Thursday, April 30, 2015

Horrors Unknown!

Horrors Unknown (1971) edited by Sam Moskowitz, containing the following stories: The Challenge from Beyond (1935) by H. P. Lovecraft, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long; The Flying Lion (1919) by Edison Marshall; Grettir at Thorhall-stead (1903) by Frank Norris; Werewoman (1938) by C. L. Moore; From Hand to Mouth (1858) by Fitz-James O'Brien; Body and Soul (1928) by Seabury Quinn; Unseen-Unfeared (1919) by Francis Stevens; The Pendulum (1939) by Ray Bradbury; Pendulum (1941) by Ray Bradbury and Henry Hasse; The Devil of the Picuris (1921) by Edwin L. Sabin; and The Pool of the Stone God (1923) by A. Merritt (as by W. Fenimore).

Sam Moskowitz assembles a dandy 1971 anthology of stories by major horror and fantasy authors that had not been previously anthologized  and puts it together with copious and useful biographical and bibliographical notes.

The genre gem here (at least for me) is "The Challenge from Beyond," a multiple-author story from the 1930's in which each writer wrote a couple of thousand words and then passed it on to the next writer. And what a group of writers -- H. P. Lovecraft, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long drive this car all over the road, off the road, and upside-down, in their own distinctive stylistic and thematic voices. It's certainly not a great story, but it is a hoot -- especially when Robert E. Howard (Conan) goes off on an almost stereotypical Robert E. Howard tangent in his section, leaving Long to figure out how to put everything back together again to end the story.

The rest of the collection has its joys too, especially to someone steeped in the genres and writers of fantasy and horror. Ray Bradbury's first published story and the revision of that same story he did with Henry Hasse isn't particularly good, but it's a great window into the author's brain in its earliest stages. The entries from Marshall, Merrit, Norris, and Sabin are all fascinating rarities.

C.L. Moore's solo entry, "Werewoman," is a dream-like, uncharacteristic entry in her pulp-space-hero Northwest Smith's adventures. The weird night-journey of "Unseen - Unfeared' by Francis Stevens has gone on to be anthologized numerous times since 1971 for its strange mix of science and the supernatural. And "Hand to Mouth" by the major and short-lived mid-19th-century fantasist Fitz-James O'Brien ("What Was It?", "The Diamond Lens") seems like a novella written 50 years too early. It, too, is a night-journey of dreams and nightmares, almost surreal or even dadaist in its sensibilities. In all, highly recommended.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Unspeakable Cults

Shudder Again (1993): edited by Michele Slung, containing the following stories:

Aphra (1993) by Nancy A. Collins
Eye of the Lynx (1983) by Thomas Ligotti
Heavy-Set (1964) by Ray Bradbury
Mr. Wrong (1975) by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The Runaway Lovers (1967) by Ray Russell
The First Time (1993) by David Kuehls
The Ceremony (1897) by Arthur Machen
The Nature of the Evidence (1923) by May Sinclair
The Face of Helene Bournouw (1960) by Harlan Ellison
A Host of Furious Fancies (1980) by J. G. Ballard
When the Red Storm Comes: Or, The History of a Young Lady's Awakening to Her Nature (1993) by Sarah Smith
Ravissante (1968) by Robert Aickman
A Birthday (1987) by Lisa Tuttle
The Crooked Man (1955) by Charles Beaumont
On the Lake of Last Wishes (1993) by Claudia O'Keefe
Again (1981) by Ramsey Campbell
Kin to Love (1937) by T. H. White
Same Time, Same Place (1963) by Mervyn Peake
The Model (1975) by Robert Bloch
Silver Circus (1927) by A. E. Coppard
Honeymoon (1931) by Clement Wood
The Parasite (1894) by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Solid, enjoyable mix of original and reprinted short fiction in a sequel to Michele Slung's earlier anthology entitled I Shudder At Your Touch. The anthologies focus on horror stories with some element of sexual or romantic horror. The sexual elements tend to be subtle and understated in most of the stories, at least when it comes to graphic sex scenes. That doesn't mean that the stories can't be disturbing.

Among the reprints, we get both supernatural and non-supernatural horror, along with one mostly non-horrific ghost story, "The Nature of the Evidence" by May Sinclair. Slung does a really nice job finding suitable but under-reprinted stories for the anthology. She also supplies lengthy introductions that contextualize the stories without giving away plot points.

One of the highlights is Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Parasite," written by the creator of Sherlock Holmes before he'd become a public believer in the paranormal. It trades gratifyingly on the Holmesian -- its narrator is a solid rationalist forced to believe in psychic phenomena by being mentally attacked by the human 'parasite' of the title. Like much good horror, the story operates on parallel tracks of the figurative and the literal. Our narrator is under psychic attack, but he's also a stand-in for anyone who has in some way lost control of his own mind, through no fault of his own. 

The stories original to this volume are a bit more uneven. David Kuehls' "The First Time" is an interesting case. Its horrific yet jokey punchline requires an elaborate science-fictional set-up. And the content of that punchline is disturbing enough that the whole story seems too slight for the horror it ends with, an EC shock-short that turns something truly malign into a cause for hilarity. On the other hand, Nancy Collins' "Aphra," in which a man falls into a very physical relationship with a human skeleton he buys at a yard sale, manages to strike the right tone of obsession and Poe-esque necrophiliac lunacy.

