Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Dark Country (1982) by Dennis Etchison

The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison, containing the following stories: "It Only Comes Out at Night", "Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly", "The Walking Man", "We Have All Been Here Before", "Daughter of the Golden West", "The Pitch", "You Can Go Now", "Today's Special", "The Machine Demands a Sacrifice", "Calling All Monsters", "The Dead Line", "The Late Shift", "The Nighthawk", "It Will Be Here Soon", "Deathtracks", and "The Dark Country." (1972-1982; Collected 1982): 

It took nearly 20 years of being published before Dennis Etchison got his first collection of short stories. It's a dandy, collecting the best of his work from the 1970's and early 1980's.

Etchison's idiosyncratic style and subject matter are in full view here, from the near-future horrors of the "Transplant trilogy" ("The Machine Demands a Sacrifice", "Calling All Monsters", "The Dead Line"), in which the demand for organ donors has ventured into Pythonesque territory, to The Hardy Boys Goe To Hell weirdness of "Daughter of the Golden West."

The award-winning title novella is perhaps the weirdest story here, a subtle horror story about a bad Mexican vacation in which the horrors never completely manifest themselves. It's like a vignette from Apocalypse Now by way of Spring Break. There's also blatant, bloody revenge fantasy suggestive of EC horror comics in "The Pitch" and "Today's Special" and "We Have All Been Here Before."

Two of Etchison's major tropes -- Southern California and "the road" -- appear again and again here, sometimes in concert (the Los Angeles area has a lot of cars and a lot of drivers, after all). Everyone seems to be in transit; everyone is the target of sinister but often undefined horrors that can come from anywhere, anytime. The seemingly ordinary -- late-night convenience-store clerks, highway rest stops, tow trucks, even television laugh tracks -- shimmer with hidden menace, sometimes fatally revealed. Some things come out of the dark; some things hunt in the sun. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Moon Nazis

Iron Sky: written by Johanna Sinisalo, Jarmo Puskala, Michael Kalesniko, and Timo Vuorensola; directed by Timo Vuorensola; starring Julia Dietze (Renate Richter), Christopher Kirby (James Washington), Gotz Otto (Klaus Adler), Peta Sergeant (Vivian Wagner), and Stephanie Paul (President Sarah Palin) (2012): Partially crowd-funded, Iron Sky turns out to be an unexpected oddity -- a film about Nazis on the Moon in 2018 that's a political and social satire, not (as many of the previews suggested) a straight-up homage to 1950's science-fiction movies.

It's 2018. In an attempt to bolster her re-election chances -- and raise her popularity with African-American voters -- a thinly veiled President Sarah Palin has launched a cynical two-man mission to "the dark side of the Moon" (which in actuality would be the far side of the Moon: the Moon's dark side changes with its rotational relationship to the Sun, as does Earth's) with one of the astronauts being an African-American male model named James Washington (to further hammer things home, the slogan for this lunar mission is 'Black to the Moon? Yes she can!').

Upon landing, the mission swiftly runs into Nazis who've been hiding on the Moon since the fall of the Third Reich. This is actually based on one of those weird theories one sees on the History Channel sometimes, in which the Nazis had UFOs and escaped Earth in 1945. It's history, man! Aliens!

All Hell gradually breaks loose, though not in the ways one might expect. Washington meets and saves the life of a fetching female Moon Nazi, teacher Renate Richter, who has no idea what the Third Reich was really like (one of the funnier, smarter bits involves the edited, ten-minute-long Moon Nazi version of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, and the reaction of both Richter and Washington to seeing the full version in a revival cinema on Earth). However, Palin and her modelling-agency campaign advisor soon find Moon Nazis to be useful, especially as Nazi rhetoric and Republican rhetoric are strikingly similar...

This isn't a subtle satire, though at points it would actually be funnier if certain things were made clearer, earlier (the male model joke takes forever to unpack itself). The visual effects are striking and historically plausible -- I quite like the space zeppelins, and it's a matter of historical record that liberated-and-freed-from-fear-of-prosecution Nazi rocket scientist Werner Von Braun initially wanted to put something the size of a battleship in orbit once he was put in charge of portions of the American space program (!!!!!!!!!!!).

And there are some killer jokes and homages to Dr. Strangelove, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the music of Richard Wagner, and a very funny bit involving the surprising origins of the Earth space defense fleet that takes on the Nazi invasion at the end of the film. And Julia Dietze, as Renate Richter, is hellacute. Recommended.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Arkham and Manchester

Ghosts Know by Ramsey Campbell (2011): What initially seems to be a horror novel soon turns into a murder mystery, with prickly first-person narrator Graham Wilde both the amateur investigator and the prime suspect. Wilde, the host of a Manchester call-in radio show when the novel opens, soon finds himself drawn into the world of "psychic investigators" and into the mysterious disappearance of a female teenager, Kylie Goodchild, who was ostensibly trying to track down Wilde on the night she disappeared.

Wilde's painful childhood has left him with anger-management issues that flare up verbally at unfortunate times. But he's also rightfully angry at a self-proclaimed psychic who inserts himself into the police investigation -- and then points the finger at Wilde, who's become a vociferous critic of such psychics. Wilde demonstrates on a couple of occasions the tricks people such as John Edward use to "read" an audience. And the psychic here, Frank Jarvis, turns out to be an especially odious charlatan whose tricks, Wilde believes with mounting frustration, should be transparent to all.

Campbell's use of first-person narration is solid here, and periodically leads us to question how much we actually trust Wilde and what he's telling us. Such narration also leads to a slightly different narrative voice for Campbell, whose off-beat descriptions of things have to be tailored to his narrator's relatively straightforward way of observing the world. Wilde is much more verbally inclined than he is to the visual, which makes perfect sense given his job.

The mystery aspect of the novel plays scrupulously fair with the reader. It helps, of course, to realize this is a murder mystery, but once one goes back to the relevant earlier sections of the novel, upon the revelation of the culprit, the whole thing has indeed been laid out fairly. There's a decent helping of humour here, both bleak and not-so-bleak. Wilde's callers sometimes seem to be completely addled, while Wilde, when angered, sometimes verges on Yosemite Sam-level outrage that he can barely contain.

As with many of Campbell's works, this one deals in large part with the scars, physical and psychic, of childhood, and the ways in which they have shaped the adults the children become. And one last twist towards the end of the novel comes like a kick in the stomach. Highly recommended.


The Watchers Out of Time by August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft (Collected 1974): Besides collecting and keeping in print the stories and letters of H.P. Lovecraft for 30 years at the small press he co-founded, Arkham House, August Derleth also published the work of many other fantasy and horror greats while also maintaining a thriving writing career himself. He's one of fantasy literature's most indispensable figures for Arkham House alone.

Derleth also extrapolated a number of stories from notes, fragments, and sections of letters left by H.P. Lovecraft. This collection actually lists Lovecraft as the primary author (as Derleth himself would have), though there's little here that's actually written by Lovecraft. And I've actually read enough pastiches and homages derived from Lovecraft's Commonplace Book to recognize a couple of examples here.

The bad news is that Derleth's odd love of italics, especially for the concluding paragraph of a story in which terrible things are revealed, is displayed here. Boy, I hate that, and I'm not alone.

The good news is that while Derleth lacks Lovecraft's weird imagination, he can sometimes make up for this with a superior sense of how to depict rural settings and rural residents. Derleth, a regional Wisconsin writer when he wasn't Lovecraft's posthumous Boswell, has a fine eye for natural description. Even a slight story like the first one collected here, "Wentworth's Day", benefits from that studied and accurate creation of an isolated rural world.

Other than a story or two too many about Lovecraft's Innsmouthian hybrid human-amphibians, this is a solid collection. It's also weirdly soothing, which is not something I'd say about Lovecraft's work. The one real debit here is that Derleth's last work, which gives the collection its title, appears here unfinished as it was on Derleth's death in the early 1970's. Given Derleth's own work finishing up Lovecraft, surely someone could have paid Ramsey Campbell or Brian Lumley -- two discoveries of Derleth in the 1960's who are still popular and active writers today -- to complete the story. Preferably without concluding italics and exclamation marks. Recommended.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Up from the Past

Rec 3: Genesis: written by Luiso Berdejo, David Gallart and Paco Plaza; directed by Paco Plaza; starring Leticia Dolera (Clara) and Diego Martin (Koldo) (2012): Enjoyable fake-found-footage Spanish horror movies Rec and Rec2 become a less enjoyable horror movie combining found footage and traditional narrative elements.

There are nice gory and goopy bits scattered throughout, but an awful lot of this is just rote zombie action set at a wedding. The interesting religious reveal at the end of the first Rec has become here a shovel hitting us in the face over and over again. Lightly recommended for people who have seen the first two and will see the fourth (and ostensibly final) installment.

The Big Sleep: adapted by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman from the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler; directed by Howard Hawks; starring Humphrey Bogart (Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (Vivian Rutledge), John Ridgely (Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (Carmen Sternwood), Louis Heydt (Joe Brody), and Charles Waldron (General Sternwood) (1946): Perhaps the most indispensable hard-boiled detective film of all time -- only Chinatown rivals it, though The Maltese Falcon too has its champions.

Screenwriters Leigh Brackett (who would thirty years later work on the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back) and Jules Furthman and Chandler's original novel supply most of the verbal fireworks, William Faulkner having wandered back to Oxford, Mississippi in the middle of screen-writing to drink, hang out with his wheelbarrow, and inspire Barton Fink. Virtually all the dialogue crackles with wit and substance; the plot is twisty but ultimately perfectly logical (though depending on which version you see, the mystery of the chaffeur's murder may or may not be fully explained).

The performances are stellar throughout, with lengthy reshoots a year after the original completion of filming to beef up the badinage between Bogart and Bacall. Hawks directs with his trademark rapid-fire dialogue, and the black-and-white cinematography is beautifully deployed by Syd Hickox. If for no other reason, one needs to see The Big Sleep to fully appreciate the Coen Brothers' gonzo homage/parody, The Big Lebowski, with its warped parallel characters and situations (and use of the word 'shamus'). Highest recommendation.

