Friday, January 30, 2015

World War Skeleton

Skeletons by Al Sarrantonio (1992): This wild, woolly, and marvelously imaginative novel takes the bare bones of the standard zombie epidemic narrative and makes them new. I've always viewed Al Sarrantonio as being a much more gifted writer of short stories than novels, but this dark fantasy novel is a real treat.

One day, all the dead on Earth rise from their graves. But they do so as skeletons held together by some inexplicable, translucent force field that resembles what they looked like (and what they were wearing!) when they died. Even if they died 3000 years ago. Even if they were dinosaurs.

And the skeletons possess their old personalities with one key difference: they're possessed of an almost-irresistable urge to kill the living. When the living die, their dead flesh vanishes and they, too, become Angry-Ass skeletons. It's the new circle of life! The skeletons can be killed, at which point they disintegrate into dust. But there are a lot of them. There are even insect skeletons. Ha ha whee!

With four first-person narratives telling the tale, Skeletons anticipates Max Brooks' multi-viewpoint World War Z in its structure to an extent, though certainly not in tone or content. We may start off with an apocalyptic war between the Living and the Dead, but the narrative soon starts building another narrative within that: a mythoreligious tale of a world periodically cleansed by a flood... of skeletons. It appears that God may have hit the reset button for humanity (not to mention most other species that aren't lucky enough to be plants). And not for the first time.

Sarrantonio's myth-building is faithful to the often unpleasant ramifications of myth and legend. There's a critique here of vengeful gods and chosen ones, of religious fanaticism and stories that reduce women to super-wombs. But that critique exists within a novel that scrupulously follows the ethos it creates to its logical end.

Though there's still room for a comical gorilla, a faithful wolf, and a drugged-out music promoter who somehow finds himself still human and stuck in the middle of things as the apocalypse heads to its end. Apocalypse, meaning 'the unveiling.' What's more unveiled than a person's naked skeleton?

And one first-person narrative consists of Skeleton Abraham Lincoln's story in the New World Order. Sarrantonio anticipates all those comic horror novels involving famous people, famous literary works, and newly added monsters. Though in this case, he's Abraham Lincoln, Human Hunter. It's a swell, bracingly comic novel. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Shiny Happy Lovecraft

The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson (1967): English writer Colin Wilson started off critical of H.P. Lovecraft. But after being challenged by Arkham House founder August Derleth to try to write a Lovecraftian piece of fiction, Wilson ended up writing at least three Lovecraft-tinged novels and one novella. 

However, what makes The Mind Parasites one bonkers addition to the Mighty Lovecraft Tradition is Wilson's own life philosophy, sometimes described as 'optimistic existentialism' or 'phenomenological existentialism.' Basically, human beings need to be positive. And we can map subjective experiences of the mind as if they were objective and quantifiable phenomena. And...

Well, Wilson pushes these concepts in The Mind Parasites into the realm of super-powers that the right person can attain, basically, by thinking real hard for a few days.

This leads to a lot of philosophical discussion, much of it bat-shit crazy, and all of it in service to a plot in which ancient 'Mind Parasites' have been keeping humanity from reaching its super-powered potential for at least 200 years.

Lovecraft gets name-checked along the way, his stories re-imagined as dream visions of the way the universe operates. Whatever horror there is occurs early in the novel, before people start developing earth-shaking super-powers. It's the early stretches that are most Lovecraftian, as details accumulate and parallels with Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" are most prominent.

The main events of the novel take place in 1997, 30 years after The Mind Parasites was written. Wilson gets a lot wrong about the then-future. Indeed, it isn't clear until the climax why the novel had to be set in the future. Then we find out. Oh, brother, do we find out!

The basic set-up of the novel -- in which a few plucky, intelligent men In the Know must band together against a massive menace -- recalls some of Lovecraft's works, as well as a lot of other science fiction (Robert Heinlein's Sixth Column, a.k.a. The Day After Tomorrow, much resembles this work, though there the menace is human and the super-powers used to combat it derived from new engineering and scientific discoveries). One also sees the echoes of Eric Frank Russell's Sinister Barrier, in which humanity faces hitherto unseen alien enemies. It's very much a science-fiction trope, and Wilson's heroic cadre of super-thinkers become that old stand-by, The Secret Elite, in order to save humanity.

Wilson's exposition can be heavy-going at times. And while ostensibly inspired by Lovecraft, the novel very quickly moves into the more optimistic Derleth Branch of Lovecraft-inspired fiction: these evils can not only be combated, but utterly annihilated. Brian Lumley's 1970's HPL-homages in his Titus Crow novels would go down this same path, turning Lovecraft's grim cosmos into a backdrop for zippy, pulp-fiction heroics. And while there's a lot more philosophical talk in The Mind Parasites than in Lumley's early work, the last fifty pages or so head straight to Pulp-land, Destination: E.E. "Doc" Smith. Surpassingly odd but lightly recommended.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Grabby Grab-bag

Seems Like Old Times: written by Neil Simon; directed by Jay Sandrich; starring Chevy Chase (Nick Gardenia), Goldie Hawn (Glenda Parks), Charles Grodin (Ira Parks), Robert Guillaume (Fred), T.K. Carter (Chester), and Yvonne Wilder (Aurora) (1980): Highly enjoyable Neil Simon farce written specifically for Hawn and Chase, who were coming off the success of their first film together, Foul Play. Chase does an insane number of pratfalls, Hawn is goofy and funny, and Charles Grodin offers able, mostly deadpan supporting work. The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent, including a half-dozen dogs used to surprisingly potent comic effect. Recommended.

