27 January 2010

Black Alibi: The Claws of Cornell Woolrich

Black Alibi (1942)
By Cornell Woolrich

My favorite Cornell Woolrich novel is 1948’s Rendezvous in Black. A few of his novels clamber to grab onto the rung right beneath it, and among them is Black Alibi. It’s one of the most powerful novels of sheer terror in the English language, and one of the prototypes for what we would call a “slasher” tale, an archetype of the serial-killer thriller. More than any of Woolrich’s other novels, Black Alibi works on a primal, animal level… appropriate, since at the center of the story is a black jaguar, a symbol of savagery and the randomness and finality of death.

Black Alibi is the middle installment of an informal trilogy with The Bride Wore Black (1940) and Rendezvous in Black (1948). All follow an identical episodic structure: an opening chapter introduces a killer right before the murdering starts; each of the following chapters focuses on the killer’s next victim, drilling the reader with tension as death closes in; the chapters conclude with mini-epilogues where law enforcement shows up to ponder the killer’s motives and modus operandi; in the finale, a trap is laid for the killer, leading to a final explanation for the events.

Black Alibi has a major difference from the other two, however. The killers in The Bride Wore Black and Rendezvous in Black are people with specific vendettas and targets. Julie Kileen pursues the men she blames for the death of her husband on their wedding day; Johnny May chases after the men responsible for his fiancée’s death, planning to murder the most important woman in each man’s life so they will forever know Johnny’s pain. But in Black Alibi, the killer is abstract, and the murders committed at random. The motives of the murderer are unknowable, and the only link between the victims is that they are all young women. The villain is a classic serial killer, one of the earliest “slashers” in horror: an implacable murderer capable of striking down anyone at any time for no reason at all.

25 January 2010

Post-Birthday Cake: “Wolfshead” by Robert E. Howard

Friday was Robert E. Howard’s birthday, and now it’s mine (actually, in an hour and a half—but you’ll be reading this on the 26th, most likely). To celebrate, I’m doing a bit of clean-up on the notes I had written for my original post at Black Gate for Howard’s birthday, which I planned to be about the short story “Wolfshead.” I ended up writing about “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” but I couldn’t let those notes go to waste, and so . . .

Here’s a post about the short story that was Robert E. Howard’s breakthrough.

I always do a shout out to people who share my birthday of January 26th. So first, to the people I know personally, happy birthday to Jason M. Waltz and Neil Figuracion.

Now, to all the “impersonal” ones: happy birthday to Paul Newman, Phillip José Farmer, Wayne Gretzky, Douglas MacArthur, Stephane Grappelli, Sal Buscema, Cameron Bright, Ellen DeGeneres, Jonathan Carroll, Gene Siskel, Angela Davis, Scott Glenn, Bob Uecker, Jules Feiffer, Roger Vadim, Maria von Trapp, József Pusztai, David Straithairn, and Eddie Van Halen.

I refused to wish a happy anything to Nicolae Ceauşescu. There’s always got to be somebody screwing up your birthday, right? (But those of you who were born on April 20th or December 18th understand that all too well. . . .)

24 January 2010

Amityville II: The Possession Is the Only Amityville You Need

Amityville II: The Possession (1982)
Directed by Damiano Damiani. Starring James Olson, Burt Young, Jack Magner, Diane Franklin, Rutanya Alda, Moses Gunn.

Younger viewers today may wonder why the whole “Amityville Horror” ordeal was such a phenomenon and success in the late 1970s. The series of movies and cluster of books are mostly terrible, and have never developed any of the dedicated following that other horror franchises have attracted. The 2005 re-make of the 1979 movie The Amityville Horror was met with tepid indifference (although I think it’s marginally superior to the ‘79 film), and talks of another Amityville film are meeting equal indifference.

Of course, the reason that Amityville got so much traction with the public in its day was because it was sold as a “true story” and was plastered all over TV talk shows, newsmagazine programs, In Search Of…, newspapers, and tabloids. As the “true” part started showing its seams—such as a Brooklyn District Court decision that ruled the story was wholly or in most part a fabrication—readers and viewers still showed immense interest in the tale of a demonically possessed Long Island Dutch Colonial mansion. After all, the public, in love with movies like The Exorcist and The Omen, didn’t want to hear about an “unhaunted house.” Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur. (The Snopes article about the events is definitely worth reading.)

22 January 2010

Robert E. Howard birthday essay! “The Fire of Asshurbanipal”

Bob, I want that hat.