Poltergeist: written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor; directed by Tobe Hooper; starring Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling), Beatrice Straight (Dr. Lesh), Dominque Dunne (Dana Freeling), Oliver Robins (Robbie Freeling), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling) and Zelda Rubinstein (Tangina) (1982): Stephen Spielberg essentially co-directed Poltergeist and controlled its post-production, and it shows: this is very much a mirror image of E.T., released within a week of Poltergeist in 1982.

Much of the early material with the family soon to be beset by vengeful spirits works pretty well; we're in Spielberg suburbia, where the Dad is distant (figuratively here; literally in other Spielberg films) and the Mother is the spiritual head of the family. The supernatural starts with what seems to be a furniture-moving poltergeist ("Noisy ghost") but soon moves into high-tech pyrotechnics, rubbery models, stop-motion trees, and large accumulations of skeletons rocketing up from the muddy ground.

I can't say the Spielberg kitchen-sink approach works all that well in horror -- indeed, many of the later effects here would be spoofed to a certain extent by Evil Dead 2. There are brief moments of wonder, but the Spielbergian need to underline every effect and every emotional sequence with music, flashing lights, and endless close-ups of people looking awestruck quickly dissipates that wonder.

One of the elements of the main plot -- the disappearance of the little girl from her own house into an alternate dimension, with only her voice being able to be heard in our dimension -- is lifted pretty much wholesale from the Richard Matheson short story and, later, 1962 Twilight Zone episode "Little Girl Lost." Besides being afraid of old Twilight Zone episodes, original story-writer Spielberg was also apparently scared of trees, his face melting, clowns, and really large faces. And getting trapped in a crowd of skeletons. It's amazing how many of the horror tropes here previously showed up in Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Giant-Size Holiday Grab Bag

Concrete Volume 1: Depths: written and illustrated by Paul Chadwick (1986-1999; collected 2005): Concrete became a critical and commercial success in the 1980's in part because of the comic-book world's 'Black-and-White boom,' in which a rising tide of speculation floated all boats and then a declining tide nearly grounded all boats, forever. It also got the always understated Harlan Ellison to declare it the best comic book of its time.

It wasn't.

What it was, though, was a refreshing change for the superhero-dominated time: a low-key story about a guy stuck in a super-powered body and what he tries to do with that body. That the body looks like a Golem made of concrete and has an extremely limited sense of touch makes things tougher. Concrete has super-strength, but it's bear-level super-strength, not Superman-level super-strength. He can be hurt by explosive shells, long falls, or oxygen deprivation lasting more than an hour. Oh, and he has terrific eyesight, which allows Chadwick the artist to depict some pretty interesting undersea vistas during Concrete's periodic forays underwater.

Re-reading (most) of these stories 24 years later, I'm struck by how soothing the world of Concrete is. The adventures are low-key in tone even when they verge on the epic (Concrete saves miners from a collapsed mine; Concrete tries to swim the Atlantic Ocean); Chadwick's skills as both an artist and a writer lie in the depiction and accumulation of small, telling details.

Schmaltz and over-sentimentality always lurk at the threshold, but for the most part they're kept at bay with lovely little details (the look on Concrete's face when he accidentally steps on someone's foot, for example). And one of the early central conceits of the series -- that the best way to get people to stop talking about something is to over-expose it in the media -- remains fresh. Recommended.


Next Men: Aftermath: written and illustrated by John Byrne (2012): John Byrne's time-twisting superhero book finally comes to what may or may not be an end, 17 years after he started the project. It's been a mostly enjoyable ride.

Here, the reality-bending shenanigans come thick and fast, reminding me of one of Byrne's better efforts, the OMAC miniseries. Byrne's one of only a handful of creators of his era who seems truly comfortable with science fiction as a thought process and not as a series of symbolic markers deployed in the service of allegory.

This volume is probably a necessity if you've followed Next Men and completely pointless if you haven't. Byrne's art is very sharp, and his inking of himself has finally reached the status of some of the great inkers -- Terry Austin, Karl Kesel -- he had in the past. Recommended.

Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct: written by Paul DiFillipo; illustrated by Jerry Ordway (2005): Science-fiction writer DiFillipo and long-time DC artist Ordway do nice work picking up the story of the super-powered precinct five years after the events chronicled by creators Alan Moore, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon in the original Top Ten series from 1999-2000.

Ordway luxuriates in the chance to do hyper-detailed panels in the backgrounds of which lurk pulp and comic-book and comic-strip characters highly reminiscent of every such character ever created. The city of Neopolis houses virtually all the super-powered, supernatural, and just plain weird people of America. And Precinct Ten ('Top Ten') tries to keep the peace.

This time around, we catch up with old friends, especially Toybox, Smax, King Peacock, Peregrine, Shock-headed Peter, and Sergeant Kemlo, as they deal with an irritating new mayor, an even-more irritating new precinct Captain, and a bizarre apparition which swiftly goes from scary nuisance to potentially universe-destroying threat. The geography of Neopolis remains an odd delight and a commentary -- we again see the robot ghetto, but we're also introduced to Bugtown, in which reside insect-based characters, and insects, of all types. Don't ask me what it all means. Recommended.

