Thursday, June 22, 2017

Watch the Show

Outcast Volume 2: A Vast and Unending Ruin (2015): written by Robert Kirkman; illustrated by Paul Azaceta: If you've watched the first season of Outcast, Volume 2 of the comic book collections is sort of beside the point. You've seen it all, and surprisingly, the TV show is better than the comic. Robert Kirkman's other supernatural series (a little thing called The Walking Dead) is a lot less interesting to me than this one. 

Outcast involves the supernatural, though what's really going on remains unclear 12 issues into the story (or one season into the show). There's a demonic invasion, there's one man who can drive the demons out of people (the titular Outcast), and there's a lot of murkiness about what these demons really are. 

Paul Azaceta's artwork is a bit too mundane for the story: the mundane works well right up until something supernatural has to be represented, at which point Azaceta doesn't seem to know how to combine the normative with the fantastic. 

Kirkman's writing is solid so far as it goes, but this volume seems much more padded and attenuated than the first one. Or 'decompressed' as we say in comic-book land. Where there should be a density of information that drives a story forwards to a conclusion in 20 issues or so, Kirkman instead doles out the material parsimoniously, apparently aiming at something more along the lines of The Walking Dead's nigh-endless run. But the material here, presented as it is, doesn't warrant the drawn-out treatment. We're far further ahead in the story after one season of the TV show than we are here after 12 issues of the comic book. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

From a Buick 8 (2002) by Stephen King

From a Buick 8 (2002) by Stephen King: King's closest foray into what people now call the New Weird. Sort of. From a Buick 8 is as the very least a foray into the cosmic in which the horror elements are reined in, making Cosmic Mystery rather than Cosmic Terror the order of the day.

Circumstances leave Pennsylvania State Troop D with a bizarre automobile stored in a shed. It was left at a gas station by a creepy looking fellow. Its design is just enough off-normal to make it disturbing. And a quick check of its engine -- or its dashboard -- reveals that it shouldn't be able to run. Stamped on the engine block are the words 'Buick 8,' though the troopers will come over the years to call it a Buick Roadmaster. And on its first day in storage back in 1979, a veteran officer disappears off the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.

Stylistically, this is one of King's great achievements. Several first-person narrators (with one primary narrator) tell the story of the Buick Roadmaster over the course of one long night in 2001. The narrative voices are separate and distinct, and the rhythms of the telling approximate the stops and starts of oral storytelling. They're telling a ghost story around a campfire, but there's no fire and the ghost is real -- and not something as simple as a ghost.

There are a number of effective horror scenes scattered throughout the narrative, mostly rooted in Fear of the Unknown. In many ways, From a Buick 8 is a lengthy riff on H.P. Lovecraft's seminal "The Colour Out of Space." But this time it's a car -- a car whose paint colour doesn't seem quite right to any of those who look at it.

King avoids the third-act problems of many of his more science-fictiony novels here by avoiding any final explanation for the presence and purpose of the Buick Roadmaster. Where Under the Dome or The Tommyknockers sputtered out at the end with disappointing explanations, From a Buick 8 roars off into the silence, unexplained and unknowable. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Spirit (1995) by Graham Masterson

Spirit (1995) by Graham Masterson: For awhile, things go along really well in this increasingly odd ghost story from the prolific Mr. Masterson. The period details of 1940's and early 1950's small-town America seem solid. The main characters are convincingly drawn within the confines of the pulp melodrama. 

Our first sign of trouble is a fairly horrible bit of characterization centered around the female victim of statutory rape. And she's 11, so it's really, really, really statutory. But at this young age she knows that she holds the sexual power over her rapist, and not vice versa! Masterson isn't a good enough writer to pull this bit off. Instead, it's really, really, really icky, and later attempts to depict this mind-set as evidence of psychological trauma keep getting undercut by the text's more prurient sections. 

Our second sign of trouble comes with the increasingly ridiculous explanation for the hauntings and supernatural events surrounding this one family. As Ramsey Campbell once observed, "Explanation is the death of horror." And in this case it really, really, really is.

A third trouble occurs and recurs as various characters who should know better wander off alone and do stupid things so as to get killed. A fourth comes with a one-page Epilogue that might just as well have read 'Poochie died on the way back to his home planet,' so perfunctory and baffling it is. The character who was raped at 11 (or was it 10?) later gets anally raped at the age of 21, but only after she initiates sexual contact with her rapist because she really wants to make it in Hollywood. The rapist has a giant purple cock because of course he does. You know, this novel gets worse and worse the more I think about it. Not recommended, giant cocks and promiscuous tweens and all.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4 (2015)

Black Wings [of Cthulhu] Volume 4 (2015) edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories:

Artifact by Fred Chappell
Half Lost in Shadow by W. H. Pugmire
The Rasping Absence  by Richard Gavin
Black Ships Seen South of Heaven  by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan
The Dark Sea Within  by Jason V Brock
Sealed by the Moon  by Gary Fry
Broken Sleep  by Cody Goodfellow
A Prism of Darkness  by Darrell Schweitzer
Night of the Piper by Ann K. Schwader
We Are Made of Stars  by Jonathan Thomas
Trophy  by Melanie Tem
Revival  by Stephen Woodworth
Contact  by John Pelan and Stephen Mark Rainey
Cult of the Dead  by Lois H. Gresh
Dark Redeemer  by Will Murray
In the Event of Death  by Simon Strantzas
The Wall of Asshur-sin  by Donald Tyson
Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount  by Charles Lovecraft 

Maybe not quite as good as previous installments in the Black Wings series ('of Cthulhu' is added in each case for the paperback publication; 'Black Wings' comes from a Lovecraft quotation about cosmic horror, a quotation that doesn't contain 'of Cthulhu,' whose wings I've always figured as being a dark, weird green, in case you were wondering). 

Or maybe I read too many new Cthulhu anthologies in too short a time.

There are stand-outs here from Kiernan, Brock, and Schweitzer. The latter's story features the real John Dee on the last day of his life, and it's a solid piece of cosmic quasi-history. The stories range from just this side of Lovecraftian pastiche to more elusive, allusive pieces of cosmic horror.

One thing I'll note again and again is that Lovecraft's literary children tend to be a lot more depressing than their progenitor. Several stories here feature the return of the Great Old Ones and the destruction of humanity, something Lovecraft never went through with. The depiction of these apocalypses never seems to equal what I imagine in my mind, leaving me a bit cold when it comes to the depiction of The Return of the Great Old Ones. Oh, well. Recommended.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Empire of the Ants (1977)

Empire of the Ants (1977): adapted by Bert I. Gordon and Jack Turley from the story by H.G. Wells; directed by Bert I. Gordon; starring Joan Collins (Marilyn), Robert Lansing (Dan), John David Carson (Joe), Jacqueline Scott (Margaret), and Pamela Shoop (Coreen Bradford): Not a good film at all, but magnificently entertaining. The ants only look 'real' when they really are real, and even then the fact that they're actually in a glass-walled container means that the composite shots seem to show ants walking on air, sometimes at right angles to the ground. Oh, well. 

Very loosely based on a story by H.G. Wells, Empire of the Ants follows an ill-fated group of people touring swamp-land-for-sale in the Florida Everglades with Joan Collins as the saleswoman. Unfortunately, radioactive waste that looks a lot like silver spray paint has caused ants to grow man-sized. Much death ensues until the movie shifts from rampaging bugs to cool, calculating bugs with 30 minutes to go. Schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon writes and directs with his usual enthusiasm. Recommended as an enjoyable bad movie.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting (1963): adapted by Nelson Gidding from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House; directed by Robert Wise; starring Julie Harris (Eleanor Lance), Claire Bloom (Theodora), Richard Johnson (Dr. John Markway), and Russ Tamblyn (Luke Sanderson): The Haunting isn't as good as the novel it adapts, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. How could it be? The novel rates with me as the greatest haunted-house novel ever written. The movie is very good. And I think the movie benefited from the relatively low budget handed to director Robert Wise. Wise elected to keep the hauntings even more off-screen than they are in the novel, inspiring dread instead with shadows and strange noises and booming knocks at the door. 

The cast is first-rate. Julie Harris' Eleanor Lance is the dark heart of the movie. A shut-in forced to care for her ailing mother for years, she has now been released by her mother's death and her own realization that she herself has never truly lived. A poltergeist incident when she was a girl causes Dr. John Markway to invite her to help him investigate Hill House, the malign structure where doors refuse to stay open and "whatever walks there, walks alone." Along with the apparently psychic Theodora and house-owner Luke, Eleanor will investigate the bizarre properties of Hill House. Is there a rational explanation?

Stephen King's The Shining riffs on The Haunting of Hill House, especially in its combination of a deteriorating personality and a malign environment that encourages that deterioration. The movie and the novel have influenced many other works over the years. The movie on its own (movie qua movie?) remains a gem, a sad and horrifying gem that remains as mysterious about the source of its hauntings at the conclusion as it was at the beginning. Maybe moreso. Is Hill House haunted by ghosts or is it itself some sort of malign and inhuman distortion in reality? Answer this yourself. Highly recommended.