Three stories from H.P. Lovecraft: Pickman’s Model, The Outsider and The Call of Cthulhu

I first read Lovecraft when I was eight years old, where I learned exciting new words like gibbous, eldritch and tentacles. This morning, upon rereading The Call of Cthulhu, I discovered another new word: vigintillion. As in, it happened a vigintillion years ago. I’m always learning!

Lovecraft has made an indelible mark on popular culture. He is also a controversial figure. If you don’t know why and are interested, Googling Lovecraft WFA is a good place to start. Deconstructing Lovecraft has become a popular pastime nowadays. Victor LaValle wrote a short novel called The Ballad of Black Tom, based on the Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook. Matt Ruff wrote a novel called Lovecraft Country. Both books are worth reading.

There’s no question that Lovecraft was a groundbreaking science fiction writer. The names of his entities are jaw-breakers (Nyarlathotep! Cthulhu!), but he avoids science fiction jargon like vidscreen and medbot and most of his stories take place on Earth. Some of his best works – The Color out of Space and At the Mountains of Madness come to mind –  are grounded in the real world.

On the flip side, Lovecraft’s writing style is overly ornate and wordy. His stories contain almost no dialogue. I never found his horror fiction scary because I never connected with his characters, who have nothing going on below the waist and are seemingly always teetering on the brink of madness. At his worst, Lovecraft is prone to hyperbole; his unimaginable horrors are pretty imaginable.

I reread the three stories for the assignment this morning. Pickman’s Model was my favorite of the trio. This is a story with a creepy vibe and an interesting setting. I like the fact that Lovecraft mentions artists of that time period; Pickman’s final painting is straight out of Goya. The final twist isn’t much of a twist, but it’s decently done.

Pickman’s Model also illustrates one of the themes that runs through Lovecraft’s work: fear of the other. Lovecraft is very specific about who the other is; besides monsters with incomprehensible names, he seems to believe that human evil has its origins in poor genetics based along racial lines. This is a staple of the eugenics movement. Although most people think Nazi Germany when they hear eugenics, it is worth noting that a number of states in this country used to have forced sterilization programs.

The Outsider encapsulates and internalizes Fear of the Other. This is the short story one is most likely to encounter in horror anthologies that don’t specialize in Lovecraft. It is short, and although overly wordy, has a nice twist ending that may seem commonplace to readers of today. I learned another new word in this story: nepenthe!

The Call of Cthulhu is a mess. Bloated and overlong, it reads like it’s been cut and pasted together. Cthulhu is powerful enough to destroy worlds but is foiled when a steam yacht rams him. I had difficulty reading this all the way through. It is ironic that Cthulhu is the monster most people remember Lovecraft for, when he wrote much better stories.

A final note: Lovecraft corresponded with many people during the course of his life, so his personal views are no secret. Although he was not the only speculative fiction author of those times to hold problematic views, Lovecraft’s attitudes informed his fiction. I wasn’t sure if I should include this in my review. Over the years I have read and enjoyed many of Lovecraft’s stories and when I learned of his personal beliefs it made me stop and reassess his works, which I believe is a good thing. I think we as writers can learn things from Lovecraft, but at this point I do have difficulty separating the writer from the person. For better or worse, this review reflects that.

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Godzilla (2014 remake)

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Vintage 1974 MechaGodzilla Action Figure!

Once again, I am going to reach into my seemingly endless store of treasured movie-going memories to tell you about watching the 1998 remake of Godzilla. Yes, I know this review is about the 2014 remake…stick with me. You can’t imagine how excited I was for Godzilla 1998. Despite disturbing rumors about the creature designs, I had high hopes for this movie. Perhaps Godzilla would even eat Matthew Broderick, whom I’ve hated with an unholy passion since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

To commemorate what was sure to be a wonderful evening, I smuggled my Godzilla action figure (not pictured above) into the theater to watch the movie with me. This upset my roommate, who seemed to think it would ruin his chance to impress the girls in the seats next to us. How could he be thinking about girls? This was Godzilla!

Anyway, Godzilla 1998 was utter shit.

This is to say that I went into the 2014 remake of Godzilla with lowered expectations…and I enjoyed it. I give this movie a B. I believe I’ve seen every Godzilla film ever made, so this puts it squarely into the solid category. Not a classic, but pretty good. When I rewatched the movie this morning I had the same impression.

Yes, I enjoyed Godzilla, but that doesn’t meant it’s a very good movie. When our hero, MR. EVERYMAN, saves the child from toppling off the train, I thought there’s the movie’s save-the-cat moment. I wasn’t surprised to learn Godzilla had multiple screenwriters because it has a cut and paste feel.

