newman; The Comfort of the Seine by Stephen Volk; The Adventure of Lucifer's Footprints by Christopher Fowler; The Deadly Sin of Sherlock Holmes by Tom English; The Color That Came To Chiswick by William Meikle; A Country Death by Simon Kurt Unsworth; From the Tree of Time by Fred Saberhagen (1982); The Executioner by Lawrence Connolly; Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game by Kevin Cockle; and The House of Blood by Tony Richards.

The third of EDGE Publishing's series of Weird Sherlock Holmes anthologies is solid and often deadly serious as these things go. The editors pay homage to one of Holmes's finest homagists, Fred Saberhagen, by reprinting a 1982 short story featuring Holmes and his distant ancestor and sometime-ally, Saberhagen's semi-heroic version of Dracula.

The rest of the anthology is new and, for the most part, ranges from enjoyable to excellent. Stand-outs include Stephen Volk's excellent chronicle of a young Sherlock Holmes in Paris, Simon Unsworth's horror story, and Kim Newman's comic adventure of Moriarty, Moran, and six dangerous supposedly magical items. Along the way, Holmes will also visit modern-day Las Vegas, hang out with Frankenstein's Creature, and battle Lovecraftian horror and Death itself. Recommended