The Paper Chase: adapted by James Bridges from the novel by John Jay Osborn Jr.; directed by James Bridges; starring Timothy Bottoms (James Hart), Lindsay Wagner (Susan Fields), and John Houseman (Professor Kingsfield) (1973): Excellent chronicle of first-year law school at Harvard gives one just enough bildungsroman without overwhelming the viewer with some sort of message. Timothy Bottoms is excellent as first-year-law-student Hart, who faces assorted school and relationship problems on his way to understanding the law.

Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner does nice work as Hart's on-again, off-again love interest. John Houseman won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the imposing contract law professor Kingsfield. The male hairstyles may look wild now, but the movie grounds everything in verisimilitude. It's one of the few movies set at college with classrooms and facilities that actually look like college classrooms and facilities (and have some of the same lax security from time to time). Highly recommended.

The Alphabet Murders: adapted by David Pursall and Jack Seddon from the novel The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie; directed by Frank Tashlin; starring Tony Randall (Hercule Poirot), Anita Ekberg (Amanda Beatrice Cross), and Robert Morley (Hastings) (1965): Completely loopy attempt to reimagine Agatha Christie's Belgian super-sleuth as some sort of combination of Inspector Clouseau, Our Man Flint, and James Bond... as played by Tony Randall doing a Peter Sellers imitation. The approach doesn't really work, but the film has a surprising number of laughs. I'm guessing it was a box-office bomb, as no one ever tried something like this again with Poirot. Bizarre enough to be lightly recommended, especially if you're accustomed to the more traditional portrayals of Poirot by such actors as Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, and David Suchet.

Seven Keys to Baldpate: adapted by Anthony Veiller, Wallace Smith, Glenn Tryon, and Dorothy Yost from the play by George M. Cohan based on the novel by Earl Derr Biggers; directed by William Hamilton and Edward Killy; starring Gene Raymond (William Magee), Margaret Callahan (Mary Norton), and Henry Travers (The Hermit) (1935): Fifth version (!!!!!) of a 1913 drama adapted from a popular novel by Charlie Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers. Fifth version! And there would be more under this title and others! It's a mystery farce set at an off-season hotel where a writer has gone to write a novel in 24 hours. The hotel is empty and only he has the key. Or does he? Much running around ensues in a very stagey manner, and things wrap up in barely more than an hour. Of interest for its historical value, but certainly not in any way a classic. Lightly recommended as a curiosity more than an entertainment.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Come for the Giant Sloth, Stay for the Invunche

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (1977): Chatwin's relatively small output is a treasure trove of odd travels and idiosyncratic observations, many of those observations yoked over the decades to Chatwin's fascination with nomadic humans throughout history and prehistory. Indeed, in The Songlines, Chatwin meditates on the nomadic pre-humans of a million years ago or more.

In Patagonia made the very British Chatwin a star in a very specific firmament, that of travel writing. Chatwin himself said that In Patagonia was a "Cubist" approach to travel writing, as the book consists of 97 short chapters focused on very specific incidents and individuals from Chatwin's own encounters and from histories of the Patagonia region.

Oh. Patagonia. It's a somewhat inhospitable area at the southern extremity of South America, shared between Chile and Argentina. Chatwin travelled through the area in 1974, picking up local stories to go with his experiences, and sometimes fictionalizing both. Chatwin was a New Journalist in the style of Tom Wolfe or even Hunter S. Thompson: the factuality of his narrative cannot always be trusted, though the wit of the observations can.

The book's fairly loose structure comes from Chatwin's voyage to the origin point of a Chatwin family heirloom lost in his youth -- a swatch of Patagonian hide and hair taken from the remains of one of Patagonia's extinct specimens of megafauna, a giant sloth. 

Along with a lot of South America's other megafauna, the giant sloth met its end when a land-bridge with the northern Americas brought wave after wave of new apex predators to the continent. Smaller South American animals such as the porcupine and the armadillo successfully colonized North America, but their larger cousins were pretty much wiped out.

Following this animal colonization comes wave after wave of human colonization and extinction, from prehistory to the early 20th century. Chatwin touches upon tales of natives and Europeans and more Europeans, of Americans, of Welsh settlers, of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, of worker's revolts, of South Africans, and so on, and so forth. All these nomads, settling and being unsettled.

Regardless of its truthiness, In Patagonia is a fine work, humane and searching. There's even a hook for horror fans: the section of the book devoted to the Chilitoe legend of the malign male witches of the Brujeria tickled then-comic-book-Swamp-Thing-writer Alan Moore's fancy in the early 1980's. He included the Brujeria, and their hideously and intentionally deformed servant the Invunche, in Swamp Thing's American Gothic storyline. And now NBC's Constantine series, based on another Alan Moore horror hero, has offered us much-altered versions of the Invunche and its masters. Pop will eat itself, indeed, and everything else. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Jerk (1979) starring Steve Martin

The Jerk: written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, and Michael Elias; directed by Carl Reiner; starring Steve Martin (Navin Johnson) and Bernadette Peters (Marie) (1979): Before Airplane and ZAZ and the Farelly Brothers, there was Steve Martin's The Jerk. Launched off Martin's gigantic success in stand-up comedy and then as a guest on Saturday Night Live, The Jerk was a big deal in 1979. I remember because I was 11, and like all 11-year-old boys, I wanted to see The Jerk but couldn't because it was Restricted at a time when Restricted really meant you couldn't see a film in a theatre if you weren't 18. A family VCR was still three years away.

