Friday, January 27, 2012

Men Vs. Chaos

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2007):

Either The Imago Sequence and Other Stories or something I ate gave me a screaming-to-awake nightmare, so that's a recommendation. I even fell out of bed. If I were blurbing this, I'd write "The Imago Sequence and Other Stories made me fall out of bed with horror!!!"

Barron collides at least two things -- the wounded, jaded, unheroic, macho American tough guy from Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy with a Lovecraftian secret history -- that haven't been collided much before to my knowledge.

There's a certain sameness in the overall conception of several of the stories (first-person-narrating tough guy encounters horribly, horrifyingly awry cosmos, gets stripped of his manhood by cackling representative of chaos), but the imagery and the characterization really carry the day. Also, there's a lot of violence towards men. It's like he's trying to balance the scales. Cracks appear in reality. Cracks appear in traditional constructions of masculinity.

It's hard to summarize any of the stories without giving away the surprising horrors that await. Several appear to occur in pretty much the same universe, one that's Lovecraftian without explicitly name-checking Lovecraft's alien pantheon. Much of the action occurs in Washington State and other West Coast areas (Alaska and Northern California both figure), where real-world oddities (the Mima mounds) jostle up against assorted incursions into everyday reality by some truly awful things. Barron's characters are generally doomed, beset by forces that can't be stopped, incapable of action until it's far too late.

One thing done well here is making characters sympathetic whose backgrounds are anything but (a ruthless real-estate tycoon, a leg-breaker, an aging CIA operative, a right bastard of a Pinkerton detective) -- thus, the stories don't reduce down to EC-Comics-style revenge horror, in which the supernatural takes vengeance where the natural has failed. And yet that's the basic concept that Barron uses in some of these stories. But what's coming is so awful that no man deserves it. Or maybe he does. I'll be damned if I know. Tough and poetic and occasionally very funny, Barron really is already one of horror's brightest talents. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 23, 2012

When Men Were Superheroes and Women Were Secretaries

All-Star Comics Archives Volume 2; written by Gardner F. Fox and Sheldon Mayer; illustrated by Jack Burnley, Bernard Baily, Sheldon Moldoff and others (1941-42; collected 1992): In the 1940's, the Justice Society of America was what would later be DC Comics's first group of superheroes, created in part to boost interest in the lesser-known characters of the infant DC superhero community (Superman and Batman were honourary members who didn't really participate in the adventures, while other characters that included the Flash and Green Lantern would also become honourary members once they became popular enough, though both those heroes would eventually return to active status as the superhero boom of the early 1940's started to bust at the end of World War Two).

The first few appearances of the JSA involved members meeting to tell stories about recent cases. Quickly, though, All-Star Comics would showcase the evolution of the superhero group, with members first doing solo duty in individual stories oriented around a common quest and then members actually fighting together against a common foe.

The main JSA members at work here include Johnny Thunder, Dr. Mid-nite, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, the Atom, the Flash, the Spectre, and Green Lantern. We also get the first 'bonus' insert story in superhero history, as Wonder Woman gets introduced in a solo story in one issue. Eventually, the JSA would deign to make her their recording secretary, a skill I'm pretty sure life as an Amazon didn't prepare her for.

In this second archive edition, the stories are firmly in the second mode, with the heroes teaming up at the end for the sake of closure. Gardner Fox and editor Shelly Mayer were inventing a sub-generic form on the fly, with no real antecedents unless you want to get goofy and claim Jason and the Argonauts as the first superhero group. Wartime concerns form the motivation for the cases in this book, as the heroes seek to raise money for European war orphans, bust saboteur rings, and secure America from aerial attack with a super-secret 'bomb shield.'

This last quest -- and the last story in the book -- sees Fox finally start to write stories with a certain amount of fanciful 'oomph' to them. The JSA gets dispatched singly through a time-portal in order to retrieve plans for the bomb shield from several hundred years in the future. This allows Fox to finally play with exotic locales (cities in the sky and beneath the sea) and a certain amount of humble-pie for the JSA members, who discover that the average man of the future can mop up the floor with all but the most powerful of them.

Comic-book art in the 1940's could often be pretty awful (the page rates of the time didn't exactly make for a rewarding work situation), though the craftsmanship of the artists would increase as the months flew by. Jack Burnley, a longtime 'ghost' on the Superman comics, draws the Starman episodes here with skill and a certain degree of professional slickness, while Bernard Baily on the Spectre remains one of the more idiosyncratic artists of the early Golden Age. Recommended for superhero fans.

