Friday, December 28, 2018

Freedomland (1998) by Richard Price

Freedomland (1998) by Richard Price: A critical and commercial hit in 1998, Freedomland has lost none of its sting in the intervening decades. 

Maybe it's more relevant now in The Age of Trump than ever, dealing as it does with America's deep-seated racial divisions and unequal treatment at the hands of the law, media simplification of tragic events, knee-jerk bigotry, the politics of policing, and so many other 'Hot-button' topics.

A white woman stumbles into a hospital in New Jersey claiming to have been carjacked by an African-American man at the very border between the 'white' and 'black' sections of the New Jersey city. And her 4-year-old son was in the car.

What follows is more than 700 pages of tense, mournful, and sardonic prose. It's a thriller that takes its time drawing its characters and situations, its places and racial strife. That 700 pages covers just about 4 days of events.

It's all rendered in third-person narration that alternates its focus between Housing Project police officer Lorenzo Council and ambitious reporter Jesse Haus. The mother, Brenda Martin, is a major character as well -- really THE major character -- but she's observed entirely from without by Council and Haus.

This is the sort of big, ambitious, intimately epic popular novel that often out-survives and out-performs far more self-consciously 'literary' works. It's heart-rending though sometimes hopeful. Price, a screenwriter as well as a novelist, is a great writer of dialogue and of pungent, slyly metaphorical description. 

Freedomland is, quite simply, a Great American Novel, one that entertains and instructs in the way only the best Art does. Highly recommended.

The Crushing Tedium of Area X


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

It Comes At Night (2017)

None blacker...


Rampage (2018)

Rampage (2018): written by Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel; directed by Brad Peyton; starring Dwayne Johnson (Davis), Naomie Harris (Dr. Caldwell), Malin Akerman (Claire Wyden), Jake Lacy (Brett Wyden), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Agent Russell):

Based on a 1980's video game I'd never heard of until after viewing this movie, Rampage is a dumb but enjoyable giant-monster movie. It's no Pacific Rim, but it's certainly better than Pacific Rim: Uprising, and it's certainly a frothier, lighter film than the 2012 Godzilla reboot.

Dwayne Johnson plays a gorilla expert who's also a former Black Ops super-soldiery sort of fellow. Through a series of unfortunate events related to an evil corporation headed by Malin Akerman, Johnson's best gorilla buddy gets exposed to what amounts to a growth serum that also stimulates aggression AND causes the infected to be compelled to follow a specific radio signal. Jesus, that's a lot of genetic engineering -- making an animal that can zero in on a radio frequency?

Thanks to the evil corporation, a 30-foot-gorilla is not the only problem. There's a giant wolf and a giant alligator! And they're all headed to... Chicago? Um, OK. The use of Chicago for the climax does give the viewer a great dialogue exchange in which the alligator is briefly mistaken for a submarine, causing the Idiot General defending Chicago to opine that "we don't have any subs in this area!" In Lake Michigan? What?

So there's lots of yelling and shooting and military strategy and tactics so inept that they make the military geniuses of the 1998 Godzilla reboot look like Rommel by comparison. Will The Actor Formerly Known As The Rock survive? Will he figure out how to get his gorilla pal back on the side of the angels in time for a climactic battle with the alligator and the wolf? Will all the carnage and death end with a 1960's and 70's-style 'Ha Ha Ha! Time for some quips!' bit?

Oh, well. Fun, dumb, and full of CGI. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Man Without A Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush's America (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut

A Man Without A Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush's America (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut: This is the great American humourist and satirist's last 'new' book, a collection of essays that appeared in the magazine In Our Times during the George W. Bush presidency.

At this late date (Vonnegut would die in 2007, still stuck in the Bush 2 Years), Vonnegut still had the power to amuse and instruct, though no desire to attempt another novel. At least one of the pieces did get reworked into his final 'half-novel' Timequake, half a novel because Vonnegut published it unfinished but filled out with observations about life in America.

Here in The Trump Years, A Man Without A Country reminds one of how lousy the Bush years were -- how criminal, how unsupportably undemocratic, how moronic and ridiculous. Trump is not an anomaly. Trump is a logical extrapolation. Have we forgotten so soon that the 2000 Presidential Election was stolen by disenfranchising minority voters and not just through all the more public post-election shenanigans?

Vonnegut notes at one point that a real horror story would be called 'C-Students from Yale.' Like Bush 2 and so many of his cronies.

If Vonnegut were around today, maybe he'd note that Bush 2 normalized all the crap that Trump has now expanded. Or that Trump is also dangerous because he makes seemingly rational left-wingers nostalgic for the days of Bush and Reagan and Nixon. Hidey-ho! So it goes! Recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Predators (2010) and The Thin Blue Line (1988)



All the Money in the World (2017)

All the Money in the World (2017): adapted by David Scarpa from the book by John Pearson; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Michelle Williams (Gail Harris), Christopher Plummer (J. Paul Getty), Mark Wahlberg (Fletcher Chase), Romain Duris (Cinquanta), and Charlie Plummer (John Paul Getty III): 

Once upon a time, American oil tycoon J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the world. And once upon a time, Kevin Spacey played him in this film! 

Ridley Scott replaced Spacey after allegations of Spacey's sexual improprieties hit the press, resulting in a re-shoot with Plummer subbing for Spacey. 