In all, this is a pretty good anthology. Readers looking for a weird wankbook will be disappointed, though. I hope. Recommended.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Bathos in the North

The Dawning by Hugh B. Cave (2000): Born in 1910, Hugh Cave started his writing career around 1930. He worked in and out of genre, notably horror, for years before moving on to the slicks and to writing various books both fiction and non-fiction, including well-regarded non-fiction works based on his experiences in Haiti. He returned to horror and fantasy relatively late in life, in the 1970's, and ended up collecting a handful of lifetime achievement awards from various genre organizations.

I note all that because it seems a bit churlish to point out that The Dawning really isn't a very good novel. Published when Cave was 90, it's amazing that he was writing anything by then. 

One problem is that the novel is misidentified as horror by its publisher, the late and unlamented Dorchester Publishing. It has a few scenes of horror, but so too does James Joyce's The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It's really a tale of survival in a world teetering on the brink of environmental apocalypse. You know, just like James Joyce's The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But boy, do things take their own sweet time. Most of the characters are sympathetically drawn, though often in a sickly sweet, sentimental way. There's a cute, overly intelligent dog. There's a lot of canoeing. There are some wise Native Canadians. There's a monster, or perhaps several monsters. 

One of those monsters is a skunk the size of a bear. It's really hard to suspend disbelief when dealing with a homicidal skunk the size of a bear. It just is. The house-sized, three-eyed frog doesn't help either.

Cave sends a disparate group of Americans, led by a wise old professor who turns out to be about 45, into the wilds of Northern Ontario to escape the breakdown of civilization. One of those recreational drugs that makes people homicidal but seems to have no other effects -- a type of drug seen only in fiction -- has helped accelerate societal breakdown. 

Early on, the group relies on the wilderness skills of an outdoorsman who is also a cruel lout, a spousal abuser, and a rapist. You can pretty much guess who the human antagonist of the novel will be on about page 20, when this character is first introduced. Don't wait around for any subtleties of character for this guy. You're not getting any.

Eventually, something starts stalking them. Well, occasionally stalking them. As it kills the least developed characters first, it clearly possesses a certain narrative sense. Eventually the novel ends. I skimmed a lot of pages. Cave's professionalism carries the novel about as far as polished, professional prose can carry a thing. 

The Dawning isn't badly written in a technical sense. It is stereotypical in much of its characterization and occasionally mawkish in its sometimes sunny, sometimes weepy sentimentality. The dog makes friends with a lovable doe. The dog, a miniature Greyhound, has been named Rambi by its owner because it's like a little doggy Bambi. There's 300 pages more where that stuff came from. Not recommended.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

On the Road Again, Again

The Trip to Italy: written by Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, and Michael Winterbottom; directed by Michael Winterbottom; starring Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan), Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon), Rosie Fellner (Lucy), Claire Keelan (Emma), and Timothy Leach (Joe Coogan) (2014): Sequel to 2011's The Trip sends British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing 'themselves,' on another restaurant-visiting road trip, this time in Italy. Highlights include more dueling Michael Caine impersonations, a hilarious take on the vocal problems of Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises, and some ventriloquism in Pompeii. All that and a colourful travelogue of food and scenery. Highly recommended.

The Best of Times: written by Ron Shelton; directed by Roger Spottiswoode; starring Robin Williams (Jack Dundee), Kurt Russell (Reno Hightower), Pamela Reed (Gigi Hightower), Holly Palance (Elly Dundee), Donald Moffit (The Colonel), M. Emmet Walsh (Charlie) (1986): American sports-movie maestro Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump) gets his big-screen debut here as a screenwriter. It's a sharp, gently satiric look at small-town life and the American obsession with high school football, with winning performances from all the major players. Recommended.

Europa Report: written by Philip Gelatt; directed by Sebastian Cordero; starring Daniel Wu (William Xu), Sharlto Copley (Jame Corrigan), Christian Camargo (Daniel Luxembourg), Karolina Wydra (Katya Petrovna), Michael Nyqvist (Andrei Blok), Anamaria Marinca (Rosa Dasque), and Embeth Davidtz (Dr. Unger) (2013): Found-footage horror movie, or at least marketed as such. It's really a found-footage science-fiction movie about a privately financed mission to Europa, that moon of Jupiter that may have an ocean of water (and thus perhaps life) hidden under an icy crust. Despite its low budget, there are some nice visuals and tense moments. Horrible things happen to people, but they're mainly a product of bad luck. Though how anything is getting through several miles of ice to the surface of Europa is a question best left unasked. Lightly recommended.

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story: directed by Jeffrey Schwarz; featuring comments by Terry Castle, Donald F. Glut, John Landis, John Waters, Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Leonard Maltin, Marcel Marceau, and others (2007): As someone who hasn't watched a lot of William Castle's gimmicky horror movies, I still found this genial documentary to be enjoyable. It's an interesting look at the sort of showman who simply can't exist in today's movie landscape, about how and why he came up with gimmicks, and how those gimmicks made his low-budget thrillers wildly popular. Also, the clips of Vincent Price from The Tingler are priceless. So, too, Castle's late-career attempt at a serious art-house film, Shanks, which starred mime Marcel Marceau. Stories of Joan Crawford's behaviour on the set of Strait-jacket also fascinate. Recommended.

National Lampoon's Vacation: written by John Hughes; directed by Harold Ramis; starring Chevy Chase (Clark Griswold), Beverly D'Angelo (Ellen Griswold), Randy Quaid (Cousin Eddie), Anthony Michael Hall (Rusty Griswold), Dana Barron (Audrey Griswold), John Candy (Walleyworld Guard) and Christie Brinkley (Girl in Car) (1983): The first and best of the Vacation movies holds up remarkably well. There may be some culture shock at some of the jokes and set-pieces (dangerous black people in East St. Louis! incest among your country cousins! dead dog!) and at Beverly D'Angelo's casual nudity in two scenes. Casual nudity isn't something one sees a lot in non-R-rated comedies these days, and even there it tends to be pretty rare because of the need to placate the international market. How times have changed. Followed by four increasingly dire sequels, with another one on the way this summer! Recommended.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Astounding Atom-Wolf!

Showcase Presents The Atom Volume 1: written by Gardner F. Fox; illustrated by Gil Kane, Sid Greene, and Murphy Anderson (1962-65; collected 2007): DC's Atom of the 1940's was a short guy who could fight well. For the 1960's Silver Age reimagining of the character, size became more of an issue. 

Now, thanks to white-dwarf matter, the Atom could shrink. He could also control his mass at any size. This being the Silver Age and not the 1990's, that last bit never resulted in him punching a hole in anyone's head (or collapsing into a miniature black hole).

The smooth and dynamic Gil Kane keeps the art fun and imaginative, even when the adventure simply involves boring bank-robbers or Soviet spies. Ray Palmer, the Silver-Age Atom, was a university professor with a lawyer for a girlfriend. And really, a research professor isn't a bad secret identity for a superhero, especially as Ray seems to be high-powered enough in academia to never have to teach a class!

The best adventures herein play with science fiction, fantasy, and the perennial weirdness of the Silver Age as imagined by writer Gardner Fox. The Atom gets trapped in light bulbs, ironed out as flat as a pancake, and used as the battery for a gun. Thanks to the 'Time Pool,' he also teams up with Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe. It's a full, rich life.

Probably the most emblematic story included here pits the Atom against his own suddenly sentient and malevolent costume. And the revelation of who (or what) is behind the costume's criminal shenanigans makes things even weirder. In an era of comic books in which a benevolent chunk of Kryptonite once narrated a story, anything can happen and probably will. Recommended.

Captain America: Man&Wolf: written by Mark Gruenwald; illustrated by Rik Levins and others (1992-93; Collected 2011): Probably the second-most-maligned Captain America adventure in comic-book history (the first being the Heroes Reborn year of stories), Man&Wolf... really isn't that bad. Mark Gruenwald wrote Captain America for about a decade, and his Cap is always interesting even when the material gets a bit weird. 

Pretty much every werewolf or werewolf-like character in the Marvel Universe shows up (the most famous being J. Jonah Jameson's former astronaut son John, cursed to become Man-Wolf by a rock he picked up on the Moon, and Marvel's designated Werewolf, Werewolf by Night; wolf-like characters from X-Force and X-Factor also appear). Someone wants to make more werewolves! A werewolf army! Wolverine shows up too!

And Cap gets turned into a werewolf. But he's a heroic werewolf. The plans of evil will soon be thwarted. Will Cap be cured? Oh, probably. Rik Levins does a nice job on the action sequences, though he struggles with the actual drawing of the werewolves. 

A couple of ongoing plot threads that won't be resolved in this collection could probably have been excised so as not to confuse the reader. An Infinity War crossover can't really be excised, but it's damn peculiar anyway. This certainly isn't a high point for Cap, but Gruenwald's version of the character is always fun to hang out with, furry or not. Lightly recommended.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Memes from a Sprawl

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984): Science fiction can age badly in the specifics without losing its zing -- or its relevance to one's present-day situation. It isn't about prediction, after all. It's about imagining the social changes attendant on changed circumstances. 

And Neuromancer, gifted with one of the most famous first lines in science-fiction history, actually drops the predictive ball right there, at least for now: the sky over Chiba City, meant to look like a static-filled TV set to a dead channel in publication-year 1984, would now almost certainly connote the colour blue to a reader. And the sky over one of Gibson's technocruddy megalopolises certainly isn't deep blue.

Two things really set Gibson apart in the early 1980's -- his interest in something other than the plain style favoured by so many science-fiction writers over the decades, and his concern with the Inner Space of computers. Neuromancer, set some time in the late 21st century in a world with a massive, networked computer landscape known as The Matrix, offers us lots of locations to describe: the mercurial, neon world of the Matrix; the orbital habitats of the rich and infamous (or the stoned and immaculate) ; the technogrunge cityscapes of Chiba City and The Sprawl.

Gibson's descriptions, often dense and poetic, make it clear that the protagonist of his novel is really the world of the future itself. There's a plot here, and characters. But you don't really know that much more about cyber-jockey Case and techno-ninja Molly at Neuromancer's end than you did at the beginning. Really, the Artificial Intelligences who drive the plot are the most interesting characters, and certainly the characters with the most agency. Everyone else is being acted upon to secure a particular outcome that will Change The World Forever. And boy, will it ever, if Case and Molly survive to complete their mission.

One can see why both genre and mainstream critics went gaga over Gibson when Neuromancer broke. His style had few genre antecedents; the subject matter of the world inside The Matrix, really none. Overall, his obvious influences were Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, and perhaps the Fritz Leiber of "Coming Attraction." All of them presented variations on a run-down, high-tech, over-crowded future in which corporations had supplanted governments. Gibson's film noirish plot and characters, combined with his almost baroque attention to telling detail, helped introduce us to the future we all live in, more and more every day: the cyberpunk present, born in the 1980's. Highly recommended.

Count Zero by William Gibson (1986): In this, the originally unintended second act of William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy, we return to everyone's favourite late-21st-century Earth to see how things are going several years after the conclusion of Neuromancer. We get a mostly new cast of characters. We get Gibson stretching his muscles with a multiple-thread narrative. We get... a lot of fax and print-out paper?

Yes, fax and print-out paper, so ubiquitous in Gibson's future that endless scrolls of them blow down the city streets. Oh, well. 

By the end, this really feels like a second act -- nothing really major is resolved, though we learn a lot about the world of the Sprawl just a few short years after the Matrix-altering events of Neuromancer

For instance, an awful lot of artificial intelligences released upon the Matrix in the aftermath of Neuromancer have decided to play at being the quasi-pantheon of Vodoun (that's Voodoo to you!). There's a certain logic to it, though some of that logic won't be revealed for another novel. Of course, there's also a certain type of playfulness to it. One imagines that artificial intelligences with minds that work at the speed of light might start goofing around with role-playing just to pass the time.

In any case, Count Zero moves quickly and tensely from beginning to end, even if that end ultimately feels like a set-up for the next novel. Gibson's main characters have a lot more room to move this time when it comes to personality: his growth as a writer encompasses characterization as well as multiple-plot-line coordination. Recommended.

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (1988): In his third solo novel, and third part of The Sprawl Trilogy, Gibson really flexes narrative muscle by giving the reader several narratives converging neatly at the conclusion. And this concludes not only the novel itself, but the trilogy as a whole, as questions left unanswered in the previous two novels are answered.

This novel gives us the broadest view of Gibson's quasi-dystopian, late 21st-century Earth we've had. We tour another incredibly grungy wasteland of the North American, East Coast Sprawl of urban, suburban, and exurban grunginess. We visit England, where there's still a semi-functional national government in place. We briefly see Japan.

Most importantly, we visit more areas of the Matrix, the cyberspace megalopolis that dominates Gibson's future world. Still the location of vast constructs of data, the Matrix is now also inhabited by artificial intelligences and the occasional electronic ghost of a dead person who's been uploaded into what we would now call the World Wide Web. That web didn't exist when Gibson created the Matrix. Indeed, a lot of people think his Sprawl novels influenced how people created and imagined and shaped the World Wide Web.

Gibson's work with characters here is first-rate -- he's a much better and more assured writer a mere four years after the publication of first-novel Neuromancer. There are flaws and mistakes in his imagination of the future, but such can be said of anyone who tries to think ahead in his or her fiction. His social theorizing seems awfully prescient -- his imagining of the relationship between our (then) future selves and the giant world of data and corporations and people connected electronically on Earth, and beyond the Earth.

Complaints? The ultimate 'villain' of Mona Lisa Overdrive almost seems like a tying off of loose-ends that didn't necessarily need tying off. I almost wonder if Gibson realized this while writing the novel -- the threat posed by the antagonist orchestrating the early crises of the novel just sort of drifts away in a puff of cyber-smoke at the end. 

So, too, a concluding scene that could use a few more pages. It's as if Gibson realized that advances in technology and geopolitical events had already started to make his Sprawl an obsolete science-fictional concept less than a decade after he first devoted a story to it. Like several of his characters in that conclusion, he's already in the car driving away. Still, a grand achievement in literature, genre or otherwise, studded with scintillating bits of extrapolation and hard-edged imagery. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

There's a Warning Sign on the Road Ahead

Broadcast News: written and directed by James L. Brooks; starring William Hurt (Tom Grunick), Albert Brooks (Aaron Altman), Holly Hunter (Jane Craig), Robert Prosky (Ernie Merriman), Lois Chiles (Jennifer Mack), Joan Cusack (Blair Litton), and Jack Nicholson (Bill Rorish) (1987): Broadcast News predicts the future better than most science-fiction films, as it shows American broadcast journalism on a collision course with infotainment. Thankfully, the movie is also funny and suitably dramatic, with James L. Brooks making even the intellectual vacuum that is William Hurt's up-and-coming anchorman a sympathetic character.

The major players -- Hurt, Holly Hunter as a Washington TV bureau's assistant producer, and Albert Brooks as a reporter -- are terrific. There is a sort of love triangle going on throughout the movie, but it never completely goes where one expects it to. The triangle is also in service to the movie's concern with the dumbing-down of American news coverage. For Hunter's character, To fall in love with William Hurt is to abandon her most cherished beliefs about what the news can be (as Brooks' character keeps telling her).

In our era of Fox News and 24-hour-Justin-Bieber coverage, Hurt's crowning journalistic sin now seems like very small potatoes. But it isn't. It was, however, a sign of where things were going, and how much further the news had to fall. Highly recommended.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames: Essays by David Sedaris (Collected 2008): Comic essayist and occasional short-story writer David Sedaris seems to have known from the beginning of his late-blooming career that if one wants to mock a wide assortment of people, things, customs, behaviors, and events around one, one must also mock one's self. Otherwise, you're just a judgmental dick. The trials, tribulations, and tics of David Sedaris the character make his judgments of all those things outside himself funnier and, in some cases, at least a little more poignant.

The novella-length essay that finishes this volume, "The Smoking Section," is a marvelous piece about Sedaris' love affair with cigarettes and the reasons for his decision to quit smoking. It's also an often hilarious indictment of a society gone absolutely bonkers on the topic of smoking. Like Orwell, Sedaris doesn't have much time for the "smelly little orthodoxies" of the smug and self-righteous, even when the smug and self-righteous occasionally turns out to be him. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Catching Up

Lemons Never Lie by Richard Stark (pen-name of Donald E. Westlake) (1971): Alan Grofield, occasional co-thief with Westlake/Stark's anti-hero Parker, gets one of his own adventures here, an often grim series of events clumsily but murderously orchestrated by a sociopathic heist planner with no idea how to successfully set up a big heist. Grofield, who needs money for his summer theatre company (!), turns down the seemingly incompetent Myers' offer to join his gang for a brewery heist, thus setting off a country-hopping series of criminal events. Details of the planning and execution of a competent heist not involving Myers are especially fascinating. Recommended.

Neighbors: written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien; directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Seth Rogen (Mac Radner), Rose Byrne (Kelly Radner), Zac Efron (Teddy Sanders) and Dave Franco (Pete) (2014): Amusing, raunchy tale of a battle between a fraternity run by Zac Efron and young couple Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen, who've just had a baby and now face the horrors of having a frat move in next to them. Could be sharper, but it passes the time. Lightly recommended.

The Giver: adapted from the novel by Lois Lowry by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide; directed by Philip Noyce; starring Brenton Thwaites (Jonas), Odeya Rush (Fiona), Cameron Monaghan (Asher), Jeff Bridges (The Giver), Meryl Streep (Chief Elder), Katie Holmes (Mother), and Alexander Skarsgard (Father) (2014): Film adaptation plays fairly freely with Lowry's award-winning novel, but nonetheless remains a fairly enjoyable tale of a future dystopia. Jeff Bridges is solid as usual as the literal keeper of memories for a post-apocalyptic society which carefully regulates emotions and emotional attachments. Recommended.

The Superman Chronicles Volume 8: written by Jerry Siegel; illustrated by Joe Shuster, Fred Ray, Leo Nowak, Jack Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Paul Cassidy, and others (1941-42; this collection 2010): Superman battles an unfrozen caveman and an electrically super-charged Lex Luthor in this volume of his early adventures. Jerry Siegel's interest in science-fiction tropes also manifests in a battle between the Man of Steel and an army of evil mermen, a ray that can age or de-age people, and the electricity-wielding threat of the Lightning Master. Stories written just before the United States entered World War Two feature the Man of Tomorrow battling saboteurs from Napkan (a thinly veiled Japan) and defeating the forces of aggressive European country Oxnalia (an even more thinly veiled Nazi Germany, complete with an Adolf Hitler lookalike as leader). Recommended.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

When We Were RAW

RAW Volume 2, Issue 1 (1989): edited by Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman, containing comics by Art Spiegelman, Richard McGuire, Charles Burns, Justin Green, Mark Beyer, Kim Deitch, Basil Wolverton, and others.

Penguin Books seems to have published so many copies of the three issues of RAW Volume 2 that they're still available at reasonable prices more than a quarter of a century after their release. And they're well worth having, especially if you yearn to read comics that involve neither funny animals nor super-heroes.

Created and co-edited by Art Spiegelman and his partner Francoise Mouly, RAW started life in the early 1980's as a tabloid-sized alternate comix anthology. Serialized therein were the first six chapters of Spiegelman's Maus, an astonishing and towering piece of comix work that eventually got book publication in 1986, leading to great sales and awards. The commercial and critical success of Maus seems to have fueled the re-birth of RAW as a glossy trade paperback in 1989, sold primarily in bookstores and not comics shops.

RAW is steadfastly avant-garde in many of its selections, though that doesn't mean an abandonment of plot or characterization for many of the creators within. In this smart, engaging issue, stand-outs include a new chapter of Maus (the remaining chapters would be collected into Maus II in 1991, though most new editions of Spiegelman's great work now include all the chapters of the story).

Richard McGuire's "Here" seems in many ways to be the most influential piece collected, um, here. It plays with time in a manner specific and peculiar to the comic format, and has garnered praise from a number of cartoonists (including Chris Ware) who claim its influence changed their cartooning. 

On the lighter side, RAW reprints a decades-old "Powerhouse Pepper" story by Basil Wolverton, a terrific comics artist and writer of the 1940's and 1950's and an engagingly, anomalously oddball talent for his time. Kim Deitch's "Karla in Kommieland" also delights with its weird take on the Red Scare.

On the weird horror end of things, Mark Beyer's "The Glass Thief" is crudely and disturbingly drawn and written. It's as if Grandma Moses illustrated a comic by Thomas Ligotti. An entry from the terrific Charles Burns, "Teen Plague," offers a grotesque tale of body horror and mental disturbance, all drawn by Burns in his just-slightly-off-'realistic' mode of cartooning.

Other stories aren't quite as memorable, but the overall effect is hard to critique, as even the experiments I found unsuccessful still have the capacity to disturb and to challenge one's normative ideas of comic narration and subject. In all, highly recommended.

RAW Volume 2, Issue 2 (1990): edited by Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman, containing comics by Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Justin Green, Mark Beyer, Kim Deitch, Boody Rogers, Lynda Barry, Jacques Tardi, Winsor McKay, Henry Darger, Chris Ware, and others.

RAW magazine's second Penguin/Pantheon release offers another eclectic mix of comix, art, and the occasional article. The show-stopper is a piece on Henry Darger, a Chicago janitor who wrote an absolutely massive piece of illustrated fantasy generally referred to as "The Child Slave Rebellion." 

His work wasn't made public until his landlord cleaned out his room after his death in the early 1970's. Among other things, a documentary on Sarger called In the Realms of the Unreal resulted. Art and story are both surpassingly, naively weird and startling.

Other stand-outs in this issue include another chapter of Art Spiegelman's Maus, another disturbingly weird offering from writer-artist Mark Beyer, an early piece from an up-and-coming Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, Acme Novelty Library), and a beautifully drawn bit of Kafkaesque horror from Jacques Tardi. 

A marvelous bit of personal history from Lynda Barry and a weird reprint of an incredibly odd 'mainstream' 1949 comic-book story from Boody Rogers also delight and confound. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Young Superman Chronicles

The Superman Chronicles Volume 3: written by Jerry Siegel; illustrated by Joe Shuster, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley, and others (1939-1940; this collection 2007): The third chronological volume of Superman's adventures sees the art chores shifting away from co-creator Joe Shuster, whose eyesight was already failing, and onto the artists of the Shuster studio. It's a mostly clean transition. Though Shuster's successors would often be far better artists than him, none would bring the sketchy, restless energy to the adventures of Superman that Shuster did.

Co-creator Jerry Siegel writes all the stories included here. They're a pretty good representation of Siegel's interests in politics and pulp science fiction. Superman stops a war in Europe between two fictional countries and cleans up the crooked slot machine racket in Metropolis. Don't gamble, kids!

But he also battles early mad-scientist-nemesis the Ultra-Humanite, once a bald man but now with his brain transplanted into that of a Hollywood starlet. Seriously. Lex Luthor also begins his run here, not yet bald but instead red-headed. Nonetheless, he's a malevolent foe who unleashes super-science on The Man of Steel, including a heavily armed Undersea City. The Ultra-Humanite brings the atomic disintegrator. Sometimes you're fighting the gambling schemes of mobsters, sometimes you're punching out sharks and robots. 

Even early in his career, the Man of Steel led a rich, full life.  But he's less powerful than later iterations, less concerned with preserving the lives of his enemies if they themselves are murderers, and a whole lot punchier. It's a characterization of Superman that would probably be a lot more popular now than all the other iterations people have been trying in comics and on the big and small screens for decades. Why someone doesn't go back to the beginning is beyond me. He wisecracks like Spider-man and has only slightly more regard for the lives of his enemies than Wolverine. And he's left-wing. What's not to love? Recommended.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Exorcising the Future

Looking for Jake and Other Stories (2005) by China Mieville, containing the following stories:

"Foundation" (2003); "The Ball Room" (2005); "Reports of Certain Events in London" (2004); "Familiar" (2002); "Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia" (2005); "Details" (2002); "Go Between" (2005); "Different Skies" (1999); "An End to Hunger" (2000); "'Tis the Season" (2004); "Jack" (2005); "On the Way to the Front" (2005); and "The Tain" (2002).

The lessons we're supposed to learn from many of these stories are so up-front, so undigested into narrative form, that Mieville sometimes seems to be earnestly auditioning for a socialist Twilight Zone TV series. "The Monsters are Due in Buckingham Palace."

Mieville is a fine writer. At novel length, the message becomes part of the narrative, for the most part, and effectively so, at least in the four novels I've read. So, too, the post-modernist tic of foregrounding the artificiality of the story throughout the telling of that story, which can be an annoyance in the longer works, but a minor one. 

Of the stories here, though, Mieville abandons both overt message and foregrounded artificiality only rarely. "Details," his much-reprinted story from an H.P. Lovecraft-themed anthology, is a brilliant piece of contemporary Cthulhu Mythos-making.  Its settings and characters are grounded in the normative and the mundane; its implications are cosmic and disturbing. I also quite like "The Ball Room," which subtly weaves questions about racial identity and immigration and corporate ethics into a sharp, smart horror story.

Of the other stories, "Jack" works best if you've had some experience with the world of New Corbuzan, that epic-steampunk city of three of Mieville's novels. "The Tain" and "Looking for Jake" are both (intentionally) attenuated, elliptical tales of existential invasion by mysterious forces from Outside. London falls, and not the one in Ontario, Canada.  

The rest are either funny and slight, grim and slight, or bleakly funny and slight. They almost remind me more of some of the more didactic short fiction of frequent Twilight Zone contributor Charles Beaumont than anyone else -- Beaumont of "The Howling Man," punching you in the face with allegory, inexplicably made more subtle for Serling's TV version of the story. Uneven but recommended.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1952): Sometimes one forgets how much social critique there was in the works of quintessentially American, quintessentially Golden-Age-of-Science-Fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov. Asimov never attempted anything resembling complex literary style and his characterizations could often be rudimentary. It really didn't matter unless one or both of those things are deal-breakers for a reader: the ideas were the thing, sometimes developed, sometimes simply spun off on the way to another idea.

The Caves of Steel is a remarkably seminal version of what we'd now call a genre mash-up -- the mystery novel and the science-fiction novel. On a crowded and somewhat dystopian Earth of about 1100 years into the future, someone murders a roboticist visiting Earth from one of the long-self-emancipated  colony worlds. 

This murder is bad for a number of reasons, not least of which being that the colony worlds are far, far, far more technologically and militarily advanced than Earth. Many -- both Terran and sympathetic Spacer -- fear retaliatory invasion, even though 'Spacers' as they're called by Terrans really hate spending time on Earth or among Earth humans, whom they seem to regard as being diseased and unclean.

So the New York City police commissioner puts Elijah 'Lije' Bailey, C-5 level detective in the New York City Police Department (though New York City now occupies pretty much all of New York State and New Jersey as well) on the case. But he'll have to work with a Spacer detective. That detective is R. Daneel Olivaw. The 'R.' stands for 'Robot.' 

Relatively primitive robots are being forced into the Earth work-force by the Spacers through pressure on the Earth's government, ostensibly to make the lives of Terrans better. Earth people tend to hate robots because they take people's jobs. But the Spacers have also refined robots over the centuries, relying on them as important parts of their relatively unpopulated worlds, making them in a wide variety of shapes and sizes -- including Olivaw's type, which can pass for human unless subjected to quite a  bit of specialized scrutiny.

The commissioner trusts Bailey's tact and his detective skills. Bailey may dislike both Spacers and robots, but he's got an open mind -- for a Terran. So off go Bailey and Olivaw, to solve a crime with no apparent physical evidence. The mystery is pretty solid. Bailey makes some mistakes along the way, and we're treated to more than one pretty good explanation of what turns out to be faulty reasoning. 

Was Asimov 'right' in his predictions? Well, probably not -- the assumptions made for why robots cannot kill human beings seem pretty ludicrous in the light of the last 60 years of computer evolution. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are an integral part of his long-lived robotic universe (by the time The Caves of Steel came out in 1953, Asimov had been writing about his Three Laws robots for more than a decade, and he'd keep writing about them until his death in 1992). They don't seem plausible now, at least in the sense that robots in Asimov's universe simply can't be programmed without the laws for reasons explained in the novel.

Asimov's hive-like, overpopulated Earth does seem a lot more plausible, especially after another 1100 years of resource usage. Asimov's future Earth lives on the constant edge of complete collapse due to resource exhaustion and an increasingly over-strained infrastructure. Earth has also undergone a sort of acculturated agoraphobia: human beings are afraid to go outside of the domed-in cities. So afraid that to Bailey, it seems reasonable to exclude the idea that a person could have walked across open land as part of the murder plot. 

It's a lot of fun to see Asimov explore the sorts of social conventions that might arise after hundreds of years living in a quasi-communal mega-city. The gender conventions of public washroom behavior become important in a world where 95% of all people only have access to public washrooms (or 'Personals' as they're called in the novel). So, too, does importance attach to some of the games played by teenagers on the massive moving sidewalks that move people around New York (and every other mega-city). Bailey's memories sketch in the peculiar, over-populated homogeneity of the future Earth throughout the novel: one such memory involves a trip to the New York City zoo to see sparrows, cats, and dogs. 

This Earth has been emptied out of almost everything that doesn't serve a purpose. The population's diet consists to a great extent of products made from a multitude of varieties of genetically engineered yeast. Petroleum has been exhausted. Uranium and other fissionable materials may soon be exhausted, as will coal. The powers that be discuss various forms of solar power, but no one has the will to build them. No one has the will to walk outside, much less the will to colonize new worlds or create and deploy new technologies.

There's a certain amount of serious thinking going on for a mystery novel -- about how civilizations fall, and about how their fall can be prevented. Both Earth and Spacer society need radical revision to survive. It's the robots that may be the key -- rational, cool-minded, and incapable of causing harm to humans. And Bailey and Olivaw would have more crime-solving to do. Highly recommended.

Surreal and Hyper-real

The Exterminating Angel (El angel exterminador): written and directed by Luis Bunuel; starring Silvia Pinal (Leticia), Enrique Rambal (Edmundo), Cladio Brook (Julio), Jose Baviera (Leandro), Lucy Gallardo (Lucia), Cesar del Campo (The Colonel), and Augusto Benedico (The Doctor) (1962 - Spanish/Mexican): Luis Bunuel's surreal horror film may be a commentary on fascist Spain, phrased in ways that work both viscerally and metaphorically. It works more generally as a surreal and increasingly nightmarish piece of social commentary.

A dinner party of rich socialites gathers at a mansion. All but one of the servants flee. And then for reasons no one can understand, no one can leave the living room. For weeks or perhaps months. And no one can enter the house, though no one really knows why.

The film follows the events in the living room, with a few scenes outside as crowds wax and wane outside the house. There are lambs in the house, and a bear. It's that kind of party. Food runs out. The prisoners search for water-pipes to tap. People start dying. People start looking for scapegoats. The enigmatic paintings on the closet doors look on. A disembodied hand scuttles around the floor. Or does it?

Bunuel would later note that he wished he could have gone farther into violence and grue, adding at least cannibalism to the mix. The movie feels like a nightmare possessed of a nonetheless meticulous logic, a logic expanded upon as the film draws to a close, and expanded again at the very end. Highly recommended.

Throne of Blood: adapted from William Shakespeare's Macbeth by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Akira Kurosawa; directed by Akira Kurosawa; starring Toshiro Mifune (Taketoki Washizu) and Isuzu Yamada (Lady Washizu) (1957): Kurosawa pretty much built an entire castle on the slopes of Mt. Fuji for his homage to Macbeth. And it's quite a castle. Spider's Web Castle, named for the labyrinthine paths of the forest surrounding it, is impregnable. 

Two of an emperor's most trusted lords put down a rebellion. But on the way through the forest, they encounter a spirit whose prophecies lead Toshiro Mifune's Lord Washizu to murder his emperor and seize the throne for himself, albeit only after being argued into doing so by his increasingly loopy wife. Hey, this is based on Macbeth.

Kurosawa's film revels in smoke and fog and horror suggested for the most part rather than seen. Indeed, it's probably the adaptation of Macbeth that most plays the play as a horror piece. The spirit is creepy and freaky and a lot worse than any three witches I've ever seen. 

Mifune is, as always, spectacular, as is Isuzu Yamada in the Lady Macbeth role. Yamada's chill calculation fractures at the end. Mifune, though, fractures upon meeting the spirit and never stops falling apart until the end of the film -- unlike Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lord Washizu has no moment of clarity at the end. He doesn't even get hand-to-hand combat.

Kurosawa saves his creepiest spectacle for the end, as the trees of Spider's Web Woods march on the castle in the fulfilment of Lord Washizu's destiny. Smoke billows everywhere. Soldiers flee. The trees advance through the smoke. It's beautiful film-making. One sometimes wonders how Kurosawa got certain shots, given the technology of the time -- in certain cases, forced perspective and clever matte-work  do astonishing things. Highly recommended.

The Hustler: adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen; directed by Robert Rossen; starring Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), and Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats) (1961): Paul Newman was 36 when The Hustler came out. It didn't necessarily make him a star, but it certainly announced him as being a great American actor. His pool hustler, Eddie Felson, is a nuanced portrayal of desperation and loss and rootlessness. 

Robert Rossen directed the film in an almost neo-Realist manner, at least for American cinema at the time. The dingy pool halls and bus stations and bars look lived-in (for the most part, they are -- there are a few sets, but much of the filming was location filming); the acting is, for the most part, unmelodramatic and recognizably 'modern.' You can see why Martin Scorsese wanted to direct the 1985 sequel, The Colour of Money: Rossen's streets are certainly mean, and George C. Scott's persuasive, treacherous mobster wouldn't be out of place in Goodfellas.

Newman announces his maturity as an actor by playing pool hustler 'Fast' Eddie Felson without accents or histrionics. He's a damaged soul with one great ability, but that ability puts him in situations where he can only be damaged more. He's trapped on the fringes of the underworld if he wants to ply his trade: there is no professional pool player's tour in 1961.

The Hustler doesn't supply the plot beats and schematicism one expects of modern Hollywood dramas. After a rare-for-the-time pre-credits sequence showing us how Felson and his partner hustle people in small-time pool scams, we basically open with an almost endless series of pool games between Felson and New York City's greatest pool player, Minnesota Fats. In the immortal words of somebody, character is revealed by a character's actions.

The bulk of the rest of the film brings Piper Laurie's wounded, enigmatic Sarah into play as a love interest for a devastated Felson. Good things happen. Bad things happen. And eventually the film will have to force Eddie to evaluate whether financial success is, as George C. Scott's mobster tells him, the only thing that defines winners and losers. 

Piper Laurie is terrific as Sarah, who's a lot deeper than she first appears, though perhaps less mysterious than she says. Scott is also terrific, already working that sweaty shoutiness. Gleason underplays Fats throughout -- indeed, he barely speaks at all, but he nonetheless got a Supporting Oscar nomination for this film. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Dreadful Duo

Tammy: written by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone; directed by Ben Falcone; starring Melissa McCarthy (Tammy), Susan Sarandon (Pearl), Kathy Bates (Lenore), Alison Janney (Deb), Dan Aykroyd (Don), Mark Duplass (Bobby), and Gary Cole (Earl) (2014): This is the sort of comedy that appeared in John Candy's film career far too frequently -- which is to say, terrible and gormless about how to use an overweight comic actor.

But the punchline is that unlike Candy, Melissa McCarthy co-wrote her film with her husband, who also directs. And it's terrible stuff. The casting is great, especially of all the female parts, though those not wasted by bad writing are wasted by a lack of lines (Toni Collette and Alison Janney in the latter case). 

Some moments of slapstick and verbal comedy work, enough to keep one watching, and the second half of the film is a marked improvement on the first half. McCarthy needs better material. What's weird is that apparently she needs to find someone other than herself or her husband to exploit her potential. Not recommended.

Deliver Us from Evil: 'inspired' and adapted from the book by Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman; directed by Scott Derrickson; starring Eric Bana (Sergeant Sarchie), Edgar Ramirez (Father Mendoza), Olivia Munn (Jen Sarchie), and Joel McHale (Detective Butler) (2014): Real-life person-type Ralph Sarchie is indeed a real former NYPD cop turned paranormal investigator. He comes from the school of the Warrens (remember the 'real' investigators in The Conjuring?), which means that charitably speaking, I don't believe a word of his paranormal adventures.

However, as a quick perusal of the IMDB page for this movie reveals, this film, 'inspired by actual case files,' is pretty much entirely fictional anyway. The case that Sarchie, still a cop, and Father Mendoza find themselves investigating has been invented whole-cloth by the film-makers so as to give Sarchie an exciting origin story. I'm assuming they were hoping for a Conjuring-level hit and a subsequent series of Sarchie-centric horror movies. No such luck. I hope.

As casting decisions go, this is a comedy of errors. Eric Bana struggles mightily to play a New York cop, Olivia Munn seems to have wandered in from another movie, Edgar Martinez lacks all plausibility as a sexy, "undercover" (the character's word, not mine) Roman Catholic priest, and Joel McHale plays Joel McHale playing a wise-cracking cop in what may be a dream sequence from Community. Many major concepts, including the Iraqi origin of the demons, are simply lifted from The Exorcist.

Most hilariously, the film-makers apparently are a-scared of The Doors. Doors music and lyrics show up repeatedly as elements in the various horrors being perpetrated by the demons. Is Satan a Doors fan? Is he sitting on the bus sucking on a humbug? I have no idea. This is dreadful, stupid horror. Not recommended.