Friday, September 25, 2015

When Writers Attack

Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer: written by Michael Moorcock; illustrated by Walt Simonson (2004-2006; collected 2007): Elric creator (among many, many, many other things) Michael Moorcock returns to his most famous fantasy creation for an origin story of sorts. Here, we see the sickly heir apparent to the throne of fantasy kingdom Melnibone undergo four trials to determine his worthiness to be king when his father dies. 

Walt Simonson's artwork is well-suited to the material -- as with his brilliant 1980's work on Marvel's Thor, this work possesses a real and specific and dynamic view of the fantastic. Moorcock keeps things cracking along in this idiosyncratic tale of trials and tests while keeping things accessible for those who haven't encountered Elric of Melnibone before. 

One of the things I noticed in returning to Elric's world after about 30 years away is how much George R.R. Martin's conception of Old Valyria and its dragon-and-dark-magic-based primacy owes to the Moorcock's vision of Melnibone in relation to the Young Kingdoms of humanity, right down to the dragons. Recommended.

Agatha: written by Kathleen Tynan and Arthur Hopcraft; directed by Michael Apted; starring Dustin Hoffman (Wally Stanton), Vanessa Redgrave (Agatha Christie), Timothy Dalton (Colonel Archibald Christie), and Celia Gregory (Nancy Neele) (1979): Slight but enjoyable fictional speculation about what happened during Agatha Christie's famous 11-day disappearance in 1926. I realize that she was actually helping Doctor Who battle giant alien bees, but this is almost as plausible. Redgrave, Hoffman, and Dalton are all excellent, while Michael Apted's direction keeps things mostly tight and Vittorio Storaro's cinematography casts a period glow over everything. Apparently, the Christie estate sued twice to keep the movie from being released, unsuccessfully. But really, it's not all that scandalous. Lightly recommended.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief: based on the book by Lawrence Wright; written and directed by Alex Gibney (2015): Excellent, occasionally harrowing documentary about the history and practices of the Church of Scientology from creator L. Ron Hubbard's adventures in writing and sub-chasing in the 1930's and 1940's through its creation in the mid-1950's to its well-financed global position today. 

Interviews with former Scientologists and some often astonishing archival material form the bulk of the documentary, along with commentary from Lawrence Wright, who wrote the book it's based on. London, Ontario's Paul Haggis supplies a lot of the ex-Scientologist anecdotes and rueful self-examination, but he's far from the highest ranking member of the Church to testify to the camera about its excesses, leaders, and overall weirdness. Another documentary home run for Alex Gibney, whose best-known previous work is probably The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Enron Story. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

When Bad Titles Happen To Good Books

Frankenstorm by Ray Garton, also including the novella "The Guy Down the Street" (2014): Great, fun, pulpy horror-thriller with a terrible title. An unlikely West Coast hurricane and a sinister government bio-weapon project team up to cause major problems for the citizens of Eureka, California, north of San Francisco. Ray Garton handles the multiple viewpoint third-person narration smoothly, cranking up the tension as the disparate plot threads begin to dovetail towards the conclusion. 

As pretty much always, Garton manages to work a social consciousness into the horrors and thrills. The bio-weapon team has been abducting homeless people from the Eureka area and experimenting on them in order to develop a viral weapon. 

Both the first chapter and various sections throughout generate sympathy for these unwilling test subjects, as well as for a working-class woman who also gets pulled into the terrible events of the novel simply because she needs money for her son's medical care. It's rare that a thriller can end with a solemn contemplation of mortality, but Frankenstorm does, and effectively. This is the sort of thrilling agit-prop we could use more of.

Nonetheless, thrills and surprises are paramount. Frankenstorm stirs a bunch of things that have often served as the plot-engine for a thriller -- a crazy cop, a conspiracy-busting reporter, a well-armed private army, a mad scientist, a hurricane, a child custody battle -- into the same pot. And it's delicious! This paperback edition also includes an X-rated version of the sort of American-suburban contes cruel that Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont created in the 1950's, "The Guy Down the Street." In all, recommended.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Man and Superman Vs. Nature

The Nature of Balance by Tim Lebbon (2000): An early novel from the prolific Tim Lebbon pits a small group of people against nature gone mad. Or at least intensely angry at human beings. 

There are elements of Arthur Machen's work throughout the novel, as one reviewer points out in a blurb on the back cover. Of course, Lebbon has a character talk about an Arthur Machen story early in the text, so there's a signpost here, brightly illuminated. It's Machen's "The Terror," in which animals launch an attack on humanity, that's referenced in the novel. 

However, there are other Machanesque touches as well that recall other works, especially a discussion of what true natural evil would look like ("The White People") and Machen's ideas of reality being perhaps too horrible to contemplate without some mediation ("The White People" and "The Great God Pan," among others).

Lebbon doesn't attempt to write like Machen. The Nature of Balance is more like SplatterMachen, with all the explicit blood and guts and gore and sexual ramifications shown where they were only (strongly) implied in Machen's early 20th-century work. It works because of Lebbon's strong hand at characterization more than anything else. 

The litany of horrors can get a bit repetitive after awhile (never have so many things smelled so "rich" and "meaty" -- the line between gross-out and dog-food commercial can be a thin one). But Lebbon also exhibits a great deal of creativity in depicting Nature gone mad at warp-speed. There's actually something Miltonic in some of the descriptions of what is, I suppose, a post-post-lapsarian landscape, a world in which once again everything has changed, changed utterly. But there's also hope, and hopeful characters amidst the rubble and the crawling tentacles of malevolent trees. Recommended.

The Superman Chronicles Volume 10, containing Superman stories from Action Comics 53-55, Superman 18-19, and World's Finest 7 (published 1942/collection 2012): written by Jerry Siegel; illustrated by John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Jack Burnley, George Roussos, and Ed Dobrotka.

Minor, unpowered villains that include The Snake, The Night-Owl, and Captain Ironfist appear in this chronological collection of Superman stories, all of them originally published in 1942. You can tell America has entered WWII from the covers alone, which feature Superman vs. the Axis powers in various locales (though none of the stories deal with the war directly).

Lex Luthor makes another of his early appearances in "The Heat Horror," this time threatening humanity from his new headquarters inside an artificial asteroid. Jerry Siegel loved his science fiction. There are a few more mundane tales involving mining and racketeers. The three oddities of the volume are also the stand-outs.

In "The Case of the Funny Paper Crimes," Superman battles gigantic comic-strip characters who've come to life and started committing crimes. All the characters and strips we see in the course of the story are riffs on popular comic strips of the time that include Prince Valiant and Dick Tracy. It's one of the most fun and metafictional of all early Superman stories.

But we're not done with metafiction and the super-roman a clef just yet!  In "A Goof Named Tiny Rufe," Superman deals with a very, very thinly disguised parody/homage of popular comic strip Li'l Abner and its creator Al Capp. And there are (unnamed) cameos in this story from various Superman editors and writers. Superman writer/creator Jerry Siegel is certainly having fun, as are his artists on this one, doing awfully good approximations of the style and characters of Li'l Abner.

But wait! There's more metafiction! In "Superman, Matinee Idol!," Clark Kent and Lois Lane visit a movie theatre that's showing a Superman cartoon. Indeed, it's a sequel to the first Fleischer Studios Superman cartoon, "Superman vs. The Mechanical Monsters." The story of this fictional cartoon occupies the bulk of the story. Interpolated throughout are scenes in which Clark prevents Lois from learning his secrets (including his secret identity) from the cartoon itself. This story is all play and all meta, a jolly and fairly sophisticated piece of fantasy writing.

These three fantastical, metafictional Superman stories make me wonder if Jerry Siegel had been reading Captain Marvel comics, which were generally more fantastical than the adventures of Superman, and by 1942 almost as popular if not moreso for a brief time. 

