Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (2015)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015) by Stephen King, containing the following short stories:

Mile 81  (2011): Jaunty, fairly basic horror collaboration between the King of 2011 and the college student King of the late 1960's. Kids, cars, and a monster.

Premium Harmony  (2009): Rueful, comic slice of life.

Batman and Robin Have an Altercation  (2012): Rueful, comic slice of life.

The Dune  (2011): Minor dark fantasy piece... with a twist!

Bad Little Kid (2015 first English publication here): Great horror story is also quintessential King in the way it puts an almost homey, American 'pop' spin on a long-standing horror trope while also making a completely innocuous object into a source of gradually earned terror.

A Death  (2015): Mildly ironic bit of Old West existentialism.

The Bone Church  (2009): Interesting, not entirely successful poem.

Morality  (2009): King's much creepier take on the premise of something like Indecent Proposal.      
Afterlife  (2013) : There's a sinister underlier to this post-mortem fantasy that makes it work. More in the vein of Charles Beaumont than Ray Bradbury.

Ur  (2009): A good modern riff on an old fantasy chestnut gets derailed about 2/3's of the way through by the introduction of another chestnut that makes the whole thing seem like King's 11/22/63 writ very small. 

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive  (2011): Another slice of life with a horrifying conclusion.

Under the Weather  (2011): Return of the Unreliable Narrator.

Blockade Billy  (2010): King's 1950's novella about baseball and madness is a mostly understated gem.

Mister Yummy (2015 first publication here): One of those later King stories that seems as if it should be about half as long. An interesting idea drags on and on.

Tommy  (2010): Another interesting, not entirely successful poem, this time meditating on the 1960's and loss.

The Little Green God of Agony  (2011): Supernatural 'gotcha' story ends several paragraphs too early for me.

That Bus is Another World  (2014): It's the set-up to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novel 4:50 from Paddington...on a bus! But without an ending!

Obits (2015 first publication here): Interesting, overlong horror-fantasy sort of trickles out at the end.

Drunken Fireworks (2015): Intermittently funny piece seems like a sort of Stephen Leacock Mariposa piece for a much more scatological millennium.

Summer Thunder (2013) : Rueful, dire end-of-the-world story seems like a much lesser book-end to King's 1974 gem "Night Surf" -- and the book-ending includes the use of men in their sixties in this story as opposed to the teenagers of "Night Surf." Will the circle remain unbroken?

Overall grade: Recommended. It's not up to the quality of King's first two collections (Night Shift and Skeleton Crew and very few horror collections by anyone are), though it may almost be as good as Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and seems to me to be superior to Everything's Eventual and far, far superior to King's previous short-story collection, the mostly skippable Just After Sunset

The best story (and best horror story King's written in a very long time) is "Bad Little Kid," which is a deft and very much quintessentially Kingian reimagining of a horror trope that's been seen in such all-time classics as Sheridan Le Fanu's "Green Tea" and "The Familiar" or M.R. James "Casting the Runes" and "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," among so many others.

I suppose the difference between the King of 1975 and 2015 could be explained thusly: had he written "Bad Little Kid" in 1975, it could still have been a great horror story. However, it would have been half the length. And odds are that a relatively stereotypical supernatural ritual might have been tried by a character or characters to deal with the supernatural menace. Instead, there's a sorrowful, almost elegaic tone to the story as something terrible torments somebody again and again over the years. It's a terrific, terrific story: the old man can still bring it.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

The Mothman Prophecies: adapted from the novel by John Keel by Richard Hatem; directed by Mark Pellington; starring Richard Gere (John Klein), Debra Messing (Mary Klein), Will Patton (Gordon Smallwood), and Laura Linney (Connie Mills) (2002): I suppose there's an alternate universe out there in which Mark Pellington has been an acclaimed director of horror and suspense films for the past two decades. Here, he seems to have poured much of his energy into TV production after The Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002. More's the pity.

When the publisher of the mid-1970's 'true-life' book you've based your movie on classifies that book as a novel (as Tor did John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies), you might as well run with it. I suppose if this movie were advocating the dangerous practice of exorcism while purporting to be a true story, I'd find it repugnant. 

As it instead generates a cosmic thrill-ride that ultimately comes out against pseudoscience and occultism, and as it's extremely well-made and well-acted -- well, I think The Mothman Prophecies is just swell. Pellington's games with visual and audio distortion give the film the unnerving quality of cosmic horror. The script's intentional vagueness about just what the hell is going on also helps.