Sleepy, Hollow

The Best Horror of the Year Volume One (2008), edited by Ellen Datlow (2009) containing:

Cargo by E. Michael Lewis
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
The Clay Party by Steve Duffy
*Penguins of the Apocalypse by William Browning Spencer
*Esmeralda: The First Book Depository Story by Glen Hirshberg
The Hodag by Trent Hergenrader
Very Low-Flying Aircraft by Nicholas Royle
When the Gentlemen Go By by Margaret Ronald
*The Lagerst├Ątte by Laird Barron
Harry and the Monkey by Euan Harvey
Dress Circle by Miranda Siemienowicz
The Rising River by Daniel Kaysen
Sweeney Among the Straight Razors by JoSelle Vanderhooft
Loup-garou by R. B. Russell
Girl in Pieces by Graham Edwards
It Washed Up by Joe R. Lansdale
The Thirteenth Hell by Mike Allen
The Goosle by Margo Lanagan
Beach Head by Daniel LeMoal
The Man from the Peak by Adam Golaski
The Narrows by Simon Bestwick

Being the most subjective of genres, horror lends itself to argument when 'best of' selections are made. What scares one person may make another person chortle. Based on my encounters with multiple-award-winner Ellen Datlow's horror and dark-fantasy editing, the two of us don't have particularly complementary tastes. The first volume of this 'Year's Best Horror' anthology series from Night Shade Books seems to me to be an awfully scattershot assortment of stories, with only three stories I'd pick myself for such an anthology (I've starred them, if you're interested).

On the bright side, the technical side of horror writing seems in good shape -- there's nothing badly written here. Some of the stories are dark fantasy stories that aren't particularly horrific; others use tired tropes to unnoteworthy effect; a few offer nothing in the way of endings or even adequate set-up, instead falling into the nouveau-tired school of artsy fragments possessed of a few startling images but nothing in the way of character, plot, or cumulative horrific effect. These last examples remind me of Henry James's 100+ years-old-advice to ghost-story writers: "Write a dream, lose a reader."

The inclusion of two poems doesn't really help things either, while "Beach Head" gets the Ramsey Campbell "In the Bag" award for mislabelling a horrific story with a jokey title. I note this while also noting that Campbell himself flagged himself for the "In the Bag" mistake in the introduction of one of his short-story collections.

One story -- "The Narrows" by Simon Bestwick -- is especially frustrating because it's basically two good stories smashed together to make one frustrating one, as Lovecraftian shenanigans and nuclear holocaust work together in a way that never coheres. The standout here is William Browning Spencer's "The Penguins of the Apocalypse", which uses an old (and unlikely) monster to startling, quirky effect. Spencer's horror novels and short stories generally show a mind attuned to absurdity as well as horror -- he's the closest thing the genre currently has to Philip K. Dick, and God bless him for it. Not recommended.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Jane Eyrehead

Jane Eyre; adapted by Moira Buffini from the novel by Charlotte Bronte; directed by Cary Fukunaga; starring Mia Wasikowska (Jane), Michael Fassbender (Rochester), Jamie Bell (St. John Rivers), and Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax) (2011): Everyone in this good-looking but increasingly dumb-as-it-goes-along adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 English 101 staple is a lot dumber and less interesting than their counterparts in the novel. And I'm not a big fan of the novel. But it does look great!


Structuring the movie as a frame tale with a lengthy flashback of a middle section is the smartest thing the movie does, though it did cause me some confusion initially as to when Jane was fleeing across the moors to the house of repressed clergyman St. John Rivers and his two nice sisters. Poor old St. John Rivers gets reimagined as Sexual-Harassment Panda by the filmmakers and a weirdly creepy looking Jamie Bell, something of a disservice to the doomed, repressed, but well-meaning character of the novel.

Mia Wasihowska does yeoman's service as Jane, though the British accent occasionally seems to cause her to swallow her dialogue whole. In no recognizable universe is Wasikowska 'plain' as Jane is meant to be, which pretty much throws one of the proto-feminist concerns of the novel right out the window: the Rochester/Jane relationship isn't a meeting of like minds that overcomes class and physical impediments, but rather a relationship of two good-looking people who eventually hook up. Oh, those crazy kids!

Michael Fassbender is suitably Byronic as Rochester, though he too gets dumbed down. The central Gothic horror of the novel -- the madwoman in Rochester's attic -- virtually disappears in this narrative. So too does the family relationship of St. John Rivers and his sisters with Jane, a relationship that better explains Jane's late-movie generosity with that family. Judi Dench plays Judi Dench playing Judi Dench. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Time's Wing'd Chariot

Source Code; written by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones; starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Colter), Michelle Monaghan (Christina), Vera Farmiga (Goodwin), and Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Rutledge) (2011): Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie, whose birth name was David Jones) directed the excellent science-fiction character study Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. Here, he gives us a science-fiction thriller based mostly on the revelation of character under pressure.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays an American soldier whose mind can be dropped into someone else's mind for the purposes of finding out the details of an imminent terrorist threat. A commuter train has already been destroyed as a prelude to some greater catastrophe, and it's into the last eight minutes of that commuter train's existence that Gyllenhaal will be repeatedly plunged, replacing the mind of a schoolteacher killed in the blast.

Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley wisely keep the explanation of how this process works to a minimum because either the explanation will make no sense, or it would take ten minutes of Basil Exposition to explain it. They even make the lack of explanation a minor plot point -- Gyllenhaal's character gets thwarted repeatedly by the scientist in charge of the project, who basically touches on a couple of points (parabolic calculus! quantum mechanics!) in a way that seems almost a parody of the Architect's ramblings in The Matrix Reloaded.

In any case, Gyllenhaal can be repeatedly sent into "the Source Code", the project's term for a weird mesh of time travel and mind-swapping. We're told repeatedly that the past can't actually be altered and that only information can be gathered to help the present. But is this true? And why can't Gyllenhaal's character remember how he came to join the project?

