Thursday, November 24, 2016

Trekking to the Oldies

Star Trek: Gold Key Archives Volume 1 (1967-69/ This edition 2014): written by Dick Wood; illustrated by Nevio Zeccara and Alberto Giolitti: Oh, those loopy Gold Key Star Trek comics of the 1960's and 1970's! The first six issues collected here were originally written and drawn by people who had never seen an episode of Star Trek and had been handed what seems to be the briefest of Show Bibles. 

The artists had photo references, but no idea how big the Enterprise was (a cutaway illustration makes it seem about as big as a B-52 bomber) or what James Doohan looked like (Scotty is unrecognizable). The stories themselves are generic space opera, albeit with a few clever moments. The first story is pretty much full-blown scifi horror, an area the real Trek delved into very infrequently. And as a piece of horror, and body horror, it's actually pretty effective, though unrecognizable as Trek

Subsequent stories gradually move closer to Trek, with a clever story about rogue machines endlessly building cities being the strongest, Trekkiest of the stories. Why Dark Horse devoted a fairly pricey Archive series to these books is a bit of a mystery: these things are best enjoyed on cheap paper, preferably in a massive, inexpensive collection. Recommended.

Godhead: New Gods/ Green Lantern (2015): written by Robert Vendetti, Charles Soule, Van Jensen, Cullen Bunn, Justin Jordan, and others; illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver, Billy Tan, Dale Eaglesham, and others: DC tried to reinvent Jack Kirby's iconic Fourth World characters for its post-Flashpoint, rebooted superhero universe of the 'New 52' in this crossover event with the Green Lantern books. It's pretty much a failure on every level, burdened with a plot that's mostly massive battle scenes and a lot of fussy, often confusingly laid-out art. And oh so many Lanterns! 

The leader of the 'good' forces of the 'New Gods,' Izaya the Inheritor, has gone from reflective philosopher-king to violent imperialist. So, too, such previously peaceful New Gods characters such as Lightray, who's now just another soldier in a Cosmic Cold War. Design-wise, nothing of Kirby's has been improved upon. Metron and his Mobius Chair are now a fussy, over-rendered mess. Orion now wears an outfit that makes him look like a bellhop when his helmet is removed. Izaya is just another guy in over-rendered armour.

The 'event' involves the New Gods, self-appointed defenders of the entire multiverse,  discovering the existence of Green Lantern rings, oh, about 5000 years into the existence of those Green Lantern rings. That's some nice universal monitoring, boys. Of course, this is the expanded universe of Green Lantern rings. Which is to say, there are also thousands upon thousands of humans and aliens flying around not only with Green Lantern rings, but with Red and Yellow and Orange and Blue and Indigo and Violet Lantern rings. And there are collector's item, one-of-a-kind White and Black Lantern rings as well. Plaid rings are surely on the horizon.

Izaya decides some combination of these rings will allow him to defeat cosmic menace Darkseid once and for all. Or maybe he just needs the White Lantern ring to do that. Whatever. Much fighting and blowing things up ensues. There's about enough plot here for maybe 50 pages of a comic book, extended to fill 300 increasingly interminable pages. Now that DC has executed a soft line-wide reboot again with the Rebirth event. one can only hope that this dismal bunch of Fourth-World wannabes has been consigned to the ash-heap of continuity resets. Not recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?

Time Out of Joint (1959) by Philip K. Dick: The geniuses at Vintage who packaged up the 2002 reprint of this Philip K. Dick novel put a major, mid-novel plot reveal in the back-cover synopsis. Way to go, guys! One can enjoy Time Out of Joint while already being aware of its major plot twist, but the thrill of that discovery, painstakingly built up to by Dick, should be part of the experience of reading the novel. In a perfect world, anyway.

Ragle Gumm (there's a name!) is a man living in a small, Western American town in 1959. He doesn't have a job, exactly. That's because he's the world champion solver of puzzles in the local newspaper. Specifically, a daily brain-teaser called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?". Ragle Gumm has an innate gift for recognizing and exploiting patterns. And that's what the newspaper contest offers, day after day, year after year.

He's also single, living with his sister and brother-in-law, and half-in-love with the flirtatious wife of his annoying, intrusive neighbour. Ragle is also getting tired of spending hours every day on the contest. But what's a guy to do?

Time Out of Joint is stellar, fairly early work from Dick. Its characters are nicely drawn, illuminated with a level of psychology Dick hadn't used before in his long-form works. The mystery is a satisfying one, satisfyingly handled. And as often happened in Dick's novels, there really aren't any "bad guys" per se, simply confused people orbiting around the central confusion of Life Itself.