Basically, back in the 1960's, a bridge collapsed in a small town in West Virginia, killing 46 people. There had been a Mothman craze in the town, fueled by a character on the Batman TV show and by our old friend, the barn owl, which has been linked to erroneous reports of aliens and monsters ever since people invented artificial lighting and started walking and driving around at night.

Nearly 10 years after the bridge collapse came the publication of John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies, a surprisingly boring mix of facts, speculation, and loopy metaphysics. More than 25 years after that came this movie, which pretty much invents all its characters and moves the bridge collapse 30 years forward in time while oddly reducing the death toll by 10.

But while the 'true facts' of the case are a lot of Hoo-Ha, Pellington's movie is smart and ambiguous and clever on both the narrative and visual fronts. Richard Gere's perennial insularity as an actor serves the movie well, as his character is an obsessive emotional cipher following the death of his wife. The rest of the cast is also fine, with Laura Linney and Will Patton keeping things low-key. Even Alan Bates underplays the role of John Leek, a stand-in for writer John Keel. With Gere as John Klein, that's two author stand-ins for the price of one! Recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spider Baby (1967)

Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (a.k.a The Liver Eaters; a.k.a. Cannibal Feast): written and directed by Jack Hill; starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Bruno), Carol Ohmart (Emily), Quinn Redeker (Peter), Beverly Washburn (Elizabeth), Jill Banner (Virginia), Sid Haig (Ralph), Mary MItchell (Ann), and Karl Schanzer (Schlocker) (1967): The Merrye family has a problem: as they age, they gradually turn into cannibals. Then they turn into bipedal spiders. Then they turn into spiders. Yikes.

Made for the grand total of $65,000 in 1964 and unreleased until 1967, Spider Baby is a weirdly awesome piece of schlock cinema. It plays for the most part like a bleak horror comedy. The producers, perhaps not entirely sure of what to do with their movie, placed a jokey credit sequence at the beginning, complete with star Lon Chaney Jr. singing a title song in the vein of "Monster Mash."

Oh, Lon Chaney Jr.. He's a tribute to the working actor here, gamely playing the Merrye family's caretaker/butler/chauffeur with a sort of wounded, lunatic comic sympathy. He got all of $2500 for the role and earned every bit of it.

The actors playing 'normal' people are all pretty terrible, though that may be a matter of direction. The Addams Family-style farce they seem to be acting in doesn't seem to synchronize at all with the bleaker, blacker comedy of the merry mutating Merryes. Besides faithful Bruno, there are Virginia and Elizabeth, homicidal sisters, and Ralph, simple-minded devourer of cats. 

The production's cheapness and crudity serve it in good stead, though. There's a perverted sense of authenticity to the movie, along with moments of horror and revulsion. There's no graphic violence to speak of, but what's implied is generally more than enough. 

Whether or not later film-makers were actually influenced by the movie may be irrelevant -- though I"d certainly believe that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shares more than a few DNA strands with Spider Baby. It's an authentic, primitive American horror original. Casual racism and what may or may not be a rape scene will almost certainly offend some people. Nonetheless, Spider Baby is a weird little masterpiece when taken on its own terms. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991/This edition 2015) by Thomas Ligotti

Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991/This edition 2015) by Thomas Ligotti, containing the following stories:

  • Introduction: Grimscribe: His Lives and Works (1991): Janus-like, the introduction peers toward pomposity and parody.
  • "The Last Feast of Harlequin" (1990): Almost certainly Ligotti's most-reprinted work, a novella that is both somewhat obliquely an homage to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Festival" and its very own thing, a striking, funny, droll, disturbing journey through a small town and its mysterious festival and the narrator who gets pulled into stranger and stranger situations as he investigates the town for anthropological reasons. Ligotti takes a number of horror tropes and makes them seem new and horrible again through the sheer force and inventiveness of his imagination and his narrative POV. One of the all-time great stories of cosmic horror, and perhaps Ligotti's most accessible major work.
  • "The Spectacles in the Drawer"  (1987): Quintessential Ligotti in its combination of reality-busting and extraordinarily idiosyncratic characters.
  • "Flowers of the Abyss" (1991): Another tale of a polluted reality and its peculiar attraction for people who should probably know better.
  • "Nethescurial" (1991): Another oft-reprinted piece of Ligotti's Major Arcana. Vaguely Lovecraftian in tone and content, but distinctly a working-through of these things from Ligotti's assured, unique perspective. Puppet alert.
  • "The Dreaming in Nortown" (1991): Reality breaks down in disturbing ways, all narrated by Ligotti's most Poe-esque protagonist.
  • "The Mystics of Muelenburg"  (1987): Oblique, bleak reality-bender.
  • "In the Shadow of Another World" (1991): Very strange and distinctive tale takes the haunted-house story and utterly scrambles it.
  • "The Cocoons" (1991): Very, very horrific piece of absurdism, or at least near-absurdism. One of Ligotti's stories that disturbs without offering anything in the way of an attempt to frame things within a rational explanation.
  • "The Night School" (1991): Worst night class ever.
  • "The Glamour" (1991): A trip to a movie becomes a nightmarish, inexplicable tour of some peculiar, horrible sights and sounds. One of Ligotti's stories that leaves one shaken without any real way to parse what has happened in the story.
  • "The Library of Byzantium" (1988): Sinister drawings, sinister priests, a sinister book, and a surprisingly traditional use of holy water.
  • "Miss Plarr" (1991): Nothing really terrible happens in this tale of a boy and his nanny, yet the story defies simple explanation while it constructs a world that alternates between claustrophobic interior spaces and fog-erased exterior spaces.
  • "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" (1990): One of Ligotti's more straightforward stories in terms of its construction of what Evil is and what position it occupies in the universe. Another horror trope (the scary scarecrow) becomes revitalized by Ligotti's imagination. 

In all: a great collection of Ligotti's late 1980's and early 1990's work with all its cosmic, absurdist, horrific, comic, infernal devices. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Klarkash-Ton Cycle: Clark Ashton Smith's Cthulhu Mythos Fiction: edited and with notes by Robert M. Price (Collected 2008)

The Klarkash-Ton Cycle: Clark Ashton Smith's Cthulhu Mythos Fiction: edited and with notes by Robert M. Price (Collected 2008):

Chaosium reprints the Cthulhu Mythos-related short stories of Clark Ashton Smith in three volumes, with this being the one containing stories that aren't set in the distant past when the Book of Eibon was being composed nor those Smith stories that focus on his quasi-tricksterish god Tsathoggua.

Despite the availability of Smith's work in multiple editions, this text is valuable because it reprints several variant versions of Smith's stories that aren't available that easily, along with a long story fragment -- "The Infernal Star" -- that is otherwise out of print.

'Klarkash-Ton' was the nickname H.P. Lovecraft gave Smith in their correspondence in the 1930's. The stories range from straightforward horror to science fiction to science-fiction horror, while Smith's prose style ranges from the relatively plain to the poetically baroque, almost arcane diction that one really either loves or hates. I love it, in part because there's clearly a sense of humour at work behind the occasionally loopy word choices.

One caveat: the stories have been proofread and copy-edited with mind-boggling ineptitude. You may want to grab a pen and correct all the errors for the next person who reads the collection. Think of it as a fun game!

  • "The Ghoul" (1934): Smith's ghoul isn't as idiosyncratic as Lovecraft's ghouls, though it sure loves to eat dead people. 
  • "A Rendering from the Arabic" (Variant of "The Return of the Sorcerer" [1931]): Slightly different version of the oft-reprinted "The Return of the Sorcerer." Lovecraftian references abound in a story about the walking, shuffling dead.
  • "The Hunters from Beyond" (1932): One of those Smith stories that plays with his own multi-talented career as a painter and sculptor as well as a writer of prose and poetry. It does seem a bit derivative of both HPL's "Pickman's Model" and Frank Belknap Long's "The Hounds of Tindalos."
  • "The Vaults of Abomi" (Variant of "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" [1932/1989]): A few hundred words flesh out the beginning of one of Smith's two or three finest works of science-fictional horror, set on his version of Mars and possessed of imagery and situations that anticipate such later horrors as Alien, The Thing, and The Puppet Masters.
  • "The Nameless Offspring" (1932): Well, we get the offstage rape of a woman in a coma by a ghoul, followed by the resultant offspring. One of Smith's most obliquely disturbing works.
  • "Ubbo-Sathla (1933)": Much-reprinted reincarnational horror story.
  • "The Werewolf of Averoigne"  (Variant of "The Beast of Averoigne") [1931/1984]): The variant is superior to the standard version, preserving as it does Smith's original multi-viewpoint epistolary format.
  • "The Eidolon of the Blind" (Variant of "The Dweller in the Gulf" [1933]): Another creepy science-fiction horror story set on Smith's version of Mars, which makes most other early 20th-century writers' versions of Mars seem like a goddam Disneyworld.
  • "Vulthoom" (1935): Another Mars story, much lighter on horror and, as Price comments in the notes, not that different from many other contemporary interplanetary stories involving humans and decadent, Orientalist civilizations.
  • "The Treader of the Dust" (1935): Excellent, concise horror story with a strikingly creepy evil god or demigod or whatever you want to call it.
  • "The Infernal Star" (Fragment) (1935/1989): Fascinating, long fragment of what was to be a novella-length dark fantasy involving reincarnation, atomic 'memory,' and a Sun made, basically, of Evil.

In all: highly recommended, though I do wish for an edition with better copy editing.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lovecraft Unbound: 20 Stories (2008): edited by Ellen Datlow.

Lovecraft Unbound: 20 Stories (2008): edited by Ellen Datlow.

I think this anthology, which consists of 16 new stories and 4 reprints, is the award-winning, veteran editor Datlow's finest anthology. It's not all killer, but there is no filler. Many of the stories that first appeared in this anthology have already been anthologized several more times since Lovecraft Unbound appeared in 2008. Highly recommended overall.

  • "The Crevasse" by Nathan Ballingrud and Dale Bailey: Antarctic setting recalls HPL's At the Mountains of Madness, but this effective and low-key (in a supernatural sense) story also riffs on "Who Goes There?," the basis for The Thing movies.
  • "The Office of Doom" by Richard Bowes: Never order the Necronomicon on an Inter-Library Loan. Just don't.
  • "Sincerely, Petrified" by Anna Tambour: Elliptical tale of fictional myths attached to... The Petrified Forest? Yes. Unusual and very enjoyable.
  • "The Din of Celestial Birds" (1997) by Brian Evenson: Interesting but a bit too murky for my tastes.
  • "The Tenderness of Jackals" by Amanda Downum: Writers really get entranced by the idea of making HPL's ghouls into a fully realized society. Not a bad story, but crippled by those tricky ghouls, who have frustrated many a writer.
  • "Sight Unseen" by Joel Lane: Moody, low-key riff on HPL's "The Shadow Out of Time."
  • "Cold Water Survival" by Holly Phillips: Very science fictiony and of-the-moment as Global Warming releases monsters. Nebulous, Swiss-Army-Knife monsters when it comes to their skill-sets, which are too vast and ill-defined to allow me to suspend disbelief beyond page 3.
  • "Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love" by William Browning Spencer: Another entry in Spencer's often serio-comic explorations of Lovecraftian themes and variations as seen in the terrific novels Resume with Monsters and Irrational Fears.
  • "Houses Under the Sea" (2006) by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A solid mix of first-person narration and pseudo-documentary collage dissipates with the big reveal, which is amazingly underwhelming.
  • "Machines of Concrete Light and Dark" by Michael Cisco: Creepy bit of philosophical horror; slight but solid.
  • "Leng" by Marc Laidlaw: Skirts the very edge of parody in its visit to Lovecraft's famous, infamous Plateau of Leng, which is not a place you want to visit. Hold the mushrooms.
  • "In the Black Mill" (1997) by Michael Chabon: Chabon's story hammers on obvious parody during its first half, which is rife with winky, coy,  obvious shout-outs to various Lovecraftian names and places (a woman named Brown-Jenkin? Really?). The spell of HPL seems to overcome Chabon in the second half, as the story suddenly plays everything straight -- but the parody undoes any ability to take the story seriously while also being obvious and awfully thudding in its humour.
  • "One Day, Soon" by Lavie Tidhar: Oblique, mysterious bit of cosmic horror involving a forbidden book.
  • "Commencement" (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates: Deceptively light-hearted narration darkens throughout in a story that feels an awful lot like Oates doing a riff on Thomas Ligotti, who does this particular sort of thing better.
  • "Vernon, Driving" by Simon Kurt Unsworth: Relationship horror with a sorrowful cosmic twist.
  • "The Recruiter" by Michael Shea: Light black comedy with serious undertones ties in to several other Shea stories involving Lovecraftian beings.
  • "Marya Nox" by Gemma Files: Files nails the documentary aspect of Lovecraftian horror while offering an interesting geopolitical setting for a tale of a buried church that should have remained buried.
  • "Mongoose" by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette: Unusual space opera plays with Lovecraftian names while being tonally and thematically so far from HPL that the story (one of a series) could probably do without its space-traevling Arkhamites and reconfigured Hounds of Tindalos (now complete with Linnaean taxonomy -- Pseudocanis tindalosi).
  • "Catch Hell" by Laird Barron: Oddly, one of Barron's least cosmic, least Lovecraftian stories. Good for Barron would be great for almost anyone else.
  • "That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable" by Nick Mamatas: Low-key, purposefully mundane slice-of-life from the days after the Great Old Ones rose to destroy humanity and reclaim Earth. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: written by Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Richard Dreyfus (Roy Neary), Francois Truffaut (Lacombe), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (Laughlin), and Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary( (1977): It's amazing how much Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays like a horror movie for much of its length -- indeed, like an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu." The film moves from location to location to show various strange events and mysteries that occur across the planet. There's a documentary feel to the location work and the narrative structure, as mysterious U.N. investigators led by Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban travel the Earth to investigate UFO-related incidents. 

