Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bloody Pages Book Reviews

20th Century Ghosts
by Joe Hill
review by Shaun Anderson

One of the major challenges for any author attempting to write a collection of short stories is to maintain a consistent level of quality. Too many collections (and this includes edited anthologies) contain stories that feel like fillers, half baked and amateurish rubbish which steals forty minutes of your life. Either that or yet another dull spastic attempt to emulate and copy H. P. Lovecraft. Joe Hill makes reference to this mindless and moronic debasement of Lovecraft’s legacy in his opening story Best New Horror. I was immediately on Hill’s side. Although Hill is incredibly post-modern in the manner in which he borrows from other cultural ephemera, the way in which he does it is always witty and with love and enthusiasm. This opening tale is a self reflexive and illuminating account of the thought processes behind modern horror publishing, and more specifically the horror anthology. It’s clear from this story that Hill has suffered many rejections from such collections, and perhaps the temptation to dip his toe into the stagnant and retarded pond of Lovecraftian fan fiction was something he seriously considered at one time. Fortunately Hill is a writer with ideas and I for one am glad he was able to share them in this collection. The subtle shift in Best New Horror into the clammy rural horror territory of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is the earliest indication of the centrality cinema will play in Hill’s skewed fictional universe.

The second tale 20th Century Ghost is located within a haunted cinema, and offers a nostalgic but ultimately chilling view of a means of film exhibition that is all to rare nowadays. The idea of a haunted picture house is a very symbolic metaphor of the nature of capturing on screen the image of long dead people. Hill also develops alongside this the importance of childhood in the creation of a mythology around cinema. In Pop Art Hill takes his first major descent into childhood. He creates a harsh and dangerous world in which parental figures are largely ignorant and self absorbed, or are quite simply callous and mean spirited. The notion of an inflatable boy might seem utter nonsense, but Hill invests in his characters an emotional core, a fierce loyalty to one another, and a fragility that soon makes us forget that one of the central characters is an inflatable. This is a touching and poignant tale and the horror lies in a vision of childhood which sees teenagers displaced and alienated. In You Will Hear the Locust Sing Hill takes his second detour into the rich tapestry of images associated with cinema. In this case science-fiction films of the 1950’s. With its desolate desert setting, atomic tests, and an insect obsessed boy who awakes one morning as a giant cockroach Hill concocts an affection tribute to such films as Them! (1953) and Tarantula! (1955).

Further intertextual fun is had in Abraham’s Boy’s which explores life growing up with Professor Van Helsing as your father. Once again childhood is a place of violence and cruelty, one of hard knocks and hard decisions. Hill creates a palpable sense of evil around the vampire concept, but leaves the purest sense of evil for the cruel patriarch at the heart of a highly dysfunctional family. Hill cleverly subverts our expectations to show that monstrousness comes in many forms - and one of the most damaging examples of it is a father blinded by a zealous extremism that excludes any room for normal relationships or the normal upbringing these children require. Better than Home is one of several departures Hill takes beyond the remit of fantasy/horror. Despite a shift in tenor, tone, and genre, this is another tale dealing with the relationship between father and son. This is a complete flip side to the previous tale, and offers a soothing antidote to the brutal form of patriarchy exercised by Van Helsing. In this story the father (a successful baseball player and manager) is the only one capable of fully understanding and empathising with his mentally disturbed son. Hill creates a discombobulated and fractured world view for the child, which is only pierced by the love and understanding of a father who has also had to deal with social reactions to his tics and eccentricities. Like Pop Art Hill proves that perhaps his greatest talents lie beyond the horror genre.

The Black Phone and In the Rundown are weaker stories, the former lacking the pace and originality that had so far marked the book and the latter feeling ill formed and embryonic. The Cape is a cruel and unusual tale which manages to distil the open minded belief of children and show the manner in which that belief can be subverted to cruelty in adulthood. Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead will undoubtedly please fans of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), but I found on this occasion that Hill’s intertextual cross referencing begin to irritate rather than impress. The setting is completely peripheral to the grist of the tale, so one wonders why Hill opted to locate it on the set of Romero’s film at all (aside from the obvious cult credentials such an approach would gain). The last major story in the book is also the last story - Voluntary Committal. Here once again Hill shows he is on firmer ground when dealing with damaged children in a world in which parents are virtually absent.