The Five-Year Engagement: written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller; directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Jason Segel (Tom Solomon), Emily Blunt (Violet Barnes), Chris Pratt (Alex Eilhauer), Alison Brie (Suzie Barnes-Eilhauer), David Paymer (Pete Solomon), Mimi Kennedy (Carol Solomon), Jacki Weaver (Sylvia Dickerson-Bauer), Rhys Ifans (Professor Winston Childs), and Mindy Kaling (Vaneetha) (2012): Advertised as another Judd-Apatow-produced romp, this movie is indeed that -- but also a surprisingly nuanced and accurate portrayal of life in academia. Now wonder it wasn't a hit!

The trials and tribulations of Emily Blunt's post-doctoral-fellowship-holding psychology Ph.D. and her hapless fiance Jason Segel, transplanted from his dream job as a sous-chef in San Francisco to life as the lightly regarded non-academic partner in Michigan, ring amazingly true.

Segel gradually goes crazy while Blunt putters along in her mostly laughable academic career, the romantic target of a lecherous supervisor played to unctuous, faux-sensitive perfection by Rhys Ifans. The stellar supporting cast has lots to do, with Community's Alison Brie doing a decent British accent and the Sarah Silverman Show's Brian Posein making good use of his giant beard and drunken Sasquatch charm as one of Segel's Michigan drinking buddies. And the leads are funny and charming.

This isn't a great movie -- like almost every Apatow-associated project, it's a bit too shaggy and a bit too long. But it certainly provides more laughs than almost anything else you're going to see this week. Recommended.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Lightning Out of the Dark Cloud Man

Art by Fred Ray
The Superman Chronicles Volume 9: written by Jerry Siegel; illustrated by Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Leo Nowak, and Fred Ray (1942; collected 2011): Co-creator Joe Shuster's rapidly failing eyesight and other factors saw him pushed to the margins of the Superman comic books as early as 1942, just four years after the Man of Steel forever altered American comic books. Thankfully, Shuster's rough-hewn style was still considered the gold standard for depicting Superman, so these adventures still look a lot like Shuster's work, though only one story actually was drawn by him.

Superman's other co-creator, Jerry Siegel, was still writing the Man of Steel: his entry into World War Two (and into ever-expanding degrees of getting screwed over by what would eventually be re-named as DC Comics) was still in the (near) future. There are still some traces of that muscular, socialist, agit-prop Superman in evidence here, though very muted. For the most part, Superman fights either non-powered gangster-types (The Prankster, The Puzzler, Talon) or people who've somehow developed powers as great or greater than his (Luthor, Mister Sinister, Metalo).

The Luthor story is a wild one, mysteriously absent from most 'Best of' Superman collections. In it, having already harnessed electricity to make himself nearly as strong as Superman (guess what happens when the authorities give Luthor the electric chair!), Luthor gets control of a magical artifact that makes him nigh-omnipotent...and then he makes Superman into a normal human being!

I really like John Sikela's art on many of the stories. He's very Shusteresque, though much more polished than Shuster (and thus somehow also much less bursting with nearly uncontrolled energy). Fred Ray also does lovely, polished work on the various covers (Ray would only draw one interior Superman story in his career, but he drew dozens of covers for the Man of Steel, several of them often-imitated and iconic).

It's actually fascinating to see how much reading the average comic-book consumer was expected to do in 1942. This volume takes about three to five times longer to read than a similar-sized volume of most superhero comics would take today. No wonder people were more literate. They actually had to READ comic books. Highly recommended.

Memories of Glaaki

The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants by Ramsey Campbell (1964; revised edition 2011): Ramsey Campbell's first published book was the Lovecraftian horror collection The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants, published by Arkham House in 1964 when Campbell was 18 (!!!). This 2011 anniversary edition from Great Britain's PS Publishing (the anniversary being 50 years since Campbell first put pen to paper on the stories herein) is a terrifically well-produced and generous piece of work.

It's obviously best suited to Campbell completists, but it also offers a great deal of insight into the development of Campbell as a writer and into the methods of H.P. Lovecraft's posthumous Boswell, August Derleth, who co-founded Arkham House to keep HPL's work, and the work of other horror and dark-fantasy writers, alive.

The original cover illustrator actually got the title agreed upon by Campbell and Derleth wrong, as Campbell explains herein. The intended title is restored here. Along with the original contents of the volume, we also get new commentary from Campbell (Derleth died in 1971), the original versions of several of the stories, a story published elsewhere by Arkham House as a 'teaser' for Campbell's collection, and reprints of several of Derleth's letters to Campbell about the stories Campbell had submitted. Oh, and there are extremely apt new illustrations that capture the flavour of such classic Weird Tales illustrators as Lee Brown Coye.