The obvious genre antecedents for Source Code are Groundhog Day and the Star Trek: TNG episode "Cause and Effect", with a little 12 Monkeys thrown in. Jones keeps the movie moving at a brisk clip, with the reiterations changing enough each time so that the movie becomes neither repetitive nor boring. Gyllenhaal is solid as the baffled soldier, Michelle is perky as a train passenger/love interest, and Jeffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga do nice work as the scientist and Captain running the project (dubbed 'Beleaguered Castle', a solitaire reference that plays out in the movie and also seems to allude to the importance of cards to the classic brainwashing thriller The Manchurian Candidate). Highly recommended.

Troll Management

Trollhunter; written by Andre Ovredal and Havard Johansen; directed by Andre Ovredal; starring Otto Jespersen (Hans), Glenn Erland Tosterud (Thomas), Johanna Morck (Johanna), Tomas Alf Larsen (Kalle), and Hans Morten Hansen (Finn) (2010): This Norwegian film takes the 'found footage' horror movie sub-genre and makes a funny, scary, large-scale adventure out of it. Norway has trolls, as a student film-making camera crew finds out while tailing a man whom they assume to be a bear poacher.

He isn't. He's the government's official trollhunter. And, pissed off at the bureaucracy, the secrecy, and the increasingly endangered status of the trolls he's hired to contain, Trollhunter Hans decides to take the students along with him as he tries to figure out why a number of trolls have escaped from Norway's largest troll preserve and are running around eating sheep and German tourists and the occasional car tire. Trolls, as Hans notes, will eat almost any crap -- traps are baited with sheep and goats, but also with concrete and charcoal.

Hans is the centrepiece of the movie -- the cameraman gets stuck offscreen for the most part, understandably, while the other two students primarily act scared and baffled until they get something of an understanding of the bizarre world of trolls that the Norwegian government has been hiding from its citizens for centuries.

The visual effects are mostly excellent, especially for a low-budget movie. More importantly, they're 'fantastic': the trolls don't look literalized the way that, say, CGI King Kong in Peter Jackson's King Kong looks literalized (he's simply a larger version of an existing gorilla species) rather than fantastic as the original King Kong did, a 40-foot ape clearly NOT of any known species.

The trolls, CGI though they obviously must be, are clearly in the tradition of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation and not the mainstream of CGI, where apparently imagination has been all but outlawed in the past few years. One species even looks like muppets -- if Muppets were 12-feet tall, had been sleeping rough for twenty years, and enjoyed eating people. Will there be a sequel? I sorta hope so, though I'd also like to see the filmmakers tackle other fantastic creatures in a modern context. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book 'em, Cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (2011), containing:

Caitlin R. Kiernan - Andromeda among the Stones
Ramsey Campbell - The Tugging
Charles Stross - A Colder War
Bruce Sterling - The Unthinkable
Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Flash Frame
W. H. Pugmire - Some Buried Memory
Molly Tanzer - The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins
Michael Shea - Fat Face
Elizabeth Bear - Shoggoths in Bloom
T. E. D. Klein - Black Man With A Horn
David Drake - Than Curse the Darkness
Charles R. Saunders - Jeroboam Henley's Debt
Thomas Ligotti - Nethescurial
Kage Baker - Calamari Curls
Edward Morris - Jihad over Innsmouth
Cherie Priest - Bad Sushi
John Hornor Jacobs - The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife
Brian McNaughton - The Doom that Came to Innsmouth
Ann K. Schwader - Lost Stars
Steve Duffy - The Oram County Whoosit
Joe R. Lansdale - The Crawling Sky
Brian Lumley - The Fairground Horror
Tim Pratt - Cinderlands
Gene Wolfe - Lord of the Land
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. - To Live and Die in Arkham
John Langan - The Shallows
Laird Barron - The Men from Porlock

An excellent anthology of mostly reprinted Lovecraftian stories, all of them dating from 1976 onwards. The Book of Cthulhu is quite heavy on 21st-century Cthulhuiana, which is fine -- most of the stories are excellent, several are harrowing, and many come from relatively small-press magazines and anthologies I would otherwise not have encountered.

There's some thematic grouping here, noticeable from the titles of what I call the Innsmouth Dining section (starting with "Calamari Curls" and running through "The Doom that Came to Innsmouth"), but also apparent in sections devoted to shoggoths, historical Lovecraft, and invasion from space and other dimensions.

The original-to-this-anthology concluding story, Laird Barron's "The Men from Porlock" (Google the title -- it's a literary reference), is one hell of a capper; standouts from writers other than the old reliables like Ramsey Campbell, David Drake, Joe Lansdale, Caitlin Kiernan, TED Klein, and Michael Shea include "Cinderlands", "Flash Frame", "The Oram County Whoosit", "The Shallows", "Bad Sushi" and "A Colder War." Editor Ross Lockhart does a splendid job of selecting a very broad range of approaches to Lovecraftian themes and variations.

Many stories specifically reference the Cthulhu Mythos not at all, instead building upon what Ramsey Campbell has called the first principles of Lovecraft's approach to horror -- the accumulation of telling, often quasi-documentarian detail in service to an overarching concern with the sublimely horrific. Lovecraft's children include all those 'found footage' horror movies currently dominating the marketplace, and stories like "The Oram County Whoosit" present a similar approach, one that's both contemporary and emergent from similar Lovecraftian constructions like "The Colour Out of Space" or "The Whisperer in Darkness."

