Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Stress Of Her Regard


If there is a greater living fantasy writer than Tim Powers, I’m not aware of who it is. In books like his masterpiece Last Call, he deftly mixes documented historical events with his own creations, and does it so well you are convinced the mundane, conventional explanation for events must be wrong.

The Stress Of Her Regard
(title taken from a Clark Ashton Smith poem) is one such novel, set in the early days of the 19th century. An English doctor named Michael Crawford is getting married for a second time, after the tragic death of his first wife in a fire. His happiness turns to horror when an apparition appears on his wedding night and viciously slaughters his new bride. As the only suspect in the murder, Crawford is forced to flee, and a turn of events causes him to fall in with the Romantic Poets, Byron, Shelley and Keats. It turns out they are similarly afflicted, and explain to Crawford he has attracted the attention of a lamia, a vampire-like spirit descended from Lilith, which will protect him but bring disaster to those he loves.

Aided by the poets, and other historical figures such as Mary Shelley, Dr. Polidori and Francois Villon, Crawford journeys to the Swiss Alps, where all involved struggle to end the curse of the lamia. And the struggle brings high cost indeed.

As usual, Powers is able to weave alternate explanations of historical events into the store to create an astounding level of verisimilitude. (The book’s explanation for John Keat’s strange epitaph particularly sticks in my mind.) To read Powers is to become immersed in an alternate that seems more real than our own. By the time you are at the end of the book, you will be almost convinced these mythological creatures actually exist. I recommend this book to any reader, whether this sort of thing is to your normal taste or not.

The Stress Of Her Regard
was originally published in 1989, and was an immediate critical success, winning the World Fantasy Award and numerous others. Due to the vagaries of the publishing industry, it has been out of print since 1994. It is scheduled to be reprinted in an affordable trade paperback ($14.95) by Tachyon Publications. It is now available for preorder, and orders may be placed through the Tachyon Publications website. The book features gorgeous cover art by Ann Monn.

Friday, July 25, 2008

H.P. Lovecraft's The Tomb


Here’s a plot for you, see if you can guess the title: A mysterious “puzzlemaster” kidnaps people guilty of not living their lives to the fullest, then imprisons them in diabolical traps. If they prove themselves worthy of a second chance, they defeat the trap and live. If not, they die. The puzzlemaster communicates with them through videotape and closed-circuit TV, masking his identity by using a garishly painted puppet to speak through. What? You answered Saw? How could you not know this is the plot for the classic H. P. Lovecraft story “The Tomb”?

Probably because you’ve read the short story, which is basically Lovecraft’s riff on the same subject matter as Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Premature Burial”. It is only in the egregious offense to decency called H. P. Lovecraft’s The Tomb that the above synopsis fits. It is a terrible movie with a plot stolen from the Saw movies, although all it accomplishes is making you appreciate Saw a whole lot more. Here, all you really want is for the victims to die.

This is a pet peeve of mine, which I’ve written about on another site. A producer gets the rights to use a story, and then throws away everything except the title and the author’s name. Masters of Horror did this recently with Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing (it’s a great story, truly a classic, but is Ambrose Bierce truly popular enough today to draw a crowd?), and innumerable companies have done it to Lovecraft. This is a bizarre marketing strategy, since it seems you’re trying to lure Lovecraft fans to your movie, but the very people you’re directing the campaign toward will be pissed at being tricked. I don’t get it.

There is a feeble attempt to tie the story to Lovecraft, as the puzzlemaster used different alter egos with names from Lovecraft’s stories when he interacted with his victims before their ordeal (Hi. I’m Eric Zann. Want to hear some music?). Fortunately, one of the trapped nitwits formerly dated a girl who kept a copy of a Lovecraft book by the bed, so he’s able to figure this out, although the realization doesn’t gain them anything, since it isn’t tied to anything else.

Oh, and the victims are imprisoned in a warehouse filled with tools to complete their tasks, while in the background you can see light through the windows which lead to the outside world. I kept yelling at the screen, “Use a hammer and break the window! You’re on the ground floor.” before switching to “Die, die, die!” toward the end.

Please, for the love of Cthulhu, avoid this horror of a film.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lot Lizards


The term lot lizard, for those who might retain some innocence, refers to the particularly skanky type of prostitute who hangs out in lots where truck drivers park their rigs for the night. They are usually ladies who would not quite be competitive with the average street-corner hooker. They go from rig to rig, knocking on cab doors until they find a truly desperate driver with no fear of STDs. Now, if Mom asks if you ever learn anything on the internet, you can tell her about this.

In his classic novel Live Girls, author Ray Garton introduced the concept of vampires working as Times Square hookers, and here, he uses the lot lizard culture to similar effect. Bill Ketter is a long-haul trucker who succumbs to temptation and invites a particularly good-looking lizard into his cab, although he doesn’t get exactly what he bargained for (except in the most literal sense, if you catch my drift) when the lady falls on him and bites his neck. He briefly loses consciousness, and awakes just in time to see a black truck leave the lot. In the aftermath, he finds he has an aversion to sunlight, and is asking waiters to hold the garlic, please. A little research reveals the vampires travel around the country, from lot to lot, in two black rigs, driven by well-compensated humans. Ketter begins to chase them, to prevent anyone else from ending up with his affliction.

This chase culminates in a snowed-in truckstop, where the vampires are forced into the open, and a struggle to the death commences between the fangy types and the trapped humans inside the stop’s restaurant. It is somewhat similar in this section to 30 Days of Night, which it preceded by over ten years (Lot Lizards was published in 1991).

Lot Lizards is a fairly short novel (188 pages) and moves with a quick, action-filled pace. Garton always handles this sort of thing well, and he doesn’t disappoint here. There is one coincidence that strains credulity (Ketter’s abandoned family is among those trapped in the diner), but you just go with it. If you liked Live Girls, you should check it out (and if you haven’t read Live Girls, you should read that one). The ending sets up a sequel, although in the seventeen years since publication, nothing has turned up yet.

Happy Hell Night


When Halloween was released in 1978, and became amazingly profitable, it unleashed a flood of slasher films that took years to ebb, most of them poorly put together, pale imitations of the original. (Around 1980, I remember a local multiplex showing five slasher movies out of its eight screens, which is overload even for someone who likes such things). In 1992 (the official release date, although fashion in the movie suggests it may have been made several years before), at the very end of the trend, came Happy Hell Night, sometimes known by the even worse title Frat Fright. The movie scores a respectable 5.1/10 on imdb (horror movies seem to score a little lower than most others; 5.1 sometimes is a good movie) although I wasn’t that impressed.

The movie takes place at Winfield College in upstate New York, where everyone speaks with a Bronx accent (It was shot in Yugoslavia). Twenty-five years earlier, there had been at incident at the college where seven students had been hacked to death by a psycho, although no one at the school knows about this, which seems improbable. The killer, a creepy if slight bald-headed dude with black eyes, has spent the years since in an asylum.

In the present-day, a fraternity of thirty-something freshmen (a pet peeve of mine: I understand that older actors are sometimes cast as teens, but it would be nice to avoid those with bald spots and receding hairlines. Or have them wear a cap.) is planning its initiation of new pledges. There is a contest every year for the “most dangerous pledging ritual”, which indicates Winfield College was founded by trial lawyers. This year, the aging students learn of the campus tragedy just in time to come up with a great pledging stunt: Have their pledges break into the asylum to get their picture made with the killer psycho. No way anything could go wrong with that.

In short order, a pair of intrepid dimwits have burgled the looney bin, and surprisingly, the bald headed psycho escapes, going right back to his life’s work of slaughtering everyone he meets. As a distinguishing character trait, every time he kills someone, he says a two-word phrase, the first word of which is always “no”, as in “no tv”, “no noise”, “no fucking”, and “no sex” (he’s trying not to be redundant). This isn’t as clever as the filmmakers intended it to be. For a distinctive weapon, he snags a mountaineer’s ice axe, and goes to town with it.