Campbell's still very much a developing writer here, paying homage to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and other Cthulhu Mythos scribes. But the original and published versions of several of the stories show how quickly Campbell was capable of developing, especially after he took Derleth's career-changing advice and created his own English environment for his Mythos stories.

Campbell's imaginary Cotswolds city of Brichester and its surrounding, demon-haunted towns of Temphill, Goatswood, and Clotton would serve Campbell well as he swiftly moved from pastiche writer to idiosyncratic, unique wordsmith. Campbell's unique narrative viewpoint would develop with great rapidity -- by 1968, he was writing stories that were recognizably 'Campbellian.' But one can see some of that individuality surfacing in this collection; flashes of what's to come.

Campbell's commentary on his own stories depicts a Derleth who was astonishingly generous with his time -- Campbell got Derleth to read several of his stories with a simple letter. It also takes the reader through some of the missteps that remained in the published versions (Campbell notes, for instance, the peculiar ability of a couple of his protagonists to fall asleep in situations during which no normal human would fall asleep, or his peculiar ideas about American regional history that ended up putting a decaying, ancient castle in rural Massachusetts).

But there's a lot that's compelling about these early efforts, especially for anyone interested in the Cthulhu Mythos and/or Ramsey Campbell. And the volume itself from PS Publishing is a handsome piece of work with surprisingly good copy-editing for this day and age. Kudos! Highly recommended.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Navy vs. The Space Beatniks

Battleship: adapted by Jon and Erich Hoeber from the Hasbro board game of the same name; directed by Peter Berg; starring Taylor Kitsch (Lieutenant Alex Hopper), Alexander Skarsgard (Commander Stone Hopper), Rihanna (Petty Officer Cora 'Weps' Raikes), Brooklyn Decker (Sam Shane), Tadanobu Asano (Captain Yugi Nagata) and Liam Neeson (Admiral Shane) (2012): Did the makers of a movie based on a board game really have to devote the first thirty minutes to so much rote Hollywood 101 characterization? Because after the opening tedium, Battleship, nominal star Taylor Kitsch's second $200 million domestic box-office bomb of 2012 (following John Carter) certainly isn't terrible. Indeed, if forced to choose in some sort of Ludovico Technique pick-em, I'd rather watch it again than Top Gun, a movie with which Battleship shares an awful lot of DNA.

So anyway, an alien fleet invades the Hawaii area and gets up to all sorts of shenanigans. Soon, only a destroyer commanded by angry screw-up Taylor Kitsch stands between the aliens and their attempt to phone home using a Hawaii satellite uplink. If I were imagining a pitch meeting right now, I'd say it's Top Gun meets E.T. and Transformers. And the aliens all have goatees! They're like Beatniks!

Like many aliens on television and in movies, they're also terrible drivers. They have to call collect from a human communications facility because they somehow managed to crash their giant communications starship into Hong Kong, all while failing to properly signal a left-hand turn. Man, movie space debris just loves cities. It never crashes into an ocean or a desert. Always a teeming metropolis. Stupid murderous space debris!!!

Where's the battleship, you ask? Well, that's a plot twist you'll figure out pretty quickly. Suffice it to say that I hope they don't really keep that much live ammunition on a battleship that's been turned into a museum. Hey, it's sorta like the opening miniseries for the Battlestar: Galactica remake! No one actually says "Let's get this ship into the fight!", but you know that they want to. OK, the Galactica was in the process of being converted to a museum while the U.S.S. Missouri has been a moored museum at Pearl Harbour for decades. But you get the idea. If aliens invade Port Burwell, I sure hope that submarine has lots of live ammo on-board!!!

Rihanna has third billing in this movie as a Petty Officer who gets to fire off a lot of big guns. Without make-up, she's really not all that good-looking. So it goes. Kitsch needs to either stop doing blockbuster movies or return to television. He's a much better actor than he shows here, but he doesn't have a lot to work with either. Liam Neeson collects a paycheck for a movie he's only in for the first 20 minutes and the last ten. Model-turned-actress Brooklyn Decker fetchingly runs up and down a mountain, her sports bra struggling to control her giant boobs. If there were more full-frontal super-model nudity in these board-game movies, they'd be a lot more awesome. Twister, anyone? Not really recommended.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Red Dreams

Red Dreams by Dennis Etchison containing the following stories: "Black Sun", "Drop City", "I Can Hear the Dark", "Keeper of the Light", "Not From Around Here", "On the Pike", "Talking in the Dark", "The Chair", "The Chill", "The Graveyard Blues", "The Smell of Death", "Wet Season", "White Moon Rising." (Collected 1987): Dennis Etchison is pretty much the horror writer's horror writer when it comes to short stories, praised by such genre luminaries as Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. That he's not more famous is partially a product of his concentration on short stories and partially happenstance and partially the fact that he may be too good and too idiosyncratic to be a mass-market success.

He doesn't write about vampires or werewolves or voracious evil gods from beyond the universe. His style is straightforward without being unornamented, his plot sense as idiosyncratic as everything else about him. It's very difficult to figure out where the average Etchison story will end up. And a mass audience tends to like familiarity and predictability.