But we also get some brilliant new takes on familiar themes and creatures in "Shoggoths in Bloom" and "A Colder War", both of which provide a fascinating blend of the Mythos and a fairly 'hard' science fictional approach. The shoggoths in bloom become surprisingly sympathetic; the shoggoths in Michael Shea's nauseating (in a good way) "Fat Face" really aren't sympathetic at all -- but the humans may be worse. A nice juxtaposition of stories using everybody's favourite freight-train-car-sized slaves of the Great Old Ones.

I could quibble with the selection of the stories from some of the writers (I'd pick Gene Wolfe's "The Tree is my Hat" over the already-reprinted "Lord of the Land", which has a somewhat clunky exposition section towards the end; the Lumley story is too much of an early, Lovecraftian pastiche from a writer who improved remarkably over his long career). I could quibble with the selection of some of the stories, though there's really only one clunker here. I will quibble with the copy editing, which is strangely awful in a handful of stories and perfectly fine in others. Weird!!! Highly recommended.

In the Future, Everyone Will Wear a Cape

Things to Come; written by H.G. Wells; directed by William Cameron Menzies; starring Raymond Massey (John Cabal/Oswald Cabal), Edward Chapman (Passworthy/Passworthy) and Ralph Richardson (The Boss) (1936): Things to Come gives us 100 years of extrapolated human history in about 100 minutes. That doesn't leave a lot of room for characterization, but characterization isn't on Wells's mind anyway -- or at least not the characterization of individuals, as humanity is the evolving character in the bildungsroman presented here.

We follow humanity's rocky road by watching the history of Everytown (pretty obviously London, England), beginning on the eve of a world war in 1936 and ending with humanity's first baby steps into outer space in 2036. In between, we get vignettes of diasaster and rebuilding, and one long middle section setting the hyper-civilized, transnational Airmen against the tribal warriors of bombed-out Everytown, led by Ralph Richardson's engaging barbarian Boss, the only character in the movie I could imagine not punching in the face as soon as I met him. And he's the bad guy!

The visual effects are occasionally stunning -- moreso given the technology of the time. One's reactions to Wells's utopia, built by scientists and engineers who love lengthy declamatory speeches and airplanes with giant wings, will vary depending on one's own opinions about 'human nature', the perfectability of man, and the wisdom of wearing togas and capes all the time. Why did seemingly everyone in the 1920's and 1930's think the citizens of future utopias would wear capes and dress all in white? Recommended.

Superbat

Superman/Batman: Finest Worlds; written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson; illustrated by Rags Morales, Rafael Albuquerque and others (2009; collected 2010): Slight but enjoyable collection of three different story arcs from the now-cancelled Superman/Batman book. Superman loses his powers and Batman gains them; Thomas Wayne and Jor-El meet up in the months prior to Kal-El's arrival on Earth; cute miniature versions of DC's superheroes and villains drop in from an alternate universe. The whole collection is pleasantly Silver Agey, with very little sturm-und-drang. Recommended.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Hat Squad, The Trip, and The Napoleon of Crime

The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as themselves (2011): British comedians Coogan and Brydon, playing themselves, tour some haute cuisine restaurants in Northern England for a week in service to a newspaper article Coogan has been contracted to do, comedically one-upping each other all the way. This terrifically funny movie was originally a six-part BBC miniseries, edited down here for tehatrical distribution. Along with Bridesmaids, it's the funniest movie of 2011.

Coogan plays the somewhat aloof, Byronic comedian, mocking Brydon's schtick as the Rich Little of Great Britain. Brydon plays the devoted family man who seems content to entertain through comedic mimickry. Coogan is a bit of a blowhard; Brydon is a bit socially awkward. Together, they make a great comedic duo. There's even a bit of character development, though it's wisely kept muted, without the 'big' moments that would probably occur in an American film.

One of the running competitions between the two involves trying to do the best Michael Caine imitation while also explaining how one does this, and how Caine's voice has changed over the years. Others involve James Bond imitations and various bits of jazzy riffing on assorted pop culture topics.

The food -- elegantly prepared and often hilariously precious -- also supplies moments of wit and counterpoint, especially early on when Brydon gets Coogan to admit that he actually isn't much of a foodie, and that the only critical insight he can offer about a bowl of soup is that it's very tomato-y and very soupy. I wish this were longer. Highly recommended.



Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, written by Michele and Kieran Mulroney, based on the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle; directed by Guy Ritchie; starring Robert Downey, Jr. (Holmes), Jude Law (Watson), Stephen Fry (Mycroft), Noomi Rapace (Simza Heron) and Jared Harris (Moriarty) (2011): Guy Ritchie's Holmes is basically a twitchy Victorian James Bond with more brain power than 007. Here, Holmes must foil a massive plot by his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty, a respected mathematics professor and political consultant who is secretly "the Napoleon of Crime."

