On Dracula 3D, Solo, and the Power of Expectations

argentodracAbout a week ago, I endured the roughly 18-hour ordeal that was Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D. (IMDb says the movie is less than two hours, but I can tell you, it feels infinitely longer than that.) Bringing almost nothing new whatsoever to the classic Dracula story, and telling it without any sort of visual style, inventiveness, humor, new angle, or any sort of compelling performances, Argento brings Dracula 3D to the screen as if he was dared that he couldn’t strip every bit of life and originality out of Stoker’s tale. (There is, admittedly, a single moment that’s unexpected in the movie, but is so gloriously badly executed and bizarre that it inspired not joy but absolute bewilderment and some sustained laughter in the theater. Three words: giant praying mantis.)

Now, the thing is, Dracula 3D isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen. It’s not even the worst one I’ve seen in recent memory – it doesn’t compare to a low-budget freak show movie called Side Sho that I saw a few weeks ago, which couldn’t even light its shots correctly. And yet, Dracula 3D undeniably feels like the worst movie I’ve seen in years, and inspired more vitriol and anger from me than any number of demonstrably worse low-budget slashers I’ve seen. But why is that? Why did I hate this movie so much more than low-budget trash without any redeeming qualities whatsoever?

It all comes down, I think, to expectations. Dracula 3D was helmed by the legendary Dario Argento, responsible for any number of essential horror films, not least of which is the original Suspiria. Now, admittedly, I’m not a die-hard Argento fan – it’s only recently that I even came around on Suspiria. Nevertheless, even the Argento movies I disliked always had style and color to spare. Sure, they’d make no sense and have mediocre performances, but I could never deny just how gorgeous his movies were. Say what you would about Argento, but his motto so often seemed to be “style above substance,” and I could enjoy that at least on one level.

And so, I think much of my anger and frustration with Dracula 3D – and much of my hatred – came from the fact that I went in expecting, at the very least, something to look at. What I got wasn’t just dull and overlong and uninteresting – it was framed without any sense of style or visual acuity whatsoever. Shots featured the blandest backgrounds possible, weren’t even framed well, used almost no color, and just generally felt as lazy and weak as possible – and Argento, whatever his faults, should be better than that. In other words, sure, Side Sho sucked, but it seemed like everyone was doing more or less their best. This, however? This was a phoned-in film by someone who couldn’t care less about his audience or anyone who paid for it, and who could undeniably do something better. In other words, my expectations – even mild ones, like “this is what makes a typical Argento film” – shaped how I felt about the finished product, and inspired my hatred and anger.

soloThe opposite, though, could also be true – that a lack of interest and an assumption of awfulness can so often work in a film’s favor. Take, for example, the new standalone Star Wars film, Solo. Here’s a film I had basically no interest in seeing – was there anything we really had to know about Han Solo that we didn’t already know from the film’s and Harrison Ford’s performance? Add to that the middling to weak reviews that confirmed my worst fears, the behind the scenes drama that ejected the interesting directorial duo Chris Lord and Phil Miller for the bland, generic Ron Howard, and my general irritation at fan-service, and here was a movie that I couldn’t care less about seeing.

And yet, I have a son who’s getting older and older, and who loves Star Wars films, and I’m not going to miss chances to do something together that means something to him. So, off we went to see Solo today, and to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the movie more than I had any expectation of doing.

Now, that’s not to say that Solo is a great film, or even more than “not too bad/pretty good.” It’s a film that’s far too indebted to fan-service and to franchise-building, and in spending so much time belaboring every connection to the past and bludgeoning home every signpost for the future, the film so often forgets to ever exist in the here and now. Worse still are the brief glimpses here and there of the lighter, sillier version of the movie Lord and Miller would have given us; while there can’t be much of their footage left in the final cut, there are moments here and there that feel funny, deft, and enjoyable in a way the rest of the movie rarely does.

For all of that, though, I ended up enjoying Solo far more than I thought I would, and I think that’s due in no small part to the fact that I went in expecting a tedious chore that would never really work for me. Yes, what I got is the dictionary definition of “inessential,” and it feels a bit weak at more than a few points (most notably with the pointless, glossed-over death of a major character). But as the film opened with a fun chase across a grimy Star Wars city, and then gave me a spectacular train heist, before leading to another great heist effort that ends up leading to cries for revolution, well, I couldn’t deny that I was having fun, because I didn’t expect those parts. So much of what I expected about Solo was the stuff that fell flat for me – the ridiculous explanations for things we never cared about (how Han got his blaster! how Han got his last name! what the deal with the Kessel Run was!), or the absurd markers that might as well have come with giant blinking subtitles reading “THIS IS FOR THE SEQUEL”.

