Friday, December 23, 2016

True and Fake and On the Take

For All Mankind (1989): directed by Al Reinert: Extraordinary documentary selects from 7 million feet of footage from the Apollo missions to create a composite journey to and from the Moon. Beautiful, haunting, and often very funny. Really a must-see for anyone who's interested in space exploration. Kudos to Al Reinert for discovering this footage and putting it together -- it was just sitting around in a NASA storage compartment for two decades! Highly recommended.

Doom (2005): based on the game from iD software; written by David Callaham and Wesley Strick; directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak; starring Karl Urban (John Grimm), Rosamund Pike (Sam Grimm), and Dwayne Johnson (Sarge): Joyless slog hamstrung by the fact that it adapts the joyless slog of a videogame that was the Doom reboot of the early oughts rather than the awesome original Doom with its colourful demons. 

This is basically a dumb, boring zombie movie that lifts large sections of its plot and backstory from John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. Karl Urban, Dwayne Johnson, and Rosamund Pike are utterly wasted. Visual effects thrills are few and far between, as much of the movie takes place in the dark and the monsters aren't very interesting. Mancubus, come back! Not recommended.

The Wedding Singer (1998): written by Tim Herlihy; directed by Frank Coraci; starring Adam Sandler (Robbie Hart), Drew Barrymore (Julia Sullivan), Christine Taylor (Holly Sullivan), and Matthew Glave (Glenn Guglia): Adam Sandler at the height of his erratic powers, Drew Barrymore at the height of her pert cuteness. In terms of enjoyable movies, this was the moment of Peak Sandler: what came after would be increasingly dire and regrettable. Recommended.

Eddie the Eagle (2016): vaguely based on a true story; written by Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay; starring Taron Egerton (Eddie Edwards), Hugh Jackman (Bronson Peary), and Christopher Walken (Warren Sharp): Feel-good movie very loosely based on English ski-jumper Eddie Edwards' improbable time at the Calgary Winter Games of 1988, when he jumped terribly while becoming a media sensation. Taron Egerton is charming as Edwards, while Hugh Jackman plays Edwards' (fictional) mentor as a slightly loopier Wolverine. Certainly an adequate time-filler when you need to turn your brain off for a couple of hours. Recommended.

Hail, Caesar! (2016): written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Tilda Swinton (Thora and Thessaly Thacker), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), and Jonah Hill (Joe Silverman): The Coens create something that's an odd combination of black comedy and nostalgic fun-fest, complete with big, Old Hollywood show-stopping dance and swim numbers. 

The movie makes a lot of sense if you view it as the warped Hollywood dream of protagonist Josh Brolin, who plays a 'fixer' for a fictional Hollywood studio during the 1950's. Part of the cue to seeing the movie as its own type of warped Hollywood version of reality is that the film takes its title from the film within the film, a big-budget slice of ham that looks an awful lot like Ben Hur

All the actors bring their A-games for the Coens. Brolin is terrific, Clooney is hilariously dumb and baffled, Channing Tatum dances, and Scarlett Johansson swims. Soon-to-be young Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich charms as a B-list cowboy star elevated to A-list, 'prestige picture' status. Look close for Christopher Lambert as a director and Frances McDormand as a chain-smoking film editor. One of a handful of 2016's cleverest, bleakest, most joyful movies. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Fall Guy for Murder: The Comics Horror and Noir of Johnny Craig

Fall Guy for Murder and Other Stories: Illustrated by Johnny Craig (The Fantagraphics EC Artists' Library Volume 5: 1951-53/ Collected 2013): edited by Gary Groth and Michael Catron; written by Johnny Craig, Ray Bradbury, Al Feldstein, and William M. Gaines; illustrated by Johnny Craig; essays by Bill Mason, S.C. Ringgenberg, and Ted White:

Johnny Craig was the artistic king of noir and the hard-boiled at EC Comics during that company's brief time of greatness in the early 1950's. His art was slick but evocative, and he could write his own stories as well as illustrate those of others. He was also notoriously slow as an artist, which makes his EC output a smaller body of work than contemporaries that include Wally Wood and Graham Ingels. But what work it was!

The Fantagraphics EC Artists' Library reprints its stories in black and white, which takes the gore quotient down a notch while allowing one to more clearly experience the art. The reader also gets helpful biographical and critical essays on Johnny Craig and the history of EC Comics.

Johnny Craig's most infamous EC cover
Highlights written and illustrated by Craig include "One Last Fling," about as loopy a vampire story as one could want. "Split Personality" offers a perverse story of dating and two-timing with a suitably bloody conclusion. "Silver Threads Among the Mold" has an extraordinarily goopy climax to end a sort-of Pygmalion-in-reverse story. 

"Touch and Go" adapts the Ray Bradbury story "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl" in memorable fashion, though it goes a bit too wordy at times (EC Comics were intensely, immensely, densely wordy). The last, eponymous piece, "Fall Guy for Murder," was written by EC Publisher Bill Gaines and EC mainstay Al Feldstein. It's a brilliant twisty, metafictional piece of work that represents one of the high points for EC. 

The selection of stories is solid throughout. The reader may groan at times at the sarcastic, punny narration that appeared perhaps a bit too much in the EC books. But the overall effect is sound, beautifully rendered work -- the sort of thing that can still work as Comic Books for People Who Don't Like Comic Books, without losing any appeal to People Who Like Comic Books.

Throughout Fall Guy for Murder and Other Stories, Craig gives his all on art and stories. He's a marvelously 'clean' artist, which makes the moments of graphic horror all the more menacing. Highly recommended for fans of good comics and noir.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dark Entries by Robert Aickman

Dark Entries (1964/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "The School Friend" (1964); "Ringing the Changes" (1955); "Choice of Weapons" (1964); "The Waiting Room" (1956); "The View" (1951); and "Bind Your Hair" (1964); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Ramsey Campbell: This is Faber and Faber's reissue of weird-fiction master Robert Aickman's first solo collection of short stories, novelettes, and novels. See also my parallel review of Aickman's The Unsettled Dust.

Aickman amazes insofar as it's very difficult to distinguish between stories written in 1950 and stories written in 1979: his style and subject matter emerge seemingly fully grown and developed. Obviously, they didn't really -- Aickman started publishing in his 30's, after years of work on his art.

For all the strange and disturbing mystery of Aickman's stories and the cool, detailed nature of his prose, Aickman nonetheless often took tired horror tropes and rendered them fresh and new by re-investing them with that unexplained mystery rendered so cleanly and clearly that one feels as if one has simply missed an explanation somewhere in the story: Aickman doesn't create mystery with obfuscations of prose style. You're watching a magic trick performed without smoke and without mirrors.

Take "Ringing the Changes." It's a zombie story. But what a zombie story! Or "The School Friend": is it a Jekyll and Hyde story? Sort of. "The Waiting Room" seems like a traditional ghost story until one gets to the ghosts, whose behaviour is both inert and cosmically threatening. "Bind your Hair" makes witchcraft scary and mysterious. 

These are great, mid-career stories from one of weird and horror fiction's prickly, mysterious greats. Highly recommended.

The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman

The Unsettled Dust (1990/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "Bind Your Hair" (1964); "No Stronger Than a Flower" (1966); "Ravissante" (1968); "The Cicerones" (1967); "The Houses of the Russians" (1968); "The Next Glade" (1980); "The Stains" (1980) [Winner, 1981 British Fantasy Award] ; and "The Unsettled Dust" (1968); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Graham and Heather Smith: 

The Unsettled Dust is a bit of a curiosity in Faber and Faber's recent four-volume reissue of Robert Aickman collections as The Unsettled Dust is a posthumous reprint collection that duplicates one story from both F&F's Dark Entries AND The Wine-Dark Sea reissues ("Bind Your Hair") and two more from just The Wine-Dark Sea ("The Stains" and "The Next Glade"). Given that the F&F volumes are now the only Robert Aickman short-story collections available in mass-market editions, little or no duplication among collections would be ideal.

Nonetheless, any in-print, readily available Aickman is good. He's the master of a fairly rarefied type of ghost story, one for which he preferred the term "strange story." His stories will enthrall a (relatively) small readership. Most of Aickman's stories are too subtle for most readers, leaving them unmoved and confused as to Aickman's importance. And that's fine. He's one of the Boss Levels of horror/weird fiction. 

Those who like him, like him a lot -- but not liking him doesn't make one a 'bad' reader. Indeed, Aickman's hypercritical views caused him to dislike or dismiss many stories and writers considered by many (including myself) to be classics and masters -- almost the entire oeuvre of M.R. James, much of Henry James, all of H.P. Lovecraft, to name three writers whom Aickman found seriously wanting. So if you find Robert Aickman seriously wanting, you're just following in the footsteps of... Robert Aickman.

The stories here are mostly excellent. The one misfire is "No Stronger Than a Flower," a strange story about female vanity that seems both dated and obnoxiously sexist. But that's more than offset by the strange and disturbing wonders of such stories as "The Cicerones." That story is almost a short model of the Aickman approach: the events of the story are rendered clearly and precisely, but no emphatic explanations are offered as to why things are happening. It's immensely disturbing. So, too, "The Stains," in which horror, romantic rapture, and erotic fixation combine in a story about a recently widowed man who falls in love with... well, that's a good question.

In all, this is probably the best Faber and Faber volume to introduce yourself or others to Aickman, covering as it does more than a decade of Aickman's best stories. And when you've read them, please explain to me what the Hell is actually going on in "The Stains." Or "The Cicerones." Highly recommended.

Friday, November 11, 2016


The late, great Canadian poet Alden Nowlan wrote my favourite war-remembrance poem, "Ypres 1915."

"Sometimes I’m not even sure that I have a country.
But I know that they stood there at Ypres 
the first time the Germans used gas, 
that they were almost the only troops 
in that section of the front 
who did not break and run, 
who held the line."

Monday, November 7, 2016

Vampires, Deserts, Forests, and Christmas

Dracula (1931): adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from the play by Garrett Fort adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Tod Browning; starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing): This stagey, bloodless Dracula was a big hit in 1931. It has the hallmarks of early sound film -- that super-heavy, static sound camera pretty much necessitated a nearly immobile, stagey shot. 

Bela Lugosi is great, especially in the first section set at Castle Dracula. Dwight Frye is a hoot as Renfield, the foundational figure for so many crazed characters to come in horror movies. Once the action moves to England, things become a bit tedious. And the censorship people ensure that Dracula dies off-screen with barely an "Argh!" to mark his passing. F.W. Murnau's bootleg Dracula, Nosferatu (1922), is a far superior work, as are many of the later adaptations. Still, Lugosi remains a bracing presence. Recommended.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998): adapted by Don Jakoby from the novel by John Steakley; directed by John Carpenter; starring James Woods (Jack Crow), Daniel Baldwin (Montoya), Sheryl Lee (Katrina), Thomas Ian Griffith (Valek), Tim Guinee (Father Guiteau), and Maximillian Schell (Cardinal Alba): One of John Carpenter's crappier offerings. Oh, sure, it has its moments. But it's crippled by a totally uninteresting vampire antagonist (Thomas Ian Griffith), sloppy writing, and the perplexing choice to have Daniel Baldwin play a character named 'Montoya,' complete with dyed-black hair to, I suppose, trick the audience into thinking Baldwin is Hispanic. The treatment of women is a bit... problematic, given that women in this movie are either prostitutes or vampires (or in Sheryl Lee's case, both).  I was entertained, but not a lot. Lightly recommended.

Krampus (2015): written by Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields, and Todd Casey; directed by Michael Dougherty; starring Adam Scott (Tom), Toni Collette (Sarah), David Koechner (Howard), Emjay Anthony (Max), and Conchata Ferrell (Aunt Dorothy): Michael Dougherty's ode to Gremlins isn't as good as Gremlins (which was also set at Christmas), which may be more an indictment of studio interference than anything else. Krampus, which visits the Germanic anti-Santa Claus on a small American town that has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, needs sharper editing in its first half, which seems to run on forever while we wait for Anti-Claus to show up.

Thankfully, Krampus and his twisted minions -- horrible snowmen, horrifying toys, homicidal gingerbread men, and a really nice looking evil Christmas-tree Angel -- do arrive to scare and stalk Adam Scott's family, who are too angry and fractious for The True Meaning of Christmas to take hold. There are some lovely effects both mechanical and CGI animating the various monsters, including Krampus itself. And there's a real sense of menace as things roll towards the end.

Depending on one's interpretation, Krampus either manages a treacly happy ending, a slightly menacing happy ending, or a refreshingly bleak ending in which not even a baby is safe from damnation. Seriously. At 100 minutes, Krampus feels about 15 minutes too long and two sugar packets too sweet for some stretches. But I still enjoyed it. I also enjoyed that it offers an odd commentary on this year's U.S. election: Republican or Democrat, Krampus is taking none of your self-serving bullshit if you're committed to a world where only money matters. Recommended.