Plummer is excellent, all rotted and wormy noblesse oblige as the eccentric billionaire. When his namesake grandson gets kidnapped in Italy, Getty is less than helpful to the boy's desperate mother, divorced from Getty's addiction-addled son. 

It's not a great film, but it certainly holds one's interest. Michelle Williams is terrific as the mother. Near the end, one realizes that one of the reasons Scott did the project was so that he could do an extended homage to Citizen Kane. There are certainly worse reasons to make a movie. Recommended

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, segment "All Gold Canyon" based on a story by Jack London, segment "The Girl Who Got Rattled" based on a story by Stewart Edward White; starring Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), James Franco (Cowboy), Stephen Root (Bank Teller), Liam Neeson (Impresario), Harry Melling (Artist), Tom Waits (Prospector), Zoe Kazan (Alice Longabaugh), Brendan Gleeson (Irishman), Chelcie Ross (Trapper), Tyne Daly (Lady), Saul Rubinek (Frenchman), and Jonjo O'Neill (Englishman):

On Netflix appears this early holiday gift from the Coen Brothers, an anthology movie set in the Old West. It's one Hell of an assembly. Beautifully shot and acted, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs plays with assorted tropes of the Old West, from singing cowboys to grizzled prospectors, from stagecoach rides to wagon trains, from bank robberies to traveling shows. 

The stories move from satire to bleak comedy to ironic tragedy and back again. Tom Waits stands out in a field of fine performances as that grizzled, tenacious prospector; so, too, Tim Blake Nelson as the eponymous singing cowboy and Harry Melling as a traveling performer. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Christmas at the Overlook


The Maze of the Enchanter: Volume Four of the Collected Fantasies Of Clark Ashton Smith



The Maze of the Enchanter:  Volume Four of the Collected Fantasies Of Clark Ashton Smith (2009); edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.

Volume 1 Review
Volume 2 Review
Volume 3 Review

Clark Ashton Smith was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With those two, he formed what became known as "The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales" in the late 1920's and 1930's. None of them was the most popular writer for Weird Tales -- that was Seabury Quinn. But in time they would become known as the three finest and most influential American fantasists of their era. 

Smith is the least well-known because he didn't create a fictional universe that others would adopt after him, as Lovecraft did with the Cthulhu Mythos and as Howard did with the world of Conan the Barbarian. His style and subject matter, however, have an incalculable influence and worth. His poetic prose (and Smith was a very good, published poet long before his short story years) testifies to horror, lushness, irony, and moments of grace. 

OK, sometimes it seems like he ate a thesaurus. Maybe three of them. But that's a part of the charm, especially as even Smith's diction can be ironic or satiric, especially when he's just making up words.

Truly remarkable too is that the bulk of Smith's stories were written in a five-year period. It's a burst of creativity almost unrivaled in fantasy literature. Most of the stories he wrote after that burst were based on story ideas he recorded at the time in his Commonplace Book.

In this fourth volume of The Collected Fantasies from Night Shade Press, Smith continues in peak form. Excellent tales of his horrifying Mars of the future ("The Dweller in the Gulf," "Vulthoom") rub shoulders with fine stories of the Earth's last continent ("The Isle of the Torturers"), prehistoric Hyperborea ("The Ice Demon"), and visionary contemporary horror (the terrific "Genius Loci"). We also meet Smith's prototype of Rick from Rick and Morty, the amoral science-magician Maal Dweb.


Note on bracketed categories:
  • Averoigne: Fictional, demon-haunted French province during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
  • Zothique: The "last continent" of Earth, uncounted millions or billions of years in the future.
  • Hyperborea: The ancient civilized kingdoms of humanity prior to the last Ice Age.
  • Poseidonis: Last city of sinking Atlantis.
  • Cthulhu Mythos: A number of Smith's stories could be set within H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, especially those set during the time of Hyperborea and those featuring the dark god Tsathoggua. Well, and those mentioning Eibon or The Book of Eibon. Or Ubbo-Sathla. However, only those stories that are definitely Cthulhu Mythos stories are indicated.
  • Maal Dweb: Alien though human-looking sorcerer who seems to rule over an entire alien solar system.


Contains the following stories and essays (All dates are publication, not composition -- the five volumes are arranged in order of publication)