The plot itself isn't new to Holmes pastiches and homages: Moriarty is trying to foment a World War in 1891. Oh, and Watson is getting married. Downey and Law keep it all fairly light; Stephen Fry plays Holmes's older, smarter brother Mycroft as a more politically committed Oscar Wilde; Noomi Rapace (Lisabeth Salender in the Swedish adaptation of the Millennium trilogy) doesn't have a lot to do as the only Romany fortune-teller in history with a Swedish accent, though she does look great in a variety of hats. Weightless, escapist fun with some nice set-pieces. Recommended.


 

The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by George Nolfi, based on the story "Adjustment Team" by Philip K. Dick; starring Matt Damon (David Norris), Emily Blunt (Elise Sellas), Anthony Mackie (Harry Mitchell), John Slattery (Richardson) and Terence Stamp (Thompson) (2011): Hollywood tends to like Philip K. Dick for the bare bones of a plot and not much else. Dick's novels and short stories don't exactly teem with people as good-looking as Matt Damon and Emily Blunt playing characters with sexy, exotic and/or world-shaking jobs. With The Adjustment Bureau, it's as if the makers of Blade Runner had changed Rick Deckard's character from a private detective to the Man Who Would Be King of All the Popes.

So the movie-makers of this extremely loose adaptation of a ten-page Dick short story called "Adjustment Team" (loose in the sense that it makes Minority Report look like a staged reading of the Dick short story it was based on) take a basic idea that isn't entirely peculiar to Dick (vaguely magical, behind-the-scenes bureaucratic types actually decide everybody's fates down to the most minor of details if necessary -- this is the Adjustment Team, whom the movie renames the Adjustment Bureau probably simply because Hollywood screenwriters will rename or rewrite anything given half a chance, and generally fuck it up while loudly declaiming how they improved the original narrative. Stephen Zaillian, I'm looking at you and about half your adaptations).

Then they add a mushy spiritual element that is decidedly not in the original story, and have Matt Damon be a US Presidential hopeful and Emily Blunt the most important modern dance person in, like, ever. But only if The Plan is followed, shepherded by the behatted army of Adjustment fellas.

None of this works at all well with Dick's recurring focus on ordinary people in extraordinary situations, often just trying to get along. Because it's Matt Damon! The powers that be want him to be President! The Chairman, ie. God, wants him to be President!!! Who needs ordinary people in a baffling world of shifting realities when Jason Bourne is available to run like crazy at the climax?

Oh, and the various members of the Adjustment Bureau wear hats. Because hats allow them to teleport from location to location. Despite the fact that the members of the Adjustment Bureau are supernatural beings of some sort. They still have to have those hats! And their precognitive powers don't work in rain or near water. Basically, they're a really incompetent Green Lantern Corps. At least a ring can't blow off your head in a stiff breeze! At least the colour yellow doesn't cover 2/3's of the Earth's surface!

Matt Damon's fate gets screwed up because the guy micro-managing that fate, Anthony Mackie (in the unfortunate role of The Saintly, Super-powered Negro), falls asleep on the job. History will apparently fall apart if Matt Damon doesn't become President of the USA. The Adjustment Bureau apparently doesn't have back-up plans. It's all one plan, baby! Much pointless running around and stuff later, everything works out fine. The End. Not recommended.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Solomon Kane's First Homecoming

Solomon Kane by Ramsey Campbell, based on the screenplay by Michael J. Bassett and the character created by Robert E. Howard (2011): Based on a well-regarded movie that I haven't seen yet, Solomon Kane gives Conan creator Robert E. Howard's 17th-century Puritan ghost-and-demon-buster an actual origin story.

Featured in about a dozen stories, poems and fragments from the early 1930's, Solomon Kane predates Conan by a few years. Robert E. Howard created a LOT of heroes during his short, prolific life. Unlike many of those heroes, Kane moves within an actual historical context. His adventures take place in the 16th and 17th centuries, though many of them are in an Africa as fanciful as any of the wholly fictional lands of Conan.

Campbell finished up several Kane fragments for publication in the 1970's, there demonstrating an ability to approximate Howard's prose style without sliding into parody. He does the same here. His Kane is a brooding, haunted hero, and the environment is bloody and filled with the violence of men and supernatural beings. Campbell nicely echoes Howard's occasionally wonky diction (there's a stretch involving the repeated use of the word 'supine' that almost does slide into parody) and seriousness of purpose.

The novel is fun, but it's not funny or light-hearted or campy, though Campbell does seem to get stuck with what seem to be a couple of campy, Bondian missteps from the original screenplay. The worst of these comes when a necromancer says 'How do you like what I've done to the place?' to Kane as Kane regards with horror what the necromancer has done to his ancestral home. Augh! This is what Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn flagged as "deadly jolite" in their study of fantasy, Wizardry and Wild Romance, a terrible bleedover from the Bond films.

Overall, though, this is one of the ten best non-Howard, Howard novels I've read. Ramsey Campbell deserves praise for sublimating his own peculiar style and thematic concerns to the service of telling a fairly straightforward sword-and-sorcery novel in the Howard tradition. And screenwriter Bassett does, for the most part, lay out a plausible background for this Renaissance Man, whose greatest Howard moment (in my eyes) came when he physically beat the crap out of a ghost. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Retro-Titans

The New Teen Titans: Games: written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez; illustrated by George Perez, Mike Perkins and Al Vey (2011): Announced in 1988 as an original graphic novel starring the then-current iteration of DC superhero group the Teen Titans, Games soon became one of mainstream comicdom's most famous 'lost' books. New Teen Titans penciller extraordinaire George Perez completed roughly 70 pages of art before the project got shelved. After a few false starts and subsequent stops, Games in its 120-page entirety finally sees the light of day 23 years after its announcement.

