Monday, June 25, 2007

From The Borderlands: Stories of Terror and Madness, edited by Elizabeth E. & Thomas F. Monteleone

(pb; 2003: horror anthology)

Overall review:

Exemplary anthology, originally published as Borderlands 5, with only a few clunkers in the mix. Well worth your time.


Standout stories:

1. ) “All Hands” – John R. Platt: Quirky, delightful entry about a man who wakes up with a different pair of hands each day.


2.) “The Growth of Alan Ashley” – Bill Gauthier: Black-humored take on the delusion of “self-improvement” – a strange “growth” on the titular character’s body becomes imbued with increasing, dangerous importance. If this were a film short, I could see this being directed by Eraserhead-era David Lynch, or Videodrome-era David Cronenberg.


3.) “The Goat” – Whitt Pond: Heartbreaking tale about a teenage boy who’s trying to save his supposedly demon-possessed brother from their fellow townspeople.


4.) “The Food Processor” – Michael Canfield: Surrealistic tale about two brothers whose collective desire to build things conflicts with their Father’s desire that they become chefs, like him. Superior, semi-bizarre work, one that would make an excellent Tim Burton film, illustrated by Peter Max.


5.) “Storytime with the Bluefield Strangler” – John Farris: Destined-to-be-a-true-classic story about a little girl who’s being terrorized by a real-life boogeyman.


6.) “The Planting” – Bentley Little: Perverse B-movie gem about a pair of panties, a cabin and a dessicated mummy.


7.) “Infliction” – John McIlveen: Stunning, emotional tale about an ex-alcoholic tracking his runaway daughter, four years gone.


8.) “The Thing Too Hideous To Describe” – David J. Schow: Funny, ultimately sad story about a small-town monster who makes a friend. One of the most imaginative entries in this bunch.


9.) “Magic Numbers” – Gene O’Neill: The operative phrase for this one-of-a-kind work is um, wow. Memorable work.


10.) “Head Music” – Lon Prater: Another destined-to-be-a-classic tale, this one about a young man who’s drawn to a oceanborn monster in the middle of the night. Reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s finer nightmares, or any issue of Creepy.


11.) “Around It Still The Sumac Grows” – Tom Piccirilli: Envy-inducing entry about a middle-aged man who returns to his high school – site of countless teenage humiliations – twenty years later.


12.) “Annabell" – L. Lynn Young: Sublime, sad work about a physically-beautiful mother who seeks to protect her deformed daughter from the barbed horrors of the world.


Solid entries:

Ramis Temporalis” (Gary A. Braunbeck); “Faith Will Make You Free” (Holly Newstein); “N0072-JK1” (Adam Corbin Fusco); “Time For Me” (Barry Hoffman); “Prisoner 392” (John F. Merz); “Answering the Call” (Brian Freeman); “Smooth Operator” (Dominick Cancilla); “A Thing” (Barbara Malenky); “Slipknot” (Brett Alexander Savory); “Stationary Bike” (Stephen King).

So-so entries are: “Father Bob & Bobby” (Whitley Strieber); “Dysfunction” (Darren O. Godfrey); “One Of Those Weeks” (Bev Vincent).

The Second Glass of Absinthe, by Michelle Black

(hb; 2003)

From the inside flap:

“In the American West of 1880, Leadville, Colorado is the wealthiest mining district on earth, and by far the richest mine is the Eye Dazzler.

“When Lucinda Ridenour, the notorious widow-heiress to the Dazzler, chooses young Kit Randall to be her lover, Kitt thinks he has the world at his feet. But when their affair sinks into depravity, he must rediscover himself and find out if he has the character to survive in a society that has more money than morals.

“After waking up from an absinthe-created hallucination in which unspeakable acts seem to have taken place, Kit angrily leaves the house of Lucinda and her twenty-year old son, Christopher, feeling betrayed and exploited. Then, Lucinda is found stabbed to death.

