Sunday, August 30, 2015

Frailty: directed by Bill Paxton; starring Bill Paxton (2001)

Frailty: written by Brent Hanley; directed by Bill Paxton; starring Bill Paxton (Dad), Matthew McConaughey (Meiks), Powers Boothe (Agent Doyle), Matt O'Leary (Young Fenton), Jeremy Sumpter (Young Adam), and Derk Cheetwood (Agent Hull) (2001): Bill Paxton's feature-length directorial debut should have resulted in more directorial opportunities. Set in a small town in Paxton's home state of Texas, Frailty is easily one of the ten best horror films of the last twenty years. It also features Matthew McConaughey in his finest acting performance prior to the recent McConnaissance. 

But even with praise before its release from Stephen King, James Cameron, and Sam Raimi, Frailty never got the audience it deserved (and still merits). This is a genuinely great work of very specifically American horror, with that American-ness expressed in everything from the details of small-town Texas life to the peculiarly literal-mindedness of American fundamentalist Christianity.

McConaughey narrates events to FBI agent Powers Boothe in the (then) present day in order to explain the identity and origin of a serial killer dubbed "God's Hand" who has murdered six people over the past few years. The bulk of the movie occurs in 1979, as McConaughey explains the role he, his brother, and his father play in the history of God's Hand.

McConaughey's widower father, a small-town auto mechanic, rushes into the boys' shared room one night to tell them that one of God's angels has appeared to him in a vision. The Apocalypse is close at hand, and Paxton and his sons have been drafted into the war. Paxton is to find three magical items and, having found them, await another vision that will tell him what to do next.

What comes next is a list of demons Paxton has to destroy (not kill but 'destroy'). But the demons live among humanity and look like people. However, as Paxton has been given their names and the ability to not only see them for what they are but to also see the atrocities they've committed, he can track them down and destroy them. And Paxton's character is convinced that his sons will also gain the ability to see the demons, as God's plan also involves the boys carrying on this new family business.

So clearly Paxton's character is a loon. And the revelation of the magical items -- a pair of work-gloves, an ax, and a length of pipe -- doesn't make him seem any more believable. One son believes him from the beginning; however, McConaughey tells us in the narration, he himself never believed his father, and would eventually either have to find the courage to stop his father's string of murders or at least run away.

Paxton's direction isn't showy, as befits the tone of the material: this is a tale of the normative surface of things under which, in men's minds, swim terrible creatures in dangerous depths. The actual killings are never shown in all their bloody detail; Paxton leaves it to the mind of the viewer to imagine what's happening just outside the frame. There's a verisimilitude to Paxton's depiction of the day-to-day lives of this strange family, a lived-in, working-class aesthetic to the way things look.

Everything would fail, however, without the performances of Matt O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter as the two boys in 1979. Paxton gets terrific, believable performances from both of them. They anchor the movie. They also present the two sides of the mental conflict going on: one is convincing as a True Believer who loves his father, while the other is equally convincing as a horrified child who also loves his father, and thus finds it difficult to act against him at first. 

In the frame narration, McConaughey delivers a subdued, haunted performance, without a glimmer of that RomCom smarm that derailed his career for more than a decade. And as the initially skeptical FBI agent, Powers Boothe also shines. McConaughey's detailed story gradually convinces Boothe's character about the reality of the identity of the God's Hand killer, leading to a strangely convincing conclusion that's been carefully and fairly set up by everything that's been shown and told to us.

In all, this is a great movie of horror and madness and the bonds of family. While much of the film plays out with growing, horrific inevitability, Frailty also presents some startling surprises, including a scene of awful pathos involving the family and the arrival of the town sheriff at the one boy's request. Brent Hanley's script is terrific, and there's an attention to period detail that makes 1979 seem like 1979. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Abyss by Jere Cunningham (1981)

The Abyss by Jere Cunningham (1981): Cover-blurbed by Stephen King as "almost great," The Abyss presents a Christian apocalypse along the lines of King's own The Stand, only with more flying demons and coal mining. 

Our male protagonist, Seth, returns home to Bethel, Tennessee in the Appalachians after 20 years to get a job in the coal mine that's been re-opened after six decades. Seth didn't return for this express purpose -- he just needed a job. And the coal mine, believed by children for decades to be haunted, supplied that job.

