That’s Offal!: One More Horror Story for Halloween Night

I was gonna save this for later, but it seems all too fittinng for the holliday.  The McRib is made of tripe.  In more … let’s say festive language that’s guts.  Organ meats are not really popular in American cuisine even though they’re fairly important in the cooking of some locales (Britain).  But apparently if you want to get Americans to eat offal, you just need to reconstitute it and put some barbecue sauce on it (I suspect the latter step is the more important one).

Published in: on October 31, 2011 at 7:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: H. P. Lovecraft’s Book of the Supernatural

What’s this then?:  It caaaaame from the bargain biiiiinnnn!  H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of the Supernatural is a quick cash in on the market of people who buy anything Lovecraft sight-unseen (i.e. me).  It takes Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and mines it as a source for a collection of classic horror stories that influenced Lovecraft.  Any story which Lovecraft mentions in passing is fair game.  Although pieces by such luminaries as Edgar Alan Poe and Bram Stoker are included, they are not necessarily the pieces you would expect, since again this collection is on the cheaper side, and its the second of its kind (after H.P. Lovecrafts Book of Horror).  So, where the first got Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, which Stephen King has called the best horror story ever, this book has to settle for “The Novel of the White Powder” (which is pretty good except for roughly five pages of after the fact explanation after the climax has occured and there is nothing scary left to happen).  Each story is preceded by a snippet from Lovecraft’s essay on the story or at least the author in question.  There are also illustrations which seem randomly placed and largely unrelated to the stories.  They resemble Stephen Gammel’s illustrations for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, only not quite as good.

Well, s’it any good?:  If you find it in the bargain bin, and you like traditional ghost stories, pick it up.  Most of the stories are from the late nineteenth century and have that certain verbose nature and tendency to digress for waxings philosophical.  I’ve been working on the book all month in fits and starts since the style sits so uncomfortably with me, but at least now I see where Lovecraft gets it.  Most of the stories are pretty standard ghost stories, and so they don’t have as much ability to shock as they once may have, but there are a couple strange gems.  In particular, evil fungi, evil wallpaper, and an evil health tonic seem to point towards the development of Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror.”

What’s the best bit?:  The story about the evil wallpaper is –surprisingly or appropriately? — the best story in the collection.  It’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper,  which tells in the first person (of course) the story of a woman convalescing with “nervous agitation” or some such 19th century disorder who is slowly driven mad by her unsettling (and potentially supernatural) wallpaper.  One critic noted that it “may be a ghost story; worse yet, it may not.”  Other winners in the collection are “The Novel of the White Powder,” William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” (the evil fungus story, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “the Voyage of the Pole Star” (a pretty standard ghost story, but well told).

Anything else?:  The thing that strikes me about this collection is that the failures are good ideas limply told.  The minor successes are standard ideas well told.  Thebest stories are good ideas well told.  In the spirit of Halloween, I will admit that one of my great fears is that when I write fiction I (will) fall into that first category.  Which, I suppose, paradoxically, makes the worst stories in this collection the most frightening.

Published in: on October 31, 2011 at 7:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Quick Hit: Solipsism

Does anyone else occasionally entertain the notion of solipsism, or just me?

Published in: on October 29, 2011 at 11:50 am  Comments (1)  

Reviews of Books You May Have Heard of: Weird New England

What’s this, then?:  Well, having recently been taken to task over my loose use of the phrase “books you’ve never heard of,”  I’ll admit that I’m not exactly diving through the bargain bin for this one.  But I thought it would be cool to fit a non-fiction book into my whole creepy October theme, here.  So, Weird New England is a collection of New England based folklore and esoterica.  This ranges from the weird but true, like outsider art installations and the umbrella cover museum in Peaks Island, Maine to the let’s say less provable stories of ghosts, haunted places (the abandoned Danvers mental hospital) , and a robot hitchhiker.  There’s a whole series of these for different regions of the country (and two or New Jersey) and I believe they’re all more or less similar, so you can learn what’s weird in your neck of the woods.

Well, s’it anygood?:  Sure.  I mean its just good fun.  I’m not sure its the kind of book that was intended to be read cover to cover, but then again, I’ve done so several times.  It’s sort of a coffee table book for paranormalists, ghost hunters, urban olklorists and other weirdoes.  There are pictures of some of the places and items in question and illustrations of the more fanciul stories.  The book sometimes prints locals’ accounts of legends in part or full.  The combination of the tellers’ utter sincerity in telling their stories and the fact that those stories happened in places you might be amiliar with makes them more creepy than any horror iction, because even if youremain skeptical you have to admit that someone more or less like yoursel (maybe even rom your home town) had some unexplainable experience.