“In the midst of this turmoil and of Leadville’s anxiety over its labor unrest and the impending arrival of the railroad, Kit’s uncle, Brad Randall, and his fiancée, Eden Murdoch, arrive in the boomtown planning to celebrate their wedding, but are instead shocked to learn Kit is the primary suspect in a sensational murder.

“Eden resolves to learn the truth and clear Kit Randall’s name. To do so, she forms an uneasy alliance with Bella Valentine, Kit’s former girlfriend and a dabbler in the occult. With this unlikely ally Eden uncovers shocking secrets of the Ridenour family just as Leadville’s first labor strike brings the town to an armed and dangerous standstill.”

Review:

Black packs enough historical backdrop and details into her novel to almost make the reader forget that this is a mystery novel; at the same time, however, the novel is clearly mystery-driven, as almost every scene relates to Randall’s supposed crime, with nary an extraneous word put to paper.

Absorbing, wonderful, and character- and period-rich (I’m a sucker for a well-written Western), this is a worthwhile work.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Off Season, by Jack Ketchum

(pb; 1980, 2006)

From the back cover:

“September. A beautiful New York editor retreats to a lonely cabin on a hill in the quiet Maine beach town of Dead River – off season – awaiting her sister and friends. Nearby, a savage human family, with a taste for flesh, lurks in the darkening woods, watching, waiting for the moon to rise and night to fall…

“And before too many hour pass, five civilized, sophisticated people and one tired old county sheriff will learn just how primitive we all are beneath the surface… and that there are no limits at all to the will to survive.”

Review:

This is the second time I’ve read this novel – I first read it about three, four years ago – and it was just as nasty and shocking the second time around; maybe more so, as this is Ketchum’s original version of the novel (with a notably different finish), before the editors at his then-publishing company demanded a (relatively) happier ending, and a few editorial trims, gore-wise.

Another improvement is that the characters are fleshed out (no pun intended) more in this new edition. Lean, mean and written for true horror fans, this is a landmark novel.

Followed by Offspring.

(Side-note: if you read this and love it as much as I do, check out: Sawney Bean, Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, and Straw Dogs (set to be remade and released in 2009).

Silence in Hanover Close, by Anne Perry

(pb; 1988: ninth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the back cover:

“When Inspector Pitt was asked to reopen a three-year-old murder case which had taken place in London’s luxurious Hanover Close, he was all too aware that his superiors wanted him to smooth things over.

“But penetrating the reserve of high society households would take more finesse than Pitt could muster. Enter Charlotte Pitt, his wellborn wife, and her sister, Emily. As the social equals of the inhabitants of the Close, the women would be privy to conversation that would never reach the ears of a mere policeman. What they found was a secret so shocking it would lead to more deaths – and quite possibly Pitt’s own.”

Review:

Perry takes her main characters – Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, Lady Emily Ashworth – into new, and incredibly life-threatening, situations in the ninth entry of her Pitt mystery series.

Six months have elapsed since the deaths of Cardington Crescent. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde has been published the previous year, and is scaring the willickers out of the reading public. Jemima Pitt, daughter of Thomas and Charlotte, is six; the Pitts’ son, Daniel, is “nearly five” – both of the children are eagerly counting down the days to a niveous Christmas.

Winter is not so kind to Thomas: an old case has been foisted on him to “smooth over”, not solve. Charlotte, ever-curious about her husband’s cases, gets involved, and in doing so, involves Emily, who’s unofficially being courted by the impecunious and rakishly handsome Jack Radley (who first appeared in Cardington Crescent). Emily’s problem is that social etiquette demands that she continue to publicly mourn her husband, George (poisoned in the last book), though she’s ready to move on with her life.

A role-reversal theme infuses Silence with fresh thrills – Charlotte, with the aid of Emily and Jack, goes undercover, adopting the fake identity of Miss Elizabeth Barnaby, a wellborn woman seeking a husband; Emily becomes Amelia Gibson, a maid in the household where a new murder has been committed. And Thomas, framed for a different killing, is arrested.

Another great, twist-filled book in a consistently gripping series, this.