There is no doubt that this is a major debut for Joe Hill. That his first release is a collection of short stories is rare, but the strength of the tales and the style of their delivery hints that there is much more to come from him. His highly post-modern approach could alienate some readers, but I found that on the whole he was able to keep this in balance, despite one or two moments of exaggerated intertextual nonsense. Hill shows his greatest talent when dealing with realistic subjects of childhood outside the generic signifiers of horror and fantasy. I’ve yet to read any more of his works, but I would predict he has a major ‘coming of age’ tale in him somewhere, and I look forward to seeing it appear in the years to come.

--Shaun Anderson

La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo
by Mikel J. Koven
PUBLISHER: Scarecrow Press

review by Shaun Anderson

Despite ever greater prominence in the age of DVD popular Italian cinema from the 1960’s 70’s and 80’s has still received relatively sparse coverage in the literary world. With the continued rise in the study of cult film (and its acceptability within academic circles) this is an oversight that needs redressing. Aside from a handful of articles (one particularly important one is Leon Hunt’s A (sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian Horror Film from a 1992 edition of Velvet Light Trap) gialli have mostly found themselves discussed as part of auteur driven studies of the most visible directors of the form. But I have long believed that this durable cycle of films is deserving of a multitude of critical approaches, and to file them away as part of some half assed fan worship auteur nonsense does them a great disservice. Mikel J. Koven’s study is important for a variety of reasons. It represents the first occasion that gialli have been treated to a book length study in the English language and Koven’s thesis concerns itself as much with the audience of these films as it does with the formal properties that make the films so distinctive in the first place.

I have to admit I’m not much of an enthusiast for audience research. I find it to be a tedious and boring practise which limits an imaginative use of language and comes to conclusions which are hardly earth shattering. I’m interested in the films, not the people who go to see them. Therefore I find Koven’s central argument that gialli films were aimed at a rural working class audience with a low attention span to add nothing to my enjoyment of say The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Koven uses the term ‘vernacular’ to describe this regional audience whose only interest it seems is in sex, violence, and unsophisticated narratives. Although this may account for the popularity of gialli in Italy, it doesn’t really address the fact that these films crossed borders and played to different nationalities, languages, and cultures. This is a device which removes any notions of the artistic from the films and places them in a sphere of reception quite different to the art cinema for which Italy was internationally known. But the influence of art cinema on these films is very noticeable and to simply say these films were a formal reflection of a certain type of audience is too simplistic.

I found the book to come alive when Koven moved away from his concept of a vernacular audience. The chapter that explores the relationship between gialli and modernity is excellent - especially his discussion of two of my favourite gialli Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and House With Laughing Windows (1976). He also explores to good effect the role of the detective. I felt a chapter dealing with the relationship between gialli and slasher films to be misplaced, but is nevertheless an area which could merit a book of its own. Unfortunately the central thesis of the text (I’m sure partly an academic device to gain interest, funding, etc) never truly vanishes, but Koven writes in such an enjoyable and imaginative way that one ultimately forgives him his academic hubris. Koven’s discussion of the set piece is interesting and seems to contradict his earlier disavowal of the practices of art cinema. His suggestion that the set piece, which lasts far beyond its narrative justification, eventually enters a realm that is very close to Pasolini’s concept of a poetic cinema. To suddenly start arguing for these films within the terms of one of Italy’s most influential exponents of socially and politically committed art cinema seems an odd move.

If one forgets the vernacular audience nonsense this book by Mikel J. Koven is an excellent starting point for discovering gialli. Koven refers to numerous titles, offering perceptive and illuminating textual analysis which genuinely does add to the enjoyment and understanding of the example. His cataloguing of the conventions and formal attributes of gialli has been done just as effectively elsewhere, but its nice to have it all contained in one attractive looking volume. My only surprise is that in the four years since this book saw the light of day there hasn’t been several more in its wake. Koven has certainly provided much which can be contested. One can only hope with the continual visibility of these films we will see more intriguing and interesting studies such as this.

--Shaun Anderson

The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New Horror
edited by Stephen Jones
RELEASE DATE: 25/03/10

review by Shaun Anderson

Despite being hamstrung by a tongue twisting title this anthology of horror short stories is an important landmark in the history of British horror publishing. It brings together twenty distinctive tales of terror from twenty years of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. This important anthology first emerged in 1989 as Best New Horror (it would be several years later that publisher Robinson would place it in the range of books prefixed with the title The Mammoth Book of…). From 1989 to 1994 it was edited by Stephen Jones and veteran author Ramsey Campbell. When Campbell departed after Volume 5 Jones was left to hold the reins, and fifteen volumes later he is still doing it. I’m sure Jones never expected to find himself two decades on being asked to select twenty stories for a celebratory release such as this, but it is a testament to Jones’s love of the horror short story that he has stuck with the task and not being debilitated by the reams and reams of mediocrity that undoubtedly comes before his eyes every year. Jones has steadily carved himself a niche as a reliable and insightful anthologist with collections dedicated to Frankenstein, Vampires, Zombies, Count Dracula and Wolf Men among his numerous editorial credits. His one weakness is an obvious bias towards the stories of his bosom buddies Ramsey Campbell and Kim Newman (these two have appeared far too often over the years.)

The book opens with a foreword by Jones which adds little to the proceedings, and this is followed by an enthusiastic and enjoyable introduction by Ramsey Campbell. I did find that Jones’ brief introductions too each story totally unnecessary - perhaps he’s turning into Peter Haining? Two of the first three stories are set on the Greek Islands and successfully delve into the fears of individuals who find themselves far from home and at the mercy of the locals and local myths and history. The more accomplished and tense is Brian Lumley’s No Sharks in the Med, but Ramsey Campbell’s The Same in Any Language offers subtle chills from the perspective of a child. Both of those stories are upstaged however by Michael Marshall Smith’s haunting The Man Who Drew Cats. A disturbing tale for anyone who doesn’t take art seriously.

Another clutch of stories are deeply informed by other forms of popular culture such as cinema. The first is Christopher Fowler’s accomplished Norman Wisdom and the Angel of Death. Fandom is exposed here as a solitary act of obssession, one which ultimately leads to psychopathic behaviour. The second is Paul J. McCauley’s The Temptation of Dr. Stein an affectionate tribute to the character of Dr. Pretorious from James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Both these stories keep the excesses of their intertextuality in check but the same cannot be said for Kim Newman’s The Other Side of Midnight. Newman’s story overflows with pop references to this that and the next thing, unfortunately to such an extent that it totally destabilises the narrative. Newman’s ideas for an alternative universe are intriguing and have supported several novels and short stories, but this particular tale feels like the literary equivalent of a poor Tarantino movie…I almost expected Newman to tell us what obscure cult film music was playing to each scene. The fourth tale that is directly inspired by cinema is Joe Hill’s brilliantly queasy 20th Century Ghost. Hill conjures up an evocative world of cinematic nostalgia, timelessness and lost innocence in a beautifully structured manner which suggests a long future in the genre.

If your interest is in more substantial stories Jones caters for this with several very good novellas. The most impressive are Peter Straub’s Bartleby inspired Mr. Club and Mr. Cuff and Tim Lebbon’s apocalyptic tale of Lovecraftian inspired terror White. The former is a jaunty and humorous piece which effortlessly switches to the brutal and merciless discussion of torture strategies beneath a backdrop of Wall Street accountancy. The latter achieves much through its eerie landscape of permanent and oppressive snowfall, claustrophobic setting, and enigmatic and unknowable monsters. Less successful is Terry Lamsley’s insipid and morose The Break, and despite an excellent twist ending Harlan Ellison’s Mefisto in Onyx left me unimpressed.

In addition to Peter Straub there are contributions from two other horror heavyweights; Stephen King and Clive Barker. King’s only entry in the twenty volumes of this anthology came last year with the trite and uninteresting The New York Times at Bargain Prices. My disillusion with the works of King have continued unabated since the publication of Dreamcatcher and this short story fails to stop the rot. Its inclusion here is perfunctory and simply an aid to promoting the book. Barker weighs in with a rare return to the gory terrain we were able to wallow in with the publication of The Books of Blood. Although failing to hit the highs of that collection Haeckel’s Tale is a solid story which deserved better than the lukewarm adaptation it received in the television series Masters of Horror. In places this anthology is patchy and poor, but when the criteria is the purely subjective choice of Stephen Jones, one should expect that on occasion his wont chime with your own. Importantly though each story is worth visiting at least once (some are worthy of repeat reads), and even Kim Newman’s entry is deserving of a read…just!! This is a vital addition to those unfamiliar with The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and a nice celebratory volume for those who are.

--Shaun Anderson