Saturday, June 25, 2016

End of Watch (Bill Hodges #3) (2016) by Stephen King

End of Watch (Bill Hodges #3) (2016) by Stephen King: Intrepid but decidedly unhealthy retired police detective Bill Hodges returns in this conclusion to a trilogy that began in Mr. Mercedes and continued in Finders Keepers. Still set in a never-named U.S. Rust Belt city somewhere on one of the Eastern Great Lakes, End of Watch pits Hodges against the seemingly brain-damaged spree killer of Mr. Mercedes.

King manages to pull off something that looked a bit dodgy when it first became manifest in Finders Keepers -- namely, the introduction of the paranormal into the world of Bill Hodges. Brady Hartsfield, the Mercedes Killer of the first Hodges novel, was left with a brain made of mush at the climax of Mr. Mercedes. Hodges' soon-to-be-partner-in-private-detection, Holly Gibney, bonked Hartsfield on the head just before he could blow up an auditorium filled with thousands of boy-band-loving teenagers.

However, experimental drugs and the vagaries of the brain have slowly granted Hartsfield mental powers. He fakes being non compos mentis to avoid prosecution for his crimes while he gains strength and lethality. 

Hartsfield is a return to one of King's favourite types, the Outsider with Wild Talents. Unfortunately, this psychic wants to kill people -- as many of them as possible. King combines a quasi-scientific mind-control premise that stretches back to at least Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Parasite" with an antagonist who's one of Thomas Harris' serial-killing grotesques writ larger and with super-powers. 

Brady Hartsfield doesn't just want to kill people -- he wants to find ways to trick them into killing themselves. And with his powers, he now can. King's heroes have to engage Hartsfield on multiple fronts to stop him, from the Internet to the real world to the nebulous world of the mind. 

Somehow, it all works. Even the bit where a character survives a gunshot because of something in her pocket. Well, OK, that doesn't quite work. 

Otherwise, End of Watch works in part because Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney are carefully drawn characters. Hartsfield is a terrible, pitiful antagonist. There's also an immensely clever plot device involving video games and hypnotism. And there's a snowstormy climax that recalls the closing chapters of The Shining.  In terms of tension and pleasure of reading, Mr. Mercedes remains the best of the Hodges trilogy, but End of Watch runs a close second. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Lisa W. Cantrell's The Manse (1987) and Torments (1990)

The Manse (1987) by Lisa W. Cantrell: After a somewhat surprising Bram Stoker Award win for Best First Novel of 1987 for The Manse (it beat out the superior Slob by Rex Miller and Damnation Game by Clive Barker, and those are just the two novels on the nomination list I've read), Lisa Cantrell published three more novels over the next ten years and then seemingly vanished from history during the Great Horror Collapse of the early 1990's. So this is an award-winning novel, The Manse.

I've certainly read worse. I've definitely read better. The novel at points seems to have been assembled using a Stephen King Plot-and-Character Generator. An ancient house of secrets looms over a small town. Something evil is coming. An old African-American woman with vaguely defined psychic powers knows that Something evil is coming. Newspaper clippings fill the reader in. People, children especially, go missing or get killed. A lawyer, a reporter, and a black dude nicknamed Dood walk into a bar. A monster eats fear! Small-town intrigues and politics occupy many while Something evil comes.

There are a few well-imagined scenes sprinkled throughout The Manse. I like a bit in which a character gets pulled into a fireplace by tendrils of ghost-fire, for instance. And there's a nicely described eye-monster. These things suggest either a couple of lucky strikes or, more charitably, real talent left mostly undeveloped.

However, there's also a sense of either a novel that's been cut down from something longer and more detailed or a novella not quite expanded to the right length. One of the places the stitching shows comes in the first long section of the novel, a countdown that takes us from one October to the next. Except that Cantrell's narrative suddenly jumps from March to October. I guess The Manse sleeps through the Spring, Summer, and early Fall.

