Friday, April 25, 2008

Pearl, by Tabitha King

(hb; 1988)

From the inside flap:

"Pearl Dickenson has come to Nodd's Ridge to claim an inheritance from a relative she never knew. Unexpectedly, she elects to stay, unknowingly upsetting the town's equilibrium. She acquires a local diner and makes it a fixture of the town, through wonderful cooking and prodigious hard work. But the simple desire to have a home and a place of her own becomes complicated, to the entertainment of her decidedly interested neighbors, when she stumbles into not one, but two love affairs with two very different but equally troubled men -- Reuben Styles, a local man fighting to hold onto his rebellious teenage daughter in the aftermath of the break-up of his marriage, and wealthy summer resident David Christopher, brilliant and unstable, drawn back to the town where his childhood was shattered by the murder of his sister. Pearl's attempts to rescue Reuben's daughter, Karen, from an involvement with an abusive man triggers a series of revelations, not least Pearl's own awareness that she has let her confused heart lead her into a potentially disastrous conflict. When the seething rivalry between the two men explodes into violence, continuing a deep-rooted feud that threatens the very fabric of everyday life, Pearl realizes that only she has the power to heal -- or destroy -- the community... and to save -- or destroy -- herself."

Review:

The events in Pearl happen almost immediately after Joe Nevers's death in Caretakers. Pearl, a grand-niece of Joe's, inherits his house indirectly through her grandmother/Joe's sister, Gussie; she quickly buys a centralized, local, run-down diner from Roscoe Needham, an old kind-hearted drunk with a mean temper, and in doing so, completely reconfigures the lives of the local people.

Her arrival hits David Christopher, thirty-year old wealthy poet son of Victoria "Torie" Christopher (who had affairs with Joe, recounted in Caretakers, and Reuben Styles, recounted in Caretakers and Pearl's sequel/overlap novel, The Book of Reuben) and Reuben the hardest, it seems -- through a flukish fate-twist, she finds herself involved with both men, and in a small town already seething with pre-existing dramas, it threatens to take the town to its breaking point.

Pearl, like King's later Nodd's Ridge novels, The Book of Reuben and One on One, immediately gripped me, without any hitches (it's more assured than Caretakers, which sported middle-section plot lags). I had to keep reading this book, just to see what happened next -- it's a pot-boiler, but it's a classy, well-written one.

The book flap blurb plays up the tensions between Reuben and David (who's still haunted by the shooting death of his little sister, India, at a nearby lake, also witnessed by his traumatized mother, Reuben and Joe, who was India's real -- secret -- father). But this play-up is a bullsh*t publishing ploy, as David and Reuben are close friends, practically family; there are a few clashes, but nothing to warrant the hyperbolized nature of their relationship.

Another nit I had was with King's emotionally-manipulative, dirty-trick-ending, which laid to rest a number of Pearl's storylines and issues (some of them reaching one book back to Caretakers). It was effective, to be sure, but it felt like a cheap thing to do, after all the excellent, honest writing that came before it -- I expected this kind of bullsh*t finish from a hack writer, not a wordsmith of King's caliber. (In this it reminded, in a different way, of the tone-jarring ending in King's Survivor.)

These two nits -- one of them a publishing thing, not a novel-centric thing -- are minor, though, compared to the mostly-superb plot and characters that King has given the world in Pearl.

Check it out, after reading Caretakers. Pearl, superior to Caretakers in its execution, works as a stand-alone novel, but its characters and events mean more, given the familiarity that Caretakers readers may have with the subject matter.

[[Side-note: two notable characters appear in Pearl. One of them is Olivia ("Liv") Russell, the central character in an earlier Nodd's Ridge novel, The Trap.