Today is the birthday of Robert E. Howard, the most influential author of American fantasy. Anyone who reads or writes heroic adventure stories owes the man an enormous debt, and for those of us who are sword-and-sorcery fans, the man is practically Odin in our eyes. (If only he were as immortal—he took his own life in 1936 at the tragically young age of thirty.)

To commemorate Bob’s b-day, Black Gate is having a symposium of sorts, with the regular bloggers chipping in a post about the Great Man. This means you get an extra Black Gate post from me this week.

My contribution: A look at the first story of Howard’s that I ever read, “The Fire of Asshurbanipal.”

The other contributors (I’ll update this during the day as more are added):

John R. Fultz, “Bloody Brilliance: Why I love Robert E. Howard”
Howard Andrew Jones, “Robert E. Howard Birthday Celebration”
Bill Ward, “Encountering Howard”
Charles Saunders, “Robert E. Howard’s Thriller”
E. E. Knight, “Howard and His Truths”
James Enge, “Sword and Solomon: The Beginning of Sword and Sorcery”

20 January 2010

Three artists on the future John Carter of Mars

Update: The movie has been released! Read my review of John Carter [of Mars]. And I think Michael Whelan was indeed the principle visual influence.

When I posted my Black Gate entry this week about Bob Clampett’s unmade “John Carter of Mars” project, I got a comment from John R. Fultz regarding the upcoming film from Andrew Stanton: “I . . . hope they are studying Michael Whelan’s incredible iconic covers.”

This immediately made me wonder, what will the visual inspirations be for Stanton’s version of Barsoom? There are three artists who have left a distinct stamp on Burroughs’s novels over the decades: J. Allen St. John, Frank Frazetta, and the above-mentioned Michael Whelan. Stanton read the books as a child, and this most likely means encountering the Frazetta covers; Stanton is about eight years older than me, and my first encounters were with the Whelan covers in the 1980s. Most certainly, however, Stanton has studied the Whelan covers as well, since they’ve dominated the ERB paperback market through the last three decades. And, if you’re going to study the look of Barsoom, you have to look at St. John, the most important Burroughs artist during author’s lifetime.

So I will now present a short gallery of pictures from the three artists that imagine the Mars of John Carter. We can use these to start dreaming about what the eventual film may look like.

18 January 2010

Bambi, A Life in the Woods

Bambi, A Life in the Woods (1928)
By Felix Salten, trans. by Whittaker Chambers

Damn you, Walt Disney Studios! Here’s something else for which you must answer: your dominance of the image of “Bambi” through your 1942 film adaptation. And this is one of your classics, a great animated work of art! But it still obscures its source novel, and now that I’ve read it, I do not feel forgiving. I’ve discovered a novel that is one of the most breathtaking, hypnotic fantasies that I’ve ever encountered. Bambi, A Life in the Woods, even in English translation, is a masterpiece, and it unfortunately lies buried under “Disneyfication.”

I discovered that the Disney monopoly on the story of a deer’s survival in the woods holds even in Germany; admittedly, this is an Austrian novel, but nonetheless a German-language work. When I tried to buy an original language copy of the book in Munich for my sister as a holiday present—I thought it would serve as a pleasant way for her to practice reading the language of her new resident nation, and the language that her son will grow up speaking—nobody in the major bookstores had any idea what I was talking about. They kept directing me to illustrated children’s books about the Disney movie, or a DVD. They claimed to have never heard of this “Felix Salten” fellow or know that Bambi originally came from a novel. For a classic book, Bambi certainly seems to have developed a low-profile, like a deer avoiding hunters.

Regrets for the Bob Clampett John Carter of Mars

Right now, as I type this and most likely as you read it, a movie titled John Carter of Mars, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars, is in production. Not in development. Not in pre-production. Not in meetings. It is in front of cameras. Andrew Stanton, director of the brilliant CGI Pixar films Finding Nemo and WALL·E, is shooting John Carter of Mars from a script by Stanton, Michael Chabon, and Mark Andrews, in London this very minute, in this dimension, and it will reach theaters in 2012, in time for the novel’s one hundreth birthday.
Really. Honest and for true. It is actually happening.
And wonderful as this is, it’s also a time to mourn the lost John Carter project, the one that famous animator Bob Clampett almost directed in the 1930s . . . and the topic for today’s Black Gate post.
Read the rest of the joy and regret here.

17 January 2010

Oh No, Roddy McDowall Has a Killer Statue: It!

It! (1967)
Directed by Herbert J. Leder. Starring Roddy McDowall, Jill Haworth, Paul Maxwell.

What if Norman Bates gained control of the Power of God, and the British military had to use a nuclear warhead to stop him?