The Jerk holds up well, though it may surprise people who've gotten accustomed to Shop Girl, banjo-touring, sophisticated-but-for-The-Pink-Panther movies Steve Martin. The Jerk is all about swearing and occasionally pushing the taste envelope -- never moreso than in the basic set-up, which sees white foundling Navin Johnson (Martin) raised by a stereotypical poor rural Southern African-American family.

But Navin doesn't know he's adopted until his parents tell him. "You mean I'm going to stay this colour forever?" Navin wails. But late at night, a radio left on to some easy listening music grants Navin an epiphany: he's discovered music he can successfully dance to! And so he's off to find his fortune. 

Could a movie that gifts the viewer with not one but two mostly African-American singalongs to "Me and My Buddy Gonna Pick a Bale of Cotton" possibly be made today? I don't know. Navin's adoptive family is smarter and nicer than everyone in the film not played by Bernadette Peters, and the racial satire is a satire of racial portrayals and not an approval of them. Like I said, I don't know.

Certainly white culture comes in for its own slams, along with everything else. But the movie is really a satire of the entire concept of a bildungsroman; it's a lot more sophisticated than it seems. And some of its best moments come in the throwaway bits (for some reason, Pizza in a Cup makes me laugh, as does the washroom key to Navin's first job at a gas station). Peters is a comically gifted actress. The Thermos song is a hoot. And Jackie Mason, Maude's Bill Macy, and Jackie Mason keep things lively once Navin gets to the big city. But beware... life always throws an Iron Balls McGuinty at you some time. Recommended.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Quiet Ones (2012)

The Quiet Ones: written by John Pogue, Oren Moverman, and Craig Rosenberg, based on the screenplay by Tom de Ville; directed by John Pogue; starring Jared Harris (Professor Coupland), Sam Claflin (Brian), Erin Richards (Krissi), Rory Fleck-Byrne (Harry), and Olivia Cooke (Jane) (2012): The 'true events' this movie claims to be based upon took place in Toronto, Ontario and not in and around England's Oxford University, where the movie is set. The events also bear virtually no relation to the movie other than the fact that human beings and seances figure in both. And oxygen, I guess. The planet Earth. The protagonists were directly beneath the Sun at some point.

The Quiet Ones even shows still photographs at the end which one assumes the viewer is supposed to believe are photos of the actual participants. They're not. I actually like this last bit -- it seems like a critique of all those ridiculously fictionalized 'true ghost story' movies. It's the smartest thing about the movie. Or the fakest. 

I can see why The Quiet Ones sat on the shelf for a couple of years before being released by the reconstituted Hammer Films. It's a movie woefully short on the sort of concise and capable characterization needed for the audience to give a crap about what's happening to whom. Alternately, characterization can be replaced by a complicated and interesting story behind a haunting, or by the deployment of some form of fascinating exposition, or by terror itself -- thrills, chills, and spills. The Quiet Ones is thin on all these fronts. It feels like a plot outline rather than an actual script was filmed.

So anyway. The real Toronto experiment involved an attempt to prove that ghosts were really psychic phenomena created by living people, primarily by having a group of people invent a fake ghost and then try to will it into existence. The mostly terrible recent movie The Apparition also spun out from this initial premise. 

The Quiet Ones inverts that premise: an obsessed psychic researcher/Oxford professor (Jared Harris, struggling mightily with his underwritten, unsympathetic, one-note character) and his trio of (grad?) students try to prove that the ghost haunting a poltergeist-plagued orphan is the creation of her psychic talents and not an actual ghost.

If you've seen or read Richard Matheson's terrific novel-into-film Hell House, this will all sound vaguely familiar. If you haven't, then read and watch Hell House (well, the movie's re-titled Legend of Hell House) instead of The Quiet Ones.  Or read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, with its formerly poltergeist-plagued protagonist and its massively haunted house and its team of ghost researchers. Or watch the early 1960's adaptation of Jackson's novel, The Haunting. The Quiet Ones simply isn't very good or very smart. Not recommended.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Revival by Stephen King (2014)

Revival by Stephen King (2014): Cruising in under the radar after the big splash that was 2013's award-winning Doctor Sleep, Revival is what Doctor Sleep purported to be: a return to full-blown supernatural horror by Stephen King. Like King's It, Revival is a horror novel that salutes a lot of other fictional horrors. It mainly concentrated on the horrors of the big screen in its overt references; Revival mainly goes after written horrors right from its Dedication page onwards, as King lists several horror writers and one horror novella (Arthur Machen's spectacular, more-than-a-century-old "The Great God Pan") to whom he's dedicated Revival.

We've seen King grapple with Machen's novella recently, in the mostly successful 2008 novella "N.", collected in Just After Sunset. And you don't have to have read "The Great God Pan" to enjoy Revival. Though you really should read it in any case. It's swell!