[[The other character is from a novel by King's husband, Stephen (yes, that Stephen King). Dick Halloran, the Negro chef who got killed by an axe-wielding Jack Torrance in The Shining, is a close family friend of Pearl's: Halloran "ran [Pearl's step-father's Key West] diner in the winter, [and] used to work summers in a resort in Colorado [aka, the Overlook Hotel, in The Shining]" There's also a mention of Cujo, as well with a rabid-dog-on-the-loose subplot in Pearl, but that's nothing new -- Tabitha King also references Cujo, in a more playful way, in Survivor.]]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Herschell Gordon Lewis, Godfather of Gore: The Films, by Randy Palmer

(hb; 2000: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

"Take your seat! Grab a barf bag! And get ready for a hair-rasiing ride through a world of filmmaking so bizarre... so gross.. and so low-budget that even its chief practitioner claims the films were 'excreted' rather than released.

"YOU'LL SHUDDER as lurid ad campaigns are recreated before your eyes!

"YOU'LL SCREAM at the bad jokes and tasteless anecdotes!

"YOU'LL RECOIL as filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis compares his work to classic poetry!

"And you'll love this detailed, delirious history of a (mutilated) body of work in which chicken guts were human organs, blood was concocted from Kaopectate, and a cow's skull was cast as a human head floating picturesquely on the water (except that it sank, ruining the shot). Here is Lewis's complete story -- rich, authentic, and hilariously told through extensive interviews with the filmmaker himself. Lewis's humor and gift for storytelling make this book a delightful read as well as the definitive work on his career.

"With photographs, filmography, and forewords by Lewis and his producer David F. Friedman."

Review:

This is a fun and informative read, not only about Lewis (aka, "HG"), but about the independent horror filmmaking scene, from the early Sixties to the Eighties. It also shows the Hollywood horror mindset during these style-shifting decades.

Lewis comes off as a nice guy (who's not a horror fan) who just wanted to make movies that were entertaining, and, just as importantly, made a profit. He didn't always manage this, but this wasn't always his fault. Outside elements -- shady financiers/business partners, theater employees who cut crucial (i.e., too gory, possibly "offensive") scenes out of his films while showing them, rush-job shoots, and other unforseeable mini-disasters -- sometimes checkered his twenty-plus film career.

Lewis is important, and worth reading about, because he was the originator of the "gorror" (gory horror) film (most of which he wrote, directed, produced and got distributed), where the camera "lingered," often for several excruciating minutes, over the blood, intestinal splatterings and messy violence, instead of just briefly showing it.

Lewis's ouevre is made more interesting because of his willingness to make films in various, wildly disparate genres: early "nudie cuties" (many of which would garner a soft R-rating today) in the early to mid-Sixties, which had lots of nudity (but no actual sex -- such titles included The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, Daughter of the Sun); children's films (Jimmy the Wonder Boy, The Magic Land of Mother Goose); action films (Moonshine Mountain; She-Devils on Wheels); and, of course, "gorror" films (there were were seven, including the seminal Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and two of his more underrated films, A Taste of Blood and The Gore-Gore Girls).

Lewis stopped making films in 1972, for practical reasons: Hollywood, which had ignored or decried his style and elements (explicit gore, action, nudity, with attendant heapings of schlocky humor), had co-opted them -- how could Lewis, with his small budgets, compete with that? In 1974, a highly-publicized lawsuit stemming from his interest in several small, and unbeknownst to him, shady, businesses bankrupted him. He started writing "direct-marketing advertising copy" a year later, and has been highly successful in various legit companies, at one point becoming vice-president of marketing; he also started writing specialty books about the workings of, and how to become successful in, advertising (the sheer number of available titles is staggering). He even, with his longtime wife, Margo, co-authored Everybody's Guide to Plate Collecting, and is co-author of another non-fiction book, Symbol of America: Norman Rockwell (this one without Margo).

Gem of a read, this. Check it out.

In 2002, Lewis returned to the director's chair with Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, a direct-to-DVD film. John McConnell played Detective Dave Loomis. Mark McLachlan played Detective Mike Meyers. Melissa Morgan played Mrs. Lampley. Toni Wynne played Tifanni Lampley. J.P. Delahoussaye played Fuad Ramses III (grandson of Blood Feast's mad killer, Fuad Ramses). W. Boyd Ford scripted.