Hey, it’s happened… in It!

Long before Stephen King monopolized the neuter pronoun for horrordom, a mid-‘60s U.K. film starring Roddy McDowall and a giant raisin-textured statue played out this scenario while trying to resemble a Hammer horror flick. It is as wackily entertaining as it sounds, a real oddly-cut gem of the Anglo-horror cycle.

I originally saw It! in the early ‘80s when I was an impressionable elementary school kid. Local Los Angeles station KCOP Channel 13 frequently broadcast old horror movies during prime time weeknights in five-day blocks—usually with an uncreative title like “A Week of Horrors!” This was how I first saw a number of classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and Carrie, although in TV-edited form. (Considering how squeamish a kid I was, I wasn’t ready for the un-edited versions.) I also saw some unknown flicks that later vanished from the airwaves and public consciousness until DVD rescued them. It! is one of my KCOP lost classics: I vividly remember the commercials for it, featuring a shriveled-grape statue throttling people. It seemed terrifying to a nine-year-old, although I found the film itself far less scary than the fevered commercials.

13 January 2010

Movie review: The Shuttered Room

The Shuttered Room (1967)
Directed by David Greene. Starring Gig Young, Carol Lynley, Oliver Reed, Flora Robson.

I will give the screen adaptation of The Shuttered Room this much: as a film of the Anglo-horror cycle, at least it doesn’t try to slavishly imitate the Hammer style. The naturalistic outdoor photography, U.S. setting (faked, admittedly), and unusual score are far removed from the Hammer product of the period.

I won’t give The Shuttered Room much else; it is a tepid film with scant atmosphere and manages to disappoint on most levels. The August Derleth story (which I’ve written about here) is no classic in the gallery of Lovecraftian pastiches, but the movie ignores all the aspects of the “weird” that give the original its memorable qualities. What was there, exactly, about this story that would work if the horrific elements were removed? Very little, as first-time director David Green shows. After a reasonable start, the film moves glacially with almost nothing occurring, veers off into an unwelcome different genre, and then delivers the least interesting revelation for its “monster” that it possibly could. Worst of all, The Shuttered Room is not scary or even slightly spooky except for its pre-title section.

Not much of the short story survives, although during the first ten minutes D. B. Ledrov’s screenplay creates the illusion that it might tackle its source in a straightforward manner, with a gender switch for the main character and a romantic interest to broaden events to feature length. Abner Whateley is now Susannah Whatley (Carol Lynley), losing the second “e” in her name in the process of changing from a man to a woman. She’s come to Dunwich—now an island in an unidentified part of rural New England—with her husband, Mike Kelton (Gig Young), to take up residence in the old house she has inherited. She hasn’t lived there since she was four years old, when something dreadful locked up in the titular room attacked her in her bed (the subject of the interesting and therefore deceptive prologue). The memory has scarred her since then, but she wants to see if she and her husband can make a go at turning the cobwebbed stone block into a summer home. The locals, led by the thuggish Ethan (Oliver Reed), aren’t welcoming to the new couple, and Susannah’s Aunt Agatha (Flora Robson) warns them that a curse lies over the old Whatel(e)y place.

11 January 2010

The Return of A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar

The Ship of Ishtar (1924)
By A. Merritt

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I first read The Ship of Ishtar in a 1960s Avon paperback I found in a used bookstore in Phoenix. This copy is so brittle that I have to specially brace the book each time I open it or else the spine will separate like the San Andreas fault and the pages flutter down in a yellow autumn fall.

What I’m saying is… I’m extremely glad that Paizo Publishing has brought my favorite A. Merritt novel back into print in an edition that doesn’t make me afraid of the physical act of reading it. (Go buy it here.)

It’s strange that Abraham Merritt, one the biggest sellers in the history of speculative fiction, should need an introduction at all today, but sadly he does. Merritt was a journalist by vocation, the editor of The American Weekly, but his forays into writing ornate “scientific romances” starting with The Moon Pool in 1918–19 made him one of the most popular authors of the first half of the twentieth century. Today, he’s the realm of specialists, collectors, and his work is found in volumes from university publishers and small presses. In his introduction to Merritt’s breakthrough novel, The Moon Pool, Robert Silverberg pondered this turn of events that made Merritt obscure. What happened?