Do things start to go wrong? Yes. Yes, they do. And you know that if you read any of the paperback versions of The Abyss because the jacket copy reveals a pretty major plot point. Suffice to say that Hell is Real. And it's apparently located several thousand feet below Tennessee.

Cunningham's and-the-kitchen-sink tendency to throw stuff into the narrative doesn't increase whatever terror or dis-ease the novel seeks to generate. There are surprisingly few scenes down the mine, and these quickly shift away from claustrophobia and darkness to increasingly dire and goopy supernatural shenanigans. Cunningham does nice work in depicting life in a dead-end, one-industry town isolated from the mainstream, though. His evil characters tend to the banal, but the sympathetic characters really are finely drawn at points. 

Plot-wise, Cunningham keeps a lot of pots boiling (and one of his minor characters keep a pot of water eternally boiling on her stove to throw at unwanted trespassers!). The female protagonist, Bethel's only medical practitioner, confronts various health-related issues that suddenly arise from the mine's re-opening. She also deals with nightmares about her childhood as the daughter of a stern, self-denying, violent, fundamentalist preacher. 

And a traveling revival show appears in town under its own tent near the mine. And some people start looking and acting like zombies. And a science whiz from Boston shows up because some really sketchy scientific stuff seems to centre on Bethel. People get blowed up with dynamite. Giant thorns menace everybody. An old woman direly prophesies what's coming. A fat woman is mean and evil and eats a lot of junk food and takes three plates at the church picnic. Everyone with a beehive hairdo gets turned into a demon. Dogs and cats turn into monsters. The statue of the Madonna starts disintegrating, as does everything in town. We check in with a Soviet spy satellite.

Well, you get the idea. There's so much stuff here that it suggests a longer draft that's been hacked at by an editor trying to fit the novel into a too-low page count. At twice the length, this might actually be a great horror novel of dark Christianity. At its published length, it's still fun and jumpy and, as the end draws near, surprisingly true to its core principles: it goes all the way, and everyone has to get off the boat. 

That the ending seems to riff on Tolkien's Sauron as much as any religious representation of evil isn't a bad thing at all, though some are also going to find strong echoes of a scene in King's The Stand. But boy, does it all end in a rush. Anyone want to fund a Director's Cut of this thing? Recommended.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Darkness at the Edge of Town by Brian Keene (2010)

Darkness at the Edge of Town by Brian Keene (2010): Enjoyable but slighter and less juicily pulpy novel from the reliable Keene, who's made a fascinating career out of combining cosmic horror with splatterpunky, visceral violence. 

Walden, Virginia wakes up one morning to find itself surrounded on all sides by an almost solid darkness. Some people drive to work. Some stay home. Landlines and cellphones won't connect to anything. All the utilities are out. And when you walk up to the darkness, you start to hear voices and see visions of your loved ones. This is only the beginning.

While not part of one of Keene's acknowledged series, Darkness at the Edge of Town nonetheless fits into the larger schemata of most of Keene's novels, which deal with one or more cosmic threats to life on Earth. Well, life on Earths: each Earth is part of a larger multiverse. While one novel may depict the destruction of all life on one Earth by, say, giant earthworms, another novel may depict the salvation of another Earth by a recurring character such as Keene's Amish magician, Levi. And Levi, too, is duplicated across countless Earths.

Mysterious symbols drawn at points along Walden's town boundary coincide with the line where the darkness stopped. A mysterious homeless man -- Walden's only homeless man -- may have something to do with the symbols. Or did he summon the darkness? Our narrator, an underemployed pizza delivery guy in his 20's, will try to find out. Because the darkness very rapidly starts to make people more and more violent and crazy.

There are elements of metatext here -- a character notes at one point that our narrator's plan to explore the darkness comes right out of Stephen King's The Mist and should thus be avoided because of the dire results of the tactic in both novella and movie. The title comes from a Springsteen song. Many of the group dynamics are reminiscent of both The Mist and King's Under the Dome, though any resemblances to the latter would simply be a case of shared sub-genre, as the two novels came out within a handful of months of one another. 

The dire violence and madness that quickly infect the town are solidly depicted, with several stand-out moments of gross-out horror. The cosmic elements don't work so well, in part because Keene's narrator simply isn't written as a character capable of describing dread or terror. Dez, the homeless madman, manages to Basil Exposition us for several pages near the end, but this seems both too little and much too late. We've seen towns disintegrate under crisis in horror novels before. What makes this narrative different?