And so, every time the film came to life and gave me what I wanted originally – a fun, lighthearted space romp without much debt to the rest of the Star Wars universe – well, I enjoyed it a lot more than I would have going in cold, because I was coming out ahead of what I assumed I was getting. Does it change the overall quality of the film? No more than my knowledge of Argento’s filmography changes the quality of Dracula 3DSolo is still pretty fun, but inessential and weighed down by its inability to stand on its own; Dracula is still bland, awful, and completely turgid, so much so that even a late-film appearance by Rutger Hauer can’t save the film.

But all of this goes to show how subjective a medium film really is, and how silly these reviews I write really are. I can’t tell you what you’ll think of a film, and the idea that there’s some “objective” scale of quality is silly. All I can do is tell you how I reacted, and that includes the way my expectations affected the viewing experience. And the more you have invested in a film, the more able it is to let you down; just the same, the lower your expectations, the more it might surprise you.

(Dracula 3D still sucked, though. No matter what you expect, it’s going to be bad. Except for that praying mantis scene, which rules, although I couldn’t tell you if it does so ironically or unironically.)

IMDb: Dracula 3D | Solo

Vacation Reads: Part 4 (The October Country / Jane Eyre / Re-Reads)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each. This will be the last in the series, covering my last couple of reads and including some brief capsule reviews of some re-reads I did.

the-october-countryRay Bradbury’s The October Country is often held up as the closest Bradbury ever came to doing a horror anthology, and while not every story here is a dark one, there’s no shortage of nightmares here. There’s “Skeleton,” in which a man becomes horrifying aware of the bones within his body and becomes convinced that they’re trying to take over his life; there’s the surprisingly nasty ending of “The Man Upstairs,” in which a young boy becomes convinced that the lodger living upstairs in a vampire; and there’s “The Small Assassin,” about a possibly murderous infant, and a story that has one of the nastiest last lines in memory. In other words, there’s plenty of darkness here, and while Bradbury isn’t going to be mistaken for the full-fledged horror of a King or a Barker, there’s some wonderfully dark, Gothic material here.

But more than that, there’s the imagination and heart that Bradbury was so known for, and no story better unifies those ideas than the wonderful “Homecoming.” A favorite of Neil Gaiman’s (and the influence on Gaiman’s world is evident), “Homecoming” tells the story of a family of monsters – vampires, ghosts, and more – coming together for a family reunion, all told from the perspective of the one “normal” child in the family. It’s sweet, heartbreaking, and ends on an optimistic and heartfelt note that made me smile. Or take “The Emissary,” about a young boy, confined to his room because of sickness, who experiences the world entirely through his roaming dog and the visitors he brings home – a story that opens with wonder and heart, slowly turns to heartbreak, and then becomes terrifying. And that’s not all – once you add to the collection some stories that show off Bradbury’s rich sense of humor – the elderly woman who refuses to die in “There Was an Old Woman,” or the ridiculous satire of trend followers that is “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” – and you have a wonderful collection that reminds you what made Bradbury so special. Rating: **** ½

492864909As an English major, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the fact that I had never read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It didn’t help that I knew – or, at least, I thought I knew – most of the story already, having absorbed it through references, parodies, English classes, and other books (most notably Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is a must read for any literature fans out there).

Of course, I should have known better; stories, of course, are not about what they’re about, so much as they’re about how they go about it (to paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert). And while I knew a lot of the basics of Jane Eyre‘s plot, what I didn’t know about was the book’s assured, confident narration throughout, turning Jane not into a passive participant in her own life, not into the socially conscious protagonist of a Jane Austen novel, but into someone unique and complex – a woman who demands to set up her own life and be beholden to no one, a woman not defined by her looks but by her mind, a woman who dedicates her life to others who are in need of help, without regard for what it does for her social standing. The argument that Jane Eyre is an early feminist work is an easy one to make, but that doesn’t make it any less valid; Jane is a complex, enjoyable, intelligent, witty, and kind-hearted character, but one who feels fiercely independent and well ahead of her time.

For all of that, I still struggled with Jane Eyre at times; it features that most romantic (the literary movement, not the emotion) of traits: bloat and verbosity. The book has a tendency to belabor things sometimes, with dialogue scenes particularly tending to go on for a bit. In general, there’s a sense that Jane Eyre could probably lose about 10% of its words and improve greatly, but that’s not the fault of Brontë, who was merely writing in the service of her times, and whose book suffers the same faults as some other iconic works. On the whole, though, Jane Eyre lives up to its reputation, feeling groundbreaking and interesting, and giving us a lead character for the ages – one that feels relevant and compelling even now, after so many years. Rating: **** ½

And finally, some brief thoughts on some re-reads I did over the vacation, each of which I’d give an easy five stars, for very different reasons:

  • As I mentioned in my review of The Woman in the Woods, John Connolly’s novella “The Fractured Atlas” (featured in his anthology Night Music) is worth re-reading before you pick up that book. But it’s also a novella worth reading for any fan of horror. Composed of five separate stories, all of which flow together in different ways, Connolly’s novella tracks the history of the titular occult manuscript back for hundreds of years – and the mysterious forces it unleashes around it. From shadowy figures to nightmarish creatures in drains, from faceless children to demonic soldiers, Connolly’s imagination has rarely been allowed to roam this freely, nor has it allowed itself to go this dark. Indeed, the fourth piece of the novella, entitled “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms,” is perhaps the most frightening thing Connolly ever wrote – and that’s not something you say lightly. I’m a Connolly fan anyways, but if you’ve ever been curious, you could do far worse than starting with this incredible piece of horror. Just don’t go in expecting something too light and fluffy.
  • J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics is one of the best review copies of a novel I ever received – a book that wasn’t just “good by self-publishing standards,” or “better than I expected,” but honestly, truly, legitimately great. There’s no small amount of Terry Pratchett here, but Pike succeeds by using Pratchett not as a pure model, but as an inspiration. Yes, he crafts a fantasy world that closely mirrors our own in many ways; yes, he uses the plot of his novel to satirize elements of modern society (in this case, the inflationary bubble caused by investment capital, as well as RPG video game tropes – yes, he does both of those, and does them both ably). But Pike does it in a way all his own, interweaving humor with rich character depth, social commentary with fantasy action, delivering great comic prose that can shift to heartbreak when you least expect it. That Pike gets compared to Pratchett is no big deal; that he holds his own in that comparison, and delivers one of the richest, funniest, most satisfying pieces of fantasy I’ve read in years – well, that’s no small thing. (I’ll have more to say about Pike when I finish his long-awaited second book, Son of a Liche, within the next few days. Short version: it’s every bit as good, if not better, than Orconomics.)
  • What is there to say about Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that hasn’t been said before? It doesn’t matter that I’ve read this book a dozen times or more; it doesn’t matter that, between the book, the TV version, the film, the computer game, and especially the radio series, I could all but recite the story and most of the gags. Every time I open Adams’ pages, I find myself caught up in his weird, hysterically funny world, and I laugh anew as though I’ve never read it before. Even now that its familiarity has dulled its impact among fans, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary this book felt – and still feels, after so many years. Its imagination is incredible, its comedy is hilarious, its writing is sharp and trenchant, and its plotting surprisingly tight. There’s a reason it casts such a long shadow over the world of humor and science-fiction.
  • I think I’m supposed to hate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye now – or, at least, I kind of expected to. Yes, I loved this book in high school, when I empathized so much with Holden Caulfield’s feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger at the world, and disdain for the hypocrisy of the people around him. But I expected to find him whiny and mopey as an adult…and instead, couldn’t help but have my heart break for him all over again. Maybe it’s the way that Salinger’s rambling, easy prose so accurately captures the tumult of emotions that comes with adolescence; maybe it’s the constant sway of emotions that nails the feelings that come with depression and anxiety (I say, from experience). Maybe it’s just the constant sense that the world is broken, and that the innocent need protecting, and that justice isn’t being served – a feeling that hits home all too well. But whatever the case, The Catcher in the Rye worked for me as an adult every bit as well as it did as it did in high school – maybe more so. It’s hard to think of another book that so accurately captures the feelings of adolescence and the pain of depression so universally, even though it’s inextricably linked to a place and time.