The novel's also an interesting look at 1950's nuclear paranoia as reflected and refracted through Dick's uncommonly odd perceptions and interpretations. When Time Out of Joint first appeared in hardcover in 1959, it was billed as 'A Novel of Menace' on its front cover. That's a pretty good description -- but it's also a novel of recognizable, human characters caught up in the machinery of an absurd, cruel world, trying to make sense of things, trying to make the universe be just a little bit kinder. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Detectives in La-La Land

The Underground Man (1971/ Lew Archer #16) by Ross Macdonald: The fickle Santa Ana winds bring wildfires to Los Angeles as a preamble to murder and sorrow in this late-career Lew Archer hard-boiled-detective novel from Ross Macdonald. It's one of a handful of Macdonald's best-reviewed novels, and one can still see why: it's about as mournful and minutely observed a psychological study as one could ask for.

Lew Archer was certainly one of the most rueful detectives in American detective fiction, haunted by his own personal failures and by the seemingly endless sea of woe that each and every one of his cases plunged him into. This time around, Archer gets pulled into the disappearance of a neighbour's young son. Murder soon follows, along with the possible revelation of much earlier murder: there's more than a whiff of Greek tragedy in the ways in which the past shapes the present in Macdonald's novels. But there's also a sense of Existential randomness -- the effects often seem to have no moral relation to the causes.

This is a fine novel, detective or otherwise, shot through with cynical wit and sharp observations about character and landscape. While the hills around Los Angeles burn and then suddenly shift to life-threatening mudslides when the rains finally come, Archer searches for the best available solution to the case. Highly recommended.

The Monkey's Raincoat (1987/Elvis Cole #1) by Robert Crais: The first of Robert Crais's nouveau-noir novels about Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole and his laconic partner Joe Pike sets the model for many of Cole's subsequent adventures. Cole narrates in a snarky, cynical, but often heart-felt first-person voice. 

Cole minutely (frankly, too minutely) details everything he does: you'll know what he had for lunch, where he bought the ingredients, and what beer goes best with it. It's Crais's way of showing that as dippy as Cole's comments seem, he's always observing and evaluating everything around him in detail. Or maybe of offering the reader sandwich-making tips,

Hollywood coughs up a missing father-and-son case for Cole. But things quickly go bad. The Monkey's Raincoat shows Los Angeles at its best and worst, and Hollywood at its corruptive nadir. Guns and drugs and femmes fatale show up. There's an incompetent agent to be reckoned with, and an extremely sleazy producer.

There are a few flaws. Crais doesn't quite have Pike's character down yet -- a flaw only apparent in comparison to later novels. Cole's ability to sleep with every woman in a narrative is in place here, though Crais would later remove this element from the series. And the climax is almost hilariously "cinematic" -- which is to say that it's a blood-soaked, bullet-popping Assault on the Impregnable Fortress. Was it written with a movie deal in mind? Hey, Crais lives in Los Angeles too! Recommended.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Two by Aickman

The Unsettled Dust (1990/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "Bind Your Hair" (1964); "No Stronger Than a Flower" (1966); "Ravissante" (1968); "The Cicerones" (1967); "The Houses of the Russians" (1968); "The Next Glade" (1980); "The Stains" (1980) [Winner, 1981 British Fantasy Award] ; and "The Unsettled Dust" (1968); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Graham and Heather Smith: 

The Unsettled Dust is a bit of a curiosity in Faber and Faber's recent four-volume reissue of Robert Aickman collections as The Unsettled Dust is a posthumous reprint collection that duplicates one story from both F&F's Dark Entries AND The Wine-Dark Sea reissues ("Bind Your Hair") and two more from just The Wine-Dark Sea ("The Stains" and "The Next Glade"). Given that the F&F volumes are now the only Robert Aickman short-story collections available in mass-market editions, little or no duplication among collections would be ideal.

Nonetheless, any in-print, readily available Aickman is good. He's the master of a fairly rarefied type of ghost story, one for which he preferred the term "strange story." His stories will enthrall a (relatively) small readership. Most of Aickman's stories are too subtle for most readers, leaving them unmoved and confused as to Aickman's importance. And that's fine. He's one of the Boss Levels of horror/weird fiction. 

Those who like him, like him a lot -- but not liking him doesn't make one a 'bad' reader. Indeed, Aickman's hypercritical views caused him to dislike or dismiss many stories and writers considered by many (including myself) to be classics and masters -- almost the entire oeuvre of M.R. James, much of Henry James, all of H.P. Lovecraft, to name three writers whom Aickman found seriously wanting. So if you find Robert Aickman seriously wanting, you're just following in the footsteps of... Robert Aickman.

The stories here are mostly excellent. The one misfire is "No Stronger Than a Flower," a strange story about female vanity that seems both dated and obnoxiously sexist. But that's more than offset by the strange and disturbing wonders of such stories as "The Cicerones." That story is almost a short model of the Aickman approach: the events of the story are rendered clearly and precisely, but no emphatic explanations are offered as to why things are happening. It's immensely disturbing. So, too, "The Stains," in which horror, romantic rapture, and erotic fixation combine in a story about a recently widowed man who falls in love with... well, that's a good question.