In any case, they're a delight. Siegel's artists do fine work, especially John Sikela, who approximates both Joe Shuster's style and Al Capp's style in the course of a volume. And I haven't even mentioned one of the greatest scenes in Superman history. See, The Night-Owl has a trained owl with claws dipped in deadly poison. He sends it after Lois Lane. But Superman arrives just in the nick of time... and punches the owl so hard it explodes in a flurry of feathers and claws. That is awesome. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Detective Robot

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (1956): Isaac Asimov all but invented the science-fiction mystery with his first novel about human police detective Lije Baley and robot partner Daneel Olivaw in 1950's The Caves of Steel. Six years later (well, a year later in book time), the two pair up again, this time to solve a murder on the most sparsely populated of the worlds colonized hundreds of years earlier by Earth and its colony worlds. Solaria has a population of 10,000, along with millions upon millions of robots.

The Spacers, as the inhabitants of Earth's long-emancipated colony worlds are known collectively, are far ahead of Earth both technologically and biologically. However, they no longer have anything resembling a police force on any of their worlds: the elimination of want and need caused by their use of robots has made them a virtually crimeless society. Thankfully, run-down, over-populated Earth has lots of crime and thus lots of experience solving crime. As Lije Baley acquitted himself well in the first novel solving the murder of a Spacer on Earth, he's now called upon to run the investigation on Solaria.

Asimov continues to develop the peculiar psychology of Earth residents here -- Baley, like most citizens of Earth, is intensely agoraphobic because Earth's entire civilization exists inside vast, enclosed cities. Earth's surface has been devoted to providing food for the planet's teeming billions. But Baley must work to overcome at least part of this agoraphobia during his investigation. Solaria is so intentionally under-populated that its citizens have developed crippling social phobias when forced to be in the physical presence of other human beings. 

Daneel Olivaw, human-form robot from the pre-eminent Spacer world of Aurora, both aids the investigation and acts as a bodyguard against repeated attempts on Baley's life. Olivaw chips in with his emotionless logic and understanding of Spacer psychology, though even he is an outsider on Solaria.

The murder itself has ramifications for Earth and the Spacer worlds on a number of levels. The most wide-reaching consequence attaches to Earth's ability to begin colonizing worlds again with the aid of the Spacers. Baley's own son wants to be one of these new colonists, but the program may also keep both Earth and the Spacer worlds from falling into a social decline. If Baley can solve the case without embarrassing the Spacer powers that be, at least some of Earth's billions may find new homes elsewhere. And a necessary cross-pollination between Spacer and Earther cultures may benefit everyone.

Baley and Olivaw's investigation flows much more smoothly here than in The Caves of Steel, in which the plot required Baley to deduce a killer incorrectly several times before finally getting it right. Here, on an unfamiliar planet, he devotes himself to social fact-finding as well as the murder investigation. The former is necessary for the latter to succeed. This reduces the always entertaining Olivaw's role in the investigation, really the novel's only narrative flaw. 

Otherwise, The Naked Sun succeeds as both science fiction and whodunnit. Olivaw functions as the source text for a legion of logical sidekicks that would follow, most prominently Star Trek's Spock and Data, and more precisely in such 'future cop' shows as Almost Human, Future Cop, and even Holmes and Yoyo (!). Recommended.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Annie: based on the characters created by Harold Gray; adapted from the Thomas Meehan/Charles Strouse/Martin Charnin musical by Carol Sobieski; directed by John Huston; starring Albert Finney (Daddy Warbucks), Aileen Quinn (Annie), Carol Burnett (Miss Hannigan), Ann Reinking (Grace), Tim Curry (Rooster Hannigan), Bernadette Peters (Lily St. Regis), Geoffrey Holder (Punjab), Roger Minami (Asp), Edward Herrmann (FDR), and Lois De Banzie (Eleanor Roosevelt) (1982): There's something bizarre about John Huston directing this musical. I assume the paycheck was good and that it allowed Huston to check 'Direct Musical' off his Career 'To-Do' List. But he does a solid job. We can actually see people's feet during the dance sequences. He gets solid performances out of both children and adults. Even the dog does solid work. 

It's all both better and grittier than the 2014 remake/rewrite. It could also use about 15 minutes of cuts. The budget for this thing approached that for the first three Star Wars films combined, so it's no surprise that it looks good. The singing is also good throughout, as are the songs. Aileen Quinn performs Annie about as well as a child actor performs anything. Hey, Punjab and the Asp are here too! And Albert Finney, while solid as Daddy Warbucks, is a little short for the role -- 5'9". So it goes. Recommended.

JFK: adapted from Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs' Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar; directed by Oliver Stone; starring Kevin Costner (DA Jim Garrison), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Brian Doyle-Murray (Jack Ruby), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), and Donald Sutherland (X) (1991): Oliver Stone's epic conspiracy film still plays out as his most interesting and ambitious film. Visually, it's a stunner, with both scope and rapid-fire editing, often among different film stocks and aspect ratios, making it one of the most visually complex American films ever made. Stone's use of audio follows suit, acting as commentary and counterpoint to the score and to the strictly diegetic sounds of the movie. Indeed, the blur of sound between diegetic and non-diegetic coupled with the blur between film stocks and, sometimes, between recreations and the real photographs and filmed sequences from the assassination of JFK... well, style makes the point of content. 

The truth in this case is a very wide quantum smear of possibilities. The narrative makes the case for a singular true story, but that's endlessly hedged by the difficulties the film shows in discovering anything concrete and unassailable other than the simple fact of the President's death. Lee Harvey Oswald remains the virtual particle at the heart of the narrative, his locations and trajectories throughout the investigation's focus seemingly multitudinous, unfixed by an actual observer.

The actors are a Who's Who of American film, from Kevin Costner doing his best Jimmy Stewart as the real-life Louisiana District Attorney who tried a New Orleans resident for being a secret CIA operative involved in a conspiracy to kill JFK to Donald Sutherland delivering a dead-pan 18-minute soliloquy linking together a vast array of disparate elements. Only the relationship troubles between Costner and Sissy Spacek as Jim Garrison's wife seem rote and stereotypical. As fact, JFK may be laughable. As film, it's terrific -- and its central point about a secret U.S. ruling elite that wants the U.S. population to live in a state of endless fear and endless war seems even more plausible now than it did when JFK came out in 1991. Highly recommended.

I Am Chris Farley: written by Steve Burgess; directed by Brent Hodge and Derik Murray; featuring interviews with Adam Sandler, Christina Applegate, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Bob Odenkirk, Bo Derek, David Spade, Bob Saget, and many others (2015): Somewhat hagiographic biography of Chris Farley nonetheless supplies both insights and context for the deceased comic actor's life and work. There's some fascinating footage of Farley from his days at Chicago's Second City and from his even-earlier stage work. The interviews throughout from family members and colleagues that include Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Dan Aykroyd, and David Spade illuminate the fascination Farley held for those closest to him. Apparently, like John Belushi before him, Farley was actually funnier live than on camera. Recommended.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Superman/Batman 1942

Batman: The Dark Knight Archives Volume 4 (Collecting Batman Issues 13-16, 1942-43/Collected 2003): written by Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Jack Schiff, and Ruth Lyons Kaufman; illustrated by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, Jack Burnley, Ray Burnley, and George Roussos:

Batman's co-creator Bob Kane leaves most of the art chores to other people in this volume of Batman stories from 1942-1943. And the prolific Don Cameron writes the majority of the stories, with an assist from Batman co-creator Bill Finger, who was otherwise writing most of the Batman stories in Detective Comics while Cameron handled Batman in Batman.

One of the pleasant surprises here, other than Cameron, is the art of Jack Burnley. He's not as good at the comic grotesques of those stories with artist Jerry Robinson on them, but he supplies a very straightforward, cleanly rendered adventure version of Batman. 

The Batman Mythos was rapidly coming together by this point, barely three years after the Caped Crusader's first appearance. Robin is fully entrenched as Batman's sidekick, and villains such as Catwoman, the Joker, and the Penguin are already making repeat appearances. 

Standouts in this volume include the following stories:

"Here Comes Alfred" by Don Cameron, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson introduces the (initially fat) butler to the Batman saga.

"The Grade 'A' Crimes by Ruth Lyons Kaufman and Jack Burnley features a rare Golden Age story written by a woman. 

"The Boy Who Wanted To Be Robin" by Cameron and Burnley introduces the idea of a criminal training himself to be a sort of 'anti-Batman.'

"The Two Futures" by Finger and Burnley offers a grim vision of an Axis victory in WWII.

"Swastika Over the White House" by Cameron and Burnley is a rare WWII story in which Batman actually battles Nazi saboteurs.

"The Adventure of the Branded Tree" by Cameron and Burnley may be the first example of a strange sub-genre of DC superhero stories, those that are narrated by an inanimate object, in this case a roll of paper. It's also part of a fairly widespread tradition of showing superheroes reading about their own exploits in the comic book that they're appearing in. You'd be amazed how often this sort of meta-fiction shows up in comics of the 1940's.

In all, an enjoyable and surprisingly dense read. The comics of the 1940's often had crude art, but they generally offered a surprisingly generous amount of prose along with that art. They certainly weren't for the illiterate as they were so often accused of being. Recommended.

The Superman Chronicles Volume 9: (Collecting Action Comics 47-52, World's Finest 6-7, and Superman 16-17, 1942/Collected 2011): written by Jerry Siegel; illustrated by Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Fred Ray, Leo Nowak, and Ed Dobrotka:

The chronological reprinting of Superman stories from the beginning, regardless of what title the stories appeared in, continues here with an offering from several months of 1942. America has just gone to war, and while the covers reflect this -- Superman doles out punishment to Hitler on one cover, for instance -- the stories have not yet caught up to reality. 

We do get some great battles with super-villains, however, and a not-yet-omnipotent Superman.  The Man of Steel's powers are still developing four years after his first appearance. He still seems to be vulnerable to poison gas, for instance, and he still needs to push off from something to fly. 

The gems of the volume are two linked stories pitting Superman against Lex Luthor, previously a red-headed evil scientist who has now mysteriously gone bald like another early Superman foe, the Ultra-Humanite.  "Powerstone" and "When Titans Clash" see Luthor gain powers greater than Superman's from the mysterious, titular Powerstone. For once, Superman's wits and knowledge of Luthor's psychology must save the world, not his strength.

One bizarre story all but recreates the story of The Natural, as Lois Lane and Clark Kent discover a baseball prodigy while on a train ride to MLB spring training. Did Bernard Malamud read Superman comics? Annoying unpowered foes The Prankster and The Puzzler also make their first appearances. They really seem like rejects from Batman's Rogues' Gallery. 

The volume also offers a battle against a mind-controlling tyrant self-dubbed The Emperor of America and a battle against the first iteration of long-time Superman foe Metal[l]o, here a guy who's taken "super-serum" and dressed in a suit of impregnable metal, but later to become the Man with the Kryptonite Heart.

Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel keeps the ideas cracking. This Superman is a bit more Establishment than Siegel's original version, though still much less authoritative and pompous than he would become in the 1950's. And he still seems to operate in a world where he's at least partially an Urban Legend -- many criminals don't know who he is, thus leading to much fruitless gun-play and fisticuffs. 

Superman's artistic father Joe Shuster only illustrates one story here, "Man or Superman?," and parts of it seem to be traced from his previous work. Even this early in the game, Shuster was being undone by his declining eyesight. John Sikela and Leo Nowak do solid work as Shuster's ghosts. Sikela is perhaps the closest to Shuster's style of all the ghosts, though he's more polished and less pleasingly raw than Shuster. Nowak gets more of Shuster's cartooniness in his art, but even less of that raw power and dynamism. In all, recommended.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Nightmare Downton Abbey

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009): The Little Stranger begins with a brief incident involving our narrator Faraday's visit as a boy to the English estate dubbed The Hundreds, just after the conclusion of World War One. The main part of the narrative takes place a couple of years after the conclusion of World War Two, still narrated by that boy who's now a country doctor in his childhood village in Warwickshire, an area in Central England half-way between London and Liverpool and just west of Birmingham, containing Stratford-Upon-Avon and Coventry. 

Dr. Faraday's mother worked at The Hundreds as a nursery attendant; his father was also a working man. They managed to put together enough money to put Faraday through good enough schools to get through to his M.D.. He has a lingering guilt over the idea that his parents' efforts on his behalf led to their early deaths. He also pointedly feels class snobbery throughout the novel, both generally and in his practice: he feels that he's at a disadvantage against his 'higher-born' colleagues when it comes to getting well-off clients.

As the main narrative begins, Faraday answers a call at The Hundreds. His colleague who normally handles medical problems at the estate is on another call. And so for the first time in 30 years, Faraday steps into what seems to have been a shining moment in his youth. However, what he finds is becoming more and more the normative in 20th-century England -- an estate and a family fallen on hard times and in the process of falling further as Clement Atlee's new Labour government sets higher taxes on the wealthy and the landed. 

Both the house and the grounds are falling into chaos and ruin. The Ayres family, longtime owners of The Hundreds, simply don't have the money to keep things running the way they ran during Faraday's boyhood visit. Faraday is appalled but charmed by the still-impressive mansion. He's been called to find out what's wrong with the Ayres' last full-time servant, a 14-year-old maid who's only been with them for a month or so.

Faraday quickly realizes that the maid is feigning illness. She's anxious over her feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially at night in the nearly deserted mansion as she sleeps a substantial distance away from anyone else. And she believes there's a malevolent ghost loose in The Hundreds. So it begins.

The novel takes cues from a number of the greatest hits of the horror genre. It's easy to see The Turn of the Screw in the setting of an underpopulated country house as seen and described with at least some unreliability by someone who isn't from England's upper class. The Hundreds is inhabited by a mother and her two grown children. The daughter is named Caroline, the son Roderick. So the novel nods to another waning family and decaying mansion in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." You know, with a major character named RODERICK Usher. Nudge, nudge.

Mainstream critics certainly seemed to twig to these well-known, canonical works in relation to Waters' novel. The novel's style certainly suggests neither Poe nor James. It's solid and workmanlike, and the accumulation of telling detail works throughout with the slowly turning screw of the plot so as to make The Little Stranger a terrific page-turner. That the novel crashes into the mountain and explodes over the last 20 pages is a shame, but what comes before is mostly excellent.

How does a ghost story get shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, as this novel was? Well, Waters was a well-regarded, mainstream novelist. The Little Stranger deals with Great Britain's still overwhelmingly class-oriented social system to the extent that the novel's ghostly, ghastly happenings all constellate around class consciousness, class resentment, and social change. People love class-related stuff, especially when it's set in the past and especially when there's decaying gentry and giant houses involved. It's Downton Nightmare Abbey.

Dr. Faraday will become increasingly entangled in the affairs of the Ayres family. He'll reveal through his narration his growing devotion to both them and their magnificently decaying estate. Bad things will happen with decreasingly believable rational explanations. Is there a ghost? Is Faraday becoming obsessed with The Hundreds over and above his concern for the people there? Will anyone call in a vicar or read a book about supernatural occurrences published in the 20th century? Is 'spinster' Caroline, perhaps 30, really a repressed lesbian? Will Basil Exposition show up?

Well, 'sort of' to that last question. Waters generally has a light hand with explanation and exposition. But the novel's favoured explanation of what's going on at The Hundreds is so odd that the two bouts of exposition that explain the concept aren't enough to suspend my disbelief. And I'm willing to believe an awful lot in the context of a ghost story. 