Amazon: The October Country | Jane Eyre | Night Music | Orconomics | The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Catcher in the Rye

Vacation Reads: Part 2 (The Last Days of Night / The Woman in the Woods / Into the Wild)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

the_last_days_night_coverIt’s not as though I wasn’t aware of the intense rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla – one can hardly exist on the Internet without knowing the deep love that Tesla gets as an underappreciated, neglected genius. But for all of that, I didn’t know all that much about the actual relationship between the two men before reading Graham Moore’s surprisingly gripping, vivid historical fiction The Last Days of Night. Using at its focus the legal battle over the light bulb, Moore gives us portraits of Edison, Tesla, and George Westinghouse, following the legal struggles over the future of the light bulb and the various claims of ownership of that idea.

Moore’s smartest move in telling this story is his choice of protagonist: lawyer Paul Cravath, hired by Westinghouse to help defend his claims of ownership. While the focus on Cravath tends to keep our sympathies with Westinghouse over Edison (a sensibility echoed by the book in general), it allows Moore to explore each of these men though the eyes of another party, weighing each of them for their strengths and their faults. As Moore himself seems to conclude, the men are so different, with their different strengths and weaknesses, that they neatly complement each other, with each filling a critical role in America’s development into an electricity-based country. And even if Moore’s sympathies are clearly against Edison, that doesn’t keep him from humanizing him in interesting ways towards the end of the novel, nor does it keep him from finding the flaws – and strengths – of each of these key figures.

The Last Days of Night serves as a solid legal thriller, but its primary interest is bringing this period of time to life. That focus generally serves the book well, even if it leads to some uneven subplots and some lackluster sections of the book (I never really cared about Paul’s love life, and some late-book revelations about a fire in Tesla’s lab felt tacked on and irrelevant in the way they were handled). Indeed, the book often is in service to its history more than its characters, and Moore’s background as a screenwriter often shows through, with more focus given to character’s dialogue and actions than ever fleshing them out.

And yet, none of that stopped me from absolutely tearing through the book, or from being fascinated by the research that went into it or the stories being told. If Moore takes a couple of liberties here and there, and if the book stumbles whenever it gets away from this court case, I’ll take it if it gives me a book this compelling and satisfying, both as a piece of historical fiction and as a novel. Rating: **** ½

the-woman-in-the-woods-9781501171925_hrI’ve raved enough about John Connolly on this blog that you should know how I feel about him: that his writing is stunning and poetic; that his horrors are unmatched, unsettling, and terrifying; that his plotting is strong, but his characters are even better; that, in short, he’s one of the best writers working today in the thriller OR horror genres, and that you should be reading him. So is it any surprise that I loved the latest entry in the Charlie Parker series, The Woman in the Woods? No, it’s not. But the fact that it’s one of the best in the series – if not the best – is no small thing. How many series continue to get better and better as they go? How many series keep improving and topping themselves? How many times can you say that the 16th entry in a series is its best? And yet, here we are.

The plot, as usual, is deceptively simple-sounding: a long-buried woman’s corpse is discovered in the woods, and Parker is asked to help discover her identity and see to it that she’s laid to rest. More importantly, though, he’s asked to discover what became of her child, because it’s evident that this woman gave birth not long before she died. But Parker is not the only person on this trail, and the other party is leaving a trail of butchered dead in its wake as it hunts down the lead.

The Woman in the Woods does more with the overarching Parker mythology than most, making it a hard book to recommend to non-fans. Indeed, from conversations about The Backers to the health status of Angel, from references to the list of names from The Wrath of Angels to the ongoing questions about Parker’s daughter, The Woman in the Woods is partially about the way in which Parker’s story is continuing in the background, without his knowledge. (What’s more, The Woman in the Woods has heavy, heavy connections to The Fractured Atlas, a knockout horror novella from Connolly’s previous short story collection, Night Music; it should almost be required reading for those interested in The Woman in the Woods.)

But even if you didn’t know about Parker’s ongoing saga, The Woman in the Woods delivers everything I love about John Connolly and then some. Are there vague, supernatural horrors that constantly lurk just beyond the edges of the page, suggesting more than is ever confirmed? Is there beautiful, poetic prose that muses on the nature of reality and morality without ever becoming pretentious? Is there the effortless blending of comedic beats and very funny dialogue with the dark tone of Parker’s universe? Is there an unflinching look at the darkness and violent inherent to humanity, and the constant grappling with the question of how we can fight such evil? Is there’s compelling, effective plotting that unfolds carefully and inexorably? There’s all of that and more.