What a writer, though, published now for nearly 50 years. This was just his second collection of short stories, released in mass-market paperback during the horror boom of the 1980's. It collects stories from nearly 20 years, all of them fascinating. Etchison sets a lot of his stories in a bleached-out Southern California, but not all. His characters move through a world where explanations are often lacking for what's happening to them. His narrative viewpoint is probably closer to pure noir than any other horror writer I can think of.

This viewpoint makes the subject matter quite startling, as characters who would be at home in a Jim Thompson novel move through worlds that vaguely resemble the worlds of Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. The closing novella here, from 1984, "Not from Around Here", embodies the narrative and stylistic dissonance that makes Etchison unique: it's like a Philip K. Dick near-future story about movie preservation and weird cults as rewritten by James M. Cain. Or something like that. It's all Etchison.

There isn't a weak story here -- even the earliest, "Wet Season", while more traditionally supernatural, doesn't nail itself down with authoritative explanations for what exactly is going on. It actually is neo-Lovecraftian without reading in any way like a traditional Lovecraft homage. And "Talking to the Dark" is a gem about a devoted horror fan who gets to meet his favourite writer. It's horrible and funny, and one wonders reading it whether Etchison has based that writer on anyone from the real world. And why, if so. This is an essential collection for anyone who likes finely crafted, haunting short stories, genre or not. Highly recommended.

Peak Performance

Top Ten: The Forty-Niners: written by Alan Moore; pencilled by Gene Ha; colour by Art Lyon; lettering by Todd Klein (2005): In 1949, the U.S. government relocated the vast majority of its super-powered, supernatural, and just plain weird residents to the new city of Neopolis. This is Moore and Ha's story of the first turbulent months of that city's existence. 50 years later, Moore's Top Ten comic book would follow the adventures of the Neopolis police department as it strove to preserve order in a city of superheroes, super-villains, vampires, and 500-foot-tall drunken super-lizards.

The art is phenomenal. Gene Ha's tight pencils make all the characters distinct and distinctive. In the foreground are our protagonists; in the background are a host of characters who resemble any one of a thousand characters from comic-book and comic-strip history, from Smilin' Jack to Buster Brown to The Yellow Kid. It's a super-hero comic book as reimagined by Mad magazine. You really have to read it at least twice to get all the visual jokes and references. In the foreground, Ha has never done better work at creating distinct, realistic faces and body types for a wide array of characters.

The story focuses on two primary protagonists, Steve Traynor ("Jet Lad", who fought the Nazis as a pre-pubescent aviator, an homage to the 1940's comic-book character Air Boy) and Leni Muller ("Sky Witch", a German aviatrix who defected to the Allies in 1943 because of her hatred of the Nazis). They settle into life in Neopolis and both soon find work, Leni on the new police force and Steve as a mechanic with the SkySharks, independent, multi-national aviators who fought alongside the Allies in World War Two.

Various problems (the vampire population) and prejudices (everyone hates the robots in the robot ghetto, or 'Clickers' as they're called) and personal issues (Steve is gay but doesn't want to admit it) and injustices (Axis supervillains have gotten a sweet deal, just as Axis rocket scientists did in our world) drive the story. But there's also lots of time and space just to look around at Gene Ha's marvelous pencils and the subtle colour wash of Art Lyon's colour work on the series. This really is a beautiful book, and a fitting farewell to the Top Ten series by Moore. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Shrink, Shrank, Shrunk

The Incredible Shrinking Man: adapted by Richard Matheson from his novel The Shrinking Man; directed by Jack Arnold; starring Grant Williams (Scott Carey), Randy Stuart (Louise Carey), April Kent (Clarice) and Paul Langton (Charlie Carey) (1957): The only thing bad about this movie is its title, the studio having decided to add an awfully unnecessary 'Incredible' to the original title of Richard Matheson's novel. Did a competing studio have a film called The Mundane Shrinking Man in production?

Matheson, whose career in print, television, and movies now spans 60 years, is always the best adaptor of his own work, as The Omega Man or the Will Smith I am Legend prove through Matheson's absence. Pretty much everything Spielberg put on the screen in Duel was already there in Matheson's novella, which Matheson adapted for Spielberg's career-starting television movie.

Here, Matheson gives us an improbable tale that works because the hero's concerns can be applied to any number of real-world situations without losing the specificity and unique weirdness of the hero's plight. Scott Carey gets doused with some combination of insecticide and radiation. He starts shrinking. And he doesn't stop. Questions of masculinity, identity, and existence itself come into play. A media circus gathers outside Carey's door. And then there's that damned cat...and later, a very hungry spider.

A voiceover added to the end of the movie to make things a bit clearer (or at least more clearly hopeful and redemptive) doesn't damage the film too much, though that concluding sequence really could have remained mostly silent. There may be deep thoughts here, but Matheson keeps things moving, keeps things light at points, and writes several terrific action sequences. The visual effects are very good for their time or really any time. And remember, kids -- check your water heater regularly. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Jesus Had It Easy

The Great Secret by L. Ron Hubbard containing the following stories: "Space Can", "The Great Secret", "The Beast" and "Slaver": (Collected 2008): This slim, over-priced for its length collection of pre-1949 pulp stories from Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard (admittedly, it really cost me a dollar in the bargain bin at Chapters, and even that's too much) demonstrates a couple of things that I find interesting.

