The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle / *****

1487220560125470096A few months ago, I read Matt Huff’s great Lovecraft Country, a fascinating horror novel that blended supernatural tropes and Lovecraftian nightmares with Jim Crow and American racial histories. It was a fascinatingly ambitious piece of horror, one that gave equal time to the horror of lynchings and to the nightmares that might lurk beyond the cosmos, and played them nicely off of each other. And although it was more conventionally plotted than I might have preferred, I couldn’t think of much else I’d read like that before.

But now, I’ve read The Ballad of Black Tom, in which Victor LaValle repurposes Lovecraft’s own story, hijacks the racism, and turns it into a true Lovecraftian nightmare – from the point of view of a black man in 1920’s America. And given Lovecraft’s own vile racial views – and the fact that the story LaValle has repurposed makes those views quite evident – that makes The Ballad of Black Tom even more ambitious than Lovecraft Country. Luckily, it’s more successful on pretty much every level – the tale is scarier, the politics more complex, and the writing better.

LaValle uses as his inspiration one of Lovecraft’s lesser tales, “The Horror at Red Hook,” which tells the story of Robert Suydam, an upper-class New Yorker who starts living amongst the  – gasp! – immigrants of the Red Hook neighborhood in New York, largely to learn of their primitive, savage ways and their arcane rituals. (The story is available online here; it’s not exactly a great read on its own terms, and that’s without the hateful subtext that runs through it all. But it is worth reading to appreciate how perfectly LaValle upends it.) LaValle changes his focus, though, telling the story through the eyes of Charlie Thomas Tester, a young Harlem man who’s making ends meet with odd jobs and an ability to fake his way through a few songs. And when Tom gets involved with Robert Suydam’s mystical rites, The Ballad of Black Tom plunges full-bore into Lovecraftian nightmares and madness.

The Ballad of Black Tom walks a fascinating line between paying homage to Lovecraft and attacking him for his virulent views (indeed, it’s not a coincidence that the story’s most racist character is named Howard), and the mix speaks to LaValle’s mix of admiration and distaste for the man. After all, there’s little way to be a horror writer working today and not be aware of, or influenced by, Lovecraft, but it’s also jarring to begin reading his horror and suddenly be confronted with his racist, xenophobic worldview.

And yet, as much as I’ve talked about the subtext, none of that would matter if The Ballad of Black Tom weren’t such a great, crackling read. LaValle splits the book into two halves, and while I don’t want to give anything away, the understanding of what he’s setting up in the second half is fascinating, allowing LaValle to turn his subtext into text, and unite the dual horrors of racism and Lovecraftian nightmares into something rich, satisfying, and genuinely unsettling. Indeed, most of The Ballad of Black Tom is disturbing, great weird fiction; that it manages to be both in the Lovecraftian tradition (far more so than Lovecraft Country) and yet wholly, unmistakably modern is just one of its joys. Part psychological horror story, part anti-hero tale, part cosmic horror, LaValle has a lot going here, and mixes it all together to make a nasty, dark tale that’s well worth the short time it takes to read.

Amazon

Friday the 13th (1980) / **

f-13It’s time to come clean, as a horror fan. Yes, I love horror movies. I love the psychological turns of the screw of movies like The Shining. I love the visceral, inhuman terror of something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I love the creeping unease and beautiful pacing of movies like Night of the Living Dead, which start you in a normal world and slowly plunge you into madness and nightmares. I love the impact of them, from the intensity of Martyrs to the simple, no-frills approach of The Blair Witch Project.

But apparently, I just don’t like slashers. At all.

I mean, there are a couple of notable exceptions – I think the original Black Christmas is one of the all-time great horror films, and that Scott Spiegel’s Intruder is an underrated gem that I really loved. But it’s hard for me to get into classic 80’s slashers, which mainly just bore me with their flat characters and – more importantly – a complete lack of fear or unease.

Even so, I felt like I needed to see Friday the 13th, one of the seminal and original slasher films. Even with my ambivalent – at best – feelings toward slashers, I felt like I couldn’t be a true horror fan without seeing one of the quintessential entries in the genre. And so, given the chance to see the original Friday the 13th at a local theater, I took it…and got about what I expected.

Here’s everything you’ve come to expect from slashers, in its original form. A soon-to-open summer camp, filled with promiscuous teens without much personality; a slew of inventive and graphic kills of characters you probably won’t miss; a Final Girl who makes it through everything and has to face off against the big bad herself. (And if you’ve seen Scream, you probably even know the big difference between this film and all the others in the series.) There’s even the obligatory final jump scare, the stinger that’s mandated (and clearly, clearly inspired by Carrie).