  • Introduction by Gahan Wilson
  • A Note on the Texts
  • The Mandrakes [Averoigne] (1933) : Minor tale of posthumous revenge.
  • The Beast of Averoigne [Averoigne] (1933) Restored three-part version of one of the two or three best stories of that demon-haunted medieval French province of Averoigne -- this time threatened from without by a thing from a comet. ESSENTIAL
  • A Star-Change (1933) : Minor but fascinating tale that focuses on the potentially mind-altering effects of alien landscapes and dimensions.
  • The Disinterment of Venus [Averoigne] (1934) Droll, erotic humour involving a pagan statue that really gets a lot of monks... excited. Statuesque, indeed! ESSENTIAL.
  • The White Sybil [Hyperborea] (1934) : Moody, near-prose poem.
  • The Ice-Demon [Hyperborea] (1933) ESSENTIAL. Terrific horror story of the coming of the Ice Age that would end Smith's Hyperborea.
  • The Isle of the Torturers [Zothique] (1933) ESSENTIAL. A perverse, satisfying tale of almost accidental revenge on the titular island by one of its victims.
  • The Dimension of Chance (1932) : Almost parodic with its jet-plane chase at the beginning before diving into another of Smith's unearthly dimensions where our rules do not apply.
  • The Dweller in the Gulf (1933) ESSENTIAL. Human adventurers on Mars meet with one of the Red Planet's most horrible subterranean denizens. The story does a masterful job of conjuring up claustrophobia and body horror.
  • The Maze of the Enchanter [Maal Dweb] (1933)  ESSENTIAL. Droll story of Smith's bored magician.
  • The Third Episode of Vathek:  The Story of the Princess Zulkaïs and the Prince Kalilah [Vathek] (1937) : novelette by William Beckford and Clark Ashton Smith: Heavy sledding if you're not a William Beckford fan. Smith writes about 4000 words to complete Beckford's incomplete 11,000 words of a tale of Vathek from the 18th century.
  • Genius Loci (1933) ESSENTIAL. Smith codifies a new type of supernatural horror in the contemporary world. 
  • The Secret of the Cairn (aka The Light from Beyond) (1933) : Trippy science-fiction story about yet another voyage to another dimension.
  • The Charnel God [Zothique] (1934) ESSENTIAL. A sword-and-sorcery tale that was one of Conan creator Robert E. Howard's favourite Smith stories.
  • The Dark Eidolon [Zothique] (1935) ESSENTIAL. Small epic of Earth's last continent, an evil city, and the evil sorcerer who seeks vengeance against it. 
  • The Voyage of King Euvoran [Zothique] (1933) : Comic tale (albeit with a high death toll) of a quest for a lost crown.
  • Vulthoom (1935) : Smith's malign Mars has another monstrous being. And it's an evil plant.
  • The Weaver in the Vault [Zothique] (1934) : Moody tale of creeping horror.
  • The Flower-Women [Maal Dweb] (1935) ESSENTIAL. Black comedy and magical battles as a bored Maal Dweb becomes the unlikely saviour of a species of carnivorous plant women. Yes, semi-evil plants.
  • Story Notes
  • Alternate Ending to "The White Sybil"
  • The Muse of Hyperborea  (1934) poem
  • The Dweller in the Gulf:  Added Material
  • Bibliography


Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Door to Saturn: Volume Two of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith (2007)



The Door to Saturn:  Volume Two of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith (2007); edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger. : 

For Volume 1: The End of the Story, click here.

Clark Ashton Smith was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With those two, he formed what became known as "The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales" in the late 1920's and 1930's. None of them was the most popular writer for Weird Tales -- that was Seabury Quinn. But in time they would become known as the three finest and most influential American fantasists of their era. 

Smith is the least well-known because he didn't create a fictional universe that others would adopt after him, as Lovecraft did with the Cthulhu Mythos and as Howard did with the world of Conan the Barbarian. His style and subject matter, however, have an incalculable influence and worth. His poetic prose (and Smith was a very good, published poet long before his short story years) testifies to horror, lushness, irony, and moments of grace. 

OK, sometimes it seems like he ate a thesaurus. Maybe three of them. But that's a part of the charm, especially as even Smith's diction can be ironic or satiric, especially when he's just making up words.

Truly remarkable too is that the bulk of Smith's stories were written in a five-year period. It's a burst of creativity almost unrivaled in fantasy literature. Most of the stories he wrote after that burst were based on story ideas he recorded at the time in his Commonplace Book.

In this second volume of The Collected Fantasies from Night Shade Press, we see Smith pretty much at the zenith of his powers as a weird fantasist. The stories can be weird and occasionally horrifying, but also droll and comical in some cases. He moves among contemporary horror and distant realms of self-created fantasy with apparent ease. Even a story that waited 55 years to be published -- "A Good Embalmer" -- is an enjoyable bit of dark whimsy that reminds one of the stories of Ambrose Bierce.

There are more attempts at relatively straightforward horror-fantasy here than in any other volume, suggesting that Smith was working to place stories in markets by writing stories to fit the existing markets.  This tendency would wane as his career progressed.


Note on bracketed categories:


  • Averoigne: Fictional, demon-haunted French province during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
  • Zothique: The "last continent" of Earth, uncounted millions or billions of years in the future.
  • Hyperborea: The ancient civilized kingdoms of humanity prior to the last Ice Age.
  • Poseidonis: Last city of sinking Atlantis.
  • Cthulhu Mythos: A number of Smith's stories could be set within H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, especially those set during the time of Hyperborea and those featuring the dark god Tsathoggua. Well, and those mentioning Eibon or The Book of Eibon. Or Ubbo-Sathla. However, only those stories that are definitely Cthulhu Mythos stories are indicated.


Contains the following stories and essays (All dates are publication, not composition -- the five volumes are arranged in order of publication)


  1. Introduction by Tim Powers
  2. A Note on the Texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
  3. The Door to Saturn  [Hyperborea]  (1932): Smith's novella about his legendary sorcerer Eibon becomes funnier the longer it goes, and ends with one of Smith's nods to interspecies sex, carefully phrased so as to avoid rejection from the magazines of the 1930's. ESSENTIAL.
  4. The Red World of Polaris  [Captain Volmar 2] (2003) : Smith's second tale of Captain Volmar and his intrepid space-faring crew again walks the line between Space Opera and satire, but becomes awesomely apocalyptic over the final third.
  5. Told in the Desert (1964) : Minor bit of horror.
  6. The Willow Landscape (1931) : [Orientalist fantasy] : Lovely, melancholy Orientalist tale.
  7. A Rendezvous in Averoigne  [Averoigne] (1931) : Another Averoigne story lays out some of the province's more dangerous locations. ESSENTIAL.
  8. The Gorgon (1932) : Minor horror story.
  9. An Offering to the Moon (1953) : Minor tale of a modern-day archaeological expedition gone nightmarishly wrong.
  10. The Kiss of Zoraida (1933) : [Conte cruel] : Minor bit of Orientalist nastiness.
  11. The Face by the River (2004) : A fairly straightforward contemporary ghost story.
  12. The Ghoul (1934) : Weird Orientalist dark fantasy about ghouls. 
  13. The Kingdom of the Worm (1933) : Smith pays homage to a little-known confabulist of the past with some pretty eerie and disturbing moments of travel through a disintegrating landscape infected by rot.
  14. An Adventure in Futurity  (1931) : One of what is almost a Smith sub-genre -- a guy gets into a machine of either his or alien design (or a future human's, as here), and travels to another world or time. This one visits the future, and aims some pointed satire at conventional time-travelling narratives.
  15. The Justice of the Elephant  (1931) : Minor 'revenge' horror story. With elephants!
  16. The Return of the Sorcerer  [Cthulhu Mythos]  (1931) : One of Smith's most anthologized stories is a sly, blackly humourous tale that intersects with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. ESSENTIAL.
  17. The City of the Singing Flame  [Singing Flame : 1] (1941) A work of visionary dark fantasy that focuses on the ecstasies of the Sublime. Followed by a sequel. ESSENTIAL.
  18. A Good Embalmer  (1989) : Droll contemporary horror story.
  19. The Testament of Athammaus  [Hyperborea]  (1932) Great work of dark fantasy is a sort of prequel to Volume 1's "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros." ESSENTIAL.
  20. A Captivity in Serpens  [Captain Volmar : 3] (1931) Smith's third tale (second published) of Captain Volmar and his intrepid space-faring crew again walks the line between Space Opera and satire yet again, and features a lengthy, dizzying chase scene through a cyclopean city.
  21. The Letter from Mohaun Los  (1932) : One of what is almost a Smith sub-genre -- a guy gets into a machine of either his or alien design, and travels to another world or time. This one visits other planets while attempting to travel in time, discovering that gravity doesn't apply to objects in transit through the time-stream.
  22. The Hunters from Beyond  (1932) : Solid, visceral yet cosmic horror story nods in a way to H.P. Lovecraft's great "Pickman's Model." ESSENTIAL.

  23. Story Notes by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
  24. Alternate Ending to "The Return of the Sorcerer" 

Bibliography by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The End Of The Story: Volume One of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith (2006)

The End Of The Story:  Volume One of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith (2006); edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger. 

Clark Ashton Smith was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. With those two, he formed what became known as "The Three Musketeers of Weird Tales" in the late 1920's and 1930's. None of them was the most popular writer forWeird Tales -- that was Seabury Quinn. But in time they would become known as the three finest and most influential American fantasists of their era. 

Smith is the least well-known because he didn't create a fictional universe that others would adopt after him, as Lovecraft did with the Cthulhu Mythos and as Howard did with the world of Conan the Barbarian. His style and subject matter, however, have an incalculable influence and worth. His poetic prose (and Smith was a very good, published poet long before his short story years) testifies to horror, lushness, irony, and moments of grace. 

OK, sometimes it seems like he ate a thesaurus. Maybe three of them. But that's a part of the charm, especially as even Smith's diction can be ironic or satiric, especially when he's just making up words.

Truly remarkable too is that the bulk of Smith's stories were written in a five-year period. It's a burst of creativity almost unrivaled in fantasy literature. Most of the stories he wrote after that burst were based on story ideas he recorded at the time in his Commonplace Book.

In this first volume of The Collected Fantasies from Night Shade Press, we see Smith emerge almost fully formed as a writer of weird prose. He's definitely still finding his voice and his way (and a market), but his first published story ("The Abominations of Yondo" (1926)) and second story composed is a small masterpiece of weird horror and an unnervingly altered future Earth. If Earth it truly is...


Contains the following stories and essays. All dates are publication, not composition -- the five volumes are arranged in order of composition: 

Note on bracketed categories:

Averoigne: Fictional, demon-haunted French province during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Zothique: The "last continent" of Earth, uncounted millions or billions of years in the future.
Hyperborea: The ancient civilized kingdoms of humanity prior to the last Ice Age.
Poseidonis: Last city of sinking Atlantis.

Cthulhu Mythos: A number of Smith's stories could be set within H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, especially those set during the time of Hyperborea and those featuring the dark god Tsathoggua. Well, and those mentioning Eibon or The Book of Eibon. Or Ubbo-Sathla. However, only those stories that are definitely Cthulhu Mythos stories are indicated.


