Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Obsessions


When people think of horror fiction (if they do), they mostly think of the great novels of the genre: Frankenstein, Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Ghost Story, The Keep. There’s nothing wrong with that, those are all very good novels, and if you aspire to be a knowledgeable horror fan, you should read each of them eventually. The real strength of the genre, however and in my opinion, is in the short story, where the real masterpieces lurk. Poe wrote mostly short stories, as did H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Many people say while Stephen King’s novels put and kept him on the bestseller lists, his best work has been done in the short form. I can’t think of a good horror novelist who hasn’t also penned some excellent short stories.

There is at least some indication that short stories are where good writers develop their voice and learn their craft, and this may be a problem for the genre at present. The market for short stories is slim today. Whereas the 80s and early 90s saw the publication of a flood of solid-to-outstanding horror anthologies, they are scarce on the ground today. Cemetery Dance publishes their Shivers series on an irregular basis, and Ellen Datlow is still able to publish a high-quality book of original short stories just about every year, but there isn’t much beyond that. Contrast that to twenty or so years ago, when you would find on the newsstands Charles L. Grants' Shadows series, Night Visions and it seemed that every month a new themed anthology appeared. (I’m told it’s all but impossible to sell a publisher on releasing a book of short stories today. The public seems to want its fiction super-sized.)

Being in a reflective mood of late, I thought I would pull some of the older, less well known anthologies off my shelves. The internet has made it easier than ever to track down out-of-print books, and if you are lamenting the end of Leisure’s horror line, this might be something to take its place. The first one I picked was 1991’s Obsessions, edited by Gary Raisor, author of the great vampire novel Less Than Human, and published by Dark Harvest, a defunct imprint which put out some great work in the 80s and 90s. I don’t think it is that well known today, but this is a wonderful group of tales. The credit for a good anthology lies mainly with the editor, so I’ll try to give my opinion why Raisor was so successful with Obsessions.

(As an aside, I always find anthologies the hardest to review, since every review boils down to “I liked some of the stories and some I didn’t” and whether it works or not is the ratio thereof. It’s also hard to say much about an individual short story without using spoilers.)

The first thing Editor Raisor got right was to assemble stories from a great group of writers. This statement sounds a little bit like a sneer, but it seems a lot of those who put together anthologies don’t get the concept that good stories come from good writers. (If you like crime fiction, a good example of this is the [City] Noir series, books of crime stories set in specific-to-that-volume cities. Some editors used the best crime writers they could get, and turned out good books. Some seem to have used their friends from their college, or maybe their bar, and their books are almost unreadable) Raisor chose Joe Lansdale, F. Paul Wilson, Dan Simmons, John Shirley, Thomas Monteleone, Dean Koontz and others of the best horror writers of the day, and got good work from them. Many of the others are less well-known names but were also kicking out some great work. I felt more than a little wistfulness looking at the table of contents. There are authors who have since died (Charles L. Grant), those who health is too poor to write (Edward Bryant), those who abandoned horror for more lucrative fields, no doubt from necessity (Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nancy Holder, Bill Crider, Nina Kiriki Hoffman), and those whose current whereabouts are a mystery to me (A.R. Morlan, Glen Vasey).

Secondly, themed anthologies need to be built around a theme sufficiently precise enough to give it cohesion, but not so restrictive as to inspire boredom (an anthology of zombie stories set in Toledo, Ohio may seem like a cool idea, but about page 200, you’ll probably be rooting for the zombies). Obsessions, whose theme I hope needs no further explanation, fits the bill well, as our obsessions provide nearly endless possibilities for stories, but are diverse enough to avoid a deadly sameness to the stories. The tales spun here range from the expected sexual obsessions to the less erotic (possibly) ones connected to book collecting, which should be familiar to many readers.

The final piece of the puzzle at which Raisor triumphs here is where craft ends and art begins, and the one most impossible to reproduce by just anyone: the ability to detect what is and isn’t a good story. Like a good fastball in baseball, you either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s nothing you can do about it. Raisor here demonstrates he has it in spades. As far as I know, only the Koontz story was a reprint, and while I liked some stories better than others, there isn’t a single one I felt was a waste of time. This is a rare achievement.

