Saturday, January 31, 2009

Pod Of Horror #51 Is Alive

Since the world is scheduled to end on December 21, 2012, Mark Justice has stepped up production on Pod of Horror. #51 is up for download at Horror World’s Pod of Horror page. Listen to find out what Scott Nicholson is up to, to discover that Nanci Kalanta’s opinion of Wall Street differs from Rudolph Giuliani’s and much more.

I am on The Haunt

After receiving much encouragement, I now have a page at The Haunt – a sort of MySpace for the horror crowd. You can find me at Since I’ve never been on MySpace or FaceBook, I don’t have the hang of this social networking thing, so if I know you and haven’t “friended” you or whatever you call it, it’s because I haven’t figured it out. If you read this blog and are on The Haunt, drop me a line and let me know. Even if you’ve already told me twelve times.

Undead Or Alive

Another zombedy (zombie comedy), this time set in the old west. Given my affection for Weird Westerns, it’s amazing it took me this long to get to this one. The explanation for this is one of the movie’s stars, and the only recognizable actor in the cast, is Chris Kattan, the former Saturday Night Live cast member, who annoys me immensely.

An Army deserter (James Denton, who is actually pretty good in his role) gets in a fight with a faux cowboy (Kattan) over a hooker. They get thrown into jail, and bond when they break out and flee the corrupt sheriff. But the corrupt pair have more to worry about, since the Curse of Geronimo is sweeping the area. Apparently before he died (in the movie, they repeatedly state Geronimo was forced off a cliff and died, although the real Geronimo died of pneumonia at Fort Sill), Geronimo cursed white men, causing them to turn into zombies. Although zombification here is the result of a curse, it works just like a virus, being transmitted by bites. Soon the duo are fighting for their lives against the outbreak of the undead, aided by the granddaughter of Geronimo (Navi Rawat, who is very hot), who is waging her own war against the army.

The effects are decent, and from a technical point of view, the movie is competently made, but the recurring jokes around Kattan’s character being unsuited for western life got very old. This is a movie for hard-core zombie fans, and few others.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Nightrunners

The first long-form work by Joe Lansdale I ever read was The Nightrunners, way back in the 80s. I recently read it again, and was pleased with how well it has held up.

The basic plot outline is somewhat similar to Straw Dogs (almost a year into this blog, and I'd never mentioned Straw Dogs, now twice in one day). A gang of truly degenerate teens rapes and brutalizes a schoolteacher. After her testimony puts the gang leader away (and he dies in jail), the rest of the crew follows the victim and her husband to a secluded getaway cabin to enact their revenge. The somewhat pacifist husband has to turn to violence to defend his wife and himself.

The story diverges due to the fact that the gang is really led by a possessing demon called the God of the Razor, who spurs the teens on to violence. The God of the Razor would be one of Lansdale’s most enduring creations in the horror field, recurring in subsequent stories and one themed anthology.

This is a very visceral novel, with scenes of extreme violence. The writing style is perhaps a little less fluid than Lansdale’s later work, but the energy and emotional impact is at its peak.It is available in a limited edition hardcover called The God of the Razor, or you can find a used paperback floating around.

Friday The 13th, Part 3-D

Ahhhh, the 80s. The last time before now when 3-D came into vogue and the third installment of every franchise was made in good ole headache-inducing anaglyphic 3-D. In 1982, it was Jason Voorhees’ turn. This adds an extra layer of comedy to watching it in standard presentation, as characters go to great lengths to poke things at the camera lens.

Apparently, although Jason was dead at the end of Part II, he got better, since he is back, as we see in an early scene where he attacks the mom-and-pop owners of a small store. Meanwhile back at Crystal Lake, a group of friends have gathered for a weekend because one of the group, Chris, was attacked by a mysterious man in the woods two years earlier. They bring her back either to confront her fears or maybe just to fuck with her. Included in the group is a total loser named Shelley, who likes playing jokes and generally annoys the hell out of everybody. It’s a mystery why they would let him tag along, but as we will see, he has a greater purpose than the rest.

First, Shelley and Vera go into town, where they have an altercation with the smallest and most gender and ethnically diverse biker gang in history (black guy, black girl, white guy). The gang follows them back to the camp to wreak some fairly lame mayhem, and to up the body count. But they don’t get the chance to get even with Shelley, who assumes his important place in the Friday the 13th pantheon when he is killed in the woods by Jason, who takes his…hockey mask. That’s right, this is the part where the iconic image of the hockey-mask wearing killer first appears.

Blood and body parts fly, and the bikers and campers are eliminated one by one, until the filmmakers steal the ending of the first movie and Jason goes to his final rest. Or…..does he?

We not only get the hockey mask for the first time in this episode, but Jason is beginning to evolve towards the supernatural. He has more strength than a normal human (as seen in the scene where he crushes a guys head until his eyeball pops out (for a 3-D effect). He also has the power of being instantly adept with all forms of weapons, including knife throwing and firing a speargun. Although it’s doubtful that Jason has had much opportunity to do any deep-sea diving, he is able to fire a speargun across the lake right through a girl’s eye. This movie is really hard on the eyes. {rim-shot}

Nothing in Part III will particularly surprise use, but if you like slasher films, it’s certainly good enough. Supposedly, it’s about to be re-issued in 3-D, which I will have to check out.

The Backwoods

Paul (Gary Norman) and Norman (Paddy Considine) go on vacation with their wives/girlfriends in rural Spain, where Paul owns a rustic home. Apparently, the locals are none too fond of the English visitors, even though Paul speaks excellent Spanish and had family from the area. Norman apparently works for Paul, and has issues with that. Paul is brash and capable, whereas Norman is a quiet screw-up.

While out in the woods hunting, Paul and Norman come across a cabin. For no real reason, they break in and find a deformed girl behind a locked door. They take her with them, intending to turn her over to the authorities. Her relatives come looking for her, and the backwoods bloodshed starts.

This is a movie that has drawn many comparisons to Straw Dogs, but I don’t think they are very accurate. Straw Dogs is about a pacifist city dweller who has to become tougher to deal with rough country folk. Here, Oldman’s character is arguably more ruthless and capable than his enemies. Also, where there was real conflict in Straw Dogs, here it is all based on a misunderstanding. The leader of the locals seems to be doing his best to see no one gets hurt, even after some of his brothers have been killed. He repeatedly offers the Englishmen an out from the trouble they are in, they are just too dumb to take it.

The character of Norman is just too dumb to take. At one point Paul hatches a plan for Norman to take the girl to town while Paul leads the locals away from the house. Norman doesn’t do this, saying he has to “stay with the women.” At which point he leaves the women alone, apparently just to set up a fatal confrontation.

The viewer quickly loses interest in what happens to the characters, and even the ending is ambiguous. Pass.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Somewhere South of Hell

A lot of changes in the marketplace have made it difficult to put together top-notch horror anthologies. The days when Dark Forces, Prime Evil, etc. propelled the genre seem to be in the distant past. This may be about to change, as what looks like the best horror anthology in twenty years has been announced.

Ronald Kelly has announced he is editing Somewhere South of Hell: An Anthology of Southern-Fried Horror. The subject matter is near and dear to my heart, but look at the lineup: Joe R. Lansdale, Brian Keene, Alan M. Clark, Alex McVey, James Newman, Deborah LeBlanc, Scott Nicholson, Bryan Smith, Elizabeth Massie, Stephen Mark Rainey, Bev Vincent, Nate Southard, Jason Brannon, John Hornor Jacobs, Mari Adkins, Joan Turner, Randy Fox, Mark Justice, Donn Gash, Ronald Kelly.

Wow. That is an impressive amount of firepower. There may be more to come, but that is already a knockout list. The anthology should be published in mid-2010. For more information, go to Ronald Kelly’s blog, and watch for updates.