The Forest (2016): written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai; directed by Jason Zada; starring Natalie Dormer (Sara/ Jess Price) and Taylor Kinney (Aiden): Dull film set mostly in Japan's 'Suicide Forest' (but filmed in Serbia) wastes a solid turn by Natalie Dormer as twin sisters. That this movie is actually inferior to the straight-to-cable, bafflingly titled The Last Halloween/ Grave Halloween is an extraordinary feat of wasted opportunity. Among other things, features characters following a river by walking away from said river at a 90-degree angle. OK! Not recommended.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Reviews Will Return

I've been dealing with the sudden death of my father, Arn Stover, since October 18th. Rest assured that I'll be back soonish. Until then, here's Dad's favourite football-coaching photo of himself...

Monday, October 17, 2016

Horrors Quiet, Horrors Loud

The Thief of Broken Toys (2011) by Tim Lebbon: This lovely, lonely, haunting short novel is a thing of disturbing beauty from Tim Lebbon. There's a Ray Bradbury quality to some of the story elements (especially that eponymous being). But it's the leaner Bradbury of the 1940's, the one capable of horror. 

The loss of a son to an undiagnosed genetic disorder has left the novel's protagonist, the boy's father, in an emotional purgatory as The Thief of Broken Toys begins. His wife struggles to move on -- in part by having left him. He stays at home, for the most part, where he's been for the most part of a year. And then, on one of his nightly walks on the English sea coast, he encounters the eponymous being -- an old man who offers him the ability to heal. Beware strangers bearing supernatural gifts, no matter how seemingly benign!

I don't know that all of the elements work. The occasionally intruding narration speaks to larger things outside the events of the novel, but it never entirely convinced me, or at least convinced me that it was necessary to the tragedy and horror of the story itself. Nonetheless, this is stellar work from Lebbon. 

Technically this is 'quiet horror,' but it's horror nonetheless. And the final catastrophe horrifies without any blood being spilled or tentacled monster making an appearance. Actually, a tentacled monster would probably have been comforting. Highly recommended.

The Keep (1981) by F. Paul Wilson: F. Paul Wilson's first 'big' novel is also his best. A dreadful movie adaptation in the mid-1980's, directed by Michael Mann, got pretty much everything wrong about Wilson's original. The Keep is a clever synthesis of vampire novel, cosmic horror, and high fantasy, though that last bit doesn't become evident until the last 50 pages or so. Its best horror moments come in its first half, while the full nature of the adversary remains hidden from reader and characters alike.

The Keep would soon be folded into Wilson's 'Adversary Cycle,' a six-novel arc that is itself part of a much larger body of work dubbed 'The Secret History of the World' that includes Wilson's multi-volume Repairman Jack series. My version of The Keep ends without any sort of cliffhanger or 'stinger' ending, but this may not be true of later editions of the novel. Wilson rewrote a number of novels to eradicate inconsistencies within both the Cycle and the Secret History.

The genius of The Keep lies in its use of the Nazis as foils to the greater evil growing inside the Keep. It's 1941. Much of the action occurs in an isolated part of Romania where German infantry have been entrusted with taking control of that mysterious Keep. The name itself is a misnomer -- there was never a castle surrounding the structure, and the name was simply attached as a matter of convenience. Why are there unusually designed crosses embedded in the walls of the Keep? Why does anyone who tries to sleep there awake from nightmares of confinement? Who's been paying to maintain the Keep with a long line of well-recompensed villagers from an adjacent village for the last 500 years? And why has the German Army Captain in charge of the Keep telegrammed High Command to ask for help because "something is killing my men"?

Well, there's the novel. Wilson's strongest character work involves the fraught relationship between the German Army Captain and the SS Major sent to deal with the problem. The Captain hates the Nazis, but he's also a loyal soldier. The SS Major is a coward and a sadist who dreams of the money to be made once he takes control of Nazi preparations in Ploesti for the coming Romanian Holocaust. As problems at the Keep continue despite the SS presence, they agree to summon a Romanian-Jewish scholar who's the world's only known authority on the Keep. As the scholar has been crippled by a wasting disease, along with him comes his bright, unmarried daughter.

Props where props are due: that daughter makes for an interesting and unusual character in a horror novel written by a young man in the late 1970's and early 1980's. She becomes the focus of the third-person narrative, and Wilson makes her a compelling figure who wants a life of intellectual achievement in a world where both her gender and her ethnicity stand against any such achievement. While this character is put in jeopardy on numerous occasions, Wilson never makes her a stereotypical female victim. By the climax of the novel, she's one of the two most important characters in terms of opposing the ancient dark force inside the Keep.

As noted, the strongest moments of horror come in the first half, as a mysterious, unseen force stalks the Keep. But the revelation of the horror doesn't immediately deflate the narrative of its mystery: the creature explains what it is, but there are odd gaps and curiosities in its story. And the discovery of a cache of Lovecraftian banned texts points the way towards an explanation that has nothing to do with vampires or werewolves or ghosts. And they are literally Lovecraftian texts, the Necronomicon and a number of other fictional 'banned' books mentioned by H.P. Lovecraft and his fellow Cthulhuists over the years in a nod by Wilson to his American horror forerunners.

Once the novel passes that midway point, elements of a more conventional thriller begin to blend with elements of both dark and high fantasy. There are even riffs on the sort of material made popular by The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard's Conan series. But Wilson also keeps things rooted in the historical setting of 1941 Eastern Europe, with the seemingly unstoppable Nazis about to embark on their betrayal of the Soviet Union. It's a relatively long novel, but it's briskly told in Wilson's competent, unflashy prose.  To nod to an old chestnut, if you read one novel by F. Paul Wilson, it should be this one. Highly recommended.

Very English Horrors

The Black Country (2013) by Alex Grecian: Enjoyable mystery set in England's coal country in 1890. The characters are engaging, though the central mystery will be familiar to anyone who has read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008) by Kate Summerscale. Grecian adds a second mystery to the mix, albeit one linked to the first. Apparently not finding the generally well-portrayed oddities of the coal-mining town and its superstitions to be diverting enough, he also throws in several sections set at the horrifying Andersonville POW camp run with murderous efficiency by the Confederacy in one of those historical foreshadowings of the Holocaust. 