All of which is fine, I guess. There’s nothing particularly great here – nothing, for instance, on par with that amazing boat sequence from The Burning. But more than that, the biggest issue with Friday the 13th is just that it’s not well made. Horror is a genre that demands a lot of its directors – you need pretty tight control over your film, over your atmosphere, and over every other aspect of the experience. And Friday the 13th is sloppy, at best; the shots go on too long, the lighting is bad, the performances weak. (I can’t help but compare the whole thing to Don’t Breathe; even though the two films have nothing to do with each other, Don’t Breathe‘s incredible craft and technical superiority are constantly on display, and aid in the tension, unease, and horror, and you can’t help but wonder how Friday the 13th would be if it had someone who knew what they were doing behind the camera.)

And maybe I could forgive more of that if I was more into slashers, or more into the kills and inventiveness (even though they’ve been outdone over and over again by now, of course). But mainly, I was just bored by it all – and that’s maybe the worst reaction you can have to horror, short of laughter. I mean, I’m glad that I saw it, simply as a completist. And it’s hard not to be interested in seeing how the genre really got its start. But as someone who apparently just doesn’t dig on slashers, I can’t say too much great about it.

IMDb

Eerie, by Blake & Jordan Crouch / ** ½

51o6swpmkclBlake and Jordan Crouch’s Eerie has an absolutely great setup, and a wonderful second act. But a great first two acts can be entirely undone by a bad final one, and it’s hard to overstate how bewilderingly odd and misbegotten Eerie‘s conclusion really is. And that’s incredibly frustrating, because until that series of final reveals, Eerie is intense and unnerving, and builds a fantastic atmosphere of dread and unease that’s undeniably effective. Sadly, though, it’s massively squandered, and the ending is so disappointing, that the book ultimately doesn’t work at all.

But let’s talk about that premise, because it’s pretty great. Eerie is the story of Grant and Paige, a pair of siblings who become orphans at an early age, thanks to a horrific car crash. But when we catch up to them, years later, their relationship has become more complicated; Grant is a police detective, and he ends up stumbling into his sister’s life during the course of a missing person’s investigation. But when he goes to meet with her, he learns that she’s unable to leave her house – because she’s being kept prisoner by some unnameable force. And now Grant is a prisoner as well.

Eerie unfolds quickly from there, as seems to be typical for Blake Crouch; there’s not a lot of fat here, and it doesn’t take long for Paige’s house to become the location of a waking nightmare. But it’s a weirdly cryptic one, with events unfolding in unclear ways, a force that seems to be beyond description, and a lot of insane madness that they can’t control. It’s all a book that clearly revolves around a central mystery: what is going on in that house? And why does it seem to only truly affect Grant and Paige?

I don’t want to spoil the answer that we get, but I’ll warn you that it’s a complete gearshift from the rest of the book. That’s apparently by design; from what I’ve read, the Crouch brothers intentionally set up the first three-quarters of the book to mislead the audience, and to allow the ending to be more of a surprise and a big reveal. And there’s nothing wrong with that in theory, but in execution, it feels genuinely bewildering, and leaves behind a slew of questions without any satisfying answers. The ultimate motivation of this “thing” is okay, but the action it’s taken to get that done don’t really make any sense whatsoever; more than that, the reaction of at least one character doesn’t really seem to gel with what we find out later on. But more than anything else, it’s the tonal shift that falls flat. I love when a book can shift genres, but it’s a high risk maneuver, and sadly, Eerie can’t pull it off; the gap between the horror and the answers we get is simply too great, and the whole book ends up leaving a bad taste of disappointment and irritation behind.

Amazon

The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney / **** ½

28016509Ever since the release of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (a book I really love, for what it’s worth), publishers have all been trying to cash in on that book’s massive popularity, releasing twisty, nasty little thrillers with unreliable narrators, massive narrative shocks, morally complex (at best) characters, and much more. Maybe the most successful was the middling Girl on the Train, which boasted a great premise and narrator, but squandered it with a weak, overwrought plotline.

Now comes The Girl Before, which has already been picked up as a movie project for Ron Howard, and which definitely feels of a piece with Flynn’s book. It’s the story of two women, Emma and Jane, each of whom move into a most unusual house in London. It’s not just the stark minimalism of the house, though; it’s the complicated application process, the 200+ rules inhabitants have to live by, and the demanding, eccentric architect who still oversees the house’s high-tech systems. These two stories, though, take place two years apart, with author J.P. Delaney alternating between the two women’s stories with each chapter. And before long, we know that Emma’s story will end in her death, under what could charitably be called suspicious circumstances.

Delaney has a lot of plates spinning here, but perhaps the most fascinating is the way he (technically, “J.P. Delaney” is a pseudonym; many believe that the author Tony Strong is the writer behind the book) lets the two stories mimic and comment on each other. This is a book about patterns, about the way that people find themselves following in bad habits and shameful footsteps, and unable to break out of those cycles. But it’s also about the way that people can reveal themselves through those cycles, and in watching how the two women’s lives play out in parallel tracks, it’s not hard to start asking questions about what we can learn about the one man they have in common: Edward, the architect who designed the house.

Much of what makes The Girl Before work is the engaging, rich characterization of Emma and Jane. For all that these two women have in common – both have undergone a recent trauma; both are trying to rebuild; both are strong, outspoken women – there’s little confusing the two, which gives us two strong, interesting women to focus on and engage with. More than that, by letting the women narrate their chapters, we get to learn more about them than we ever could through omnipotent narrators – and, more than that, Delaney can play some games with his audience.

Because, make no mistake, this is definitely a twisty read. No, it doesn’t quite live up to the gleefully manipulative Gone Girl, but it works far better than The Girl on the Train, tossing out a slew of reveals that generally feel as though the book is playing fair but keeping you guessing. And while the major reveal of what happened to Emma isn’t perfect, it works on the whole, and feels, again, like the book is generally playing fair without going too silly or far-fetched.

Best of all, though, it’s a fast-paced and incredibly engaging read, one that’s hard to put down. I ended up blasting through it in just a few hours, and every time I’d plan on stopping, something new would come along and keep me hooked right in. And between the strong characterization, the clever two-lane plotting, and the ever twisting reveals, I had a blast reading it. It’s a great, twisty, fun little read, and done with enough writerly craft that you’ll find yourself drawn along and enjoying it without a care in the world. So read it before the movie comes along, and enjoy being ahead of the curve.

Amazon

Endurance, by J.A. Konrath (writing as Jack Kilborn) / ****

518ll2c8hwlI first read J.A. Konrath’s writing in the gleefully splattery Draculas, a collaboration between four writers about a battle with vampiric creatures in a hospital. Given the collaborative nature of that book, it was hard to know who wrote what, but I got the vibe that Konrath (who writes as Jack Kilborn when he writes horror novels) has a taste for the ghoulish, with a willingness to go to extremes in his violence, and for the pitch black in his humor.

And having read Endurance, it turns out that both of those were true, in spades. The story of a little secluded hotel that lures in its customers for nefarious purposes, Endurance is two parts Psycho, one part Freaks, and about ten parts The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, turning into a blood-soaked, very violent, very horrific nightmare, as our various guests battle for survival against a ghoulish, inbred family who needs their guests’ blood – literally – to stay alive.

Konrath is a straightforward, pulpy author, and Endurance reflects that style, conveying its story and characters with a minimum of storytelling fat and a rapid pace that never really lets up. As a result, it’s a book for horror fans – more than that, even, it’s a book for slasher fans, for those who enjoy their horror with blood and gore to spare. Konrath has a love of the gross-out, it seems, and he fills his book with horrific deformities, maniacal torturers, disgusting villains, and grisly violence to spare.

And make no mistake – this is a rough read, yes, but it’s an undeniably effective one. Konrath’s villains are fascinatingly insane, motivated by an obsession with American Presidents. That’s a wholly unique idea, and one that gives the whole book a wonderfully black comic tone that can be viewed as either really entertaining or really sick, depending on your viewpoint. (By the time characters are trying to make jokes about the forced amputations they’ve undergone at the hands of these villains, you’ll either find yourself shutting the book in horror or laughing at how far Konrath is willing to go.) But it’s also a truly scary book, with Konrath knowing exactly how to work his audience over, savoring our discomfort and unease as we constantly question whether our heroes are being watched in their rooms or being hunted without them knowing. There are a slew of genuinely scary moments here (two of the best involve condensation on a car window and the final pages of a hotel guest log), and given how much horror I read, for me to find something truly scary is no small feat.

All that being said, it’s still pure pulp, and that can be a weakness as well as a strength. The characters ultimately feel pretty flat and generic, and several of their climactic moments are absurdly cheesy and scripted, feeling like staged Chekhov’s guns that don’t even quite fit the story. And while that black comedy can be really fun, the characters’ ability to make jokes about their horrific experiences sometimes feels like they’re healing from this stuff awfully quick – I’m not sure I could crack jokes about the mutilation I had suffered after about half an hour.

But if you can set aside some of that as just being a function of pulp, it’s hard not to have “fun” reading Endurance, if you’re a horror fan. It’s twisted and depraved, without a doubt, and your enjoyment of it will boil down to your willingness to let Konrath push the limits of taste and…well, endurance. There’s gore, there’s mind games, there’s graphic violence, there’s torture, and there’s Rob Zombie-film levels of depravity. And if that’s your thing, you’ll have some ghoulish, twisted fun here. I know I did.

Amazon

Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow / ****

51kfko8wqol-_sx326_bo1204203200_Any serious fan of horror probably has some connection to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe more than any horror writer other than Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft has influenced just about every major horror author alive. With his weird mythos, his alien worlds, his unutterable horrors just beyond the realms of sanity, Lovecraft wrote horror like no one else, for better or for worse. And you’d be hard pressed to find a serious craftsman in the genre today who hasn’t tried their hand at an homage to Lovecraft’s work. And by and large, while there are some good ones out there (Laird Barron has done some remarkable ones, for instance, and the remarkable and hilarious Freaksome Tales by William Rosencrans does a fantastic, clever pastiche with tongue firmly in cheek), many just feel like pale retreads or weak imitations.

All of which gets to why Lovecraft’s Monsters is such a solid collection. Rather than filling a collection with writers imitating Lovecraft’s (often overwrought) prose, editor Ellen Datlow chooses selections that play off of Lovecraft’s mythos and works, finding something new to do with the material while still staying true to the spirit of it all. For instance, Neil Gaiman’s “Only the End of the World Again” drops a werewolf in the middle of Lovecraft’s isolated Innsmouth, and lets him get caught up by the machinations of a local Elder God cult. “The Same Deep Waters as You, by Brian Hodge, takes on Innsmouth as well, but does so through the eyes of a government agency that’s been monitoring the town’s inhabitants for a long time. (And man, does this one take an appropriately nasty turn right at the end.) The aforementioned Laird Barron, meanwhile, brings Lovecraft to the Pinkerton era, turning in a nasty little yarn in “Bulldozer.” And Joe Lansdale brings his usual style and drawling slang to bear in the nightmarish tale of a blues musician who’s struck one seriously Faustian bargain in “The Bleeding Shadow.”

Not every story works, of course. Kim Newman’s “A Quarter to Three” basically uses a Lovecraft setting as a shaggy-dog joke with a groaner of a punchline. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl” feels like the first act of something larger, and leaves you feeling like you’re missing something; the same, honestly, could be said about Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Waiting at the Crossroads Motel.” Fred Chappell’s ambitious post-apocalyptic “Remnants” has some neat ideas, but ultimately suffers from weak writing and worse dialogue. And the poetry selections all feel pretty thrown in – not bad, per se, but pretty forgettable.

And, of course, there are the outliers, which are pretty good stories, even if they don’t quite feel like they fit into the anthology. Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley’s “Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole” is equal parts sequel to Frankenstein, Jules Verne tribute, literary alternate history, and adventure story, and while I’m not sure that it quite fits the theme, it’s certainly a wild ride. John Langan’s “Children of the Fang,” meanwhile, is a fantastic story of family ties, guilt, and shadowy evil, and while there’s a bit more Lovecraft to it, it still feels more like its own thing. And William Browning Spencer’s “The Dappled Thing” presents a steampunk jungle adventure that turns into horror only towards the end. None of them are bad – indeed, all three are among the most interesting, engaging stories – b they all feel a bit “off-topic,” for lack of a better term.

All in all, it’s a satisfying, fun anthology, and one that’s more varied and wide-ranging than you might expect given the Lovecraft theme. Sure, there are some hits and misses, but that’s the name of the game when you read anthologies. And while few of these quite manage to be all out great, there are none that are truly bad on the whole, and a lot that are pretty fun and enjoyable. And as a fan of horror, creativity, and Lovecraft, I found a whole lot to enjoy here.

Amazon

Ridley Scott double feature

At this point in his career, Ridley Scott has made nearly 30 feature films. That’s a lot, by any standards, and Scott’s willingness to take chances and push himself into different directions means that not all of them work. And yet, here he is, 78 years old, and still turning out remarkable, astonishing works that put other filmmakers to shame, as well as other works that at least show a director who refuses to play it safe.

poster-largeLet’s start with The Martian, which reminded everyone that there’s a reason that Ridley Scott was once synonymous with great science-fiction. The Martian feels more like Alien than Blade Runner, but more than either of those, it feels like a master of his craft telling a story, and telling it well. Andy Weir’s novel was a lot of fun, telling the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and his efforts to survive; what it lacked in craft, it more than made up for in intelligence, fun, and sheer readability. And in adapting the book for the screen, Scott takes the best parts of the book and holds them intact, while adding a visual style that brings the alien world of Mars to vivid life. In other words, it’s the perfect way of adapting the book – it keeps its strengths, but corrects for its weaknesses. And the result is an absolute treat – a fun, smart piece of science-fiction that satisfies both as pure entertainment and a great piece of storytelling.

My biggest worry about The Martian was whether or not the film would keep the science of Weir’s book, or if it would make an effort to dumb it down. Luckily, Scott trusts his audience, letting Matt Damon keep his video diary entries and counting on the inherent fascinating we have with people just doing things with their hands. The Martian invests us in Watney’s survival, yes, but it also counts on us to keep up with the science being performed – at least, in broad terms – and to enjoy watching people puzzle their way through scientific problems. It helps, of course, that Scott has such an insanely great cast to carry the load; Damon does a lot, of course, but Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and a slew of others all do their part, conveying thoughtfulness, intelligence, and charisma that keeps us involved. More than that, they’re allowed to be funny, which can’t be overstated; the humor of the film keeps us going, and keeps it from turning into a dour piece of survivalism.

And, of course, there’s Scott’s fantastic style, which keeps everything together. From grainy video diaries to camera feeds, from sweeping shots of Mars to claustrophobic moments in a rover, Scott keeps things moving beautifully, reminding us at all times of the science involved in keeping Watney alive, but also of the fact that he is alone on an utterly alien world – and that there’s something truly beautiful about that. It all comes together beautifully, and if there are a couple of pacing problems it inherited from the novel (a mid-film setback on Earth feels like a bit of a narrative drag that’s shoved in, and slows things down a bit too much), it’s hard not to find yourself gripped by the events. And I defy you not to find yourself riveted by that finale. It’s a blast of a movie, and that rare case of a film that outdoes the book that inspired it. Rating: **** ½

counselor_ver8From there, I moved back a few years, to a much less beloved piece of work. Like The Martian, Scott’s 2013 film The Counselor boasts an incredible cast of actors, including Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, and a slew of others. And once again, there’s a connection to the world of books, although it’s a very different one: The Counselor was written by the incredible Cormac McCarthy, the author of Blood MeridianNo Country for Old MenThe Road, and more. It was his first screenplay, and the idea of Scott and McCarthy finally teaming up (they had been trying to get Blood Meridian made for years) sounds incredible.

Man, is it ever not.

There’s a great story somewhere in The Counselor, which tells the tale of a lawyer who gets involved with Mexican drug cartels and learns the price of stepping foot in that dark world. It’s rich material for McCarthy, who is fascinated by the evil and cruelty which men are capable of, and whose ability to capture horrific violence and savagery should find plenty of material to work off here. And given the cast that Scott has assembled, and McCarthy’s stark prose, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that there are some fantastic monologues and conversations to be had. Brad Pitt owns his role as a shadowy figure associated with the cartels, and his conversations with Fassbender are a treat, engaging with some of the film’s themes in a far more successful way than others. And while Bardem is playing his role to the hilt, he more or less works as well, giving us a caricature of a drug dealer that pales in comparison to the reality of the cartels.

The problem? Look, McCarthy does a lot well in his novels. He writes memorable scenes, he creates compelling characters, he writes great dialogue. But his books are more about mood and theme than they are plotting. And film needs more of a throughline, and The Counselor doesn’t have that. Exactly how Fassbender gets involved with the cartel is maddeningly unclear, as are the exact reasons why everything goes bad. And while it’s great that McCarthy writes roles for his female characters that gives them some interesting things to do, Cameron Diaz is woefully out of her element in the role, feeling like an actress who’s asked to do work she’s just not capable of. And given that the role shapes much of the action of the film, that’s a serious problem.

Even with all of that, Scott does everything you’d expect, delivering some truly astonishing sequences, and using the film’s sparse action to maximum, horrific effect. More than that, he lets his actors soak in McCarthy’s dialogue, letting them bring out the meaning and depth of the great author’s words. He can’t tie the script together, and he can’t make it all work. But he can take what he’s given and turn it into the best version of it that we could get. And if nothing else, you have to admire a director in his 70’s still taking risks to this degree, delivering something so wildly unconventional – and uncommercial – at a point where most directors just play it safe. It doesn’t work, but you have to admire that it certainly tries. Rating: **

IMDb: The Martian | The Counselor