To use a baseball metaphor that seems appropriate to the baseball-loving King, Revival first appears to be a solid double hit by a slow-footed power hitter who's lost some bat speed in recent years. But the double falls into a gap between outfielders. Things start to happen. When the play is over, Revival's delivered a lurchy, gasping, but successful (and terrifically exciting) inside-the-park home run. It's not the sort of towering, out-of-the-park slam that was a novel such as The Shining. But it's impressive nonetheless, maybe more impressive for its relatively greater rarity.

Revival begins in very-small-town Maine. We're somewhere near other King towns such as Castle Rock, but Castle Rock or Derry would be a metropolis by comparison. King gives us something new with the Morton family, from which his narrator Jamie Morton springs: a family with more than one child, and the family dynamics this entails. It's rare ground for King, who's generally depicted one-child families (though sometimes, as in It and "The Body," families whittled down to one surviving child by tragedy). King is out of his comfort zone, which is good. The family stuff works. So, too, does having Jamie Morton grow up to be a recording engineer and occasional session musician rather than the standard writer-protagonist of so many King novels and short stories.

Told by Morton in the present day, Revival shows Jamie Morton's long, intermittent relationship with his town's preacher, from Jamie's boyhood in the 1950's and early 1960's to 2014. Three years into Preacher Charlie Jacobs' small-town tenure, a terrible tragedy ends his priesthood, and his belief in God.

The aftermath of this first tragedy (there will be many more, for many people) sees King write one of his finest scenes of non-supernatural horror. Jacobs gives a nihilistic, God-denying sermon at his church. That's not the horror. The horror comes with the townspeople's reaction to his sermon, a reaction that rings utterly true and horrible in its smug, nasty religiosity buttressed with the most awful, judgmentally toxic gossip. It's a great scene of horrific mourning, one to stand with the funeral scene in Salem's Lot.

Then... we're off. I'll leave the specifics of the plot for you to discover yourself. Jamie Morton's post-teen-aged problems parallel those of many other King protagonists; the solution to these problems is different from what we've seen before in King. Jamie and Jacobs form a twinned narrative, two addicts whose addictions ultimately merge into one.

Along the way, King nods both explicitly and implicitly to 200 years of written horror in English. Jacobs' obsession with electricity and what it can accomplish in the realms of life and death gestures towards that early megalith, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Obsessions with death, the dying, and what lies beyond death nod to Poe (perhaps most notably in one scene to Poe's short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"). 

And there are many, many others, including Machen, including H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury. King also nods to himself nodding to H.P. Lovecraft in one of the horrific images offered at the climax of the story, an image which echoes something in King's explicit Lovecraft homage, "Crouch End." 

There are other King-on-King moments dotted throughout Revival, mostly to good effect, from the tiny, sinister "Billygoats Gruff" door in It to the terrible, hidden invaders of "The Ten O'Clock People." And for those of you who've read King's non-fiction horror survey Danse Macabre, there's a notable riff on something King discusses therein -- the Ray Milland-starring horror movie X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Seriously. And it works. And HE CAN STILL SEE!

Certainly, the horror takes awhile to build in Revival. And you may at points think you know where the text is going. Does it go somewhere unusual for King? Good question. It goes where it goes. I think the climax is terrific and utterly earned by what's gone before. Implications for everything that happens earlier in the text allow for a re-evaluation of the events we've read about... and, possibly, a re-evaluation of the narrator. Possibly. In any case, really a terrific and enjoyable horror novel from young Mr. King. I hope we'll be seeing more from him! Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bury the Lead

Last Vegas: written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Jon Turteltaub; starring Michael Douglas (Billy), Robert De Niro (Paddy), Morgan Freeman (Archie), Kevin Kline (Sam), and Mary Steenburgen (Diana) (2013): Relatively enjoyable, fairly tame senior-citizens' version of The Hangover gets aided by its top-notch cast. A number of scenes play like ads for Las Vegas, LMFAO, and Red Bull (to name three of the most blatant). Coming off cancer surgery, Michael Douglas looks haggard and about a decade older than everyone else in the cast. Lightly recommended.

Stardust: adapted by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman from the novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; directed by Matthew Vaughn; starring Charlie Cox (Tristan), Claire Danes (Yvaine), Mark Strong (Septimus), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare), and Kate Magowan (Una) (2007): Somewhat loose adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel originally and heavily illustrated by the great Charles Vess is a real charmer for those people looking for something to watch after watching The Princess Bride for the fiftieth time.

The cast is strong, and given enough decent lines and character bits to keep everything percolating in what may be a slightly too-long film. Michelle Pfeiffer is terrific as the arch-witch Lamia. Several transition scenes involving walking and riding are photographed pretty much exactly as these things are done in Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies, possibly in the hopes of tricking some people into thinking they're at a Lord of the Rings movie. The score also comes pretty close to Horner's LOTR score at points. I do wonder whether these things were done at studio insistence -- certainly the majority of the movie is lighter and cleverer than Jackson's Middle Earth. Recommended.

The Fisher King: written by Richard LaGravenese; directed by Terry Gilliam; starring Jeff Bridges (Jack), Mercedes Ruehl (Anne), Robin Williams (Parry), Amanda Plummer (Lydia), Michael Jeter (Unnamed), Tom Waits (Uncredited) (1991): Gilliam and LaGravenese's urban fantasy offers a sometimes sarcastic love letter to New York. Bridges, Ruehl, Williams, and Plummer all do terrific work, though only Ruehl (deservedly) won an Oscar.