Just to lighten things up, Grecian adds a lot of low-level comedy to the relationship of the two Scotland Yard detectives sent to the coal town. He even throws in a lovable, mentally handicapped giant. And a scar-faced mystery man. And an abandoned baby magpie which first one detective and then the giant try to nurse back to health. And village superstitions attached to a mythical monster called Rawhead and Bloody Bones. And a mysterious disease sweeping the village. And a cinematic climax, first above and then below the ground in the village as it is wracked by subsidence caused by over-mining. 

We even get a final few lines that will remind the reader of either the forced comedy that seemed to end every 1960's and 1970's American TV drama no matter how dire the preceding events -- or the parodic endings of every episode of Police Squad (a.k.a. the TV show that the Naked Gun movie series continued). It's a diverting novel, though the setting seems under-served by the novel's pedestrian yet over-stuffed ambitions. Lightly recommended.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World (2006) by Steven Berlin Johnson: Engaging, sweeping examination of England's last major cholera outbreak in London's Broad Street neighbourhood near Soho in 1854, and how two men ensured that England would never suffer from a cholera outbreak again. Medical Doctor John Snow and Anglican curate Henry Whitehead, both of whom lived near the outbreak, would form a somewhat unlikely Dynamic Duo whose detective work and scientific acumen would convince the medical and civil authorities of London that cholera was a disease spread by contaminated water and not, as then-standard wisdom had it, by 'miasmic' gases.

Much of the book is marvelous and humane, explaining the rise of cholera to being one of the world's great killers over the course of the last 200 years. Along the way, The Ghost Map also delves into the development of epidemiology, safe sewer and water-supply systems, and the toxic Social Darwinism that helped blind Victorian England to the true cause of cholera in its cities. The book also offers a tour through London's underground economy of night-soil men and cat-meat men and coster-mongers and 'pure' collectors (pure was a euphemism for dog shit), and their roles in keeping the 'above-ground' world running.

You'll also visit the horrifying cess-pits and cesspools and streets of 1854 London. You'll discover why alcohol, tea, and coffee were all integral to the urbanization of the world. But mostly you'll deal with these two heroes of science and rationality, Snow and Whitehead, as they individually and then dually seek an answer to the Broad Street Outbreak. 

Only in the last 20 pages or so does Johnson waver, as he suddenly takes the book so wide as to attempt to convince the reader that the world will be a better, more environmentally friendly place when everyone lives in cities (not suburbs -- cities proper). It feels like the beginning of a different book, one whose enthusiasm for urban living and disdain for rural living comes gushing straight out of its author and onto the page. All it really lacks is the line, "Since the beginning of time, man has longed to evacuate the countryside!".

But other than the writer's book-derailing, evangelical rant about the Great Goodness of Cities, The Ghost Map is terrific, informative, sad, and hopeful. Lift your glass of clean drinking water to Snow and Whitehead, who defeated an invisible enemy 30 years before humanity could reliably find cholera under a microscope. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Oscar Monsters

The Revenant (2015): adapted by Alejandro Inarritu and Mark L. Smith from the novel by Michael Punke; directed by Alejandro Inarritu; starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass); Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald); and Domhnall Gleason (Captain Henry): Set in early 19th-century Montana and South Dakota, The Revenant is an odyssey of survival and revenge for guide Hugh Glass, played almost silently by Leonardo DiCaprio in a role that won him his first Best Actor Oscar. 

There's nothing wrong with that acting -- boy, does Glass suffer, and boy is he covered in filth and wounds for most of the movie! Alejandro Inarritu won his second straight directorial Oscar (the first was for Birdman), and he certainly puts on a grimy, Sublime, haunting show of photography. Vaguely based on a true story, The Revenant is the Western as horror movie with more than a hint of a Republic serial re-imagined as being deadly serious yet, through the sheer accumulation of unfortunate events, almost comic as it reaches its end. 

Glass is a Beckett character, crawling through the muck, transforming into the vengeful 'dead' man of the title. Tom Hardy has never been better as pragmatic trapper Fitzgerald, Glass' nemesis in the movie (though not in real life). Some trimming might have helped -- by the time Glass and the horse go over a cliff, my suspension of disbelief had been exhausted. Recommended.

The Thing (1982): adapted by Bill Lancaster from the novella "Who Goes There?" (1938) by John W. Campbell Jr.; directed by John Carpenter; starring Kurt Russell (MacReady); Wilford Brimley (Blair), Keith David (Childs), Richard Dysart (Copper), and Donald Moffat (Garry): Alien (1979) was a great screech of cosmic horror mingled with body horror in the best Lovecraftian tradition. The Thing is its thematic sequel, taking fears of bodily invasion and transformation and making them even more horrifying and goopy. 

The Thing was adapted previously by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks in the 1950's as a sort-of Cold War paranoia thriller with an evil carrot rather than an evil, well, disease. This version is truer to John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novella in terms of location (Antarctica, not the Arctic of the 1950's version) and monster (a body-invading, endlessly replicating Thing rather than a vampiric, Frankensteinian Creature). The Hawks film was much truer to the character dynamics of Campbell's novella, where manly, competent men met a terrible threat with overwhelming, intelligent, manly camaraderie.

Here, our heroes are fractious as per the model of the Nostromo's crew in Alien. Given that the Thing could be any one of them (or even all of them -- it's just that invasive!), their paranoia is understandable. But they still team up to battle an alien invasion. One of the things that makes The Thing stand out even more now is the lack of references to the characters' lives outside Antarctica: one imagines that, remade today, there would have to be some motivations assigned to the characters for their resistance to the invasion. 

Because people don't do things in NuHollywood unless there's a wife or child involved. This lack of 'personal motivation' makes The Thing bracing in my estimation -- the men are trying to save the world with no possible hope of rescue or survival. And even the most grumpy among them realize the scope of the Thing's danger and set to work. It's almost like people can do things for the common good without specific personal motivation!

The actors (what a cast!) are great, the creature effects still chilling and awful, the scenery still Sublime, the whole thing still rousing and disturbing. What's weird is that The Thing is hopeful about humanity in a way few horror movies allow themselves to be. But avoid the dopey 2011 prequel! Highly recommended.

Misery (1990): adapted by William Goldman from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes); James Caan (Paul Sheldon); Richard Farnsworth (Sheriff Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Deputy Virginia), and Lauren Bacall (Paul's Agent): Kathy Bates deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes, self-proclaimed "number-one fan" of historical romance writer Paul Sheldon. And James Caan is really good as Sheldon in a role that confines him to bed and wheelchair for much of Misery's running time. 

This is one of a handful of the sharpest adaptations of a novel by Stephen King, alternately funny and horrifying in a way that replicates King's prose. King signed off on Rob Reiner directing after the success of Reiner's previous King adaptation, Stand by Me, the movie from the novella that gave a name to Reiner's production company (Castle Rock). William Goldman and Rob Reiner tone down some of the novel's more gruesomely baroque moments (bye-bye lawnmower!), but there's still lots of body horror to go around. Bates' Wilkes is a menacing but at times oddly sympathetic character -- it seems at times that she's fully aware of what a monster she is. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Death and the Batman

Batman: Gothic (Deluxe Edition) (1990/ Collected 2015): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Klaus Janson: Writer Grant Morrison's second major foray into the world of Batman (after 1989's Arkham Asylum) hurls the Dark Knight into a literary hellscape of nods to Faustus, Don Giovanni, Lord Byron's Manfred, Fritz Lang's M., Lewis's The Monk, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, and a host of other horrific antecedents. There's even an exquisitely detailed, Rube Goldbergesque death trap for Batman to escape.

Batman faces an enemy from his past -- his past as a schoolboy at a private school, that is, in the days before Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered and Bruce's journey towards being Batman began. But the enemy threatens Gotham's major mobsters as well, whom this old enemy hunts for revenge. Klaus Janson supplies lots of moodiness and doom as artist. It's one of Batman's most nightmarish adventures, even with the typical splash of Morrisonian postmodernism. This would make a terrific Batman movie, live-action or animated. Come on, DC! Highly recommended.

Death: The Deluxe Edition (1989-2003/ Collected 2014): written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, Mark Pennington, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Dave McKean, Jeffrey Jones, P. Craig Russell, Colleen Doran, and others: Neil Gaiman's goth-chick Death gets her solo adventures from The Sandman, two miniseries, and several other places collected here in over-sized hardcover. 

I'd read them all before, but it's nice to catch up with Death, the friendly and understanding embodiment of, well, Death, one of Gaiman's seven Endless personifications of natural forces (the others being Dream, Destiny, Desire, Delirium (nee Delight), Despair, and Destruction because the universe speaks English and enjoys alliteration). 

The bulk of the volume is occupied by two three-part miniseries, Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life. I'm partial to the first above all others in this volume, playing as it does with the form of the 'quest' and possessed as it is of a grumpy, teen-aged protagonist saddled with the name Sexton Furnival who goes out one day to commit suicide, instead falls into some garbage, and is rescued by the human avatar Death creates for one day every century so as to experience life among the living. It's one of Gaiman's finest pieces of writing, amplified by the lovely, slightly twee artwork of Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham.

The other stories are fine as well, though Bachalo disappears halfway through the second Death miniseries, leaving Mark Buckingham and Mark Pennington to finish up the job without moving too jarringly away from Bachalo's style. That miniseries reunites us with several characters from The Sandman arc "A Game of You" a few years down the road. It's solid as well, though Death is much more of a supporting player this time around. Death's answer to one character's enquiry about The Problem of Evil is glib and shallow, but that may be the point -- she's trying to comfort somebody who isn't very bright, not offer a comprehensive solution to theodicy. 

The volume also includes Death's first appearance in The Sandman, in which she tries to cheer up her mopey Byronic brother Dream, and a standalone issue in which Death is called upon by a very minor DC superhero (Element Woman, or possibly Element Girl) who doesn't know how to die. 

A handful of stories (including one in which Death and John Constantine talk about safe sex!) and a length series of illustrations by various artists round out the volume. There's also an oblique introduction from Tori Amos, reprinted from a 1994 collection: one of the oddities of most of DC's new Deluxe editions is that they contain very little 'new' material. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hell Above, Hell Below

Hellboy in Hell Volume 1: The Descent (2015-2016/Collected 2016): written and illustrated by Mike Mignola: Mike Mignola's Hellboy series moves inexorably towards its conclusion in this, what may be the penultimate volume in the long-running series. The end of the last book saw Hellboy dead on Earth and plummeting into Hell. And now we open, on the borderlands of Hell.

Hellboy is his usual acerbic self as he fights an assortment of demons and, well, more demons. Some have personal grudges against him as he sent them back to Hell during his heroic, monster-fighting career above-ground. Meanwhile, Hell's capital city of Pandemonium is strangely empty, and Satan himself is asleep in a basement. Hellboy has help in Hell, but will it be enough to see his mission through -- if there is a mission?

Well, that's the question. Hellboy in Hell marked the return of Mignola to drawing Hellboy as well as writing it after several years of having Duncan Fegredo handle the art duties. It's a welcome return. Mignola has simplified his line, his shapes, and pretty much everything about his style. It's a marvelous, evocative evolution of cartooning that can attain startling effects both comic and horrific. 

Hellboy's purpose in Hell seems a bit vague, but some of that reflects Hellboy's own rejection of the 'destiny' the first couple of years of Hellboy set up. He's not going to usher in the final act of the Apocalypse, having rejected his demonic heritage. Why, then, does he not remember committing a major act of violence in this volume?

If you've never read Hellboy, this is not the place to start. If you have been following Hellboy, this is pretty much essential as we approach the end of a remarkable horror/fantasy epic. Highly recommended.

BPRD: Hell on Earth Volume 4: The Devil's Engine & The Long Death (2012/ Collected 2012): written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi; illustrated by Tyler Crook, James Harren, and Dave Stewart: The eruption of Hell onto Earth-Hellboy continues in this collection of two miniseries dealing with Hellboy's former unit, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence. Things are grim. Monsters are everywhere. This volume contains two 'snapshots' of the ongoing conflict/apocalypse, nicely scripted by John Arcudi and possessed of a number of fine visualizations of those monsters by Tyler Crook and James Harren. 

An unusual, freaky, and disturbingly visualized Wendigo seems to owe at least some of its visual debt to Jack Kirby's white monkey of fear from his 1970's series The Demon by way of Steve Bissette and John Totleben's visual reimagining of the character early in Alan Moore's 1980's run on Swamp Thing. It's all enjoyable, though a bit light on the textual side of things. Recommended.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Horrors at Home and Abroad

Hitchcock/ Truffaut (2015): written by Kent Jones and Serge Toubiana; directed by Kent Jones; narrated by Bob Balaban: It's too short and it doesn't name the directors who discuss Hitchcock throughout the documentary until the end credits. But it's still great to revisit the monumental Hitchcock/Truffaut book, initially compiled and published in 1966 from a series of interviews Francois Truffaut conducted via translator with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. Young (Wes Anderson) and old (Martin Scorsese) alike hold both the book and Hitch himself in monumental regard. 