Followed by Bethlehem Road.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, by Ian Fleming

(pb; 1963: eleventh book in the original 007/James Bond series)

From the back cover:

“The superlative thriller that pits James Bond once more against SPECTRE’s archfiend Blofeld, architect of the nefarious scheme to destroy the free world… the thriller in which 007 falls in love with the lovely Tracy, daughter of Marc-Ange Draco, head of the Union Corse…”

Review:

A year after the fireworks of Thunderball, Bond is still – unsuccessfully – hunting Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who masterminded the aforementioned missile hijacking-and-blackmail plot. Blofeld has completely disappeared (as has SPECTRE), it seems. But then a lead is unearthed…

Posing as Hilary Bray, a specialist who traces clients’ ancestries, he infiltrates Blofeld’s (who’s had plastic surgery) mountainous retreat. Bond is surrounded by a gaggle of rich, young girls who are undergoing “treatment” for various “allergies” – as well as Fräulein Irma Bunt, a woman who’s more thug than nurse.

This mission is not the only thing on Bond’s mind. He’s also in love with Tracy di Vicenzo, wild daughter of a gregarious gangster-revolutionary – and possibly the perfect woman for Bond.

It’s typical 007 stuff, though the pacing and focus is different (the love story is as important as the action, which is downplayed), the characters (especially Bond) have matured a bit, and the ending, similar to that of From Russia With Love, is one of the most shocking Fleming has penned.

One of my favorite 007 novels – and movies – in the series. Check them out.

[Side-note: Sharp-eyed readers will spot the phrase “the world is not enough,” which later became the title of a James Bond film, and references to Irma La Douce and Ursula Andress, who starred in Dr. No.]

Followed by You Only Live Twice.



On Her Majesty's Secret Service was released stateside as a film on December 18, 1969. Peter R. Hunt directed the film, from a screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Simon Raven (who provided additional dialogue to the script).

George Lazenby played Bond. Diana Rigg played Tracy di Vicenzo. Telly Savalas played Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Gabriele Ferzetti played Marc-Ange Draco. Ilse Steppat played Irma Bunt.

Pharos, by Alice Thompson

(hb; 2002)

From the inside flap:

“Set in the nineteenth century…a young woman is washed up on the shores of Jacob’s Rock, a remote lighthouse island off the coast of Scotland. She does not know who she is or how she got there. She has no memory. The keeper of the lighthouse and his assistant take her in and feed and clothe her. But this mysterious woman is not all that she seems, and neither is the remote and windswept island.

“Eerily reminiscent of Turn of the Screw and The Others, Pharos is a breathless tale of the supernatural.”

Review:

Understated and poetic, this seemingly simple, short novel draws the reader in with its sublime writing, memorable imagery and stark characterizations.

The novel’s only fault: the ending’s too understated and pat. The tension, subtly rendered, never culminates in a satisfactory fashion. That said, the ending fits what precedes it, tone-wise.

Not perfect, but a great, effective read.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life & Art of Edward D. Wood, by Rudolf Grey

(pb; 1992: biography)


From the back cover:

"This incredible, exhaustive biography of the cult movie auteur inspired the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette and Martin Landau.

"Author Rudolf Grey unearths the remarkable stories behind such films as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. Meet the 'Wood Spooks' -- Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Criswell and Tor Johnson, Nightmare of Ecstasy reveals the weird, wild and sordid aspects of the man the ignorant have called 'The worst filmmaker of all time.'"

Review:

This oral history, provided by those who knew (or claimed they knew) Wood, documents a different era in Hollywood, as seen from its cinematic underbelly. Colorful, kitschy tales about Wood, Lugosi and other Hollywood has-beens (or hopeful would-bes) regularly highlight this modest able effort, interlaced with the sad facts of Wood's later life (alcoholism, financial victimization), as well as Lugosi's (who was a junkie and a belligerent drunk).

Even if you've seen the Tim Burton film (which was "inspired" by this book), this is still a must-read, as it shows a different, less upbeat view of a Hollywood dreamer whose hackish visions took brief flight.