In all, this is probably the best Faber and Faber volume to introduce yourself or others to Aickman, covering as it does more than a decade of Aickman's best stories. And when you've read them, please explain to me what the Hell is actually going on in "The Stains." Or "The Cicerones." Highly recommended.

Dark Entries (1964/ This edition 2014) by Robert Aickman, containing the following stories: "The School Friend" (1964); "Ringing the Changes" (1955); "Choice of Weapons" (1964); "The Waiting Room" (1956); "The View" (1951); and "Bind Your Hair" (1964); with an Introduction by Richard T. Kelly and an Afterword by Ramsey Campbell: This is Faber and Faber's reissue of weird-fiction master Robert Aickman's first solo collection of short stories, novelettes, and novels. 

Aickman amazes insofar as it's very difficult to distinguish between stories written in 1950 and stories written in 1979: his style and subject matter emerge seemingly fully grown and developed. Obviously, they didn't really -- Aickman started publishing in his 30's, after years of work on his art.

For all the strange and disturbing mystery of Aickman's stories and the cool, detailed nature of his prose, Aickman nonetheless often took tired horror tropes and rendered them fresh and new by re-investing them with that unexplained mystery rendered so cleanly and clearly that one feels as if one has simply missed an explanation somewhere in the story: Aickman doesn't create mystery with obfuscations of prose style. You're watching a magic trick performed without smoke and without mirrors.

Take "Ringing the Changes." It's a zombie story. But what a zombie story! Or "The School Friend": is it a Jekyll and Hyde story? Sort of. "The Waiting Room" seems like a traditional ghost story until one gets to the ghosts, whose behaviour is both inert and cosmically threatening. "Bind your Hair" makes witchcraft scary and mysterious. 

These are great, mid-career stories from one of weird and horror fiction's prickly, mysterious greats. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 11, 2016


The late, great Canadian poet Alden Nowlan wrote my favourite poem of war and remembrance, "Ypres 1915."

"Sometimes I’m not even sure that I have a country.
But I know that they stood there at Ypres 
the first time the Germans used gas, 
that they were almost the only troops 
in that section of the front 
who did not break and run, 

who held the line."

Monday, November 7, 2016

Eight is Enough

Dracula (1931): adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from the play by Garrett Fort adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Tod Browning; starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing): This stagey, bloodless Dracula was a big hit in 1931. It has the hallmarks of early sound film -- that super-heavy, static sound camera pretty much necessitated a nearly immobile, stagey shot. 

Bela Lugosi is great, especially in the first section set at Castle Dracula. Dwight Frye is a hoot as Renfield, the foundational figure for so many crazed characters to come in horror movies. Once the action moves to England, things become a bit tedious. And the censorship people ensure that Dracula dies off-screen with barely an "Argh!" to mark his passing. F.W. Murnau's bootleg Dracula, Nosferatu (1922), is a far superior work, as are many of the later adaptations. Still, Lugosi remains a bracing presence. Recommended.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998): adapted by Don Jakoby from the novel by John Steakley; directed by John Carpenter; starring James Woods (Jack Crow), Daniel Baldwin (Montoya), Sheryl Lee (Katrina), Thomas Ian Griffith (Valek), Tim Guinee (Father Guiteau), and Maximillian Schell (Cardinal Alba): One of John Carpenter's crappier offerings. Oh, sure, it has its moments. But it's crippled by a totally uninteresting vampire antagonist (Thomas Ian Griffith), sloppy writing, and the perplexing choice to have Daniel Baldwin play a character named 'Montoya,' complete with dyed-black hair to, I suppose, trick the audience into thinking Baldwin is Hispanic. The treatment of women is a bit... problematic, given that women in this movie are either prostitutes or vampires (or in Sheryl Lee's case, both).  I was entertained, but not a lot. Lightly recommended.

Krampus (2015): written by Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields, and Todd Casey; directed by Michael Dougherty; starring Adam Scott (Tom), Toni Collette (Sarah), David Koechner (Howard), Emjay Anthony (Max), and Conchata Ferrell (Aunt Dorothy): Michael Dougherty's ode to Gremlins isn't as good as Gremlins (which was also set at Christmas), which may be more an indictment of studio interference than anything else. Krampus, which visits the Germanic anti-Santa Claus on a small American town that has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, needs sharper editing in its first half, which seems to run on forever while we wait for Anti-Claus to show up.

Thankfully, Krampus and his twisted minions -- horrible snowmen, horrifying toys, homicidal gingerbread men, and a really nice looking evil Christmas-tree Angel -- do arrive to scare and stalk Adam Scott's family, who are too angry and fractious for The True Meaning of Christmas to take hold. There are some lovely effects both mechanical and CGI animating the various monsters, including Krampus itself. And there's a real sense of menace as things roll towards the end.