Night Junkies

Vampires are the most widely-used staple of horror movies, so there is pressure on filmmakers to find an original twist on the theme. This is a good idea if you are truly original, a bad one if you’re the folks who made Night Junkies.

Set in London, it follows a vampire named Giles (first name not Rupert) who prowls the streets of London, killing hookers and feeding on them, which is difficult, since vampires in this universe don’t seem to have fangs. This doesn’t make Giles such a bad guy; instead he is a brooding misunderstood loner, following in the vein of Anne rice and a million others. He views his vampirism as an addiction, which gives him an excuse to spend a good deal of screentime wallowing in self-pity. His compassion is just for himself, not for anyone he kills.

Ruby is a stripper, working at a club run by a gangster. She’s the only stripper who won’t have sex for money, so she’s at odds with the boss. Ruby and Giles meet, fall in love, Giles infects Ruby, and they spend the rest of the movie trying to get Ruby out of the clutches of the gangsters and find a cure for their addiction. Another vampire shows up in what I guess is intended as a plot twist.

As a guy, I was helped through the early part of the film by the large amounts of nudity, but once everyone started keeping their clothes on, it was easier to grasp that nothing was happening other than a lot of moping, brooding, and half-assed philosophizing. A Red Bull was required to get through the second half of the film.

Unless you have a compulsion to see every vampire film ever made, you might want to skip this one.

Friday The 13th, Part II

The first Friday the 13th film was a big success, and therefore, the filmmakers were eager to make a sequel. Their first big problem was coming up with a way to continue the story, since we last saw the killer (Mrs. Voorhees) being decapitated at the end of the previous flick. To take up the slack, they decided to make the villain Jason himself, which proved to be a lucky choice, since he would grow to be an iconic horror movie character.

The movie opens with the first movie’s Final Girl living in a city/town…somewhere. You can assume it’s near Crystal Lake, since Jason, making a rare trip to town and away from the lake, shows up to kill her. Nice to see him out and about, he won’t take in the bright lights again until Part VIII.

Jump forward five years, and Crystal Lake is being re-opened as a training school for camp counselors. (They train people for that?) I would imagine the new owner got a deal on the real estate. In short order, the counselor-wannabes are being stalked by Jason, who still has issues over watching Mom’s head go flying. Mayhem ensues, the body-count rises, and a new Final Girl turns the tables on Jason by pretending to be his mother.

One of the interesting things about the series is the evolution of the Jason character. By the end of the series, he will be an unkillable supernatural creature, able to heal from any wound. (He can also teleport, but that seems to be more from a laissez-faire attitude to continuity than any real talent). Here he is just an ordinary human being, albeit one with a penchant for skewering people with sharp objects.

Although Jason becomes the series’ continuing character, he does not yet have his signature hockey mask. He’ll get it in Part III.

Part II establishes one of the physical laws of the Jason universe: When a young girl is alone late at night near a dark lake, she will strip naked and go for a swim. This does not appear to be true in our version of reality.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009


It goes without saying that I am a huge Stephen King fan. Even during the years when I mostly stopped reading horror, I still kept up with the King. I believe his strength of characterization surpasses many of the more “literary” novelists who turn out turgid, pointless books praised by the critical establishment. So the publication of a new book by King is always a good thing for me.

Blaze is officially credited to Richard Bachman, who some of you may know as the longtime nom de plume of King. King used the Bachman name to write (mostly) crime novels early in his career. Once Bachman was revealed to be King’s alter ego after the publication of Thinner, a press release was issued announcing Bachman had died of “cancer of the pseudonym”. Blaze was a “trunk novel”, written by Bachman/King in 1973, never published, and put in storage for the last 35 years. It has now been published by Signet, with a foreword by Stephen King, who has become something of the executor of Bachman’s imaginary literary estate. While it doesn’t rank among the better books by King, it is much better than you might think, given its history.

This is the story of Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., known as Blaze to his friends. As a child, Blaze is big for his age, and extremely intelligent. Until his alcoholic father throws him down a flight of stairs. Three times. When Blaze awakens from the coma, he has a huge dent in his forehead, and the intelligence of someone mildly retarded. He grows up in a series of orphanages and detention centers, ultimately growing to 6’7” and almost 300 pounds. Blaze is good-natured, but prone to being controlled by others. When he reaches adulthood, his friend George leads him into a life of petty crime and small con jobs. After George is killed, Blaze is left adrift, with nothing to focus on but a wild scheme of George’s – to kidnap the infant child of a local millionaire. He doesn’t have the capacity to pull off the crime, but goes forward with it nonetheless.

The book comes off as a bit of a cross between Of Mice and Men and the Lindbergh kidnapping. Blaze doesn’t have the smarts to pull the caper off, so the question is how many will get hurt and killed along the way to the inevitable conclusion. (When Blaze makes the phone call for the ransom demand, he gives the operator his real name). It is a tragic book, as you know you are heading for a grim conclusion, and you can’t help but feel some sympathy for a character that got such a rough deal from life. The book was originally slated to be part of the excellent Hard Case Crime series, but was instead published as an independent novel. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Razored Saddles

Razored Saddles was one of the seminal anthologies of the 80s (first published in 1989) and one of the few I missed on the first go-around, so I was understandably stoked when I finally obtained a rather expensive copy of the original hardback. I was also excited that the anthology was edited by a favorite author, Joe R. Lansdale (with Pat LoBrutto). And finally, there was the subject matter.

When I was a kid and comic books were the center of my reading universe, one of my favorites was a book called Weird Western Tales. This was a blend of horror material and the western genre, with cowboys fighting ghosts, zombies, and the like. The best known continuing feature in this vein was Jonah Hex, about a hideously disfigured gunfighter (Lansdale himself wrote two great story arcs for Jonah Hex in the late 90s). Razored Saddles was ostensibly in this milieu, so I had looked forward to it. Lansdale hisownself referred to it as the first “cowpunk” anthology.

All anthologies are somewhat up and down, with a variety of different authors with differing takes on the theme, and I was prepared for this to hold true here, but I expected it to be generally good, with great writers like Lansdale, Lewis Shiner, Howard Waldrop, and others. The book started off well, with a Robert McCammon story, “Black Boots” about a gunman fleeing an unkillable foe. But the pleasant vibe dissolved in a haze of New Wave SF blandness. The majority of the stories ignored the weird western idea in favor of flat uncompelling narratives. It did pick up near the end, with “Yore Skin’s Jes’s Soft ‘n Purty” by Chet Williamson, but most of the stories were a major letdown. Lansdale himself has written a number of outstanding western/horror hybrids, so if that's what you're looking for, I'd suggest seeking one of his collections. To me, Razored Saddles was a missed opportunity.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Behind The Mask has received almost universal good reviews, so I was very much looking forward to this. Unfortunately, my opinion is a bit lower than most.

The first two-thirds of the movie is a mock documentary, with a reporter-wannabe and a film crew following around Leslie Vernon, who is in training with a mentor to be an unstoppable serial killer in the manner of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. This is played for laughs, with Leslie having an almost childish glee in perfecting his craft. The only problem is, it goes on too long. A mockumentary about a movie slasher – we get it. The joke turns tired before they are through with it. Then the last third switches gears and becomes a traditional slasher film – too traditional. There is little new in this section, and I had a strong sense of “Been there, done that.” The main twist is fairly obvious, and the viewer figures it out far too long before the characters in the movie do.

There are a lot of in-jokes, making me wonder if the average viewer even got them. For example, at the beginning of the movie, Kane Hodder is seen going into 1428 Elm Street. To appreciate this joke fully, you had to know (a) 1428 is an address from A Nightmare On Elm Street and (b) Kane Hodder is the actor most closely associated with Jason Vorhees. I dunno.