The movie introduces the viewer to several key moments in the text, with special attention paid to Notorious, The Birds, Psycho, and Vertigo. It might help to read the book either immediately before or after seeing the documentary. It's impossible to imagine any contemporary, commercial film-maker being as visually and thematically complex as Hitchcock turned out to be over his 50-year film-making career. He's the Great White Whale of movies, the immensely popular and complex artist. Highly recommended.

Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura) (1963): adapted from works by Ivan Chekhov, F.G. Snyder, and Aleksei Tolstoy by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, and Marcello Fondato; starring Boris Karloff (Gorca/Narrator) and others: Something of a stinker of an Italian anthology horror film from the early 1960's, redubbed for English-speaking audiences. Boris Karloff is fine as both frame narrator and Vourdalak in the third segment. 

The first segment actually goes pretty well until the film-makers unwisely over-use their initially effective Dead Witch Dummy (TM). The second sequence sucks. The third sequence, in which a vampire-like Vourdalak terrorizes a travelling nobleman and a family of peasants, is utterly ridiculous in its plot. It's like a training film on what not to do when menaced by the Undead. Or a cautionary tale about the plague of narcolepsy that ravaged Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. Not recommended.

Don't Breathe (2016): written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues; directed by Fede Alvarez; starring Stephen Lang (The Blind Man), Jane Levy (Rocky), Dylan Minnette (Alex), and Daniel Zovatto (Money): Admirably tense, terse thriller set in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of present-day Detroit. The creative minds behind the solid remake of Evil Dead go with a bit less gore and grue here, though more than one scene is Not For The Squeamish

The young actors are good as three sympathetic burglars who pick the wrong house, while Stephen Lang (Avatar's nutty Colonel) is extraordinarily menacing as the blind, buff homeowner whose house our unfortunate trio break into in search of a hidden cache of Get Out of Detroit cash. The movie may invert the central premise of classic 1960's thriller Wait Until Dark, but it's also a horrifying reimagining of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Brutal but never exploitative. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Thing That Wouldn't Leave

Crimson (2002) by Gord Rollo: Things start off promisingly in Canadian horror writer Gord Rollo's Crimson. Four boys in a small town (Dunnville, Ontario, to be exact) stumble across an ancient evil. Things get bad, fast. The novel jumps from 1977 to 1986 to the mid-2000's. The increasingly 'and-the-kitchen-sink' approach to the supernatural involves a certain number of homages to such superior 'children vs. ancient evil' novels as Stephen King's It (giant spider! kid wants to be a writer!), Dan Simmons' Summer of Night (evil scarecrow! kid wants to be a writer!), and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (the evil returns periodically!).

Rollo's time-jumps move the novel away from It and company and unfortunately into the realm of 'Why research anything when you can just fake it?'.  This is a novel set in small-town Canada in its first two sections, though there's nothing particularly Canadian about anything. Alas, section two involves a police investigation that starts off laughable and rapidly becomes completely ridiculous. 

Poor old Dunnville is left to fend for itself, except for the loan of eight officers from other towns, as a serial killer racks up a double-digit murder total in a couple of weeks. Really? It's 1986. Are there no TV stations, no newspapers that aren't local? Given the small size of Dunnville, one might think the province -- and the Ontario Provincial Police -- would be sent in to help. One would be wrong. Hoo boy. 

Then we jump to the mid-2000's, and an absurd prison sequence. Someone gets sent to a Toronto penitentiary for murders he didn't commit. And what a penitentiary! Not only is it worse than Shawshank Prison and the Turkish prison in Midnight Express put together, it's got an overall prisoner death rate that clocks in at about ten times the national average for that time period. Possibly 100X. Alas. Hey, there's an attempted prison break that involves a sewer pipe! There's an electric chair scene! Yes, Canada has brought back the death penalty because I'm not going to spoil how and why that happened! Rita Hayworth is on the Green Mile with It!

Section three also gives us a lengthy Basil Exposition sequence in which the terrible monster explains its entire life history and its cunning plan to its victim. Then, as the monster's supernatural powers consist of Whatever the Novel Needs Right Now, it hangs around to intermittently taunt our death-row prisoner for several years. 

It floats. 

Not down there, but up by the ceiling, invisible and inaudible and, given its decayed condition, presumably unsmellable to all but our hero. As its pointless electric chair plot moves to its climax, it's just hanging around laughing and laughing. It even steals our protagonist's last meal! Quel horreur! This is the greatest monster in human history!

The novel climaxes with a twist that doesn't make much sense even when it's explained a chapter after that twist. Prior to that, we also get a explanation of What Hell is Really Like that reads like something Todd Macfarlane rejected for his Spawn comic, and which destroys all remaining shreds of the suspension of disbelief the novel has left. 

Some of the loopier supernatural elements might work in a novel that paid much, much more attention to the verisimilitude of its police and prison sequences. Though the villain, a centuries-old being who talks like an annoying bully in an episode of Buffy, becomes less and less interesting the more he talks. 

And talks. 

And talks. 

There's even a point at which the monster notes that it was known as Baron Bloodshed. This would make a lot more sense if it weren't known as Baron Bloodshed in Eastern Europe in the 14th century. If nothing else, the protagonist misses a chance for a real zinger by not asking if Baron Bloodshed is alliterative in whatever non-English tongue the monster was speaking at the time. 

Not all the problems are the writer's. A good editor should have suggested changes, especially to the second and third parts. And presumably suggested that a monster that never stops talking isn't a monster, it's just a bad room-mate. Not recommended.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

GoTopless Day: August 28, 2016

Fin Fang Foom!

Simply because I love this Jack Kirby-created Marvel Monster...

Cover by the great Walt Simonson!

Nevermore (1996) by William Hjortsberg

Nevermore (1996) by William Hjortsberg: The 1990's paperback version of Nevermore was clearly designed to resemble the paperback of The Alienist, Caleb Carr's riveting 1990's murder mystery set in New York that combined real people (most notably Teddy Roosevelt and William James) with fictional characters in pursuit of a serial killer. The interior front cover/two-page illustration actually seems to have come from the same photograph as the cover of The Alienist. Hmm.

The resemblance mostly ends there: Hjortsberg does combine fact and fiction, but the mystery and the serial killer are only a part of what the novel explores. As with Hjortsberg's more famous Falling Angel (made into the controversial 1987 movie Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro), Nevermore is invested in mysteries and morality and the oddities of human nature, not in the prime importance of the aims and methods of detection.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives in 1923 New York to begin his United States lecture tour on the Spirit World and his many attempts to communicate with the dead. Meanwhile, with vaudeville dying, Harry Houdini searches for a new money-making model for his magic shows while also waging a very public war against the mediums and spiritualists whom he views as being dangerous frauds. Despite their radical disagreement on spiritualism, however, Houdini and Doyle were friends. 