Other problems include a nebulously defined evil that does whatever the plot requires of it, from creating illusions to sucking people into another dimension. And Cantrell's major characters, realistically skeptical while the horrors approach, for the most part have become passive idiots by the time the story climaxes. This is a horror novel in which people are acted upon to such an extent that only the Manse's incredible stupidity allows anyone to survive the climax.

(But there will be a sequel.)

Oh, yes. Very lightly recommended.


Torments (1990) by Lisa W. Cantrell: 

"It was like an erection, slick and hard and deadly."

So muses Vince Colletti in Torments. Colletti is one of the few minor characters to survive the events of Cantrell's The Manse

He's thinking about his handgun. What kind of erections did Cantrell deal with in her personal life in the 1980's, one wonders. And who the hell puts the claim that "she [Cantrell] is a tireless self-promoter" in the Torments author bio on the back inside cover? As Torments doesn't seem to have been republished since it first came out in 1990, somehow not tireless enough.

The stunning ineptitude of Torments makes The Manse look like The Haunting of Hill House by comparison. The most interesting thing about the novel, other than that erection quote, is the stylistic debt it owes to a combination of Stephen King and A Need to Pad a Too-Short Novel.

From Stephen King comes...

(Things inside brackets)

(Brackets! Brackets!)


From the world of Padding the Novel comes...

A lot of

Short paragraphs.

(There's also...)


(And even baffling "quotation marks" around "things".)

Boy, it's a mess. The high point plot-wise comes with about fifty pages to go as Cantrell suddenly throws a snuff film into one character's back-story, I'm assuming because she'd heard of them and wanted to have one in the novel. This allows for several pages of back-story for a character rather than, I don't know, maybe developing the central horror of the Manse. Oh well.

Luckily, there's an African-American with magical powers to take on the now-ghostly Manse. Unluckily, people immediately started building a condo on the site of the Manse, which burned down and killed 37 people in the process at the conclusion of The Manse but which has returned in ghostly form more powerful than before after only a two-year hiatus. Sort of like Obi-Wan Kenobi in evil mansion form. It's the ghost of a house.

The nominal hero of things gains mental strength by thinking of a line from The Empire Strikes Back right after he's mused on his prostitute mother's death in a snuff film when he was ten.

He sought vengeance on the man who set his mother up, training and preparing...

... until he was 12-years-old. Yes, 12. It's Death Wish: The Home Alone edition.

Jesus, what an awful novel. Not recommended. (Except for "hilarity".)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Grendel, Grendel...

Original 2007 edition
Grendel: Behold the Devil (2007-2008/ Reprinted in Grendel Omnibus 1: Hunter Rose/ 2012): written and illustrated by Matt Wagner: Writer-artist-Canadian Matt Wagner's Grendel was one of the great, innovative comic series of the 1980's and early 1990's. And he's returned to it again and again over the years, ultimately building an epic that spans centuries. In 2007, he returned to both writing and drawing Grendel to present the world with the longest single narrative about the first Grendel (aka Hunter Rose).

The mysterious Hunter Rose, first created by Wagner in the very early 1980's, is a dark riff on characters that include Batman and The Shadow. He's a mysterious millionaire who dresses up in a costume. But instead of fighting crime, he wants to control it. Possibly all of it, but he starts with New York. And as he's possessed of greater-than-human intelligence and reflexes, he rapidly starts to take over all of organized crime after a brief career as a hired assassin.

Hunter Rose (an assumed name) is also a critically acclaimed writer and philanthropist. But it's as his alter ego Grendel that he shines as a genius of murder and organization. Behold the Devil fills us in on several months in Rose/Grendel's life not long before his final confrontation with the strange, ancient crime-fighter Argent, an articulate and hyper-violent man-wolf (no joking).

Wagner is in rare form in this 200-page graphic novel as both writer and artist. We learn a certain amount of new things about Hunter Rose, but much of the focus and sympathy lies with two characters trying to stop Grendel, the female cop in charge of the anti-Grendel task force and the reporter who figures out who Grendel really is. Both characters are beautifully drawn, and beautifully drawn. When horror comes, one really feels for them: Grendel is a monster.

