Friday, October 30, 2015

Dead Travel Coach

Crimson Peak: written by Matthew Robins and Guillermo del Toro; directed by Guillermo del Toro; starring Mia Wasikowska (Edith Cushing), Jessica Chastain (Lucille Sharpe), Tom Hiddleston (Thomas Sharpe), Charlie Hunnam (Dr. McMichael), and Jim Beaver (Carter Cushing) (2015): Guillermo del Toro delivers a love letter to Edgar Allan Poe, Gothics, haunted houses, ghost stories, and the 1950's and 1960's horror movies of Hammer Studios and Roger Corman. Oh, and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Rebecca. "The Turn of the Screw." "The Beckoning Fair One." And a whole lot of others. Also, a guest appearance by Buffalo, New York. 

The production and costume design are extraordinary, colour-super-saturated in the manner of many of Corman's Poe adaptations while also supplying the requisite amount of decay and disintegration. Mia Wasikowska is solid as the late-19th-century American woman who chooses the wrong English guy, Tom Hiddleston conjures up some Vincent-Price-like morbid empathy as he plays that wrong guy, and Jessica Chastain is sinister and loopy as the wrong guy's sister. 

There are even elements of steam punk in Hiddleston's clay-digging machine, and a tribute to Sherlock Holmes (and creator Arthur Conan Doyle, fully name-checked in the narrative) in the person of Charlie Hunnam's opthamologist/ghost-hunter/amateur detective. 

There's nothing subtle about the movie -- it wears its metaphors on its brightly coloured sleeves. All this, and the ghosts -- as in the del Toro-produced Mama -- are stunningly creepy, a triumph of visual effects and the imagination of del Toro and his designers. This movie isn't for everybody. The build is just a tad slow in the first half, while in the second half del Toro pulls away from the cataclysmic finale antecedents such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" have primed us to expect. Highly recommended.

The Innocents: adapted from the Henry James novella "The Turn of the Screw" by John Mortimer, William Archibald, and Truman Capote; directed by Jack Clayton; starring Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Grose), Martin Stephens (Miles), Pamela Franklin (Flora), Peter Wyngarde (Quint) and Clytie Jessop (Miss Jessel) (1961): Director Jack Clayton's adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw" is also an adaptation of a stage play based on "The Turn of the Screw." The play supplies many of our governess-protagonist's speeches, which Deborah Kerr pretty much nails -- though I'd always pictured Miss Giddens as being much younger than Kerr was at the time of her performance.

The set-up is simple and direct. A governess is hired to take care of the two orphaned charges of their uncle. They reside at a country estate. Miss Jessel, their previous governess, died under mysterious circumstances, as did the estate's head groundskeeper Mr. Quint. But the longer the governess stays at the estate, the more disturbing the circumstances become. The children begin to behave strangely once older brother Miles returns, expelled from boarding school for unnamed acts. The governess starts to see strange figures and hear strange noises. But the cook doesn't see or hear any of these things. The Uncle in London doesn't want to be bothered with anything to do with the children. The governess is in charge of the household. What will she do?

The movie doesn't really answer the faulty either/or binary posited in much of the 150 years of literary discussion about "The Turn of the Screw." Are ghosts haunting the governess' two young charges or is everything in her head? The movie, like the text itself, evades the binary and instead works best with both possibilities existing simultaneously. They're not mutually exclusive.

The Innocents manages to create a genuinely creepy atmosphere through direction, cinematography, sound, and the occasionally unnerving performances by the two child actors. There are a couple of 'Gotcha!' moments that involve the sudden appearance of a specter, but for the most part the movie relies on a gradual accumulation of distressing details.

Two changes from the original text limit some of the film's possibilities. "The Turn of the Screw" was told as a narration inside a narration decades after the events of the story; the movie omits this construction. James' original forces the reader to consider the fact that the governess went on being a governess for decades after the events of the story while also parenthesizing the entire story inside the governess' own telling of it, recounted to another person decades later. The movie also tries to be a bit more overt in explaining why Miles got expelled from boarding school, limiting the more unnerving possibilities of what Miles is capable of -- and of what Quint and Jessel subjected he and Flora to.

The whole thing works very well, though it is occasionally a bit mannered. Both the supernatural and the psychological work within the movie to gradually build a sense of dread. The acting is fine throughout, from the salt-of-the-Earth cook to Kerr's increasingly freaked-out governess to the two preternaturally coy and manipulative children. Highly recommended.

Re-Animator: adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft novella "Herbert West, Re-Animator" by Dennis Paoli, William Norris, and Stuart Gordon; directed by Stuart Gordon; starring Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West), Bruce Abbott (Dan Cain), Barbara Crampton (Megan Halsey), David Gale (Dr. Carl Hill), and Robert Sampson (Dean Halsey) (1985): Richard Band's score channels Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho as Vertigo-riffing opening credits zip by.  Then we get this weirdly faithfully unfaithful adaptation of a novella that H.P. Lovecraft essentially wrote on a dare and considered complete schlock uncharacteristic of all his other stories.

Schlock and grue and hyper-violence and nudity are all in writer-director Stuart Gordon's wheelhouse. Indeed, Re-Animator would help make his name and his studio's name as a creator of enjoyable, bloody, violent, witty, and low-budget horror movies. Gordon on less pulpy Lovecraft fare such as "Dagon" or "The Dreams in the Witch-House" -- not so good. Gordon on Re-Animator, From Beyond, or the Re-Animator sequels? Just fine.

I had forgotten the lamely acted romantic plot that weighs down parts of this movie. Really, I'd forgotten Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton, the ostensible leads of the movie, completely. Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West and David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill are the real stars, along with a whole lot of resurrected dead people, mobile body parts, and extremely angry resurrected cats. Gordon throws blood and guts around, but he does so with wit and a fair idea for what makes a horror movie gross and funny even as it occasionally verges on disturbing the viewer. I'll be damned if I completely understand part of the climax, though: sometimes a little exposition is a good idea.

Jeffrey Combs holds the screen whenever he's on it, which is never enough. He certainly captures the gonzo spirit of Lovecraft's obsessed Resurrection Man. And Gale is a hoot, never moreso than when he's menacing people while his head is separated from his body. The splatter effects are cheerfully bright, as is West's day-glo-green Resurrection Fluid: in reality, the liquid from inside a glowstick. Recommended.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Mysteries and Lamentations

The Pure in Heart: Simon Serrailler Crime Novel #2 by Susan Hill (2005):  Realistic in its depiction of a police search for a kidnapped child, often melodramatic and overly determined in its depiction of everything else: welcome to the world of Susan Hill's Detective-Chief-Inspector Simon Serrailler and the relatively small English cathedral town in which he works. This is an improvement on the first Serrailler novel, which featured an improbable serial killer doing unprecedented things for a serial killer and virtually no Simon Serrailler. Of course, more Simon Serrailler in this novel means more space to notice what a drip he is. Hill has labelled these novels 'crime novels' rather than mysteries or procedurals. That's mainly because the novels don't focus exclusively on the solving of a crime, but rather the effects of horrific events on everyone pulled into that crime. So if you like mysteries and family melodrama but don't like closure, this series may be for you. Lightly recommended.

The Unborn: written and directed by David Goyer; starring Odette Yustman (Casey), Gary Oldman (Rabbi Sendak), Cam Gigandet (Mark), Meagan Good (Romy), Idris Elba (Wyndham), and Jane Alexander (Sofi Kozma) (2009): Poor Odette Yustman has to spend the first half of this movie as a scantily clad victim who shows an awful lot of camel-toe in one scene. The cheesecake doesn't do the movie any favours. Writer-director David Goyer has actually fashioned a pretty interesting horror movie that uses Jewish legends to good effect. It also throws several startlingly distorted monsters at the viewer. 

Yustman does a good job with an occasionally thankless role. The movie would probably have benefited from not air-lifting Gary Oldman and Idris Elba in to play surprisingly small parts that might have been better served by character actors (the more rumpled and lived-in the character actor, the better). Still, this is a surprisingly good modern horror movie, especially from a major studio. It would actually be better if it were about a quarter-hour longer, so long as those fifteen minutes were spent on plot and character and scares and not more camel-toe. Lightly recommended.

Rhymes With 'Karl Marx'

The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library Volume 11: A Christmas for Shacktown (1951-52/Reprinted 2013): written and drawn by Carl Barks; edited by Gary Groth and J. Michael Catron; editorial material by R. Fiore, Donald Ault, Rich Kreiner, and others.

The Fantagraphics Carl Barks Library presents some of Donald Duck's most Marxian adventures in this volume of stories from 1951 and 1952. And by 'Marxian,' I mean Karl and not the Brothers. 

Every story herein seems to be about the absurdities and inequities of capitalism. Writer-artist Carl Barks is such a fine and entertaining storyteller that no one at Walt Disney seems to have noticed the critique of Capitalism in pretty much every story. At point, it's a lot like Das Kapital with talking ducks.

This is another beautiful volume of reprints from Fantagraphics Books in the Carl Barks Disney Library. Barks' smooth, funny and often beautiful cartooning comes through on every page. The colour reproduction is sensible in its replication of the four-colour tones the comics were drawn for, the biographical and critical notes useful. 

As to Capitalism and Ducks... well, in the course of this selection of 1-page, 10-page, and 32-page adventures starring Donald, Huey, Louie, Dewey, and Uncle Scrooge, money dominates. We see a quest for a rare (and real) stamp that takes our heroes to the lost city of gold, El Dorado, where an obsession with acquiring silver dominates: too much gold has made gold valueless and silver a prize beyond all measure. 

We see Scrooge McDuck hire Donald to help him spend money fast enough to keep his money bins from exploding, leading to a week of wretched excess that ends with a bizarre and hilarious twist that reveals the all-devouring nature of Scrooge's wealth, a wealth he is increasingly the servant of. 

We follow the odious Gladstone Gander, luckiest duck alive, as he falls into wealth after wealth after wealth while the hard-working Donald and nephews repeatedly find themselves screwed over.

I mean, it's astonishing. Maybe the critics in this volume dwell too much on the Barksian critique of capitalism. But the accumulation of these stories reprinted here and in other Barks Disney Library volumes makes an overwhelming case for Barks' often horrified bemusement at the American pursuit of money and the falseness of such beliefs as 'Cheaters never prosper' or 'Hard work always results in financial reward' or 'Rich people are wise and benevolent job creators.' That last one sees its refutation in Scrooge McDuck, hoarder and skin-flint supreme, but also in an assortment of other rich people who are absent-minded buffoons or malevolent tyrants. 

But because Carl Barks is  dealing with funny stories about talking ducks and other anthropomorphized animals, he can throw a blistering social critique like "A Christmas in Shacktown" at his then-massive readership of millions of children without anyone in the adult world noticing. It's an astonishing, on-going act of subversive popular story-telling. And it's the immensely entertaining and beautifully drawn world of Carl Barks, master storyteller. With ducks. Highly recommended.

Uncle Sam: written by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross; illustrated by Alex Ross (1997): This blistering, satiric attack on the corruption of the American Dream is probably the least-popular work ever illustrated by beloved comic-book painter Alex Ross. That's too bad, because Ross and scripter Steve Darnall deliver a beautifully and sometimes disturbingly illustrated graphic novel that jumps through the history of America as viewed by what appears to be a living avatar of Uncle Sam. But this Uncle Sam has been driven insane by his country's atrocities and contradictions. The ending peters out a bit, but the overall effect is quite remarkable -- a scathing satire and jeremiad done up in Ross' photo-realistic art. Recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dragon's Domain

The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein (1984): The Ceremonies isn't the greatest horror novel ever written, but it may be the greatest horror novel ever written in which the stakes are the survival of the world. There were a lot of those apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic horror novels in the late 1970's and 1980's, during the later nuclear-war-fear years. I'd probably give the edge to The Ceremonies over all of them, 1980's or otherwise, though Ramsey Campbell's The Hungry Moon and Midnight Sun would offer stiff competition.

T.E.D. Klein is a Top-Ten American horror-writing talent despite his meager output: this novel; the four novellas collected in Dark Gods (1985); the novella The Ceremonies is based on, "The Events at Poroth Farm" (1973); and maybe 200 pages of ephemera. Horror readers sit and wait, hoping that second novel announced in 1985 will some day see publication.

The Ceremonies looms large for a number of reasons. It's beautifully written. Its allusions, intertexts, and interpolations of what sometimes seems to be the entire history of horror fiction are fascinating, keenly observed, and essential to the unfolding of the plot. The plot itself is expertly machined, building slowly until the climax explodes in the last thirty pages or so. The characterization of players minor and major is deft and witty and occasionally heart-breaking. The novel follows certain tropes and conventions while exploding others along the way. It's structurally and stylistically complex in an unshowy manner -- its use of three distinct, linked narrative streams in three different voices and tenses, for one, has thematic significance that only dawns on the reader gradually as the novel and its voices accumulate in one's head to increasingly disturbing effect. And it's capable of both cosmic uneasiness and gross-out horror, the latter used sparingly but to great effect, especially in the climactic scenes.

To appreciate The Ceremonies fully, one should read at least some of the texts it interacts with. But if one doesn't do so, one of the main characters labours away on a graduate English thesis on horror fiction throughout the novel. Along the way, we get his thoughts on texts ranging from The Castle of Otranto to The Haunting of Hill House. Some of these texts are important to the novel as a whole. All of the observations are, at the very least, interesting. Some are even hilarious. Because one can certainly agree with the protagonist's view that The Castle of Otranto sucks, or that Dracula stops being interesting once the novel exits Transylvania.

The protagonist of the novel, Jeremy Freirs, takes lodging on a farm near the small New Jersey town of Gilead for the summer in order to finish his M.A. thesis. His landlords are Sarr and Deborah Poroth, members of a small Christian sect that settled in the area more than a hundred years earlier. The sect bears some resemblance to the Pennsylvania Dutch or the Amish, though the Poroths have a truck and indoor plumbing. But it's not the Poroths or their sect or even Jeremy that are the real problem. 

The real problem is something that waited in the surrounding woods for 5000 years to be born again, something that spent centuries clinging to a tree branch in the distorted heart of a section of the forest initially called by the adjacent Native Americans "The Place of Burning." No one ever lived there or near there until settlers started to encroach in the 19th century. Then the thing's waiting ended, along with its life, and the Ceremonies began. And even in the 19th century, the forested heart of darkness sat only about 50 miles from New York City. 

Something beyond all measure fell into or broke through or seeped up into our universe; the novel leaves the thing's means of entry a "mystery." But the novel also suggests that the thing somehow also broke through into human mythology, folklore, rituals, stories, and even folk dances. Fragments of the rituals needed to resurrect the being hide in all these things, waiting to be reassembled and used so that the thing can be reassembled and reborn. Even a Coney Island Ferris Wheel and a grumpy cat fit into the Ceremonies.

One of the keen pleasures of The Ceremonies is its combination of mystery and precision. We're taken through various rituals and preparations and signs and portents. Strange, tarot-like cards are read. Complex ceremonies that must be followed with an anal-retentive attention to detail are enacted. But the mysteries of what awaits, of what will be done to the world and how it will change, remain to the very end of the text. At no time does Klein feel the need to have the ultimate antagonist of the novel deliver an expositional speech. 

And even the acolyte of the antagonist remains vague and refreshingly unglib to the very end. And this henchman, Rosie -- this short, fat, seemingly jolly old man -- is one of the novel's many terrific creations. He's awful. He's also pitiful, but only in terms of what he was before he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, nearly 100 years before the main action of the novel takes place. The third-person description of his thoughts doesn't give us the exterior charm of so many antagonists, from Hannibal Lecter all the way back to Milton's Satan. We see Rosie from inside, a manipulative and remorseless engine of death. Well, death for all humanity. If humanity were lucky. Which it probably won't be if Rosie gets his way. There are worse things than death.

The indispensable references for the novel are several late-19th and early-20th-century stories by the Welsh horror-writer/mystic Arthur Machen. The novel's title refers to three sets of ceremonies named but never fully explained in Machen's (mostly) first-person tour de force "The White People"; Machen's novella is also discussed by Jeremy in the novel itself. A short, cryptic Machen piece called "The Ceremony" also adds to one's appreciation of the novel, as do Machen's "The Novel of the Black Powder" and "The Great God Pan." These are all in the public domain, and worth reading regardless of whether or not you read The Ceremonies

But you should read The Ceremonies. You really should. It's both its own evocative, poetic, ruthless piece of horror and a terrific act of play with what sometimes seems to be every major horror and Gothic work ever written, either explicitly or implicitly. The Ceremonies rewards close and careful reading. It rewards multiple readings. And it has a killer inversion of a horror trope that horror readers will probably associate most with Stephen King's The Shining, as creatures almost never associated with goodness nonetheless ride to the rescue by accident, driven by instinctual fury, even as Nature itself comes under existential assault. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Evolving Ducks

The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library Volume 5: Christmas on Bear Mountain (1947/Reprinted 2013): written and drawn by Carl Barks; edited by Gary Groth and J. Michael Catron; editorial material by R. Fiore, Donald Ault, Rich Kreiner, and others.

The Fantagraphics Carl Barks Library really is a joy. Its main content, the Disney comics written and drawn by Carl Barks from the 1940's to the 1960's, are masterpieces of all-ages comics storytelling. The editions themselves are marvelously produced, with crisp artwork and sensible, period-faithful colouring. Carl Barks was (and is) one of the giants of popular American comic books, and indeed American popular culture.

Thankfully, this series doesn't bowdlerize some of the rougher edges of Donald Duck and company's adventures. Here, all the stories are from 1947. Some of the racial caricatures are embarrassing, none moreso than what appear to be cannibalistic Australian bushmen. There are some pretty awful caricatures of lazy Hispanics as well. Ay caramba!

Nonetheless, the storytelling is tight and beautifully paced, the artwork delightful, and the characterization of Donald Duck and nephews Huey, Louie, and Dewey an increasingly nuanced production. The four have not quite become the seasoned adventurers they would be in the book-length (30 pp) adventures of the 1950's, but they're getting there. 

And while the eponymous long story plays things entirely for laughs (and introduces Uncle Scrooge to the Disneyverse), the last of the long-form stories reprinted here, "The Ghost of the Grotto," foreshadows the adventure stories that would come, in which comedy serves the thrilling and the perilous. At one point, the Disney comics that introduced and then reprinted these stories were far and away the best-selling comic books in the United States and Canada. Carl Barks almost certainly had as much of a formative influence on film-makers that include George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as any other artist -- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom even cribs a number of sequences from Carl Barks. 

More important than influence, though, is effect. These are great, accessible, funny, beautifully written and drawn comics. They actually make one care about perennially sputtering Donald and his originally obnoxious nephews, giving them moments of heroism and regret that they never got in animated cartoons. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Egyptian Gods and Thanksgiving Journeys

The Jackal Man: A Wesley Peterson Mystery by Kate Ellis (2011): Breezy, enjoyable mystery throws archaeology into the mixture, which apparently happens in every Wesley Peterson mystery from Kate Ellis. Detective-Inspector Wesley Peterson works in South Devon, thus putting a small-town, English spin on the crime-solving. 

In this novel, Egyptian mythology and funerary practices come into play as a murderer puts on the jackal head of Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead, and starts murdering young women. While Peterson and the rest of the police investigate the crime, Peterson's archaeologist pal Neil Watson stumbles across a series of murders in 1903 that resemble the current killings. It all seems to tie into the formidable collection of Egyptian antiquities at nearby Varley Castle.

Ellis does a nice job of characterization when it comes to characters minor and major. The mystery is pleasingly convoluted without seeming too contrived. She's not the world's most interesting prose stylist, but she gets the job done. The Egyptian mythology and cultural practices make for some moments of body horror, sensitively handled. The gross-out factor is minimal, and the violence far from graphic.

Plot-wise, the only major flaw comes when Ellis goes to the stereotypical threat to the loved ones of a detective. I realize that a detective story isn't a paean to realism, but the contrivance of this event -- something that almost never happens in reality -- has come to be a real turn-off for me. It's a too-artificial source of suspense, especially in a novel that already has threats and mysteries enough to keep the reader entertained and involved right to the final solution. Still, this is a solid diversion. Recommended.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: written and directed by John Hughes; starring Steve Martin (Neal Page) and John Candy (Del Griffith) (1987): Having only seen stretches of the broadcast-TV version of this movie for years (actually, decades), I'd forgotten how much swearing there is in the movie, especially in a great scene between Steve Martin's anal-retentive marketing guy and a car rental agent played by the indispensable Edie McClurg.  And despite the heavy dose of schmaltz the movie dumps on us at the end, this remains a great comedy. Getting home for Thanksgiving has never been such a harrowing, comic enterprise.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles certainly is not subtle, and for someone whose films tended to trumpet the virtues of the working class over those of the upper middle-class, John Hughes does have a thing for using poor rural people as comic grotesques. But they're funny grotesques. John Candy is magnificent as the slob-Falstaffian shower-ring salesman Del Griffith, while Steve Martin makes a perfect foil who also gets some moments of comic rage that recall Daffy or Donald Duck as much as they suggest any human antecedents. Hughes movies were never entirely realistic, which is actually one of their charms -- they're comic fables when they're at their best, ones in which driving around in an immolated rental car singing along to the radio makes perfect sense. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Does the Robot Want to Kill You or Screw You?

Virus: adapted from the Dark Horse comic-book series created by Chuck Pfarrer by Chuck Pfarrer and Dennis Feldman; directed by John Bruno; starring Jamie Lee Curtis (Kit Foster), William Baldwin (Steve Baker), Donald Sutherland (Captain Everton), Joanna Pacula (Nadia), Cliff Curtis (Hiko), Sherman Augustus (Richie), and Marshall Bell (Woods) (1999): On the bright side, this first directorial effort from visual effects maestro didn't destroy John Bruno's career... as a visual effects maestro. 

The problems with the movie aren't his fault, however -- comic-book adaptation or not, Virus is an insanely derivative piece of work. It is, however, relatively competent in its direction. It's also produced by Gale Ann Hurd, and derivative of many of the other films she produced. 

The crew of a salvage ship caught in a hurricane comes across an abandoned Russian science ship. Or is it abandoned? After all, there's blood and destruction everywhere. But kooky Captain Donald Sutherland -- who appears to be acting in another, funnier movie -- wants the giant vessel for the $30 million salvage fee it will bring from the Russians if they want it back. However, there's SOMETHING ON THE SHIP.

Virus might be at least a slightly better movie if the prologue were moved into the centre of the film as a flashback. It's as if Aliens (another Hurd-produced film, and one Virus cribs from shamelessly) showed us what happened to the colonists in the first five minutes of the movie. It's a dumb storytelling decision that suggests that the studio may have thought a prologue-less Virus was too hard for an audience to follow. Given what a colossal bomb Virus turned out to be ($15 million domestic gross on a 'Where did they spend it?' budget of $75 million), maybe they'd like to travel back in time and fix some of the movie's narrative decisions.

Other than trite dialogue and some dodgy visual effects (most of the storm shots of the Russian vessel in the hurricane clearly involve either miniatures or terrible CGI work), Virus also gives the viewer a mostly underwhelming nemesis. Or nemeses. Sometimes the crew has to fight evil versions of the cute robot from Short Circuit, sometimes they have to fight mechanical spiders from about a dozen SF films and TV shows, and sometimes Donald Sutherland gets assimilated by the Borg... and the Borg are nice enough to leave his captain's hat on him. That at least is some funny stuff, and surely a great leap forward in human-cyborg relations.

The actors do what they can with what they've got. Well, except for the aforementioned Sutherland, who clearly said 'To Hell with a naturalistic performance!' on Day One of shooting. He's sort of a hoot, as is Marshall Bell chewing the scenery as an untrustworthy helmsman. William Baldwin and the rest of the male cast members have almost nothing interesting to say. 

The Sigourney Weaver 'action woman' part gets split between Joanna Pacula and Jamie Lee Curtis in an almost schematically on/off way -- which is to say, when one is kicking ass, the other is cowering in a corner, and vice versa. Curtis really hated this movie. It's not hard to see why. It's vaguely watchable, and some scenes in the robot abattoir have a sort of cyberpunk-meets-Grand-Guignol thing going on. But it's also relentlessly derivative when it's not just being dumb. Not recommended.

Westworld: written and directed by Michael Crichton; starring Yul Brynner (Robot Gunslinger), Richard Benjamin (Peter Martin), James Brolin (John Blane), Dick Van Patten (Banker), and Majel Barrett (Miss Carrie) (1973): Before Michael Crichton gave us a murderously malfunctioning dinosaur them park in Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton gave us a murderously malfunctioning robot theme park in Westworld.  

Yes, this is the Delos Corporation's adult theme park of the near-future in a desert area of the American Southwest. It's divided into three independent sections that intentionally remind one of similar divisions in Disney theme parks: West(ern)world. Medievalworld, and Romanworld. Except for the guests, everyone you meet in a park is a robot.

The fact that you can bang the human-form robots of these three worlds is clearly part of the appeal of these expensive vacations for adults. You can also shoot them, stab them, punch them, and insult them with impunity. They're just robots, albeit incredibly sophisticated sex-doll robots. Nothing can go wrong. Or is that worng?

James Brolin as a beefy American blowhard and Richard Benjamin as his sheepish, emasculated, divorced pal play our two protagonists. Or maybe increasingly cranky robotic gunslinger Yul Brynner is the protagonist. It really depends on where your sympathies lie. The film-makers dress Brynner like his heroic gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven. But in Westworld, he's something of a dink even before his programming goes astray. Then Brynner becomes the unstoppable forerunner of the Terminator, complete with the occasional bit of pounding background music as he pursues his prey through the three worlds and down into the warren of maintenance tunnels and work rooms and labs below the Delos parks.

The movie works pretty well as a recurringly dumb bit of SciFi action with just a tinge of obvious satire. Unable to solve two narrative problems with anything involving cleverness, Crichton just stupids his way through. How do you tell robots from humans? Um, Delos couldn't get the hands quite right. On robots that are indistinguishable otherwise from human and which you can boink away to your heart's content, it's the hands that are the design flaw. 

Secondly, how can the bullets be real? Oh, all guns have a sensor that shuts down the gun if it's pointed at a human being. That wouldn't seem to help if one got clipped by a ricochet or a bullet coming from a few hundred yards away, something that seems pretty likely given the giant shoot-outs we hear in the background throughout the first half of the movie. Maybe they're magic bullets. 

These are the dumb solutions to problems created by Crichton himself. Surely one could put a small tattoo or mark somewhere prominent and always visible on a robot to distinguish it from a person. And surely you couldn't have real, lethal bullets flying around and maintain a perfect safety record. But Yul Brynner's gunslinger needs real bullets for Crazy Time!

Oh, well. Westworld is still an enjoyable slice of pre-Star Wars Sci Fi movie-making. The suspense in the second half is engaging and competently directed by Crichton. And now HBO will turn Westworld into a series with tons of graphic sex and nudity because that's what HBO does. So look forward to more human/robot sexual shenanigans in 2016. Surely nothing can go worng. Recommended.

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Batman '66 Volume 1: written by Jeff Parker; illustrated by Jonathan Case, Mike Allred, Ty Templeton, Joe Quinones, Sandy Jarrell, and others (2013-2014/Collected 2014): One of DC's first forays into Digital-first original comics is a jolly romp set in the universe of the 1960's live-action Batman series starring Adam West, Burt Ward, and several thousand 'Bams' and 'Pows.' It's fun and cheeky and campy. The art tends more to the cartoonish than the photo-representational, which was probably a good idea. And the cartoonists, like writer Jeff Parker, keep things light. Recommended.

Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD: written by Jim Steranko, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Roy Thomas; illustrated by Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Joe Sinnott, and others (1966-68/ Collected 2000): Why Marvel didn't just complete the Jim Steranko Nick Fury run in this 2000 collection with the last 80 pages or so of Steranko's fun and innovative 1960's work on the company's master spy is a good question. They rectified that error 13 years later with a all-in-one volume, the one you should probably buy. But this was a remainder and cheap.

Writer-artist Jim Steranko managed to make the S.H.I.E.L.D. series into a groovy blast of science fiction, fantasy, and suspenseful super-heroics. He got traction as a comics artist and writer remarkably quickly, and his art background from beyond comics seemed to help motivate him to try innovative lay-outs and visual effects and combinations of photographic and drawn material. Many of the subsequent 'young turks' of comic-book art would follow in Steranko's footsteps, leading to the 1970's and its pantheon of young and exciting comic-book artists.

As Steranko gained more experience and confidence, the stories got wilder and weirder. A two-page spread that reveals the mastermind behind parodically stereotypical Asian super-criminal the Yellow Claw causes everything that comes before it to make a totally new, weird type of sense. It's as if Philip K. Dick had decided to write a superhero comic book -- and Steranko's ESP SHIELD Unit suggests, in its goals and its three-person composition, that Steranko was familiar with the Dick novella "The Minority Report." 

So too Dick's concerns with the nature of reality. There were already an awful lot of human-like robots running around the SHIELD series when Steranko came on board. That problem just multiplies, along with hidden bosses, mysterious traitors, and the occasional spot of interstellar travel and alien invasion. SHIELD's 1966 technology, and that of their evil counterparts AIM and Hydra, far surpasses that on the current TV show. So too the zippiness and the awesome weirdness of the scenarios.

It's the art and all its experiments that still sings, however, Steranko's occasional flatness when to came to the human form notwithstanding. Whether it's the photo-collage techniques he picked up from Kirby and refined on his own or the audacious four-page spread that required one to buy two copies of a SHIELD comic to see it in its entirety, the artwork showed a variety of ways that mainstream comics could be their own peculiar form of avant-garde Pop Art without a Lichtenstein to appropriate the images for the art world. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Lovecraft Ascending

The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death (1995) by H.P. Lovecraft, containing the following stories (Publication dates in brackets):

Introduction: Concerning Dreams and Nightmares by Neil Gaiman: Enjoyable but light on context and somewhat glib. The volume could really use a historical overview of its contents to establish a context for the stories, along with both composition and publication dates for all the stories.

  • Azathoth (1922): Short prose poem/fragment.
  • The Descendant (1926) : Fragment.
  • The Thing in the Moonlight (1934): Fragment.
  • Polaris (1920): It's an oddity all right, one that could be sub-titled 'Angry Man Yells at North Star.'
  • Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919): A scientific romance of multiple personalities got turned into a mostly unfaithful movie.
  • The Doom That Came to Sarnath (1920): Maybe the best of Lovecraft's short, moody Dunsanian horror stories. Introduces a precursor to the Deep Ones.
  • The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920): The first appearance of the closest thing to a recurring protagonist Lovecraft ever created. Has one of HPL's two most familiar, quoted and/or mocked concluding lines.
  • The Cats of Ulthar (1920): HPL loved cats and he let it show. And they would show up again to play a major role in the events of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.
  • Celephais (1922): Prose poem.
  • From Beyond (1934): Short horror story of perception. Turned into a sort-of faithful movie.
  • Nyarlathotep (1920): Short prose poem/fragment about the Herald of the Great Old Ones from ancient Egypt to a briefly imagined dystopic future.
  • The Nameless City (1921): That would be the lost desert city of Irem, which also figures in the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • The Other Gods (1933): Whimsical bit of Dunsanian fabulism and cosmic relativism.
  • Ex Oblivione (1921): Prose poem.
  • The Quest of Iranon (1935): Dunsanian fable.
  • The Hound (1924): Fairly straightforward horror story features two decadents and an unusual-for-HPL setting of Amsterdam.
  • Hypnos (1922): As much a nod to Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" as it is a Dream-Cycle work.
  • What the Moon Brings (1922): Prose poem.
  • Pickman's Model  (1927): A straightforward horror story with elements that would be re-used in the Dream-Cycle short novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, written the same year but published 16 years later. Has one of HPL's two most familiar, quoted and/or mocked concluding lines.
  • The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943): HPL's oddest long work combines the soporific with the startling. Randolph Carter stars.
  • The Silver Key (1929): Randolph Carter again, exploring the Dream-lands.
  • The Strange High House in the Mist (1931): Demon-haunted Kingsport makes an appearance, though it's positively normal compared to its representation in "the Festival."
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1943): Unpublished for years after its composition, this short novel gave us "essential salts" and Lovecraft's most fully realized antagonist, Joseph Curwen. Certain sections approach a parody of overused tropes.
  • The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933): Horror story has ties to both the Dream Cycle and to the Cthulhu Mythos. Somehow turned into soft-core-porn horror on TV anthology Masters of Horror.
  • Through the Gates of the Silver Key (1934) by H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price: Price and Lovecraft collaborate on a continuation of the story of Randolph Carter, for whom friends and relatives now search. A lengthy section on four-dimensional, non-linear space-time is nearly essential to understanding where Alan Moore is coming from in similar sections in his Lovecraft-inspired Neonomicon.

Overall: Certainly not as strong a collection as one of HPL's later-period work would be, but still extremely strong at points, and necessary for understanding him as a writer. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Hitchcock, Ballard, ... Gad?

Dial 'M' for Murder: adapted by Frederick Knott from his own stage play; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Ray Milland (Tony Wendice); Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice), Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday), John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard), and Anthony Dawson (Swann) (1954): Mostly minor Hitchcock has the cast but lacks a top-rate script: if you didn't know it was based on a play, you'd figure it out by the second act. Ray Milland's cunning plan to kill wife Grace Kelly by proxy turns out to have too many moving parts -- or perhaps too few. It's a nice time waster, and all of the leads are fine, including John Williams as an increasingly Columbo-esque English policeman. Originally shown in 3-D, only the repeated establishment of an extreme foreground in most shots overtly acknowledges the process. Lightly recommended.

The Wedding Ringer: written by Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender; directed by Jeremy Garelick; starring Kevin Hart (Jimmy Callahan), Josh Gad (Doug Harris), Kaley Cuoco (Gretchen Palmer), and Jorge Garcia (Lurch) (2015): Sloppy but engaging buddy comedy manages to graft the narrative apparatus of a Heist movie onto a wedding scenario. Josh Gad plays a lovable, insanely wealthy tax attorney who has no friends -- not even one to be the Best Man at his wedding. Enter Kevin Hart as a man who sells his services as a Best Man to the friendless. And the services of whatever people he can round up to fill the roles of Gad's imaginary groomsmen, Gad having invented and named those groomsmen and the imaginary Best Man to his fiancee and the wedding planner prior to engaging Hart's services. There are rough spots and sections that fall flat, but overall this is a decent, lightweight comedy buoyed by the charms of both Hart and Gad. Recommended.

The Terminal Beach (1964) by J.G. Ballard, containing the following stories: A Question of Re-Entry  (1963); The Drowned Giant  (1964); End-Game  (1963); The Illuminated Man  (1964); The Reptile Enclosure  (1963); The Delta at Sunset  (1964); The Terminal Beach  (1964); Deep End  (1961); The Volcano Dances  (1964); Billennium  (1961); The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon  (1964); and The Lost Leonardo  (1964).

Icy, engaging collection of early 1960's short stories from J.G. Ballard. Many of the stories are at least nominally science fiction. All of them are Weird, though in several cases this Weirdness is entirely a question of tone: nothing overtly fantastic or science-fictional occurs in five of the twelve stories. Nonetheless, even those stories disturb one enough that they straddle the line between the strange and the horrific.

Ballard was only a couple of years away from his avant-garde, experimental period. None of the stories included here are challenging in a structural sense. Several challenge the reader's perceptions of genre, however, along with one's ability to navigate subjective narration and altered states of consciousness. Ballard's concern with the fragility of the human psyche manifests itself again and again in various ways. So, too, the apocalypse, always observed in a cool and somewhat detached manner by either his narrators or the third-person narrative voice. 

But as dry and cool a voice as Ballard can be, behind all those narrative masks exists the mind of an aesthete. The end of the world (if that's what it is) is a hauntingly beautiful place in "The Illuminated Man." Thoughts on art, and the art of Leonardo da Vinci, dominate the quietly horrifying "The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon" and the jolly fantasy "The Lost Leonardo."   And a description of the decay of the body of a mysterious giant takes up the bulk of "The Drowned Giant," a description that haunts and troubles even as the story questions the very nature of the fantastic and people's reactions to unusual events. 

One could call "The Drowned Giant" a horror story about familiarization and the ever-encroaching Un-fantastic. So too "The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon" and "The Delta at Sunset" with their mentally disturbed narrators seeking an escape into a fantastically distorted hallucination that surpasses the 'real' world in scope and beauty, the same 'real' world that reduces the drowned giant to a debased and dismantled normativity. In all, a fine collection. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Looking for Kadath

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft (1927/first published 1943): The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath wasn't published until six years after H.P. Lovecraft's death. It's fascinating, poetic, uneven, and occasionally soporific. It's also the longest bridge between HPL's Dunsanian period and his mature Cthulhu Mythos work, having been completed after the publication of the seminal Mythos novella "The Call of Cthulhu." 

Lord Dunsany, far and away the most influential English-language fantasist of the first half of the 20th century, supplied a literary model for Lovecraft's in-between years. HPL's Dunsanian period moved him from verbose nods to Edgar Allan Poe and other horror writers to the cosmic horrors of the Mythos that would occupy Lovecraft from the mid-1920's to his death in 1937. 

The Dunsany stories, sometimes referred to as Lovecraft's Dream Cycle, aren't strictly horror. Instead, their lapidary prose and often surreal settings aim for a more nebulous form of the Weird and the Fantastic. They are indeed dream-like at even their shortest lengths, and many of the Dream-Cycle fragments are expansions of dreams set down by Lovecraft. From Dunsany also came Lovecraft's pantheons of strange gods with stranger names, and strange places with stranger names. Dunsany helped unshackle Lovecraft from real religions and traditional supernatural menaces. Dunsany helped Lovecraft fly.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath follows the efforts of recurring Dream-Cycle character Randolph Carter to discover why he's been banished from a wondrous city he'd previously been visiting in his dreams. Yes, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is indeed set in dreams -- or "Earth's Dreamlands," as Carter would say. There are also Dreamlands on other worlds. There are also Dreamlands in the dark between the stars, but you probably wouldn't want to find out what lives there.

Carter seeks the fortress of Kadath of the Cold Wastes, where dwell the gods of Earth, who seem to have barred Carter from his Dream-City. Looming far beyond and greater than the gods of Earth are the Other Gods. These are versions of the alien 'Gods' of the Cthulhu Mythos, though only Nyarlathotep and Azathoth are named among them. 

Carter will have to deal with these gods along with various monsters, ghouls, night-gaunts, cats, Gugs, almost-humans, vampires, and moon-beasts in the course of his quest. He'll meet Robert W. Chambers' King in Yellow. He'll converse with Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, herald of the Other Gods. He'll make friends and allies of the Cats of Ulthar and the ghouls of the Dreamlands. And he'll voyage through strange and mysterious lands, over weird seas, and under strange ground.

And all without chapter breaks!

Those who would come to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath seeking cosmic horror in the vein of "The Call of Cthulhu" and "At the Mountains of Madness" should steer clear. There are sections of weird, unsettling description. But this novella really works best as a lengthy prose poem devoted to evoking the weird, the surreal, and the logic of dreams.

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath has some tiring passages. Its diction and syntax would have been helped in stretches by serious, ruthless editing. And HPL really, really falls in love with the word 'pshent' (now generally spelled 'pschent') over the last 20 pages or so. Nonetheless, it's a rewarding text both for the devotee of HPL and the general fantasy reader. Listening to prog-rock while reading it might also be a good idea. It's pretty trippy. Recommended.

Monday, October 5, 2015

On the Road to Providence

Providence Book One: The Ancient Track: (Providence Issues 1-4): written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Jacen Burrows (2015): Well, I say it's Book One because it took me longer to read the first four issues of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows' 12-issue Avatar Press foray into (all) the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft than it normally takes to read 20 normal comic books. Maybe 30. 

Moore has said that he wants to save Lovecraft's work from its domestication in plushie Cthulhu dolls and jokey pop-culture references. Or at least I think that's what he means in his interviews supporting Providence. As in Moore's previous HPL comics, Providence makes explicit enough disturbing sexual elements that were implicit in HPL's original works to unsettle almost anyone who previously thought Cthulhu and friends were cute, cuddly, tentacled monsters who just need a little lebensraum on dear old Planet Earth.

Moore has also called Providence his Watchmen for the Cthulhu Mythos. This certainly works on a number of levels. As with Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, Providence proceeds as an investigation. It involves pastiches and homages to characters not created by Moore et al., characters reimagined and altered by Moore's sensibilities into new configurations and meanings from their source texts. And Providence contains lengthy text pieces at the end of each issue which expand our understanding of the narrative we've just encountered in the comics portion of the books.

One major difference between this and Watchmen is that Providence seems to aim at dovetailing back into H.P. Lovecraft's original stories by the (as-yet-unpublished) end of the narrative. Most of the post-WWI events of Providence occur before the events of Lovecraft's main horror stories, Mythos and otherwise. Though HPL was indeed writing by the time of this narrative, "The Call of Cthulhu" was still several years away. 

And so our protagonist is Robert Black, a gay, Jewish reporter for the New York Herald when we first encounter him. We don't know much about HPL's views on homosexuality, but we do know that he was anti-Semitic (despite the fact that he married a Jewish woman...oh, paradoxical HPL!). Lovecraft's stories and letters tended to avoid overt references to sexuality, though it was often implied. 

Black, though, is sexually active throughout the first four issues. Moore has set him up as both a Lovecraft proxy and an anti-Lovecraft. Like HPL, he's something of a snob when it comes to about 99% of everybody. But while Black has fled New York, just as HPL once did, he still loves the city, which HPL definitely did not. Given the title of the series and the structure of its protagonist's wanderings, I'd imagine that Black will eventually end up in HPL's beloved home city of Providence, Rhode Island. On Lovecraft's tombstone is the inscription "I am Providence," after all.

The desire to write a non-fiction book about odd rural traditions in New England motivates Black's wanderings first in and then outside of New York. He's also leaving the city for awhile to get over the death of an ex-lover. His initial investigation of a mysterious, ancient book and its lengthy, star-crossed history leads him to characters we've met before, under different names, in New York HPL stories that include "Cool Air" and "The Horror at Red Hook." Further explorations will send us to real-world towns that include Salem, Massachusetts -- only now superimposed upon them are creatures and situations from Lovecraft's demon-haunted, imaginary New England towns of Arkham and Innsmouth and Dunwich. 

But while some situations mirror Lovecraft's stories, Providence really is set Before The Play. And Moore's version of one of Lovecraft's most interesting characters, Wilbur Whateley from "The Dunwich Horror," seems to be aware that he's about to become part of the Story of that Play. And he's not all that happy about it when he meets Black.

Providence appears to be a prequel to Moore and Burrows' present-day Cthulhu comics The Courtyard and Neonomicon. But this may not entirely be the case. One doesn't need to have read those other works to enjoy Providence, though they do add an extra layer of cosmic horror to Black's investigation. He is from the Herald, after all. Or maybe he is the Herald, though of what, no one says.

I'm not sure how well Providence works for people who haven't read at least some of Lovecraft's work. However, Moore constantly puts his own revisionist, totalizing spin on things. What is implicit is often made explicit, and this often works quite well in terms of the horror in the text. The cosmic level of Lovecraft, that Sublime dread, is still absent from the narrative, though it certainly seems to be coming. 

As we end the comics portion of the fourth issue, Moore quotes a Lovecraft poem named "The Ancient Track." It suggests that worse and bigger things are waiting for our intrepid writer, whose conscious mind still hasn't clicked on to the supernatural horrors he's walking through. But the text pieces, journal entries 'by' Black, suggest that his unconscious mind is about one step away from shrieking and gibbering: as Black wonders in one journal entry, what if he wrote a novel about an investigator who doesn't know he's in a mystery until it's too late? And what would be a reasonable reaction to events of the supernatural for this investigator? Would he keep rationalizing what he's seen until it's too late as well? 

Moore's writing is sharp and mordant. Jacen Burrows' slick, hyper-realistic style works for Providence as it did for Neonomicon and The Courtyard. It supplies a sort of hyper-real documentary style that approximates the pseudo-documentarian aspects of Lovecraft's best work. When the horrors come, you almost believe in them. And Burrows really, really nails 'The Innsmouth Look' -- it's a comic-book-art triumph to make Innsmouthians seem visually unsettling again. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Crisis in the Death Zone

Everest: based on a true story and written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy; directed by Baltasar Kormakur; starring Jason Clarke (Rob Hall), John Hawkes (Doug Hansen), Michael Kelly (Jon Krakauer), Emily Watson (Helen Wilton), Keira Knightley (Jan Arnold), Josh Brolin (Beck Weathers), Robin Wright (Peach Weathers), and Jake Gyllenhaal (Scott Fischer) (2015): Enjoyable movie based on the true story of a disastrous couple of days on Mount Everest in May of 1996. Journalist Jon Krakauer's terrific Into Thin Air (1998) documented the affair, and while the movie isn't based on that book, Krakauer does appear as one of the characters. 

The movie mainly follows the efforts of the first commercial Everest climbing company on the Nepalese side of the mountain as it returns to Everest and proceeds over six weeks of preparation towards another ascent of the peak. Jason Clarke plays the founder and first guide of the New Zealand-based company, while Emily Watson runs things at Base Camp. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the head of a newer, rival climbing company. Much of the rest of the cast, including Josh Brolin and John Hawkes as two American climbers, is involved with Clarke's team, as is Krakauer, who is covering the climb for Outside magazine.

I could maybe have used a bit keener characterization. There are a lot of characters, and some are given scant time to stick in our minds. The main characters stand out, though, whether it's Clarke's Rob Hall, who may be too sympathetic to the burning desire of his climbers to summit, or Gyllenhaal's goofy, somewhat reckless counterpoint to Hall. Brolin manages to invest his almost-stereotypical Texan with an increasing amount of frailty and indecision as the film progresses. Hawkes is typically fine, as is Watson.

But Everest is the protagonist of Everest. There are a satisfying number of Sublime moments in the shot selection, interspersed with the sweaty, nervous efforts of climbers spanning crevices on extension ladders, falling, wheezing, and struggling like Beckett characters just to crawl somewhere. The section of the film covering the disastrous efforts to reach and return from the summit of Everest are especially tense and thrilling. You know things have gone sideways when a massive storm comes straight up at you.

Much of the film really is factual, including two incidents that seem like pure Hollywood invention, one involving a pair of satellite phone calls and the other involving the improbable survival of a seemingly dead character. I'd have liked more Sublime. And I think the movie could have spared a few more minutes for some necessary exposition in order to provide context for some of the climbers' decisions. 

Hypoxia causes bad decision-making, and those making decisions during the summit were clearly afflicted by it at points. There's human error involved throughout the disaster, along with dreadful timing as a massive storm heads straight out of the Indian Ocean towards Everest on the day of the summit. But some of that human error was clearly the result of Nature defeating Man, and not simply Man Screwing Up. At the summit of Everest, 30,000 feet above sea level in the jet stream, the human brain is far out of its element. There's a reason they call this elevation The Death Zone. Recommended.

China Town

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville (2000): China Mieville's second novel takes us to the strange world of Bas-Lag and the strange, sprawling city of New Crobuzon. One could see Mieville as having gone back to the time before the genre divisions established by the commercial demands of publishing were in force, back to the early 20th century, when science fiction and science fantasy and dark fantasy were non-existent distinctions. 

New Crobuzon, vast and London-like and filled with humans and a wide variety of other sentient species, is one of those places where both magic and science work. It's a crowded, vibrant place that combines elements of Dickensian London and steampunk. It's also a partial dystopia thanks to its ruthless ruling class. There's freedom in New Crobuzon right up until the point one makes trouble for the government. The secret police are everywhere, quashing unionization and making deals with organized crime.

Mieville has a density of imagination that crams Perdido Street Station with memorable characters, species, and events. The plot is pure entertainment, the outlines familiar: a plucky group of misfits must battle a terrible enemy. Mieville's attention to detail makes that familiar plot hum, though, and his wild imaginings make it sing. His socialist concerns also make for some scenes unusual to fantasy and science fiction -- celebrations of the working class, a protagonist who's an overweight intellectual, and a fascinating off-beat coda that both defies and rewards expectations.

Is there a tradition Mieville works within? To some extent, yes. A world of both science fiction and fantasy is the world of the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, among many others. Mieville's dense, often eclectic diction in concert with this mashed-up world of science and magic and the grotesque recalls the works of Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, Tim Powers, Michael Shea, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock.

But this is all Mieville's world, in the same way that The Lord of the Rings is both high fantasy and its own Tolkien genre, all its own. That's how it works with great writers: they're a genre of one. The characters are compelling, flawed, and occasionally heart-breaking. There are asides and references that suggest the vastness of the world Mieville has imagined. There are terrifically exciting sections, including a climax that goes on for about a hundred pages without losing either momentum or invention. There's sorrow as keen as anything, genre or otherwise. There's an awesome super-Spider and a terrified ambassador from Hell. 

And there's a pack of truly terrible, superbly imagined  monsters, set upon New Crobuzon in a manner which recalls so, so many real-world governmental perversities involving drugs, guns, organized crime, and a corrupt political system. This is neither a world with a Chosen One nor a rightful king. And the heavy lifting, with all its costs, will be done by beings excluded from the heights of society. Some of them may even otherwise be terrible, terrible people.

There are flaws, of course, piffling for the most part. My one larger complaint involves Mieville's need to keep throwing in new species and new sub-plots, a need which results in a bit of clutter in the middle section. A relatively lengthy bit pitting one truly odd species against the monsters of  the novel is the apotheosis of this problem -- it advances the plot not one whit, and seems to be there because Mieville really, really wanted to introduce this cool, malevolent species and then pit it against the far more malevolent monsters.

In all, this is a great novel, regardless of genre. There's a keenness to it, even an anger at The Way Things Are Here, that nonetheless never becomes didactic, never detracts from the singularity of Mieville's fully realized, vibrant, awful Secondary World. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Even Monsters Need Health Care

Deep in the Darkness by Michael Laimo (2004): Solid and enjoyable horror-thriller walks in the footsteps of Arthur Machen and some H.P. Lovecraft (specifically "The Lurking Fear" in the latter case). A Manhattan doctor gets an offer he can't refuse: take over the rural New England practice of a recently deceased M.D. and get out of the city with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. What a deal!

Ha! The only place more dangerous than the city in a horror novel is the country (and paradoxically, vice versa). It might be more accurate to say that wherever you go, you should have stayed away. 

Laimo chose to tell this story within a frame narrative that establishes that something really terrible has happened from the beginning of the novel. I"m not sure it's a great choice -- it primarily explains 'where' the first-person narration comes from without adding much in the way of suspense. 

The antagonists of the novel straddle a line between 'natural' cryptid and supernatural boogeyman until very late in Deep in the Darkness. All is (sort of) revealed in a mostly satisfying manner. And Laimo has his sometimes muddle-headed protagonist of an M.D. realize that muddle-headedness, and ponder the source, as the novel progresses. People do some oddly stupid things in the course of the narrative, but there's actually an explanation for that, one that makes sense. And one that the narrator realizes, perhaps too late.

Laimo describes both the antagonists and their woodland haunts viscerally and grotesquely. The novel seems especially oriented to the smells of horror. It also gradually orients itself towards sexualized body horror as it progresses, leading to a couple of extremely graphic and disturbing scenes as the novel moves to a climax. And is a child in danger throughout the novel? Well, yeah. That never gets old.

Deep in the Darkness would probably work better if it were shorter. There's a dragginess to the middle section, a need to get on with it already given what we've seen so far.  And while the first-person narration allows for both unreliability and a refreshing dose of unlikeability in the narrator, it also makes the late-novel objectification of the female body more problematic than third-person would. Characters other than the narrator never really achieve any depth, making what happens to them, especially the wife, verge on gruesome exploitation rather than carefully constructed body horror. 

That there's a sequel to the novel makes a certain amount of sense -- Deep in the Darkness throws a twist in towards the end that allows for further expansion of the narrative while also recontextualizing everything we've read to that point. Though given that this is a first-person narrative recorded 'after' the fact, the revelation may unsuspend the disbelief of a certain portion of readers. Would a narrator lead with the revelation and explain things in terms of it? It certainly could be argued that this would be more believable, especially as the narrative is also framed as a warning to whoever finds it.  Lightly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

That's Entertainment 2.0

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011): This YA, nominally science-fictional novel by Ernest Cline screamed 'Adapt me, Hollywood!' as soon as it came out. And indeed Hollywood came, and Spielberg directs for a 2017 release. It's a shame, I think, that Spielberg choice -- Edgar Wright could probably make a movie better than the book by putting a noticeable spin of satire on things. He could certainly match or exceed its manic, mindless metafictionality.

We start in Oklahoma City in the 2040's, in an America gone to ground in the ruins of its apathy and decayed infrastructure. Pretty much everyone, rich and poor, spends a lot of time inside the OASIS, a Massively Multiplayer Online Everything created by a reclusive and now deceased billionaire genius. Upon his death, that genius created a contest. Whoever wins the contest wins his company and his fortune, the latter somewhere in the mid-100 billions. Years go by, the contest unsolved. And then, one day, our orphaned, poor, plucky protagonist figures out the first stage of the contest. And we're off.

Because the billionaire obsessed over the pop culture of his childhood, everyone who's anyone is now an expert on pop culture from the 1960's to the 1980's, from video games to types of sugary breakfast cereal, from Japan and the United States and Great Britain, from Family Ties to Ultraman. They have to be experts. A detailed knowledge of the band Rush may be vital to winning the contest.*

Ready Player One has its charms. It's relentlessly entertaining and tightly plotted within its extraordinarily familiar plot outlines. The pop-culture references are sometimes fun. Some of the near-future, dystopian world-building is inspired. The world has burned itself out, and no one even bothers trying any more. When one can escape into a candy-coloured Matrix of near-infinite entertainment, the world outside can go to hell. A gifted science-fiction writer could do a lot with a world in which the Real has disintegrated while the Unreal has flourished. Cline isn't that gifted a writer. And besides, he wants you to have FUN.

Oh, FUN. This is indeed a novel of endless entertainment. Its own plot beats and characterization are almost doubly Meta: everyone in the novel knows about Star Wars and Dungeon and Dragons and Harry Potter and The Matrix. That our orphaned protagonist is a cross between Luke Skywalker and Neo and Harry Potter can't really be complained about in a novel that acknowledges all those influences throughout. Or can it?

Well, entertainment! Our protagonist Wade (or his online avatar Parsival, if you prefer) exists in a flattened-out world of popular though often geek-centric entertainment. You're not going to get any high-culture references here. Well, you get one Shakespeare quote, but that's because the play and the game share the same name of [The] Tempest. There are a lot of giant robots, and giant robots are cool. There's a lengthy section devoted to Rush's 2112 with nary a mention of Ayn Rand. There's a lengthy section devoted to Blade Runner which pays lip service to the idea that the genius recluse's favourite novelist was Philip K. Dick, but there's no trace of Dick's novels or short stories, much less his sensibilities, in the novel.

This is a Fun Machine. Welcome to it. There's a brief moment towards the end when what had begun to seem to me to be the best possible climax for the novel seems to manifest itself. But then it doesn't. This is exactly the sort of genre work driven by David Langford's Plot Coupons and the search for them that we've seen a million times before. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But there's nothing here of meaning. There's nothing aesthetically challenging. There's nothing Sublime. Ready Player One is all Cracker and no Jack.

The real-world sections are William-Gibson-lite; the OASIS sections are so saturated with pop culture that by the end, you may feel a need to read or watch something difficult, whether that's a Bergman movie or a stretch of writing by James Joyce, just to reconnect with the idea that there's more to art than entertainment. The novel even makes Monty Python unsubversive. Ready Player One could be one of the disturbingly simplistic, perfectly immersive melodramas that humanity drowns the best part of itself within, in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It's exhaustive. It's exhausting. But by God, you will bloody well be entertained. Recommended.

*Spoiler Alert: It is.