Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Round-Up#25 (World Book Day Edition)

Hi there. To celebrate World Book Day, I am going to make this edition a juicy one. So let's begin.

Book Review: The Descent by Jeff Long: Every once in a while you come across a book that is so good, so challenging, that it redefines a genre for you. I know, it doesn't happen a lot. But The Descent is one of these books.

Combing elements of Military Sci-Fi, Adventure and Horror to produce something that is truly unique, this is an astoundingly good novel that is both frightening and thought-provoking. The plot is complex: A new species of underground dwellers - monstrous and cannibalistic - suddenly surface in several locations around the world, leading to an investigation into their underground world, which, the world slowly realizes, bears a strong resemblance to Biblical Hell. This sets in motion a series of events that may lead to the end of the world as we know it, and the re-emergence of Satan himself.

I know that the above synopsis makes this novel seem like a straight-forward horror novel, which this novel definitely isn't. This is an ambitious, genre-bending thriller, that is more interested in juggling thought-provoking theological, scientific and metaphysical questions and ideas, than providing stomach-churning thrills. Don't get me wrong. It is a very scary story, and author Jeff Long delivers the goods when it comes to disturbing and gory set-pieces. But this is not where the heart of this novel lies. No. This novel asks questions and presents moral dilemmas that are as viable today as when this novel was written a decade ago. Long also provides interesting theories about the nature of demonic possession, and the origins of our idea of Hell. But what makes this novel a near-masterpiece are two things: The extremely well-drawn characters, and Long's depiction of Satan. Long's Satan is like nothing you've ever come across before in any film or work of literature. This Satan is truly a terrifying creation; mainly because he feels real, his actions deliberate and devastatingly cruel.

Like a modern day adventure co-written by Jules Verne, Douglas Preston, and Peter Straub, this is an unmissable modern classic.

Book Review: Neverland by Douglas Clegg: I have been a fan of Douglas Clegg's work for some time now; ever since reading The Hour Before Dark (which is thematically related to this novel). Since then, I have read several other works by Clegg, and I've always found his work to be intelligent and entertaining. But nothing prepared me for Neverland, which is now back in print in Mass Market Paperback, with gorgeous interior illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne.

It is, at least on the surface, a coming-of-age horror novel, which are a dime-a-dozen. Stephen King (It), Peter Straub (Shadowland), Dan Simmons (Summer of Night), Richard Laymon (The Traveling Vampire Show), Brian Keene (Ghoul), among many other popular horror writers, have dabbled in this genre. But saying that Neverland is merely a coming-of-age horror tale, is like saying that Henry James was a writer of Victorian dramas. Neverland is so much more than just a coming-of-age horror novel. It combines elements of the Southern-Gothic tale, the coming-of-age horror story, Lovecraftian mythos, and the psychological thriller, to create a novel that is both frightening and deeply affecting.

Ten year old Beau is vacationing with his family in the rundown family retreat when he discovers that his cousin, Sumter, is keeping something in the shed by the house where the family is spending the summer; something that Sumter claims is hungry for blood; a god. Beau doesn't believe his cousin, who has always been a little strange and who has trouble keeping his imagination from going into overdrive. But, bit by bit, Beau begins to realize that there is more to the thing Sumter keeps in the crate inside the shed, the thing which he calls Lucy, than meets the eye. Beau begins to see horrible visions and, as he gets more and more alienated from his family, who, like most grown-ups, are fighting all the time, he begins to feel that Lucy is real. And she is out for blood.

Although it takes a while before Neverland really gets going, once it does, watch out. This is a horror novel that is out to transcend the trappings of the genre. Clegg seems more interested in the psychology of children and how they deal with the dilemma of growing up with nothing to depend on but their innocence and their parents' advice, than in supernatural horror. Indeed, the grown-ups' blindness to what is going on with their children, their narrow-mindedness and their constant fighting, is at times more disturbing than anything that takes place in the shed, where the god, Lucy, lies. This is a dark, disturbing, and surprisingly touching novel, whose power lies in Clegg's astute portrayal of pre-pubescent children who are faced with evil, both within and without. And perhaps that is why that when the the supernatural mayhem is finally unleashed, it doesn't pack the punch it should. Because the inner turmoil of the characters, their struggle to protect their innocence and sanity in a world of flawed and damaged grown-ups, is much more affecting and suspenseful than any fight with demonic creatures. But that doesn't take away from the power of the finale - where a horrible sacrifice is made by one of the main characters - which is tragic and haunting.