(There is also the ongoing story of Louis’s attack upon a truck emblazoned with the Confederate flag, a story that seems to upset people as “political” as opposed to “justified” and “funny,” which I found it. Also, any suggestion that this felt forced doesn’t consider what it might be like to be a violent, dangerous black man who has been oppressed and dealt with hatred throughout his life who finds a chance to send a message. Nor does it consider that perhaps racism and hatred shouldn’t be viewed as “political” so much as “intolerable,” but hey, you view the world as you want. For me, the fact that an Irish writer gets to the dark heart of American culture and hatred so much better than most Americans says far more about us than it does the author.)

Look: by now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I loved a John Connolly book. It’s beautifully crafted, it’s surprisingly funny, it’s genuinely terrifying, it’s unputdownable, it’s richly detailed and fleshed out. Its characters are brilliant and complex, its plotting satisfying, its mythology rich, its world unnerving and yet instantly recognizable. It’s another brilliant entry in the best thriller series in existence, and you should be reading it. Rating: *****

into-the-wildI’ve long heard that I should read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, often held up as one of the great pieces of nonfiction of the 20th century. The story of Christopher McCandless, who decided to get away from civilization and live on his own in the woods – and his subsequent death of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness – has grabbed hold of something in the public consciousness. Does McCandless represent something universal – a desire for simplicity in lives, and a retreat from the complexities and horrors of modern life? Or is it the story of a spoiled kid who thought he was a survivalist and died a pointless, stupid death that meant nothing except being another example of people who don’t respect the wilderness they profess to love?

The answer, according to Krakauer, lies deeply in the former. Krakauer’s bias here is undeniable, and indeed, Krakauer wrestles with his own attitudes toward McCandless as part of the narrative (more on that in a moment), but there’s little denying that he’s got a lot of empathy for McCandless and what he was trying to do. McCandless viewed himself as a modern descendant of Thoreau, one who saw through the issues with society and its complexities, and longed for a more natural existence, free of the encumbrances and hypocrisies of the modern world. And as Krakauer depicts him, from the elided depictions of his home life (in which much is implied, but would not be confirmed until McCandless’s sister came forward with her own memoir) to his writings, McCandless was painfully, incredibly earnest, espousing his beliefs without a hint of irony or condescension. There’s little denying that, in his own eyes, McCandless respected the wilderness and wanted its simplicity for his own life.

There’s also little denying, though, that it’s hard to read Into the Wild without Krakauer’s bias covering everything. From the overly lengthy closing (including the new afterword) arguments as to McCandless’s poisoning to his multi-chapter story of his own efforts in the wild, Into the Wild is inescapably Krakauer’s take on events, and that can get frustrating. The aforementioned two chapter story of Krakauer’s own Alaskan trip, for instance, is far too long, getting away from the story of McCandless for so long that one starts to wonder if this book is really just about Krakauer. And the arguments for McCandless having been poisoned, while thoughtful and persuasive, feel again too long, as though Krakauer’s feelings about the story rely on how people feel about McCandless.

Because, make no mistake, there’s a lot of dislike for McCandless out there, and a lot of feelings that his death was largely self-inflicted and the result of his own failings – which, in turn, led Krakauer to argue so vehemently in favor of McCandless’s death being an accident, and through no fault of his own. The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle; yes, McCandless was young and naive, and there’s little denying that there’s something appealing and intrinsically understandable about his goals. But even in Krakauer’s depiction, he’s also a young man who thought he could survive on his own, who thought it would be easy and natural to do that, and cared nothing for the advice of others – and went out there deeply unprepared, despite warning after warning. Is there something tragic about that, something sad about the way this dream failed? Undeniably. And when Into the Wild taps into that, it’s an effective, powerful book; it just gets less so the more Krakauer forces himself and his readings into the narrative. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: The Last Days of Night | The Woman in the Woods | Into the Wild

Vacation Reads: Part 1 (Space Opera / The Boy on the Bridge / Abbott)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

51b-76sogglIt would be hard to talk about Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera without mentioning Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a debt Valente acknowledges in her afterword). After all, both are science-fiction books that serve more as comedic works than something serious; both orbit around humanity suddenly discovering that they’re no longer the only life in the universe; both follow human representatives as they make their way into a very strange universe; and both even feature a wise guide to interactions that’s universally adopted and beloved. Both even have the same issues, in which the plot often feels like an afterthought tacked on to tie together the lunacy of the rest of it.

It’s to Valente’s credit, then, that Space Opera finds its own voice and emerges from Hitchhiker‘s shadow to become its own thing, even as Adams’ DNA is evident throughout. Inspired by Eurovision, of all things, Space Opera revolves around an intergalactic music competition in which new races are invited to compete to prove their own sentience. After all, if you can’t produce art, can you really be said to be sentient?

That’s a great hook for the novel, and it gives Space Opera some heft, allowing it to meditate upon the power of art, the way music is all about emotional connections and pain, and so much more. But in the end, Space Opera is a comedy, and it’s a genuinely funny one, one that’s often as funny for the way in which it talks as it is the elaborate gags being set up around it. (That being said, my favorite gag in the entire book is the slow realization of what persona the robotic race has adopted to communicate and aid the humans.) I had some issues with Valente’s writing – she has a tendency towards very long sentences, anchored by too many dependent clauses, that have a way of losing the reader – and her plotting is occasionally so loose as to be nonexistent. But there’s a lot of fun to be had here, and the fact that the books holds its own in the comparisons to Adams is praise enough. Rating: ****

41il3qwezjlI was a fan of M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, but I wasn’t sure that what we needed was a prequel to that book. Did we really need a story about how we got to the zombie apocalypse that Gifts plunged us into? Luckily, The Boy on the Bridge turns out not to be the story of how we got there; instead, it’s the story of the first expedition that sets out into the wilderness – an expedition whose vehicle we stumble across during Gifts. In other words, yes, technically it’s a prequel to Gifts, but it’s more of a second story in that same universe, one that unfolded more or less parallel to the one we already knew.

In some ways, that holds back Bridge, as the characters slowly come to realizations that we’ve already made about the effects of the disease and how it’s transmitted. Thankfully, Carey avoids that sort of dramatic irony where he can, instead, letting the books play off of each other, with our knowledge supplementing the events of Bridge and deepening our understanding of why things are happening. That also allows Bridge to play out on its own terms, rising and falling not as a companion to Gifts, but on its own terms.

That can make Bridge frustrating, though, because of how much Carey seems to be mirroring Gifts and using it for structure. Once again have a divided group of survivors out in the wilderness; once again, we have an outcast within that group (this time, it’s an autistic young man instead of an infected girl); once again, we have a lead scientist who’s not trusted by the rest of the group; and once again, there’s the rift between science and the military. It all can seem a bit familiar, to be sure. Luckily, Carey makes the characters strong enough, and their interactions different enough, that Bridge feels like a companion, and not a rehashing, of Gifts. In other words, it’s a way of exploring some of the same big themes – knowledge versus morality, compassion versus fear, community versus isolation – in a different story. And if it doesn’t quite give you the perfect ending of Gifts, there’s still a satisfying conclusion here, one that recontextualizes what we know from the first novel and gives us something more. I prefer the first novel, but fans of Gifts will find much to enjoy here, and a generally satisfying read – just one that you may want to read with some distance from its predecessor. Rating: ****

unnamed-22I’ve raved about Saladin Ahmed’s writing – especially his magnificent swashbuckling fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon – enough over the years that it should be no surprise that I made a decision to follow him wherever he went. And while I’m a bit disappointed that he seems to have paused his career as a novelist for now, the fact that Ahmed is writing comics hasn’t hindered his abilities one bit, at least not based on the evidence given by Abbott, a limited series story written by Ahmed and illustrated by Sami Kivelä. Set in 1970’s Detroit, Abbott follows its titular character, reporter Elena Abbott, as she investigates a series of strange killings that finds her dipping into a supernatural mystery involving dark forces, mystical hippies, occult rituals, and much more.

Ahmed has pushed himself out of his comfort zone to create a protagonist utterly unlike himself – an African-American bisexual woman – but shows how to do it right, making Abbott not a symbol or an archetype but her own unique, idiosyncratic person first, one shaped by all of those things but not pigeonholed by them. Abbott is a great protagonist – funny, outspoken, intelligent, dangerous, and fiercely independent, and I’d be lying if I didn’t finish this five-issue run disappointed that this was all I had of this character – I’d read her for years, easily. (Ahmed has hinted on Twitter that he’s not done with the character, and I hope that’s true.)

But equally part of this series is the way it uses its setting and characters to flesh out its story – the choice to make this a 1970’s story is no errant, thoughtless choice. It allows Ahmed to interweave relevant issues of the time – racism, police brutality, class warfare, the control of the media by the wealthy – into his story effortlessly, making Abbott not just the story of this mysterious case, but about this moment in America’s history. (Any resemblance to current day America are, of course, coincidental, and not depressing proof of how little we’ve changed, despite our pride in how “evolved” we are on these issues.)