Seen now, The Fisher King is a document of a much dirtier New York, one that hadn't yet had Times Square turned into a food court at Disneyland. Williams manages to modulate manic and melancholy as he did in few other movies, and Bridges is his usual Jeff Bridges self, making the acting appear too effortless and invisible for him to be recognized for how good it always is. He's probably the perfect fit for the role of a vain, self-centred, but potentially decent talk-radio shock-jock: he may be handsome, but he's not afraid to look awful in a variety of ways.

This is probably Gilliam's biggest commercial success (along with 12 Monkeys). He tones down his weirdness without ever losing it -- his vision of New York suggests the medieval at the right points, and not the shiny medieval, but the crap-covered ground-level world we laughed at in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It isn't Gilliam's best film, but it's certainly his sunniest. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013)

This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013): A quick look around the Internet shows how wildly divisive John Boyne's ghost story is, whether the reviewers are the denizens of Goodreads or singer Josh Ritter in the New York Times (seriously). I enjoyed the novel. Is it great? No. Was I entertained? Yes.

For all the novel's other influences, many of which it wears on its sleeve or perhaps even on its chest like sponsor logos on a NASCAR driver's chest, This House is Haunted really comes down to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. This novel is almost programmatically the anti-matter opposite of James' famous (and famously ambivalent) ghost story. Boyne's set-up is very similar: a governess, two children (a girl and a boy), an absent guardian, and two ghosts.

How does it reverse James? Rather than a first-person narration nested inside a frame narration some fifty years after the events of the story, we instead get a first-person narrator still somehow in the thick of things. The girl is the older child, and the one most in peril from at least one spectral presence. The female ghost is the most dangerous one. The male ghost is benevolent. There's no coyness about whether or not a haunting is involved: from the title to the first overtly spectral act, there really is no doubt. This house really is haunted. Really, really haunted.

The choice of title -- a simple declarative sentence -- offers one of the interesting counterpoints to James' novella. James' chosen title has to be explained by the story itself for its true meaning to be understood. The screw that's being turned is the screw of suspenseful narrative, as discussed around a fireplace near the beginning of a novella. A ghost story with a child in peril represents an extra turn of the screw from a ghost story without an imperiled child. It's a title that springs from a discussion of narrative theory. Contrast this to 'This house is haunted.'

Further mirrored images proliferate. Certain signs and portents and bits of ghostly business dead-end, in opposition to the architectural tidiness of James' novella. The prose is mostly plain style, not Jamesian. While both the character and the works of Charles Dickens play a role in the novel, the prose is not "Dickensian," as some reviewers oddly claim.

What do you get? A fairly short ghost story set in 1867 England (London and Norfolk, to be exact), with a plucky governess, endangered children, family secrets, angry animals, and a lot of very physical ghost business. While The Turn of the Screw seems to be the primary mirror, the secondary homages and allusions are legion: Rebecca; Jane Eyre; A Christmas Carol; "The Fall of the House of Usher;" and The Uninvited are just a few. 

Moreover, This House is Haunted counters more than a century of somewhat misogynistic theorizing about the governess in The Turn of the Screw. Critics who claim that the ghosts in James' story are the products of the governess' mind have generally done so while claiming that this derangement is a sort of hallucination caused by sexual frustration linked to the governess' crush on the absent guardian of her two charges. This is both pretty sexist and psychologically loopy: scientifically speaking, people don't generally suffer from full-blown audio and visual hallucinations simply because they need to get laid.

Boyne's protagonist instead consciously and vocally fights against Victorian-era sexism at every turn. And a scene in which an unhelpful Anglican minister suggests to an enraged Eliza Caine that the ghosts are simply the product of the weak female mind strikes me as being a very direct rebuke to The Turn of the Screw's misogynistic interpreters.

Are there problems? A few. Anachronisms occasionally pop up in the language of the narrator. The loose ends may irritate readers who want everything in a story to be a version of Chekov's Gun. And the climax seems about 50% too cinematic, not so much a nod to "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a superhero battle between two invisible adversaries. The ghosts are almost absurdly powerful, though I do think that's part of the Mirror: Henry James' ghosts were almost entirely non-physical in their malign effects. For me, in any case, recommended with a few caveats. But I'll be damned if I understand how this novel made so many people so bloody angry.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train: adapted by Ben Hecht, Whitfield Cook, Czenzi Ormonde, and Raymond Chandler from the novel by Patricia Highsmith; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton) and Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton) (1951): At the very least, Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchcock's ten greatest films. And maybe it's top five. It's a terrific thriller that holds up beautifully and which contains an absolutely terrific performance from the tragic Robert Walker, who would die at the age of 32 the same year Strangers on a Train came to theatres.

Farley Granger's Guy Haines is a tennis player with a marital problem. His wife's been unfaithful. He wants to get a divorce so he can marry the daughter of the United States Senator for whom he'll be working full time once his tennis career ends. But his wife, now carrying someone else's child, no longer wants a divorce.

A seemingly random conversation with a stranger Guy meets in the club car of a train rapidly becomes sinister: Robert Walker's Bruno Antony is a superficially charming psychopath who seems to know an awful lot about Guy's marital problems, and indeed his entire personal life.