Fifteen years before (1987), a remake of Blood Feast was filmed and released. Titled Blood Diner, this Jackie Kong-directed, gleefully cheesy B-gem (which has the priceless tag-line: "First They Greet You, Then They Eat You") openly acknowledged its 1963 source film. Rick Burks played Michael Tutman. Carl Crew played George Tutman. Roger Dauer played Mark Shepard. LaNette La France played Sheba Jackson. Drew Godderis played Anwar. Michael Sonye scripted.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Caretakers, by Tabitha King

(hb; 1983)

From the inside flap:

"Caretakers is the story of Torie Christopher, a member of the Maine aristocracy, and Joe Nevers, the working-class man who has always loved her.

"...we see how... these seemingly-disparate lives have been inexorably joined. While a fierce Maine blizzard rages, Torie and Joe travel through their past in a series of revealing flashbacks. As they relive the tragedies and triumphs of the past thirty years, their relationship -- by turns subtle and profound -- slowly emerges.

"While the storm worsens, threatening their survival, we learn of startling, long-buried truths. We encounter spouses saintly and hellish, marriages enduring and licentious, and witness the coming of age of some children and tragic deaths of others. This is a novel where intimate secrets and tragic passions are laid bare."

Review:

The first of King's Nodd's Ridge novels reads sparse and less character-rich, as characters go: only Joe Nevers, Victoria "Torie" Chrisopher, Reuben Styles (whose seduction by Torie gets revisited, with more detailed passages, in The Book of Reuben) and a few other characters are shown this time out.

Bouncing between various flashbacks and the novel's present (1982), King's gift for prose-poetic imagery is restrained, but notable -- it's not until later novels that one sees it fully bloom. (I mention this because readers who may've read her later novels may find it disconcerting to encounter the aforementioned restraint.)

For the most part, this is a solid read, with characters who are entirely relatable, flawed and beautifully humane. The middle section, particularly the dialogue exchanges between Torie and Joe in 1982, lags a bit, but otherwise the story flows well. Also, revelations regarding events revisited in later Nodd's Ridge stories are not entirely unexpected, but still somewhat jarring.

This is not King's best book, but it's worth reading, especially if you're curious to read her later Nodd's Ridge novels (which, loosely connected, have overlapping storylines/timelines, often from different character perspectives).

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Favorite Horror Story, edited by Mike Baker & Martin H. Greenberg

(pb; 2000: story anthology)

From the back cover:

"Who do today's top horror writers read -- and why?

"This was the question posed to some of the most influential authors in the field toady. This book is their answer. Here are fifteen of the most memorable stories in the genre, each one personally selected by a well-known writer, and each prefaced by that writer's explanation of his and her choice. Here's your chance to enjoy familiar favorites, and perhaps discover some wonderful treasures. In each case, you'll have the opportunity to see the story from the perspective of a master of the field."

Overall review:

Wonderful collection of horror stories, some famous, others off-beat and (somewhat) obscure -- overall, the story introductions, written by the authors who selected these stories, are interesting and engaging. Worth owning, this anthology.

Review, story by story:

1.) "Sweets to the Sweet" - Robert Bloch: An abusive father unwittingly convinces his daughter that she's a "little witch." Predictable, taut-prosed, excellent (nonetheless), with a memorable finish. (Selected by Stephen King)


2.) "The Father-Thing" - Phillip K. Dick: Effective chiller about a ten-year old boy who discovers that his father, who's been killed, has spawned an alien twin. Classic; relatable, with its terrifying echoes of childhood. You probably won't forget this one for a long time -- if at all. (Selected by Ed Gorman)


3.) "The Distributor" - Richard Matheson: A seemingly-friendly man (Theodore Gordon), just moved into a surburban neighborhood, surreptitiously begins stirring up barely-buried resentments between his neighbors. Excellent for its adjective-restrained tone, scary in its real-world implications. (Selected by F. Paul Wilson)


4.) "A Warning to the Curious" - M.R. James: Loquacious, later creepy, tale about a man (Paxton) who foolishly unearths a seaside relic protecting a town against "invasion". An elevated sense of horror is displayed here, not spelled out for the reader, but effectively suggestive. (Selected by Ramsey Campbell)

"A Warning to the Curious" became a television short-film, airing in the UK on December 24, 1972. Peter Vaughn played Mr. Paxton. Clive Swift played Dr. Black. John Kearney played Ager/Ghost (the cinematic counterpart to William Ager). Lawrence Gordon Clark scripted, with no director listed.


5.) "Opening the Door" - Arthur Machen: A scholarly man, after having a "prophetic vision," goes missing and later reappears, with no memory of where he was. Long-winded, philosophical, sometimes funny, with carefully clarified words, it's an admirable piece -- Machen's skill is not to be denied -- but the ending is predictable and shockingly limp... so much so that when it did end, I went huh? (Selected by Peter Atkins)


6.) "The Colour Out of Space" - H.P. Lovecraft: A strangely-heated and rainbow-tinted meteorite lands on an Arkham, New England farm; wild, corrosive things (physical and mental) begin happening there. One of Lovecraft's best stories -- a miasmic, vivid nightmare of bright odd hues and blighting madness. It's also one of my favorite selections in this anthology. (Selected by Richard Laymon)

"The Colour Out of Space" became the source material for two movies.

The first film, Die, Monster, Die! , was released in the United States on October 27, 1965. Boris Karloff starred as Nahum Witley (the cinematic counterpart to Nahum Gardner). Nick Adams played Steven Reinhart. Freda Jackson played Letitia Witley. Suzan Farmer played Susan Witley. Daniel Haller directed, from a script by Jerry Sohl.

The second film, The Curse, was released in the United States on September 11, 1987. Wil Wheaton played Zack. Claude Akins played Nathan. Malcolm Danare played Cyrus. John Schneider played Willis. Amy Wheaton (sister of actor Wil) played Alice. Actor David Keith, making his directorial debut, directed. Written by David Chaskin, Lovecraft's "Colour" is the uncredited source for Chaskin's script.


7.) "The Inner Room" - Robert Aickman: Long-winded, but solid tale about a little girl (Lene) who gets a forboding doll house, which later disappears. But is it really gone? The last third of the story is especially chilling, with a visually-memorable ending. (Selected by Peter Straub)


8.) "Young Goodman Brown" - Nathaniel Hawthorne: A young man takes a late-night stroll with the Devil, and witnesses some horrible truths about his fellow villagers. Classic, memorable. (Selected by Rick Hautala)

This story inspired two films.

The first film, La Nuit de Tom Brown, aired on French television on March 24, 1959. Michel Piccoli played "Tom, jeune". Jean-Marc Tennberg played Mephisto. Roger Carel played L'abbe Jefferson. Jean-Pierre Cassel played Toby. Claude Barma directed.

Young Goodman Brown was released in 1993. Tom Shell played Goodman Brown. Matt Adler played William Stacey. Mary Grace Canfield played Goody Cloyse. Melinda Clark played Faith Brown. John P. Ryan played The Devil. Peter George scripted and directed.


9.) "The Rats in the Walls" - H.P. Lovecraft: July 16, 1923 -- Anchester, England. A middle-aged, grieving man (Delapore), who's recently lost his son to war, begins renovating an ancient temple-house that once belonged to his family, many years before. Unswayed by local rumors of mysterious disappearances, bizarre cult worship, and murder by his ancestors, Delapore moves in.

However, when Delapore begins having recurring, intensity-escalating nightmares, and his cats (all eight of them, led by the unfortunately-named "Nigger-Man") start acting restless, sniffing and tearing at the ancient walls (which occasionally seem to bulge with the movements of rats), Delapore decides to explore the lower rooms of the architectural mish-mash that is his new home. He's helped by Captain Norrys (a wartime friend of Delapore's dead son) and his cats.

Creepy, atmospheric, historically-aware and -researched work: all trademarks of a Lovecraftian piece -- excellent, of course. (Selected by Michael Slade)

"The Rats in the Walls" made up part of the three-story cinematic horror anthology, Necronomicon, which was released on July 29, 1994 in the UK, after being shown at a few international film festivals in 1993. (The two other stories included in the anthology were "Cool Air" and "The Whisperer in the Darkness" -- it also had a wrap-around story, in which Jeffrey Combs played Lovecraft.)

In the "Rats" segment (Part/story 1, renamed "The Drawned"), Bruce Payne played Edward De Lapoer (old spelling of "Delapore"). Belinda Bauer played Nancy Gallmore. Richard Lynch played Jethro De Lapoer. Maria Ford played Clara. Christophe Gans directed and co-scripted this movie section, with help from co-scriptor Brent V. Friedman.


10.) "The Dog Park" - Dennis Etchison: Subliminal terror work where the fear of professional failure is as pervasive and dire as the threat of bloody death (it's set in Los Angeles). This is the kind of story that I wish I'd been able to read in my high school English classes and write an essay on, as it has nothing that would be deemed offensive (except to Hollywood-types), but leaves a lot to reader-interpretation... Etchison doesn't spoon-feed the story to his readers, but leaves a lot to his readers' imagination (especially at the end). Excellent, unsettling piece. (Selected by Richard Christian Matheson)


11.) "The Animal Fair" - Robert Bloch: A hitchhiker (Dave) catches a ride with a carny (Captain Ryder), who tells him about his tragic, startling life. Dark, different, fun. (Selected by Joe R. Lansdale)


12.) "The Pattern" - Ramsey Campbell: A painter (Tony) and his writer wife (Di) are enjoying their rented, quiet, back-country cottage when they start hearing afternoon screams from a nearby, empty field. When Tony looks into the possible source(s) of the screams, thing get really weird. Unpredictable, original, classic. (Selected by Poppy Z. Brite)


13.) "The Tell-Tale Heart" - Edgar Allan Poe: A murderer, wracked with mad guilt, waits for arrest -- or death. Famous, intense, wow-worthy.. of course, it's Poe. (Selected by Joyce Carol Oates)

This story has been filmed twenty-four times, for theatrical and video movies, as well as television shows. The first version was lensed in 1928; currently, two new versions are due to be released, the first in 2008, the second in 2009.


14.) "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" - Ambrose Bierce: Famous story about a Civil War-era Federal scout who's about to be hanged. Shocking at the time of its publication (1891), its incredible end-twist has been done to death by countless hacks since then. Still, an effective story. (Selected by Dennis Etchison)

This story has been filmed five times. The first time was in 1929 (The Bridge); the most recent version, in 2005.


15.) "The Human Chair" - Edogawa Rampo: Odd, fascinating tale about a man who makes an oversized plush chair, large enough to comfortably house a man within it, and takes up part-time residence in it after it's shipped to a distant hotel. Crazily memorable, with an off-beat finish. (Selected by Harlan Ellison)

Ningen-isu (the Japanese translation of the story's title) was filmed in 2007 in Japan. Keisako Sato co-scripted and directed, with help from co-scriptor Aya Takei.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

'B' is for Burglar, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1985: second book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the back cover:

"Finding wealthy Elaine Boldt seems like a quickie case to Kinsey Milhone. The flashy widow was last seen wearing a $12,000 lynx coat, leaving her condo in Santa Teresa for her condo in Boca Raton. But somewhere in between, she vanished. Kinsey's case goes from puzzling to sinister when a house is torched, an apartment is burgled of worthless papers, the lynx coat comes back without Elaine, and her bridge partner is found dead. Soon Kinsey's clues begin to form a capital M -- not for missing, but for murder: and plenty of it."

Review:

Two weeks after her in-your-face near-death experience in 'A' is for Alibi, semi-quirky, tough-minded Kinsey is once again employed on an unusual case. The suspects include: a mindgame-playing married couple; a heartbroken widower; a filthy, possibly violent, shady female freeloader; and several bridge-playing neighbors of the missing woman (Elaine Boldt).

I figured out the set-up midway through, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of Kinsey's investigation. Her tell-it-like-it-is, first-person account is engaging and sharp, spiced with moments of fear worthy of a top-notch horror novel.

Check it out.

Followed by 'C' is for Corpse.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Loop, by Koji Suzuki

(hb; 1998, 2005: third book in the Ring Cycle; translated by Glynne Walley)

From the inside flap:

"In Loop, the killer [virus, from Spiral,] mimics both AIDS and cancer, in a deadly new guise. Only one person, Kaoru Futami asks where the disease could have originated. The youth, mature beyond his years, must hope to find answers in the deserts of New Mexico and the Loop project, a virtual matrix created by scientists. The fate of more than just his loved ones depends on Kaoru's success..."

Review:

More science fiction than horror, Loop completely reframes the ideas, tones and storylines of the horror-based Ring and more-scientific-than-scary Spiral. Initially, the tightly-plotted Loop didn't grab me as quickly as the first two books in the Ring series, but boy, when it did -- about a quarter of the way in -- it was damn near impossible to set down.

This is a clever, mindblowing finish to a high-mark-in-science-fiction/horror trilogy, which makes stunning use of subliminal imagery and themes (spirituality, science, society, and our relationships to these intermingled notions).

Own, don't borrow, these books. While Ring, Spiral and Loop can also be read as stand-alone novels, they're better read in order, starting with Ring.

Followed by the story anthology Birthday.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

One on One, by Tabitha King

(hb; 1993)

From the inside flap:

"A small-town school in western Maine, milltown Greenspark has a single claim to fame: its high school basketball team. A hero on the court, senior Sam Styles has led Greenspark Academy to three consecutive state championships. He has become an off-court mover-and-shaker as well, and he sends shockwaves through the school's social hierarchy when he decides that capping his own high school career with a fourth victory will not be enough: he wants the girls' team to win one, too.

"Standing between the girls and that state trophy is the person who is also their best hope of gaining it, a sophomore known as the Mutant, a/k/a Deanie Gauthier. She is attitude incarnate, a quick-silver playmaker on the court and a defiant pariah off it, as disliked as Sam is popular. If the girls are going to go all the way, Sam realizes, he will have to straighten her out.

"Saving Deanie from herself is no easy task, however. Behind the wild, tough girl, Sam discovers an unexpected soul mate, and he isn't prepared for the volatile, disturbing relationship that ignites between them and cuts radically across the grain of Greensparks' traditions. he wants her to take her team to the championships; she wants to take him where he's never been before. They both get more than they bargained for -- Deanie must surrender the secrets shielded by her Mutant facade, and Sam must take on their burden. It is an exchange that will transform both their lives."

Review:

As engrossing and full of heart-grabbing characters and situations as its published-after-One on One prequel, The Book of Reuben, King once again returns her fictional Maine area of Nodd's Ridge, first seen in her earlier novels, Caretakers and Pearl.

This time the central character is Sam Styles, son of Reuben (who's the focus in The Book of Reuben). The drama, described in King's trademark warm, vivid, and sometimes poetic verbiage, takes place after the events of Reuben. Sam has recovered from the divorce-kidnapping trauma of his religious nutjob mother (Laura), and is now dealing with semi-normal high school life under his father's finanically-strapped-but-stable roof, and the new family his father and Reuben's new wife, Pearl (from Pearl), have put together, with the semi-recent arrival of a baby step-sister, India (aka, "Indy").

This is the way novels are supposed to read. It's immediately involving, detailed, with characters whom readers are drawn toward -- I got emotional during certain scenes involving Deanie and her abusive stepfather, Tony Lord; I often found myself audibly growling: you bastard, you better get yours.

Worth your time, this also-works-as-a-stand-alone novel, though you'll probably enjoy it more if you read Caretakers (which features a younger Joe Nevers from The Book of Reuben as a main character), Pearl, and The Book of Reuben first.