Most of the movie’s characters are clichés, the peacenik scientist, the nuke-crazy general, the conspiracy theory nut. Our protagonist, MR. EVERYMAN, doesn’t have a personality. MRS. EVERYMAN doesn’t get upset when her husband’s nutso father calls and summons him to Japan. THEIR ADORABLE CHILD is a set-piece. By the way, after Bryan Cranston’s crazy daddy character bites the dust, MRS. EVERYMAN and THEIR ADORABLE CHILD become the movie’s MacGuffin. It’s better than being the hostage object, I guess.

MR. EVERYMAN travels to Japan to help his father. Or perhaps he’s hoping his father will teach him how to have a personality. Or maybe one night of domestic bliss was enough for him. Who knows? To me, this was one of the most unbelievable things about the movie. Bryan Cranston is a grown man, a trespassing offense isn’t all that serious and it’s obvious he doesn’t really give a shit about his son. Plus, he’s crazy.

Here’s the thing about Bryan Cranston’s character: he is nuts. Yes, it turns out that he was right, but that doesn’t mean he’s not nuts. This is the type of person who would walk into a public library and ask to see the government’s secret files on the JFK assassination. Godzilla gets a lot less interesting when he dies and his cardboard cutout son shoulders the load as the movie’s protagonist.

So what did I notice in this viewing of Godzilla? I talked about phallic imagery in Alien. This movie has phallic imagery, also, and some of it is quite disturbing. Example A: the way Godzilla kills the female MUTO is pretty, uhm…yikes.

Abandonment is a recurring theme in Godzilla. Bryan Cranston abandons his wife to die in a nuclear reactor, MR. EVERYMAN abandons his wife and child to go to Japan and the parents in Hawaii abandon their child in the train. The only good husband and parent in this movie is MR. MUTO, who sticks by his woman and gets squashed against a skyscraper for his troubles.

Godzilla is a great-looking movie. Garth Edwards, the director, wears his Steven Spielberg cufflinks on his sleeve, but there are some genuinely riveting scenes. I’m thinking of Hawaii and the San Francisco bridge. My favorite interview with Mr. Edwards features him telling the interviewer to please get out of his personal space in the middle of their chat. This interjection comes out of nowhere, and it’s awesome because it’s so unexpected and he’s so totally sincere.

The fact that the filmmakers don’t show Godzilla much didn’t bother me. I have seen enough Godzilla movies to know that it’s a bad sign when we see the Thunder Lizard in the first five minutes. Usually a half-hour to forty-five minutes into the movie suffices.

I liked the monster designs. The MUTO is obviously a riff on Mothra (there’s even a diagram of a moth at the beginning of the movie), and they resemble the xenomorphs from Alien, but I thought they were well-done. I liked the Godzilla design. I liked his roar. Solid Godzilla fare.

Anyway, I know you all have been waiting for this. Here are my top five Godzilla movies!

  1. Godzilla v. MechaGodzilla (1974) – vintage MechaGodzilla (pictured above) is my favorite ever action-figure. This movie is great because it features a ten-minute song to summon the heroic monster King Caesar, who awakens and proceeds to get pummeled to jelly by MechaGodzilla.
  2. Godzilla (1958) – watch the uncut original, not the Raymond Burr remake!
  3. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964) – this movie features the Monster Summit, when Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra share a conference call before kicking King Ghidorah’s ass off planet Earth.
  4. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Monster Attack (2001) – the best Godzilla movie of the 21st century (so far), this is a must watch!
  5. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)– the Heisei Era of Godzilla cinematography isn’t my favorite and has some real stinkers, but I have a soft spot for this movie because it has an actual plot and attempts to be timely (genetic engineering!). Biollante is actually a Godzilla clone combined with a rose. This could be a great movie, but is hampered by poor effects.

Snow

Let’s begin with a Q&A: you are driving in a blizzard in the middle of the night when someone steps in front of your vehicle. You avoid hitting him but damage your car’s radiator. The person you almost ran down is injured and incoherent and claims his child is lost in the snow. To make matters worse, he is acting suspiciously and you suspect he may not be telling the truth. It is the 21stcentury and you have a cell phone. What’s the first thing you do?

  1. Try to call the cops.
  2. Try to call the cops.
  3. Try to call the cops.
  4. Turn to the senior citizen you met a few hours ago at the airport and say – Just help me keep an eye on this guy, all right?

Over 90% of the population would answer A through C (it doesn’t matter which). If you answered D, you are a character in a horror novel and will die horribly.