DC wisely lets the story take place in the time-lost continuity of 1988, making this almost a tribute to the superhero group Marv Wolfman and Perez made so popular at DC in the 1980's, when the New Teen Titans comic was DC's biggest challenge to the supremacy of Marvel's X-Men.

Perez's almost-obsessively detailed art is a joy throughout -- all the characters are distinctively different, Perez's attention to facial detail being one of his less-heralded strengths. Wolfman and Perez's story maintained my interest throughout, as the Titans face what appears to be a terrorist with a super-powered team, a terrorist who seems to know their most intimate secrets and how to use those secrets against them. The events come, perhaps, a bit too fast and densely -- there are points at which it almost feels like this should have been a story twice its length -- but I'll take compression over decompression in a superhero comic book pretty much any day of the week.

It's nice to visit with old friends -- with Wolfman and Perez on the book they brought to prominence, and with the late 1980's line-up of Titans. I'd have liked more of (Kid) Flash, Speedy, and Aqualad (there are continuity reasons for why these early 1980's Titans weren't a big part of the late 1980's comic), but Games is so packed with characters and situations that I'm not sure how they'd have played a larger role without a lot more pages. Recommended.

Reboot Attacks

Superboy: Smallville Attacks: written by Jeff Lemire; illustrated by Pier Gallo, Marco Rudy, Pete Woods, Cafu and others (2010-2011; collected 2011): Canadian indy comics writer-artist Lemire (Essex County, Sweet Tooth) moved further into the mainstream with his work on DC's Superboy comic book in 2010. Like William Messner-Loebs's similar move to DC back in the 1980's, Lemire's move came while maintaining his unique perspective and sensibilities. The result was the best Superboy comic I can think of for...decades? Since he was teaming up regularly with the Legion of Superheroes, anyway (whoops -- wrong Superboy!).

This Superboy is the, um, genetic love-child of Luthor and Superman, whipped up in a test tube from Luthor and Superman's DNA and revealed to the world nearly 20 years ago in the aftermath of 1992's Death of Superman storyline. Kon-El, or Connor Kent, or Superboy, now lives in Smallville with Ma Kent and Superdog Krypto, having recovered from a serious case of death in 2005-2006's Infinite Crisis event.

Lemire cleverly brings the supernatural into the storyline, a relative rarity in the Superman family of books, with "The Hollow Men" arc running throughout these 11 collected issues. DC's go-to guy for supernatural mystery, the Phantom Stranger, guest-stars, as does Batman villain Poison Ivy and grotesque Superman foe the Parasite. Lemire also has fun with Superboy's supporting cast. Pier Gallo's art is clean and straightforward, suiting the material perfectly.

Unfortunately, DC's line-wide reboot ended this comic with issue 11, resulting in a 'new' (or at least differently written) Superboy on the stands right now. Lemire moved on to Animal Man and Frankenstein in the normal DC universe, both fine and weird books, but I'll miss his take on Superboy -- it, like several other pre-reboot DC superhero comics, was a baby thrown out with the continuity-contaminated bathwater. Recommended.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Hello, Cleveland!

This is Spinal Tap, written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Rob Reiner (Marty DiBergi), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls) and Tony Hendra (Ian Faith) (1984): One of the three or four great, fake documentaries of all time, This is Spinal Tap follows heavy-metal survivors Spinal Tap (who started life as Beatlesque quartet The Thamesman in the 1960's) on an ill-fated album release tour in the United States.

After this would come further forays into faux documentary by Guest, McKean, Shearer and friends that would include SCTV alums Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara. This is Spinal Tap still seems like the best of these productions, in part because it seems so organic and lived-in, in part because it's got some of the great lines of all time..."It goes to eleven"..."There's a fine line between stupid and clever"..."None more blacker"..."I call it 'Lick My Love Pump.'"...and some of the great fake songs of all time, along with screwed-up concert footage, the band getting lost under the stage in Cleveland, the Stonehenge disaster, and two suspicious cold sores.

It's a hallmark of how great the film is that one forever after uses it to explain ridiculous rock-and-roll moments that happened after the film came out. U2 seem even more gormless than Spinal Tap when they too visit Elvis's grave in their horrible, pretentious, utterly real documentary Rattle and Hum. Bono seems like David St. Hubbins writ larger, and the Edge like Nigel Tufnel.

The Stonehenge sequence parodies a host of ridiculous concept albums and accompanying overblown stage shows, but it also anticipates David Bowie's subsequent Glass Spider tour and album, the latter of which opens with a portentous spoken-word bit that makes Spinal Tap sound clever and concise by comparison. And the band's desire to do a rock-opera about Jack the Ripper really doesn't seem as stupid as it should after Paul Simon's mega-flop The Capeman, a doo-wop Broadway musical about a real-life teen-aged killer of two teen-agers.