The cast is very good, with Nathan Baesel (Invasion) as Leslie Vernon, Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood) as his mentor, and several others. As I said before, my negative opinion is not in the majority here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Friday the 13th

About every five years or so, I go back and watch the Friday the 13th movies in order. The sometimes good, sometimes kitschy series was part of my childhood, and I get a kick out of re-watching them. The five year gap is just enough for me to forget which ones are bad so I won’t skip them. I have started the cycle anew, so over the next couple of weeks, I hope to go through all eleven movies in order, which should be enough to convince me if you have sex, a maniac will split your skull with a machete.

Before I start with this dumb idea, I’d recommend to you the site if you want to learn more about the series. It’s pretty comprehensive.

When Halloween came out in 1978, it broke box office records for an independent film, raking in the dough after costing little to produce. The motion picture industry is nothing if not imitative, and other producers figured the formula was (Holiday name) + (Mad Slasher) = $$$$. So, with the only truly sinister holiday name already taken, Sean Cunningham chose Friday the 13th for his 1980 release. You don’t exactly need a complicated chart to diagram the plot: Some teenager camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are picked off one at a time, until Final Girl finally turns the tables at the end.

A few things strike you on re-watching the movie. First off, it is very ordinary. The acting is fairly bland (the only notable cast member was a young Kevin Bacon, but he has little to do in the film but die) and the murders are not very dramatic. If you didn’t know how it would end, you would think you were watching a whodunit, but of course the murderer turns out to be someone you haven’t seen until she shows up at the end to kill Final Girl. And for those of us who think of the Friday the 13th movies as being a hockey-mask wearing Jason Voorhees wreaking carnage, he won’t really show up until Part II (and the mask won’t be in place until Part III).

There is one thing in the film that works very well: The famous scene where a decomposed Jason comes out of the water to grab Final Girl (in a dream). I saw the movie when it first came out in the theater, and I can tell you I, and everyone else there, jumped out of my skin when it happened. I remember my date left fingernail marks in my arm. Even watching it at home in 2009 and knowing what was going to happen, I flinched. Maybe it was the effectiveness of that scene which enabled the producers to expand a ho-hum feature into a long-running series.

A couple of trivia notes:
Academy Award winner sally Field auditioned for the Final Girl role. She didn’t get it.

Betsy Palmer, who played Mrs. Voorhees, didn’t want to be in the film (she called it a “piece of shit”), but she was broke and needed to buy a car. She got $10,000 for the ten days she worked on the movie.


It’s getting hard to review books by Bryan Smith; I’ve almost run out of adjectives to express how much I like his work. He started out strong with House of Blood, improved even beyond that debut with Deathbringer and Freakshow, and seemed to have reached the top with Queen of Blood. It’s unusual for an author to write that many books and continue to get better every time, but I’m very pleased to say Soultaker is his best book yet.

Horror writer Jake McAllister returns to his hometown of Rockville, Tennessee when his younger brother gets into trouble and finds a supernatural evil has taken hold. A Lamia, the mythological child-eating demon, has taken up residence. Every hundred years, the lamia must feed on a large quantity of young souls, and it’s time for the Harvest. As the lives of the residents of Rockville unravel around him, Jake and a small, rag-tag group fight to stop the lamia from killing hundreds and feeding on their essence.

The lamia, who takes the form of a beautiful young woman, is sadistic and powerful. She recruits a large number f accomplices, who serve her in return for great rewards. The human characters are well-drawn, with a deft use of backstory to flesh them out. As he always seems to manage, Smith shows us graphic violence without sacrificing the essential elements of a good story. It’s early in the year, but this is the best book I’ve read in 2009, and it will take something pretty remarkable to surpass it.

The setup of a horror writer returning to his hometown to find the things he writes about are real is a well-used one, going back at least as far as Salem’s Lot, and I imagine further. I bring this up not because I think it’s a flaw (there’s a reason it has been used so many times – it works) but because when Jake is finally made aware of what’s going on, his immediate reaction is that it’s a cliché. This delighted me.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of the book, since it goes in some directions you can’t predict, so I’ll just leave you with this: If you haven’t read Soultaker, and every other book by Bryan Smith, you should do so immediately.

Rest Stop 2: Don't Look Back

(Spoiler warning: this will, of necessity, discuss some plot points from the first Rest Stop movie. If you haven’t seen the first one, don’t read this if you don’t want to know what happened to some of the characters.)

I’m one of the few people who liked the movie Rest Stop, so I was looking forward to Rest Stop 2: Don’t Look Back. I enjoyed it about as well as the first one.

When the movie starts, it’s been a years since Nicole and Jesse disappeared. We know they’re dead, but the folks back home don’t. Jesse’s brother Tom is just back from the Iraq war, and he sets out to find what happened to his brother, along with Nicole’s best friend Marilyn, and his friend Jared, who satisfies the rule that in every horror movie, there must be one character who annoys the hell out of you. They retrace Jesse and Nicole’s path, even though there’s no way they would know which route they took. They find success when they run into a creepy convenience store operator, who directs them along the path to the rest stop where most of the first movie took place, giving them an ambiguous warning in the process.

The first movie concealed that it was a ghost story for most of the way, but the sequel has no reason not to be up-front about it. All the ectoplasmic characters from the first one are back, including the mysterious pickup driver and the weird fundamentalist family, and now Nicole and Jesse are haunting the area as well, which amps up the guilt quotient for the new characters.

The movie fills in some of the backstory about the driver and the weird family, and partially explains why they haunt the rest stop (although not why they kill those who pass by), and there is introduced a mystical way to defeat the ghosts, which gives the characters something to work for.

If you liked the first Rest Stop, I think you’ll probably like this one, too, and if you didn’t like the first one, you probably shouldn’t bother. The ending leaves open the possibility for further movies in the series, which is good or bad news depending on whether you like them.

Day of the Dead (remake)

I have no one but myself to blame for these things. A horror movie comes out, it seems obvious that it will be awful, all reviews confirm this, and I watch it anyway. Is there rehab for this? The latest example of my problem is the recent remake (in the loosest terms imaginable, it has almost nothing to do with the original, other than a character name or two) of Day of the Dead. It had an additional warning to the usual, since the DVD cover has the worst artwork I’ve ever seen, featuring a puking zombie. I expected the worse, and it didn’t disappoint me.

A small town in Colorado suffers an outbreak of a strange illness. The army quarantines the town, although no one tells them not to go around town without Hazmat suits or masks. There’s no point in remarking on all the military errors in the movie, but I would point out that privates don’t “Yes, Sir!” and salute corporals. The important military personnel are Ving Rhames as the Captain, who was cast because he was in the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and his presence here might fool people into thinking the two movies are related, Mena Suvari as the Corporal, who is also from the town that is quarantined and has family there, which gives her an excuse to ignore orders when she wants, and Nick Cannon as the Private, whose role is to give the movie urban appeal, I guess. Rhanes doesn’t last long, but Suvari, Cannon and a few other survivors end up in the zombie-overrun town fighting for their lives, etc., etc. Nothing happens that will surprise you.

There are a few things that are different about the movie. Taking the “running zombies vs. shambling zombies” one step further, these zombies leap about in sort of a wire-fu experience. They also explode into sparkles like the vampires in Blade II when touched by flame, apparently for no reason than it looked cool. And the zombies seem to retain some intelligence, using guns (poorly) and in at least one instance, driving.

Some things will drive you nuts. After they are cornered by the zombies, someone asks Suvari why she doesn’t shoot them with her pistol, she reveals the gun is unloaded, and when asked why, says “It’s a complicated story.” Obviously, this will be a plot point, but the story is never told, and doesn’t seem to have any function whatsoever.

Also, the movie title is Day of the Dead, and all of the action takes place at night, which I think is a legitimate criticism.