In the purposefully mundane domestic sequences that focus on dissatisfied husband and father Richard Dreyfus and single mother Melinda Dillon, we see Spielberg and uncredited screenwriter Paul Schrader ground the movie in the day-to-day life of working-class Americans. And then the UFO's show up and gradually change everything. And as with many of the characters in "The Call of Cthulhu," Dillon and Dreyfus are tormented by nightmares and visions as the alien arrival on Earth approaches.

I don't know that either Schrader or Spielberg ever read "The Call of Cthulhu." It has such a sturdy narrative approach to the creation of globe-spanning cosmic horror that it's more of a surprise that more film-makers haven't stumbled upon the approach before. The main difference here being that the story is ultimately about the arrival on Earth of friendly aliens and not all-conquering alien monsters. But the aliens do enough odd things along the way that a certain measure of fear recurs throughout the movie, most notably when aliens kidnap Dillon's young son for reasons that are as murky as anything else when it comes to possible alien motivation.

The arrival of the UFO's at the conclusion of the film stands as a high point of practical, non-CGI visual effects. It's a showcase of model work, cloud tanks, mattes, and an assortment of other 'tricks' honed to near-perfection during the non-CGI years. It's also a beautiful-looking climax, with its glowing alien spacecraft set off against the night sky and the looming stump of the mountainous Devil's Tower.

The Lovecraftian melding of documentary-style attention to detail and the unfolding of revelations to increasingly weirded-out protagonists serve Spielberg's vision well. The acting is solid throughout and, in the case of Truffaut's visionary, quite charming. What the aliens are doing doesn't necessarily make much sense, and there are some groaners in the dialogue towards the end (an exchange about Einstein is especially dumb). But overall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still a splendid movie, and one that probably would never be made in today's marketplace. Highly recommended.

The Call of Cthulhu: adapted by Sean Branney from the story by H.P. Lovecraft; directed by Andrew Leman; starring Matt Foyer (Narrator), Ralph Lucas (Professor Angell), Patrick O'Day (Johansen), and David Mersault (Inspector Legrasse) (2005): The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS)'s first long-form foray into film-making is now 10 years old and still dandy. An amateur film made for a pittance, it outshines most professional horror movies with far larger budgets both in its faithfulness to its source material and in its aesthetic pleasures.

Lovecraft's seminal Cthulhu Mythos novella saw publication in 1926. HPLHS adapted the novella under the conceit that it had been adapted for film in its publication year. Thus, The Call of Cthulhu is a silent movie that looks and acts like a silent movie, right down to the occasional defects in the viewing experience (dig that hair on the lens in the early going!). 

We do get an excellent musical score, so one can either assume that one is in a 1926 film theatre with live music or that The Call of Cthulhu has had a score added for its 'modern' release. Whatever suspends your disbelief. But The Call of Cthulhu isn't simply an homage to the film-making tropes of the late Silent Era: it's a compelling horror movie in its own right. 

Clever visual riffs on Van Gogh and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seem appropriate to the subject matter; the stop-motion Cthulhu we see towards the end of the film is a terrific use of period-appropriate visual effects that actually manages to be disquieting as it lurches across the screen. Model and prop work are also beautiful throughout the movie, with a couple of different yet equally disquieting Cthulhu idols and a terrific approximation of Cthulhu's home/prison R'lyeh, risen from the waves for a brief moment.