Introduction by Ramsey Campbell
A Note on the Texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger

  1. To the Daemon (1943): Slight but telling prose poem.
  2. The Abominations of Yondo (1926): In this memorable story influenced by Lord Dunsany, Smith crafts his first essential tale, a weird and unsettling story set in some strange distant future.
  3. Sadastor (1930) : Slight but telling prose poem.
  4. The Ninth Skeleton (1928): Slight meditation on time.
  5. The Last Incantation  [Malygris] (1930): Short, pithy fantasy set in one of Smith's strange fictional realms not of our Earth (but certainly of his) introduces a mage who will return, Malygris. ESSENTIAL.
  6. The End of the Story  [Averoigne] (1930): Bleak tale of vampirism and desire is the first set in Smith's medieval French province of Averoigne. ESSENTIAL.
  7. The Phantoms of the Fire  (1930): Slight contemporary ghost story.
  8. A Night in Malnéant  (1933): A tale of mourning seemingly set in a nightmare almost seems like a dry run for a lot of Thomas Ligotti's work half-a-century later.
  9. The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake  (1931): Sight contemporary horror story.
  10. Thirteen Phantasms  (1936): Slight meditation on time and identity.
  11. The Venus of Azombeii (1931) : Slight African adventure of a Lost City/Tribe with some unfortunate racial elements and little fantastic content (really, none).
  12. The Tale of Satampra Zeiros : [Satampra Zeiros/ Hyperborea]  (1931): First tale of the prehistoric world of Hyperborea and the charming thief and raconteur Satampra Zeiros is also a sequel to a later Smith story, The Testament of Athammaus. ESSENTIAL.
  13. The Monster of the Prophecy  (1932): Colourful, slyly satiric planetary romance, the latter almost literally by the end.  ESSENTIAL.
  14. The Metamorphosis of the World  (1951): One of Smith's satiric broadsides at his contemporary science-fiction writers also reads as a straightforward apocalyptic piece of science fiction anticipating some of our own fears of climate change.
  15. The Epiphany of Death  (1934): Moody horror tale is also a nod to H.P. Lovecraft.
  16. A Murder in the Fourth Dimension  (1930): Slight but fun bit of contemporary science fiction.
  17. The Devotee of Evil  (1933): Contemporary horror plays with pseudoscience in its explanation for the existence of EVIL.  ESSENTIAL.
  18. The Satyr  [Averoigne]  (1931): Disturbing dark fantasy from monster-haunted Averoigne. ESSENTIAL.
  19. The Planet of the Dead  (1932): Melancholy science fantasy about a man who feels estranged from his own place and time, a recurring theme in Smith's stories.
  20. The Uncharted Isle  (1930): Clever piece of dimension-hopping science fiction. ESSENTIAL.
  21. Marooned in Andromeda  [Captain Volmar : 1]  (1930): First of Smith's three complete stories and one fragment about his oddball crew of space-faring adventurers and mutineers. The satire of his contemporary space opera writers is subtle until it suddenly isn't. First Smith story to feature dangerous plants.
  22. The Root of Ampoi (1949): Slight contemporary Lost City/Tribe story.
  23. The Necromantic Tale  (1931) : Slight dark fantasy tale of reincarnation and swapped minds.
  24. The Immeasurable Horror  (1931): Disturbing, horrifying science-fiction adventure set on and above Smith's nightmarishly lush Venus. ESSENTIAL.
  25. A Voyage to Sfanomoë  [Poseidonis]  (1931):  Science fantasy set as Atlantis falls takes us back to the nightmarishly lush Venus of  "The Immeasurable Horror."   Also, dangerous plants! ESSENTIAL.


Story Notes by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
"The Satyr":  Alternate Conclusion  [Averoigne]  (1931): The alternate ending to "The Satyr" is even more disturbing than the chosen ending.
From the Crypts of Memory : (1917) : poem by Clark Ashton Smith
Bibliography by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Golems and Bed-wetters

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) by Peter Ackroyd: Dan Leno was a real music-hall legend in England during the 1970's and 1880's. The Limehouse Golem is a fictional English serial killer created by Peter Ackroyd for this novel. 

That sort of sums up the balance between the historical and the fictional throughout Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, in which Karl Marx and George Gissing share the stage with fictional protagonist Elizabeth Cree, her husband, and an assortment of fictional police detectives, music-hall performers, and horrifyingly mutilated victims of The Golem.

Peter Ackroyd's many histories and biographies often cross the line between factual and fictional, or at least factual and speculative. This isn't a problem in a historical novel. Ackroyd structures Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem in both narrative and documentary terms. Some chapters follow key characters through third-person narration, sometimes 'panning back' to discuss things in broader historical and narrative terms. Elizabeth Cree narrates some chapters in first-person. Some chapters are the (fictional) court transcripts of Elizabeth's testimony. And some chapters purport to be the diary entries of the Limehouse Golem.

It may seem a bit post-modernist, but it all works together quite smoothly. Karl Marx and George Gissing illuminate some of the odder places and truths of Victorian London, including an early computer, the dance halls, and Gissing's own peculiar life. And in Elizabeth Cree, Ackroyd has created a compelling, unreliable narrator whose life's journey focuses the narrative on the poverty and pleasures of London -- especially the music-hall pleasures.

It's all something of a treat, albeit an often bleak and difficult one (though not as bleak and difficult as Ackroyd's Hawksmoor or The House of Dr. Dee -- compared to them, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is a warm-hearted romp. Be careful where you place your sympathies. And don't be fooled into thinking a baby Charlie Chaplin shows up. He doesn't. Ackroyd is messing with you. Highly recommended.


The Little Gift (2017) by Stephen Volk: Volk eschews the supernatural for the all-too-natural in this melancholy and chilling novella. An extra-marital affair leads to regrets and repercussions for a married man -- but not the sort of regrets and repercussions one might expect. You might call it a story about "Survivor's Relief." And you'd be right. Recommended.


The Bed-wetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee (2010) by Sarah Silverman: Published at what I guess was Peak Silverman, The Bed-wetter takes the reader through the first 40 years of the comedian's life in occasionally hilarious fashion. In the aftermath of the #Me Too movement, Silverman's portrait of the writer's room for The Sarah Silverman Program seems sort of icky, though. There just isn't as much comedy in the idea of men regularly wandering around with their balls out in a public space as there used to be. Lightly recommended.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

History Time

Darkest Hour (2017): written by Anthony McCarten; directed by Joe Wright; starring Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), Kristin Scott Thomas (Clemmie Churchill), Ben Mendelsohn (King George VI), Lily James (Elizabeth Layton), Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain), and Stephen Dillane (Viscount Halifax):

Old-fashioned, talky history picture got Gary Oldman and a whole lot of make-up and prosthetics a Best Actor Oscar for playing Winston Churchill. The film takes place over the course of a few weeks in 1940 during which Churchill becomes Prime Minister and is immediately faced with the dilemma of fighting or making peace with Nazi Germany while Germany's forces route the Allies on the continent. 

It's certainly rousing stuff of a certain type, historically inaccurate in certain pumped-up scenes of Yay Blighty. Oldman is excellent, or at least he's not recognizable as Gary Oldman much of the time, and the Academy loves that shit. One could literally start Dunkirk immediately after this movie ends and have an almost seamless four-hour movie from two different directors. Recommended.


A Brief History of Time (1992): written and directed by Errol Morris; starring Stephen Hawking and friends and family: Errol Morris' documentary weaves together the life of physicist Stephen Hawking with illustrations of his contributions to physics and the process of his thinking. It's enjoyable and informative, though I would have liked more physics. And maybe a couple less scenes from Disney's The Black Hole. Seriously. Recommended.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Post (2017)

The Post (2017): written by Josh Singer and Liz Hannah; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Meryl Streep (Kay Graham), Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), Sarah Paulson (Tony Bradlee), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Bradley Whitford (Arthur Parsons), Bruce Greenwood (Robert McNamara), Matthew Rhys (Daniel Ellsberg), Alison Brie (Lally Graham), and Carrie Coon (Meg Greenfield): 

Steven Spielberg pays homage to the specific (All the President's Men) and the general (the look and feel and film stock of 1970's films) in this solid, occasionally inspired take on the release of the Pentagon Papers by first the New York Times and then the Washington Post. Spielberg has also fashioned a paean to investigative journalism that is as timely as it is inspiring. 

The cast ticks along nicely, though I don't think Tom Hanks has quite the brash, Kennedy-style machismo of the real Ben Bradlee. Meryl Streep is terrific as Post owner Katherine Graham, finding her way and her voice in a world of mostly dismissive old white men. The film does a nice job of laying out the relevance of Daniel Ellsberg's release of what were soon dubbed The Pentagon Papers, the malignity of the Nixon White House, and the rumpled majesty of 1970's investigative journalists, especially Bob Odenkirk. It's not a great movie, but it is a good one. Recommended.

First Man (2018)

First Man (2018): adapted by Josh Singer from the book by James R. Hansen; directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong), Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong), Jason Clarke (Ed White), Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), and Corey Stoll (Buzz Aldrin): Sober, often brilliant biopic about Neil Armstrong from his days as a civilian test pilot to the lunar landing. 

The film is shockingly true to history, even to making Armstrong a closed-off, emotional cipher to his friends and family. But Armstrong's strength is his ability to work a problem in the middle of that problem, staying cool and (literally) calculating when things fall apart in the air, in orbit, or above the lunar surface. Ryan Gosling does about as good a job as an actor can do with a role this muted.

Damien Chazelle, late of La La Land, doesn't quite have the poetry (or the poetic license) of Phil Kaufman on The Right Stuff. But he does have an attention to detail and a rigor when it comes to presenting the realities of what things actually look like in space and on the lunar surface. 

Chazelle also sets up a tension between the cramped quarters of the vehicles and the wide-open spaces through which these vehicles hurl that is nothing less than inspired. He also manages an understated dread during the film's depiction of the Apollo 1 fire that suggests he should try a horror movie next.

The cast delivers throughout, with a special nod to Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, perpetually trying to draw Neil out emotionally. Corey Stoll is a hoot as the brash Buzz Aldrin, and Jaosn Clarke is excellent as Armstrong's closest friend in the Apollo program, Ed White. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Black Hole (1979)

The Black Hole (1979): written by Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Barbash, Richard H. Landau, and Gerry Day; directed by Gary Nelson; starring Maximilian Schell (Dr. Reinhart), Anthony Perkins (Dr. Durant), Robert Forster (Captain Holland), Joseph Bottoms (Lt. Pizer), Yvette Mimieux (Dr. McCrae), Ernest Borgnine (Harry Booth), Roddy McDowall (Voice of V.I.N.C.E.N.T.), and Slim Pickens (Voice of B.O.B.):

The Black Hole (1979) was Disney's $20 million reply to Star Wars. In the 22nd century, the Earth exploration ship stumbles across the giant Cygnus, an Earth vessel missing and presumed destroyed for 20 years. The Cygnus orbits the massive black hole that gives the movie its title.

Not as bad as I remember. You can tell how out of touch 1979 Disney was, though, by the fact that the movie mostly emulates two 1950's sci-fi epics, their own 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Forbidden Planet, rather than, you know, Star Wars. Except for the cute robots voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens. Their big eyes and squat shape makes them look like South Park's Eric Cartman. How's that for a distraction?

Well, and the final 10 minutes turn into a weird Christian allegory version of the trippy visuals sequence at the end of 2001. So to emulate the success of Star Wars, the people at Disney cobbled together a movie from two 1950's sci-fi epics and a Stanley Kubrick movie. This helps to explain why people in the film industry thought Disney had become increasingly out-of-touch with its audience since Walt died in the mid-1960's.

Nonetheless, the visual effects are very good. And the score by John Barry is so good that I realized I'd been humming portions of it for 39 years without remembering the source.

But the best thing is that Ernest Borgnine plays a shifty reporter. Why an expedition of four people and an annoying robot also needs Ernest Borgnine along... your guess is as good as mine.

Maximilian Schell chews the scenery as Professor Morbius... um, Captain Nemo... um, Dr. Reinhart! Anthony Perkins is suitably squirmy as an easily dazzled scientist. Robert Forster as the Captain of the Palamino and Yvette Mimieux and Joseph Bottoms as the other crew members... well, they showed up and they got paid. There's not a lot for them to do. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Big Red One (1980)

The Big Red One (1980): written and directed by Samuel Fuller; starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), and Kelly Ward (Johnson): Startling good and refreshingly plotless movie about World War Two and 'the Big Red One' -- the USA First Infantry. The movie basically follows the rubric of Sgt. Rock comic books by having its focal characters -- four callow G.I.'s and career sergeant Lee Marvin -- fight in every major European battle from 1943 Vichy-held North Africa (OK, not technically Europe) to the liberation of a death camp in Czechoslovakia in May 1945. 

The movie succeeds to a great extent because of Marvin's world-weary, sardonic, pragmatic, sorrowful sergeant, whom we open with in a B&W sequence at the conclusion of WWI. Mark Hamill gets second billing because of his Star Wars fame and is fine (and very young), but the main GI is narrator Robert Carradine, an aspiring pulp novelist. The youth and inexperience of the younger actors works in the movie's favour. 

Long-time director Samuel G. Fuller made a movie that remains a favourite of later directors that include Quentin Tarantino. The difference here is that violence is almost never shown -- its aftermath is, sometimes, and sometimes it's only implied. Nonetheless, there's a startling brutality to some sequences that gets the horrors of war across better than flying giblets, especially Fuller's depiction of the effects of explosions on people (hint: people don't fly through the air and then get up; mostly, they just scream and die). In all, I think this a great movie, war or otherwise, and should have secured Lee Marvin some sort of major acting prize. He's terrific, turning in a career-best performance. Highly recommended.

Per IMDB, "In 2004, film critic Richard Schickel restored this film to a new director's cut length of approximately 160 minutes. Using Samuel Fuller's production notes and the full-length, unexpurgated script, Schickel restored the footage that was forced to be cut by the studio upon its original 1980 release (which runs 116 minutes). The restored version's DVD release date is 3 May 2005. This longer, epic-length version is closer to Fuller's original vision for the film."

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Three Movies With Little In Common

Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018): directed by Susan Lacy: Fascinating HBO documentary about the life and times of Jane Fonda, clearly made with her full cooperation. It's not hagiographic, and Fonda is often the one to take the stuffing out of herself. Her troubled childhood, complete with a mentally ill, suicidal mother and the distant, philandering Henry Fonda as father, is perhaps the most closely observed part of the documentary. 

And I didn't know that all proceeds from the Jane Fonda Workout franchise went to charity -- that, indeed, the series was created for just that purpose. And the floating striptease in Barbarella was shot with Fonda lying on a glass floor. And here I thought she was on wires all these years. Recommended.


All Of Me (1984): adapted by Henry Olek and Phil Alden Robinson from the Ed Davis novel; directed by Carl Reiner; starring Steve Martin (Cobb), Lily Tomlin (Edwina Cutwater), Victoria Tennat (Terry), Richard Libertini (Prahka Lasa), Jason Bernard (Tyrone), and Dana Elcar (Schuyler): 

Brilliant, one-of-a-kind acting performance by Steve Martin with able support from Lily Tomlin. Martin plays a frustrated, unfulfilled lawyer who ends up with Tomlin's soul trapped in his body after a botched attempt at soul transference. Things progress from there, especially as Tomlin and Martin each controls one side of his body. 

This makes for inspired slapstick as they attempt to navigate walking, driving, using a urinal, and a variety of other tasks. A mostly sweet-natured movie, competently directed by veteran Carl Reiner with no visual flair whatsoever -- indeed, the opening titles make All of Me look like a TV movie. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Martin should at least have been nominated for a Best Acting Oscar for this one, but as we all know, the Academy hates comedy. Highly recommended.


Game Night (2018): written by Mark Perez; directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein; starring Jason Bateman (Max), Rachel McAdams (Annie), Kyle Chandler (Brooks), and Jesse Plemons (Gary): Adequate time-filler takes forever to set up its premise. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make an appealing couple, though the 10-year age gap makes it difficult to believe they met in college. Maybe Bateman was going back to school after 10 years in the work force. Oh, Hollywood! 

Kyle Chandler is weirdly miscast as Bateman's swashbuckling, risk-taking older brother. Cameos from Danny Huston, Jeffrey Wright, and Michael C. Hall are so perfunctory that they seem more like accidental walk-throughs. Sort of genial, anyway, and Jesse Plemons exudes comic menace as a sad, creepy cop neighbour. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Full Fathom Five For Fighting

Super 8 (2011): written and directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Jeff Courtney (Joe Lamb), Ryan Lee (Cary), Zach Mills (Preston), Riley Griffiths (Charlie), Kyle Chandler (Deputy Lamb), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), and Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard): Lightweight Spielberg homage from J.J. Abrams comes with the approval and cooperation of Spielberg himself. It's a lot like ET gene-spliced with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, and the South Park 'dream' episode in which the kids are trapped on a bus by a monster. Elle Fanning is distractingly wan and emaciated throughout. The kids are underwritten and overdetermined and not all that appealing. Not a terrible film, but so much of a pastiche it hardly seems to exist. Lightly recommended.


Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand (Mildred), Sam Rockwell (Dixon), and Woody Harrelson (Willoughby): Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell get lots of pithy dialogue and violent moments to earn their Best Acting Oscars (Lead Female and Supporting Actor, respectively) in this pungent NuTarantino offering from writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, 7 Psychopaths). It's not as good as you might expect from the awards, but it's certainly an actor's showcase of a certain sort. Recommended.


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): adapted by Philip Rapp, Everett Freeman, and Ken Englund from the story by James Thurber; directed by Norman Z. McLeod; starring Danny Kaye (Walter Mitty), Virginia Mayo (Osalind van Hoorn), Boris Karloff (Dr. Hugo Hollingshead), Fay Bainter (Walter's Mother), Ann Rutherford (Walter's Fiancee), and Thurston Hall (Bruce Pierce): A special edition that removes Danny Kaye's bafflingly popular patter songs from this movie would be super. James Thurber's short-short story gets pulled and twisted like taffy to accommodate a romantic plot involving Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. The movie's a lot of fun except for those patter songs. Boris Karloff is a delight as a menacing 'doctor.' Recommended.


Living in Oblivion (1995): written and directed by Tom DiCillo; starring Steve Buscemi (Nick Reve), Catherine Keener (Nicole Springer), Dermot Mulroney (Wolf), Danielle von Zerneck (Wanda), James Le Gros (Chad Palomino), Rica Martens (Cora), Peter Dinklage (Tito), and Kevin Corrigan (Assistant Camera): Witty look at Indy film-making remains fresh and exciting more than 20 years after its release. Everyone is good. The character of 'Chad Palamino' is not based on Brad Pitt, apparently, despite decades of rumors, but another young actor of 1995 whom writer-director Tom DiCillo refuses to name. Johnny Depp, maybe? A young Peter Dinklage has a show-stopper of a rant about the preponderance of dwarves in movie dream sequences. Highly recommended.


Emma (1996): adapted from the Jane Austen novel and directed by Douglas McGrath; starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma), Greta Scacchi (Mrs. Weston), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton), Sophie Thompson (Miss Bates), Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates), Jeremy Northam (Mr. Knightley), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith), and Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill):  In and around the fictional English village of Highbury and the surrounding estates, romance is blooming in the second decade of the 19th century. Or at least it's brewing inside 21-year-old busybody matchmaker Emma's head. Gwyneth Paltrow is very sparkly and glowy as Emma, while the supporting cast is solid and witty throughout. Well, maybe except for Ewan McGregor, hot off Trainspotting. McGregor admitted later that the part was outside his range and not helped by a terrible wig. Oh, well. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Gun Machine (2013) by Warren Ellis

Gun Machine (2013) by Warren Ellis: Warren Ellis, a long-time comic-book writer (Transmetropolitan, The Authority, and Planetary, among many others) and acerbic futurist, creates one hell of a smart Pop detective thriller here. 

Lonely, burned-out, never-was NYPD detective John Tallow starts Gun Machine with a bad day that quickly gets worse. The violent events of the first few pages open a door into a secret Manhattan world of murder and weird maps. And guns. Lots of guns. Hundreds of guns from flintlocks to modern, near-metal-less handguns. An otherwise empty apartment filled with guns arranged into a mysterious, incomplete pattern. And every gun attached to either an unsolved murder or a murder now known to be incorrectly solved.

Tallow's detective instincts get jump-started by this room of mystery, especially after the case is dumped on him  because the NYPD not-so-secretly wants Tallow to fail and the cases to vanish as quickly as possible. A bad detective gets born again, though that rebirth may be short-lived. Conspiracies of power don't want the secret of the guns solved.

Ellis' prose is as pungent and cynical as ever, densely packed with information. The plot rockets along. Tallow and the other characters are sharply drawn. Sharply drawn, too, is our attention to the secret maps of Manhattan which Tallow discovers. A financial map based on the time it takes for financial offices to communicate with Wall Street. A map of gun crimes in Manhattan and the other boroughs. And the map the killer carries in his head, of Manhattan before Europeans came, a map that still surfaces in surprising places in the postmodern landscape.

It's a dark romp that engages with social and technological questions as it zips along, dialogue crackling and sparking, the narrative casting a cold eye on the modes of NYPD evidence collection, the surveillance state, the technical specifications of guns used in famous murders, the difficulty of parking in New York, the meaning of Occupy Wall Street, the malign rise of private policing, the dangers of too much exercise, an assortment of Native American tribes and rituals, and the politics of the police bureaucracy. 

Gun Machine is too densely packed to make a great movie, but it would make one hell of an HBO miniseries. Highly recommended.