Be a stronger person than I am. Avoid Day of the Dead like you would, well, zombies.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

To Wake The Dead

To Wake The Dead (known as Amara in many markets) is a posthumously-published Richard Laymon novel about a resurrected mummy on the loose. I was looking forward to it, as a mummy has been a totemic horror icon since the release of the 1932 version of The Mummy, but one that rarely pops up in fiction.

(Students of human behavior talk about our Great White Whales – tasks we can’t complete or goals we can’t achieve. From a reading point of view, my Great White Whale is Anne Rice’s The Mummy. I am not a fan of Ms. Rice. I found Interview With The Vampire to be worthwhile, but the rest of her work I’ve read, I find unbearably awful. I also blame her for the trend of vampires in entertainment talking like freshmen in Philosophy 101. Nonetheless, a friend gave me The Mummy when it was published, almost twenty years ago, and I’ve tried to read it ever since. I’ve made at least six determined efforts to read it, and never made it to page 100. I will read it one day, perhaps post-senility.)

To Wake The Dead has a simple plot, although there is a complicated structure. The basic story is familiar: Amara, a wife of a Pharoah, is mummified along with her baby, cursed to live eternally. The protective seal is broken, and she goes on a rampage to find her baby, which was burned 150 years earlier. Carnage ensues.

I’m a big fan of Laymon. He is one of the most underappreciated authors ever to work in horror. But, while the book is entertaining, this isn’t anywhere near one of his best. There are far to many subplots: People held in bizarre sexual slavery, a homeless woman stalking a cop’s girlfriend, the custodian of the estate which owned Amara’s sexual peccadilloes, and so on. This was published posthumously, and you have to wonder if there would have been more substantial editing/rewriting had Laymon lived. There have been rumors that Dean Koontz, who was a friend of Richard Laymon, and who writes the introduction to the book, may have done some work on it. (Part of the story is told from the viewpoint of a dog, which Koontz readers will recognize as a trademark.) I have no idea if this is true, but if so, part of the problem might be their styles just don’t mix. Still it was a fun read, just not up to Laymon’s usual high standards.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Black Cathedral

When I reviewed Maynard and Sims’ previous novel (not yet ported over to this site), I mentioned it reminded me a bit of the popular series of novels by Preston Child. In Black Cathedral, their third novel, the resemblance is even more closely drawn. Maynard and Sims are apparently beginning a series of stories about Department 18, a shadowy part of the English government dedicated to investigating paranormal events.

A group of executives are dropped off on a remote Scottish island for a series of wilderness-based team-building exercises. The island itself apparently turns against them, and the entire group, along with the staff at the manor house and a helicopter pilot, disappear. Department 18 sends in a team led by Jane Talbot and her former lover, Robert Carter, one of the most gifted psychics in Department 18’s employ. Carter is just beginning to recover from his previous mission, in which his young partner disappeared.

The team finds a centuries-old horror on the island, and find themselves embroiled in a plot hatched by an apparently undying mystic. Their investigation turns into a struggle to stop the evil plan – and to survive.

Although I felt the ending was a bit abrupt, with a little deus ex machina, this was a very enjoyable book. If you’ve ever wanted to see what a British version of the X-Files would be like, I’d advise you to give it a go.

Trivia: One of the things I learned from this book (unless it’s an in-joke I didn’t get) is that the British really love cardamom in their coffee.

Pod of Horror # 50

The latest episode of horror's premier podcast, the Pod of Horror, is now available for download here. Mark Justice interviews Scott Sigler, and the writing team of John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow, while Nanci Kalanta has the latest horror news.

Rest Stop

Nicole and Jesse leave their home in Texas to make a new start in California. Since this is a horror movie, you know that’s not a good idea. Just pass the California border; they have a run-in with a redneck in a yellow pickup. After they stop at a rest stop (hence the title) for Nicole to use the restroom, things go horribly wrong. Jesse is kidnapped, and Nicole is marooned in the isolated waystation, at the mercy of the mysterious stranger.

Her efforts to escape come to naught, as she encounters a bizarre hyper-religious family, and discovers a tortured young girl hiding in the closet of the rest stop. The girl has been kidnapped and tortured by the man in the yellow truck – in 1971.

There are logic holes in the plot. The mysterious driver returns repeatedly to torment Nicole, but she never thinks of hiding in the nearby woods. She also has the horror victim’s tendency to discard any potential weapons, although in fairness, they wouldn’t have done her any good.

This 2006 movie by former X-Files writer John Shiban is not exactly well loved, but I enjoyed it. It becomes a better movie once you understand the origin of the driver of the yellow pickup, which you don’t get until halfway through the credits.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Dawn

In addition to talent and perseverance, one of the ways that Brian Keene rose to his current level of popularity was his connection to his fans. Few if any writers in the horror field have fans who are as loyal and passionate about their work. Part of this comes from Keene’s efforts to connect with those fans, whether in person or on the internet, through his message board, and part is because he comes off as generally caring about his readers, being the kind of guy who you can imagine sitting and having a beer with you, not only talking to you but listening to you.

He has been generous with those fans, and, at the end of 2008, that generosity manifested itself in a rare way: As a Christmas gift, the registered members of his message board received a free chapbook (available only to them) titled New Dawn. This chapbook also shows generosity to some of Keene’s writer friends, as it contains, five stories, one by Keene and the others by talented but less well known writers. The denizens of the message board got a chapbook as a gift, while these writers received the gift of having their work read by 350 or so people who are avid fans of their type of writing.

The first story, “Waiting for Darkness” by Keene, is the shortest in the chapbook (it originally appeared on t-shirt sold by Cemetery Dance). A quick tale of an unfortunate day at the beach, it was reminiscent of some of Fredric Brown’s short-shorts.

“Scenic Pastures” by Nate Southard is a story of a pig farmer who supplements his income in a pragmatic way – he uses the pigs as a body disposal service. His grim sideline turns even darker when he takes on a new client who pays him to be rid of some unusual corpses.

The only writer in the volume other than Keene whose work I was familiar with, Maurice Broaddus contributes “Night of the Living Baseheads”, best described as The Wire meets Night of the Living Dead, as a dealer finds his new “Black Zombie” brand of heroin is a little too accurately described.

In “Bloodlegum and Lolliknives”, Bob Ford shows us Halloween trick-or-treating where the psycho child-killer is the least frightening character.

Kelli Dunlap, the former proprietor of Horror Web who has now turned to writing herself, crafts “How Does That Make You Feel?” the story of a therapy group consisted of incarcerated serial killers, and illustrates what happens when the therapist lets things get out of hand.

So five authors, four of them not yet household names, with five excellent stories. I usually recommend buying a book like this, but I imagine it will be difficult to come by, so you are probably out of luck if you don’t already have it. But keep the names in mind, as all have more fiction due out in the near future.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Snazzing up the Place

Many, many thanks to my friend John Hornor Jacobs for designing a new logo for this site, and some new stuff for the sidebar as well. John is a gifted artist, while I am, well, something like a squirrel trying to teach itself HTML. I am very grateful.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Deadly Mantis

My dear BW has a weakness for Giant Thing movies. Godzilla, King Kong, etc. To be honest, I find them a hoot, also. One of our favorite things is to cuddle up on a rainy day with a super-sized tub of popcorn and the two dogs, and watch some cheesy giant monster movie. The most recent of these was the recently-released-on-DVD The Deadly Mantis. It is a classic of the genre, unintentionally hilarious.

The movie opens with what you assume will be brief map-and-narration exposition about the Arctic, the DEW line, and various defense department projects. This doesn’t end. It goes on for minutes and minutes, with more and more dotted lines drawn on the map. I opine to BW that they must have been hedging their bets, if the movie didn’t work out, they’d just sell the first half to schools for educational purposes. BW just munched her popcorn. At last it ended, and we were on to the meat of the film.