Wait a second! Aren’t I being harsh here? Isn’t this a nitpick? Well, that depends on your tolerance level for horror tropes vs. normal human behavior. I will note that the Scooby Gang pull their vehicle out of a snowbank before one of the characters reaches for a cell phone (p. 41). Every minute they delay is time the police – who have the resources necessary to muster a manhunt – could be looking for the missing child, who turns out to be quite real.

Before I proceed any further with this review let me say that I think Mr. Malfi is a talented writer. I admire his writing style. He uses a lot of action verbs, he is a decent word painter, his pacing is good and his dialogue sounds realistic. I enjoyed his horror novel Little Girls, a homage to J-horror cinema with a smidgen of Peter Straub’s Julia mixed in. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Snow. What didn’t work for me about this book? A lot of little things, but they added up.

My biggest issue is the fact that the plot and character arcs never merge. What am I talking about? I’ll use The Shining as an example. Danny Torrance has two problems in The Shining– his first problem is the fact that his family is falling apart (personal), the second is that they’ve moved into a haunted house (plot). At the end of The Shining, the plot and character arcs merge when Danny’s father becomes the haunted house’s monster.

This doesn’t occur in Snow. Todd Curry is a gambling addict, but what happens to him is the equivalent of a supernatural hit-and-run. Yes, he rolls the dice by renting that car, but he wants to see his son. I thought it was a stupid decision myself, but he made a promise to his child that he wanted to keep. Totally understandable.

I didn’t think Todd’s gambling problem was realistic. Let’s put aside the question of how it affects the plot. You’re telling me he put himself through law school by betting the horses? Really? I have bet on the ponies perhaps a half-dozen times in my life, and the best system I’ve ever seen comes courtesy of my great aunt. She would bet two dollars on the favorite to show, and invariably won her money back. She’d leave the track about five bucks richer. Somehow I doubt Todd used this system.

The logistics of Todd’s gambling problem are more troubling. If he lives in New York City, the nearest racetrack is in Yonkers (along with a casino). There is also a racetrack in Monticello, New York and East Rutherford, New Jersey. All three of these racetracks are closer than Atlantic City. Is this a nitpick? I live in this area, so no it’s not. Max Brooks hauled his ass to Yonkers to get the details right.

I’d argue that Todd’s gambling addiction is unnecessary to the plot. You could replace it with a thousand other character flaws and it would make no difference. The fact that Todd is a screw-up isn’t even reflected in the plot. He just wants to  visit his son, who isn’t mad at all about not seeing his dad for a year. Todd’s wife is a little angrier, but she gives him a leg massage at the book’s end so I’m guessing all is forgiven.

I didn’t buy Todd at all as a character. Usually male authors struggle writing women, but I thought Kate was much more realistic than Todd. She has boundary and intimacy issues because of her parents’ divorce, and they are the type of issues that don’t magically go away.

Todd’s phone call to his ex-wife is another one of those little things. Brianna lives in Iowa, so she knows about driving in the snow. Driving in that type of weather is stupid and dangerous, but all she says is that a good idea? It’s an awful idea and she knows it. If she cares at all about him they should argue about him venturing out into the snow.

Here’s another one: Todd gets hit in the head and wakes up. Twice. What normally happens if you get hit in the head is that you go into a coma and die. He also blacks out when they blow up the gas station and (assumedly) when he gets shot. He’s a tough guy.

Okay, I’ve made my point. Snow did not work for me. I will say that this book is chockful of examples of bad parenting, and you can view Molly shooting Todd at the end as karmic retribution for being a shitty parent. To me this doesn’t work, because Todd  wakes up (again!) and is greeted by his adoring wife and son.

 

Triple Feature of Terror: John Carpenter’s The Thing!

Wilford Brimley was a versatile actor!

I have seen John Carpenter’s The Thing too many times to count, so at this point it’s tough to say how this movie affects me. I don’t even jump during the scary parts any more. However, I can tell you the way it affected me the first time I saw it.

I did not see The Thing in the theater. I saw it on HBO back in the mid-80’s. It was dinnertime, and I polished off a chicken pot pie while watching this movie. God’s honest truth, I didn’t eat chicken pot pie again for another decade.

When I rewatched The Thing this morning I ate toast with butter and strawberry jelly, and that went down much better. I’m not sure what to say at this point. Years ago, I read Alan Dean Foster’s movie novelization, and can still recall details of the author’s scientific explanations. The Thing internally blocks all oxygen to the brain, so the person suffers oxygen death. Even back then, I recognized a great example of handwavium when I saw it!