And did I mention that it’s also a great story of occult powers, demonic entities, and supernatural conflict? If there’s a knock on Abbott, it’s that I wish it was basically one issue longer than it is; there are aspects of Abbott’s role in all of this that feel rushed and underexplained, and that goes doubly when it comes to the final conflict, which feels a little underdeveloped (even though the artwork, paneling, and pacing give it an incredibly satisfying and riveting feel that I can’t forget). But none of that should hold you back from reading Abbott – it’s an absolute treat from a writer who I’m glad to have back in my “to be read” stack, no matter what his current medium. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: Space Opera | The Boy on the Bridge | Abbott

Terrifier / ****

terrifier-posterA bit of context is probably worth noting, before I jump into my review of Terrifier: I saw Terrifier as part of a double feature with a movie called Side Sho. Side Sho was, to put it plainly, truly horrible on almost every level – badly lit, badly acted, badly written, badly staged…well, you get the idea. And so there’s some chance that my enjoyment of Terrifier could well be a rebound situation – where I was just so happily surprised to see a competently-made movie that I enjoyed it more than it deserved.

But really, that same idea could go for most of Terrifier, which has no real right to be as entertaining as it is. The premise couldn’t be more hackneyed: college girls out for a Halloween night’s fun end up stalked and attacked by a sadistic clown. Blood and gore and suspense follow. You get the idea. There aren’t any real surprises here in plot terms, other than a general nastiness of tone that pushes it beyond a more traditional slasher into something grimier and a bit meaner. Writer-director Damien Leone isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; he knows what his audience is looking for and delivers the goods, providing all of the requisite scares, stalks, and kills.

No, what made Terrifier so much fun wasn’t what it was about; it was the way it went about it all. Much of the credit has to be given David Howard Thornton, who plays the malicious, psychopathic Art the Clown. Thornton is a professionally trained mime, and his training shows through, allowing Art to express himself at all times without ever saying a word. It doesn’t hurt that Thornton’s default face for Art is so unsettling and angry, but it’s the overemphasized emotions that make Art really engaging to watch – and even (very) darkly funny. Thornton made me laugh during Terrifier, and what’s more, did it so that my laughs felt effortless, and nonetheless came with a sense of guilt about laughing at these horrible moments. It all makes Art a compelling villain, something all slashers need, and something all the more difficult to do when you’re just giving the audience a silent malevolence without explanation. That Art pulls it off, injecting the whole film with a black comedy that works and never feels forced – well, that went a long way towards making Terrifier as enjoyable as it was.

The rest goes to Leone, who does great work on a limited budget, giving everything a sharp visual flair, bringing out great performances that feel natural, and pacing his film perfectly, giving the audience what they want without ever turning overly nasty. (There’s one major exception to this, and you’ll know it when you see it; it’s a scene that feels much, much nastier than the film around it, and ends up feeling a bit excessive and out of place from the final product.) The whole thing ends up being a gem of a modern slasher. No, it won’t change your life, and it doesn’t do much new, but it does the genre right, bringing out a sense of dark humor and a lot of style, and that’s more than enough.


Midnight Duets, edited by Robert Swartwood / ***

downloadAuthor’s note: Midnight Duets is a collection of three novellas, each co-written by a different pair of thriller writers. I bought it some time ago, but it’s no longer available; at this point, you have to buy each of the three novellas separately. As a result, I decided that it would be better to write each of the novellas as a separate review…and that was before I found out that the third novella was F. Paul Wilson and Sarah Pinborough’s A Necessary End, which I had already read and reviewed earlier this year. (I wasn’t a giant fan.) So what’s below are some short, more capsule-style reviews for the other two novellas. Short answer: even as a collection of three novellas for a cheap price, I don’t know that I’d recommend the collection, and that might go less for buying them individually.

Robert Swartwood and David B Silva’s Walk the Sky, is, at first glance, a Western. We open with two men on the run after the questionable death of a mayor’s son, only to have their flight interrupted by the appearance of a very strange boy, followed by a crew of armed men who tie them up. A good start, and one that grips the reader’s interest quickly, right? And Walk the Sky unfolds nicely for a bit, plunging the reader into a strange Western town said to be under persecution from the Devil himself – a fact that our “heroes” realize all too well.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Walk the Sky is a zombie story in some ways, but one that’s more focused on humanity and its evil tendencies towards each other than in the hordes of undead (although that’s not quite what you get here). And the first half of Walk the Sky is enjoyable and solid, unfolding at a great pace and constantly changing in front of you. It’s when the broad Native American shaman stereotypes enter the story that things fall apart, as characters are given knowledge and techniques in a deus ex machina style that only gets worse when action sequences start unfolding, followed by an ending that feels overlong and scattered. It’s fun enough in the early going, but there’s definitely a sense that it all falls apart in the second half. Rating: ***

It wouldn’t be unfair to say, as some have, that Christopher Golden and James A. Moore’s Bloodstained Oz sometimes devolves into an “edgy” take on the tropes everyone knows and loves from The Wizard of Oz. We start on a similar note – tornadoes in Kansas during the dust bowl years – and while the story this time has Oz coming to Kansas, rather than vice versa, there’s still a scarecrow, and a lion, and a tin man – they’re just mostly nightmarish and twisted, with vampiric tendencies and horrifying incarnations.

And yet, as a purely pulpy, nightmarish tale, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Bloodstained Oz works pretty well. You’re not going to get great character depth here; these are archetypes, and the plotting is thin, at best. (Even now, I’m still confused as to certain elements of the story and what they were doing there.) But what you get, in exchange for letting those things go, is some genuinely great scares along the way, and a display of horrific imagination that definitely worked for me. From malevolent porcelain dolls to silver vampiric entities, from a nightmarish take on the Tin Man to some surprising takes on Oz staples, Golden and Moore approach their story with ghoulish, twisted glee. Bloodstained Oz isn’t a great story – I’m not even sure that it’s all that good. But as a piece of nasty, violent pulp horror, it’s got imagination and style to spare, and sometimes, that’s exactly what a good piece of horror needs. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: Midnight Duets | Walk the Sky | Bloodstained Oz

It Devours!, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor / ****

185741If you’ve read this blog long enough – or browsed the archives – you probably know that I’m a fan of the wonderfully weird and bizarre podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which takes the form of public radio broadcasts from a small desert town that’s just like yours…if yours had lights in the sky, and vague yet menacing government agencies surveilling everyone, and a dog park that served as a gateway to another dimension, and blood matter storms – you know, a typical small town. Anyways, I enjoy Night Vale quite a bit, and I liked co-writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s first attempt to turn their podcast into a novel.

Now comes It Devours!, the second Night Vale book, which finds Fink and Cranor telling a story of religion (here, represented by the Church of the Smiling God, who will one day come in the form of a monstrous insect and devour our sins) and science (with a major supporting role by everyone’s famous handsome scientist Carlos). How all of this connects to the pits opening up under houses and business in Night Vale is best left for the reader to discover; suffice to say that, as always, Fink and Cranor have a wonderfully meandering but carefully plotted approach to their world, one that allows lots of doodling and imagination around the edges, but never forgets the story it’s telling.

In that, It Devours! is a bit more successful than the original Welcome to Night Vale novel, in which Fink and Cranor felt a bit more scattered (a la the original podcast). Here, they’ve managed to capture the silly side observations that make the podcast great, but keep the book more focused and streamlined. The fan-service feels cut down; the nods to existing continuity are there (and enjoyed), but It Devours! feels like it would be more accessible to non-fans, as long as they could embrace the weirdness of Night Vale.

More than that, though, It Devours! embodies all of the things that have made Welcome to Night Vale such a hit: a committed approach to diversity and acceptance, a warm spirit and kind heart (even in the face of unimaginable horrors), a desire to be earnest and thoughtful, and a complex view of the world that tries to understand everyone in it. That comes most into play in the novel’s approach to the dichotomy between science and religion, with neither being dismissed, and both being allowed to find a place in the modern world – even as both take their lumps in the story.

It Devours! ultimately feels a little light and disposable, for all of that; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but like the podcast, it’s a novel that’s less about its story and more about how it tells that story. That means you sometimes get characters who don’t feel like your standard three-dimensional characters, or normal plot arcs, or usual pacing…but none of that is necessarily a bad thing, not when the book is as enjoyable and wonderfully odd as this one is. I can’t tell you whether or not you need to be a fan in order to enjoy It Devours!; what I can say is, if you are one, you’ll be more than pleased with it.