Apparently, millions and millions of years ago, the earth, in addition to the dinosaurs, the Earth was populated by giant praying mantises, who had the power to ignore the squared/cubed law. One of these mantises was caught hanging around the North Pole when an ice age unexpectedly struck, and got frozen solid. In cheesy movies, freezing never hurts anything (see Batman and Robin), so when the giant mantis thaws out, it wakes up, thinks “”holy shit, it's cold around here”, and heads for the equator, flying at high speeds, snacking on humans along the way. But not so fast, my exo-skeleton-wearing friend! The Distant Early Warning system, which kept all of us except me from having to learn Russian, detects the creature, and a crack team of military officers and scientists spring into action, saying insightful things like “The mantis is the deadliest of all predators”, and attacking the mantis with fighter planes, which are no match for the mantis, but finally wear it down, forcing it to land in the continental U.S. There we are treated to the film’s special effects set piece, a quick look at a praying mantis (possibly a grasshopper) walking on a photograph of a building. The creature is finally destroyed through the noble efforts of our brave heroes. But who knows what else is frozen up there?

Highly recommended. Although it can’t stack up against Them!, this is probably one of the top ten all-time giant bug movies.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Flight of the Living Dead

I received Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane as a freebie in the mail. Although I expected very little from it, I was surprised at how much my wife and I enjoyed it.

The basic premise/plot of the movie is right there in the title: On a trans-Atlantic flight, a group of unscrupulous doctors are transporting in storage a person infected with a virus that causes the infected individual to become a zombie. Fortunately, it is a smooth flight, nothing really happens, and the plane lands in Paris without incident. Ha! Of course not. The plane runs into bad weather, the containment system is breached, and soon the passengers are fighting for their lives against a growing horde of zombies.

There isn’t much original about the movie other than the location, but the familiar zombie tropes are handled well. In fact, the filmmakers seem to be giving winks at the familiar elements in the script. The pilot is about to retire after one last flight, a federal marshall is escorting a hand-cuffed prisoner, and, of course, there is a nun on board. (In movies, any airplane in peril has a nun as a passenger). The cast is stocked with a variety of talented characters actors such as Erich Avari and Kevin O’Connor, who you will recognize even if you don’t know their names. There is a good deal of humor, which doesn’t seem as forced as in most horror-comedies. It isn’t Citizen Kane, but why would you expect a movie called Flight of the Living Dead to be Citizen Kane? Recommended for anyone who wants to kick back, and have some zombie fun with their popcorn.

A quibble and a complaint.

The climax of the movie features the familiar explosive decompression, which as always goes on for minutes. It’s “explosive” decompression! It is over in a second, and then won’t recur with a new hull puncture. Everyone gets that wrong.

The complaint concerns sound, and isn’t directed at this movie, but at the DVD industry as a whole. Since getting a home entertainment sound system, I’ve come to appreciate DTS sound. No other sound system comes close. Few movies are presented with DTS, however, and this direct-to-video, low-budget movie is an exception. The sound is beautiful, rich DTS. My complaint is, if this relatively low-budget offering can appear on DVD in DTS sound, why can’t more of the big budget feature films?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Cellar

The Cellar, first published in 1980, is a story of horror on two levels. The first is a semi-supernatural form of terror not that uncommon to the genre. The second, and more chilling, is a human form of horror that is frightening because it is plausible.

The more human terror begins with Donna and her 12-year-old daughter Sandy. Donna’s ex-husband, Roy, is released from prison after serving six years for raping Sandy. Donna understands what this means, and grabs Sandy and flees. Roy follows, intent on punishing his ex-wife and daughter for sending him to prison, leaving dead bodies in his wake, and along the way, kidnapping a pre-teen girl, who he graphically abuses. Donna’s flight ends in Malcasa, home of the legendary Beast House, which is said to be plagued by a monster that kills anyone who is in the house after dark. Donna’s path intersects that of a protector, Judgement Rucker, who has been hired by a survivor of the Beast House to kill the monster within.

This was Richard Laymon’s first published story, and is supposedly his best-selling book. The violence and depiction of the sexual abuse are still extreme for today, and must have been mind-blowing in 1980. For all its graphic nature, the story seems a bit familiar, and you have a clear sense of where it’s heading – until the last chapter, when all preconceptions are dashed, and there is a shocking, unanticipated conclusion. There the real genius of Richard Laymon, one of the genre’s great writers, is revealed.

Horror: The Best 100 Books puts The Cellar at #83 on its list. If anything, it is underrated. This was the first in Laymon’s Beast House Chronicles, followed, in order, by The Beast House, The Midnight Tour, and Friday Night in the Beast House.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stephen Grant on Robert E. Howard

Stephen Grant writes an interesting column every week at Comic book Resources on the comic industry, politics, and many other things. His most recent column looks at the work of Robert E. Howard, and is well worth checking out. Somehow, I never knew the Conan reprints of the 60s and 70s had been severely edited by L. Sprague de Camp, which makes me want to read the unexpurgated versions. Check out the column here.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Among The Missing

If you have ever read anything on my site, you know I am a huge fan of the late Richard Laymon, one of the great underappreciated writers. Fortunately for me, Laymon was quite prolific, and there are a number of his books I missed, which I am now able to read for the first time. The most recent of these is Among The Missing.

This is one of Laymon’s more crime-oriented novels. There are no supernatural elements involved in the plot, although it is filled with trademark Laymon sex and violence.

Bass and his girlfriend Faye go canoeing. As they are walking to the river, they happen upon a naked man and woman lying on a blanket. Although they try not to disturb them, the man wakes up, runs to the river, and swims to the other side. With the woman’s head. This begins a fast-moving story which sees the local Sheriff and his deputy/daughter-in-law attempt to solve the murder. All evidence points to Merton, a drug dealer who gets off on raping young boys, but there are characteristic Laymon twists in the plot. There are a couple of small plot holes, but you probably won’t notice them until after the fact. As with everything Laymon writes, this is recommended.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Return of Ronald Kelly

Back at the tail end of the horror boom, Ronald Kelly emerged as one of the very best writers in the genre, and probably the most Southern horror writer working. The collapse of horror publishing derailed his momentum before he became a household word, most if not all his work passed out of print, and Ron pretty much stopped writing for a number of years. This was a big loss to the genre and to you personally, if you didn’t have an opportunity to read his work the first time around.

At a time when most of the news, whether you’re talking about horror writing or the world in general, is bad, here is some positive words for you: Ronald Kelly is back. For the last year or so, he has become more visible in the field publishing a couple of chapbooks and giving a great reading at Hypericon. 2009 could well be the year of Ronald Kelly, since Full Moon Press has made the wise decision to reprint his early novels in deluxe hard covers, packaged as the Essential Ronald Kelly collection. There will be nine of these reprints, starting with Undertaker’s Moon and ending with Blood Kin. The new editions will come with an additional novella and the back-story on the book. These nine not-to-be-missed books will be paving the way for brand new material from Mr. Kelly. I don’t think there has ever been reprints I’ve been as excited about, and if you’re a horror fan (you’re reading a blog with the unimaginative but unmistakable title of Dead in the South; either you are a horror fan or you’re lost) you won’t want to miss any of these.

More information about the books can be found at Ronald Kelly’s website, and the books can be ordered through Full Moon Press.


In 2001, the horror genre lost, at an untimely age, one of its greatest lights when Richard Laymon succumbed to a heart attack. Laymon never really got the recognition from the general audience he deserved in life, but was, after Stephen King, arguably the most influential writer of recent times in terms of his impact on other writers. To honor his memory, Cemetery Dance commissioned an anthology called In Laymon’s Terms, where writers would write about their experiences with Mr. Laymon, and author stories that would be an homage to him. Due to production delays, In Laymon’s Terms has not yet been published, but horror writer Brian Keene has expanded his entry in the book (the story can also be read in his excellent collection Fear of Gravity) into a full length novel, Castaways.

Generally when writers try to write in another writer’s style, the results are less than sparkling, as they bury their own voice in an attempt to copy another author. That isn’t the case here. Keene has managed to blend his own style with Laymon’s themes to produce a book which is among Keene’s very best, and would rank among Laymon’s very best as well.

The novel focuses on a reality TV show, which is more or less Survivor, named Castaways. A number of people are in the early stages of a competition where they are marooned on an uninhabited Pacific island, competing to see who the last one left will be. Unbeknownst to them, there will be a more challenging, real-life competition, as the island isn’t so uninhabited. A vicious race of man-like creatures lives in the caves on the island. At the same time a powerful typhoon washes over the island, the creatures attack the contestants, desiring them for food, and for breeding purposes. The contestants pretend game of survival turns all too real. Instead of fighting to see who will be sthe last one left to claim a million dollars, they are fighting to see who will survive.

There is a connection to Laymon’s work (the creatures seem to be the same from the Beast House trilogy), as well as connective bits to Keene’s other work, and to H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. You don’t have to have any knowledge of any of these other stories, as Castaways stands on its own just fine, but these things are an added treat for the hard-core fan.

Castaways, which will be published at the end of the month by Leisure, is visceral, exciting, and flows amazingly well. If you are already a Keene fan, you certainly won’t want to miss this book. If you are already a fan, this would be a great place to start.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

My Favorite Books of 2008

A little late, but here is my list of my favorite reads of 2008. They are in no particular order, since I’ve found in the past when I order these things, I change my opinion from day to day, so they are presented in roughly reverse order to which I read them (or at least reviewed them). A couple of rules: These are books I read for the first time in 2008. I omitted favorites I re-read, and I didn’t check to make sure they were all published in 2008, so don’t e-mail me with “Kent, you idiot! The Castle of Otranto was published in 1764, not 2008.” I debated on whether to include books I had an opportunity to read but aren’t available to the general public, and finally decided to go ahead, so there are two books that you cannot yet purchase. It was a tough decision, but the other day I was lounging in the hot tub with Jessica Biel and Angelina Jolie (we had sent Jessica Alba to fetch drinks, she’s such a ditz) and Jessica No. 1 said “What’s the point of having things the little people can’t unless you rub their noses in it?” Angelina and I agreed wholeheartedly.

Ghost Walk, Brian Keene – Keene is on the top of current horror writers, and his conclusion (?) of the LeHorn’s Hollow story began in Dark Hallow was Keene at his best. Poor Adam Senft.

Invisible Fences, Norman Prentiss - Probably the highlight of belonging to the Cemetery Dance 2008 book club was getting the ARC of this novella. It should be published in early 2009. Don’t stand too close to it, or you’ll get hit with the barrage of awards it’s going to win. If I were going to rank the books of 2008, today this would be # 1.

Southern Gods, John Hornor Jacobs – Full disclosure, John’s a friend of mine. That doesn’t affect my opinion of his unpublished Southern horror novel. I read a draft form of the book, and even with some tweaking yet to be done, it is still a great book. Some publisher needs to grab this one up.

Mama’s Boy and Other Dark Tales, Fran Friel – If I had missed Hypericon ’08, I wouldn’t have attended Fran’s reading of one of her stories, and might not have read this collection of short stories. This would have meant I would have missed the best single author collection of 2008.

Hawg, Steven Shrewsbury – Gonzo, over-the-top sex and violence. Some people might not read this book about a mutant man-pig because they think the synopsis is too out there, but they will miss a hell of a book.

Orgy of Souls, Maurice Broaddus & Wrath James White – Two writers coming from such different places as White and Broaddus shouldn’t be able to combine to produce such a good and thought-provoking book, but they did.

Queen of Blood, Bryan Smith – 2008 was the year I discovered Bryan Smith, the next star of the horror field. The amazing thing is, he seems to be getting better.

Deeper, James A. Moore – I love aquatic-based horror, and this semi-sequel to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was outstanding.

House of Blood, Bryan Smith – Bryan Smith’s first book, many people think it is his weakest. Must be nice to have your weakest book be great.

Vampyrrhic, Simon Clark – It received its first hardback publication from Cemetery Dance in 2008. The most “classic” horror on the list.

Ennui and Other States of Madness, David Niall Wilson – The other great single author collection of 2008. Wilson may be the best writer working in the field of short stories now, at the very least he’s a contender for that title.

Money Shot, Christa Faust – The first book published by Hard Case Crime from a female author, this is a brand new hard-boiled classic.

The Freakshow, Bryan Smith – Have you picked up on the hints that I really, really like Bryan’s Smith’s novels? This might be his most envelope-pushing book to date.

Duma Key, Stephen King – A lot of people take potshots at Stephen King because he won’t write The Stand again. Duma Key is a mature work of a great writer, and managed at one point to break my heart. That’s not an easy trick.

A Dangerous Man, Charlie Huston – The conclusion of the Hank Thompson trilogy. If your definition of noir emphasizes a rising feeling of hopelessness, these three books might rank at the top of 21st century noir.

Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis – At first glance, this is a series of scenes designed to shock a reader. Those who dig deeper will realize in addition to entertainment, this has something serious to say about America and the role of power in it.

A Dark and Deadly Valley, edited by Mark Heffernan – I’m a sucker for Weird War Tales, but even if I wasn’t, this collection of stories with a World War II theme would be my favorite anthology read in 2008.

Ridicule is welcome in the comments.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Horror Of It All

Although they were dying as the result of censorship by the time I came into the world, I’ve always had a soft spot for the old horror comics, which flourished in the 1950s. Often cheesy, they reveled in surprising graphic (which is what did them in) stories of revenge, monsters and comeuppance. The best known were EC Comic’s titles such as Tales from the Crypt, but there were many others. In the wake of public attacks on their lurid violence and supposed immorality (although the vast majority were morality tales, with greed and lust leading to horrible fates), they were supplanted almost completely by superheroes in the comics of the 1950s.

If you wish to check out these four-color nasties for yourself, an excellent blog titled The Horror Of It All is posting a story a day from the golden age of horror comics. Give it a look, I think you’ll be delighted. Thanks to Mark Justice for clueing me in on this site.


Friday, January 9, 2009

Flesh For The Beast

If you like horror films, you are going to end up watching a lot of turkeys. The genre doesn’t get a lot of publicity, and reviews in general of horror movies tend to be on the negative side, as a lot of critics (following the lead of Pauline Kael) don’t like them from the start. So you watch the movies, sifting through the trash to try to find the odd gem, and discover, in the process, it is a lot easier to make an appealing boxcover than an appealing film.

Which brings us to Flesh For The Beast, which has a decent boxcover without much movie inside it. The plot is basically a reworking of The Haunting Of Hill House, if it had been written by Shoeless Joe Jackson instead of Shirley Jackson.* A group of dim-witted psychic researchers are brought to a haunted house (which used to be a whorehouse) to investigate. Unbeknownst to them, the man who hired them wants to use them to find a magic amulet, which has the power to…do something, I suppose. Anyway, the researchers immediately split up (of course) and the same scene is repeated over and over: Idiot researcher walks into a room, where there is a woman who shouldn’t be there. Despite the fact that he has been brought to the house to look for ghosts, the possibility the unknown woman might be one never occurs to him. She strips, sexes him up, then there is a cut to the woman-ghost wearing a Wal-Mart quality mask, and she rips him to shred. The repetition and the number of sex scenes are reminiscent of a porn flick, except porn usually has a better script. The film also uses the most static camera I have ever seen. The only time the camera moves is to slowly pan up and down during the unavoidable shower scene.

One interesting note for the horror fan: Most of the characters are named after horror writers. There is a Jack Ketchum, a Douglas Clegg, a Stoker and a Shelley. This could be an homage, or, considering how stupid these characters are, the filmmaker may have a grudge against the named authors. Avoid this.

* Shoeless Joe Jackson is widely believed to have been illiterate. That’s the joke, such that it is.

Five Across The Eyes

I believe in cutting indie filmmakers a bit of slack. When Michael Bay runs into a problem on Bad Boys 9, he has $200 million to throw at it. An independent guy has whatever credit is left on the card his brother loaned him. Five Across The Eyes is definitely trying to make a horror movie on a shoestring, and, for the most part, it succeeds.

Five young women going home after a football game take an ill-advised shortcut in east Tennessee (this is a similar setup to Bryan Smith’s great novel House of Blood, so a new Universal Rule: When driving through east Tennessee, stay on the goddamned interstate). The shortcut becomes a nightmare when they get lost, and are chased and tormented by an obviously deranged woman. That’s about it for plot outline, although it isn’t really inadequate for its purposes.

The movie was filmed on digital video near Morristown, Tennessee (also where The Evil Dead was filmed), and seems to have used mostly local talent, as the accents match the location. The girls are supposed to be 15 or 16 years old, and the actresses are too old for the parts, but that is par for the course. Although cast members have few if any professional credits, for the most part they do a competent job. (I did think the actress playing Isabelle was prone to bizarre facial expressions, but maybe she was supposed to have Tourette’s). All of the characters with the exception of Melanie are unremittingly dumb, but that may have been necessary to the story.

There are two central self-imposed rules by the people making the film. The first is the film occurs in real time, a tradition that goes back at least as far as Robert Wise’s classic The Set-Up. This works well, as the action should be compressed for this story. The second is that filming occurs from within the van in which the girls are riding. I understand that this was at least partly to build a sense of claustrophobia and feeling trapped in the van, but it doesn’t always work. There is no reason for it other than just being the director’s choice, since the camera POV moves around within the van, and there are a few sequences where the action moves outside the van and it is difficult to tell what the hell is going on. I wish they had been a little more lax about that rule.

This is another movie that I feel doesn’t have enough story to reach its 90 minute length, and to make it last, the characters commit one of the common horror movie errors that just drive me crazy. Their antagonist is one crazy woman with a shotgun, and on several occasions when she is briefly incapacitated, they refuse the opportunity to finish her off. I understand the girls may be a little delicate, but when you’ve been tortured by a psycho, it’s okay to give her an extra whack with a crowbar to make sure she stays down. They finally get past this at the end of the movie. There are also occasions when the psycho woman is attacking one of their friends, and the girls could take her out by ganging up on her, but instead wait their turn.

Despite all this, this is a pretty good little film. It effectively transmits the panic of the girls, and doesn’t make the mistake of trying to explain why the psycho is freaking out. The not knowing why you’re being targeted adds to the terror. Unless you’re bothered with watching a movie filmed with a sometimes shaky handheld camera, it is probably worth a rental.

As a trivial note, this is one of the rare films to have no male speaking parts (the only men in the cast play corpses). Also as trivia, the title Five Across The Eyes is slang for a slap (five fingers across the eyes, get it?), but the filmmakers try to needlessly justify the great title by having the girls call the section of Tennessee they are traveling through "The Eyes". Five girls traveling across The Eyes. It would have been easier to have the psycho scream "I'll give you five across the eyes!" at a crucial point and leave it at that.


Ancient Images

Ramsey Campbell is one of the few writers who can be deservedly called Grand Masters of the genre. Stephen King, Richard Matheson, probably Peter Straub…it’s a short list. Despite, my admiration for him, there are several of his novels that I missed the first time around, either because it slipped by unnoticed (even at the height of the horror boom, Campbell seemed under publicized here) or they came out while I was taking a break from horror. Thus, I often have the pleasure of reading a “new old” Campbell novel. The latest of these is Ancient Images.

The premise of Ancient Images is one that grabbed me in particular. A film researcher discovers a lost horror film from the 30s, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi called Tower of Fear. (I really found myself wanting to see this imaginary movie, since Karloff and Lugosi are favorites of mine) A young film editor friend watches the researcher die in a strange manner before the film, which disappears, can be shown, and begins a quest to find it. The more she searches, the more strange events occur, until she finally reaches the village of Redfield, where she learns the movie was a little too close to the truth to be allowed to exist. In Redfield, she finds human sacrifice, and a supernatural attachment to the land. There is quite a bit of history of English film censorship along the way. The ending does seem slightly forced, but the book flows well. I’ve always thought Campbell’s work fell on the boundary between “quiet horror” and “splatterpunk” and there are elements of both here.

This book is one of Campbell’s best. I found it very reminiscent of Arthur Machen, which is a high compliment. There are also elements that recall the movie The Wicker Man (English version). Fortunately, nothing that brings to mind the remake of Wicker Man, so you don't have Nicholas Cage running around in a bear suit. It won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel in 1989, but is sadly out of print. Used copies are easy to come by, and I would suggest anyone who wants to read horror done well to check it out.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

There's A Reason It Starts with 'Twit'

Apparently, the Twitter widget in the sidebar has started asking for a username & password from anyone who visits this site. My apologies, that is as annoying as all hell. Just click "cancel" and it should be fine. if this problem doesn't clear up in a couple of days, I'll remove the widget. Apparently, the entire Twitter network is having trouble.

Skinned Alive

Jeffrey Shapiro is a sad lonely man. Living by himself in his mother’s house after her death, he yearns for female companionship. Despite being reasonably nice looking, with his own home and a good job (insurance), no woman will give him the time of day. He is reduced to hiring a succession of hookers for sex, but he still dreams of finding a girl and getting married. He doesn’t realize he’s getting more action from the hookers, and cheaper, to boot.

Pandora is a hooker. But not just any hooker. She’s also a cannibal, who has to eat (literally) someone once a day. This has to be bad for business, as it would be hell on repeat business, but she perseveres. Amazingly, none of her victims really seem to fight back. I think if someone started to tear my flesh off with their teeth, I would at least try to slap weakly at them, but maybe I’m just a manly man.

Anonymous stalker guy is a dude who used to hire hookers for his younger, mentally handicapped brother, until he hired Pandora, who chowed down on little brother. Now he’s after Pandora, to kill her, and engaging in a little torture and murder to find her.

Pandora and Jeffrey intersect when he hires her services. Surprisingly, she doesn’t eat him (that way), and they fall in love. He’s a little put off when he finds out she’s a cannibal, but hell, no woman’s perfect. He’s so sweet he even starts grabbing victims for her. It looks like they’re going to live happily ever after, until Anonymous Stalker Guy finally catches up with Pandora.

It’s not a bad film. Like a lot of modern movies, it has the feel of a 45 to 60 minute story padded to 90 minutes, and there are parts that are wretchedly slow. Scenes to establish that Jeffrey is a hopeless loser continue long after we’re convinced of the fact. Still, the central story is interesting, and the final plot twist is not the one everyone would expect (and the movie is smart enough to discuss the possibility of the obvious twist). If you’re in to cannibal movies, this would probably do it for you.

It does contain one exchange I thought was hilarious, right after Pandora demonstrates graphically her cannibalistic nature to Jeffrey:

Jeffrey: I wasn’t sure how to tell my family you’re not Jewish. I don’t know how I’ll explain this. You’re not Jewish, are you?

Pandora: I’m an abomination to God.

Jeffrey: You’re a Mormon?!

Well, it made me laugh.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hostel Part II

I don’t know whether there is really a point to doing much of a review for Hostel II. If you are interested at all in seeing it, you probably watched the first one, and if you did, you know what is going to happen, since it is basically the same movie.

Hostel II starts right after the events of Hostel. We learn what happened to Jay Hernandez’ character from the first film in a somewhat unnecessary prologue, then begin to follow three American girls on holiday in Europe. That’s the major plot twist: first movie, three guys, second movie, three girls. I did find the movie worked well on one level. You know from the beginning the fate to which the girls are heading, so there is a palpable sense of dread that builds as the film progresses. Although the movie has gotten a lot of attention for the quantity of gore and torture, the creepiest scene to me was when the motel clerk sent the girls passport photos over the internet for an auction to see who would “buy” which girl. The coldness of this seemed closer to true horror than the actual torture scenes.

I like a lot about the controversial director of these films, Eli Roth. I think he works the camera well, handles dialogue with ease, and gets good performances out of his mostly unknown actors. One day, I hope to see him direct something with a little more plot.

The upshot is, if you liked Hostel, you’ll probably like Hostel II.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Horror Is (Un)Dead

A lot of the news, rumor and gossip on the internet in the last few weeks have concerned the death of horror fiction. The economy has tanked, big retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble are rumored to be in trouble, small press publishers are struggling, and it is harder for authors to find paying markets. I don’t doubt that all of this is true, but I don’t think it is time to panic just yet. There are negative portents, but no need to jump out of the window.

The first problem I have with the Horror Is Dead (HID) proposition is that the horror genre exists in some sort of a binary universe, in which it is either deceased or alive and well. To my untrained eye, it seems to be more of a sine curve, rising and falling in cycles. The horror fiction field is certainly worse off than it was five years ago, but it is certainly better off than it was fifteen years ago. Five years ago it was a lot worse than twenty years ago, and so on. Here’s the universal rule: Things are never as bad as they seem at their worst, and they are never as good as they are at their best.

There is always a market for horror stories. Spooky tales have been around since pre-written language storytellers, and they will be around when all our reading is done through a chip implanted in our brain. It’s hard to imagine someone won’t figure out how to use the desire to read horror to make a buck.

One of the biggest concerns is the health of the small press that has become the backbone of the horror publishing market. Imprints are closing their doors, going dormant, or trying to re-tool, which is undeniable. But at least part of this can be laid at the feet of the contraction of the “collector” market.

Like beanie babies, baseball cards and comic books before it, there was a surge (a much smaller surge) of sales tied to people buying horror with an eye toward using it as an investment. Purchase a limited edition, signed, re-marked, numbered or lettered book for a slightly inflated price, and watch it earn money as it sits sealed in mylar in your closet. I can’t count the number of times someone has said/written “my book collection is my 401(k)”. Not that real 401(k)s are doing that great, but I hope the people who invested this way don’t end up living under a bridge. The rush to purchaser books for their theoretical re-sale value was a fad, and all fad bubbles burst.

What you see today is a secondary market where the works of a few popular authors (Brian Keene and few others) still command high prices, but for most authors, you can purchase them on ebay or through Amazon at significantly lower than cover prices. I purchased a year’s subscription from the leading small press, Cemetery Dance. I love them to death (their ability to meet deadlines notwithstanding), but it amuses me that they refer to me and other subscribers as “collectors” in messages. This despite one of the selections from the club selling on ebay at under $10, with a $30 cover price. It would be nice if they would think of me as someone who loves well-written books published in a quality edition instead. Another rule: Books are for reading, not for sealing in a vault.

It’s hard for writers trying to make it today, but it’s always been hard. I doubt there has been a time since the end of the 80s boom when there has been ten horror authors who were making a good living off nothing but horror fiction. I hate that this is true, but it is the way the world is. If you are an author whose ambition is to be published in a bound-in-human-skin-limited-to-five-copies-$1250 edition, you’re probably out of luck. Unfortunately, if your ambition is to get rich writing books about werewolves, the odds are against you, too. But if your desire is to have your work read by an audience that appreciates it, I still believe you can make it, with talent and determination.

The preceding is, of course, just my opinion, and given my track record, no one will be able to remember what a vampire is in five years.

The Mad

The Mad is one of a wave of recent “zomb-edies” (Shaun of the Dead, Dead and Breakfast, Undead), zombie movies that are comedies. Judging by this movie, the shallow wave may have petered out.

Billy Zane (who is actually quite good in his role) plays a widowed doctor who is on vacation with his new girlfriend, his teenage daughter, and her boyfriend. The daughter is one of those walking advertisements for abortion, whining and complaining about everything. The group stops for the night in a rural community in upstate New York, where everyone talks in a deep Southern accent, something I didn’t know about New York State. Unbeknownst to them, the local cattle farmer has been using additives in his cow feed that turn all that eat the beef into zombies (it also brings the beef itself to life, resulting in a number of cow patty attacks on the luckless humans). Together with the cook at the diner and his stepdaughter, they go through the usual routine of trying to stay alive and put an end to the zombie epidemic.

The movie tries a little too hard to be funny. Instead of emphasizing the inherently humorous aspects of the zombie genre, a la Shaun of the Dead, the jokes here are forced. The movie becomes increasingly slapstick as it goes along. And (Spoiler Alert!) I was very disappointed the whiney daughter doesn’t get eaten. As I said, I thought the now-bald Billy Zane did a good job, he’s just lost in the shuffle.

The one thing I did find amusingly, which won’t mean much to most viewers, is when the four survivors have a debate as to whether the enemies they are facing are really zombies, and what constitutes a true zombie, whether the creature in question must be dead or alive, whether it has to be dead first, etc., etc. What makes this funny to me is having seen the exact same debate on horror message boards.

Webnerd note: When this review was originally posted elsewhere, it briefly became one of the top referred sites for anyone googling the phrase "teenage abortion". Re-read the second paragraph to figure out why. This is funny to me.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Fear Me

As I've said before, sooner or later, every horror writer takes a stab at a vampire story. The vampire is, after all, the most enduring creation of the genre. When the time comes to take his or her shot, the writer has two choices: he can embrace the basic tropes of vampire fiction, following the template more or less laid down in Dracula by Bram Stoker (Best example: Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot) or he can retain the basic concept underlying the vampire, but ignore the old rules and try to take it in a new direction (Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort). The second option is the least common, as it presents more risks. Stephen Laws’ book Fear Me takes the second of these two options.

The vampire in Fear Me is named Gideon. Rather than feed on blood, he replenishes himself through sexual intercourse, which slowly drains his victims until they die prematurely aged. Gideon has the power to control his victims and force them to submit to his will. He is immortal, but not in the traditional sense. Every twenty years, he sires seven sons by seven of his victims. The sons are all born on the same day, and when they reach twenty, they are compelled to fight each other to the death. When there is only one survivor, Gideon “replaces” that person in the new body, and thus lives on. The novel follows two parallel paths that meet at the end. One concerns three female victims of Gideon, while the other concerns one of his sons, who has reached the age where he must fight his half-siblings.

Although the erotic side of vampirism has often been explored, this was a fresh, enjoyable take on the subject. Gideon is an excellent villain, and you develop a true rooting interest in the struggle against him. My one quibble is we don’t get to know much about Gideon, and I would have liked to have explored more of his past and the nature of his existence. But this is a slight complaint, and overall, I would heartily recommend the book, especially to those readers who are tired of the traditional bloodsuckers.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Chop Shop Horror Show Strikes Again

Want a good way to ring in the New Year? Kent Gowran has splattered a new story at The Chop Shop Horror Show. This time, it’s “Daddy’s Boy” by Ray Banks, and as always, it’s a killer. Hurry on over, because it’s only there for a limited time.

And, speaking of The Chop Shop Horror Show, surely there’s an appropriate category that will allow it to be nominated for a Stoker Award. Some of the best stories of the year have debuted there.