And of course there's the parade of drummers, a surprising number of which have the nickname "Stumpy." And the cameos, the best of which may be Paul Shaffer as an unctuous PR guy, though Fred Willard also has a killer bit during the band's low point. To quote Marty DiBergi, but enough of my yakking. Highest recommendation.

Batman vs. Cthulhu: The Road to Victory

The Doom That Came To Gotham; written by Mike Mignola and Richard Pace; illustrated by Troy Nixey, Dennis Janke, and Dave Stewart (2000): For a time in the 1990's, DC seemed to release a new 'alternate history' take on Batman every week. Many of them were very good, but the sheer weight of stories about Batman in various historical and fictional locales eventually crushed the whole Elseworlds line that had been meant to showcase alternate takes on all DC's heroes.

Hellboy creator Mike Mignola salvages the concept here in a nice riff on H.P. Lovecraft's (never-named-herein) Cthulhu Mythos, with the title bouncing off the HPL short story "The Doom That Came To Sarnath." Mignola sets the story in the 1920's, when Lovecraft was shifting into high gear on the Cthulhu Mythos, and runs Batman, DC, and pop-culture history through a blender. The story homages both Lovecraft and the Lovecraft-derivative John Campbell novella "Who Goes There?", which would go on to be the basis for three movies named The Thing.

Out of the Antarctic comes a universe-threatening menace, and only globe-trotting adventurer Bruce Wayne can stop it, possibly by putting on that Bat costume he's made. Mignola comes up with some pretty clever, Lovecraftian riffs on familiar Bat-family characters that include the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, King Croc, Ra's Al Ghul, and Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, and mixes in Jack Kirby's Demon, the Green Arrow, and some of his own Hellboy -- which itself homages Lovecraft in its very foundations -- with a plague of lizards and some very Hellboyish tweaks to the Demon and Batman himself.

Fun this definitely is. I don't know much about Canadian penciller Troy Nixey, but he's a good fit for the material: this is a grungy world of Jazz-Age grotesques and squamous, batrachian horrors. It's fitting that Nixey ended up directing a film for producer Guillermo del Toro, 2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Recommended.

Bron Bomb

The Whore of Akron: One Man's Search for the Soul of LeBron James by Scott Raab (2011): Scabrous, totally involving screed/lament by 59-year-old writer Raab about LeBron James, Cleveland sports, fandom, and the wonders of parenthood. NBA star (and Akron native) LeBron James put on one of the most baffling, horrible performances in sports history when he turned his 2010 free-agency decision into a one-hour ESPN show called The Decision.

There and then, after weeks of build-up, , he announced that he would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, for whom he'd played his first seven professional seasons, for the nouveau-riche Miami Heat. LeBron is the central foil here, though Cleveland, sports fandom, fathers, and loyalty are Raab's larger themes.

Decaying, depopulating, Rust Belt Cleveland hasn't won a professional sports title since Jim Brown's Cleveland Browns did so in 1964. And then hometown hero James got drafted by the usually moribund Cleveland Cavaliers, with James soon becoming the best basketball player in the NBA. And then he left as a free agent, which might have been liveable without the televised spectacle of The Decision, a sporting event unimaginable until the last ten years -- a sporting event involving no actual sports but plenty of humiliation and hubris.

Raab decided to follow James's subsequent first year in Miami with the announced intention of writing a book. The Miami Heat soon made it clear they wouldn't grant him press credentials despite his twenty-five years of writing for magazines that include GQ and Esquire. Raab didn't care -- actually, the weaselly Miami PR people get skewered in the book along with everyone else. What would happen to Miami and LeBron at the end of that 2010-2011 season couldn't have been scripted: it was too ridiculous, too appropriate.

Raab writes with profane, obscene elegance and wit. This is, as the cliche goes, laugh-out-loud funny. But it also lays bare Raab's own demons with honesty and clarity, along with the (much) different demons of the celebrity and money-obsessed hellhole that American sports has become. Like Raab, I ended up feeling a wee bit sorry for the gormless, weightless manchild James, a basketball player whose ability to quit during a tough game baffles other great basketball players past and present. He's a grotesque, over-inflated Bartleby the Scrivener, only with more public whining and no self-knowledge. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Catching Up Is Hard To Do

Shock Rock (1992), edited by Jeff Gelb; containing

Stephen King - You Know They've Got a Hell Of A Band
F. Paul Wilson - Bob Dylan, Troy Jonson, and The Speed Queen
David J. Schow - Odeed
Nancy A. Collins - Vargr Rule
Ronald Kelly - Blood Suede Shoes
Don D'Ammassa - The Dead Beat Society
Graham Masterton - Voodoo Child
Paul Dale Anderson - Rites Of Spring
Michael E. Garrett - Dedicated To The One I Loathe
Brian J. Hodge - Requiem
R. Patrick Gates - Heavy Metal
Rex Miller - Bunky
Bill Mumy & Peter David - The Black '59
Richard Christian Matheson - Groupies
Michael Newton - Reunion
Mark Verheiden - Bootleg
Ray Garton - Weird Gig
John L. Byrne - Hide In Plain Sight
Thomas Tessier - Addicted To Love
John Shirley - Flaming Telepaths
 
Very uneven original anthology of rock-and-roll horror stories from the early 1990's. I've always liked King's contribution, an ultimately nihilistic story from the 'We stumbled across a weird town' sub-genre of horror. John Shirley's story cleverly inverts the stereotypes that too many of the other stories play straight with (specifically, 'Rock-and-roll is the Devil's music!'), as does Ray Garton's "Weird Gig." The Wilson, Tessier, Verheiden, Masterson, and Schow stories are also solid work. The graphic sex and violence in a couple of the stories manages to be unpleasant without really being horrifying (or terrifying, for that matter). Lightly recommended.
 

 

Shatner Rules by William Shatner and Chris Regan (2012): What seems like Shatner's umpteenth non-fiction book goes down as smoothly as a Romulan Ale Smoothie. More anecdotes, more self-promotion, more pointed comments about George Takei's Shatner obsession, and so on, and so forth. Recommended.

 












Hellboy: House of the Living Dead, written by Mike Mignola; illustrated by Richard Corben (2011): Fun original graphic novel set during Hellboy's "lost months" while on a bender in Mexico during the 1950's, during which time he professionally wrestled and fought various supernatural menaces, generally while either drunk or severely hung over. Forced to kill a young wrestling, monster-fighting ally after vampires turned the young man into a bat-headed monstrosity, Hellboy went on a blackout-inducing bender, the end of which we see here.

Richard Corben's art combines the grotesque and the voluptuous in a variety of fun, pleasing ways, while Mignola's script strikes the right balance between humour and heartbreak. Hellboy has to face his guilt before he can get out of Mexico, but the whole voyage of self-discovery avoids the usual rote, Afterschool Special platitudes and lessons we often see in such a story. Recommended.

 

 

Fright Night, written and directed by Todd Holland, starring William Ragsdale (Charlie Brewster), Chris Sarandon (Jerry Dandridge), Amanda Bearse (Amy Peterson), Roddy McDowall (Peter Vincent) and Stephen Geoffreys (Evil Ed) (1985): About as good as I remembered it, which is to say spotty but with a great performance by Roddy McDowall as a horror-movie actor turned late-night horror-movie television host.

 

A vampire moves in next door to high-school student Charlie. With remarkably little set-up, Charlie is soon battling for his life and the lives of friends, family, and everyone else with a neck and a pulse against 1980's fashion-victim vampire Chris Sarandon. For a vampire, Sarandon eats an awful lot of fruit. The movie picks up once McDowall comes on the scene as a vain, failed actor who is nonetheless the only vampire hunter Charlie has access to.

 

80's-style cheese gets smeared across the lens by the soundtrack (mostly awful) and some awful 'sexy' scenes between Chris Sarandon and Charlie's girlfriend Amy. There's also full-frontal nudity and lots of swearing, two things that are probably missing from the 2011 remake, along with Roddy McDowall. Writer-director Todd Holland seems to have lifted all his vampire lore directly from Stephen King's Salem's Lot. Retro fun. Recommended.
 

 

Twilight Zone: The Movie, written by John Landis, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Melissa Mathison, Jerome Bixby, and Robert Garland, based on the TV series created by Rod Serling; directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller; starring Vic Morrow, Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Scatman Crothers, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Cartwright, Donna Dixon, Abbe Lane, Dick Miller, and Bill Mumy (1983): Veteran TV actor Vic Morrow and two children died while filming the John Landis segment of this movie when a helicopter blade decapitated them thanks to a special-effects explosion that should never have been green-lighted but was because John Landis is a big fucking idiot. That the segment, a ham-fisted bit about prejudice, is awful only adds a last insult to the injury.

 

This Hollywood tribute to that mostly unHollywoodish writer-producer Rod Serling and his 1960's TV series is pretty uneven. Well, the Landis segment and the Spielberg segment stink on ice. The Joe Dante sequence and the George Miller sequence are good, owing a lot of that goodness to veteran TZ screenwriter Richard Matheson's screenplays.

 

Dante remakes the famous "It's a Good Life" episode of TZ with a lot less menace and realism but a lot more visual effects zing, while Miller directs a remake of "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", a great TZ episode starring William Shatner as an airplane passenger who sees something walking on the wing of the plane...at 20,000 feet.

Lithgow's screaming, sweating performance makes Shatner's original turn look restrained by comparison -- the 1980's version now seems much more campy than the original, though it remains fun. Recommended if you skip the first two segments. The Albert Brooks/Dan Aykroyd frame story is pointless, probably because it, too, was written and directed by John Landis, who as I mentioned before is a big fucking idiot.
 

 

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, written by Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, based on the series created by Bruce Geller; directed by Brad Bird; starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jeremy Renner (Brandt), Simon Pegg (Benji), Paula Patton (Jane), and Michael Nyqvist (Hendricks) (2012): Pretty much every Mission: Impossible movie involves the Impossible Mission Force being disgraced, framed, discarded, and/or hunted by its own employers while nonetheless tracking down the real miscreants.

 
And that's the plot of this movie.

 
The globe-trotting seems more James Bondian than ever, and animation director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) makes a nice transition to live-action directing, especially in several snazzy, convoluted action sequences. The movie does invoke Hudson Hawk in its utopian vision of the life-saving power of airbags. And no, that's not how ballistic missiles work during the descent stage. Extra marks for blowing up a landmark I haven't seen blown up in a spy-thriller before. Recommended.