What’s the best bit?:  Well, the book contains the Doc Benton story and the Panarchy ghost, which are pretty cool for you Dartmouth people.  The Dover Demon is always the story that sticks with me, which probably has to do with a phobic reaction to Grey-like aliens rom watching too many episodes of Sightings as a kid.  New England apparently has several legendary groups of inbred mutants like the Melonheads and the Frog People (who maybe influenced Lovecrafts “Innsmouth Look,”  which Stephen King kind of has now that I think of it).  I suppose whatever grabs you most will depend on your curiosities, fears and locality.

Anything else?:  This book really makes me want to get out and explore some of the weirdness out in my backyard.  Technology is connecting people from different places more that ever — which is awesome — but things like the Travel Channel make it easy to orget that where you are right now is pretty cool.  Every place has its own stories, and October’s as good a time to remember that some of them are horror stories.  The uncanny, or in German, the unheimlich, is all about eeling not-at-home at home.  This perhaps explains why Lovecraft and King are often local color writers as well as horror writers.

There is now a Weird Massachusetts book, and I know a certain fellow who it’d make a great Christmas gift for.  He lives, incidentally, just north of Dunwich.

Published in: on October 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

What’s this then?:  Now that’s a good question.  Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a comic written by Grant Morrison with art by Dave McKean.  It is about Batman dealing with a breakout at the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where his foes traditionally go after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.  Batman’s journey is echoed with the story of how the asylum’s founder Amadeus Arkham went mad.  The work is filled to bursting with symbols and deeply strange, so the more one tries to describe it the harder it seems to do so — much like a dream.  Between Morrison’s script which owes huge debts to C.G. Jung and (God help me, here he comes again:) Aleister Crowley, and McKean’s surreal art and disorienting panel layouts the effect is something like a fever dream put on paper.  In fact, last night I considered rereading it before bed, but thumbing through it and feeling a bit feverish myself I decided I didn’t have the guts for it (I gave it a quick reread by the light of day instead).   The book was, so the cover tells me, the best selling graphic novel of all time as of 2004.  For a book this weird and creepy that has to a be a fluke (and probably relates to its being a Batman book released shortly after Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s Batman).

Well s’it any good?:  You’re just full of trick questions today, huh?  I certainly loved the book after my first reading, but Grant really plays into the hands of anyone interested in psychoanalysis or the occult (i.e. me).  Stepping back for a moment, do I think it’s that good?  I’m not so sure.  The one word to some it all up might be maximalist.  Morrison’s script (printed in the 2004 edition) contains elements of symbolism that Dave McKean was not even able to include, when so much was already there.  The story is filled fit to burst with reference to the Shadow or the Tarot or Psycho or anything else.  It is, perhaps, a little overwrought.  McKean restrains some of Morrison’s more ham-handed moments but then makes the art more vague, impressionistic, and surreal.  Another artist might have rendered Morrison’s weird story with realist art, to help us understand the weirdness.  Or McKean could have made a normal script spookier by illustrating it his way.  But instead, the team layers weird on weird.  McKean’s panel layouts can be a little chaotic (intentionally so, I think), and Morrison’s script jumps in setting a great deal.  The combination of the two can make things a bit hard to follow sometimes.  I never read the comic without reading the script, so I’m not sure, actually, how it stands on its own.  I tend to think that the struggle to understand enhances the irrational, nightmarish quality of the piece, but I could see how very rational people, or people who like linear narrative would loathe this book.  I will say that as a piece of horror, it succeeds.  It relies a bit on gross-outs and some shocks of a fairly extreme sort (Morrison notes in his script that the 80’s DC Who’s Who book indicated that Amadeus Arkham’s wife and daughter were murdered.  He later went mad when the stock market crashed in ’29.  Morrison tends to think the former would be quite enough and goes to quite great lengths -perhaps more than is necessary- to convince us so), but again the sheer mystical-dreamlike illogic off the piece is what drives the horror.

What’s the best bit?:  Batman plays a word association game with an Arkham psychiatrist, which leads him to have a flashback to his parents’ murder.  The marquee on a theater the Wayne family is leaving reads “Bambi.”  That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this book.

Anything else?:  This is a young Grant Morrison, and try as he might he’s still in the shadow off Alan Moore.  The idea off building up meaning through shifting connection of recurring symbols, the idea that events in one time echo in other times (but mostly in the same place), and the use off one character’s captions to reflect on what’s going on with another character, and of course the interest in magic are all Moore staples that occur in this book.  Morrsion gives at least one direct “take that!” to Watchmen in his script, but also drops a reference to Watchmen‘s use off the phrase “the abyss gazes also.”  I think, despite what Morrison may tell you, he’s got a soft spot for crazy old Moore.  Morrison’s psychologically vulnerable Batman is also an attack on Frank Miller’s hypermasculine, highly violent, ultraconservative Batman.  Morrsion does not contradict himself on this point, I suspect because he genuinely does not like Frank Miller (but then I might just be reading myself into things).

Published in: on October 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Quick Hit: On Batman and Politics

Over at io9 they asked some Batman writers what they thought Batman would think about Occupy Wall Street.

People (mainly Frank Miller and people who like Frank Miller) have tended to assume Batman is a conservative, but I was reminded recently that Batman is anti-gun and anti-capital punishment.  Hmm.

Published in: on October 16, 2011 at 9:02 pm  Comments (1)  

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So Zatanna is a magician (both a stage magician and a can-do-supernatural-magic magician) in DC comics.  She casts her spells by speaking her intention backwards.  A fellow named Christopher Knowles wrote a whole book (Our Gods Wear Spandex. Its so-so. I might do it as a Book You’ve Never Heard Of some time), on the thesis that the pulps were heavily influenced by 19th century occultism, and comics were influenced by the pulps, so there remains some occult influence in comics.  Somehow he missed the chance to talk about Zatanna’s backwards speech.

Crowley (whom I can’t help but think you’re getting the wrong impression on my curiosity about, and I’ve been trying to avoid bringing up, but what the hell, it’s his birthday) wrote:

“Let the … Adept first train himself to think backwards by external means, as set forth here following.

(“a”) Let him learn to write backwards, with either hand.
(“b”) Let him learn to walk backwards.
(“c”) Let him constantly watch, if convenient, cinematograph films, and listen to phonograph records, reversed, and let him so accustom himself to these that they appear natural, and appreciable as a whole.
(“d”) Let him practise speaking backwards; thus for “I am He” let him say, “Eh ma I”.
(“e”) Let him learn to read backwards. In this it is difficult to avoid cheating one’s self, as an expert reader sees a sentence at a glance. Let his disciple read aloud to him backwards, slowly at first, then more quickly.
(“f”) Of his own ingenium, let him devise other methods.” [emphasis mine]

So, I suppose the question is, is it that Zatanna is very skilled in item d, or that the secret masters at DC want us to practice item e?

As a side note, point c was used to try to claim that noted Crowley fanatic Jimmy Page intentionally put backwards messages in “Stairway to Heaven.”  Zep Manager Peter Grant told the press “Our turntables spin only one way.”

Published in: on October 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Dreams of Terror and Death

What’s this then?:  Through October, we’ll keep a vaguely horror theme in the book reviews, I think.  Dreams of Terror and Death is a somewhat embarrassingly titled collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s “dream cycle” short stories published by Del Ray.  In short, the book contains all of Lovecrafts stories that either deal with dreams or connect to his novella The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which is also included here.  For the uninitiated: Lovecraft is probably the most famous and most important progenitor of modern horror fiction in the early Twentieth Century.  Stephen King is known to be a great fan of his work.  Lovecraft might be most well known for his establishing a shared setting for his stories in a fictionalized New England and for creating a whole bestiary of cosmic monsters that fans refer to as the Cthulhu Mythos.  The major Cthulhu Mythos stories are covered in a different Del Ray collection.  The stories in Dreams of Terror and Death are from Lovecraft’s lesser known setting of the dream land of Kadath which kind of lays tangent to the Mythos stories and overlaps with his New England macabre stories.

Well, s’it any good?: I guess there are a number of ways to answer this.  Do I review Lovecraft’s writing overall, or his dream stories, or this collection?  Let’s do each in brief.  Lovecraft is known for his purple prose and for his obsessions with certain words (“squamous” didn’t show up much in this collection, but “eldritch” did a couple of times, and “bas relief” was all over the place).  There’s a particular Lovecraft style that is hard to describe exactly, but if you know his work you can recognize it easily enough.  You’ll either find it charming or annoying and I know of no reliable test to determine which camp any reader will fall into.  That being said, in terms of stories, Lovecraft is great.  He has produced a number of little gems of the horror genre.  Lovecraft, I think was a man frightened of the world, and his ideas will creep into your head and lie their dormant to awaken some night when the stars are right.  If you’re already a Lovecraft fan, but don’t know the dream stories, they offer something different.  Though they often contain the macabre material Lovecraft is known for, and do occasionally include his monsters, their greatest and defining strength is, well, the dream-like quality.  Stories like “Dreams in the Witch House” have a trippy and disorienting quality.  In the stories that take place in Kadath, Lovecraft build up a fantasy world truly alien to our own world or even most fantasy worlds.  In the Dream Quest he sets a tale of high adventure, which isn’t his strength but has charm in the high level of its strangeness.  If, for some reason you already know Lovecraft’s dream stories but don’t have them all then this collection is a nice one stop shop.

What’s the best bit?:  My first inclination is to say “Pickman’s Model,” which is one of the all time classic horror shorts.  It was even a Night Gallery episode!  It hasn’t got much to do with dreams, though, and is included here, mostly because Pickman appears in the Dream Quest.  “Dreams in the Witch House” is great in its trippy quality, and is a great example of how science fiction and horror coexisted as “weird fiction” in the early twentieth century.  Lovecraft’s explanation of horrific phenomena draw on a (psuedo)science of higher dimensions.  “The Silver Key” is a really cool trippy time travel story, and “The Gate of the Silver Key” expands upon it, perhaps to its detriment.

Anything else?: These stories are really cool but not necessarily representative of Lovecraft’s more famous work.  I would reccomend something else.  If you’re already a little familiar with Lovecraft then check these out.

Published in: on October 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Quick Hit: Hank Williamses

The Hank Williamses are kind of like the Star Trek movies except it’s the odd ones that are good.

Published in: on October 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Crazy World of Warren Zevon

I love October for a lot of reasons, but one of the tops on my list, however trifling it is, is hearing “Werewolves of London” on the radio.  But its really too bad that Warren Zevon only gets that one song played, one month of the year.

I actually think Warren Zevon is the best of all the seventies singer-songwriters.  So James Taylor may have the most emotional weight and gravitas.  And Paul Simon might be the most clever and worldly (and Graceland really is as good as everyone says).  And Jackson Browne is cool, even if I feel 40 whenever I listen to him.

But Zevon made two things, his stock in trade that those other guys only ever touched on.  First, he could groove.  His more popular songs — “Excitable Boy,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and yes “Werewolves of London” — all have enough rhythmic umph that you could almost dance to them (and almost dancing is about as much dancing as I like to do sober).  The other thing is that Zevon has a great sense of humor.  His album “Life’ll Kill Ya” contains a song titled “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” which was strangely prescient of Zevon’s cancer diagnosis two years later.  Here’s the first two verses:

Well, I went to the doctor
I said, “I’m feeling kind of rough”
He said, “I’ll break it to you, son
Your shit’s fucked up.”

I said, “my shit’s fucked up?”
Well, I don’t see how–”
He said, “The shit that used to work–
It won’t work now.”

And the song has verve, which you don’t always expect from a rumination on aging and mortality.

Ok, you say, but Randy Newman’s funny (sometimes even on purpose!).  Yeah, “I Love L.A.” is actually a pretty good little social commentary, but Zevon does something far stranger and, to me, more interesting.  Zevon creates characters.  Whether it’s a werewolf whose “hair is perfect,” or the uncouth doctor from “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” these are all people who you could almost meet in our world, but not quite (although I could actually imagine my doctor giving a diagnosis like that).  And if you’re only familiar with the Linda Rondstandt cover of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” you’re missing out on the woman who propositions the singer for some S&M.  The juxtaposition of real world details (say, the 60’s conflict in the Congo) with the highly improbable (say, a headless, machine gun-toting ghost), creates the sense that Zevon’s songs take place in a world just like ours, but maybe tilted 15 degrees askew.  Zevon’s zany world would actually make a really good setting for a comic book or maybe a tabletop roleplaying game (sorry, did I get some nerd on you?).

Randy Newman’s point is usually fairly easy to grasp.  He does not, in fact, love L.A.  I’m not sure Zevon has a point, but if he does, maybe its that our world is weirder and more wonderful than we give it credit for.

That’s my favorite part of Zevon’s humor, but there’s more there, too.  In the same way that Dr. Strangelove is a great parody of war thrillers because without all the jokes it would be a great example of a war thriller, Zevon is a great parody of a singer-songwriter because he’s such a good singer-songwriter.  I can’t help but smile at the paradoxical irony and sincerety when Zevon interjects “Talkin’ about the man!” in the last chorus of “Roland the Headless Thompson gunner.

Of course, Zevon isn’t funny all the time, but the fact that he’s so funny makes you pay closer attention when he get’s serious.  On, his final album, The Wind, there’s only two songs of transition between a song about partying “’til the end of the night” and his musical last request “Keep Me in Your Heart.”  The way the two songs reflect on each other makes the former oddly poignant and the latter oddly warm.  And that strange mix of emotions reflects our world dead on.

Warren, wherever you are, thank you, and I hope you’re getting some much needed sleep.

Published in: on October 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm  Comments (1)