While spit-balling various theories on how to murder someone and get away with it, Bruno suggests that potential murderers should swap victims so as to eliminate motive. Guy thinks the creepy guy on the train is just indulging in a lurid fantasy (or mentally goofing around the way that the father and the Hume Cronyn character spin out perfect murder theories in Hitchcock's earlier Shadow of a Doubt).  But then Mrs. Haines ends up murdered at an amusement park. And now Bruno wants Guy to hold up his side of a bargain Guy didn't realize he'd made.

Funny, thrilling, and creepy, Strangers on a Train contains a number of shots and sequences that have been discussed in film schools and film criticism for decades. I'll let you experience them for yourself. Farley Granger does solid work as the slightly dense Mr. Haines, as does Hitchcock's daughter Patricia as the smart-aleck sister of Guy's new love interest. But it's Walker who steals the movie with his insinuating, creepy, hyper-intelligent psychopath. It's an absolutely marvelous performance made tragic by the reality of his death. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories Volume 1 (2014): edited by Mark Morris

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories Volume 1 (2014): edited by Mark Morris, containing the following stories:


Horror writer Mark Morris's attempt to create an annual, non-theme-specific, original horror anthology begins here with this 2014 anthology from tiny Spectral Press. It's a specific nod to some vanished English perennials, most notably the annual Pan Book of Horror Stories.

And it's very good. So far as I understand the introduction, the stories were expressly solicited for this anthology from notable horror writers young, old, and seemingly immortal.

There's quite a bit of range here, though all of the stories are indeed horror stories and not fragmentary exercises in the weird or the overly comical. 

A couple of misfires are the result, but much of the anthology ranges from good to excellent. Stephen Volk's novella, "Newspaper Heart," is a stand-out with its sad and surprising examination of childhood loneliness set against Guy Fawkes Day. Ramsey Campbell's somewhat addled never-was rock star unravels in Liverpool, longing to be included on the city's bus tours of the homes of the famous. And Alison Moore's "Eastmouth" is a chilly, suggestive bit of horror with some resemblance in content (though not in style) to Ramsey Campbell's work.

Another stand out is Canada's own Rio Youers with "Outside Heavenly." It's a sinister knock-out about a Southern small-town tragedy that leads a guilt-plagued sheriff down his own river of darkness to find answers in a place he never, ever should have travelled to. 

There are other fine stories here, in a number of different keys of horror. Hopefully sales of the anthology will allow this to become an annual tradition -- Morris has done good work here. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume 1 (2013/Published 2014): edited by Laird Barron and Michael Kelly

Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume 1 (2013/Published 2014): edited by Laird Barron and Michael Kelly, containing the following stories:

  • The Nineteenth Step by Simon Strantzas: Not so much a story as an opening that's missing a middle and an end. 
  • Swim Wants to Know If It's as Bad as Swim Thinks by Paul G. Tremblay: Sharp and nasty character study suddenly turns into a vaguely observed (and possibly completely subjective) invasion of Lovecraftian horrors.
  • Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron by A. C. Wise: Well, it's sort of funny, and it sort of feels like something that was written in about 1970 for the magazine Weird Heroes, given that the genre tropes it spoofs are all very, very, very old. 
  • The Year of the Rat by Chen Qiufan: Nice dystopian satire in translation from the Chinese would be pretty much at home in an issue of Galaxy magazine from 1955.
  • Olimpia's Ghost by Sofia Samatar: Something to do with Sigmund Freud but I never really cared what or why.
  • Furnace by Livia Llewellyn: Solid bit of weird horror reminds me a lot of late-career Thomas Ligotti...which makes a lot of sense when you realize that it's from a Ligotti tribute anthology.
  • Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? by Damien Walters Grintalis: The pomposity of the title has literally erased the story from my memory. Honestly, it's like an episode title from Season 3 of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda.
  • Bor Urus by John Langan: Typically solid Langan piece with a really spooky, disturbingly dream-like climax.
  • A Quest of Dream by W. H. Pugmire: A tip of the hat to H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Cycle stories. There's really only one W.H. Pugmire story, a sort of Swinburne-meets-early-Lovecraft fragment, and this is another one of those. Enjoyable, rotted twee.
  • The Krakatoan by Maria Dahvana Headley: Promising start, completely goofy weird ending.
  • The Girl in the Blue Coat by Anna Taborska: Solidly written and observed ghost story of the Holocaust.
  • (he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror... by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.: No memory of this.
  • In Limbo by Jeffrey Thomas: Twilight Zone-like set-up for a keenly observed character study. Very reminiscent of a lot of stories that appeared in Charles Grant's Shadows anthologies in the 1970's and 1980's.
  • A Cavern of Redbrick by Richard Gavin: Very nice weird tale with a disturbing either/or conclusion that offers closure without a definitive answer to what just happened.
  • Eyes Exchange Bank by Scott Nicolay: Really the 900-pound gorilla of this anthology super-collides splatterpunk and kitchen-sink horror with some great riffs on Poe and the Decadents.
  • Fox Into Lady by Anne-Sylvie Salzman: Mostly unpleasant, amorphous, mythy.
  • Like Feather, Like Bone by Kristi DeMeester: Story fragment about some gross stuff.
  • A Terror by Jeffrey Ford: Excellent period piece depicts Emily Dickinson's first meeting with Death.
  • Success by Michael Blumlein: I could imagine this story as having been written by someone like Robert Sheckley or Cyril Kornbluth and published in a 1957 issue of Galaxy magazine, only at about one-third the length. As is, it's almost monstrously attenuated.
  • Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck: A sort of inert bit of dark fantasy shading into a postmodern folk story.
  • The Key to Your Heart is Made of Brass by John R. Fultz: This one, enjoyable as it is, would be more enjoyable if it were the script to a Heavy Metal/Metal Hurlant comic-book story from 1979, preferably illustrated by some very baroque and murky European comics artist of the time.
  • No Breather in the World But Thee by Jeff VanderMeer: The usually subtle and understated VanderMeer cuts loose, to increasingly dire and unengaging effect. It may be a satire of weird-fiction tropes the writer has grown tired of. It's sort of a rubbery, pointless, "shocking" mess.