It's a worthwhile expenditure of an hour to watch The Call of Cthulhu. Would that big-budget horror and fantasy movies showed this level of skill and artistry. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Songs of a Dead Dreamer (With these contents 2010) by Thomas Ligotti

Songs of a Dead Dreamer (With these contents 2010) by Thomas Ligotti, in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (2015). Introduction by Jeff VanderMeer; containing the following stories:

The Frolic • (1982)
Les Fleurs • (1981)
Alice's Last Adventure • (1985)
Dream of a Manikin • (1982)
The Nyctalops Trilogy, consisting of The Chymist • (1981), Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes • (1982), and Eye of the Lynx • (1983)
Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story • (1985)
The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise: A Tale of Possession in Old Grosse Pointe • (1983)
The Lost Art of Twilight • (1986)
The Troubles of Dr. Thoss • (1985)
Masquerade of a Dead Sword: A Tragedie • (1986
Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech • (1983)
Professor Nobody's Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror • (1985)
Dr. Locrian's Asylum • (1987)
The Sect of the Idiot • (1988)
The Greater Festival of Masks • (1985)
The Music of the Moon • (1987)
The Journal of J.P. Drapeau • (1987)
Vastarien • (1987) 

Songs of a Dead Dreamer first appeared in 1985 as Thomas Ligotti's first short-story collection. Its contents changed in different editions over the years. In this Penguin 'Double,' paired with Grimscribe, his second collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer uses the same contents as the 2010 Subterranean Press edition.

Ligotti is a relatively unknown quantity outside horror fiction -- his biggest career exposure came as people on-line debated whether or not he'd been plagiarized in the first season of True Detective to supply Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle with all his best lines.

Prior to that, Ligotti was a mysterious figure. After that, he was also a mysterious figure. His reclusiveness isn't at the level of Pynchon or Salinger, but it's still remarkable in today's media-saturated age. His stories and essays tell the story. He doesn't write novels, though he has written one fairly long novella (My Work is Not Yet Done). He's certainly not for everybody, but then again, what writer is?

Ligotti's literary universe, already distinctly Ligottian early in his career, resembles something assembled in a laboratory from pieces of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges. Then someone threw in an obsession with puppets, mannequins, and marionettes. Then someone set Phasers to Nihilism and roasted everything for about an hour. And that doesn't really describe his corpus all that well. He's got a more noticeable sense of humour than the four named authors, for one. Poe occasionally had a similar sense of humour in his blackly comic stories, but he didn't tend to exhibit that sense of humour in his horror stories. Ligotti often does.

But while there will always be attempts to classify Ligotti as Weird (including one by Weird spokesman Jeff VanderMeer in his clumsy, vague introduction to this Penguin volume), he's horror all the way down. His narrative structure and voice sometimes seem more Absurdist than horrific, but next to Ligotti, Kafka and other absurdists look like Pollyannas. 

There are no happy endings in these stories. There aren't even any points where one can imagine that anyone, anywhere is happy, or fulfilled, or anything other than Totally Damned except when that person is fulfilled by doing terrible things to other people. The biggest positive moral triumph in any of these stories comes when a mind-blasted person manages to kill himself, leaving a "victorious corpse" as a rebuke to his nemesis, a nemesis which is in actuality the personification of the Universe as a malign chaos at eternal play with everything that composes its body. That's a happy ending. 

For all that nihilism, the stories are exhilarating, witty, unique, intellectually challenging, aesthetically pleasing, and often bleakly hilarious. Ligotti riffs on predecessors such as H.P. Lovecraft and genre tropes such as vampirism at certain points ("The Cult of the Idiot" posits a cult devoted to Lovecraft's burbling, bubbling, atomic chaos of an idiot god Azathoth; "Alice's Last Adventure" bounces Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl and several other writers off some very hard and unforgiving walls; "The Lost Art of Twilight" makes vampires both horrible and absurd). 

Throughout, Ligotti offers short stories with enough Big Ideas to support entire novels. Ligotti may not write novels, but he certainly doesn't write miniatures. Stories such as "Vastarien" and "Les Fleurs" supply massive mythologies in Fun-Size form. And "The Frolic" presents one of the most annoying and tired of modern horror tropes, the antic and seemingly omniscient serial killer, in such a fresh and sinister way that in other hands it would have supported a trilogy. 