There follows the requisite slaughter, until the three survivors get together to perform an exorcism (the killer has supernatural origins). All in all, it struck me as tired and badly dated, and for the most part badly acted. A glance at imdb reveals this was the final role for much of the cast, and that may not be a coincidence. The biggest thrill in watching the movie comes from trying to catch which shot was lifted from which movie. This one’s from Halloween, that one’s from Hellraiser

The big name in the cast is Kolchak himself, Darren McGavin. While he is a very watchable actor, his role is very small, and probably was filmed in a day or so. The movie also has small roles for before-they-were-semi-famous Sam Rockwell and Jorja Fox. In an example of sic transit gloria mundi, they are featured on the boxcover despite their small roles, while the now-forgotten “stars” of the film aren’t mentioned at all.

Frankenstein Created Woman


I grew up on a steady late-night TV diet of horror films produced by Hammer Studios in England. To me, the lurid exploits of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were the epitome of great entertainment. The movies were also educational; for instance it was in watching their vampire films that I learned of the irresistible attraction large-bosomed ladies in low-cut dresses have for the fangy set. So, ladies, if you live in vampire country, might want to re-think those implants. Anyway, DVD has given me a chance to re-visit these childhood flicks, and the most recent one I watched was Frankenstein Created Woman. (At least we now know who to thank…and blame)

Frankenstein Created Woman
(1967) was Peter Cushing’s fourth (of six) outings as the nefarious Doctor Frankenstein. Poor guy. Time and time again, he would create a living creature out of left-over parts, only to have it run amok, reap havoc on the countryside, and then be destroyed by disgruntled villagers. Still, he was a persistent chap, and in this one, he seems to have thought it was possibly the raging testosterone that was the problem, and decided to go the distaff route.

The movie opens, like all good movies, with a hanging. The condemned guy goes to the gallows with surprising good spirits, considering he knows he won’t be going back with the group. This attitude changes when he realizes his young son Anton has shown up to watch the show. Despite his pleadings, the boy watches Dad drop through the trapdoor. You know, that could scar a kid.

Flash forward to the child’s adulthood, where he has become the assistant to, you guessed, Dr. Frankenstein. Morbid stuff doesn’t bother him. He is also having an affair with the local innkeeper’s daughter, who, due either to an injury or a birth defect, walks with a limp, and has one side of her face disfigured. Anton loves her anyway, which demonstrates he is a good guy at heart, and that he is doomed. He is also at odds with the local trio of callow well-born fops. He brawls with them at the inn, and beats them all, because he is pure of heart and they are all poofy. Later that night, while he is getting his freak on with the innkeeper’s daughter, the fops break into the inn, and kill the innkeeper when he surprises them. Naturally, Anton gets the blame.

Anton is quickly tried and found guilty, unwilling to say where he was when the murder occurred to protect his girlfriend who is now out of town. In the end, Anton is hanged on the very same gallows as his father (IRONY). His girlfriend arrives back in town just in time to witness the neck-stretching, and becomes distraught. What shall she do? Apparently, she just saw Hamlet, because she throws herself into the stream and drowns.

Meanwhile, Dr. Frank, never one to let an opportunity go to waste, digs up his erstwhile assistant, and removes the brain. Now, all he needs is a body….which is where the drowned girl comes in. Before you can say Yikes! The brain of his male assistant awakes (with amnesia) in the body of a beautiful girl. This sort of gender switching would be explored more explicitly five years later by Hammer in Dr. Jeckyl & Sister Hyde, and none of the usual male reactions in this situation are present (Dear Diary: Day 12, still looking at naked self in mirror. Growing weak with hunger.). Instead, buried memories of the fops who wronged him emerge, and the new girl seduces and then kills the three fops. This is done fairly demurely, as Last House on the Left is also a few years away.

These gothic romps are always fun, if you are so inclined, and Frankenstein Created Woman is a good one, made better by the presence of Cushing. It has come under some fire for presenting a more metaphysical explanation for the rebirth, and there is much talk of souls, rather than the abstract chemical processes found in some other films in the series. My take is if you are seeking theological guidance in Frankenstein films, you are one strange dude or dudette.

Incidentally, Martin Scorcese lists Frankenstein Created Woman as one of his favorite films. Seriously.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Chop Shop Horror


A friend, Kent Gowran, has announced the eminent launch of a new on-line horror magazine, Chop Shop Horror. It will feature original fiction, and concentrate on "old-school" horror. As Kent is a man of (nearly) impeccable taste, and a talented writer himself, this should become a mandatory destination for fans of horror fiction. More details as they emerge.

Blogging For A Good Cause

From Matt Staggs, here is info about Shira Lipkin's "blogathon" to benefit the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. This seems like an awfully good cause, so if you are in the are, check it out.

From Shira Lipkin:

"I'm doing a blogathon this Saturday, July 26 - posting to my
LiveJournal every half hour for 24 hours to raise money for the Boston
Area Rape Crisis Center. This is my sixth year blogathonning, and I
write spontaneous short fiction every year. It usually tends to have
an urban fantasy bent (as in fantasy in a city, not paranormal
romance), but this year, I'm taking a distinctly SF angle on it. For
24 hours, I'll be in character as a xenoarchaeologist, trying to make
sense of precollapse Earth... with the help of over 50 artists who
donated "artifacts" to this project, including a few SF/F authors
themselves. All artifacts are being auctioned, with a story card.

It all goes down here: http://shadesong.livejournal.com
And the auctions are here: http://search.ebay.com/_W0QQsassZshadesong

And there's a lot more info on my LJ about why I do this, and why BARCC."

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Choir Of Ill Children


Set in the fictitious Southern town of Kingdom Come, A Choir of Ill Children is a good example of modern Southern gothic. Thomas is the richest inhabitant of a town filled with eccentrics and grotesques. He is also the caretaker for his three brothers, conjoined triplets who share one common brain. His life is further complicated by his best friend being a nudist overly possessed of the Holy Spirit, while the local “granny witches” make demands on him in the belief he has some supernatural powers. A drug-addicted cameraman is trying to make a documentary about his brothers, and children are being killed, their bodies left on a local sacrificial rock. And someone is going around kicking dogs with a size twelve shoe.

Piccirilli has a great command of language. Time and again, I stopped to re-read and savor his phrasing, and his eloquent descriptive abilities. The characters he has created are vivid and exceptional. Anyone who loves good writing should read this.

If the book has a flaw, it is there is too little plot to support these wonderful characters. Incident s seem to be more vignette that plot or subplot, and the lack of focus makes it a bit wearying before it ends. Still, Piccirilli has major talent, and there are rewards here for anyone who reads the book.

Automaton Transfusion


You try to have a little more leniency when you’re discussing a really low budget film. Michael Bay may be able to solve a plot problem by just blowing shit up, but the guy who is financing his movie with his MasterCard can’t. One of the lowest of the low budget films I have seen lately is Automaton Transfusion, shot for a reported $30,000 in Orlando, Florida. And no, although I watched the movie and most of the extras on the DVD, I don’t know what the title means. If anyone out there does know, I would appreciate enlightenment.

Automaton Transfusion is your basic zombie movie, set among high school kids played by actors who look even older than usual. Here’s the plot: Suddenly there are zombies, and they run amok, eating people. Our three main characters, Nerd, Bad Haircut Guy, and Out of Place Black Guy, attempt to get away from them. That’s pretty much it. Some people get eaten, a few don’t. Near the end of the movie they run into Exposition Guy, who explains everything that’s happening, although the explanation is so lame it would have been better to keep it a mystery. (For example, the janitor at the high school turns out to be an undercover U.S. Army General. Really. He is Exposition Guy, by the way.) The movie ends when TO BE CONTINUED flashes on the screen.

That’s right. This nearly plotless movie is supposed to be the first of a trilogy, so there really isn’t an end. Hell, even George Lucas had a climax at the end of the first/fourth Star Wars.

There are some good things about the flick. The acting is pretty good for a low budget film, and there’s no truly wooden acting among the bunch. And if gore is all you’re really interested in, the gore effects are quite good, and very over-the-top. The fetus scene certainly breaks new ground.

The biggest problem is the almost total lack of characterization. According to the screenwriter, this is more or less deliberate. He states on the making-of featurette that no one wants to see boring dialogue scenes. Maybe not, but if you want an audience to care about whether a character lives or dies, you’ve got to let them get to know the characters first. No one cares that much if cardboard gets chewed up.

There are also some technical issues with the DVD. It is presented in extremely wide screen, for no reason, so much so that I felt I was watching a movie through the crack under a door. There is also a herky jerky nature to motion in the movie. I am completely lost with technical issues, but I’d guess it was shot at 24 fp, and they failed to correct it during the editing process.

Recommended only for hardcore zombie-gore junkies.

The Long Last Call


The Long Last Call is the first thing I’ve read in a long time from John Skipp, who, along with his then-collaborator, was one of the leaders of the “Splatterpunk” movement in the 80s. The splatterpunks were writers who pushed the boundaries of horror to produce fiction that was much more extreme in its depiction of sex and violence than most of the work of the time, and generally had more urban settings than the conventional horror of the time. The movement itself generally collapsed, although many of those involved have gone on to good careers, including Joe Lansdale, Ray Garton and David Schow.

The Long Last Call
is a story set in a fairly sleazy strip club right at closing time. Among the patrons is a man (or is he?) who is there to release the evil inside the performers, and wage a war against good.

This is not the deepest of stories. The struggle of Good vs. Evil is an old motif, and not much new is covered here. But it is extremely well written. Skipp has an excellent narrative flow, and I read the whole thing in one sitting (it isn’t that long). He also does a great job of capturing the desperation of both performers and patrons. (A personal note: Although I haven’t been in one in a few years I have visited a few strip joints, and I find them to be incredibly depressing places. On at least half of my visits, a girl danced to “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd, a song about a performer who has to get stoned in order to go on stage. I found this unnerving.) Although as I said, I thought it wasn’t that original in its slight plot, I did enjoy it, and I would recommend it. I’m looking forward to Mr. Skipp trying his hand again at longer work.

My edition of the book was from Cemetery Dance, and is as usual, a handsome volume, although those who buy the Leisure paperback instead get a bonus novella, Conscience. The book includes an introduction by Brian Keene.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gabriel


It’s easy to write a review of a movie you love. It’s also pretty easy to write a review of a movie you think is awesomely bad (there are more of those), as long as you’re the kind of bastard who doesn’t mind maligning the work of people better then you (Hi!). The movie that’s harder to tackle is one that has some good qualities, struggles with budgetary restrictions, has some good ideas, but ultimately fails.

The name of the latest of these movies is Gabriel.

In an unidentified city, a war is being waged between Light and Darkness, in the persons of the Archangels (Gabriel, Michael, etc.) and the Fallen Angels. Whoever wins will… cause their side to win, I guess. The good and bad angels descend/ascend to the city in the form of humans with great powers, and fight to the death with guns and martial arts. This makes no sense, but I think the filmmakers were going for a mixture of Equilibrium and Nightwatch. The last (more or less) Archangel is Gabriel (hence the title) and he must outgun the bad guys so the sun will come out again.

The movie had even more problems with the budget than most indie films (according to the special features), but god, is it slow. The basic formula of the movie is: something happens. The good guys talk about it for a while. Then the bad guys talk about it for a while (ending with the main bad guy threatening his subordinate, every time, to remind you he’s a badass). Then the cycle repeats. Everyone talks so much the movie runs over 110 minutes, when it would have been more effective at 80 or so.

The photography is very good, and the entire movie has a nice, artistic look. The actors are all Australians, and they struggle too much trying to maintain a neutral, American-ish accent. They should have just inserted a comment that divine beings are all Antipodean, and not worried about it. The main bad guy wears some very funky contacts, which are actually distracting, as I spent most of my time wondering how much they hurt.

On the whole, a good try, but not a good movie. The writer isn’t Shakespeare, Tarantino or Mamet, so enough with the dialogue, already.

The Ruins


One of the better books I read during the 90s was Scott Smith’s debut novel, A Simple Plan. It took him around fifteen years to publish his second, The Ruins. Maybe no novel could live up to that much buildup, but The Ruins disappointed me greatly. It seemed overlong, and I thought in the end, it didn’t go anywhere. So I was less than enthusiastic with word The Ruins was being turned into a movie. Since there is a general rule that good books get destroyed by movies, I couldn’t imagine what would be done with a book I didn’t like.

The story focuses on four American early-twenty-somethings, on vacation in Mexico. A new German acquaintance invites them along to visit his brother at the site of an archaeology dig, and the bored Americans go with him. They find a Mayan pyramid, and become trapped there when the local indios won’t let them leave. Apparently, a near-sentient, carnivorous plant grows on the pyramid (this doesn’t play out as stupid as it sounds), and the locals are willing to kill to keep it from spreading. The trapped kids have to find a way out before they become plant food.

Maybe this is some sort of inverse rule, where bad novels are turned into better movies. Although it isn’t a great movie, compressing the action of the book into an average length movie serves to heighten the suspense (Smith wrote his own adaptation of the book, so give him the credit. With the exception of the whiney, moronic Amy (who believes if they tell the Indians, who have already shot one of their party to death, that one of them is injured, they’ll allow the vacationers to leave), the cast is believable and mostly sympathetic. And the ending of the book, which I hated, has been changed to something much more appropriate.

A surprisingly effective movie, well worth a rental.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army


BW and I got a chance to see the new Hellboy movie last Sunday. We are big fans of the first one, so this had been much anticipated. Unfortunately, an early exposure to EA Sports NHL 09 left me sleep-deprived at the time of the showing, but we were committed to seeing it anyway.
The entire cast returns from the first movie, with the exception of Rupert Evans, who played Agent Myers. Evans was unavailable due to a prior commitment, so his absence is explained by a couple of lines stating he was transferred to Antarctica at Hellboy’s request. The cast was perfect in the first one, so it’s good to see them back. Ron Perlman as Hellboy may be the most appropriate casting in the history of movies. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine a Hellboy movie without him.
Long ago, the mythical world was at war with the real world. The mythical world had gained the upper hand with the creation of the Golden Army, 4900 indestructible creatures bound to obey any royal personage who wore the controlling crown. King Balor (Roy Dotrice) used this army to crush the humans, but was dismayed at the death and destruction. To put an end to it, he engineered a truce, one that has held for centuries.
But man’s expansion has encroached on the realm of the magical, and Balor’s son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wishes to raise the army again to restore balance between humanity and myth. It’s up to Hellboy and the rest of the B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) to stop Nuada’s plans and prevent the Golden Army from rising again.
As I said before, the casting is near perfect, and the script sparkles with humor. Director Guillermo del Toro has continued to expand the palate of his imagination after his award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth, and the kingdom of Balor is filled with strange and wondrous creatures. It’s also good to see Abe Sapien have a slightly larger role at the climax of this movie.
However, I don’t feel it is quite as good as the first one, and ironically for a movie about a war to restore balance, the reason is an imbalance between good and evil. One of the necessities of a superhero movie is to come up with a villain powerful enough and evil enough to oppose him. Rasputin worked well in the first movie, and the fact that he needed Hellboy to carry out his scheme helped bring the movie together. Nuada is a fascinating creature, but he doesn’t seem strong enough to fight the B.P.R.D., and his motivations are more sympathetic.
Also, in the first movie, the voice of Abe Sapien was provided by David Hyde-Pierce, and in this one, Doug Jones (who plays Abe) provides the voice. Jones does well, but Hyde-Pierce’s effete voice suited Abe perfectly.
To sum it up, this is a good movie, in my opinion, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in this sort of thing. But it falls short of the first one.
I will be eager to see the hoped-for third installment, however.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales






Here’s another book that I read because of Hypericon. Before I get into the meat of it, a little background on acquiring it. I met the author, Fran Friel, the first day of the convention. She is as nice and sweet a person as you could ever meet; I doubt if anyone would say an unkind word about her. I decided there was no point in buying her collection of short stories, Mama’s Boy and Other Dark Tales. Anyone who is that cheerful and kind probably writes stories about sweet little fairies and children who play with puppies, right? So I bypassed the stack of Mama’s Boy at the Apex table.