Well, utter helplessness, a well Keene goes to repeatedly in his novels, though it's usually leavened with a group of characters doing their best to stave off the apocalypse, even if they fail utterly. Here, though, our narrator and his friends just aren't up to taking on the darkness. And they seem to miss one glaringly obvious thing that a competent person might at least try, given that we're stuck inside the bottle of this narrative for what the narrator estimates is at least a month. I don't need a Heinlein hero in my horror, but the readerly frustration that attends the nihilistic helplessness and pettiness and dim-bulbedness of our heroes leaves one longing for death after awhile. Their death, that is. Go darkness!

Now, this frustration seems to me to perhaps be the point. Keene has given us a novel with an even less bright, less competent, less heroic cast than usual, and has set them against an unbeatable foe. But it's all too much. As T.E.D. Klein noted, himself quoting another critic, I don't see what the point of the point is. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Crooked Tree by Robert C. Wilson (1980)

Crooked Tree by Robert C. Wilson (1980): I'll buy almost any horror paperback with a lurid cover if the price is right. At 50 cents, and with the luridness hidden inside the cut-out cover (and a cutout cover with a full-page illustration inside just screams 1970's and 1980's), Crooked Tree fit that bill. I also thought it was an early novel by Canadian SF writer Robert Charles Wilson, but it wasn't. This Robert C. Wilson is a Michigan lawyer with three published novels over the last 35 years.

Well, would that he published more. This is really a terrific little horror novel. Set in and around the Crooked Tree State Park in the northwestern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, Crooked Tree sees ancient evil resurrected and set loose. Yes, this actually is the 'Indian burial ground' trope in action. It works here -- as does any tired trope -- because Wilson invests time and sensitivity in exploring the Native-American culture of the Ottawas whose burial ground it was, and in making Native Americans non-stereotypical characters in the drama.

For the most part, the novel's descriptions of the natural landscape work, with only a few slips into the purple. A real sense of menace builds, and the supernatural menace, once revealed, is fully worked out and logically combated within the rules Wilson has created for this particular manifestation of the supernatural. The tiredness of the Indian burial ground trope also loses its exhaustion by making the unburied menace something that once threatened the Ottawas as well. This puts the whole thing more in line with the mainstream of supernatural literature, in which danger comes from Something Awful that was buried, and not from the vengeful spirits of once peaceful beings.

Wilson doesn't go as far as Martin Cruz Smith did in the excellent, nearly contemporaneous Nightwing: Crooked Tree's protagonist is still a white American and not a native. But the plethora of well-realized native characters makes the novel something special. So, too, the sensitive use of black bears as the main weapon in the menace's revenge: the novel explains many of a black bear's more dangerous attributes while also making it clear throughout that their danger to humanity in this novel has also been caused by humanity. Or the once-human, anyway. The bears, unlike the shark in Jaws, explicitly are described as acting against their nature in their attacks on humans. Naturally, they are shy and only dangerous in very specific interactions with human beings.

There are flaws. The climax could use a few more pages. As in many Stephen King novels, characters with viewpoints contrary to the author's -- in this case pro-leisure-hunting white men -- are drawn as gross, completely unlikable caricatures who meet their just rewards in being killed. They're as bad as the hillbillies in Deliverance, but the hillbillies in Deliverance were at least competent and sketched-in as being resentful of these rich(er) suburbanites vacationing in the place they called home. And Wilson's protagonist travels around so much in the concluding pages to assemble the necessary information to combat the evil that these pages start to feel like a Michigan travelogue.

However, despite its flaws, Crooked Tree is a surprisingly good horror novel from a little-known writer. It skilfully weaves together supernatural horror with natural horror (the menace must work through living beings to get its vengeance). Some segments suggest Jaws on land, but with animals that have become much more dangerous with a human will guiding and manipulating them. And a couple of the carnage-laden set-pieces are startlingly well-done and refreshingly unsentimental about who will die without being exploitative. Recommended.