"The Frolic" is the first story in the collection and it's a killer -- a serial killer who makes Hannibal Lecter and his ilk look like the tired pop contrivances that they are and a horror mostly implied that clutches the heart. "The Frolic" also showcases a relative rarity for Ligotti as 'normal' suburban characters are set off against the horror of the world. It could almost be a Charles Beaumont or T.E.D. Klein story except for the bleak, nihilistic cosmic vistas described by the serial killer. 

Songs of a Dead Dreamer is an extraordinary collection, one that does indeed make one nervous about the realities of, well, reality. If your perfect model of horror runs to Stephen King (or John Saul, gods help you), then one should probably avoid this collection -- or buy it and shake yourself up. To lift Buzz Aldrin's phrase about the Moon, this is Magnificent Desolation. But Jesus, does Ligotti love puppets. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sphere (1998)

Sphere: adapted from the Michael Crichton novel by Kurt Wimmer, Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio; directed by Barry Levinson; starring Dustin Hoffman (Dr. Norman Goodman), Sharon Stone (Dr. Beth Halperin), Samuel L. Jackson (Dr. Harry Adams), Peter Coyote (Captain Baines), Liev Schreiber (Dr. Fielding), and Queen Latifah (Fletcher) (1998): A fairly famous mess in 1998 and still something of a mess now. But separated from tales of budget over-runs and what Dustin Hoffman correctly noted was a movie that needed a lot more re-writing and editing before release, Sphere just seems like a dud now and not an indictment of studio interference. 

The U.S. military discovers a mysterious spacecraft 1000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Guam. Inside that spaceship is a giant glowy sphere that seems to be made out of liquid mercury but really isn't. A team is sent to investigate. Dustin Hoffman, at the conclusion of his brief flirtation with the big paychecks of Event Movies, plays a psychologist who has been chosen to lead the civilian portion of the team because he wrote a paper on First Contact procedures for the first Bush administration. The two other big names in the cast, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, play a biologist and a mathematician respectively. The lesser names in the cast play Cannon Fodder 1-4. 

Barry Levinson's direction gets as much tension out of some of the exterior underwater scenes as it can, generating a real sense of panic in a couple of sequences as strange marine lifeforms menace our intrepid but whiny team. Sphere's fatal flaw is a scrambled, creaky script that results in scenes that are under-explained and long stretches of gratingly repetitive dialogue that even a solid cast can't make interesting. Even the threat, once revealed, doesn't make as much sense as the film-makers and the characters seem to think it does. 

The movie is also rife with stupidities that exist solely to create plot tension (Hey, let's park the emergency escape sub a five-minute swim from the base, and while we're at it, let's not give the team any powered underwater craft to move between the base and the sub or the base and the spaceship!). There's also a truly incredible late howler involving the decoding of an alien message that I'm pretty sure a smart four-year old would catch. Not anyone involved with this movie, though!

There is one great twist early in the movie. Unfortunately, once we're past that twist, Sphere's fairly amazing similarity to a pair of Star Trek episodes* -- one from the original series and one from the Next Generation -- becomes more and more noticeable. Only much slower, stupider, and more boring and punctuated again and again with frustrating, repetitive scenes of people talking around and around in circles. Sphere could have been interesting, a fresh riff on movies like Alien and The Thing with a high-level cast and a major director. Instead it's a botch, though you may find yourself watching to the end just to see how big a botch it is. Not recommended.

* Spoiler alert: Sphere mashes together TOS's "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and TNG's "Where No One Has Gone Before." I kid you not.

The General: written by Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Al Boasberg, Charles Smith, Paul Smith, and William Pittenger; directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton; starring Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray) and Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee) (1926): Buster Keaton's big-budget Civil War comedy astonishes in part because pretty much everything on-screen involving trains actually had to be filmed live. The timing of the various stunts and comic bits is impeccable, and the direction superb. 

Keaton was the most gifted comic director of his time, a much more innovative figure than Chaplin in that regard. The sting of cheering for the Confederacy has been muted by Keaton in a number of ways, most notably by his complete omission of African-Americans from the screen. It's a comic triumph that will nonetheless infuriate some people for its glib view of the South. There are also some odd bits in which soldiers for both the Union and the Confederacy being shot to death get played for laughs. Highly recommended.