And a mysterious string of murders, each based on a different work by Edgar Allan Poe, soon seems to be working its way towards either Houdini or Doyle as the final victim.

Hjortsberg does a marvelous job of combining fact and fiction. He deploys a lengthy and detailed set of historical events and personages while keeping the novel light on its feet and often movingly dark and poetic. But Nevermore is also very funny at points. Nevermore's depiction of Houdini and Doyle makes them lively, fascinating individuals. And the sexy spirit medium who has dubbed herself Isis -- what's her game?

Nevermore is more of a novel with a mystery than a mystery novel. Still, it's satisfying in its fictional and factual elements. And you'll find out how a couple of Houdini's famous tricks were accomplished (though not all of the ones depicted in the novel). Hjortsberg even throws in a climax that's wittily movie-like. All this and the morose ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, visible only to Doyle. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Rosedale Horror (1980) by Jon Ruddy

The Rosedale Horror (1980) by Jon Ruddy: This Canadian paperback original from defunct Canadian paperback imprint Paperjacks is shocking in its goodness. It's a haunted-house story with a twist, set in Toronto's tony Rosedale neighbourhood in 1974. Ruddy was a long-time newspaper reporter, and it shows: he grounds all the horror elements in detailed, specific, and often quite funny and illuminating glimpses of life at a failing Toronto newspaper in the 1970's. 

The specifics of newspaper work on a variety of fronts from daily news columnist to police reporter to freelance writer give the proceedings a real verisimilitude. That the book is often scathingly funny about life at a tabloid and about Toronto the Good really helps things.

Ruddy also carries off a difficult bit of structure. The Rosedale Horror is told in six sections, each focused in the third-person on a specific character, though there is also some first-person narration by way of a tape recorder. And it all works both as characterization and as a builder of suspense.

There are elements in the text which at times seem sexist. Some of them fall into the realm of a sort of R-rated Leacockian satire directed at certain men and women alike, including a female relationship columnist and a male news columnist. Ultimately, the novel isn't sexist, though some of its characters are sexist and, in a couple of cases, somewhat predatory.

Ruddy manages several scenes of horror shot through with the occasional bit of grotesque humour. That tape-recorded first-person monologue is one of the two deftest bits of horror, revealing gradually a mind both ill and toxically malign. A rape scene also manages to horrify without seeming exploitative -- no small feat in any novel, and Ruddy amplifies the effect by having the rapist himself under the malign mental influence of something awful.

The Rosedale Horror certainly has its pulpy elements, but they never undercut the horror and the comedic in Ruddy's novel. As both horror and pointed, satiric social commentary, The Rosedale Horror is far superior to many, many novels I've read by far more celebrated authors. It's also hard to go wrong with a novel in which a character is murdered by being telepathically forced to urinate on the third rail of the Toronto subway line. Recommended.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Northern Frights 3 (1995): edited by Don Hutchison

Northern Frights 3 (1995): edited by Don Hutchison; contains the following stories:

Wild Things Live There by Michael Rowe
Silver Rings by Rick Hautala
A Debt Unpaid by Tanya Huff 
Imposter by Peter Sellers 
Exodus 22:18 by Nancy Baker 
The Suction Method by Rudy Kremberg 
Sasquatch by Mel D. Ames 
Grist for the Mills of Christmas by James Powell 
Tamar's Leather Pouch by David Shtogryn 
Snow Angel by Nancy Kilpatrick 
The Perseids by Robert Charles Wilson 
Widow's Walk by Carolyn Clink 
If You Know Where to Look by Chris Wiggins 
The Bleeding Tree by Sean Doolittle 
The Dead Go Shopping by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime 
Family Ties by Edo van Belkom 
The Pines by Tia V. Travis
The Summer Worms by David Nickle 

Solid third volume in Canada's Northern Frights series of mostly original anthologies has one moment of editorial fright early on -- not only is the Table of Contents regrettably centre-justified, but it lacks page numbers for the stories. What the H?

The stand-outs include "Wild Things Live There" by Michael Rowe, a dandy bit of horror that anticipates some of the horrors of Laird Barron's terrific series of stories about the Children of Old Leech while remaining steadfastly Canadian -- the story even involves a migration from Ontario to British Columbia by, well, some things. Oh, Canada!

Another fine story is "The Perseids" by Robert Charles Wilson. Wilson is known as a highly regarded Canadian writer of fairly 'hard' science fiction. Here, some of that scientific and astronomical 'hardness' is present in what is otherwise a subtle, unnerving piece of cosmic horror. Or at least cosmic weirdness.

"If You Know Where to Look" by Chris Wiggins is also a nice piece of dread set in the Maritimes and involving a Scottish legend that seems to have migrated to Nova Scotia along with the Scots. And yes, he's that Chris Wiggins, Canadian actor. And he really shows an ear for believable dialogue and dialect in this story.

None of the stories are duds, though there are a few bits of whimsy that don't work as horror, weird, or whimsy. Editor Don Hutchison does his normal good work, even without page numbers on that Table of Contents. Recommended.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Strangers (1984) by Mort Castle and Under the Lake (1987) by Stuart Woods

The novel sez Strangers got red auras... 
The Strangers (1984) by Mort Castle: Depressing, nihilistic, pointless, nauseating, and a tad rapey horror novel that ends where it should have begun. 

Technically, Mort Castle isn't a bad writer. Indeed, just from this brief exposure I'd rate him above beloved horror writers that include Richard Laymon and Douglas Clegg. But this is one of those horror novels that some people might confuse with splatterpunk given the violence. It isn't -- sociologically, it's about as reactionary a thing as one can find in the horror genre. 

Bad things happen because a small percentage of people are Strangers -- bloodthirsty psychopaths who pretend to be normal people as they await The Time of the Strangers. While waiting, they account for pretty much all human atrocity in the world. Luckily, you can spot them by their Auras! Well, not luckily, because no one's going to do much of anything productive in this novel who isn't a Stranger. If you enjoy a pointless catalogue of atrocities and boring characters who are either monsters or victims, this is the novel for you. Not recommended.