Monday, August 17, 2015

He is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson (2009), edited by Christopher Conlon

He is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson (2009), edited by Christopher Conlon with an Introduction by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:

Throttle by Joe Hill and Stephen King
Recalled by F. Paul Wilson
I Am Legend, Too by Mick Garris
Two Shots from Fly's Photo Gallery by John Shirley
The Diary of Louise Carey by Thomas F. Monteleone
She Screech Like Me by Michael A. Arnzen
Everything of Beauty Taken from You in This Life Remains Forever by Gary A. Braunbeck
The Case of Peggy Ann Lister by John Maclay
Zachry Revisited by William F. Nolan
Comeback by Ed Gorman
An Island Unto Himself by Barry Hoffman
Venturi by Richard Christian Matheson
Quarry by Joe R. Lansdale
Return to Hell House by Nancy A. Collins
Cloud Rider by Whitley Strieber 

Award-winning, enjoyable anthology celebrating the late, great Richard Matheson, whose horror and suspense work in print, in movies, and on TV helped define horror and suspense for two generations of readers and viewers.  Duel; The Shrinking Man; Hell House; I Am Legend; What Dreams May Come; Stir of Echoes; Somewhere in Time; episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the William Shatner-on-a-plane "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" remade with John Lithgow in The Twilight Zone movie; adaptations of Poe for Roger Corman's film studio: these are just some of Matheson's contributions to pop culture. 

The stories include homages, sequels, revisionist takes, and riffs on Mathesonian ideas. "Cloud Rider" by Whitley Strieber is the wildest riff in the anthology, inspired as it is by Matheson's entire Collected Stories. The other stories are a bit more specific.

Standouts include Nancy Collins' novella-length prequel to Hell House, that inspired haunted-house story of the 1960's. Collins shows us the events that preceded those in Matheson's novel, to good effect. Mick Garris also offers a prequel in "I Am Legend, Too," and it also offers a revisionist take on the original Matheson novel's vampire-fighting protagonist from the POV of his vampiric next-door neighbour. "She Screech Like Me" by Michael A. Arnzen effectively extends Matheson's stunning debut story, "Born of Man and Woman," while "The Diary of Louise Carey" by Thomas F. Monteleone retells The Shrinking Man from the viewpoint of his increasingly beleaguered, non-shrinking wife.

The venerable William F. Nolan offers a short, brutal sequel to another Matheson horror story, while Joe Lansdale presents a sequel/sidequel to Matheson's "Prey" -- a.k.a. the Matheson story adapted for the TV movie Trilogy of Terror, in which Karen Black does battle with a tiny, violent, highly animated African fetish doll in her own apartment. And Stephen King and son Joe Hill (King) collaborate on a story for the first time, a riff on "Duel" that involves a motorcycle gang and a transport truck instead of the original's station-wagon-driving salesman and a monster of a truck.

Overall, this is a fittingly strong anthology to honour such a major figure in the modern history of fantasy. As Ramsey Campbell notes in his introduction, Matheson helped move horror out of Gothic castles and into suburban bedrooms and America's endless blacktop highways. And because Matheson worked in television and movies so much after 1960, his works reached much larger audiences than those generally afforded writers of prose. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ed the Happy Clown (1982-2002) and I Never Liked You (1991-93) by Chester Brown

Ed the Happy Clown: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1982-2002; This edition 2012): The absurd, weird, violent, and disturbingly funny graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown got Canada's Chester Brown critical raves almost from its beginning as a self-published mini-comic. Brown would eventually get a publisher (Vortex Comics) and then another publisher (Drawn and Quarterly) as the strip wound down in the pages of Brown's Yummy Fur comic. 

Ed the Happy Clown may not be Brown's most nuanced or artistically complex work, but it may be what he's remembered for 100 years from now, if people still read comics then. It's a horrifying, absurdist comedy, or maybe a comic, absurdist horror work. Or something. Brown was interested in the psychology of surrealism at the time, and so he tried to go with whatever his Sub-conscious and his Id spewed forth. The result is an arresting, page-turner of a nightmare.

Ed is a lovable figure who pretty much defines "acted upon, rather than acting." In a Toronto that vaguely resembles our Toronto, only with more malevolent disembodied hands, vampires, and evil pygmies, Ed finds that Ronald Reagan's head has replaced the head of his own penis. This Reagan is from a world where the people are much smaller, so, um, the head fits. And talks. And vomits. 