My favorite story in Obsessions doesn’t come from one of the superstars. It is “The Bookman”, by Chet Williamson, a story that could be Lovecraftian, a ghost story, or maybe just about a touch of madness. It’s the one that stuck with me the longest after reading, although it had stiff competition.

Obsessions was illustrated by Roger Gerberding, and as of this writing, there are used copies available through Amazon and other on-line vendors, some shockingly cheap. Who knows, if readers can re-connect with a love of the shorter story, maybe anthologies and collections will come back into style, and it just might re-vitalize a genre that too often seems stale nowadays.
.

Transylmania


So, last night I’m looking for something to watch, knowing I will be having (very minor) surgery this afternoon. Although it’s simple, the procedure involves a scalpel jabbed next to my eye, so I’m looking for something light on the gore. Definitely no movies where something horrible happens to someone during surgery. I decide to go light with a comedy, completely ignoring the fact that comedies and I have a tortured relationship at best, and pick the horror spoof Transylmania. I should have picked Awake instead. Sure, it’s about the horrors of being awake during surgery, but at least I would have had Jessica Alba to look at.

The plot such as it is, involves American college students going to Romania to…do something. One of them is the dead ringer for the local head vampire, who is trying to resurrect his long lost love. Hijinks ensue. For some reason, the plot reminded me of an episode of Gilligan’s Island. There are flatulence jokes, vomiting jokes, etc., none of which are particularly funny. The movie is surprisingly light on sex jokes for what it is, and for what it’s worth.

The movie was made by some of the people behind the National Lampoon movies, but not any of the good ones. According to background info, it was filmed in 2007, but didn’t escape until 2009, when it went direct to dvd. The only cast member I recognized was Musetta Vander, who played the bug woman who tried to eat Zander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She was better off as a bug.

Pass.
.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Grave Danger


When I’m watching a movie, I usually try to allow for deficiencies in its budget. If a filmmaker doesn’t have James Cameron’s money to make a movie, there’s no way the effects will be as good. Still, you have to have some talent to overcome the lack of a budget, and I’m afraid Grave Danger falls short.

A woman alone at home receives a phone call, from an unknown caller who tells her he’ll kill her if she doesn’t do what he says. You would think no one would be stupid enough to fall for this, but every day you hear stories of people doing weird and demeaning things in response to prank phone calls. The caller mainly wants her to take off her clothes, which she does, but they also trade scary stories for no apparent reason. This is an anthology movie, you see, and each story is a separate part. There’s a guy who is paranoid about being watched, who turns out was really being watched. There’s an old ventriloquist and his dummy, who is harassed by his audience (SPOILER: It turns out the dummy is alive and murderous. Betcha didn’t see that coming.).

The plot is by-the-numbers, as you can tell. The movie is a technical disaster beyond its low budget limitations – every outdoor scene is overexposed, probably because they didn’t use the right filters. One actress plays two different characters in the same segment, and not on purpose. The acting is worse than a high school play, with the actresses apparently being hired due to their willingness to disrobe (every actress in the movie except the one playing two parts gets naked.). Pass on this one.

Plans have been announced on a sequel, which may center on the murderous dummy. Sigh.
.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Humanoids From The Deep


Not every movie can be a big-budget affair with a prestige director and Leonardo DiCaprio as the star. Some have to be more modest, low-budget fare, and they generally rely on one of the twin attractions of sex or violence to get an audience. No one understood this better than legendary producer Roger Corman, and his 1980 film Humanoids from the Deep may well be the ultimate intersection of cinema sex and violence.

The setting is a fishing village in the Pacific Northwest that has fallen on hard times. The fishing industry is suffering, and the community is torn between two factions, one which favors bringing in a cannery owned by the stock greedy corporation to provide jobs, and the other which wants to preserve the nature of the town, most represented by the local Native Americans. Well, Native American, since only one is seen in the movie. The two town groups are joined by a small party from the big corporation, including a scientist (Ann Turkel) who has come up with a way to make fish grow faster (uh-oh). All this backstory is presented in a perfunctory, by-the-numbers manner, which is okay, since we started watching this to see sea monsters kill people, not feel guilty about raping the environment. The lead, of sorts, is a sympathetic local fisherman played by Doug McClure, several years and many pounds removed from his heyday, and the villain is a hard-nosed local portrayed by the ill-fated Vic Morrow, sporting an unfortunate white-fro. But enough of that.

