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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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.

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

IMG_3534

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

WEREWOOF

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.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex

WARNING: Do not read this story while eating lunch, like I did. Also: spoiler alert!

This is a review of the Clive Barker novelette Rawhead Rex, not the movie of the same name. All I’ve seen of the movie is the above trailer; my favorite part is when Rawhead leaps into the air like he’s doing the wave! I have combed the Internet for an animated gif of this wondrous moment to no avail.

Rawhead Rex appears in the third volume of Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, a six-volume story collection released in the U.S. in the early 80’s. Technically it is a novelette, but I am going to refer to it as a story. The Books of Blood propelled Mr. Barker to celebrity status in horror circles. I read Rawhead Rex for the first time over thirty years ago, and still remember parts of it. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of story one forgets.

According to the online version of the OED, the meaning of raw-head is bogeyman; I already knew that Rex is King in Latin. Thus, Rawhead Rex means King of Bogeymen, and he lives up to that title here. The story opens with a man trying to move a rock that turns out to be the gravestone of Rawhead, who thanks his savior by killing him and spiking his body head-first in the earth.

Not having eaten for a few hundred years, Rawhead has a hearty appetite. He eats a child’s pony, and then the child. Pretty horrifying, but Rawhead is just getting started. Next he attacks a policeman’s car, baptizes his first follower by pissing in his face and devours another child, dragging him through a car window in a nightmarish sequence. Soon afterwards he burns a village to the ground, but is undone by the statue of a Venus figurine underneath the church’s altar. The story ends with Rawhead’s piss draining into the earth.

Rawhead Rex is visceral horror and thus isn’t for everyone. That said, this story is a ghoulish masterpiece, featuring a breakneck pace, gobloads of freaky energy and lots and lots of wonderful imagery. Barker’s description of Rawhead’s face is one of the high points of the story:

It was huge, like the harvest moon, huge and amber. But this moon had eyes that burned in its pallid, pitted face. They were for all the world like wounds, those eyes, as though somebody had gouged them in the flesh of Rawhead’s face then set two candles to flicker in the holes.

Garrow was entranced by the vastness of this moon. He looked from eye to eye, and then to the wet slits that were its nose, and finally, in a childish terror, to the mouth. God, that mouth. It was so wide, so cavernous, it seemed to split the head in two as it opened. That was Thomas Garrow’s last thought. That the moon was splitting in two, and falling out of the sky on top of him.

More happens in Rawhead Rex than in many novels I’ve read, and Barker still makes time to open with an extended introduction. Technically, starting a story with exposition is a big no-no, but there are exceptions to every rule. The start-with-action rule has more to do with our current society’s collective short attention span, anyway.

Character development in Rawhead Rex is bare-bones basic. Barker often leads with the worst traits of his human characters. Reverend Coot lives up to his surname, Detective Sergeant Gissing is a pedophile, Declan Ewan enjoys murder and monster golden showers. The humans tend to do stupid, inexplicable things. Why does Denny Nicholson charge the barn instead of calling the police? Why do Ron Milton and his family decide to take a Sunday morning drive when there’s a bloodthirsty beast on the loose? Who knows? Logic isn’t this story’s strong point. Description is, and Barker pours it on.

That said, Rawhead Rex has its own form of logic. Bullets don’t kill Rawhead, because Rawhead doesn’t know that bullets can kill him, but a small rock is enough to bring him to his knees. Barker’s vivid description of Rawhead makes it believable that there are those who would worship him as a God. He also seems to be able to dominate certain human beings with his will, an ability that is never explained.

Rawhead Rex doesn’t have a protagonist, unless you count Rawhead himself. The point-of-view of this story bounces around like a ping-pong ball. Alternating point-of-view has fallen out of style in writing circles – another writing rule – but make a list of the authors who use this technique and then tell me if it’s a stupid rule.

<Rant> I once had a short story rejected because it was written in alternating points-of-view; I had another rejected because it was told in first person present, and genre fiction isn’t written in first person present. I eventually sold both stories. From my time reading slush I have learned that markets who are extreme sticklers for such rules are often less than professional, and you don’t want to be published there anyway. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t follow the writers’ guidelines. Because you should! </End Rant>.

Clive Barker has had a long and successful writing career, but I’ve never read anything of his that matched the freakish energy of The Books of Blood. It’s a shame this collection is out-of-print, but short stories aren’t considered to be commercially viable anymore. Thus, Rawhead is gone but not forgotten. The King is dead; long live the King.

 

Bring on the Spiderpocalypse: Sarah Pinborough’s Breeding Ground!

The first time I heard about Sarah Pinborough’s Breeding Ground was through the Seton Hill Writers’ Facebook page. Reading the torrent of vituperation and OMGS whenever this book was mentioned, I formed the impression that many people seemed to think this was THE WORST HORROR NOVEL IN THE UNIVERSE. I must confess, the prospect of reading and experiencing such a book with others energized me. However, Breeding Ground is not THE WORST HORROR NOVEL IN THE UNIVERSE. It’s not even the worst book published by Leisure. I have read three novels published by Leisure Books, and this was by far the best.

In fact, I enjoyed Breeding Ground and thought it was a pretty solid horror novel, especially the second half. If you like creature-feature horror, you should definitely read this. I will note that Breeding Ground has decent reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, including a five-star rating from horrormeister Brian Keene! Ms. Pinborough managed to break into a tough market back when the horror field was in tatters (it’s still in tatters, but never mind). She wrote six novels for Leisure Books, including a sequel to Breeding Ground, and has gone on to have a career that most of us can only envy, writing horror novels, TV spin-offs and YA fantasy series. Her latest novel, Behind Her Eyes, was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.

Breeding Ground is a direct descendant of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, a novel about a small village where a group of women give birth to a bunch of creepy blonde-haired children with telepathic powers and a group-mind. The Midwich Cuckoos was made into The Village of the Damned, a fine movie. Ms. Pinborough mentions Mr. Wyndham and his works twice during the course of Breeding Ground. Another possible inspiration is James Herbert’s The Rats, although this book lacks The Rats manic energy.

Please note that I am not saying that Breeding Ground is a perfect novel. To me, it reads like a book written in the early stages of a novelist’s career. At points the writing is rough, and there are a few unintentionally hilarious sentences, such as when a character throws his butt onto the ground. Ms. Pinborough does a good job of building suspense but has trouble with the pay-off, especially action scenes. I had trouble visualizing the spiders, although she does a fine job of conveying the fear and dread they cause in human beings.

Ms. Pinborough does a lot of things very well in Breeding Ground, also. The pacing of this book is very good, and she does a fine job building suspense. We don’t see a lot of the widows, which makes them more threatening. The second half of this book has a creepy claustrophobic energy that I admired. The way the widows’ bite rots people from the inside is great. The build-up to the amputation of Dave’s arm is truly horrific; the actual amputation itself is a let-down, but you can’t have everything.

Breeding Ground‘s biggest flaw is its inability to create realistic characters, encapsulated by the book’s protagonist. The kindest way to describe Matthew Edge is that he’s not a very bright man saddled with an extremely rudimentary understanding of women. I took what I thought to be irrational dislike of Matt in the first chapter, and then discovered I was spot on.

When Matt’s pregnant wife Chloe gets sick, he doesn’t even notice until she starts telling him to go fuck himself and eating raw meat. Matt takes pains to tell us that he doesn’t care about his wife’s appearance, and then goes on to describe the flaws in his wife’s appearance in minute detail. This leads me to believe that he does, in face, care about his wife’s appearance. Chloe responds by paralyzing Matt with her newfound mental powers whilst simultaneously planning a night out with a girlfriend in Birmingham. At that moment I felt good for Chloe, because I’m sure taking care of Matt is a full-time job.

The happy times come to an end when Chloe gives birth to a widow, a bloodthirsty mutant spider. Matt runs away with piss dripping down his leg, one of the book’s many high points for our hero. He soon makes a quick recovery, finding a change of clothes and a quick bite to eat. If the barber shop was open, he’d probably get a haircut also, because you have to look good for those fellow survivors. Note that there is another character in Breeding Ground that shares the same philosophy.

Sure enough, when Matt meets other survivors, he’s immediately attracted to twenty-year old Katie, somehow managing to shove all thoughts of his beloved Chloe aside. The spiderpocalypse might snuff out most people’s sex drives, but Matt is made of sterner stuff. He spends a lot of time wondering if the new object of his affection likes him too, but soon Katie starts acting funny, sort of like Matt’s ex-wife before she gave birth to one of the mutant spiders that have, you know, taken over the earth. Matt doesn’t make that connection, but he does sulk when she stops paying attention to him.

Will Matt and Chloe/Kate/Rebecca/??? live happily ever after? Will Nigel win the Best-Dressed Man of the Spiderpocalypse Award? Will the widows eat everyone on earth? Read Breeding Ground to find out!

Bring on the sequel!

Horror Story

Horror Story is the first Bollywood horror movie I’ve ever seen. It’s nice to learn that the tropes of the horror genre are universal, even when the movie itself isn’t so great. Don’t get me wrong. Horror Story is entertaining and has a few good jump scares, including one that made me shriek so loud it startled my cat. But the story is – well, you’ll see.

Seven attractive young people are busy getting drunk at a bar because one of them is going to America. They decide to spend the night in a hotel that’s supposed to be haunted. That’s pretty much your plot, right there, which is one of the movie’s problems. Nobody has any agency or even much of a personality. The Final Girl doesn’t drink, which good for her!

Once at the hotel, our hapless youngsters immediately start breaking the tropes. Nobody has sex but they split up all the time, even after one of them observes that the evil spirit only kills stragglers so maybe they should all stick together. Eventually our heroes discover that the hotel used to be a mental institution that was the final residence of Maya the Witch, who calls the petrified youths on her cell phone to let them know she wants to kill them all.

Maya doesn’t quite measure up to my favorite evil witch of all time, Bathsheba of The Conjuring, but she really hustles. There are seven youths, so it takes her awhile to whittle the crowd down to a manageable size. Luckily, these young people are really dumb, which helps. Eventually the survivors discover a way to banish Maya, which is good, and then decide to split up, because that makes no sense at all. I try not to root for people to die in horror movies, but Horror Story strained my resolve.

I enjoyed Horror Story. It’s a movie with plot elements but no real plot, but who cares? It looks good; there’s nothing I hate more than a gritty, grainy movie where you can’t see shit. Bottom line: there are worse ways to kill 85 minutes.