A powerful and beautifully written novel about children struggling with the darkness of life and the pains of crossing over from childhood into adolescence, Neverland is bound to become a classic.

Film Review: Clash of the titans (2010): The reviews for this remake of the 1981 classic haven't been kind. They claim that the film is underwhelming, incoherent and dramatically flat. Are these claims true? Well, sort of. But that doesn't make this effects-laden adventure a bad film. Not even close. Let's face it. When you go to watch a film that is called Clash of the titans, and which is a remake of a popular, but silly, 1981 film, and which is directed by the director of The Incredible Hulk, then you have to temper your expectations and know what you are getting yourself into. It isn't going to be high-art. But it should be fun, which this film certainly is.

With monsters and battles aplenty, Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson at their hammy best, and some amazing special effects and production-design, there is much to enjoy. And thanks to Louis Letterier's kinetic direction, the film is always visually interesting and the pace never lags. Yes, the story doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Yes, the performances aren't great. And yes, the film feels a tad rushed. But it succeeds as a mindless action-adventure that's stylishly designed and thrilling. Grab some popcorn, turn off your brain, and let the mayhem begin!

Extra! Disappearance: This edition's Extra! selection is the 2002 film Disappearance, directed by Walter Klenhard. Ghost Towns, unexplained goings-on, and a creepy finale, make this stylish thriller a must for fans of The Twilight Zone and its ilk. An obscure oddity that is worth hunting down.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves, and Happy World Book Day!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Round-Up#24 (Bumper Edition)

Book Review: The Orchard by Charles L. Grant: There are writers who write straight horror with populist leanings (Stephen King), and those that write horror that is playful and ebullient (Richard Laymon). There are writers who try to mishmash genres together, and, therefore, don't like to be labeled as "horror"authors (Dean Koontz). There are writers who try to elevate horror to something akin to "literary"fiction" (Peter Straub); and then there is Charles L. Grant.
Charles L. Grant (1942-2006) is, undoubtedly, one of the most underrated horror writers in history. He was prolific (writing dozens of novels and short story collections, as well as editing dozens of anthologies, the most famous of which is Shadows), he treated the genre with the reverence it deserves, and his style was unmistakably his own. He was one of the most flavorful horror writers to ever come out of the States, and his writing was never pretentious. He never attempted to write anything but fine, atmospheric, quiet horror, a genre which he helped invent (along with Ramsey Campbell).

It is a damn shame that all of his work is now out of print (why a major imprint like Leisure isn't re-releasing his work, despite re-issuing the works of other underrated writers like Richard Laymon and Gord Rollo, is beyond me), since if you are a fan of stylish, understated, imaginative horror with memorable characters and which drips with menacing atmosphere, then any book by Grant would hit the spot, and then some.

I could go on and on about the writings of Charles L. Grant (his tremendously entertaining and genre-mashing Black Oak series, his X-Files media tie-ins, his popular novel The Pet, his marvelous collection of stories and novellas that is The Black Carousel, any book in his Oxrun series), but for now, I am just going to tell you about The Orchard, one of his finest achievements, in my very humble opinion.

The Orchard is a collection of stories that are linked together by their location (the fictional town of Oxrun) and by the titular orchard; a mysterious place where the dead roam and dark memories linger. Grant's ability to frighten the living daylights out of the reader with silky-smooth prose that is as subtle as a cool breeze and a masterful grip of atmosphere, is on fine display here. From the opener "Mary's asleep", Grant grabs hold of your attention and deluges your senses with a slowly but surely growing dark ambiance. But it is "The last dreadful hour", a tale about a group of people trapped in a haunted movie theater, that shows Grant's genius. It is a story so frightening, so masterfully told, that it haunts the reader days (in my case, even years!) after finishing it. The imagery, style and sense of foreboding contained within this tale, make it one of the finest ghost stories ever written, and showcases Grant as one of the few American writers who succeeded in marrying the American Gothic sensibilities with the Victorian Ghost story tradition (Peter Straub also, to a lesser extent, managed to achieve this in stories like Mrs. God from his collection Houses without doors).

So, if you are willing to do some work and hunt down used copies of Grant's work, The Orchard is a great place to start. And I promise you, you won't regret it.

Film Review: The Trouble with Harry: Out of circulation for almost thirty years (this film is one of the "5 Lost Hitchcocks," along with Rope, Vertigo, The Man who knew too much, and Rear Window), this masterpiece is worth re-discovery.

With pitch-black humor, gorgeous visuals, a fast-pace, and a wonderfully sly screenplay full of subtle sexual innuendo, Hitchcock and co. manage to create a film that is way ahead of its time. Indeed, it feels fresh today, almost sixty years after it was first released.

Although the plot, focusing on the titular cadaver that gets bounced around like a bag of groceries when several residents of a small American town mistakenly think that they killed him, is grim and requires you to have a very dark sense of humor, Hitchcock pulls it off, in spades. How? It is just so damn funny! The cooky, borderline-unsympathetic characters, are wonderfully brought to life by a game cast (especially an understated but scene-stealing Edmund Gwenn as Captain Wiles), and Hitchcock's handling of the whole thing is as meticulous as any of his best work. And, above all, this shows Hitchcock at his most macabrely humorous; which makes this stylish exercise in dark comedy seem like the extended pilot for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock's TV series that made him a household name.

Extra! The Phantom Broadcast: This edition's Extra! selection is the 1933 film The Phantom Broadcast, directed by Phil Rosen and starring Ralph Forbes. This stylish, obscure oddity is, far and away, director Phil Rosen's and actor Ralph Forbes's best work. With its stylish cinematography, subdued performances, sombre atmosphere, and unusual plot (about a deformed singer who uses a handsome stand-in during live performances and who gets entangled in a murder), this is a forgotten semi-classic. And its pre-Hays Code "immoral" ending, where the villains don't get their just desserts, should also be of interest to film buffs.

That's it for me. Til next time, keep browsing those shelves.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Round-Up#23

Film Review: Shutter Island: Based on Dennis Lehane's stupendous novel and directed by Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island is a wondrous piece of filmmaking. This is an audacious, stylish film, and one which has been meticulously adapted for the screen.

The plot - revolving around a U.S. Marshall's investigation of a secret government facility for the insane, the secrets he discovers, and how it all ties to a tragic incident in his past - is serpentine and challenging. But thanks to a near-perfect screenplay, Leonardo DiCaprio's impressive portrayal of the haunted protagonist, and Scorsese's perfectionist direction, the film's pace is fast and the story moves along smoothly, right down to the harrowing ending.

But what makes this film a masterpiece is Scorsese's direction. With this film, Scorsese has made something that is as rare as diamonds: A big-budget studio-produced film that is wildly experimental. Using unorthodox lighting techniques, toying with continuity, and creating images that are as surreal as any found in psychedelic art-house films, Scorsese pulls out all the stops and delivers a film that is both technically and narratively daring. This is a film that looks like it was shot in the 1940's but with current technology. This is the kind of film that Val Lewton (the 40's pioneer of psychological horror films) - someone whom Scorsese admits he admires greatly - would have made had he been alive today. In other words: this is the kind of polished, intelligent Gothic/Noir Drama Studios rarely produce nowadays.

Even darker than the original novel on which it is based, Shutter Island is an unmissable masterpiece of filmmaking, and a treat for film buffs.

Extra! The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding: This edition's Extra! selection is the Young Adult novel The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding, a tremendously imaginative adventure/horror novel. Quickly paced, filled with frightening set-pieces, and endlessly entertaining, this dark little novel is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered by fans of dark fantasy. Highly recommended.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves.