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.

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Maps to the Stars / **

maps-to-the-stars-poster1I really love David Cronenberg’s films. (I’ve seen every feature he’s made except for Cosmopolis, which is on my list; just haven’t gotten a chance to see it.) I think, at his best, that no one makes films quite like he does. With his marriage of body horror, unsettling themes, go-for-broke premises, and a willingness to push the boundaries of good taste and sanity, his works of horror and suspense are unlike anything else out there. But in recent years, Cronenberg has…well, mellowed may not be the right word, but it’s close. Starting with A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg has started to try to marry his sensibilities with drama and dark satire, and the results have been mixed, to put it mildly. But rarely has “mixed” been a more appropriate word than it is with Maps to the Stars, in which Cronenberg tries to make his own take on The Player and creates something incredibly odd, off-kilter, and very, very uneven. And yet, there’s no denying that it’s a Cronenberg film – it’s just that it’s a remarkably strange one for him, and not entirely successful.

In fact, let’s go a step farther, and admit that Maps to the Stars is pretty much a mess, on many, many levels. A Hollywood satire in the vein of The PlayerMaps follows a group of various Hollywood luminaries – an actress on the downslope of her career, a young newcomer hoping to find a way into the industry, a limousine driver who’s also writing scripts, a young star and his parents – as they cross paths and go about their lives. And, as you’d expect from a Hollywood satire, we see them at their worst, whether it’s taking advantage of a child’s death to get a role, using their own traumas as a way to become more famous, or abusing people for their own shortcomings. It’s pretty pitch black material, and Cronenberg walks a fascinating line, letting the characters be far worse and more horrible than Altman ever attempted in The Player, and yet also letting them be more human, revelling in their guilt, shame, and broken consciences.

It’s an interesting approach to the film, and at times, Maps to the Stars works as a way of exploring the damaged characters who make up its world. This is a world where abuse is passed down through generations, where guilt embodies itself in spectral visions, where fire cleanses and purifies. And all of that is interesting material…when it works.

But the problem is, by and large, it doesn’t work. Maps is far, far too complicated for its own good, throwing in too many characters, muddling their motivations, and generally lacking enough of a throughline for any one plot thread to have a real impact. Is this a ghost story about an actress coming to terms with the abuse she suffered as a child? Is it the story of how adults corrupt their children? Is it about the moral bankruptcy of Hollywood, or the way no one in the film cares about anything other than themselves? Any of those are interesting ideas, and a lot of them could work well together, but Cronenberg seems to insist almost perversely on keeping the film from holding a focus long enough to make a single clear point.

Maps to the Stars is still well-shot, as you’d expect, and the cast is solid – no surprise, with the names you’ve got. But it’s a frustrating mess, no matter how many interesting scenes or haunting moments it manages to deliver, and you’ll finish the whole thing wondering what on earth any of it meant. And that’s something Cronenberg usually doesn’t suffer from, which makes this a pretty big letdown.

IMDb

Preacher (Season 1) / ****

preacher-poster-2There’s never been much quite like Preacher on TV, and in many ways, that’s much of what makes the show so wonderfully entertaining. For all of its flaws – and it definitely has some – there’s an unpredictability to Preacher, a willingness to go where other shows wouldn’t, to move in unexpected directions, and to deliver material in ways that no one else is doing. And while not everything works, there’s something refreshing and exciting about a show that feels so inventive and weird. Does it all work? Oh, God, no. But at least it’s trying. And when it works, it works like gangbusters.

Now, it’s worth nothing that I’ve never read the comic series on which Preacher is based. I’m well aware of it, and indeed, I have the first volume waiting at home to read when I get to it. So I can’t tell you how Preacher does or doesn’t measure up to its source material (apart from the general online feeling that it’s loyal to the spirit of the comics while telling its own story). All I can do is try to convey the gloriously bonkers world that Preacher creates, and the ideas that it’s playing with.

Set in a small Texas town, Preacher revolves around Jesse Custer, who’s struggling to keep his father’s church alive. Mind you, this is Jesse’s second career, something we learn about as we meet Tulip (played spectacularly by Ruth Negga), who knew Jesse in his, shall we say, wilder days. But Jesse is doing his best to walk the straight and narrow, and turn his back on his violent ways. And that works…until two events shake that up: the arrival of Irish vampire Cassidy, and the night when Jesse suddenly gains powers that allow him to control other people.

That’s about as much as you should know about Preacher going in – indeed, it’s about all you may ever get a sense of, other than the fact that the show explodes outward from there, dealing with explorations of guilt over past sins, questions of faith and religion in the face of an awful world, issues of evil, examinations of cruelty, and so much more. How that ends up involving a meat magnate (Jackie Earle Haley) who seems to worship “the God of Meat”, a stern local sheriff, a church secretary having an affair with the mayor, two traveling representatives of Heaven, and more…well, you’ll see. More or less.

The thing is, Preacher flies by the seat of its pants, with an eagerness to deliver insane moments…and sometimes, they don’t work. But more often than not, the show is gleefully, infectiously entertaining, delivering some of the greatest, funniest moments I’ve seen on TV this year, and using its low budget as an asset – I’m thinking here of the off-screen battle witnessed by two children, or a glorious battle in a hotel that’s between only a few actors, and only glimpsed in brief bursts. Add to that a few times when the show is allowed to go all out – a chainsaw fight! – and it’s hard not to have a blast watching the show when it’s allowed to go all out. And if you doubt that, look no further than the finale, which delivers one of the most gutsy, jaw-dropping storylines I’ve seen a TV series attempt, and does it remarkably well.

In the smaller points, though, sometimes the show doesn’t work as well as it needs to. There’s a bit of a heel turn by one character late in the series that comes out of nowhere, making you really question whether that character would be capable of such cruelty. And Jesse himself is an odd beast, sometimes seeming like a compassionate preacher who cares about his flock, and other times being so callous as to be jarring (this is a big issue in the finale, in which Jesse unleashes something massive, and then just walks away in such a jarring way that it’s almost distracting). And, ultimately, there’s the fact that, without spoiling anything, much of the first season feels like a setup for the show to come – like we’ve been watching a long prologue, and that for many of the episodes so far, we’ve been wasting our time.

And yet.

And yet, I’m more excited about the second season of Preacher, mainly because I watched the show find a bit of a stride as it’s gone along, and because it seems to be discarding the weakest elements of the show. I’m excited because it’s a show that seems to be finding itself, and correcting as it goes. And I’m excited because, even with its flaws, there’s nothing quite like it out there, and I enjoyed what I saw a ton. Preacher is an odd beast, and an uneven one, but it’s also a ton of fun, and surprisingly heartfelt with its feelings about religion and faith in a horrific world. And I’m eager to see where those feelings lead us.

IMDb

Vanilla Ride, by Joe R. Lansdale / *****

vanilla-ride-775467Let me open with a disclaimer: I really, really, really love the “Hap and Leonard” series. I mean, to be fair, I pretty much love Joe Lansdale’s writing in general; the man is funny, offbeat, unpredictable, and just a great storyteller. And whether he’s writing a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in Texas, a gonzo horror epic that ends up being one of the most gleefully weird stories I’ve ever read, or dazzling you with his sheer range in a short story collection, I have yet to read a Lansdale book that I didn’t love every moment of.

But there’s something genuinely special about the Hap and Leonard series, which follows a pair of unlikely friends as they continually get tangled up in violent, dangerous situations. Hap Collins is a white Vietnam War protester – a man who went to jail rather than serve in the military during that conflict. Meanwhile, Leonard is a gay black veteran, a man who loves Vanilla Wafers, goes through relationships quickly, and has a notoriously short temper. And the two of them are best friends. There’s never been an explanation, a setup for this, and really, that’s for the best; these two men simply trust each other, and they have each other’s backs, and they love each other, for all of the contradictions and disagreements.

With that basic setup, Lansdale has crafted a continually rewarding series of adventures that’s found the men working together in any number of situations, almost all of which end up with a stack of bodies, a lot of blood, and a good amount of psychic scar tissue for a man who believes – or wants to believe – that he’s a pacifist. It’s pure neo-noir, in other words, but done with such a hilariously fantastic ear for dialogue and character that you spend as much time in each book laughing as you do cringing from the danger.

With all of that being said, it’s hard to know what to say about Vanilla Ride that doesn’t apply to most of the Hap and Leonard series. It once again finds the boys helping out a friend – in this case, a man whose daughter has taken up with a drug dealer and seems on her way to being a strung out addict who’s given up on life. But in the effort to set her free, Hap and Leonard end up angering some very dangerous people – the Dixie Mafia, in fact. Not only that, they get the attention of the local police, and FBI as well, and end up having to figure out how to get themselves out of a situation where everybody is coming after them for one reason or another.

As with most noir, half of the fun is watching the plotting unfold here, so I don’t want to get into much specific about how this all plays out; suffice to say, it’s satisfying, twisty, engaging, and constantly surprising, as Lansdale lets his story evolve and change in front of your eyes to something unexpected. That’s maybe most true in the climax, which goes in an entirely different direction than I ever guessed it would, and ends up being far more satisfying because of that, to say nothing of being far more morally complex, and getting into some deeper territory with the characters.

But the biggest thing I can say about Vanilla Ride is that it may well be the single funniest Hap and Leonard book I’ve read so far – and that’s high praise. You’d never argue that Vanilla Ride is a comedy, but Lansdale’s ear for Texas-fried banter and snappy comebacks has never been stronger, and his willingness to let conversations meander (especially between Hap and Leonard) pays off dividends left and right, as I found myself laughing out loud more times than I can count. (My favorite recurring joke may be the interesting way in which Leonard chooses to show his anger at his current boyfriend; suffice to say, it’s an impressive way to make a stand in an argument.) Make no mistake: Lansdale’s characters are profane, sarcastic, mean, and, oh, did I mention profane? But his dialogue here is wonderful, and gives the book more character than I can possibly express.

In short, Vanilla Ride may be my favorite Hap and Leonard book so far, and that’s a tough call to make; there’s not really a bad book in the series (even the first, which I’ve argued is the weakest, is still really solid; it just doesn’t measure up to what came later), but Vanilla Ride stands out with some of the greatest dialogue, a complicated climax whose messiness I admired, and some great plotting and character work that lets it stand out from the rest. But let’s be clear: it could just be that I love Hap and Leonard, and any chance to spend time with them is going to win me over. Whatever the case, I loved it; now I have to force myself not to jump into the next book  just yet. (I space these out as treats to myself, if you’re wondering.)

Amazon

Trump Chicken, by bobbygw / ****

trump-chicken-a-grotesque-tale-by-bobbygw-book-coverWhen you read copies of books that get sent to you, there’s all kinds of things that can draw you in. Sometimes it’s the book that inspired them to send it to you – for instance, I had one person who sent me their book because they knew I loved Terry Pratchett, while another did so because I loved Stephen King. Sometimes, it’s the way the author presents themselves. But most often, it’s the way they describe the book. And in the case of “Trump Chicken,” a short story by “bobbygw”, it was the comparison the author made to “A Modest Proposal.”

Now, I don’t know if you’ve read “A Modest Proposal”; suffice to say, it’s one of the greatest – and most vicious – pieces of satire ever written, a scathing piece of writing that indicts the English for their treatment of the Irish people, and does so by crafting one of the sickest jokes imaginable. (If you haven’t read it, do so here.)

Anyways, that’s the sort of comparison that’s going to win me over…but it’s also one that misled in me in some ways. What I expected from “Trump Chicken” was a piece of vicious satire, one that took on our current presumptive Republican nominee in a go-for-broke style. And while I definitely got that out of “Trump Chicken,” what I also got was a graphic story about a man who eats rich people. Quite literally. In somewhat grisly detail. Here’s the thing, though: if anything, that only made me enjoy this story more. (What that says about me is probably best left unsaid.)

“Trump Chicken” (which is basically a short story) takes the form of a rambling narrative by a prisoner being interviewed by a reporter about his crimes. Those crimes, as mentioned, are mainly of the cannibalistic variety – more specifically, cannibalism of the rich, which the narrator seems to have made his specialty over the years. It’s the narrator’s voice that really sells “Trump Chicken” – conversational, a little crass, a little broad, more than a bit arrogant…in other words, it’s a dead-on aping of Trump’s style at points, a point that bobbygw is smart enough to bring up along the way. It makes the book a blast to read, turning what could have been a pure horror tale into something darkly and horrifyingly comic as it unfolds.

The main focus, it turns out, is the narrator’s final victim: one Donald J. Trump. It was a bit of a “big get” for our narrator you see, but it turns out that Mr. Trump may be less tasty and wholesome than he hoped, as a fine diner. And as the story unfolds, the author gets to truly tear apart Trump’s image, giving us a disgusting interior to reflect the exterior.

If there’s a major fault to “Trump Chicken,” it’s the sense that the story doesn’t quite have a big point to be made, other than Trump’s awfulness. When you read “A Modest Proposal,” it’s hilarious and sick, but it’s also incredibly angry, and its points about English treatment of the Irish can’t be missed. “Trump Chicken,” by contrast, is a wonderfully sick joke – and one that I quite enjoyed – but you can’t help but wish there was a bit more meat there, if you’ll pardon the horrible pun. And yet, it’s still a darkly funny story, and one whose sick payoff I really loved, even with all of its nonsensical nature. I just kind of wish there was a tiny bit more to it.

That being said, between the writing, the great voice work, the spectacular and gory imagery, and the willingness to transgress in the name of taking down his target, I really liked the book, and I’d even recommend it quite a bit…as long as you’ve got the stomach for it.

Amazon

Hap and Leonard (Season 1) / **** ½

Imv5bngflodiyyzqtmmvmyi00mdq1lthmmgutnmm3zjhkntrhzdhhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndi0mtyynzu-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_‘ve been a fan of Joe Lansdale’s writing for a long time now, and the Hap and Leonard books almost as long. For those of you unlucky enough to never have read Lansdale, suffice to say, you’re missing out; his books are almost entirely unclassifiable and unpredictable, running the gamut from all out horror to low-key dramas, from neo-noir to supernatural thrillers, and all done with a wicked sense of humor that’s hard to ignore. Lansdale writes what he wants, but the closest thing to consistency he’s ever done is the Hap and Leonard series of books, which follow around the titular characters as they get involved in all kinds of complicated situations. It’s pure Texas noir, done without any flinching but a beautiful sense of humor, and reading them is an absolute joy.

So when it was announced that the books were being made into a television series, I was equal parts excited and worried. I love these books quite a bit, and they’re low-key enough that you could easily do them on a TV budget. More than that, the choice to make them into a TV series instead of a movie seemed right; it would allow the stories to be told, while also allowing for the derails and character work that makes the books so good. And yet, I also worried that it wouldn’t hit the tone right. The Hap and Leonard books are pure noir, yes, and they’re unflinchingly so…but they’re also really, really funny, an element that’s inextricably linked to their appeal. And more than that, there’s Hap and Leonard themselves, whose unlikely friendship works because Lansdale simply accepts it – not overexplaining it or underexplaining it, but just letting it be, and letting these two men exist with all of their complications, contradictions, and personality. And I worried that the TV series might explain too much, or lean too heavily on the comedy over the noir (or vice versa), or soft pedal things…or, mainly, I just worried that it wouldn’t do the characters justice.

And yet, I’ll be damned if Hap and Leonard doesn’t work and then some. Adapting the first novel in the series, Savage Season, the first season tells the story of how Hap and Leonard end up entangled with Hap’s ex-wife, a group of 60’s revolutionaries looking for a lot of money to keep their ideals going, and a psychopathic drug dealer. As you’d expect with noir, there’s a slew of betrayals, a plot that keeps doubling back on itself, and all kinds of bad behavior, to say nothing of some brutal violence. But there’s also a lot of thematic richness, as these hippies (Hap included) try to make their peace with the change in the world, as well as dealing with what happens when your ideals die.

Even better, though, it deals with all of that while being exciting, bloody, and really funny. The casting can’t be shortchanged here, especially James Purefoy as Hap and Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard. The two men play off of each other beautifully, depicting an old friendship between two very different people, and an easy comfort and familiarity that can’t be faked (Purefoy and Williams are reportedly friends in real life as well). That also means that both men get some great dialogue and one-liners, especially Williams, whose sarcastic (and cynical) worldview means he gets to be the voice of cynical realism at all times.

But the supporting cast is no slouch either. Christina Hendricks rocks as Trudy, Hap’s ex-wife, and turns what could have been a generic femme fatale role into something richer and more complicated – a performance that makes the character work, as her contradictions constantly surprise the viewer and the characters. And Jimmi Simpson just about steals the show as Soldier, the aforementioned drug dealer, with a scenery-chewing performance in the best way possible. Soldier is definitely the most over-the-top role in the series, but Simpson makes it work, creating a truly chilling villain who’s constantly watchable, and whose presence escalates the action in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

Hap and Leonard isn’t perfect, of course; it starts off a bit rushed, barrelling along without spending quite enough time setting the stage, and it stumbles a bit in the epilogue to the story. But by and large, the show works, bringing this world to life, and more importantly, capturing the vibe of the books wonderfully, and bringing all of the comedy, darkness, thematic richness, and character work to the screen. And given that the first book may be my least favorite so far (even though I like it a lot, I think the books only get better), here’s hoping that they get to keep making this show for a while to come.

IMDb

The nth Day, by Jonathan Huls / **

27815772You certainly can’t say that The nth Day doesn’t have a great premise. Essentially, God has returned – an immaculate conception, once again, although this time to a fairly unworthy couple who seems to be less holy and devout than you might hope for. As they start raising their unique child, the book cuts to other characters, including a millionaire who disguises himself as a beggar, a little girl who gets saved by this new Incarnation, and more.

Oh, and did I mention that this becomes a horror novel?

That’s all a pretty solid hook for a novel, and one that could go in a lot of interesting directions. And the fact that it ends up as gory and violent as it does is a pretty intriguing one…except for the fact that, even having read the book, I’m not sure I could tell you why it ends up the way it does. Or why this millionaire enjoys dressing as a beggar. Or why pretty much anything happens in this book. God exists and is reborn, and is apparently a little bit of a brat – He kills his parents when He loses at Connect Four. More or less. And that’s before he starts wandering the Earth and smiting a whole lot of people.

The nth Day, really, is a mess. There are some interesting ideas here and there – the section in which God destroys all money in the world is compelling, and there are some fascinatingly weird derails along the way. But the characters are almost entirely, uniformly awful. Orphans get abused and molested. Children get neglected. Everyone’s awful, everyone’s flawed, and everyone deserves to die. Which, apparently, God is pretty okay with, I guess, although I have no idea why, or why he’s back, or what his goal is, beyond walking around a lot and messing with people. And once you add in blank characters and unclear plotting to some weak writing, you’ve got a book that just doesn’t have a huge amount to recommend it. Huls has some neat ideas here and there, and there’s a novel book buried somewhere in this mess. But it’s far from evident, and probably at least one or two re-writes away from emerging.

Amazon