Silverberg offers up his own wonderings, ultimately finding the author’s eclipse inexplicable; but I think Merritt’s unusual mixture of two-fisted stalwart heroes in epic action with grandiose, mind-bending worlds of wonder painted in prose arabesques (and millions of exclamation marks!) makes him an author who doesn’t speak to mainstream genre readers today, even if he invented the clichés of countless contemporary fantasy authors. Clark Ashton Smith started as a specialty author and has remained there. Abraham Merritt was a mainstream writer who managed to Clark Ashton Smith himself after his death, ending up as a specialty author as well. Unfortunately, such is often the way of unusual talents. At least The Ship of Ishtar is now only a few clicks away for you to purchase and enjoy.

10 January 2010

August Derleth’s “The Shuttered Room”

Before watching the DVD of the 1967 movie The Shuttered Room (which I rented specifically to watch the second feature on it, It!—more on that later), I turned to my bookshelf to draw down the anthology that contains the short story that the movie credits as its source. At least a decade has passed since I last read it, when I was in a flurry of reading H. P. Lovecraft-related fiction.

“The Shuttered Room” is the work of August Derleth (1909–1971), the man most responsible for promoting H. P. Lovecraft’s writing during the first two decades following the Old Man of Providence’s death. In conjunction with Donald Wanderi, Derleth founded Arkham House, a press designed to keep Lovecraft and other authors of the Weird Tales circle in print. Derleth invented the term “Cthulhu Mythos” to describe the shared cosmic horror backdrop that Lovecraft and some of his correspondents used for their fiction. The term is a point of controversy among speculative fiction scholars, but it has become part of popular culture, and discussing Lovecraft without reference to Derleth’s analysis of Lovecraft is almost impossible. Besides, it makes for a fun argument.

Derleth was a skilled fictioneer himself, and wrote many Lovecraft-inspired tales, the best of which make use of the folklore and setting of Derleth’s native Wisconsin the same way that Lovecraft’s stories use his native New England. “The Dweller in Darkness” (first published in Weird Tales in 1944) is arguably Derleth’s finest story in this mode. He also wrote what he called “posthumous collaborations” from Lovecraft’s notes, often taking only a few sentences and turning out a story with Lovecraft’s name listed beside his own.

“The Shuttered Room,” first published in the Arkham House anthology The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces in 1959, is one of these stories culled from a few lines of Lovecraft. In some later anthologies, such one that I own (The Watchers Out of Time), Derleth’s contribution is sneakily tucked away in small print (“with August Derleth”) to make it look as if “The Shuttered Room” is entirely the work of Lovecraft, even though he only contributed the idea from his notebooks.

“The Shuttered Room,” like most of Derleth’s Lovecraftian pastiches, is a fair imitation of the famous author’s work. Derleth copies Lovecraft’s rhythm, diction, and structures closely. However, these stories usually lack Lovecraft’s intensity and have a second-hand feeling. Derleth’s tendency to overuse some of Lovecraft’s most worn devices, such as enormous concluding sentences written in italics revealing a sanity-shaking revelation, can turn hilarious if you read too many of them consecutively.

But I read “The Shuttered Room” on its own this time, and found that it holds up as a decent shocker set in Lovecraft country. Derleth’s style is often sumptuous on its own, although he didn’t have the same understanding of rural New England that Lovecraft did.

The story uses a plot structure that Derleth employed many times: a character receives the inheritance of an old house in rural New England from a recently deceased relative, and discovers a horrific legacy—often in volumes of forbidden lore. “The Shuttered Room” disposes of the forbidden tomes, at least; the deadly legacy is mobile and tangible this time. The inheritor in this case is Abner Whateley, who receives a mansion from the will of his grandfather Luther Whateley in the rotting town of Dunwich, Massachusetts. Abner once lived in the house, where he went in fear of his grandfather and his Aunt Sarey, who never left the locked and shuttered room over the mill attached to the house. When Abner takes up residence in the dusty mansion, he finds strange instructions from his grandfather to destroy the mill and kill anything living he finds there, thus completing some obscure task that Luther failed to finish. Abner isn’t very observant of what he considers insane orders from a strange man, and enters the shuttered room and smashes open the nailed-shut windows. He also ignores a tiny, frog-like (i.e. “batrachian,” a Lovecraftian word that Derleth swings around with little regard for life or property) creature that escapes the room through a break in the glass of the windows.

The story then follows Abner attempting to piece together his family’s recent history and understand what his grandfather expected of him through piles of letters, most which concern Aunt Sarey and her visit to her relatives, the Marshes, in the coastal town of Innsmouth. This is the point where all Lovecraft readers will understand the core of what is occurring. At first it seems “The Shuttered Room” is meant as a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” because it concerns the Whateley family from that story, and Derleth frequently refers to Wilbur Whateley and his mysterious brother, who was also kept locked away. But as Abner peers deeper into the Marsh side of the family and the history of Innsmouth, and reports of strange killings along the Miskatonic start reaching him, it becomes clear that the Whateleys are a red-herring for a story that is actually a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.”

