Thursday, April 28, 2016

Southern California Dick

L.A. Requiem (Elvis Cole #8) (1999) by Robert Crais: The Southern California-set Elvis Cole hard-boiled detective series (well, soft-boiled -- Elvis is an emotional softy) always pays off in terms of tightly plotted, minutely detailed detective fiction, almost always with a large side portion of the procedural. There's a lot of procedural in this one, as the police and Cole investigate a murder together thanks to the power and influence of the victim's father. 

As was the case for several Cole novels, the only real drag is Lisa Chenier, Cole's love interest who sucks all the joy and energy out of the novel whenever she appears. It doesn't help that Cole suddenly inspires romantic obsession in a female L.A. cop in this one. Crais is at his best when delineating complicated investigations or dropping the occasional witticism. His romantic writing stinks.

L.A. Requiem stylistically  opened up the Cole series when it came out in 1999, mixing as it does the traditional first-person detective narration with third-person flashbacks involving Cole's hyper-competent detective pal Joe Pike and a number of other characters (including the killer) and third-person narration for events Cole is not present for. 

Overall, the novel's greatest strength lies in its depiction of the course of an investigation. The Los Angeles police are depicted sympathetically, for the most part, with a lot of nuts-and-bolts descriptions of just how a murder case is investigated. Good stuff. Recommended.

The Forgotten Man (Elvis Cole #10) (2005) by Robert Crais: Robert Crais explores L.A. private-eye Elvis Cole's tortured childhood in this novel, in which a man claiming to be Cole's long-vanished father is found murdered in an alley. As always, Crais's depiction of the details of an investigation is top-notch. The flashbacks are also fascinating, as are many of the supporting characters.

Crais also brings in a character from a non-Cole novel, Detective Starkey from Demolition Angel. She's a former bomb-squad officer forced into other police work after getting blown up. She's a fun counterpoint to Cole until she becomes romantically obsessed with him, a sub-plot that Crais used with another female cop in the earlier L.A. Requiem. And it's annoying here too. And while Cole is estranged from gal-pal/wet-blanket Lisa Chenier in this novel, she shows up just enough to put a damper on a number of scenes.

The novel is otherwise solid and twisty and thoroughly enjoyable. The indomitable Joe Pike appears, as does Cole's diffident pet cat. Crais opens up the narrative to third-person material not witnessed by Cole, who otherwise traditionally (for the hard-boiled detective) narrates in first person. The climax is thrilling, though it repeats certain plot elements from the earlier Cole novel L.A. Requiem. And the killer is fascinatingly depicted, though he shares a lot of similarities with the killer in L.A. Requiem. Maybe I shouldn't have read these books back to back. Recommended.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Dark Knight Detectives

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014): adapted by Scott Frank from the novel by Lawrence Block; directed by Scott Frank; starring Liam Neeson (Matt Scudder), David Harbour (Ray), Adam David Thompson (Albert), Dan Stevens (Kenny Kristo), and Brian 'Astro' Bradley (T.J.) : Scott Frank's adaptation of one of Lawrence Block's great Matt Scudder mystery novels is a dandy modern hard-boiled detective/noir. Liam Neeson does marvelous, sorrowful work as Scudder, that dark knight of New York, as does Brian Bradley as homeless genius T.J., whose orbit intersects with Scudder's during an investigation of some horrible killings. That it wasn't the hit it deserved to be robs us of more Scudder adaptations from Frank and Neeson, which is a great, great shame. Highly recommended.

Mr. Holmes (2015): adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from the novel by Mitch Cullin; directed by Bill Condon; starring Ian McKellen (Sherlock Holmes), Laura Linney (Mrs. Munro), Milo Parker (Roger Munro), and Hattie Morahan (Ann Kelmot) : Lovely, character-driven piece about Sherlock Holmes in twilight, bee-keeping in the country just after World War Two. McKellen does fine work as a memory-loss-plagued Holmes in his 90's and, in flashback, Holmes prior to his retirement just after World War One. 

Laura Linney and Hattie Morahan are fine as the main female supporting characters in the present and past, respectively, while Milo Parker is a refreshingly non-annoying child actor. Parker plays the son of Holmes' housekeeper Linney in the 1940's sequences, fascinated by the life and career of the World's First Consulting Detective. 

The narrative plays around with what we 'know' of Holmes' life from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories by playing with Doyle's own literary conceit that Holmes was a real person whose adventures were recounted -- and sometimes embellished -- by Holmes' friend Dr. Watson. The mysteries in Mr. Holmes aren't great ones. It's the film's engagement with memory, loss, and regrets that makes it so moving. Highly recommended.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), and Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke) : Still a zippy ride on the small screen, where the greatest strength of the film -- its terrific casting and direction of the new characters -- stands out more than ever. And BB-8. Can't forget BB-8. Highly recommended.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016): written by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio; directed by Zack Snyder; starring Ben Affleck (Batman), Henry Cavill (Superman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), and Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor): A second viewing made me think that the movie might have been better had the entire section of Batman actually fighting Superman been excised in favour of a brief conversation between the two. I like the idea of a movie entitled Batman v. Superman that doesn't actually include a battle between Batman and Superman. 

With a nod to Chekov's gun, the Excalibur reference on the wall in the first Act goes off in the third. Hoo ha. At least it attempts to be a movie and not just another slab of Marvel Movie Product (TM). And Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman really is Da Bomb once she gets into battle. Still, it feels like Aquaman really should have showed up with that spear at the end. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Dog's Breakfast

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): adapted by Simon Beaufoy from the novel by Vikas Swarup; directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan; starring Dev Patel/Ayush Mahesh Khedekar/Tanay Chheda (Jamal), Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala/Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail/Madhur Mittal (Salim), Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar/Rubina Ali/Freida Pinto (Latika), and Anil Kapoor (Shem): Winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. I didn't find it as annoying separated from the hype by eight years as I did at the time. Visually, it's certainly a Dickensian marvel hopped up on goofballs: Danny Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan are nothing if not visually dense, and the editing keeps things at a fever pitch for long stretches. The protagonist remains a character without agency, and I'd still like to see a movie from the POV of his flawed but pro-active brother, who is really the secret hero. And as to Dickensian -- well, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, to name two, relocated to India. Recommended.

Undercover Genie: The Irreverent Conjurings of an Illustrative Aladdin (2003) by Kyle Baker: Fun collection of sketches, spot illustrations, and short comic strips from the immensely talented Kyle Baker. Even the introduction is interesting as it points out all the problems of a self-obsessed American comic-book industry (where Baker got his start). Almost out of the gate in the 1980's, Baker did an enormously impressive, funny, and searingly satiric job of illustrating DC's wonky Shadow series. 

And he kept getting better, especially once he started scripting his own work. These piec es from the 1990's and early oughts show his immense range as both a writer and artist. On one piece he may riff beautifully on Jules Feiffer. Next up -- a funny spot illustration for a magazine article on the band R.E.M.. Baker is one of the great treasures of American cartooning. Long may he reign. Highly recommended.

The Devil You Know (Felix Castor #1) (2006) by Mike Carey (a.k.a. M.R. Carey): The prolific and enjoyable Mike Carey's first novel after more than a decade of fine work in comic-book writing on such titles as Hellblazer and Lucifer introduces us to London, England's favourite (ha!) freelance exorcist, Felix Castor. Castor moves through a world pretty much exactly like ours with one significant changed premise: about eight years before the events of this novel, various ghosts, spirits, and demons started to appear in the world. Now they're pretty much everywhere, with no real explanation as to why the afterlife expelled so many creatures and dead people.

Carey does a lovely job of giving us just enough back-story and exposition to keep us afloat in this strange new world. Exorcism is something that only certain individuals can do, regardless of religious affiliation (of which Castor has none). Castor plays tunes on a tin whistle to work his exorcisms, while others use anything from cat's cradles to more traditional bells, books, and candles. Exorcism is basically a state of mind and a talent linked to that mind that can take pretty much any form. When it works, exorcism sends the ghost away. Where? Castor doesn't know.

In this first adventure, the not-very-hard-boiled Castor takes an assignment to purge a rare documents library of a newly acquired ghost which seems to have arrived with a shipment of pre-Revolutionary Russian documents. Of course, nothing is as it seems. Castor will soon come to question the ethics of exorcism itself. He'll also have to face human crime-lords, a giant were-something that looks just barely human, and a succubus called up from Hell. There will also be an embarrassing moment at a wedding and a moment of seriocomic vengeance at an annoying teen's birthday party.

Everything goes down smoothly and enjoyably. Carey's imagination is a fun place to stroll around in, his characters deftly sketched, and Castor an occasionally guilt-wracked but generally witty and humane narrator. And then there's Castor's best friend Rafi, in an insane asylum with a demon welded to his soul. That's partially Castor's fault, and the Rafi storyline will gain in prominence as the five Felix Castor novels play out. Recommended.

The Naming of the Beasts (Felix Castor #5) (2009) by Mike Carey (a.k.a. M.R. Carey): Argh! Mike Carey hasn't written a Felix Castor novel since this one. Come back, Mike! Freelance exorcist Felix Castor finally gets his showdown with the demon Asmodeus, who's in possession of the body of Castor's best friend. Asmodeus is out and about in London, up to something that will free him from his unwanted mortal vessel without sending him screaming back to Hell. Meanwhile, the supernatural world seems to be shifting, changing the rules that have only been in place for the ten years since ghosts, demons, and other beings were inexplicably unleashed on Earth.

Castor is a fun hybrid of hard-boiled detective and snarky, ironic commentator. Carey's put a lot of thought into Castor's world, in which scientists and occultists alike try to master the spirit world before it masters them. If there's a flaw here, it's that it's hard to care about Felix's best friend Rafi. He willingly participated in the ritual that stuck Asmodeus in him. Moreover, we've never seen him unpossessed in the series: we're told over and over again what a charming rogue he is, but we never really have that shown to us. It makes the stakes somewhat light: like some of Castor's occult colleagues, I find it hard to justify worrying so much about keeping Rafi alive when the demon riding his body is racking up such a death toll. 

But other than that and a last couple of pages that reminds me of all those 1960's and 1970's American TV dramas that ended with everyone standing around laughing despite the catastrophes that came earlier in the episode, The Naming of the Beasts is a fun and often wildly imaginative ride. More Castor please! Recommended.

The Missing (a.k.a. Virus) (2007) by Sarah Langan: Winner of the 2007 Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers' Association for Best Novel, The Missing is a horror novel of its time. Specifically, it makes a lot more sense when one thinks of U.S. adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the tepid governmental response to Hurricane Katrina. This is a horror novel about how the Bush Administration lost a war against monsters. And I think that informs how it won that Best Novel award, because it's certainly not a great horror novel. Timely, though, and of its time.

The Missing is Sarah Langan's second novel. It takes place an almost literal stones-throw away from the setting of her first novel, The Keeper. They're both set in small-town Maine -- The Keeper in the run-down industrial town of Bedford and The Missing in the adjacent upscale town of Corpus Christi. The Keeper picks up about a year after the disastrous (for Bedford, anyway) supernatural events of The Keeper.

This time around, we begin in Salem's Lot territory, as a mysterious virus buried in the woods near Bedford infects a child and a teacher during an extremely ill-advised school field trip to the Bedford woods. The virus, which seems to be both sentient and telepathic, kills most people and turns the rest into what are basically amalgams of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Corpus Christi could be in trouble. So, too, the world.

Langan's a pretty brave writer. She's not interested in providing sympathetic characters. Our main characters are instead deeply flawed. So flawed, indeed, that the novel eventually suffers. Harking back to my Bush thesis, the authorities in their entirety are utterly incompetent. Not the authorities of the town -- of the United States. Despite the fact that the virus causes its monsters to sleep during the day-time, nothing is done about them other than a half-hearted quarantine of the town, swiftly broken. We get the point -- it's Katrina all over again, but Katrina with monsters.

But between the incompetent indifference of the authorities and the incompetent unpleasantness of most of our protagonists, all of whom do at least one unforgivably stupid thing, we're left with an apocalypse one simply isn't invested in. And as the vampiric qualities of the monsters echo such novels as Salem's Lot, we're not even given an interesting apocalypse with unpleasant characters as we got in, say, Thomas Disch's The Genocides. Monsters run around killing and eating people. The disease spreads. Good times!

Langan is a solid writer, one gifted with the ability to create complex characters. There are a couple of people left to root for by the end of the novel. But the last fifty pages go by in a blur of telling and not showing, as the scale of the infestation suddenly goes national. It's a last fifty pages that seem to gesture towards a sequel that never materialized, one in the vein of Justin Cronin's later The Passage trilogy or even Max Brooks' World War Z.

And for all Langan's strengths, she's nonetheless created an unpleasant novel that fails to horrify in the end because its sub-textual critique of the Bush government forces its depiction of governmental response to a crisis into the realms of the absurd. Lightly recommended.

And Then There Were None (2015): adapted by Sarah Phelps from the novel by Agatha Christie; directed by Craig Viveros, Basi Akpabio, and Rebecca Keane; starring Maeve Dermody (Vera), Charles Dance (Judge Wargrave), Toby Stephens (Dr. Armstrong), Burn Gorman (DS Blore), Aidan Turner (Lombard), Harley Gallacher (Cyril), Miranda Richardson (Miss Brent), Paul Chahidi (Morris), Sam Neill (General MacArthur), Anna Maxwell Martin (Ethel Rogers), and Noah Taylor (Rogers): Fine, grim, darkly filmed BBC/Lifetime miniseries adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel that has now boasted not one but two currently unusable alternate titles. Making Christie this grim cuts against decades of weirdly light-hearted adaptations of her work. It works. And if your only exposure to this story is the 1940's film adaptation, you're in for a surprise: the plot is almost relentlessly faithful to Christie's original, with only a few cosmetic alterations. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When the Sun Rose Black Over the Last City

Zenith: Phase Three (1989/Collected 2014): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Steve Yeowell and others; character design by Brendan McCarthy: And now the 1989 show, in which Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell take the piss out of every Crisis and Secret War and Company-wide Crossover Event ever seen in the mainstream superhero comics of DC and Marvel. 

Phase Three is at once almost howlingly funny in its take on crossovers -- for the most part, all the heroes from different realities spend most of their time confused about what they're doing, who they're fighting, and who they're fighting with. And artist Steve Yeowell abets the foggy satire of super-hero armageddons with his sketchiest, sparsest, most evocative and suggestive artwork yet.

The Many-Angled Ones, the Great Old Ones, the Lloigor, have launched a major assault on all the alternative realities of Earth. Only a mighty army of superheroes can stop them! Super-jerk Zenith and super-conservative Peter St. John get drafted for the battle because of course they do. But nothing is really as it seems, and by the end of things, the true enemies of the universe will stand revealed. Or will they? Yes, they will. Maybe.

Morrison and Yeowell do a tremendous job here of juggling meta-commentary, satire, and abject horror. The Lloigor are truly horrible, and they're depicted in ways that almost certainly intentionally recall Kid Miracleman's devastation of London in Alan Moore's Miracleman. But they're also horribly comical and, frankly, not that bright. It all holds together as a satiric epic of horror right up to the bombastic climax, the terrible revelation, and the sudden reversal.

Throughout, Zenith remains his familiar unpleasant self, contrasting the various heroes who take this sort of thing seriously, or who've experienced actual tragedy. A certain number of minor characters are either old British comics characters or homages to same, but knowing who they are isn't integral to enjoying the book. Highly recommended.

Zenith: Phase Four (1990, 1992, 2000/Collected 2014): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Steve Yeowell and others; character design by Brendan McCarthy: And so, after the revelations in Zenith: Phase Three about the origins of the Many-Angled Ones and their plans for Earth, we come to the end. 

Can telepathic Conservative super-knob Peter St. John and self-absorbed super-pop-star Zenith save the world from a host of nigh-omnipotent alien gods? Or will the Sun turn black and all of creation fall?

Narrated for large stretches by the aging British creator of the British superhero program, Zenith: Phase Four alternates between dystopian horror and flashes of satire as embodied in the eponymous Zenith. Peter St. John has his own plans for humanity, but they apparently don't involve killing everybody. Not so the Many-Angled Ones, Lovecraft's Great Old Ones. Neither so the rest of Earth's super-heroes, who have a plan of their own that doesn't involve the survival of non-super-heroic humanity.

The result is a superhero comic book that trades in cosmic horror and bits of absurd humour on the way to its denouement. There's still enough mystery left at the end to fuel a Phase Five, but that doesn't seem to be in the offing. A coda from the year 2000, eight years after Phase Four ended, is a rare mis-step from writer Grant Morrison, a sour piece that can be ignored given its meta-commentary on the series as a whole. 

But otherwise, Phase Four is a triumph of revisionist superheroics and weird visionary horror. There's a damned city at the end of things that's quite a triumph of horrific imaginings. And there's Zenith, too self-absorbed to rule the world, and Peter St. John, whose plans remain mysterious right up to the end. And as the creator of the superheroes muses, superheroes in the real world -- or any idealized concept -- becomes horrors almost beyond imagining. Most of the time. Highly recommended.

When the Nazis Summoned Yog-Sothoth...

Zenith: Phase One (1987/Collected 2014): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Steve Yeowell and others; character design by Brendan McCarthy:  Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's revisionist, satiric, epic superhero narrative started in the pages of England's 2000 AD comics magazine in 1987. In a way, it brings to a close the first decade of the revisionist superhero epic that began with Alan Moore's Marvelman/Miracleman and V for Vendetta and crested commercially and influentially with Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen (1986-87) and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986). 

This first 'Phase' introduces us to the British superhero Zenith, a self-absorbed pop star and celebrity with a vast array of super-powers, few of them tapped. He looks like Morrissey in a super-hero suit and acts like Justin Bieber. He's also the world's only practicing super-hero in 1987, all the others having vanished or mysteriously lost their powers decades earlier.

Pretty soon, though, Zenith will actually have to act in some sort of superheroic fashion. The Many-Angled Ones, Lovecraftian alien-gods from outside Earth's space-time, are coming. They tried to manifest themselves on Earth's plane of existence during World War Two. Now, thanks to the on-going efforts of the Nazi Cult of the Black Sun, one of them is back -- and it's inhabiting the body of a Nazi superhuman known as Masterman.

These aren't simply Lovecraftian homages, either. These are Iot Sotok (ie. Yog-Sothoth) and Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep and many others. They seem to be the real deal. And who better to fight super-gods than supermen?

Well, Zenith really only fights when he's forced to. And he will be forced to. Along the way, secrets will be revealed, a nefarious plan by the superhumans of the 1960's alluded to, and alliances made between Zenith and super-telepath Peter St. John. St. John was once the groovy hippy super-hero Mandala. Now he's the buttoned-down Conservative superhero in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. Ha! But St. John has his own plans, and none of them involve bowing to hyper-dimensional sadists.

Phase One is the Zenith volume that hews most closely to the relatively serious superheroic revisionism of earlier books, especially Moore and company's Miracleman and V for Vendetta. But Morrison's puckish, punkish sensibilities leak through, especially in the often annoying, non-altruistic character of Zenith. Steve Yeowell's art evolves over the course of the volume, beginning with strong resemblances to Brian Bolland and ending as something more like his mature, more expressionistic style. Highly recommended.

Zenith: Phase Two (1988/Collected 2014): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Steve Yeowell and others; character design by Brendan McCarthy: Phase Two of Zenith takes us on a tour of pre-fab superhero Zenith's past and assorted nefarious but still mysterious plans for the future as hatched by various bodies. A nuclear threat to London by a bored British billionaire is the most normal thing going on here. 

This is really a bridge volume, one that fills in blanks and fleshes out major characters. Conservative super-telepath Peter St. John certainly gets the most development -- he may be terrible, but his first-person thoughts suggest that he isn't super-terrible. Zenith, meanwhile, remains a knob who nonetheless must save everything again, almost despite himself. Steve Yeowell's art, always clean, continues to move towards a new sparseness. Recommended.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Four Movies, 9000 Characters

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016): written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle; directed by Dan Trachtenberg; starring Jhn Goodman (Howard), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Michelle), and John Gallegher Jr. (Emmett): Delightful psychological thriller with several fine twists. The writing is sharp, the direction from first-time helmer Dan Trachtenberg precise, and the acting superb. And that's all I"m telling you so that you can go spoiler-free. Highly recommended.

San Andreas (2015): written by Carlton Cuse, Andre Fabrizio, and Jeremy Passmore; directed by Brad Peyton; starring Dwayne Johnson (Gaines), Carla Gugino (Carla), Alexandra Daddario (Blake), and Paul Giamatti (Dr. Hayes): Goofy, implausible, impossible shenanigans involving a massive, San Francisco-centered earthquake. Dwayne Johnson, playing a Los Angeles fire-department rescue pilot, is having major marital issues with estranged wife Carla Gugino because Of Course He Is. But when earthquakes come a-knocking, Johnson pilots helicopters, cars, SUVs, boats, and airplanes to save his wife and 20-year-old daughter, who's in San Francisco. 

This is the sort of movie in which visual effects carry pretty much everything. They're OK, and the direction by Brad Peyton is mostly brisk. Among other things, San Andreas gives us an impossibly large tsunami that couldn't actually happen in the San Francisco area. And it's going the wrong way. Maybe this is a remake of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Certainly no worse than the disaster movies of the 1970s. Lightly recommended.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016): written by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio; directed by Zack Snyder; starring Ben Affleck (Batman), Henry Cavill (Superman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), and Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor): A lighter touch on both the writing and directorial ends could have made the 2 1/2 hours of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice pass a lot more smoothly. However, for all the darkness of his colour palette, director Snyder at least aims for something epic and movie-like, which is more than I can say about 90% of all Marvel films, most of which are filmed as if they were the most expensive, stylistically inert TV movies ever made.

Ben Affleck is perfectly fine as Batman, Henry Cavill is solid as Superman, and Gal Gadot is a hoot as Wonder Woman. There's a plot explanation for Jesse Eisenberg's loopy Lex Luthor, but it's in the deleted scenes. Amy Adams plays Lois Lane as the film's one real ray of light. The bombastic sturm-und-drang of the battle sequences may actually play better on a small screen, where they'll be less sonically and visually overwhelming. And hey, a Mother Box! Parademons! Batman with goggles! A Boom Tube! An early Excalibur (1981) reference that pays off visually in the climax! Recommended.

The Princess Bride (1987): adapted by William Goldman from his own novel; directed by Rob Reiner; starring Cary Elwes (Westley), Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya), Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdinck), Christopher Guest (Count Rugen), Wallace Shawn (Vizzini), Andre the Giant (Fezzik), Robin Wright (Buttercup), Peter Falk (Grandfather), and Fred Savage (Grandson): Still a gold standard for light-hearted meta-fantasy after all these years. William Goldman's screenplay is slightly sweeter than his even more meta novel. The cast is great, though Billy Crystal remains somewhat jarring -- he's a little too tonally off to be funny enough to justify. Andre the Giant steals the show, though, as the amiable, reflexively violent Fezzik. A movie from the time when giants walked the Earth, and the giants were funny! Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Demons and Ghost-dogs

The Deceased (1999) by Tom Piccirilli:  The late and much-lamented Tom Piccirilli's early horror novels were uniquely strange. Strange events, strange creatures, strange protagonists. The simplest of plot-lines could suddenly stop dead for disturbingly violent and/or sexual set-pieces. Characters might spend pages immersed in their own poetic maladjustment. The prose would push the limits of the purple and the florid, sometimes going way, way beyond the red-line. And it all worked as the expression of someone who wanted more out of the horror novel than simply plain prose and A-Z plotting.

The Deceased embodies Piccirilli's approach to horror. Indeed, there's almost no point describing it in all its pulpy, poetic, weird glory. It's about a young horror writer wrestling with the demons of his terrible past. Some of those demons are deceased members of his own family. There's pathetic fallacy and incest and tips on writing (seriously). There are strange things in the forest surrounding the ancestral home. There's that ancestral home with its weird construction and hideous facade. There are ghosts and monsters and voices from the past.

To borrow a phrase from somebody, it's all a bravura frenzy. It's also the sort of writing that seems to drive a certain type of reader, one looking for the straightforward and the plain style, completely nuts. You're watching a gifted writer assemble and disassemble himself simultaneously. It may not always be pretty, coherent, or even 'good' in a traditional sense, but it's compelling and very human. Recommended.

The Midnight Road (2007) by Tom Piccirilli:  40ish Flynn is a case-worker for New York City's Child Protective Services.  He's a broken soul due to childhood tragedy. But he's also dogged and committed to child welfare. And a huge fan of film noir. So of course he gets involved in a noirish case with hints of (possible) supernatural horror.

The late Tom Piccirilli wrote a string of noirish thrillers beginning in the early oughts. This is one of them. It lacks the exuberant stylistic flourishes of some of his earlier horror works, but it's plotted beautifully, with twists that are difficult to see coming.

Flynn is very much the damaged would-be knight of noir and hard-boiled detective stories, emotionally stunted but heroically struggling against demons inside and outside. The character's own investment in noir makes for a sort of running meta-commentary on the action, as Flynn notes ways in which his own story does or does not resemble the noir films he loves so much.

Piccirilli tamps down his stylistic flourishes for, I assume, reasons of commercial viability: a person has to eat. But they also suit the noir and hard-boiled genres he's working with. Stylistic outliers like James Ellroy exist, but for the most part the hard-boiled heroes and anti-heroes and straight-out villains of Piccirilli's genre antecedents work within a world of flavourful but not wildly experimental or impressionistic prose. 

The result is that old chestnut, a page-turner, one which doesn't end until Flynn has dealt with his internal demons. The identities of the antagonists come as a shock, but a fair one. Flynn, sympathetic and self-lacerating, makes for a fine protagonist. And touches of the absurd -- Flynn finds himself haunted by the talking ghost of a French bulldog, probably the result of slight brain damage incurred early in the novel. In all, a very satisfying ride on The Midnight Road. Recommended.