Depending on one's interpretation, Krampus either manages a treacly happy ending, a slightly menacing happy ending, or a refreshingly bleak ending in which not even a baby is safe from damnation. Seriously. At 100 minutes, Krampus feels about 15 minutes too long and two sugar packets too sweet for some stretches. But I still enjoyed it. I also enjoyed that it offers an odd commentary on this year's U.S. election: Republican or Democrat, Krampus is taking none of your self-serving bullshit if you're committed to a world where only money matters. Recommended.

The Forest (2016): written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai; directed by Jason Zada; starring Natalie Dormer (Sara/ Jess Price) and Taylor Kinney (Aiden): Dull film set mostly in Japan's 'Suicide Forest' (but filmed in Serbia) wastes a solid turn by Natalie Dormer as twin sisters. That this movie is actually inferior to the straight-to-cable, bafflingly titled The Last Halloween/ Grave Halloween is an extraordinary feat of wasted opportunity. Among other things, features characters following a river by walking away from said river at a 90-degree angle. OK! Not recommended.

Joy (2015): written by Annie Mumolo and David O. Russell; directed by David O. Russell; starrimg Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Robert De Niro (Rudy), Bradley Cooper (Neil Walker), Diane Ladd (Mimi), Edgar Ramirez (Tony), Virginia Madsen (Terry), Isabella Rossellini (Trudy), and Dascha Polanco (Jackie): Another enjoyable David O. Russell/Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper movie, not up to the standards of American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook but still solid, quirky drama. 

It's all expressionistically based on a real person, nearly broke new Jersey housewife Joy, who's suppressed her creative and financial acumen for much of her adult life until she invents a new type of mop. With some aid and a lot of the exact opposite of aid from family members and friends, she eventually becomes a home-shopping success. 

The acting is fine -- fine enough that it sometimes takes time to register what utter dinks Joy's father (De Niro), his new girlfriend (Rossellini), and Joy's half-sister can be, and are, most of the time. A story of female empowerment through engineering and financial acumen is a pretty unusual thing. And the legal ins and outs of patent law end up being pretty gripping. The ending needs more work, and the partial-flashback-with-narration structure never quite seems to gel. Nonetheless, Lawrence is splendid, as is most of the supporting cast. Recommended.

Jack Reacher (2012): adapted by Christopher McQuarrie from the novel One Shot by Lee Child; directed by Christopher McQuarrie; starring Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Richard Jenkins (Rodin), David Oyelowo (Emerson), and Werner Herzog (The Zec): Surprisingly fun thriller with 5'7" Tom Cruise playing novelist Lee Child's 6'4" hero Jack Reacher. The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie knows how to write a decent script and how to direct it. A long cameo appearance by Robert Duvall is a bit wonky. Surprisingly for a modern thriller, there's neither any real development of a love interest for Reacher -- he and Rosamund Pike remain platonic pals -- nor any touchy-feely character development for Cruise's character. He's just a hyper-competent guy living off the grid. Recommended.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014): written by David Koepp and Adam Cozad, based on characters created by Tom Clancy; directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Chris Pine (Jack Ryan), Keira Knightley (Cathy Muller), Kevin Costner (Thomas Harper), and Kenneth Branagh (Viktor Cherevin): Paramount attempts to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise by moving the characters about 40 years forwards in time and turning Ryan from a naval expert to a financial wizard. The first half actually goes pretty well, with Chris 'NuCaptain Kirk' Pine playing Ryan as a sort of Captain Kirk of the banking system. Indeed, the relationship between Pine and his CIA recruiter-turned-controller Kevin Costner plays an awful lot like the Kirk/Pike relationship in the 2009 Trek reboot. Kenneth Branagh, slumming again, does an able job. But the script goes completely awry in the second half, degenerating into an endless car chase that satisfies not at all. And let's face it -- computer-based financial warfare just isn't as interesting in a cinematic sense as a submarine chase. Ultimately, not recommended.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): adapted by Peter Bryan from the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes), Andre Morrell (Doctor Watson), Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville), Marla Landi (Cecile Stapleton), Ewen Solon (Stapleton), and Francis de Wolff (Dr. Mortimer): Zippy, relatively faithful Sherlock Holmes movie casts an energetic though diminutive Peter Cushing as the great detective and Christopher Lee as the target of the Baskerville curse. This came from Hammer Films, generally best known for horror in the 1950's and 1960's -- indeed, the interiors of Baskerville Hall previously served as Dracula's home in Horror of Dracula. As usual for Hammer, the movie looks great and moves with great pace to its conclusion. It's a shame Hammer didn't make more Holmes movies. Recommended.