2012 Omnibus
But throughout Wagner's Grendel stories, Grendel is also a person possessed, quite literally. There's a sort of psychic comeuppance waiting for Hunter Rose in this story, one that is many ways even worse for him than the fate we've known since the early 1980's awaits him. This story is also set in the early 1980's, though subsequent Grendel stories move decades, centuries, and possibly millennia into the future. Grendel is a force expressing itself across time, wrecking lives as it goes along.

This novel is best read in the sequence of stories provided by Dark Horse's great four-volume Grendel Omnibus. The Omnibuses are great deals, though it's too bad the market can't support full comic-book-size reprints for these stories. The smaller trade-paperback-sized format doesn't affect this story too much, but other stories sometimes need either young eyes or magnifying glasses for some of the now-teeny-tiny text. Oh, well. Still, a great tale of an anti-superhero and the terrible things he does because he's bored. Highly recommended.

1988 collected edition
Grendel: Devil's Legacy (1986-87/ Reprinted in Grendel Omnibus 2: The Legacy/ 2013): written by Matt Wagner; illustrated by the Pander Brothers, Rich Rankin, and Jay Geldhof: Approximately 50 years after the death of first Grendel Hunter Rose comes this Grendel story. It chronicles the tragic fall of journalist Christine Spar, dubbed "Grendel's grand-daughter" by the press because while she's not biologically related to Hunter Rose, she is the only daughter of his adopted daughter Stacy Palumbo.

Devil's Legacy occurs some time in the late 2020's or early 2030's -- Hunter Rose died in 1982. Besides her mother's relation to Rose, Spar has also written an acclaimed and popular non-fiction book about Grendel. But now she's about to get sucked into the underworld which Hunter Rose so briefly but completely dominated.

Originally published in 12 issues in the late 1980's, Devil's Legacy saw creator Matt Wagner hand the artistic duties over to the Pander Brothers. They really suit the story (though I also assume Wagner crafted elements of the story to suit them). Stylish, sharp cartooning gives way to a gallery or grotesques and grotesque poses and representations as the story proceeds and Spar assumes the mantle of Grendel. 

She begins by using Hunter Rose's stolen costume and weapon to seek answers about her missing son. 

She ends in conflict with almost everyone.

The art by the Panders really is nice, whether in the cleaner-lined, prettier early sections or in the distorted faces and bodies of the later stretches of the narrative. Matt Wagner's writing is sharp and expressive as well. Spar's tragic descent is narrated by Spar herself at points, an unreliable narrator becoming more unreliable by the moment. Despite the personal nature of the early stages of her assumption of the Grendel identity, Spar rapidly grows to share the obsessions and urges of Hunter Rose. 

There are flaws in the narrative. The most glaring is the representation of the reaction of the New York police to a missing-child case. Their indifference seems entirely artificial, necessary for Spar's descent into Grendel-hood but never made believable. And that's despite the fact that the police have been privatized in this future of flying cars and an immigrant Eskimo problem in the United States. 

2013 Omnibus
72 hours before the police will search for a missing nine-year-old boy? Um, no. Wagner might have been able to sell this idea by spending more time establishing the police as being completely useless and under-staffed, but these things aren't developed enough to make this particular bit of incompetency even remotely plausible. And not making the police interested in such a disappearance does make elements of Spar's later vendetta against the police seem far too Straw-Man-ish: the savagery and vindictiveness of Grendel is made to seem like a suitable response, and I don't think that's what Wagner was aiming for in his representation of Spar's late-life bildungsroman.

However, the rest of this future, while a little flying-car happy, is fascinatingly imagined. The characterization of the main characters, from Spar through her friends and lover all the way to the police who come to pursue her and the strange man-wolf Argent, is sharp and quite moving at times. Fine work all around. This part of the Grendel epic works nicely for the most part in the slightly reduced page size of the Dark Horse Grendel Omnibus series, though a few sections of text strain the eyes a bit. Highly recommended.