This is neither the oddest nor the potentially most offensive thing in Ed the Happy Clown. It's also hilarious, the hilarity augmented by Brown's choice to not make the head look like Ronald Reagan (and when then-Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney shows up, he doesn't resemble his namesake either, though he is rocking a gnarly beard that makes him look like a somewhat lumpen version of Thomas Mulcair). 

Brown would leave this sort of weird horror comedy behind for the most part in the early 1990's, turning instead to memoir and Canadian history in his subsequent graphic novels. I understand his decision, but lament it too. Ed the Happy Clown is just so gigantically, monstrously weird and entertaining, one wants more when it ends.

Of course, there actually was more. Brown continued the story for several more chapters after this graphic novel ends before abandoning Ed for autobiography. This definitive edition omits those last chapters and adds a new ending, as Brown decided that Ed's story had reached a natural conclusion. I've got no problem with Brown going all Wordsworth's Prelude on us, though I'd like an edition that at least puts the other chapters in an appendix. These aren't easy comics to find at decent prices.

This 2012 edition does give us a lengthy appendix written by Brown. These notes range from explaining emendations to apologizing for the somewhat racist caricatures that are the pygmies (though the pygmies are so ridiculously out-there that it's hard to view them as racial; some, including Brown, would disagree). 

Some of the notes are quite hilarious in and of themselves. For example,  former national NDP leader Ed Broadbent was originally supposed to be the head on Ed the Happy Clown's penis. Others show how much Brown's politics have changed over the decades. When he opines that Ronald Reagan was actually the second-best 20th-century U.S. President after Calvin Coolidge, one wishes that this were just more absurdism. But like Brown's oft-stated belief that mental illness is not an illness and only exists because the medical establishment wants it to be an illness, this is all dead-serious. In any case, highly recommended.

I Never Liked You: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (1991-93; collected 1994): Chester Brown's second attempt at long-form comic-book memoir is a much sadder, self-lacerating work than his first (that first being The Playboy). Completed and collected in the early 1990's, I Never Liked You follows Brown's relationships with girls from Grade 3 or thereabouts to the end of high school. 

While there is an overarching structure to the book, it's very faint -- I Never Liked You is as much a series of vignettes as it is a graphic novel. Brown's style is relatively naturalistic for him, though there are some physical exaggerations for some characters. As in The Playboy, Chester Brown as a character has a head that looks an awful lot like an orange on a toothpick. And the girl who utters the title line has gigantic Bambi eyes. 

Most of the vignettes will pack more of a punch for those readers who've consistently felt like outsiders, especially when it comes to gender relations as a teenager. Threaded through the tales of Brown's missteps with girls is the story of his mother's encroaching madness, mental illness that will periodically lead to her hospitalization. 

Brown-the-character's inability to show empathy to his mother (or be nice at all) is an integral part of the book's depiction of his social awkwardness. A scene set in a hospital room as Chester, his father, and brother visit his contorted, near-catatonic mother is the novel's best. That Brown's version of himself at that age makes the moment all about himself and his inability to simply tell his mother that he loves her ties beautifully into the book as a whole, and into the larger body of Brown's autobiographical work. Brown's work often functions as a caustic evaluation of what he perceives as his own consuming self-involvement at various points in his life. But creating a memoir is by definition to be self-involved. There's something of a closed loop involved. 

That Brown would turn to a combination of history and historical biography in his next major work, Louis Riel (Collected 2003) certainly indicates a shift outwards from his contemplation of himself. However, one who reads Brown's Appendix to Louis Riel discovers that part of Brown's interest in the controversial rebel came from Riel's own audio and visual hallucinations, things which reminded Brown of his mother's madness. I Never Liked You is a solid piece of graphic storytelling, unsentimental and almost morbidly self-revelatory. Recommended.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Ouija (2014)

Ouija: based on the Hasbro board game; written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White; directde by Stiles White; starring Olivia Cooke (Laine Morris), Ana Coto (Sarah Morris), Douglas Smith (Pete), and Daren Kagasoff (Trevor) (2014): This wouldn't be the worst horror movie in the world if it were the first horror movie someone ever saw. The scares are pretty tame and the 'twist' ending stereotypically lame, but the young actors are surprisingly good. The direction underplays everything, leading to a bit of dullness. 