The first reading I went to was a mass affair, with Laura Anne Gilman, Ron Kelly, Steven Shrewsbury, James Newman, Deborah LeBlanc, and Ms. Friel. My notion of what Ms. Friel’s writing would be liked changed when she read her story “Gravy” from the collection. It’s a twisted take on a man’s obsessive pursuit of the perfect gravy, with a nice Hitchcockian ending. Both the story and the performance were fabulous (if you would like to see for yourself, I urge you to see the video of the event at my friend John Hornor Jacob’s site), and the next day, at the charitable auction, I turned in the high bid on the book, along with a print of the cover art.
This was a wise decision on my part, because this is a superb collection, one that’s sure to be on the short list for the major awards later in the year. Apparently the reason Ms. Friel is such a good person is she exorcises her demons through her very dark stories.

The collection starts off well with “Beach of Dreams”, a very surrealistic story that starts off with monsters washing up on the beach of a Pacific Isle, and captures the chaotic nature of the dream-state better than anything I have ever read. After that comes the afore-mentioned “Gravy”, and then a story called “Mashed”, where Friel turns something as ridiculous as a fear of potatoes into a classic horror story.

“The Sea Orphan” is, of all things, a pirate story. This is the first piece in the book I can criticize: It should have been a novel. I got so wrapped up in the characters, I wanted to know what happened afterwards. A gripping story. “Orange and Gold” is a non-supernatural short-short I found heartbreaking (I love mutts), and “Under The Dryer” extends the theme as a brave dog fights to save his family.
The shortest story in the collection is “Close Shave”, a shiver-inducing 55 words, while the second longest is “Fine Print”, a nice tale about a man who unwisely signs a contract without reading it.

The highlight of this great collection is the title piece, the novella “Mama’s Boy”, which was nominated for a Stoker Award, and very deservedly so. It’s a roughly hundred page story about a young psychiatrist interviewing a serial killer about his crimes, including his deviant relationship with his own mother. Ms. Friel is unafraid to take the story to the ultimate in depravity. It’s destined to be a classic.

Gary Braunbeck does a better job of it in his introduction to the book (of course), but I’ll say a word about the structure of the collection. I can’t remember when I’ve read a collection of short stories where the stories flowed so organically from one to the other. Long pieces to flash fiction, each story launches from the previous one.

This is not a collection to be missed. It is destined to take its place among the finer horror collections ever published, and you can pick up a copy through The Horror Mall or from Apex Publications.

The book closes with the author’s comments on each story, a feature I always find fascinating.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Woods Are Dark


Although he has never been as well known outside the horror genre as Stephen King or Dean Koontz, Richard Laymon has always been a big name to horror fans. Unfortunately, due to his lack of crossover appeal, Many of Laymon’s books have been out-of-print for quite a while, and some were never published in the United States. Laymon, who died young of a heart attack in 2001, believed partial responsibility for this lay in the treatment of his second novel, The Woods Are Dark.

In was 1981, at the early beginnings of the horror boom. Stephen King had become widely popular, and publishing houses were looking for horror writers to cash in on the surge in the genre’s popularity. Richard Laymon was one of these writers. He published his first book, The Cellar, in 1980, and felt the follow-up, The Woods Are Dark, would be the book that found a broader audience. But when he delivered the manuscript to Warner Books, they wanted drastic changes made, to lessen the amount of sex and violence. Although Laymon disagreed, he was young and went along with the re-write, all the while feeling it weakened the store. When the second proof was delivered, he was horrified to find the book had been re-written and butchered by someone connected with Warners. Subplots were destroyed, the timeline was tangled and there were many mistakes. Warners also told him it was too late to make further changes. Then they slapped a hideous foil cover on the book and released it, and it promptly flopped. Laymon’s career never regained its momentum in the United States (although he was big in the United Kingdom), and for the rest of his life he was a cult author.

Laymon always said the original version of The Woods Are Dark could never be recovered or re-written, that the material that comprised it was too scattered or destroyed. After his death, however, his daughter Kelly undertook the task of piecing together the original manuscript, finding pages in various places and assembling it like a jigsaw puzzle. At the same time, Leisure Books was in the process of re-publishing Laymon’s work. Everything came together at the right time, and this month, Leisure published Kelly Laymon’s reconstruction of The Woods Are Dark, the first mass publication for the American market.

The Woods Are Dark was an ideal follow-up for the Cellar, as it carries over many of the same themes. Travelers come to a creepy small town in California, are abducted by the locals (who are all in on it), and taken out into the woods, where they are eaten by a tribe of feral people called the Krulls. These periodic sacrifices keep the Krulls from troubling the townspeople.

In the book, two separate groups, two girls traveling together, and a family, are kidnapped and tied to trees in the woods. Before they can meet their fate, they are freed, and embark on a harrowing attempt at escape through the dark woods. The entire book takes place over the course of one night, a favorite device of Laymon’s, and the action is non-stop from beginning to end. There are a couple of instances where characters behave illogically, but that isn’t enough to lessen the suspense.

If you are a Laymon fan, you’ll definitely want to read this. If you aren’t, this would be a good place to start.

Beowulf


Like a lot of former liberal arts majors, I retain an admiration for the classics, even though it has been many reasons since I’ve read most of them. So I was interested in seeing Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture animation production of Beowulf, figuring it would be a grand epic story, at any rate. I was doomed to disappointment.

The first glaring quality is the animation. It just isn’t that polished. Why go through all the trouble to use motion capture technology when the movie is going to turn out looking like a cartoon anyway? I kept expecting Shrek to show up.

The second is a general discard of the original storyline. Although the film was written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, both of whom I admire, this was a mistake. If the story’s good enough to hang around over a millennia, it probably has something that works. Obscure parts of the story are emphasized, others are omitted, and others are changed. Instead of fighting Grendel’s mother, Beowulf screws her, then has to deal with her offspring. I understand the temptation with Grendel’s mom is Angelina Jolie, but come on. You’re boinking a demon.

The biggest change was in Beowulf’s character. Zemeckis says in an extra that Beowulf was a two-dimensional hero in the original, but that’s the point. Here, Beowulf (sort of played by Ray Winstone) is depicted as a sort of braggart, who is unlikely to have performed the feats he claims, and who falsely takes credit for killing Grendel’s mother.

There is also a laughable scene where Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude – which means that objects have to be strategically placed in order to spare us the sight of little Beowulf. If you didn’t want to show nudity, have him leave his clothes on.

If you want a better telling of the Beowulf saga, check out John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior. It has a much more logical explanation for why it deviates from the traditional telling, and does a better job of capturing the character of Beowulf.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

People Are Strange


One of the real joys in associating with the horror community online is getting turned on to a new writer who is going to be a big thing. There is a thrill associated with knowing the work of a soon-to-be-successful writer before he catches on big time. One of these writers is James Newman, and the first thing of his I’ve read is People Are Strange, his new collection of short stories.

There are nine stories in this book, and there isn’t a weak one in the bunch. My two favorites are the bookends, “The Honest-To-God True Story of Earl P. and a Bug Called Abraham Lincoln” and “Holy Rollers.” Newman shows a strong Joe Lansdale influence (that’s a good thing) and “The Honest-To-God True Story of Earl P. and a Bug Called Abraham Lincoln”, in which a fly claiming to be the reincarnation of Abe Lincoln convinces Earl to carry out a bit of retribution, is where it is most apparent. The story has a Lansdaleesque type of sick humor, and had me laughing out loud. Everybody ought to read this one. “Holy Rollers” gives us a grim story about a visit from some truly persistent door-to-door evangelists, illustrating that I was right when I rigged the yard sprinklers to hit the front door, and put the switch just inside the door. There’s some finely handled suspense in this tale.

Here is the full table of contents:
Introduction by Jeff Strand
- The Honest-To-God True Story of Earl P. and a Bug Called Abraham Lincoln
- The Good, the Bad, and the Severely Maladjusted
- Your Cold, Black Heart
- The Tell-Tale Fart (A Parody)
- Bless This Meal, O Lord
- Suffer the Children
- Keeping Up With the Joneses
- A Town Called Hatred
- Holy Rollers (Novella)
- Holy Rollers: The Graphic Novel Art by Keith Minnion (sneak peek at a project that never was)


As a DVD-type bonus feature, a couple of pages from an aborted comic book adaptation are included at the end of the book, giving us a sense of what might have been.

Although he may be influenced by Lansdale, Newman has his own voice, and it’s a good one. People Are Strange is available in very limited quantities, so you should order one from The Horror Mall or Croatoan Publishing today.

On a related note, Newman read the beginning of his forthcoming novella The Forum (due soon from Cemetery Dance) and it is no understatement to say he had us on the edge of our seats, and hungry to hear the rest of the story. This is available for pre-order, and I would definitely recommend it.

The Monster That Challenged The World


Most nutritionists agree now that cheese is bad for you. Too many calories, too much cholesterol, yada yada. But sometimes you still crave cheese. And the other night, the cheese my wife and I chose was the 1957 film The Monster That Challenged The World (TMTCTW). We found it impossible to resist a boxcover description that talked of “giant vampire snails.” Who could?

TMTCTW
stars Tim Holt as an army officer, stationed near the Salton Sea. You may remember Holt from the classic film Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or as one of the top Western stars of the 1940s. By 1957, he had been retired for five years, and would only sporadically act for the rest of his life. Why he chose to come back in this flick is a mystery, as the studio was unable to even find him a shirt that fit (Seriously. Those buttons look like they’re ready to pop.). I was surprised when I checked imdb and found that Holt was only 39 in 1957, as he looks to be around 50, which makes all the comments about “that young officer” kind of bewildering. The rest of the cast includes some characters actors who would become more famous in television in the 60s, like Hans Conreid.

The action starts at the Salton Sea military base. Set in the period after Korea but before Vietnam, the military is so bored they’re exploding nukes in the Salton Sea just for kicks, then dropping paratroopers into it to see what will happen. What happens is they crack the floor of the Sea, which causes some prehistoric mollusk eggs (from when mollusks were huge) lying dormant there to hatch. The radioactivity may also play a role, but that’s a little hazy. Anyway, some there are giant mollusks running amok (they look like a caterpillar standing straight up, actually) and sucking the moisture out of humans. There are some nice shots of desiccated corpses, with the skin shriveled, although the eyes are still big and bulbous. I guess giant mollusks don’t like the taste of eyeball juice. The military springs into action to take care of the problem, which seems only fair since they caused it, and mankind is finally saved.

TMTCTW came at the end of the “Giant Monsters Caused by Radiation” craze of the 50s, which was sparked by the great success of THEM! and followed with Tarantula, The Beginning of the End, etc., and the concept seems pretty tired here. Although the movie is very short, it seems padded, and most of the actors look like they wish they were doing something else. The monsters themselves seem laughable cheap, and a seen where the creature sits and watches some divers go by is unintentionally funny. There is a quaint joy in all of the movies of this type, but this one is near the bottom of the barrel.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Less Than Human


A while back, I made a mostly unfavorable post about Gary Raisor’s Sinister Purposes. Although the book was mostly acclaimed, it just didn’t resonate with me, and my opinion was by-and-large negative, which happens sometimes. I did, however, mention that I was impressed by Mr. Raisor’s writing style, and wanted to give his work another try. Ever since its initial publication in the early 90s, people have been telling me I should read his debut novel Less than Human, but for one reason or another, I’d never picked it up. Well, in the sense of fairness, I ordered a copy recently, and I’m happy I did. This is one kick-ass novel.

It opens with two characters, Steven and Earl, getting off a Greyhound bus and looking for a nearby pool hall, where Steven challenges a local legend to a game and beats her, after which his custom pool cue is stolen. This is a bigger deal than you might think, since Steven and Earl (mostly Steven) are members of a particularly vicious breed of vampire, and the cue contains dirt that could be used to kill Steven. They embark on a quest to recover the cue, and all who are in their path will pay a price for it.

Raisor’s writing is sharp here, and his descriptive ability is top-notch. During the opening scene from the bus to the pool hall, it was so well written I felt as if I was watching it happen. Raisor also invents an entirely new type of vampire, one that may well be a significant improvement on the traditional tropes. I particularly was fond of how the stories behind the evil characters were developed, so you could tell where Steven and Earl were coming from, and realize there was actually a great difference between them, which makes the conclusion of the book work.

If you prefer vampires who wear lace shirts, sip absinthe, and write pseudo-Romantic poetry, you probably won’t like Less Than Human. The bloodsuckers here are vicious, backwoods types who are more likely to dismember you than conduct a great romance. For this and other reasons, when I re-visit my list of my favorite vampire novels in the future, Less Than Human will be on it, probably in the top five. It’s that good

Less Than Human has been sporadically out of print since publication, but copies are still available through the Overlook Connection Press, which published it. And I hope Leisure, which publishes most of the mass market paperbacks sold now, and does a number of reprints, will take notice and add this to their line, so it may reach the wider market it deserves.

For my part, I’m looking forward to reading more by Gary Raisor. One day, I may have to re-read Sinister Purposes to find out if my initial impression was wrong.

Ice Spiders


When I purchased this little gem at my local video emporium, my friend Robbie was behind the counter. He looked at it and said to let him know if it was good. I told him he didn’t have to wait, it was very, very bad. Have you seen it already, he asked. No, I replied, IT’S GOT A GIANT SPIDER CHASING A SKIER THROUGH THE SNOW ON THE BOXCOVER. How could it be good?

So, you could say I got what I deserved.

In Ice Spiders, the government has been operating a secret military lab in Utah, near a ski resort, to genetically alter spiders so they’ll grow to enormous size. Why? “To save lives” the dim actress playing a scientist says. You scoff, but those babies will be needed when we face a giant fly invasion. As might be expected, the spiders (there are six of them – budget restrictions, I guess) stage a prison break, and escape into the snow, which doesn’t bother them due to genetic manipulation or something. Although the trained military guys with sophisticated weapons are pretty much useless against the arachnid onslaught, fortunately the nearby ski resort has a ski instructor who used to be an Olympic hopeful before blowing out a knee, and he is the perfect person to deal with the critters. Why, again? Because he’s played by Patrick Muldoon, who has bug-fighting experience, having appeared in Starship Troopers. Then again, he got his brain sucked out in that movie, and believe me, the injury shows in his performance.

The movie is as bad as you would imagine, but there is one truly terrifying thing in it: Patrick Muldoon’s hair. It isn’t a natural shade, and hangs jaggedly around his forehead, while rising to a peak in the middle of his head, as if it is hiding something underneath. Probably the scars from the brain-sucking. And the acting, from Muldoon and his co-star Vanessa Williams (not Vanessa the Undressa, the other one) is truly amazingly bad.

Still, the movie was exactly as bad as I thought, so I can’t complain. Except about one thing: Although the spider on the boxcover is truly huge, the spiders in the movie (who are color-coded to tell them apart. Seriously) are usually about the size of a large dog, which is a gyp, although their size varies from scene to scene.

Coffin County


Coffin County is the most recent mass-market paperback release from one of the best writers working in the field today, Gary A. Braunbeck. It is the fourth of his novels to be set in the fictitious town of Cedar Hill, Ohio. Braunbeck is the author of Prodigal Blues, one of the best books I have ever read, but this is the first of his Cedar Hill stories I’ve tackled.

The book starts of in a seemingly disjointed way, jumping around to various events over a significant period of time in Cedar Hill, with a number of different characters. I found this to be initially quite confusing, but Braunbeck connects the various threads, and it settles into a bit more of a conventional story.

The story operates on two major levels: One is a struggle between two immortal entities, played out through the lives of humans. One of these entities could be called good and the other evil, but the line is somewhat blurred. The other level is an examination of violence in America, taking a look at Columbine, San Ysidro, and so on.

The book follows the attempts of a Cedar Hill police detective to solve several spree killings in his town, killings with perplexing clues. The detective is grappling with personal demons, as he has just reached the anniversary of the deaths of his wife and son in a senseless incident. As he delves deeper into the case, he is given a horrible choice to make.

Braunbeck is a master of language, and his books are always a joy in that regard. I enjoyed Coffin County, but wished I had read the three previous Cedar Hill novels, as I think that would have made it a bit easier for me to follow. Or maybe I’m just naturally slow. I was also a bit perplexed by the novels extended plunges into the realm of the police procedural. There was perhaps a bit too much discussion of the art of fingerprint analysis for my taste.
Still, I would recommend this book to anyone, although maybe the books should be read in order. The book includes two stand-alone cedar Hill short stories, which were very good. The fifth and perhaps final Cedar Hill novel is coming soon from Leisure.

On a related note, there has been a rumor going around (I may have spread it myself) that Braunbeck is through with the horror genre. I’m pleased to say, based on a recent interview Braunbeck did on the Rod of Horror, that is untrue, and based on a message board misinterpretation.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Thomas M. Disch

Thomas M. Disch, a well-respected science fiction writer who also wrote a couple of classic horror novels (The Businessman and The M.D.) has died at the age of 68. Details may be found here.

This Darkness: Vampire Virus


Low budget films have had quite an impact on the horror genre. George Romero’s best work has been done on a shoestring budget, and many other film makers have overcome budgetary limitations with wit and ingenuity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work.

This Darkness: Vampire Virus is an unfortunate example of the less successful low budget film. Writer-director-star Dylan O’Leary plays Dr. Abraham van Helsing (“Call me Van”), a leading genetic researcher. We meet him when he is giving a fifteen minute lecture to a class on genetics. This is done in real time (yawn), and features such insight as, quote, “Your father contributes half your DNA, and your mother contributes half your DNA. They are mixed when they get together and go chima-chima-banga-maow-maow.”

Really.

Despite the metaphors, the class enjoys the lecture, one young lass telling him it was the most informative fifteen minutes of her life.

As a sideline, Van has also discovered a serum that will give the user immortality. This attracts the attention of the local vampires, who are after the serum for….I really didn’t catch that part. Van is well prepared for this, since he is a student of martial arts. We learn this when he pays a visit to his local dojo, a visit that lasts for twenty minutes of screentime, and features innumerable demonstrations of martial art stunts. I assume the martial arts studio was an investor in the film, and wanted some free publicity.

Anyway, his workout complete, Van is soon being pursued by the vampires, a circumstance he regards with the coolness of Arnold Schwarzeneggar, although he’s just a pudgy middle aged guy in glasses. He soon discovers that the only way to kill vampires is to shoot them in the head. Wait….

(My theory is the writer fell asleep during a late night showing of Dracula, and woke up during the subsequent Night of the Living Dead, and thought they were the same film.)

The head vampire, Tarquin, has plans for Van. He wants van to use his serum to make him the perfect bride. If you think they’re now stealing from Bride of Frankenstein, you’re just cynical and untrusting. During their confrontation, Tarquin has the following perplexing exchange with the good doctor:

Tarquin: I have been a vampire since I was turned 300 years ago.
Van: Who turned you?
Tarquin: I DID!

Zen Vampirism. Or maybe he just didn’t understand the question. Anyway, Tarquin proceeds to kill Van’s entire family to force him to do his bidding, which perturbs our hero not in the slightest. He’s banging a hot young coed and, like Nick Saban, doesn’t have time for that shit.
In a startling (snicker) turn, the coed turns out to be a vampire herself. Van just thought she had a naturally low body temperature. And in another twist that gave me an Ewww moment, but again didn’t bother our guy Van at all, she is also his mother, meaning he’s been doing Mom. Heh. Eventually, the vampires are all shot through the head and defeated.

I would criticize the lighting problems, poor camerawork, and amateurish lighting, but that would be piling on, and at this point, if you still want to see the movie, I don’t think that would bother you.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Orgy Of Souls


Orgy of Souls is the story of two brothers. One, Samuel, has become what we would call a “good” person, becoming a priest/preacher ministering to a needy congregation. The other, Samson, has gone the other way, relying on his good looks to become a highly-paid model, and using his looks and fame to lead a hedonistic lifestyle. In a development that probably mirrors real life more often than not, the “good” brother contracts AIDS, while the “bad” brother has a much better run of luck.
The one thing Samson has going for him on the positive side of the ledger is love and devotion for his brother, and he is determined to do whatever it takes to save his brother’s life. When searching through ancient books reveals a possible solution, he embarks on a mission: to take twenty lives after convincing the victims to sign their souls over to him, then barter the souls for his brother’s life. The nature of this cure is not exactly what Samuel wants, and the short novel/novella does a good job of exploring the moral issues faced, and comes to a surprising satisfying conclusion.
The relationship of the two authors mirrors the brothers, to an extent. Maurice Broaddus is an ordained minister, while Wrath James White is an avowed atheist. Despite their antithetical worldviews, the collaboration is seamless, with no indication that two authors were involved (as is often the case). Broaddus writes an introduction to the book, and White an afterword, and these are a fascinating look at the process of the collaboration.
Despite its graphic nature, I found Orgy of Souls to be a thinking man’s (or woman’s) horror novel, a book that contains a reflection on the nature of good and evil amidst the gore. I would recommend it highly. The book is available through Apex Publications and The Horror Mall.

Vampire$


Or, GI Joe Vs. The Vampires

It’s always an interesting thing to go back to re-visit something from the past. Re-reading a book, re-watching a movie, whatever. Sometimes you re-discover why you liked the book or movie in the first place, sometimes you can’t remember why you liked it. Sadly, the latter is my reaction to re-reading Vampire$.

The book was written by John Steakley, a decidedly non-prolific author. His only published books are this one, in 1991, and the 1984 science fiction novel Armor, which confusingly features the same characters as Vampire$, although the books are unrelated and separated by thousands of years. Vampire$ is also the source for the John Carpenter film Vampires, although the movie keeps some of the names and the basic concept and throws everything else out (and loses the $). It is the story of Jack Crow and his team, who are professional vampire killers. For a fee, they will come to your town and exterminate your bloodsucker infestation. Think Orkin for the fanged set. The book concerns their most difficult adventure, as they must face three master vampires.

When it first came out at the very end of the horror boom, it made quite a splash, but the book just doesn’t hold up well. Team Crow consists of stereotypical action team heroes. They are all manly men, each with a different specialty, and totally unbelievable. And for an action story, it moves very slowly, with the most irritating aspect the perceived need to go through each characters’ thoughts in turn in every tight situation, which sloooows things to a crawl. And the writing is mostly awkward and clanky. Example: “He sat there, roaring silently.” How do you roar silently? I thought he might be passing gas.

I would like to point out I do not have universal taste, and this is still considered by most to be a very good book. I liked it the first time around, didn’t the second time, but you may love it.

The Abandoned


One of the “8 Films To Die For” After Dark Horrorfest movies (from the first series), The Abandoned is considered to be the best of the bunch. I’ve seen seven of the eight (I need a life) and I have found them to be just okay, in a sort of generic horror film way. The Abandoned probably is the best of the ones I've seen.

An American woman who was born in Russia and adopted away as an infant journeys back to Russia to claim some property, namely the house where her mother and father were killed 40 years previously. Once she arrives, she finds herself trapped in a haunted with a man who may be her twin brother. They are haunted by apparitions of themselves dead.

If you need a strong plot to enjoy a movie, you should stay away from this one. There are a lot of things that just don’t make sense, a couple of contradictions, and the resolution is a bit messy. What it does have going for it is it’s genuinely creepy, and has a nice, ominous atmosphere. If you are looking for a couple of chills and a generally unsettled feeling, this might work for you.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Red Church


Scott Nicholson is one of the rising talents in the horror field, and The Red Church is his Bram Stoker Award nominated debut. It is the story of a small town in the North Carolina Appalachians. In the 19th century a Christian-derived cult, in which Christ was believed to be the first (and unsuccessful) of two sons, sprang up around a charismatic preacher named McFall. The Temple Of The Two Sons goes a little too far when it ventures into child sacrifice, and the reverend is hanged by angry townsfolk outside his church.

The present day story begins with the return of McFall’s descendent, who resurrects the church, and plans a little revenge on the families that hanged old great-great-granddad.

It’s easy to see how the buzz about Nicholson got started. This is a nice entry into Stephen King territory (the small isolated town beset by horror) with a good Lovecraftian edge. It is nice to see how Nicholson uses the religious faith that infuses towns like these, for good as well as bad. I’m from a rural Southern town, and I can assure you, faith dominates life there.

Recommended. It is now out of print, but shouldn’t be too hard to find through used vendors.

The Overnight


Ramsey Campbell is something of the Stephen King of England. Since the publication of The Doll Who Ate His Mother and The Face That Must Die in the 70s, he has written a number of novels, as well as several short story collections. They are of consistently high quality, and Campbell is widely recognized as one of the greatest practitioners of “quiet horror”.

It was with some sadness that I read in the forward of his book The Overnight that he had taken a job at a Borders in his native England a few years back to ease some financial difficulty. I won’t engage in a full fledged rant about a society in which such a fine author can’t make a more than comfortable living on such a body of work, except to state that I consider it a tragedy.

The Overnight is inspired by the Borders sojourn. It takes place at a large book store called Texts, which could be a Borders, Barnes & Noble or whatnot. This is basically a haunted-bookstore novel. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different store employee. For some reason, as the store manager (an American) is driven to madness, I couldn’t stop thinking about the British TV series The Office (never seen the American one). It is more creepy than terrifying, and probably not one of Ramsey Campbell’s best, but I’ve never read anything by Campbell that I wouldn’t recommend.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Magic Wagon


The Magic Wagon is an important book in the Joe Lansdale bibliography. In the author’s own words, it is where he first found his voice. And a distinctive voice it is.
In East Texas in the early 20th Century a young man named Buster Fogg finds himself alone after his family is wiped out by a tornado. He is taken in by a traveling medicine show, joining a bizarre surrogate family which includes Billy Bob the trick shot artist, Albert, an ex-slave, and Rot Toe the wrestling chimpanzee. Along the way, they acquire the mummified corpse of Wild Bill Hickok, who Billy Bob thinks is his real father. This obsession leads the group into a climactic showdown in the town of Mud Creek.
As always, Lansdale has a gift for vivid description and humorous, realistic dialogue. The short novel propels itself along at a brisk pace. Lansdale has never written anything that was not worth reading, and he’s at the top (and beginning) of his form here.

Predator Island


A group of completely unlikeable twenty-somethings are in a boat, for some reason or another. They engage in some stilted, poorly acted dialogue to show how little they think of each other. Suddenly, a cheesy-looking meteor flashes through the sky. Their boat loses power, and ultimately drifts toward a small island inhabited by a lighthouse keeper and his wife. But disaster lurks. The meteor has brought to earth stuntmen, wearing rubber suits, who begin to kill the obnoxious young people in order of their blandness. Well, sometimes they don’t kill them, they just look into their eyes, which causes the person to change into an alien. Or something. Unfortunately (SPOILER WARNING), not all the non-actors die.
This review should be considered flawed since I fell asleep for about fifteen minutes during the movie, although as far as I can tell, nothing happened while I was out. I also should make allowances for the filmmakers having no budget to work with. So, if this description appeals to you…what the hell is wrong with you?

A Heartbreaking Announcement

Due to ongoing computer difficulties (I’ve got to order a new one), posting will be spotty at best over the next week or so. As Douglas MacArthur said, however, I’ll be back to more regular posting in a week or so.

A Look At Joe R. Lansdale

Since I’m still a little bit over the moon about meeting Joe Lansdale, who is something of a hero of mine, I thought I would revise and republish something that originally appeared on another site. So, here goes:

It’s always hard for me to pin down just who is my favorite author. It changes from day to day, and varies with my mood. But no matter when I consider the issue, there’s always one name at or near the top of the list: Joe R. Lansdale, his ownself.

Lansdale’s work is an interesting combination of the fantastic and the everyday grind. In some areas, he has written books that could be considered transgressive, although that tendency has waned in recent years. Originally he was lumped in with the splatterpunks (although he personally rejected the inclusion), a number of gifted young writers in the eighties who produced some extreme horror stories, but his recent output has been more concentrated in the genre of crime fiction. He retains a gift for very outrĂ© violence, and there is a macabre humor to most of his work. His best work, I think, has been in short stories. The must reads of his short fiction would include:

“Night They Missed The Horror Show”
“Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back”
“On The Far Side Of The Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks”
“The Big Blow”
“Mad Dog Summer” (the basis for the novel The Bottoms)
"The Events Concerning A Nude Fold-Out Found in a Harlequin Romance”

The best source for these would be the following anthologies:

High Cotton
By Bizarre Hands
Writer Of The Purple Rage
Bumper Crop


Lansdale is best known in long form as the author of the Hap and Leonard novels, of which there are seven at this writing. The best is the first, Savage Season. It contains the same dark humor, but the violence quotient is much higher. This was only widely published as a paperback original, and is long out of print. If you find it, it has a distinctive cover: a hand with a nail through it. A new Hap & Leonard novel will be out in 2009.

Other novels of note:

The Drive-In
, Parts 1 and 2 – A gonzo story of people trapped at a supernaturally possessed drive-in. Weird and wonderful.
The Nightrunners – An early horror novel, with somewhat crude technique, this was partly responsible for the “splatterpunk” movement of the 1980s
Lost Echoes – A crime novel with a little of the supernatural, very well done. Read a review by an idiot here.
The Magic Wagon – A western of sorts, it involves a traveling medicine show, Rot-Toe the wrestling chimpanzee, and the mummified body of Wild Bill Hickok.

There have been a couple of notable screen adaptations:

Bubba Ho-Tep – Elvis and JFK are in an old folks home, having faked their deaths (and, in JFK’s case, being turned black) when the residents are stalked by a soul-sucking mummy. As weird as it sounds, but a cult classic. Supposedly a sequel, Bubba Nosferatu and the She-Vampires, is on its way, although the original creative team has bowed out due to creative differences, and Lansdale is no longer connected to it.
Incident On And Off A Mountain Road – Showtime adapted this short story about a woman fleeing an abusive husband who runs into a greater menace for the Masters of Horror series.

Hope this leads someone to a great but underappreciated author.

The Rising: Selected Scenes From The End Of The World


Brian Keene is the father of the current zombie surge in horror fiction. His books The Rising, City of the Dead and Dead Sea have set the standard for zombie fiction and spurred a somewhat astonishing amount of interest in the sub-genre. The demand for more stories set in the world of zombie apocalypse sparked the limited edition publication of The Rising: Selected Scenes from the End of the World, which is set in the same world as The Rising and City of the Dead.

Before you read this book, I would recommend reading the other two first. The Rising: SSFTEOTW runs parallel to the storyline of the first two and some minor characters from those two make appearances. It is a series of shorts showing what else was going on around the world while the main characters in the struggle of the previous linked books. The shorts are compelling, as you can always count on Keene to deliver the goods. Of special interest to Keene fans are some tidbits found here that offer glimpses of the links between his stories, and some small explanation for what is happening. Highly recommended.
Addendum: Although this book was only available as a limited edition at the time of first publication of this article, it is now being issued in trade paperback, so there's no reason not to order it immediately.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hawg


I was already interested in Steven Shrewsbury’s work after reading his short story collection Thoroughbred, and that interest was piqued by meeting him at Hypericon. I was able to purchase his new novel Hawg at the conference.
Hawg takes place in rural Illinois, although the setting could just as well have been the South. It opens with a pair of drug mules sneaking up on a farmer and meeting a fate worse than death. It seems the farmer has a most unusual creature on the farm, what appears to be a half-man, half-hog, seven feet tall with steel tusks, and the instincts of an animal. This is Hawg. After chance exposes Hawg to the drugs carried by the two luckless drug runners, he breaks free of his cage and runs amok throughout the countryside, killing and eating the locals, and raping any female of fertile years. It is never explained why Hawg is the way he is, although there are allusions to Hawg’s father being on board the Eldridge during the Philadelphia Experiment. Local law enforcement is slow to react, but they are soon trying to stop an almost unstoppable killing machine. With two children in the way.
This is a rip-roarin’ action packed adventure, filled with scenes that will offend anyone who can be offended, and a subtle wit throughout. I read the first 50 pages one day, then finished the rest in one sitting.
Steven Shrewsbury is not yet a household name, but he will be, and it is books like Hawg that will accomplish this. If you want to say you were reading him before he became famous, order this now. You may do so at the Horror Mall (click on the banner), or at the Graveside Tales website.

The Invasion


The Invasion is the fourth filmed version of Jack Finney’s classic novel The Body Snatchers. There was a classic version in 1956, an interesting take on it in 1978, a serviceable action flick in 1993, and now this rather ho-hum rendition starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

The movie opens with the crash of a space shuttle. As big a disaster as this is (it actually doesn’t seem to bother anyone very much), it is much worse than can be imagined: The shuttle debris is covered with spores that can infect human beings. Why this is so is never explained, for explanations are for eggheads and wimps. Suffice it to say, once infected, the infectees rapidly spread the infection, by the delightful method of puking in the face of an uninfected human. This gets old after the first time. Humanity must find an antidote or be taken over.

In the middle of this is a psychiatrist, played by Nicole Kidman (in other words, suck it, Cruise) and her doctor boyfriend, played by James Bond. They must find Kidman’s son before it’s too late, because the son is one of the few who are immune to the alien infection. He is immune because…well, they don’t ever really explain it. He’s just immune, dammit! Remember, real men don’t do explanations.

There are huge flaws in this movie. First of all, Kidman’s character is a charter member of the Unilateral Disarmament Club. There are two occasions during the film where she gets a handgun, which could help fend off the killer infectees, and both times she immediately throws it away. Look, I understand and sympathize with pacifism, but if you’re ever chased by zombies intent on eating your brain, hold on to the goddamn gun.

Also, whereas in the book and the previous three movies being taken over kills the original host, in this case, the infection is easily reversed with the antidote, which lessens the suspense considerably. Add in the obligatory Annoying Kid, and you’ve screwed your movie.

That being said, The Invasion is not quite the total disaster everyone says it is. Kidman and Craig are good actors, and there is some real suspense in a couple of scenes where they are trying not to show emotion to try and fool the infected. I’d say it’s good enough for a rental, if it strikes your fancy.
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Wither


I got interested in Wither, a novel by J.G. Passarella (a pen name for authors Joseph Gangemi and John Passarella) after seeing an ad for it in Cemetery Dance magazine, so I guess advertising works. The description sounded appealing, and I checked with a couple of people who had read it, and took a chance.
Wither is about Wendy Ward, a student at Danfield College (and daughter of the school president). Wendy is also a practicing witch or wiccan (I’m not confusing the two, I just wasn’t able to tell which the book was talking about), having a relatively ordinary freshman year at college. Ordinary, if you’re into witchcraft, I guess. Danfield is located in Windale, Massachusetts, which is depicted as sort of a lesser version of Salem, since three witches were burned alive there three hundred years ago. What few know is the witches didn’t die. They are mostly lying dormant, but rise every hundred years to feed and wreak havoc on the locals. And every three hundred years, they have to take new bodies. With one being our local student-witch, Wendy Ward. Wendy and a few close friends have to figure out how to stop these three old and powerful witches before they are taken over and lost forever.
I can’t say this book changed my life or made me rush out to buy the other two books in the series, but it was entertaining enough. Although it veers a little too close to paranormal romance for comfort at times, it leavens the sap with some fairly brutal killings, including some characters you wouldn’t have guessed. The authors probably hoped for some sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer type of creation, and it falls short there, but it is a good book for a light read.
Rumor has it that Wither has been purchased with an eye toward making a movie of it. If they are willing to go for an “R” rating, it just might work.

Hypericon 2008 Is History

Well, we’re back from Hypericon. It was a blast. Met some friends new and old, talked to some authors I’ve admired for quite a while, and discovered some new ones. I’ll hit the high points.
I traveled up I-65 with BW and two of our friends, getting a little later start than expected. Compounding the time situation was BW’s desire to have lunch with an old boss of hers. In recognition of all she’s done, I gave in, and went met him at The Lodge in south Nashville. And I got the first shock of the trip.
Jason asked what we were in town for, and I explained I was going to a convention to see some horror authors, and to hang out with like-minded friends. Generally when you say this to someone you get “What the hell is wrong with you?” but Jason’s response was “You know I had a screenplay optioned by Romero, right?” Small world. Jason had indeed, written a screenplay that was under option to legendary filmmaker George Romero. A small world, and a good omen.
We arrived just in time for the first panel of the day, a free-wheeling discussion mainly dominated by the guest of honor, Joe Lansdale, who I have idolized since the 80s. Very informative, and Lansdale made some good points on the proper mindset of a writer, and stylistic choices.
I started running into people I knew from message boards, most of which I had never met in person. Guys like Mark Hickerson, Tod Clark, and John Hornor Jacobs were just as cool in person as on line, and helped allay my wife’s fears that I was hanging out with a bunch of serial killers. In turn, there have been no fewer than four on-line comments that I married way above myself. My only response is: I know it. And if you’d spent more time around BW, you’d be even more confused as to what she sees in me.
Friday night was the first reading, in an unusual format, with six authors getting fifteen minutes each. I was skeptical of how this would work, but it came off well. Ron Kelly read a nice Southern ghost story. James Newman read the beginning of his forthcoming novella The Forum, and everyone I talked to wanted to read the whole thing NOW. Most of us will pre-order it, and I would advise you to do so also. Fran Friel read a delightfully macabre story from her collection Mama’s Boy, and I made sure to buy a copy before I left the con. Fran seems entirely too sweet to be a horror writer, but it just goes to show you can’t be certain of anybody. Deborah LeBlanc gave a beautiful reading of an excerpt from one of her novels. She has a true gift for voices. The most dramatic moments came from Steven Shrewsbury. If you ever have a chance to hear him read, do it. It was more of a recitation, as most of it was from memory, and delivered with great passion, culminating in a roar and slamming his hands into the table, sending Maker’s Mark flying and the table rocking.
The next day, Joe Lansdale gave an unscheduled reading of a short story from the upcoming humor anthology Blood Lite, and had the audience rolling in the aisles with his story about a man’s fateful meeting with Smokey the Bear. I had a chance to meet briefly with Joe, and picked up a couple of nuggets of information: No more Jonah Hex, but there will be a new Hap and Leonard novel out in 2009.
All in all, I bought too much, ate too much, and had too good a time. There was another surprise at the end. Neither my wife nor the couple we went with have had any interest in horror, and I figured they’d be bored and go shopping. But they enjoyed themselves immensely, and at the end were asking “When is Necon? Where is the World Horror Convention going to be held next year?”
I may have created a monster. Which would be appropriate.

Blog Recommendation

I'll have more details about Hypericon later, but for now, I'd like to direct you to my friend John Hornor Jacobs' blog, which is always most excellent, and contains a great deal of info about Hypericon. (Spot on about my wife, John). When he gets the Shrewsbury video posted, you have to check it out. The only author who makes you fear for your life when he gives a reading.