A series of attacks begin, of strange humanoid creatures arising from the, er, deeps. They rip men apart, while attacking women sexually for breeding purposes, ignoring the inconvenient biological fact that two different species find it difficult to interbreed, or that a fish-man would find a human woman as sexually attractive as a human man would a flounder (let’s not go there). The attacks increase in severity and culminate in an all-out assault at the town’s Salmon Festival. Irritatingly, despite salmon being the backbone of the local economy, none of the cast can pronounce it. The “L” is silent, folks. We are also treated to a scene of exposition as the Turkel character explains the situation is basically her fault, as one of her experiments has gone very wrong. She seems generally unconcerned with this, but that may be the limitations of the actress, other than callousness of the scientist, since the movie follows the old rule that an attractive woman can’t be to blame in these things. Must be the corporation instead.

Much blood is spilled, many breasts are bared, and we are treated to the unfortunate ultimate effect of the creature’s attacks on women.

Roger Corman is one of the most prolific producers in movie history, with a staggering 393 producing credits listed on imdb, although that number may change daily. Although his reputation is that of a guy who could make an exploitation flick as quickly and cheaply as possible, a number of big names went to “school” on his productions. Through the years, he gave work to Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante and James Cameron, all of whom seem appreciative for Corman giving them a shot. He understood what attracts an audience to such a cheaply made film, and his terse instructions to director Barbara Peeters for the movie was supposedly “Kill the men, rape the women.” When Peeters turned in a cut with plentiful gore but mostly suggested sex, he fired her, and got a second unit director to shoot more nude scenes.

So there you have it. The movie is a lot of cheesy fun, in a SyFy channel movie way, but it is mostly gore and nudity. I think most people with a sense of humor would like it, but if you give it a try, you do know what you are letting yourself in for.

In some markets, the movie is known by the more unimaginative title of Monster, which must have shocked some viewers expecting a serious drama with Charlize Theron in uncomfortable prosthetics.
.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Soon I Will Be Invincible


Some time ago, a friend recommended I read Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, which is both homage to and a send-up of the conventions of super-hero stories from the comics. Typically, it took me three years to get around to it, but I’ve been trying to whittle down the mounds of unread books and unwatched movies recently, so I finally got around to it.
Soon I Will Be Invincible is set in a world where superheroes and super villains exist, just like in the comics. It is told in alternating voices, with chapters presented from the point of view of Doctor Impossible, who is suffering from Malign Hypercognition Disorder (he is an evil genius) and Fatale, a cyborg who is the newest hero. Doctor Impossible sees himself as misunderstood, and is unable to control his own impulses (whenever he is confronted by a hero, he starts spouting clich├ęd dialogue. Fatale acts as a fresh observer of the group dynamics of the team of superheroes she joins; all the while wondering about her own past (the operations that made her a cyborg removed the part of her brain that stored memories).

The book is wildly funny, especially if you grew up with – and who didn’t – the whole comic book hero thing. Doctor Impossible pauses in the dispassionate recital of the failures of his world-domination schemes to mutter “Henchmen. Don’t get me started on henchmen.” Fatale talks to Regina, a retired hero, and can’t decide if she truly had super powers, now faded, or was just mentally ill. The New Champions, the organization of superheroes that represents the JLA or Avengers from comics, seethes with resentment and jealousy.

For those who don’t like comics, Soon I Will Be Invincible will probably work well as a send-up of the genre. Those who do like them will be entertained by the all-too familiar antics of Good Guys and Bad Guys, shown in a slightly more realistic light.

Recommended.
.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kill Theory


Here’s another film from the After Dark Film Festival package, 2009’s Kill Theory. As has been mentioned many times before, the films in this series have been a mixed bag, more potential than payoff, but I can give Kill Theory a very cautious thumbs-up, with a few criticisms.