Barron casts the net so wide for his definition of the Weird in his introduction that the term becomes almost meaningless. And the extraordinarily broad reach of the contents bear this out. It seems less like an attempt to come up with a new genre and more like a land grab. Nonetheless, there's a lot of good stuff here. In all: recommended, a little lightly

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Best New Horror; Not-so-good Old Horror

Best New Horror 25 (2013/Published 2014): edited by Stephen Jones, containing the following fiction: "Who Dares Wins," Kim Newman; "Click-Clack the Rattlebag," Neil Gaiman; "Dead End," Nicholas Royle; "Isaac's Room," Daniel Mills; "The Burning Circus," Angela Slatter; "Holes for Faces," Ramsey Campbell; "By Night He Could Not See," Joel Lane; . "Come Into My Parlour," Reggie Oliver; "The Middle Park," Michael Chislett; "Into the Water," Simon Kurt Unsworth; "The Burned House," Lynda Rucker; "What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Z------," Lavie Tidhar; "Fishfly Season," Halli Villegas; "Doll Re Mi," Tanith Lee; "A Night's Work," Clive Barker; "The Sixteenth Step," Robert Shearman; "Stemming the Tide," Simon Strantzas; "The Gist," Michael Marshall Smith; "Guinea Pig Girl," Thana Niveau; "Miss Baltimore Crabs," Kim Newman; and Whitstable by Stephen Volk.

Another year, another solid Best New Horror anthology from editor Stephen Jones. The 25th such annual anthology, as it turns out. Besides the stories, the lengthy sections devoted to works that came out in 2013 are excellent, as is the sad-making Necrology of deaths of people connected in some way to the horror genre.

The anthology is book-ended on the fiction side of things by two standalone sections from Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series. They're enjoyable and deeply metafictional and possess horrifying elements, though they're not particularly horrifying. Neil Gaiman's short-short story, "Click-Clack the Rattlebag," apparently wows when read aloud by the author. On the page, it's the slightest of slight jaunts.

My favourite stories herein include "Holes for Faces" by Ramsey Campbell, a mournful look at the inner life of an endlessly put-upon child; "The Gist" by Michael Marshall Smith, a sad look at a wasted life; and "Isaac's Room" by Daniel Mills, an effective tale of an Internet-augmented haunting that gains a lot of effectiveness from its low-key, under-stated nature. 

Joel Lane's "By Night He Could Not See" is a poetic and ultimately twisty tale of revenge from beyond the grave, while "Come Into My Parlour" by Reggie Oliver deals with a child's much-disliked aunt in another of Oliver's excellent riffs on the classic English ghost story epitomized by the stories of M.R. James.

Stephen Volk's short novel Whitstable also stands out. It's far and away the longest tale in the anthology. It's also one of the two or three best, and well worth the length. Volk takes the germ of a concept from Fright Night, among other works, in this story of a boy who comes to Peter Cushing for help because the boy's soon-to-be-stepfather is a vampire. 

The story goes off in a completely different direction that what one might expect from this beginning. It's a deeply researched look at Peter Cushing's life, set in the months after his beloved wife died of emphysema in the early 1970's. It makes Cushing a sympathetic character, but it also extends some level of pity to the monster he chooses to pursue. It's really lovely writing.

All in all, a solid year for Best New Horror. Highly recommended.

The Hell of Mirrors (1965): edited by Peter Haining, containing the following stories: The Werewolf (1839) by Frederick Marryat (excerpt: chapter 39 of The Phantom Ship)); Ligeia (1838) by Edgar Allan Poe; The Black Cat (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe; Young Goodman Brown (1835) by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Schalken the Painter (1835) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; The Damned Thing (1893) by Ambrose Bierce; The Middle Toe of the Right Foot (1890) by Ambrose Bierce; The Squaw (1893) by Bram Stoker; Who Knows? (1890) by Guy de Maupassant; The Drowned Man (1888) by Guy de Maupassant; The Caterpillar (1929) by Edogawa Rampo; The Hell of Mirrors (1926) by Edogawa Rampo; The Knocking in the Castle (1964) by Henry Slesar; The Fanatic (1964) by Arthur Porges.

Extraordinarily odd anthology is really only noteworthy as being prolific anthologist Peter Haining's first editorial work. And he would put together many volumes superior to this one. But we've all got to start somewhere.