But what's required here isn't simply belief in a fairly dodgy concept that shows up in some explanations of poltergeist activity. It's belief in something that can reach across miles of distance, read minds, imitate a wide variety of sounds and voices, spontaneously start fires, write in some indelible way on walls, lift and throw heavy objects, control animals, and possibly apport objects from one location to another. It's not a poltergeist or a ghost -- it's the Swiss Army Knife of the spiritual world, with powers that would make for a pretty dangerous member of the X-Men.

Some of the problem springs from the fact that the supernatural explanation has to be fitted to the novel's exploration of class resentment. And ghosts and other supernatural forces have indeed often functioned as metaphorical explorations of real-world social and personal problems. But Waters' concept has so many moving parts! And it's so programmatic in relation to the sub-text it's illustrating! It's not too far removed from the Hyper-allegorical monsters of Edmund Spenser's The Fairie Queene. Especially Errour, who vomits evil books because dammit, I you will understand this point I'm making about erroneous interpretations of the Bible as set forth during the Great Pamphlet Wars.

And so The Little Stranger ends up stranded in a sort of metaphorical borderland between the two greatest English-language haunted-house novels of the 20th century, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson's Hell House. Jackson's novel leaves the reader in as much mystery at the end as it does at the beginning -- supernatural events have occurred, but it's difficult to see any meaning in them beyond the basic malign, and their mechanisms are never revealed. Hell House offers a pseudoscientific explanation for its horrors, fully explained and reasoned through, and satisfying in a literary sense without destroying any of the horror that has preceded the final solution.

The Little Stranger stands between these two. There's still mystery at the end, but the novel has advanced a preferred or privileged explanation of the reasons and mechanisms of the haunting. But that explanation is too brief and patched together to seem convincing. 

The novel also falls away from the peaks of the haunted-house novel as a sub-genre because of an attribute it shares with many of Stephen King's novels: the dominance of the sub-text. The Shining is a haunted-house novel that has a very clear and intentional sub-text; it's the haunting as an elaborate metaphor for domestic abuse as perpetrated by an addictive personality under pressure. Obviously there are other things in there too, but the sub-text looms over the events in the Overlook Hotel. Similarly, The Little Stranger uses the supernatural to discuss issues of class and gender in England after World War Two (and, really, to the present day -- it's not like the gentry have gone away). 

But the aforementioned novels by Jackson and Matheson aren't about something other than the supernatural, at least not in the programmatic way that the Waters and King texts are. They're ultimately about the hauntings themselves, and how small groups of people deal with them. The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House engage fully with the Sublime and the mysterious. The Little Stranger does not -- nor does it seem to want to except in a couple of brief passages. As such, it's a finer novel involving class conflicts and social change than it is a ghost story. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

The Little Stranger is a heck of a ride, dense with period detail and blessed with a narrator who may be too sympathetic for the novel's own good. That he's unreliable and obsessive may or may not matter -- the novel certainly privileges one reading of the events over all others by the conclusion, but it doesn't seal off one's ability to read things in other ways. The major characters are all skilfully drawn, a period skilfully evoked, a disintegrating house skilfully drawn so as to almost become a character itself. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

And Now For Something Completely Different...

The Mormons know how to deal with pornography. Also, they have spleens.


Monday, September 14, 2015

The Plague Master

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954): Matheson's first novel begat Night of the Living Dead which begat pretty much every zombie apocalypse of the last 50 years on TV, in movies, and in print. While I Am Legend has been adapted for the screen three times, no one has ever captured its portrayal of abject loneliness. Humanity may have been devastated by a plague of vampirism, but protagonist Robert Neville's tortured thoughts and actions make the novel special as a work of literature and not just as a massive cultural influence.

The novel may be set in the late 1970's, but Neville is very much a 1950's Everyman figure. He dwells in a suburb of Los Angeles with a wife and a daughter. He carpools to work with a neighbour. He drinks a lot of cocktails. But a vaguely defined war in which Neville himself served overseas may have unleashed the disease that caused all those stories of vampirism in Eastern Europe during the 18th century. In the now of the novel, which we join in media res, Neville is alone but under siege by multitudes of vampires every night. He's turned his house into a fortress. And every day, he drives around pulling vampires out of their hiding places and staking them to death.

For a short novel (maybe 70,000 words soaking wet), I Am Legend is packed with heady goodness. There's the characterization of Neville, who reveals hidden depths as we spend more time with him. There's Neville's scientific approach to understanding just how these vampires work, and what works against them, and why. There's the back-story of the fall of society, with mass graves and an incompetent government and growing paranoia. 

And there are the vampires themselves, split into two groups: living vampires who've been infected and changed, and dead vampires who continue to be animated by the contagion. Both die when you stake them, though the second group occasionally disintegrates. Neville's quest to understand what's going on in a scientific sense helps him to hold off the encroaching loneliness. He's Robinson Crusoe with a microscope and no Man Friday. He doesn't even have a parrot to talk to. But he does have his books and his classical music.

The list of later works with I Am Legend's DNA in them could probably fill a book. From Matheson's succinct glimpses of plague-fueled societal breakdown come World War Z and The Stand and so many others; from the monsters whose origins seem to be scientifically explicable come legions of infected zombies and vampires whose blood teems with bacteria or viral loads instead of magic. It's the loneliness of Neville that hasn't been replicated that often in subsequent works of horror. 

Thankfully, there's also grim humour throughout the novel, much of it supplied by Neville's dead but lively vampire neighbour Cortman (!), who yells endlessly at Neville by night but whose diurnal hiding place Neville searches fruitlessly for by day. Good old Cortman. He never shuts up. Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Comics in 2005

The Best American Comics 2006 (2006; stories originally published 2004-2005): edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore, containing comics written and/or illustrated by Jesse Reklaw, Justin Hall, Rebecca Dart, David Heatley, Chris Ware, Kim Deitch, Anders Nilsen, Ben Katchor, Joe Sacco, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Shelton, Alison Bechdel, Alex Robinson, Jessica Abel, Rick Geary, Kurt Wolfgang, Lynda Barry, Robert Crumb, Seth Tobocman, Esther Pearl Watson,  Lilli CarrĂ©, and others.

This first volume of Best American Comics, from the same publisher who gave you long-running anthologies that include Best American Sports Writing and Best American Mystery Writing, seems to be a mainstay of used bookstores as a result of it being remaindered out the wazoo soon after its publication back in 2006. Anne Elizabeth Moore did the initial selection and the late Harvey Pekar made the final selection from her list, in case you're wondering what the two editors did.

Pekar's preference for reality-based storytelling explains the book's avoidance of superhero and similar genre material. There is one funny parody of super-heroes. That's it. Some of the comics work as absurdism or satiric fantasy. But the bulk of the volume consists of memoir and memoir-like work, with some experimental pieces that play with form and structure and lay-out interspersed throughout.

There's a lot of awfully good long-form material here. I'd pick Jesse Reklaw's story about childhood pets, "13 Cats," as one of the two or three best stories here. It's sad and funny. And it doesn't wear out its welcome. An autobiographical piece by American giant Robert Crumb also pleases me to no end (as does Crumb's snarky reply to the editors' earnest request for a text piece on the origins of the story). 

Justin Hall's "La Rubia Loca," the longest work included herein, could use some trimming, and perhaps some serious work on working with more panels per page. The length makes it feel padded. The pat ending in which a character learns to love life from the lessons learned from the torments of a mentally ill woman... ugh. Cut out those last few pages, though, and it's a nicely observed work, though the art bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Gilbert Hernandez. There are also fine pieces by Kim Deitch, Joe Sacco, and Lynda Barry, among others.

There are two major flaws with the volume. One comes with its page size, that of a normal hardcover. This reduces several stories originally printed in larger formats to near-incomprehensibility. Pieces by Chris Ware, Rebecca Dart, and David Heatley suffer the most from the size reduction -- you'll either need a magnifying glass or you'll say to hell with it.

The second comes with the decision to include excerpts from longer works. An excerpt from a Jessica Abel piece is probably the worst of these. It's the comics equivalent of treading water for 20 pages, and puts me in mind of how annoyed I get at short-fiction anthologies that include excerpts from novels. I understand it in the context of a Norton literary-survey anthology. In a 'Best of' anthology of shorts, though, it seems like an editorial violation of some fundamental rule. It's as if the Best Short Oscar category included 20-minute chunks from the Best Picture category along with the 'real' shorts. I hate it. I really hate it. 

Still, a worthy beginning to a series that offers non-superhero comics material to a mainstream book-buying audience. Recommended.

Bad Trips

Vanishing on 7th Street: written by Anthony Jaswinski; directed by Brad Anderson; starring Hayden Christensen (Luke), John Leguizamo (Paul), Thandie Newton (Rosemary), Jacob Latimore (James), and Taylor Groothuis (Briana) (2010): Vaguely enjoyable, apocalyptic horror movie in which nearly everyone vanishes because the darkness seems to be eating people. The movie remains steadfast to the end in its refusal to offer a succinct explanation of what's really going on. The cast is fine but perhaps too recognizable for this sort of low-budget horror movie -- they kept pulling me out of the world of the movie. On the bright side, this isn't found-footage and it is set in Detroit. Lightly recommended.

Tommy Boy: written by Bonnie and Terry Turner; directed by Peter Segal; starring Chris Farley (Tommy Callahan III), David Spade (Richard), Brian Dennehy (Big Tom), Bo Derek (Beverly), Dan Aykroyd (Zalinsky), Julie Warner (Michelle), and Rob Lowe (Paul) (1995): Chris Farley's incandescent star turn as the titular screw-up elevates Tommy Boy to a near-classic. Barely two years after this movie's release, Farley would be dead of alcohol and drug-related issues. The three films he did after this would represent the law of diminishing returns in stark fashion. But Farley's comic genius and leading-man sweetness survive here, helped by able supporting work from David Spade, Brian Dennehy, and the always-game Rob Lowe. Also, Fat Guy In A Little Coat. Highly recommended.

Scoop: written and directed by Woody Allen; starring Woody Allen (Sid Waterman), Scarlett Johansson (Sondra Pransky), Hugh Jackman (Peter Lyman), and Ian McShane (Joe Strombel) (2006): Amiable minor comedy from Allen during his British phase (that thanks to where his funding was coming from in the early 2000's). ScarJo plays a journalism student who stumbles onto a story involving a British peer who may be a serial killer. She enlists the help of stage magician Woody to catch the killer and get the story. She gets the tip from Ian McShane, whose award-winning journalist character is dead. But that doesn't stop his ghost from helping out. Johansson is far too pretty for the part, but she gamely riffs on Diane Keaton's mannerisms, especially in scenes with Woody. Allen wisely declined to make his stammering magician ScarJo's love interest, leaving that to Hugh Jackman as the possible killer who's also a real charmer. It's Wolverine romancing Black Widow! Recommended.

Friday, September 11, 2015

You Won't Believe It's Not Stephen King

Demon Night by J. Michael Straczynski (1988): Babylon 5 creator  and long-time Spider-man writer J. Michael Straczynski has also written three horror novels over the years, with this being the first. It almost seems parodically like a Stephen King novel at points. It's laced with portentous and generally pretentious quotes at the beginning and at each section break, which is very much a King trademark (lest we miss the point,  Straczynski quotes King on the novel's main epigraph page). It's set in small-town Maine, it involves a former resident of that town as a child returning as an adult, and it involves an ancient evil awakening and transforming townspeople into monsters. Yes, it bears more than a passing resemblance to King's Salem's Lot, only with possession-crazy demons rather than vampirism as the culprit. 

The cast of characters who battle the evil includes a struggling writer, a Roman Catholic priest, and a medical doctor. OK, that's also quite a bit like the good guys in Salem's Lot. But wait, the protagonist has a wide array of psychic and telekinetic powers with which to battle the evil. So it's like Salem's Lot mashed up with Firestarter, The Shining, and The Dead Zone. There's also quite a bit of It. And there are Native American tribes mixed in because you can't have an American horror novel without a mysterious location tied into Native American spirituality.

Basically, if you haven't gotten enough Stephen King, Maine-based horror over the years, this novel may be for you. Straczynski offers generally well-drawn, sympathetic characters. The antagonist leaves a bit to be desired -- its speechifying, when it comes, is something of a disappointment. There's also a description of the Thing in its final form that really, really seems to anticipate South Park's ManBearPig. Snakes, cockroaches, and what appear to be malevolent, wall-crawling lobsters (well, it is Maine) show up in such a cursory fashion as obstacles to our heroes at the end that they seem to have accidentally wandered in from an Indiana Jones movie. 

And it's interesting to see a Wild Talent novel collided with a horror novel in this way, at least at the end when a full array of telepathic and telekinetic powers are needed to combat the antagonist. There's maybe a bit too much superhero in the main protagonist, but he's a relatively likable fellow for all that he's a Chosen One in the long tradition of genre Chosen Ones (though the Chosen One tends more to the epic fantasy and science fiction areas of genre).

The gem of characterization is the Roman Catholic priest, however, who takes a beating without ever losing his stubborn dignity. Why do atheists write the best characters of faith? In any case, I enjoyed the novel, though there's nothing that really stands out about it. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

9 X 13

Weird Legacies (1977) edited by Mike Ashley, containing the following stories: "Skulls in the Stars" (1929) by Robert E. Howard; "The Three Marked Pennies" (1934) by Mary Elizabeth Counselman; "He That Hath Wings" (1938) by Edmond Hamilton; "The Distortion Out Of Space" (1934) by Francis Flagg; "The Utmost Abomination (1973) by Lin Carter and Clark Ashton Smith; "Eternal Rediffusion" (1973) by Eric Frank Russell and Leslie J. Johnson; "The Ducker"(1943) by Ray Bradbury; "The Black Kiss" (1937) by Henry Kuttner and Robert Bloch; and "The Survivor" (1954) by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Enjoyable, brief anthology of stories previously published in the venerable Weird Tales (originally 1923-1954, with several brief revivals since then). Robert Bloch supplies a nice little introduction while anthologist Mike Ashley gives the reader lengthy, informative notes before and sometimes after the nine stories. The two 1973 anomalies in the story appearance dates come from Lin Carter finishing a much older Clark Ashton Smith fragment for the brief 1970's revival of Weird Tales and a rejected 1940's Eric Frank Russell/Leslie Johnson story that also appeared in the 1970's revival.

For such a short anthology, Weird Legacies possesses impressive range. All of the original Weird Tales writers who got high marks in the readers' polls in the magazine appear here with the exception of Seabury Quinn, whom Ashley promises will appear in a later (non-existent, so far as I can tell) anthology. 

Kuttner and Bloch's "The Black Kiss" is a revelation, an excellent, unsettling bit of aquatic horror with certain similarities to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" from two correspondents with H.P.L.. August Derleth's literal-minded expansion of a Lovecraft fragment, "The Survivor," is perhaps too similar, and inferior, to the Bloch/Kuttner piece to profitably appear here. Lin Carter's Smith expansion offers an interesting pastiche of Smith's ornate, baroque writing style, but it too offers too much of the same thing as it concludes.

The other stories are more in line with the excellence of "The Black Kiss," with a solid Solomon Kane story from Robert E. Howard and Edmond Hamilton's elegiac tale of a winged mutant leading the way. "The Three Marked Pennies", one of the most popular Weird Tales stories ever, seems like a Twilight Zone bit super-collided with a conte cruel. It is indeed memorable. The Francis Flagg piece is interesting as a Lovecraftian riff with an ending more suited to the Horta episode of Star Trek. A somewhat atypical Ray Bradbury story set on the battlefields of WWII and the truly odd, metaphysical "Eternal Rediffusion" round out the selection. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Sandworms of Middle-Earth

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Voices of Smaug and The Necromancer) (2014):

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is not terrible. It has its moments. Turning one chapter of The Hobbit into a two-hour battle sequence is pretty strange, and none of the wholesale changes made by Peter Jackson to the original story seem to be worth the effort. For example, there's a 'comic' bit with the cowardly second-in-command of Lake Town that eats up minutes to no discernible purpose other than a terrible pun at the conclusion of this 'comic' relief. For this we lost the thematic and metaphorical significance of Beorn's role in the novel? Beorn's role in in the battle has been whittled down to a cameo, though it's a cameo that suspends the laws of physics, so, you know, Anti-gravity Bear.

Changes abound. The added characters of Legolas and Tauriel get most of Beorn's major actions. Thranduil rides around on an elk, and that pretty much just looks stupid throughout. There's some Kung Fu sword-fighting between the trio of Saruman, Galadriel, and Elrond, and the nine Ring-wraiths that once again features Peter Jackson's reluctance to have wizards do any of that wizardy stuff they do in the books. Instead, they fight by jumping around like Kung Fu Panda, swinging that wizard's staff that Jackson has clearly mistaken for a bo. It's as if out of all the things in the universe of The Lord of the Rings, the thing that Jackson and his co-writers found most unbelievable was magic itself. 

Well, and elves who laugh and sing. Jackson's elves are pretty much Vulcans by this point, and not early Vulcans, but the pissy jerks of the first three seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. At least the invented elf-maiden Tauriel is nice, and Legolas sort of learns better. As Jackson's dwarves are pretty much Klingons, one wonders why he hasn't volunteered to direct a Star Trek movie already.

We also get the potentially exciting effort of Bard the Bowman to stop Smaug the Dragon as imagined by someone with a sudden loss of attention to drama. Does Bard shoot Smaug out of the air through that tiny chink in Smaug's armor-like skin? Well, no. Smaug lands about three feet away from Bard and jabbers away like the most talky of all talky villains, all the while keeping that hole in his outer skin exposed until Bard manages to McGyver together a bow from stuff lying around (including his son -- look, see it for yourself, I'm not kidding) and shoot Smaug dead. What larks, Peter Jackson, what larks!

As in the previous two Hobbit extravaganzas, Martin Freeman supplies all the wit and occasional gravitas as Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellan is fine again as Gandalf. There's a Scottish dwarf played by Billy Connolly. There are endless widescreen shots of battlefields and ranks of warriors that don't seem to have been finished properly in the CGI department -- never has a Peter Jackson Tolkien movie looked more like a video game. The laws of physics come and go, subject to whether or not a character's going to die from a fall or just be slightly inconvenienced. And in an unexpected mash-up with Frank Herbert's Dune, there are sandworms. 

One of the long-standing discussions about The Hobbit's relation to The Lord of the Rings lies in the earlier novel's status as a work meant for children, implicitly taking the exaggerated and often comic tone of Bilbo's reminiscences long after the events of the novel. It's how things like the mountain giants are explained away, as no such things exist in the larger world of The Lord of the Rings and the other works about Middle-Earth. If we view the much different exaggerations and alterations of the three films adapted from The Hobbit in the same light, we're left with a Bilbo Baggins who must be addicted to video games and high-caffeine Mountain Dew. And poop jokes. And physics-free cartoons. Maybe his retelling of the events of The Hobbit occurs entirely in 140-character tweets. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Devil Made Them Do It

The Exorcism of Emily Rose: written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson; directed by Scott Derrickson; starring Laura Linney (Erin Bruner), Tom Wilkinson (Father Moore), Cambell Scott (Ethan Thomas), Jennifer Carpenter (Emily Rose), Colm Feore (Karl Gunderson), and Henry Czerny (Dr. Briggs) (2005): Handsomely mounted and morally bankrupt piece of irresponsible garbage. And I wouldn't call it irresponsible if it didn't trumpet its based-on-a-true-story merits right through to the 'Where are they now?' end titles. But the facts of the case have been changed so much that the end titles are as much fiction as the narrative that precedes them. 

The movie was filmed in British Columbia, Canada and takes place in America in what looks to be the early oughts. The real story took place in Germany in the 1970's. About the only thing that stays the same is that the young woman being exorcised ended up dead. Her real name wasn't Emily Rose. The priest conducting the exorcism was tried for negligent homicide, so that's sort of right. Why not go with a complete fiction? Because 'Based on a true story' is part of the selling point for a movie like this.

So a devout young woman from a rural area goes to a big city college and gets possessed by a Devil. Or maybe The Devil. No, maybe it's six devils piled into her like she's a clown car. And they're all really important devils, name-checking their importance. Or maybe they're lying. Mean old medical science decides Emily Rose is epileptic, prescribes drugs. 

Oh ho, we're told by an anthropologist called in for the homicide trial, those epilepsy drugs made Emily Rose MORE SUSCEPTIBLE to demonic possession! Because God didn't account for the invention of pharmaceuticals or something. Also, the expert witness anthropologist quotes Carlos Castenada on the stand. I kid you not. She also appears to be Hindu. Theologically speaking, I have no idea what that means.

Laura Linney plays the agnostic defence attorney who learns to believe in something after being stalked by a demonic presence throughout the trial because Dark Forces want a certain trial outcome! The demons like to wake people up at 3 a.m., I'd assume because they're doing a riff on The Amityville Horror. The devil, or a devil, occasionally shows up as a silhouette of what appears to be Emperor Palpatine. 

One thing that gets me with works like this is that they make no sense from the standpoint of the very religion they purport to champion. Father Moore (a beleaguered Tom Wilkinson, earning that paycheck) theorizes that God wants him to stand trial so that people will hear Emily Rose's story and thus find proof of God. But proof negates faith. If God had ever wanted proof to be a component of Christianity, then He's been going about it the wrong way for more than 2000 years. This is an advertisement for Roman Catholicism from people who don't seem to have the faintest idea what Roman Catholicism stands for.

Anyway, the movie makes it clear that there's a possession going on, and that Emily Rose died not as a result of the exorcism but as a result of the demons getting stuck inside her because of her anti-epileptic medication. And it's all true, even though it isn't. How many people die in exorcisms every year? What a self-righteous, morally reprehensible turd of a movie. Everyone involved should be ashamed. Not recommended.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Lobster Johnson, Coneheads, and Northern Ireland

Lobster Johnson 2: The Burning Hand: characters created and designed by Mike Mignola; written by John Arcudi; illustrated by Tonci Zonjic and Dave Stewart (2011-2012; collected 2013): Introduced years ago in Mike Mignola's Hellboy, Depression-era pulp hero Lobster Johnson gets his second miniseries adventure here. Illustrator Tonci Zonjic's style fits the material as his art works in the clean-lined, retro tradition of period-appropriate cartoonists that include Roy Crane, Noel Sickles, and Milton Caniff. John Arcudi's script presents New York-based Lobster Johnson, still a crime-fighter on a learning curve, with both a challenge from the Mob and a challenge from beyond. 

As this is the universe of Hellboy and the BPRD, supernatural menaces abound. And while fighting a gangster, Johnson and his associates find themselves fighting a seemingly unkillable supernatural being with the ability to destroy people and things with an unquenchable black flame. It's pulpy fun in the tradition of the Shadow and Doc Savage, with a little H.P. Lovecraft thrown into the mix. Recommended.

The Boxer: written by Jim Sheridan and Terry George; directed by Jim Sheridan; starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Danny Flynn), Emily Watson (Maggie), Brian Cox (Joe Hamill), Ciaran Fitzgerald (Liam), Ken Stott (Ike Weir), and Gerald McSorley (Harry) (1997): Daniel Day-Lewis and writer-director Jim Sheridan team up for the third time (previous collaborations were Best Actor Oscar-winning My Left Foot and docudrama In the Name of the Father). 

Set in a Northern Ireland on the cusp of a peace agreement between Great Britain and the IRA/Sinn Fein, The Boxer follows Day-Lewis' Danny Flynn, a once-promising young boxer who's been released from prison after 14 years. His prison sentence came in part for covering for IRA accomplices, but the IRA has no time for him -- disgusted with his own complicity, he refused to socialize with them while in jail. He's back now, trying to avoid sectarian politics while he re-opens the boxing gym he himself trained at. Of course, things are going to go awry. As he's still in love with the daughter of the local IRA chief, she herself married to a jailed IRA man, his personal life may go a bit wonky. 

The acting is strong throughout. Day-Lewis seems pitch perfect as always, making Flynn a man who's learned to control his anger without ever eradicating it. Emily Watson is almost literally luminous as his now-married former lover. We get just enough background on the politics to see the problems with both sides, and the frustration of those who would like to have no part of either. Belfast plays Belfast in the second-unit photography, while Dublin stands in for parts of Belfast when the actors are in the frame. The whole presents a city run down and defaced in a way that almost makes it look like Day-Lewis and Watson are appearing in another adaptation of 1984. Recommended.

Coneheads: written by Tom Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Turner, and Terry Turner; directed by Steve Barron; starring Dan Aykroyd (Beldar Conehead), Jane Curtin (Prymatt Conehead), Phil Hartman (Marlax), David Spade (Eli Turnbull), Michael McKean (Gorman Seedling), Michelle Burke (Connie Conehead), and Chris Farley (Ronnie) (1993): I really like Coneheads. Many do not. But I think it's one of the five best movies based on characters who first appeared on Saturday Night Live. The script and performances are funny, the cameos are almost ridiculously abundant, and even the product placements (there are a lot of them) are weirdly funny at times. I mean, I'm not sure anyone would go to Subway based on the way its sandwiches are eaten here. Even the science-fiction elements are intermittently more well-thought-out than those one would find in a dramatic science-fiction film. the film even uses David Spade perfectly. Recommended.

Friday, September 4, 2015

You Don't Need A Weatherman

Stormwatch: Lightning Strikes: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Tom Raney, Randy Elliott, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Richard Bennett (1996-97; collected 2000): From 1996 to 2000, Warren Ellis was pretty much the State-of-the-Art in sophisticated superhero story-telling. And he did all his best work at Wildstorm, an Image imprint that would be sold to DC pretty much at the end of the bulk of Ellis' work at Wildstorm. Once Ellis had his feet under him on his first major work for Wildstorm, the pre-existing Stormwatch, he combined Alan Moore's mordant wit and Grant Morrison's Silver Agey hyper-science-fictionalism (!) with his own pragmatically optimistic take on the superhero: maybe they could be just good enough and idealistic enough to save us from ourselves.

Lightning Strikes continues Ellis' introduction of his own characters into Stormwatch, Jim Lee's United Nations-sponsored superhero response team. Stormwatch came complete to Ellis with Justice League-like orbital headquarters and SHIELD-like armies of agents and piles of heavy, science-fictional weaponry. 

It also came with a Nick-Fury-like Director dubbed 'The Weatherman.' This was Henry Bendix, and in this second collected volume of Ellis' Stormwatch, the team is just beginning to realize that Henry Bendix is a homicidal megalomaniac who intends to save the world by taking total control of it. 

But this is just becoming apparent: for now, Stormwatch continues in its missions to save the world from Extinction-level threats. Stories focus on Ellis-creation Jack Hawksmoor, defender of cities, and holdover Battalion, for whom Ellis has plans that will move him away from being team trainer. 

Team co-creator and Wildstorm publisher Jim Lee supplies art for another standalone that pits Stormwatch against some particularly awful results of alien genetic experimentation on humans. Lee's art is perfectly suited to the material, while regular artist Tom Raney keeps things humming along in his installments. Raney's main job was to cleanly depict Ellis' occasionally violently harrowing action sequences while also working with Ellis' words to make the once-cardboard characters of pre-Ellis Stormwatch into appealing individuals. Raney succeeds. There's no epic here yet, but it's coming. Recommended.

Stormwatch: Change or Die: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Tom Raney, Randy Elliott, Oscar Jiminez, and Richard Bennett (1997; collected 2000): Warren Ellis's run on Wildstorm's Stormwatch builds to one major event here that will ultimately set the stage for Ellis and Bryan Hitch's 'widescreen' superhero team The Authority in a couple of years. 

We learn more about the enigmatic Jenny Sparks, nearly a century old and not looking a day over 20. She controls electricity. She also claims to be The Spirit of the 20th Century. And as crazy-ass Stormwatch director Henry Bendix's plans for world domination get flushed into the open by the return of an idealistic, Superman-like hero called The High, Stormwatch finally faces the rot within itself. 

Tom Raney and Oscar Jiminez do nice and sometimes startlingly gruesome work on the visuals, as Stormwatch battles an enemy it should be allies with and ostensive allies who are really enemies. It's a little like a John Le Carre novel, only with more punching and exploding. Highly recommended.

Stormwatch: A Finer World: written by Warren Ellis; illustrated by Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary, Michael Ryan, and Luke Rizzo (1997-98; collected 2000): Warren Ellis' version of Stormwatch begins its transition to being The Authority as we meet two soon-to-be members of that follow-up team, Apollo and the Midnighter. They're riffs on Superman and Batman, respectively. They're also lovers. 

And they're on the run from Stormwatch, which they believe still to be run by nutty leader, the Weatherman Henry Bendix. He had them created as part of a secret team and then abandoned them when that team's first mission turned catastrophically wrong, leaving the two as the only survivors. They've been fighting evil in the shadows ever since. But new Weatherman Battalion wants to bring them into the light, preferably as allies.

Artist Bryan Hitch, he of the 'widescreen' action sequences and art that reminds one of comic-book great Neal Adams as funneled through later artist Alan Davis (Excalibur, The Nail), handles the penciling on the Apollo and the Midnighter issues. He'd return to those characters in the first 12 issues of the subsequent The Authority, to widespread fan-love. It's bombastic, finely rendered art, offering a nice counterpoint to writer Warren Ellis' shadowy conspiracies and a nice amplification of Ellis' large-scale action sequences. 

The volume concludes with an alternate world take on Stormwatch, accidentally brought to 'our' Stormwatch's attention by a tunnel in The Bleed, the weird stuff between universes. It's a bit of an oddity -- enjoyable, but overly reliant on the mythology of shared universe book WildC.A.T.S. for its eucatastrophic finale. Michael Ryan's pencils are perfectly solid superhero stuff, though they lack the zing of Hitch or long-time Stormwatch artist Tom Raney. 

This version of Stormwatch had only a couple of issues left in its existence, though somewhat confusingly that, too, would be tied intimately into WildC.A.T.S. (geez, I hate typing that).  Two issues of Stormwatch and an extra-length WildC.A.T.S. Vs. Aliens (yes, the Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise) would end this team's existence. While Stormwatch was always a United Nations-sponsored superteam, The Authority that would follow, with mostly new members, would seek to save the world without government support, and sometimes despite it. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Under The Water And Through The Woods

The Deep by Nick Cutter [Craig Davidson] (2015): Nick Cutter, the horror-writing pseudonym of mainstream Canadian writer Craig Davidson, became a James-Herbert-Award-winning nom-de-plume with the horror novel The Troop (2013). The Deep is the follow-up, with a jacket design that mimics that of The Troop despite their lack of similarities. Well, they're both mainly set on, under, or near water. So there you go.

A new disease nicknamed "The 'Gets'" (from "Forget") is ravaging humanity. Victims go from being forgetful to forgetting how to breathe in a matter of months. But through a series of events I'm not going to summarize, scientists discover that the cure for The Gets may exist at the deepest part of the ocean floor, in the Marianas Trench. So about a gazillion dollars goes into building an underwater science lab and an above-water support base. Three scientists go down. Things get weird. Communications fail. Underwater disturbances make it impossible to get back down to the station to investigate. One scientist comes up, dead and horribly mutilated.

So the authorities, at the request of a cryptic radio message from one of the two surviving scientists, round up his estranged brother, a divorced veterinarian whose only son disappeared without a trace a few years earlier. The vet doesn't know why his brother would have summoned him -- they haven't spoken in eight years and were never close to begin with. The brother down below is a super-genius (and a bit of a sociopath). Has their relationship changed? Are all great scientists in horror novels sociopaths?

Only one way to find out -- so down we go, eight miles down, to the Trieste underwater laboratory and the mysteries within and without.

As in The Troop, The Deep's strengths lie in fast-twitch plotting and an exuberantly hyper-caffeinated approach to the synthesis of its horror influences. Cutter doesn't invent new horrors, but he does throw so many old ones at the reader in sometimes strikingly odd combinations that the effect is often one of horror born of a startling novelty of contrast. 

To cite one example, The Deep presents scenes of horrified claustrophobia that riff on antecedents such as John Carpenter's version of The Thing, Alien, and a host of other works that present isolated people under siege by Terrible Things. But in the midst of this, scenes reminiscent of Stephen King's "The Boogeyman" suddenly break out. And then we're plunged into a backstory of the abused childhoods of the vet and his brother. And then back to a new supernatural or science-fictional horror. And for the bulk of the novel, this sort of on-going juxtaposition of science-fictional, supernatural, and psychological horror actually works.

Unfortunately, the engine blows up with about 100 pages to go. The novel seems to lose sight of its above-water McGuffin, The Gets, which have never been fully developed as a threat to humanity. Indeed, the novel could have functioned quite well without The Gets, given how under-developed and under-shown this plague is. Cutter's synthetic horror cavalcade begins to replicate the content of his influences too closely, with a scene lifted almost verbatim from Carpenter's The Thing being just one example. There's also a lengthy bit involving mutated honeybees that's a weak riff on George R.R. Martin's "Sandkings." And a riff on a bit from Stephen King's "The Raft" that gets used once too often. A lovable dog also wears out its welcome.

These failures might have been survivable had the last fifty pages not degenerated into Basil Exposition's Nude House of Wacky Body Horror. We finally learn the secrets of what has really been going on. Well, sort of. But we learn these things from anthropomorphized antagonists who cackle and snark like the bitchiest of Joss Whedon's bitchy Big Bads. We get a very, very old science-fictional and horror trope as an explanation for the horror's existence in the Marianas Trench. We get about 40 pages of Cutter doing a bad imitation of Laird Barron, one with neither menace nor wit but only a gushy, goopy tide of bodily atrocities. We get a damp squib of an ending. We get characters behaving as stupidly and helplessly as characters can act. The end. 

Oh, for a couple of flame-throwers or a convenient nuclear bomb. They too would be borrowings, but they'd be welcome borrowings. Nuke the sight from orbit. Absolutely goddamned right.

Oh, well. The Deep really is a page-turner for 80% of its not-inconsiderable length. However, if you're one of those people who get annoyed by tiny, short little chapters in the manner of The Da Vinci Code or a novel meant for fourth-graders, steer clear. These are some of the shortest chapters you're ever going to encounter in a novel aimed at adults. Lightly recommended.

The Blair Witch Project Dossier by D.A. Stern and others (1999): As with the In Search of... style 'documentary' that promoted The Blair Witch Project on the SciFi and Space Channels when the movie came out in 1999, this book is better than the movie it promotes. The Blair Witch Project Dossier comprises fake newspaper articles, interview transcripts, historical records, photos, period illustrations, and hand-written letters and journals. It's old-school documentary horror of which Poe or Lovecraft might have approved. 

There's real wit here, whether in a name-check of one of Lovecraft's creepy backwoods characters or in subtle and fascinating implications dotted throughout the historical portions of the text. These things suggest a horror much larger and older than that which we see in the movie. They also offer a context for the scenes in the house that makes the events of the movie seem even worse. However, no explanation is offered for why those two bozos are fishing in two inches of water. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Vico, Vico

The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian Archives Volume 1: written by Roy Thomas, Lin Carter, and Robert E. Howard; illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Tony DeZuniga, Pablo Marcos, Tim Conrad, Jim Starlin, and others (1971, 1973-75; collected 2007): This first reprint volume of Marvel's black-and-white Conan comics magazines that started in the 1970's peaks right at the beginning, with quintessential Conan comic-book artist Barry Windsor-Smith illustrating several tales. He's terrific on what's almost a vignette about a teen-aged Conan, "The Frost Giant's Daughter." And he hits an all-time high with an adaptation of the Conan novella "Red Nails." There's a reprint volume devoted entirely to Windsor-Smith's colour and black-and-white Conan work for Marvel, if you're so inclined.

The rest of the volume, almost entirely written by long-time Conan scribe/adapter Roy Thomas, is mostly high quality as well. Thomas' Conan was always more stereotypically heroic than Robert E. Howard's original, but he can still be a bit of a jerk at times. Highlights include the oft-imitated crucifixion of Conan from an adaptation of Howard's "A Witch Shall Be Born" and an original team-up with Howard's female barbarian Red Sonya. John Buscema, who penciled more Conan stories at Marvel than anyone else, gives us his older-looking Conan throughout, with Tony DeZuniga and others ably inking Buscema or drawing him themselves. It's too bad these volumes weren't reprinted at their original magazine-page size, though -- the art and lettering can get a bit cramped at points in the comic-book-page dimensions of the collection. Recommended.

Dr. Spektor Volume 1: written by Mark Waid; illustrated by Neal Edwards and Christian Ward (2014): Enjoyable reboot of a Silver Age Gold Key hero about whom I know absolutely nothing. Veteran scribe Mark Waid gives us a master of the mystic arts who's also a TV personality and a bit of a knob. The art is competent, though never particularly mystical or surreal. It's a book about a magician that could use an injection of the surreal and the non-representational on the artistic side. Lightly recommended.

Superman: Camelot Falls Vol. 1 and 2: written by Kurt Busiek; illustrated by Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino (2006-2007; collected 2009): Lengthy Superman story that appeared intermittently in about a year-and-a-half's worth of Superman comics gets collected here, with art primarily by Carlos Pacheco and story by Kurt Busiek. It's among the finest Superman stories of the last 25 years in both art and story. Pacheco is a clean, dynamic penciler with just the right hint of whimsy in his art. Busiek's Superman is forthright and stalwart though occasionally plagued by doubt. 

Busiek riffs on a Superman story from the early 1970's, "Must There Be A Superman?", as Superman discovers that the presence of he and his fellow heroes will ultimately lead to the destruction of all human life on Earth. Or will it? 

Busiek brings back Atlantean super-magician Arion to present a superhero-tinged version of Vico's cyclical view of history. There will always be a Rise, there will always be a Fall, there will always be another Rise, and so on, but the prevention of that Fall by Superman and friends will cause the Fall to build in power until when it comes, there will be no subsequent Rise again. Humanity will perish in the turbo-charged wave of darkness. Arion wants Superman to retire intentionally so this future won't come to pass. But if Superman won't retire, Arion will retire him forcibly and then start the next wave of darkness himself before it builds any further. To Arion, the ends justify the means, no matter how many billions must die to ensure humanity's survival.

It may sound grim, but Busiek keeps things hopeful throughout: Arion may be wrong. And Superman remains heroic and dedicated to preserving life, as he should. Busiek introduces a new villain for Superman, Khyber, who grows on one over the course of the story. He is in many ways an attempt to give Superman his own Ra's Al Ghul, an immortal enemy with designs on global domination and a patience born of immortality. Only the name, which seems to be an attempt to meld the historic and ongoing importance of the Khyber Pass with the sounds-similar 'Cyber,' is a bit vexing. Well, unless Busiek is playing with the Cockney rhyming slang construction of "Khyber Pass" as a stand-in for "Ass" (or "Arse"), which would be hilarious. In all, recommended.