The plot is very simple. A group of college seniors (who all look a few years too old) take one last trip together before graduation at an isolated lake house belonging to the father of one of the group. The outing goes bad when a psychopath targets the group on the first night. They are a part of his macabre experiment, and are given the choice to survive. All they have to do is kill all their friends, and they can live. If only one is alive at dawn, that one goes free; if more than one, all the survivors die. Anyone trying to leave dies at the hands of the psycho. As you can imagine in a movie of this type, paranoia sets in, and the body count rises.

It’s a variation on the slasher model, with the victims forced to perform some of the slashing themselves, but it works fairly well. The cast, which includes genre stalwart Agnes Bruckner and Teddy Dunn from Veronica Mars, ranges from professionally competent to pretty good. The plot is decent, and the pace is fast enough you can skim over the bigger inconsistencies. They are, in my opinion, two big problems which keep this from being a great film.

The first one is the now familiar one of having a completely unlikeable cast of characters. These are obnoxious people, none of whom you would want to know in real life (remember, I’m referring to the characters, not the actors, so no angry comments from their fans). The only tolerable character is as painfully stupid as the rest of them. The problem with this is if you hate everyone in the movie, it’s hard to get invested in whether they get cut in half by one of the killer’s traps or not. When one of them meets death-by-shovel, I imagine most viewers are fine with his fate. Interestingly, in the 8 minute “making of” feature, one of the actors says what attracted him to the role was his character’s “arc.” What makes this interesting is the arc in question runs from being an asshole to being an asshole. Less an arc than a straight line.

The other problem is the entirely irrational response the group has to the threat. They must go to a college with low standards, because they either come completely apart or behave as stupidly as possible in order to get killed. Obviously, the correct response is to band together, work to harden their defenses, and wait for the killer to attack so they can confront him en masse. The killer has a rifle and a funky knife that looks cool but is probably ineffective. The victims have two pistols, assorted knives, blunt objects, and improvised projectiles to throw at the bad guy. I’d say the miscreant would have a hard time taking the group, since he starts out out-numbered eight-to-one.

Even with it’s problems, I was reasonably entertained, and Kill Theory compares favorably with most of the slashers turned out, with the plot somewhat more original. The twist was not what I thought it would be, but the second most likely instead.
.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Inquisition of Johannes Cabal


Of late, a scourge to the moral and ethical fiber of our civilization has emerged, the dastardly so-called “necromancer” Johannes Cabal. Fortunately for all that is good, the vile cabal was recently captured. We are a just society, I’m afraid, so before Cabal can be subjected to the appropriate punishment for his dark deeds, his guilt must be proven in the eyes of God. Therefore, a group of highly moral inquisitors was assembled on behalf of the church to question the villain by the redoubtable Matt Staggs, and I, irreproachable, was chosen to be one of them. You have read my compatriot's queries; mine follow immediately after. You may also click on Matt's link to take you to the beginning of Cabal's ordeal.


First: We live in a modern world of technological marvels, aeroships and entomopters. What purpose does superstitious rubbish like necromancy serve in our advanced times?

Cabal: Superstition is belief without proof. If you believe that necromancy is mere superstition, then by definition you have no proof that I am a necromancer. Therefore, you must set me free immediately, and you can expect a very brusque letter from my solicitor just as soon as I find one that I can tolerate. I notice you're not making any efforts to remove these manacles. Very well, then. Necromancy is not a superstition; it is a science obscured by thousands of years of mummery and ignorance. You work for the church; you must know all about mummery and ignorance. All I am doing is applying the scientific method to expose the lean, gleaming lines of the truth beneath all the clinging gimcrackery and cant. Just as alchemy begat chemistry, and chirugery begat surgery, so shall necromancy be purified into necromantic science.

Second: Many of your experiments, such as those with your infamous test batch 295, have fatal results for bystanders. Since you have your soul back, do you feel even an iota of remorse for the poor unfortunates who get their brains gobbled by your failures?

Cabal: You know, if I were a pharmaceuticals corporation rather than an individual, we would not even be having this conversation, even if the corporation caused a hundred times more deaths. Hmmm, I shall make a mental note to incorporate my activities as soon as I get out of here. Oh... that would involve lawyers. I have gone off the idea.
To address your query directly, no. Most people are of little import while they are alive, yet they are virtually canonised in death providing the death appeals to the sympathies of tabloid readers. Really, these people died for science. It was unplanned -- usually -- and it is unfortunate -- probably. But, let us say for the sake of argument that the tale of Newton and the apple is true. What if the apple was actually a boulder, and it fell on some passing yokel of no importance? Should Newton have still utilised the inspiration seeing that majestic boulder offered and formulated his famous theories? Or should he have thrown it all away out of faux-grief for some bumpkin? Believe me, I have never watched a revivified body kill a bystander and eat their brains without learning something scientifically useful. In the vernacular, it is all good.

Third: In order to redeem your soul, you met with Satan himself. So, tell me, what’s he really like? Prince of Darkness or just a being who really doesn’t handle public relations well?

Cabal: What is there to say? He's very tall, charismatic in a bland salesman sort of way, and he has an unhealthy obsession with cribbage. I think Milton overstated things quite shamelessly.


At this point, I was overwhelmed by disgust, and was forced to pass the questioning to my next companion. You may find the results of his efforts by using your mechanical computing device to take you to



Mr. Cabal has his own malignant presence on the web at his associate Jonathan L. Howard’s website.

You may examine the documentation of Cabal’s misdeeds for yourself at tome vendor Amazon’s site here and here.
.

Monday, August 16, 2010

An Interview With Al Sarrantonio

If you are interested in my short interview with writer and master anthologist Al Sarrantonio, it is up at the Cemetery Dance website. Enjoy.
.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Sky Is Falling, The World Is Ending


Yesterday Dorchester Publishing, the publisher of horror line Leisure books, announced they will no longer be producing mass market paperbacks, instead publishing their titles as e-books and print-on-demand, with some books eventually appearing as trade paperbacks. Reaction has been frenetic, to say the least. 95 percent of the comments are some variant of “this is the end of everything”, while the other 5 percent are fairly gleeful (this 5 percent is made up of some small press publishers who believe this means they have vanquished an enemy and some authors who were rejected or dropped by Leisure and are enjoying the revenge). Everyone has an opinion, and I’m here to tell you what sort of supplies and weapons you should stock now that the apocalypse is here…

No, actually I’m here to say “Don’t panic.”

I enjoyed Leisure Books, well enough to be a subscriber. The low price for home delivery made it cost-effective to try new authors, and some of the books they published were pretty good. I’m not the e-reader type, either, probably because I’m too old to embrace new technology, although I do think the CD is going to replace vinyl. I enjoyed all those paperback horror lines of the 80s and early 90s, too, though, the Signet and Berkeley and Zebra and so on, and I survived their passing without having to live in a bunker. Maybe it is the end of the book era, but that is a lot to lay on the passing of a publisher known more for the quantity of titles they published (24 a year, huge in today’s market) than for their actual sales. It’s hard to know exactly what their sales were, since that is usually proprietary information, but it’s a safe bet the top Leisure titles didn’t equal a bad day for the Harry Potter books.

As I’ve said before, the horror genre of storytelling goes back as far as there are records. Both Beowulf and Odysseus battled monsters, and still do on the printed page today. It is safe to say that there is still a basic human desire for what we call horror, and horror stories are not going away. There is still a question as to what format these stories will be printed in, but it is still too early to tell and speculation is rampant. (For those who see the e-readers as Satan, you might be heartened to know that some tech people are predicting e-readers such as Kindle and Nook will be obsolete themselves in a year, driven out of the market by the tablet-sized readers).

Leisure’s departure from the mass market paperback market leaves a hole, one that another publisher may at least partially fill. Leisure titles may not have been block-busters, but they did produce some sales, and other publishers will be considering whether it is worth the investment to move into the void. Perhaps Leisure published too many titles a year, and could have been more profitable by concentrating efforts on fewer, quality titles. Perhaps more promotion would have helped. Perhaps Dorchester is being laid low not by poor sales as much as internal problems. Time will tell. I'm certainly not implying, by the way, that this may not be a hardship for authors who depend on Leisure for income, and I am sorry for them.

My prediction is this: If there still exists a market for mass-produced paperback horror, then sooner rather than later another publisher will take advantage of it. If there isn’t such a market any more, well, that sucks, but the makers of buggy whips and vacuum tubes feel our pain.

So, stay calm, and remember the aluminum foil has to be at least three sheets thick in your hat to protect you.
.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters


As an avid reader of science fiction in my youth, Robert A. Heinlein held a special place in my heart. The dean of American science fiction writers, the only man to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel four times, his work has fallen into disfavor in recent years, but if you can get past the fact that stories written in 1950 tend to reflect a 1950 mindset, his stories still rank among the best sci-fi has ever produced.

Although there is a long tradition of science fiction and horror intersecting, Heinlein wrote only one novel that could be classified as horror, The Puppet Masters, serialized in the long-defunct Galaxy magazine in 1951. This story of an alien invasion predates the similarly-themed The Body Snatchers, filmed as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In 1994, The Puppet Masters got its own time in the cinemas, presented as Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters to distinguish it from the low budget Puppet Master franchise.

The movie begins as a fairly faithful updated version of the novel. Government agents Sam (Eric Thal), Mary (Julie Warner), and The Old Man (Donald Sutherland) go to Iowa to investigate the reported landing of a flying saucer. By the time they get there, the locals have admitted it was a hoax, but something seems terribly off about them. It turns out the UFO landing was real, and the saucer was filled with parasitic slugs, which latch onto a victim from behind and then “ride” him, controlling his actions and accessing his thoughts and memories. After discovering it, the crew barely escapes with their lives (and a specimen) and begin the task of convincing the powers that be there is an alien invasion in progress, and coordinating the defense.

The movie works very well in the early phases, as the menace is discovered and then investigated, but starts to fall flat about halfway through, as the film strays further from the source material. Any emotional resonance is lost, and even when the characters are in danger, the viewer is fairly unaffected.

A lot of Heinlein’s elements don’t make it into the movie, and the absence of some of these proves fatal. Gone are the sociological ponderings that became increasingly prevalent in Heinlein’s work. (In the novel, which takes place over a longer time span, public nudity becomes common place, as citizens go bare to prove they aren’t carrying a slug.) Even worse, the battle against the aliens, presented as a world-wide war with demarcated battle lines and fifth columns, is now a local incident. If most of the aliens, and their central hive mind, are concentrated in Des Moines, Iowa, why not blow up Des Moines? Nothing against the citizens of that fine city, but if it’s them or the entire human race, the sacrifice should be made.

The acting is generally first rate, although there’s an annoying bit early on. When one of the team members is taken over by an alien, he immediately becomes too strange and distracted, which tips off what should be a dramatic “reveal” later on. The direction and cinematography are competent, and the budget was surprisingly large. Some of the special effects seem a bit dated by today’s standards, although I imagine they were top of the line at the time the movie was made.

Although ultimately this movie ranks as a squandered opportunity, (The claustrophobic, desperate conclusion of the novel is especially missed), it is still a cheesy fun popcorn movie. Enjoy it with your brain set on neutral. Perhaps someday the movie will get the adaptation it deserves.

For an interesting look at what goes on in the making of a film, and how it goes off the rails, I direct you to this essay by one of the screenwriters. It makes you appreciate the difficulty in making a good movie, and lament the missed chance here.
.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pod of Horror #61

The 61st edition of the Pod Of Horror is now available for download. Regulars Mark Justice, Nanci Kalanta and Jason Keene are joined by writers John Everson and Tim Curran. Download it today, it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. Although, come to think of it, I like bread better when it comes as a loaf. Now I'm confused.
.

The Big Bang

If you are interested in what I think of The Big Bang, by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane, then hie thee to the Horror World review page. Not exactly my best work, but expectations of me are low, anyway.
.