That Ouija is actually a licensed Hasbro board game is probably unknown to most people. What's surprising in a contemporary movie of this sort is that no one uses the Internet to research ghost-busting. What's divertingly stupid about this movie is that no one researches anything useful. One interesting tic of the script is that the teens are on their own in a world in which parents and helpful adults are almost as rare as in a Peanuts cartoon. As those ubiquitous Blumhouse horror joints go, far from the worst. Very lightly recommended.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838 version)

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (Introduction and Notes by Jeffrey Meyers) (1838 version/ This Modern Library Classics Edition 2007): Edgar Allan Poe's longest work doesn't really end. Poe gave up on trying to finish it, stopped writing, and tacked on an ending that is just this side of 'The dog ate my homework.' The ending anticipates many of the postmodern obsessions with closure, metatextuality, and self-reflexivity by more than a century. It's also a weirdly funny and somewhat off-putting. 

Oh, Poe!

Narrative started life as a serialized novel, switched early on to pretending to be a true story (hence the 'Narrative' part of the title, which in the 1830's connoted a true story), and concluded with a fictional argument between Poe and Pym about the authenticity of the narrative. But while academics love the text's quirkiness, it's the horror that has captivated several generations of readers.

We first follow Pym on one short sailing disaster caused by a drunk friend at the helm. Then Pym stows away on that friend's father's cargo ship for adventure. And he really gets some crazy-ass adventure. 

Poe's genius in the first two-thirds of the novel lies in his willingness to move from one carefully though sometimes purple-prose-depicted horror to the next, with little or no pause. Fear of drowning, fear of cannibalism, fear of being buried alive, fear of being attacked by an animal, fear of starving or dying from lack of water... Poe hits them all. Do terrible smells make you vomitous? They're here too. And terrible flavours in your mouth. And drunkenness that actually imperils your life. And sharks. And festering wounds. And painful, debilitating gastric distress caused by eating too many filberts.

Later writers, most notably H.P. Lovecraft, would learn from Poe to hit the reader with uncomfortable environmental details as quickly as possible, and repeatedly -- cold, wet, smells, claustrophobia, and so many others. Show the reader the terror of the environment, not just the terror of the circumstances. 

Two-thirds of the way through the novel, Poe and his pocket Hercules companion Dirk Peters (!), a part-Native American who keeps saving our hero once they meet up, finally get rescued. So begins the final stretch of the novel that has been more influential than any other: the journey to the Southern polar regions. There, Pym, Peters, and the crew of the Jane Guy encounter an undiscovered tribe on an island called Tsalal, various environmental mysteries, and finally the mysteries of the pole itself. 

It seems, per some speculation at the time, that the oceans empty in massive cataracts into some colossal abyss at the South Pole. And there, abruptly, the story ends. Pym and Peters make it home, we're told (indeed, we've known this from the beginning of the tale). But the final mysterious and haunting images are never explained or expanded upon. It's those images, however, and some of the events on the island of Tsalal, that fascinated Jules Verne and H.P. Lovecraft enough (to name just two) to write their own Pym-referencing tales of the South Pole.

The whole thing is dense but fast-moving -- the horrors race by. And Poe's interest in inversions and subversions make the later sections a fascinating study. Characters (Dirk Peters the "half-breed"), ships (the Jane Guy is a hermaphrodite, an actual type of ship melding two different and distinct ship designs), and even the weird water of Tsalal combine disparate characteristics. Whiteness becomes sinister, especially in the strange, frothing, white waste seas as one leaves Tsalal and moves farther South. There are strange white creatures with red teeth. There are giant humanoid figures looming out of the mist. There is a South Pole that is warmer than it should be.

It's a shame Poe never saw his way to truly finishing the novel. However, it's possible that the unanswered mysteries of the final pages have helped keep the work alive in the imaginations of both readers and the writers who have been inspired to follow in its path. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket achieves disparate moments of visceral horror and existential, cosmic mystery. Highly recommended.

The Treatment (Jack Caffery #2) by Mo Hayder (2001) and Ritual (Jack Caffery #3) by Moe Hayder (2008)

The Treatment (Jack Caffery #2) by Mo Hayder (2001): DI Jack Caffery, London's up-and-coming police detective (that's Detective-Inspector to you), continues to sort through the accumulated trauma of his actions in the first Caffery novel, Birdman, while also sorting through 20 years of trauma caused by the abduction of his ten-year-old brother by a pedophile when Jack was eight. Caffery makes Inspector Morse look like the friendliest and most well-adjusted fictional English police officer in history. 

Mo Hayder works the horror side of the street in this novel. The criminals Caffery tracks this time around are pedophiles, some believed to be involved with his brother's disappearance and one or more involved with a case he's working on now. A family in a working-class area of Brixton was imprisoned in their home for three days while terrible things happened. The son is missing as the novel begins, while the father is in a coma in the hospital and the mother knows nothing relevant, having been imprisoned inside an upstairs closet the whole time while mysterious things happened downstairs. And Caffery's almost certain that another family may already be prisoners in their own home.

The procedural aspects of the novel are very well-done, from hunches to lab work to the sort of tiny mistakes that can have major repercussions. Caffery's personal trauma makes him a darkly sympathetic figure, especially as his brother's disappearance seems more and more to have something to do with the present-day case. Most of the supporting characters are nicely drawn, from the horrible and damaged female pedophile/victim Tracey Lamb to Caffery's partner, the almost Falstaffian lesbian DCI Danni Souness.

Caffery's girlfriend Rebecca, a modern artist and rape survivor whom Caffery met in the previous novel, is a bit more of a problem. She's certainly wacky, tortured, and interesting. But Caffery and Rebecca's relationship problems draw the reader away from the twisty coils of the main plot and its interconnectedness with Caffery's own past. I ended up skimming some of the later sections dealing with Rebecca. Bad me.

Hayder does have a totalizing tendency to link everything together in this novel. It's understandable, though perhaps a bit too glib simply in a plotting sense. The interconnectness is justified by Caffery's thoughts early on about pedophiles being like some sort of malign slime mold, all part of an enormous organism. But it's still a bit too pat.

As noted, the novel in its entirety shades towards horror in its graphic depictions (and less graphic suggestiveness) of terrible human evil. There are moments that suggest some sort of supernatural connection between Caffery and his lost brother, though these can be explained away. The central antagonist, known in popular lore as a troll who haunts the regional park, is one hell of a creation. And the novel plays fair with its revelations and plot mechanisms. Recommended.

Ritual (Jack Caffery #3) by Moe Hayder (2008): Mo Hayder notes in the afterword to this novel that she had no intention of telling any more stories about tortured English DI Jack Caffery. But return she would eventually. This time around we've got a second lead (police diver Phoebe 'Flea' Marley)  and a new location (Jack's moved to the Glastonbury area, having grown tired of London). 

But the horror elements remain in this police procedural, as Jack and Flea track down whoever it was that dropped a human hand into the harbour. Then another hand turns up. They're from the same person, they're fresh, and both were severed while the victim was alive.

Jack's a little less tortured by his long-lost brother's disappearance this time around, though not by much. Flea has been tortured for two years by the deaths of her parents on a deep-diving trip in Africa, their bodies never recovered from 'Bushman's Hole' in the Kalahari. She also feels guilt that she and not her brother should have been on the dive. The brother survived, unable to stop his parents' sudden plunge into the abysmal depths; Flea believes she could have done something, despite the fact that all deep-diving protocols suggest that had she done so, she would have died too.

So the two work the case, initially separately and, in Flea's case, unofficially. Evidence begins to accumulate that the homeless and the drug-addicted are being harvested for body parts and blood, part of some mysterious underground traffic in the more disturbing elements of religions from specific parts of Africa. Some witnesses report seeing what looks like a demonic South African familiar. And something that Caffery never quite gets a glimpse of is following the detective.

Ritual is quite sensitive to issues of acculturation and cultural appropriation when it comes to Africa -- as one academic says to Jack near the end of the novel, Caffery needs to realize that the term "African black magic" is a demeaning simplification that doesn't take into account the great number of different religions and cults on that vast continent.

Ritual plays fair with its information, though it posits connections among every character in the novel that stretch credibility by the end to just about the breaking point. Flea Marley is nicely drawn, with her own problems, though her growing infatuation with Caffery may soon become an even bigger problem. Hayder pares down Caffery's personal life -- he's left the girlfriend of the previous novel and now frequents prostitutes rather than get emotionally involved with other human beings. But he also begins to forge an initially curious relationship with a homeless wanderer dubbed The Walking Man, a relationship that's perhaps too gimmicky by half but nonetheless fascinating. Recommended.