Why is it odd? More than half the book consists of out-of-copyright stories, many of them classics. But The Hell of Mirrors doubles up on entries by several authors. Then we jump from the 1890's to two weird tales in translation from Japanese fantasist Edogawa Rampo. The we jump another 35 years to two solid but undistinguished stories from the same science-fiction magazine, both released the year before this anthology came out. It looks like a job of selection that must have taken about an afternoon, with no apparatus other than a brief introduction to explain to us who the writers are and why these particular stories are important.

If you came across this for a couple of bucks in a used bookstore somewhere and hadn't been exposed to the stories by Poe, Bierce, and Le Fanu, then I suppose it would be worth the purchase. But for the most part, the best stories are much-anthologized and the lesser stories by Slesar and Porges, while mildly enjoyable, can easily be skipped. Not recommended.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Heroes and Misfires

The Amazing Spider-man 2: based on comics by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, Ross Andru, and others; written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt; directed by Marc Webb; starring Andrew Garfield (Spider-man/Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Jamie Foxx (Electro/ Max Dillon), Dane DeHaan (Green Goblin/ Harry Osborn), Sally Field (Aunt May) and Chris Cooper (Norman Osborn) (2014): Not a complete misfire in the tradition of Batman and Robin or Ang Lee's Hulk, but also not a particularly good movie. 

Sony's desire to stuff in a whole bunch of crap about the Sinister Six didn't help things. Neither did trying to deal with both Electro and Harry Osborn's transformation into the Green Goblin into the same movie. Nor did all the ridiculous, exposition-heavy crap about Peter Parker's parents, their hidden Laboratory of Solitude, the Osborn family disease, Gwen Stacy's interview with Oxford University, and so on, and so forth. The whole goddamn thing ends up feeling like the second season of a TV series condensed into a sporadically draggy 2 1/2 hours.

You might want to watch it at home over two or three nights. You might also wonder why the film-makers turned C-list Spider-man villain Electro into a combination of Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan and Jim Carrey's version of the Riddler in Batman Forever. That's some nice borrowing, boys! Oh, and Gwen Stacy dies at the end. It was a bad idea in the comics in the early 1970's, and it's a bad idea now. God forbid superheroes just break up. Not really recommended.

X-Men: First Class: based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others; written by Brian Singer, Sheldon Turner, Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Zack Stentz, and Ashley Miller; directed by Matthew Vaughn; starring James McAvoy (Professor X), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Kevin Bacon (Sebastian Shaw), Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggart), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), January Jones (Emma Frost), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), and a cast of thousands (2011): Competent, occasionally plodding origin story for the X-Men of the 1960's. That it didn't gross enough money is why we got X-Men: Days of Future Past and not X-Men: Freshman 15 or X-Men: Second Class

This isn't really a movie where one suspends one's disbelief to believe in superpowers. It's more of a movie where one suspends one's disbelief so as to believe that Michael Fassbender would age into Ian MacKellan, or James MacAvoy into Patrick Stewart. It's completely ridiculous, but we go with it, along with Rebecca Romjin starting off as Jennifer Lawrence, because one must do as one needs must when the Devil vomits in one's tea kettle.

The whole thing plays out as a counter-historical spy thriller set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, only with more mutants. A lot of the story's events rely on people with super-powers either not using them at all, or not using them against the people they should use them against. They stand around a lot, these mutants, or they move frenetically and with lots of noise. There's really no middle ground. And how the screenwriters, all four hundred of them, managed to turn Moira MacTaggart from a geneticist into a CIA agent must make one hell of a writers' room story. Lightly recommended.

Cuban Fury: written by Jon Brown and Nick Frost; directed by James Griffiths; starring Nick Frost (Bruce Garrett), Chris O'Dowd (Drew), Ian McShane (Ron Parfitt), Rashida Jones (Julia), Alexandra Roach (Helen), and Olivia Colman (Sam Garrett) (2014): Delightful romp from Nick Frost and company. Frost plays a former teen-aged salsa dancing prodigy whose love for the dance was destroyed by bullies. 25 years later, he gets a crush on his new boss (Rashida Jones), who turns out to be a salsa dancer herself. So Frost's character goes back into training.

It's all somewhat familiar in its plot beats, but Cuban Fury's subject matter (salsa dancing? in England? with Nick Frost?) makes the whole thing zing. The writers give the characters decent lines to say. And for all the focus on bullying, the movie views most people as benevolent. Having Ian McShane as the grumpy salsa instructor is some sort of casting genius. And having Chris O'Dowd play against type as a complete jerk also pays dividends. Recommended.

Despicable Me: written by Sergio Pablos, Ken Daurio, and Cinco Paul; directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud; starring the voices of Steve Carell (Gru), Jason Segel (Vector), Russell Brand (Dr. Nefario), Julie Andrews (Gru's Mom), Will Arnett (Mr. Perkins), and Kristen Wiig (Miss Hattie) (2010): Jolly animated foray into the world of super-villains is far better than the vast majority of live-action superhero movies. And it makes about as much sense. Steve Carell's bizarrely accented super-villain Gru is hilarious, the three girls he adopts as part of his nefarious plan to steal the Moon are adorable, and Gru's seemingly infinite supply of yellow-skinned, semi-robotic minions are scene-stealers (which is probably why they'll soon have their own movie). Highly recommended.