Let’s see…The Thing is the best remake of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness that’s ever been made. No offense to John W. Campbell, but the monster of this remake is a Shoggoth, right down to the eyes. I don’t know why Lovecraft the writer gets short shrift here, because he wrote some brilliant science fiction, and At the Mountains of Madness (which is science fiction) is one of the best things he’s ever written.

The Thing is an influential movie. Peter Watts wrote a sequel for Clarkesworld, which you can find here. There is a manga called Parasyte that uses the same concept, except the parasytes gobble up the person’s head and then control the body. The main character applies a tourniquet to his arm when the parasyte invades, so the lil’ bugger eats his arm instead and we have a symbiotic relationship. They should have made a sitcom!

What else…the effects are good. I liked the characters. I kept expecting Wilford Brimley to tell everyone to relax and dig into a hearty bowl of oatmeal. Garry, the head of the base, dyes his hair but leaves his snow white eyebrows untouched, which is a nice actor’s touch. And I loved MacReady’s sombrero! The characters don’t do too many stupid things until the end. The Thing itself is brilliant and almost certainly survived the final blast. The creature that attacks MacReady at the climax is the Dog Thing that escaped at the beginning of the film, not the Wilford Brimley Thing.

How can I not mention the original Thing, the best movie ever made about a blood-drinking space carrot? Carpenter must have liked the movie also, because that’s the flick the little kids in his movie Halloween are watching. Nowadays if a character in a horror movie watches a horror movie, it’s always The Night of the Living Dead.

Anyway…James Arness, who played the aforementioned bloodthirsty space carrot in the original Thing, also played the state trooper in the 50’s classic Them, the best movie ever made about giant ants. Why do I mention this? Because it’s the third and final link in the Web of Nostradamus!™ The original Them starts with the image of a young girl walking down the highway clutching a doll, and James Cameron recycles the same image in Aliens, his sequel to Alien. Guess he liked the movie too!

Triple Feature of Terror: An American Werewolf in London!

Today I am going to reach into my treasure trove of childhood memories and treat you to a wonderful story. In the summer of 1981 I was thirteen years old and commercials for An American Werewolf in London were playing all over the TV. I wanted to see this movie very badly. My parents watched the TV commercials, one of which featured a voice-over by 70’s radio personality Wolfman Jack, and thought An American Werewolf in London was a comedy.

Long story short, the three of us made the trek to the movie theater in Port Jervis NY, now long gone. My mother fled during the scene in the moors. I bolted when the deformed Nazi monsters massacred David and his family. We weren’t the only ones to leave, not by a long shot. A small crowd huddled in the lobby, shell-shocked. A young woman whose date stayed behind burst through the theater doors, muttering “holy shit.” Quite a night for the Galuschak family!

I’m happy to report that my father watched the entire movie. He never said so, but I think he was disappointed by our lack of fortitude. Anyway…I rewatched An American Werewolf in London this evening. Technical difficulties prevented me from seeing it during my snow day. Since this is about my 80 zillionth viewing of the movie, it’s not exactly a terrifying experience anymore.

What does a person notice when s/he is watching a movie for the 80 zillionth time? A few things. When David calls home near the movie’s end he gives the operator a NYC area code. During the subway chase scene, I amused myself by looking at the ads on the wall, and saw an advertisement for See You Next Wednesday. This is of course the porn movie playing at the theatre David and Meatloaf Jack visit when they discuss his suicide. The first time we meet David and Jack they are in a truck full of sheep, and soon afterwards they visit a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb (I got this one from the interview I linked to); as director John Landis says, the symbolism ain’t exactly subtle.

What else? During the end credits Lycanthrope Productions congratulates Prince Charles and Lady Di on their wedding. Frank Oz, the voice of Miss Piggy in the Muppet Show, makes a cameo (along with Miss Piggy) as the American guy from the embassy who doesn’t like the young people.

The English apparently use I find you extremely attractive as a pick-up line; Alex says it three or four times, as so does the middle-aged protagonist of Vampyres, a 70’s Eurotrash movie about a pair of female vampires who lure middle-aged men to their castle, kill them and then carefully pose their naked bodies in their cars so that it’ll look like a car accident. Watch out for all those nude drivers in England!

I don’t think I’m reaching when I say An American Werewolf in London is the best werewolf movie ever made. It’s funny, it’s gory and the makeup effects are wonderful. You can make an argument for the original Wolf Man, I guess, but how many people have even seen that movie? There’s The Woofen – I mean The Wolfen – an underrated gem worth watching just to see Albert Finney treat the world to his version of a New York accent. Maybe The Howling? Please. None of these movies have the crazy energy of An American Werewolf in London. None of them measure up. None of them will ever measure up. I’ve been disappointed in every werewolf movie I’ve ever seen after this one.

An American Werewolf in London is not a comedy. It’s a horror movie with comedic elements. Don’t believe me? That’s what director John Landis says in the interview I linked to. Of course this is a horror movie. Did the people who say this movie is a comedy even watch it? Although maybe the young people think it’s a comedy. When I saw the second theatrical release of The Exorcist a few years ago the movie theater was full of young people, and they were all laughing their asses off.

Anyway…here is the second part of the Web of Nostradamus™. An American Werewolf in London is a werewolf movie, just like The Wolfen. Whitley Strieber wrote The Wolfen; he also wrote The Hunger, the movie version of which was directed by Tony Scott, the brother of Alien director Ridley Scott. By the way, The Wolfen is a pretty damn good novel. Whitley Strieber made his name writing about people being probed by aliens, but he’s penned some decent classic horror novels also.

I don’t think I ever thanked my parents for taking me to see An American Werewolf in London, which is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. Thank you, sorry this is thirty-seven years late. These dumb-ass kids, they never appreciate anything you do for them!

 

Triple Feature of Terror: A Review of Alien!

ALF

I begin this review with an announcement: I have seen Alien about 82 times. Alien is one of my favorite horror movies, but at this point I’m a wee bit sick of it, so I will try a different format for this review. There will be almost no plot summary at all.

Announcement #2: it’s snowing today, and I’m stuck in my apartment, so I had the wonderful idea to watch Alien, An American Werewolf in London and The Thing all at once. A Triple Feature of Terror! Later in this review I will discuss the mystical ties that bind these movies together. I call these ties the Web of Nostradamus™, but that’s another story.

The first thing that struck me on my 83rd rewatch of Alien was how tight the screenplay is in places. This movie was written by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for the underrated Dead and Buried. He also wrote and directed The Return of the Living Dead, THE GREATEST ZOMBIE MOVIE OF ALL TIME. If you want to know the origin of the belief that zombies crave brains, watch this movie.

What do I mean about a tight screenplay? When the crewmembers of the Nostromo check out the SOS, which is actually a warning, Dallas (the Captain) needs three crewmembers to investigate the signal. He can’t use the engineering crew, who normally get all the shit jobs, because they are busy repairing the landing ship. He also can’t use the Science Officer (Ash), because the movie later makes it clear that the science officer is the most important member of the crew. That leaves him, the second in command (Kane), the third in the command (Ripley) and the navigator (Lambert).

Dallas should have sent Ripley with Kane and Lambert; instead he pulls a Captain Kirk and goes himself. This is a good character moment for a minor player, showing us that Dallas isn’t a very good captain and foreshadowing his decision to send himself crawling through the air ducts. The screenplay hints that maybe Dallas has an unspoken thing for Ripley, who offers to go crawling through the air ducts. Dallas goes in her place.

But there’s more! O’Bannon damages the landing ship so that the two crewmembers most likely to be sent on the rescue mission will be unavailable. He also sets up the Ash/Ripley conflict; when Ash overrides Ripley’s decision to not let the crewmembers back into the landing ship, it creates tension between these two characters that pays off later in the movie. All of this is set up by the composition of a simple scouting party. I have a ton of respect for the level of thought that went behind this scene.

Of course, the second half of Alien plays things a lot looser. That’s because this movie starts as a science fiction movie and ends up as horror movie, and the final hour plays by horror tropes. I particularly enjoyed the sequence when Ripley, who earlier refused to let her fellow crewmembers onto the ship because it violated quarantine, risks her life to hunt down her cat Jonesy, who spends most of the movie scaring the shit out of the crew. Knowing cats as I do, I think it’s possible that Jonesy and the alien were working together.

I watched Alien with my own cat, and sensed his approval during the feline rescue sequence. When Jonesy appeared onscreen he pawed at the screen and then peered behind the television, searching for the interloper. I have friends who assure me this is a sign of great intelligence in felines, although I have my doubts. I once had to stop my cat from eating a garbage bag.

Speaking of stupid: people sure do stupid things in the second half of this movie. Besides cat chasing, we have characters splitting up, Dallas confronting the alien in the air ducts (he wins a Darwin Award!) and the crewmembers leaving the door to the medical facilities wide open when the face-hugger vanishes.

One of the most problematic scenes in Alien is when Ripley – who is portrayed as a strong, tough-minded woman (weakness for cats aside) – strips down to her underwear. I’m sure director Ridley Scott would tell you he needed this scene because it sets up the sequence when Ripley dons the spacesuit (which wouldn’t fit with her clothes on, I guess) and ejects the alien into space. Yeah, right.

Alien is a visually striking movie. Yes, there are the H.R. Giger call-outs, but this film also contains all sorts of weird phallic imagery, from Ash’s white blood to the alien itself, which is a walking phallus. One of the movie’s more bizarre scenes is when Ash tries to kill Ripley by jamming a pornographic magazine down her throat. Perhaps he’s imitating the face-hugger, which shoves a tube down its victim’s throat. Or maybe there’s an even stranger reason. I don’t want to know.

I know you’ve all been waiting for this, so here is the first Web of Nostradamus™ that mystically binds all these movies together. The novelizations for Alien and The Thing were both written by Alan Dean Foster, who has the same middle name as actor Harry Dean Stanton, who spends most of Alien smoking unidentified substances and looking like he doesn’t know where the hell he is.

Movie Review: The Night of the Living Dead

People Arguing

I admit that I was not looking forward to rewatching The Night of the Living Dead. I last saw this movie a number of years ago, and can recall being glad that I wouldn’t have to watch it again. So I came prepared, opening my iPhone to Pokemon Go and preparing for ninety-five minutes of zombies and culling unwanted Pokemon.

The Pokemon cull did not go as planned. To make a long story short, I really enjoyed this movie. Yes, I know what I said about zombies in my review of World War Z, but The Night of the Living Dead subverts expectations. When I started watching, this movie’s look and music lulled me into thinking it might be just another B-horror film. It isn’t.

The plot: Barbara and her brother Johnny drive to their father’s grave. Contrary to expectations, neither of them is the protagonist. Johnny dies in the first ten minutes, slain by a zombie. The fact that these zombies don’t eat brains is another interesting twist; they are cannibals in the traditional sense, feasting on the flesh of the living.

Barbara ends up in a seemingly abandoned house, where we meet the movie’s hero. Ben boards up the doors and windows as more zombies arrive. We learn that the newly dead are reanimating. A space shuttle to Venus and high levels of radiation – both staples of 1950’s science fiction – are mentioned as possible causes. It’s another trick. The authorities have no clue why the dead are rising, and the movie never tells us.

Ben and Barbara eventually meet the people hiding in the house’s basement. Tom and Judy are a nice young couple. Harry Cooper isn’t so nice. He has a wife, who doesn’t seem to like him much, and a sick child. More zombies arrive. Instead of working together the survivors bicker, another subversion of expectations and a reminder of the unofficial motto of The Walking Dead (see image above).

Our heroes try to escape. If this was a conventional horror movie, they might succeed. Instead they fail miserably. The remaining survivors are more interested in killing each other than the zombies. The violence is graphic; our heroes die horribly. Harry’s child reanimates and kills her mother. A few of the zombies are naked, and we see them feasting on viscera and intestines. Ben hides in the basement. When the rescue team arrives in the morning they mistakenly shoot him in the head, which is the movie’s final twist. The end.

The Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking movie. Duane Jones, the man who plays Ben, was the first African American actor to be cast as the lead in a mainstream American horror movie (according to IMDB). The ‘rescue’ party at the end comes complete with barking dogs, and would be a familiar sight to television news watchers of the 1960’s; all that’s missing are the fire hoses.

This movie is also an interesting case study on how people react under stress. The answer is, not too well. Barbara goes into shock, which is realistic. Harry Cooper is scared shitless, which makes him do stupid things. It doesn’t matter, because the people who keep their heads die also.

I liked The Night of the Living Dead a lot more than I expected. The acting is good,  the screenplay is tight and there’s plenty of action. The film’s visceral subject matter was shocking for the 1960’s, and a few of the scenes still pack a punch today. Overall, this movie deserves every bit of praise it gets as a horror classic.

I Hate Zombies, So Why Did I Like This Book? Max Brooks’ World War Z

World War Z

Besides being the best zombie book I’ve ever read, World War Z is also a great horror novel. Please note that this comes from a person who doesn’t like zombies (more on that later). I read World War Z for the first time over a decade ago. I bought the book at my local B&N because I liked the cover. Yes, sometimes I buy books because I like the cover, and the results are often surprisingly good. When I recommended World War Z to a friend he loved it, and asked me where I’d heard of it. When I told him how much I liked the cover he gave me a strange look.

Anyway: I reread World War Z last week. I realized I was reading a great book when Mr. Brooks informed me that those who transformed into zombies while driving have no idea how to unbuckle their seatbelts, and are thus stuck in their cars for all eternity. Great detail. I have relatives who live in Yonkers, and the author’s description of that city is dead-on, down to the A&P (which is now an ACME). What can you do but tip your hat to such attention to detail?

I won’t even go into Mr. Brooks’ masterful description of other cultures, the way he puts the zombie apocalypse into a socioeconopolitical (is that a word?) perspective and his successful use of over twenty different voices, all of which sounded distinct. After all, this is an oral history of the zombie wars, and the survivors interviewed all have riveting stories to tell.

Speaking of telling stories, I have no idea why Max Brooks (who is filmmaker Mel Brooks’ son) hasn’t written another horror novel. Besides his zombie material (three books), he wrote a graphic novel called The Harlem Hellfighters, a comic series titled The Extinction Parade and a Minecraft novel. It’s a damn shame Mr. Brooks hasn’t followed up, because World War Z puts him in the pantheon of great horror writers of my generation.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book, because as a rule I don’t like zombie novels. I can tolerate zombie movies if they are funny (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) or have an interesting twist (28 Days Later, Pontypool), but I don’t like reading about them.

Actually, I don’t like zombies period. I have trouble taking a monster that combines the speed of a grandpa on his walker with the motor skills of an overstimulated toddler seriously. Here’s an idea: why not wear a winter jacket and three pairs of snow pants if you’re scared of being bitten?

Yes, you may say, but there’s millions of the undead! True, but there are billions of the living. Many of my fellow humans have been stockpiling baked beans and guns for years, eagerly awaiting the day civilization collapses so that they can declare themselves the Lords of Weehawken, N.J. That’s truly terrifying. And I’m supposed to be scared of a smelly corpse?

How did there get to be millions of zombies anyway? I’m going to guess it went something like this:

  1. The first zombie searches for a hearty meal of brains.
  2. ???
  3. Earth is overrun by zombies!

Another reason I don’t like zombies is because they are so unhealthy. Zombies crave brains, which are high in cholesterol and can also cause you to contract kuru, the human version of Mad Cow Disease. Yes, I know zombies are dead and thus don’t care about their cholesterol levels, but that just proves another point. Zombies are dead but they don’t rot, because don’t think about it. If zombies were subject to the Law of Conservation of Energy, they would not even have the strength to shamble, unless the zombie in question was getting three square meals of brains per day. It would probably take more calories than that, but whatever.

Anyway… apologies to any of my classmates who love zombies. I’m sorry for hating on your favorite monster; I know my favorite monsters are just as unrealistic. I’m guessing my dislike stems from working retail for years. Give me a horde of bloodthirsty zombies over a mob of last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve any day!

The Yattering and Jack: Monty Pythonesque Satire or Thatcherism Parody?

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Hell or New Jersey?

((WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS))

True story: I once participated in a writing group where one of the members wrote a story set in a space station. Once every twenty-four hours or so the remaining family members would gather at a window and wave at the family patriarch, who died in space and now orbits the station like a small moon. It was at this point that a critique mate quite spontaneously uttered one of the best critiques I’ve ever heard or will hear, capturing the essence of this story in five words.

Here they are: what a fucked up family.

Reading Clive Barker’s short story The Yattering and Jack brought back these words of wisdom. The unspoken point of this story is that the Yattering doesn’t need to claim Jack’s soul for Hell, because Jack’s life sucks so much Hell would be a relief. I’m assuming that Barker is going for Monty Pythonesqe satire or perhaps a parody of Thatcherism here. Unfortunately, my knowledge of British culture isn’t broad enough to know what he’s satirizing.

The Yattering is a minor demon given the task of driving a human crazy and thus claiming his soul for Hell. Jack Polo, the human in question, is a gherkin importer who holds the distinction of being THE MOST BORING MAN ON EARTH. That’s what the Yattering – who’s not exactly Screwtape material – thinks, anyway. The demon, who is invisible, must abide by two rules: it cannot leave Jack’s house and it cannot lay hands on Jack’s person with malicious intent.

Jack has one trick, but it’s a good one. He doesn’t show his emotions. Jack’s wife has an affair and confesses. When he doesn’t react she kills herself, which makes no sense, but whatever. Jack’s daughter comes out as a lesbian and Jack doesn’t react, happily or angrily. The Yattering murders three of Jack’s cats; it kills the last feline by making it explode like a kitty-bomb. Jack doesn’t react.

During the Christmas season the Yattering possesses the turkey while its baking in the oven, makes the Christmas tree spin like a crazy top and drives one of Jack’s daughters insane. Jack doesn’t – well, you get the idea. Turns out that crafty ole’ Jack knew the whole time. Instead of the Yattering driving Jack crazy, Jack drives the Yattering crazy. He wins. Or does he? Barker tells us what Jack wants –  he was essentially a man of simple tastes: all he asked for in life was the love of his children, a pleasant home, and a good trading price for gherkins. Jack’s daughter is insane and his home is in shambles, but he has his soul. Since Jack is portrayed as a total asshole, I’m not sure how much that’s worth.

The Yattering and Jack is an entertaining short story. The scenes where the Yattering possesses the turkey and sets the Christmas tree spinning are the highlights of this tale. Reading about the bacon fat bubbling down the crazed bird’s back, I felt impressed and more than a little jealous. Barker excels at description; his weakness is character development. Or maybe that’s unfair, as I am assuming these characters are meant to be parodies.

Like Jack himself, The Yattering and Jack has a single trick.  The Yattering is the story’s protagonist and Jack is the villain. And it works. I was rooting for the Yattering.

 

 

Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewoof, er Werewolf

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HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY FROM STEPHEN KING!

((THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS))

Deciding what image to use for this week’s blog post was rough. I dimly recall seeing Silver Bullet, the movie adaptation of Cycle of the Werewolf, years ago. When I viewed the trailer for Silver Bullet, I was thrilled to see that Gary Busey plays Uncle Al, young Marty has a rocket-powered wheelchair and the werewolf is played by a guy in a rubber suit. However, in honor of Valentine’s Day I decided to use an image from my vintage 1983 copy of Cycle of the Werewolf.

A publishing experiment/gimmick set in Tarker’s Mills, Maine, Cycle of the Werewolf is an illustrated novella consisting of twelve vignettes, one for each month of the year. Every month we learn about the weather in Tarker’s Mills, because what else do people in small towns have to talk about? We also learn who – if anyone – the Beast will kill. Yes, there’s a werewolf loose in Maine!

The deaths are vintage horror dreck, Stephen King style. Young Brady flies his kite too high, and is found headless and disemboweled. Constable Neary dies in his cruiser with a bottle of Busch beer nestled against his crotch. King tells us that Constable Neary is a Busch Man because such details make or break a story. Also, the Reverend Lowe has a nightmare/wet dream wherein he and everyone in his congregation transform into a werewolf. Gosh, I wonder who the werewolf could be?

Our hero is Marty Coslaw, a ten-year old in a wheelchair. Marty’s father says things like rootie-patootie and diddly-damn, which is a great way of identifying a person through dialogue. I myself don’t know any human being who speaks that way, but I’ve lived a sheltered life in New Jersey, so who knows? Marty’s Uncle Al should be locked up. Marty himself is a stone-cold killer.

Marty meets the werewolf on the Fourth of July, when he’s out shooting fireworks. Marty has fireworks because his Uncle Al gives them to him, telling his nephew to go ahead and set them off during the night of the full moon, when the killer has been rampaging. Marty shoots one of the werewolf’s eyes out with a firecracker, which proves those things are dangerous. Boy and Wolf Man meet again on New Year’s Eve, and this time Marty blows the werewolf’s brains out with a pair of silver bullets. Gee, I wonder who gave him the bullets?

Cycle of the Werewolf is pedestrian Stephen King. It’s not rock-bottom Stephen King, but it’s not good either. The art is one of the novella’s high points; comic book veteran Berni Wrightson draws a great werewolf. Mr. King and Mr. Wrightson also collaborated on the comic adaptation of Creepshow. I mention this because I believe Cycle of the Werewolf would have made a great graphic novel, but the publishing industry hadn’t perfected the format yet.

King addresses the biggest inconsistency of Cycle of the Werewolf in the afterword. Yes, the Master of Horror tells us, I know the moon cycles don’t match up. Deal with it. To be fair, this novella contains about a million other inconsistencies. My favorite is the werewolf’s eyes, which start out yellow and then turn green. Interestingly, Mr. Wrightson always draws the werewolf’s eyes as green. Logic and consistency aren’t this novella’s strong point. Neither is character development. Neither is the prose. Mr. King did his life-in-a-small-town shtick better in Salem’s Lot, and if you want to read about a monster terrorizing a small town try IT.

My favorite part of Cycle of the Werewolf is the art. I also liked the descriptive sequence of Marty hauling himself out of bed. That scene was well-done, because it required actual research on King’s part. One could view King’s werewolf as a metaphor for drug addiction; the Reverend sounds suspiciously like an addict as this novella lurches to a close, and at the time Mr. King was struggling with drug addiction. Who knows? Bottom line: if you want cheesy Z-budget horror, watch Silver Bullet. It’s way more entertaining.