One is that it's really expensive to be a Scientologist who wants to read everything Hubbard ever wrote: there are 80 of these collections in addition to the 20 or so Hubbard novels also available from the publishing wing of Scientology. That's a whole lotta Hubbard going on. And such small portions.

The second is that Hubbard was a perfectly competent pulp writer, most of whose work can justifiably be forgotten. Nothing included here ranks with Hubbard's handful of better-than-competent stories or pulp novels. "The Great Secret" has a twist ending one sees coming from a great distance, as does "The Beast." "The Beast" also uses Venusian aliens in an extremely discomfiting, pidgin-English-spewing, we-love-the-great-white-hunter way. "Space Can" is a fairly rote space battle story in which humanity has mastered interstellar travel but not automated fire-suppression systems. "Slaver" reads like a prologue to a novel that I don't think was ever written, though it does prefigure Hubbard's 1980's comeback novel Battlefield Earth in some ways.

If you're going to read one L. Ron Hubbard story, go with the psychological horror novel Fear: it's pretty good. Don't read this. Though the layout and production design are nice. The hagiographic history of Hubbard's contributions to American science fiction, fantasy, movies, popular culture, Westerns, World War Two, cultural anthropology, and everything else that appears at the end of this volume (and I'd assume the other 79 volumes) bears no resemblance to any non-Hubbard-inspired history, ever, anywhere. Jesus had it easy: he didn't have a lengthy career as a pulp writer to explain to his followers. Not recommended.


Rose Red: written by Stephen King; directed by Craig R. Baxley; starring Nancy Travis (Professor Joyce Reardon), Matt Keeslar (Steve Rimbauer), Kimberly J. Brown (Annie Wheaton), David Dukes (Professor Carl Miller), Judith Ivey (Cathy Kramer), Melanie Lynskey (Rachel Wheaton), Matt Ross (Emery Waterman), Julian Sands (Nick Hardaway), Kevin Tighe (Victor Kandinsky) and Emily Deschanel (Pam Asbury) (2002): King's penchant for synthesizing different horror tropes fails him here in this wearying miniseries from 2002 that focuses on a rag-tag assortment of psychic investigators/actual psychics and their investigation of Rose Red, a sprawling Seattle haunted house roughly the size of the New Orleans Superdome. Or possibly the moon.

Rose Red's fundamental problem may lie with King's stentorian approach to the haunted house sub-genre. Subtlety and gradually escalating weirdness are the hallmarks of the two great American haunted house novels (Richard Matheson's Hell House and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House). Rose Red leads with an extraordinarily overt manifestation of psychic powers, one that echoes and amplifies a similar incident from Shirley Jackson's novel to such an extent that the miniseries clearly establishes itself as taking place in an alternate universe where psychic powers must have been confirmed long ago by science.

With too much (yet not enough) already established about psychic powers, the miniseries starts throwing everything and the kitchen sink into other areas. Hill House and Hell House both initially sent 4-person teams of paranormal investigators into their haunted houses. Rose Red sends eight. Or possibly nine. Or a dozen, if you count the people who show up throughout the main part of the movie. Hell House and Hill House gave us large but explicable mansions.

Rose Red gives us something that's larger than the Winchester House and which builds new rooms itself, a trick the Winchester House never mastered. This remarkable self-building has apparently been confirmed on many occasions by flyover photographs of the sprawling complex. Wouldn't a house that verifiably builds itself without people pretty much confirm supernatural activity? Why is this movie about an academic whose reputation rests on whether or not she can confirm supernatural activity? Such activity is everywhere!!! Buy a camera!

So the psychics and the scientists and the hangers-on all show up, and they all have readily verifiable psychic powers, and we also learn that about 50 people have gone missing at Rose Red over the century of its existence. You'd think the authorities might want such a place torn down or blown up. But they don't. It's still there. Still growing. Still eating people.

The acting is pretty scattershot and the direction by Craig R. Baxley obvious and only rarely subtle. Rotting, animated corpses dominate the proceedings, somewhat counterintuitively at certain points when the house is ostensibly trying to get people to join it of their own free will. Because look, you get to be a rotting corpse for all eternity! Who handles the marketing for this haunted house? Not recommended.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Rictus Invictus

Doom Patrol: Musclebound: written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Richard Case, Doug Hazlewood, Mike Dringenberg, and others (1991; collected 2008): Grant Morrison's post-modern sensibilities flowered early on in American comic books of the 1980's and early 1990's with Doom Patrol and Animal Man. The Doom Patrol, a C-List superhero team created in the 1960's, had always been a bit weird. Morrison made it weirder.

Longtime foes The Brotherhood of Evil became the Brotherhood of Dada. The Doom Patrol's headquarters became Danny the Street, a sentient street capable of teleportation anywhere. Questions of identity, sexual and psychological and physical, became dominant motifs given that the heroes included a woman with 64 super-powered multiple personalities (or 'alters' as we'd say now), a human brain in a super-powered robot body that kept getting destroyed, and a strange amalgam of an alien energy being, a man, and a woman. Good times!

Here we make the acquaintance of Flex Mentallo, an odd superhero who would later show up in his own miniseries in slightly altered form. Flex can alter reality by flexing his mighty muscles -- that's why he's the man of muscle mystery, complete with an origin that's a parody of the old Charles Atlas body-building ads, and a 'hero halo' that spells out 'Hero of the Beach!' whenever he exerts himself to his utmost! But when Flex battled The Thing That Lives Under the Pentagon, he lost his memory for decades. Memory restored, he and the Doom Patrol must seek out the mystery of Flex's origins and probably save the world from some crazy thing or another.

Then it's off to a battle with a man who hates people with beards, written by Morrison as a witty parody of that tersely purple Frank Miller prose style from Daredevil and Batman. In a sequel to an obscure Jimmy Olsen story of the Silver Age of comics. Then comes the Sex Men, on patrol for abnormally elevated orgone levels and trans-dimensional sexual imvasions. Meanwhile, something stirs within The Painting That Ate Paris, where the Doom Patrol left the Brotherhood of Dada imprisoned two years earlier after the Brotherhood's attempt to summon the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse had a surprising denouement.

It's all good, clean, R-rated fun, though it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger that will require you to buy the next collected volume. A bevy of artists, including the underrated regular artist Richard Case, keep things weird and yet somehow grounded at the same time. Case's style was always closest to that of a regular superhero artist of the time, clean-lined and straightforward and traditionally heroic, which always seemed to make the things he was rendering look even weirder. Though there was something disturbing about the mouths of Case's characters, which sometimes seemed to be clenched in some rictus of over-powering horror or passion. Highly recommended.

Charlton Chews

Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archives Volume 2: edited and with an introduction by Blake Bell (1956-57; collected 2010): This second volume of the Fantagraphics Steve Ditko Archives takes us through a year in which Ditko recovered from tuberculosis and drew like a fiend, racking up over 400 pages of work, mostly for bargain-basement Charlton Comics. The co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange strove to develop a personal style very early on, as this volume shows. The art is distinctly Ditko from the get-go.

But it's also a Ditko experimenting with what works in terms of storytelling. He plays with detailed rendition and exquisite linework, especially on covers and in opening splash panels. And the broad nature of what Charlton was publishing -- very short stories in a variety of genres, all of them terribly written -- gave Ditko pretty much free rein to work on everything from how to draw a horse's legs (he still doesn't have it at this point, though I'm not sure he ever did; Kirby didn't either) to how to draw fantastic vistas of space and time and other dimensions.

A story about a painting that's a gateway to another dimension shows us the Ditko who will be, less than ten years later, on Marvel's Doctor Strange. On that great character's adventures, Ditko would become one of a handful of the greatest depictors of the weird and uncanny in comic-book history. It's a bit of a paradox.

Ditko was (and is) perhaps the most humanistic and normative of superhero illustrators, his characters not puffed up like steroid-addled beachballs, their faces and clothes lived in and life-like. But he also had a penchant for action conveyed through body language and positioning, and an eye for the weird and unusual conveyed in a few simple lines. He was the comic-book world's version of Magritte with his surreal juxtapositions and commonplace elements arranged in impossible ways.

The writing on almost all of these stories is pretty terrible, as noted -- Charlton was the Yugo assembly line of American comic books of the 1950's and 1960's. But the sheer volume of pages required by Charlton (and the sheer volume required by Ditko to survive at Charlton's miniscule page rates) did give Ditko a chance to develop, experiment, and become the artist he soon would be. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Still Not Avenging Anything Though

West Coast Avengers: VisionQuest: written and pencilled by John Byrne; inked by Mike Machlan (1989; collected 2005): Fun bit of revisionist Avengers history, as John Byrne tries to reconcile 20 years of inconsistencies in the story of the android superhero Vision's origin story. That origin story initially posited that the Vision was a new artificial personality implanted in the WWII Human Torch's android body.

But the established story of the Torch's construction (a quasi-biological body) never synchronized with the written and artistic depictions of the Vision's construction (a synthetic 'synthezoid' with both mechanical and quasi-biological parts). Until 1989!!! Because Byrne got bugged by stuff like that!

Along the way, we also meet a secret intelligence agency headed by a person with a surprising country of origin. The Vision gets kidnapped. Weird things happen with the children of the Vision and mutant Scarlet Witch. A mysterious enemy who would get referenced by Grant Morrison during his run on the X-Men ten years later shows up for the first time. Wonder Man sports a mullet and continues to have terrible fashion sense when it comes to superhero costumes. And Byrne's funniest superhero group, the Great Lakes Avengers, make their surprisingly effective first appearance.

Byrne's art is clean and well-laid-out, as it usually is, and his science-fictional interests really add to the story. Mike Machlan does a nice job inking Byrne, putting a nice sheen on the whole thing. Recommended.