Under the Lake (1987) by Stuart Woods: Jesus, what did Stuart Woods have on Stephen King, Pat Conroy, and Andrew Greeley to get the glowing back-cover quotes this novel received? Woods still writes, so far as I can tell, in the thriller genre. That's probably a good idea. Ostensibly a Southern Gothic ghost story, Under the Lake wanders off into ill-advised thriller territory when it should be developing its more gothic elements. Why pay off on atmosphere when you can have a couple of pitched gun battles and an exploding plane? Why indeed. 

There are brief moments of interest here, but the horrific revelation towards the end lands with a dull thud. After all the perfunctory murders, seances, incest, and mopey drunk writers, this is all there is? An unpleasant bit in which a 12-year-old girl is presented as a sexy, sex-starved sexual predator really, really, really doesn't help things. Not at all. Not recommended.

Sinister 2 (2015)

Sinister 2 (2015): written and created by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill; directed by Ciaran Foy; starring James Ransone (The Deputy), Shannyn Sossamon (Courtney Collins), Robert Sloan (Dylan Collins), and Dartanian Sloan (Zach Collins): Any and all name actors having been eradicated in the first movie (or in between the first and second movie in the case of Vincent D'Onofrio's literally phoned-in professor in Sinister), Sinister 2 comes across as comfortably anonymous. 

That's a good thing for some horror movies, this one included. Bughul the demon still remains regrettably visualized from the neck down, the scary face of the early scenes of Sinister burdened with a blazer-and-pants combo that suggest the Sumerian boogeyman just got off his yacht and is about to offer the viewer a gin-and-tonic. But the performances by the kids are pretty good, Shannyn Sossamon has a sweet desperation to her character, and James Ransone brings a goofy charm to the hero of this one. 

Yet another stupid 'stinger' ending ruins some of my good feelings towards this movie. Stop it, horror movies. Stop it right now. In a demonstration of 'less is more' in horror, the scariest scene in the movie involves a ham radio's creepy broadcast. Recommended.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

21st Century Horror Comics

Severed (2012/Collected 2013): written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft; illustrated by Attilla Futaki: This dark, often Bradbury-esque road story, set in early 20th-century America, is a mostly solid piece of horror from Snyder, Tuft, and artist Futaki. The first half or so seems more compelling than the second, possibly because the graphic novel jettisons its most interesting character about halfway through. And it does so in a way that makes no sense in relation to how that character has been developed to that point. 

After that, about one issue's worth of material gets smeared across three issues of pages, like too little butter scraped across too much bread (thanks, Tolkien!). Futaki's art is moody and horrifying when it needs to be, though he has a devil of a time maintaining consistency with the faces of the main characters. The monster is horrible, and he gets to deliver a lengthy speech about why he's horrible. Recommended with some reservations.

The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft (2009/ Collected 2010): written by Mac Carter; illustrated by Tony Salmons and Adam Byrne: Something of an oddity, this -- a comic book about H.P. Lovecraft that plays extremely fast and loose with the actual details of his life so as to turn him into a forlorn Romantic who hates his home town of Providence. It's part of that large and often annoying corpus in which both Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos co-exist in actuality, simultaneously. 

However, it's not a documentary, so one goes along with Lovecraft the unrequited lover of a sexy Providence librarian in the early 1920's, or doesn't go along, depending on how compelling the story is. And it's not a terrible story -- Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows' superior Providence has pretty much the same basic set-up, with HPL as the gateway for the Old Ones. Their HPL resonates with a careful attention to actual history, though: this one gets boring every time he gets lovelorn and mopey, and that happens a lot.

Artist Tony Salmons is great with the goopy, tenticular horrors of the story. The lay-outs sometimes get away from him (is this a scripting problem or an art problem?), causing several pages to become incomprehensible. Having Salmons handle the more outlandish moments and another, more normative artist handle the day-to-day material might have resulted in a much more interesting book. Still, I've always liked Salmons -- boring he is not.

Mac Carter's writing comes and goes. Lovelorn, Providence-hating HPL is a tough sell to anyone who's read much of anything about or by Lovecraft. Actual quotes from HPL weave in and out of the narrative, mostly effectively except when they highlight how much better a writer HPL was than Mac Carter is. A jokey quality undermines many scenes, eradicating horror. Very lightly recommended.

Outcast Volume 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him (2014/Collected 2015): written by Robert Kirkman; illustrated by Paul Azaceta: The TV series adapted from the Outcast comic series has so far been very faithful to the comic, which I guess is what you get when the comic book's creator controls the TV show. The first six issues here are a nice, under-stated piece of horror that gestures towards the epic that awaits just over the horizon. Kirkman's writing is sharper here than it has been for years on The Walking Dead: supernatural horror without zombies seems to have reinvigorated him.

Paul Azaceta's art is what we once called European before David Mazzuchelli drew Batman: Year One: understated and representational, sometimes a bit too understated and too much like late 1980's Mazzuchelli. Still, it's mostly lovely work, much of it rendered in subdued and mournful colours. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961-1971

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961-1971 (2014): edited by S.T. Joshi: Essential, informative, and educational reading for any reader of horror, and especially for those who admire both H.P. Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell.

August Derleth was a fantastically important editor and publisher in the realms of the weird. He kept H.P. Lovecraft in print, in book form, for decades until the rest of the world started catching up with the Cthulhu Mythos. And he also published the first book by Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell after Campbell started corresponding with Derleth back in 1961.

In 1961, Campbell was 15. His first collection -- The Inhabitant of the Lake -- would come out from Arkham in 1964. And while the precocious Campbell's early works would be Lovecraftian pastiches not-dissimilar to some of Derleth's own work, Campbell's growth curve as a writer was startlingly steep. By the late 1960's, his voice was uniquely his own and he'd helped pioneer a new approach to visionary horror.

Derleth and Campbell carry on a lively, wide-ranging correspondence for ten years, though the last three years are a bit spotty because many letters have gone missing. While thoughts on horror are the main attraction, Letters to Arkham also offers a glimpse into the cottage industry that was Arkham House. We also learn just how prolific Derleth was as a writer. And a lover, though some of that may be taken with a grain of salt.

As Campbell notes in his afterword, he was something of a fan-boy in his early letters. But that element gradually slips away, leaving the reader with a dialogue between two friends who never met in person. Their debates on the merits of everything from Peter Sellers to Samuel Beckett are lively and fascinating. Derleth functions as a mentor figure for Campbell throughout their correspondence when it comes to writing and, more generally, living. 

And we find out that Derleth took to the Wisconsin woods where he lived every May to collect morel mushrooms. Thousands of them, their number dutifully reported each year. Fungi from Wisconsin. How Lovecraftian is that? Highly recommended.