For any Lovecraft fan, “The Shuttered Room” won’t hold many surprises in its finale when Abner at last discovers the secret of the occupant of the title location. Derleth builds the suspense well, although he again falls into one of those ludicrous italicized sentences of horrid, interminable length, concluding with the gasping revelation and a frenzied exclamation point! But attentive Lovecraft readers will have already gotten far ahead of poor Abner. “The Shuttered Room” is perhaps best enjoyed by readers who have yet to make H. P. Lovecraft’s acquaintance… but that would also mean spoiling the superb “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” an American horror classic.

09 January 2010

Book Review: Gather, Darkness!

Gather, Darkness!
By Fritz Leiber (1943)

The late Fritz Leiber is best known for his wonderful stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, tales of sword-and-sorcery laced with wickedly sardonic humor that still amaze readers today. Leiber developed these stories to appeal to the crowd that read Unknown and Astounding Science-Fiction, pulp magazines edited by John W. Campbell, the most influential editor in the history of speculative fiction. Leiber was one of the stars of Campbell’s bullpen of authors who were re-writing the established tenents of speculative fiction in the 1940s.

Gather, Darkness! is the second of Leiber’s full-length works (following Conjure Wife, a modern-day fantasy about witchcraft that was published in Unknown). It appeared serialized in three issues of Astounding in 1943, and then in hardcover seven years later. Although a science fiction novel, Gather, Darkness! leans heavily on fantasy imagery to the point that I would classify it as science fantasy. The entire charade of the novel’s villainous world government is based on medieval dross and religious superstition. Science is always unleashed in the illusion that it is magic, a manifestation of a god or devil. What makes the book different from many standard tale of futurist dystopias is that the rebels against the tyrannical government also used the science-as-religion masquerade. Further muddying the moral waters, Leiber has the tyrants in angelic form, and the freedom fighters in demonic. For most of Gather, Darkness!, the reader teeters on the edge of wondering who is really the villain, and if anything will change for the better if the supposed rebels win the victory.

04 January 2010

Clash of the Titans: The Novelization

Clash of the Titans (1981)
By Alan Dean Foster, Based on the Screenplay by Beverly Cross.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

2010: The Year We Remake Clash of the Titans.

I have never thought that re-making Ray Harryhausen’s final movie, the 1981 telling of the Myth of Perseus and Medusa, was a smart idea. I don’t, in principle, oppose re-makes (what good would that stance do in these strange times anyway?), but the original Clash of the Titans is a 100% auteur film, a movie that exists because Ray Harryhausen did the stop-motion effects. Harryhausen defines the movie. Any re-make would simply tackle an old myth with new—and not necessarily more interesting—effects to cash-in on Generation X name recognition. And then when I actually read the plot description of the 2010 Clash, I shook my head in mystification… this Hades vs. The Other Gods concept is antithetical to Greek Mythology. The original Clash alters many elements of Perseus’s story, but it still feels similar to how the Archaic and Classical Greeks must have imagined their Heroic Age.

A deeper reason that I’m doubtful of the re-tooled Clash of the Titans is the enormous personal investment I have in the original film. No other movie from my childhood has had such a direct effect on my later interests as an adult. Unlike many childhood loves, Clash of the Titans holds up perfectly today; the magic remains, and many scenes still give me shivers. Nostalgia alone does not carry the film; it can carry itself quite proudly.

But… I’m not here today to review the original Clash of the Titans. I’m planning to do an extensive analysis of it later this month, but for the first post of 2010 I’ve decided to take a different tactic as a warm-up and approach Clash of the Titans from a side road; a road rarely taken in film or book critiques: the movie novelization.

01 January 2010

Welcome to 2010

2010: The Year We Make Contact . . . and Other Cold Remedies.

I attended LindyGroove’s massive New Years Eve party last night in Pasadena, a few blocks from where the Tournament of Roses Parade would rumble past in a few hours. The party went to 6 a.m. so all the late-night attendees could stroll out to watch the parade.

A nice idea, but with my lingering jet lag I knew there was no way I would ever make it that far. I got to party early, had a great time dancing and catching up with everybody’s holiday stories (after two weeks in Germany, it feels like I’ve been gone for a whole season), but had to call it an evening at 1 a.m. before the time lag made me too tired to drive home safely.

Here’s some photos of last night’s festivities: