Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Horror Show, by Greg Kihn

(hb; 1996)

From the inside flap:

"When Monster Magazine reporter Clint Stockbern sets out to interview the legendary fifties horror movie director Landis Woodley, he finds a reclusive, forgotten, and bitter old man. Worming his way through the front door of the Scotch-drinking, cigar-smoking filmmmaker's home, Stockbern finds a treasure trove of B-movie memorabilia. Playing to the movie genius's ego, Stockbern does his best to dig up a few good anecdotes from the past -- but what he uncovers is a story of real-life horror!

"Flashback to 1957 Hollywood, where Landis Woodley is getting ready to shoot his latest movie, Cadaver, set in a real-life L.A. morgue. He is also bent on throwing the ultimate Halloween party. Attendees will include Lucifer-obsessed anthropologist Albert Beaumond and Devila, the celebrated TV horror-show hostess. Even Satan himself may put in an appearance. And when cheap special effects are replaced by real corpses, a deadly curse may wind up taking its toll on all those foolish to become involved with the filming of the cult movie classic, Cadaver."


This novel reads like H.P. Lovecraft salad-tossed with Ed Wood and Anton LaVey, liberally sprinkled with a film geek's love of fifties kitsch equals Horror Show. Kihn's assured, homage-laden writing made this unputdownable, the perfect autumn novel.

The characters, thinly-veiled fictionalizations of real-life people, are funny and (often) tragic, most of whom have seen their unrealized dreams come and go.

Ed Wood is divided into two characters: Landis Woodley, the canny filmmaker who holds his shoestring crew together with warmth, bluff and bull***t, and Neil Bugmier, the brilliant ex-Marine scriptwriter whose cross-dressing puts off more distinguished Hollywood types. There's also Albert Beaumond, a literary stand-in for Anton LaVey, now-deceased founder/high priest of the Satanic Church. There's Devila, stand-in for the real-life Vampira. And, of course, there's Jonathon Luboff, the dying heroin-hooked homosexual, whose life facts (like everyone else's) stem directly from his real-life counterparts, Bela Lugosi (a real-life heterosexual) and Criswell.

This is great homage from an excellent writer. Can't wait to see what Kihn does next, bookwise (he's also the founder of the Greg Kihn Band, and a disc jockey).

Friday, October 26, 2007

The River King, by Alice Hoffman

(hb; 2000)

From the inside flap:

"For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the center of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the village from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night, after an inexplicable death, the two worlds are thrust together, and the town's divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unraveled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year old who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a boy who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actions -- both past and present -- slide by without notice..."


Elegant, quiet, visually delicate yet enduring -- these words describe Hoffman's prose as she unveils the secret longings and wounds of her characters, from Harry McKenna, the rich handsome boy who's a charming sexual predator (in the barely acceptable social sense) to Abel Grey, a cop whose intentions to right past and present wrongs often cause him to publicly stumble.

This is one of the most beautiful and sympathetic (in terms of dealing with flawed humanity) books I've read in a long while. The imagery and symbolism are memorable and reinforced by the storyline and characters' actions, the flow feels naturally smooth, like the seasons the novel spans: in short, you should check this book out.


This became a film in 2005. Edward Burns played Abel Grey. John Kapelos played Joey Tosh. Thomas Gibson played August "Gus" Pierce. Jennifer Ehle played Betsy Chase. Rachelle Lefevre played Carlin Leander. Nick Willing directed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, by Ian Christe

(hb; 2003: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

"From its cataclysmic beginning with Black Sabbath more than thirty years ago to the hyperactive nu metal bands ripping apart the charts today, heavy metal has become the dominant musical force around the globe. Yet despite selling more than a quarter-billion albums and breaking into new markets wherever it can be heard, metal has never been given a complete overview of its dark, powerful, and untamed history -- until now.

"Included here are heavy metal's primitive origins, the rise and fall of MTV hair metal, Metallica's successful quest for world domination, the devilish frenzy of Florida death metal, the church-burning fever of Scandinavia's morbid teen terrorists, and metal's return to center stage at the hands of Ozzy Osbourne and Ozzfest.

"Plus readers will get:

"Twenty chapters based on interviews with Black Sabbath, Metallica, Slayer, W.A.S.P., Slipknot, and more than one hundred other great heavy metal bands.

"A timeline of the most explosive happenings in metal from 1970 to 2002

"A list of twenty-five heavy metal masterpieces that changed music history

"Genre boxes breaking down dozens of metal styles, from thrash and black metal to avant-garde and beyond, including essential CDs

"Exclusive insights from Chuck D of Public Enemy, Iron Maiden artist Derek Riggs, the directors of Paradise Lost, and more..."


Christe provides an excellent overview of metal, its effect on society (and vice-versa), and its musical permutations into subgenres over the past thirty-something years, making this real-life narrative -- much of what was familiar to me, given that I'm a metalhead -- more user-friendly for non-metal readers with genre-specific bullet lists and a detailed timeline. The writing is engaging and solid, with occasional flashes of appropriate metal-esque hyperbole; many of the interviews are illuminating (the star factor is impressive and knowing), with genre breakdowns that are well-defined and charted.

This is a gotta-read for any metalhead, and a great starting point (in terms of readership) for anybody interested in metal. Good stuff.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Highgate Rise, by Anne Perry

(hb; 1991: eleventh book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"In a London stunned by the sensational crimes of a madman named Jack the Ripper, a tragic fire in the peaceful suburb of Highgate goes unremarked. But the blaze was set by an arsonist, and an innocent woman has died in it: Clemency Shaw, wife of a prominent doctor. It is unclear whether she or Dr. Shaw were the intended victim -- or whether the doctor himself may have set the blaze in order to inherit his wife's large fortune.

"Baffled by the scarcity of clues in this terrible crime, Inspector [Thomas] Pitt turns to the people who were closest to the couple -- Clemency's stuffy but distinguished relatives; Dr. Shaw's brilliant friends, who share his advanced political views; and neighbors, especially the self-made millionaire who lives next door with his charming daughter.

"Meanwhile, Charlotte [Thomas's wife] gathers the gossip that is being whispered about the Shaws in the city's most proper drawing rooms. Slowly, a tantalizing picture of the dead woman comes into focus. And as she retraces the dangerous path that Clemency walked in the last months of her life, Charlotte finds herself enmeshed in a sinister web that stretches from the lowest slums to the loftiest centers of power."


Perry adds new elements and semi-twists to the eleventh book in the Pitt series, keeping it intriguing, but not completely forsaking her series-integral theme (murder investigation shakes up the upper class social hierarchy): there's the varying M.O. -- this time, the murderer uses fire to kill. Also, certain longstanding background characters come into the forefront to help Charlotte and Thomas solve the mystery of the fatal blazes -- namely, Gracie, the Pitts' teenage maid, and Grandmama, Charlotte and Emily's snooty great aunt (whose aid is unwittingly rendered). These elements and character differentiate Highgate Rise from earlier Pitt mysteries.

The social and political milieu is different, too: Jack the Ripper is running rampant in Whitechapel, and upper class slum lords, whose identities are kept secret by law, are under siege by reformers who seek to remedy that particular social ill, which may be the motive for the fiery murders.

All the regular supporting characters are involved this time, adding to the fun: Emily and Jack Radley (just returned from their honeymoon), as well as Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould, whose good health seems to have returned (she was sick in the last two books, Silence in Hanover Close and Bethlehem Road).

The killer isn't surprising, but Perry puts enough red herring elements and characters in the story to keep him/her from being too overt. And the Thin Man-like unmasking of the killer is suitably shocking and rude, with a subtle, series-familiar closing-line.

Once again, Perry delivers the excellence. Check it out.

Followed by Belgrave Square.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone

(pb; 1973, 1974)

From the back cover:

"Heroin. You pick it up in Southeast Asia. You smuggle it in through San Francisco. You sell it for all the ravenous American market will bear.

"For Converse, a disillusioned journalist, it is a perverse proof of his manhood. For his wife Marge, a college dropout working in a porno movie house, it is a new kick. For Hicks, a devotee of Oriental spiritualism and martial arts, it is another step past fear and moral scruples.

"For all of them it is a trip into a nightmare of lawless violence and insane greed."


Like the untenable and nasty war that helped spawn it (Vietnam), the events that take place after Ray Hicks smuggles heroin into the States are spectacularly f***ed-up. (Normally, Converse and Hicks smuggle marijuana, but the heroin pay-off, which looks to be astonomical, is too tempting.)

This is the melancholic, sordid and body-strewn milieu of Joseph Conrad, times ten. Converse is the cowardly, morally ambiguous American; Ray, his amoral American antithesis. Marge, Hick's wife in the States, with her growing needle habit, is just another victim. Even Antheil, whose smack Ray and Marge have fled with (after Antheil sends goons to whack them), is a victim of sorts, in a high-risk game where the wrong word in the wrong ear means instant death.

Bleak, ironic, crazy-violent and ultimately tragic, Dog Soldiers encapsulates many aspects of the Vietnam War, as seen by small-time eclectic "operators" whose cash and chemical endeavours arise from that struggle.

Stunning, pivotal work, this. Worth your cash and time.

The retitled film, Who'll Stop The Rain, was released stateside on September 8, 1978. Michael Moriarty played John Converse. Nick Nolte played Ray Hicks. Tuesday Weld played Marge Converse. Anthony Zerbe played Antheil. Richard Masur played Danskin.

Karel Reisz directed, from a script by author Robert Stone, and Judith Rascoe.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

(hb; 2006)

From the inside flap:

"Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe, a castle steeped in blood lore and family pride. Built over a secret system of caves and tunnels, the castle and its violent history invoke and subvert all the elements of a gothic past: twins, a pool, an old baroness, a fearsome tower. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catatrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story -- a story about two cousins who unite to renovate a castle -- that brings the crimes of the past and the present into piercing relation."


This is a milestone in haunted-house fiction, both stylistically and in terms of narrative. Not only does she eschew quotation marks when her characters talk (much like Cormac McCarthy), but she utilizes multiple POVs [points of view], especially at the twisty finish, masterfully rendered.

The above elements aren't the main reasons why this novel wowed me. It's how Egan balanced the "guilt = haunted" equation with surprising and effective moments of spine-freezing terror. And the characters are full of conflicts, doubts, guilt and other emotions, rich soil in which to plant seeds of shadows-out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye fear moments.

Unputdownable and landmark, this. By all means, own this.

<em>Mother Night</em> by Kurt Vonnegut

(pb; 1961) From the back cover “ Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense. American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy du...