nightbird

Nightbird by David Busboom is an entertaining, richly written debut novella that I wish were a full-length novel. The language is evocative, the premise interesting, and the plot straightforward without being predictable. Isaac, the first-person narrator, describes his deflowering by a mysterious woman, and what becomes of his life because of her. There are no shocking twists, here, just a steady journey into darkness.

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Lilith

Nightbird shares its predatory feeding and psychic enslavement with traditional vampire fiction. But Nightbird’s titular monster is not truly a vampire. She is Lilith, the sexual demon of Biblical legend, now a red-haired predator hunting in modern day Illinois. Busboom incorporates a trove of Lilith lore into his tale, from the early Babylonian legends to modern artistic interpretations of her attributes. He also includes an impressive amount of cultural references–Theda Bara, H. Rider Haggard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lang and Tod Browning, among others–that hint at Nightbird’s background mythology.

The novella is full of wonderful imagery, as when Busboom reveals one of the supernatural beings that plague Isaac: “He wore a mask of uncanny whiteness, gleaming like an oval of ice”.

Busboom also has a knack for visceral description that is vividly. beautifully gross:

“A pale, warty body sparsely covered in gray-blue hair…Thick, webbed fingers clenched and unclenched with a slow, trancelike rhythm. The horrible round eyes were open, but vacant. From its slackened mouth snaked a long, forked tongue, the prongs of which were embedded deep in the right side of my chest. The creature pressed and bulged against me…”

These living, breathing descriptions are the strong points of the novella. Even something as simple as a roast beef sandwich is compelling.

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An older Lilith

Which is why I wish for a longer version where the many mystical elements had been expanded on with more description. The motives behind some of Isaac’s actions would have come across more effectively, for me, if certain background details had been fleshed out to give a better sense of the mythic structure beneath the story. In particular, occasional specifics of Isaac’s quest for knowledge would have gone far in establishing the ancient threat. The details we are given seem like a gloss:

“In my final year of high school…I’d been in communication with college professors and visited the campus library. A close survey of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian Talmud, and the Arslan Tash amulets had supplied terrible clues to her nature, methods, and desires, but talks with several students of archaic lore in town—and correspondence with many others elsewhere—had made it difficult to determine what was true, what was legend, and what was outright conjecture or manipulation.”

Isaac may have understood what was going on, but I didn’t feel the character shared enough of his knowledge with the reader. Not that blunt exposition is needed, but a sprinkling of well-placed hints would have given additional depth to the narrative and additional urgency to the plot.

So what is the take-away for Nightbird?

Get it. Read it. It’s worth it. My criticisms come from wanting more. Nightbird is a strong story, full of dark ideas, dramatic imagery, and fantastic use of language. David Busboom’s skill as an author is clear, and I look forward to seeing him hone it further.

Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film released quietly in the U.S. in 2016, is low-key, creepy, and tantalizingly  unresolved. Set in 1980’s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, writer-director Babak Anvari’s story of an evil djinn’s grip on a family works largely through the power of suggestion, with a few jump scares thrown in for effective variety.

Under the Shasow
Things fall apart

In Under the Shadow, the tension of life during war-time plays out in the domestic sphere. The film’s primary focus is the rocky relationship between Shideh, portrayed by Narges Rashidi, and her young daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi. The djinn, if it exists, uses the sharp edges of their personalities to drive them ever further apart.

Neither Shideh nor Dorsa is particularly likeable, but they are thoroughly believable. Shideh is an educated, Westernized woman whose world is slowly sliding back into the dark ages. Already struggling with her mother’s recent death, her inability to return to medical school, and her conflicts with her daughter, she is faced with her husband being sent to the war zone even as the war is approaching their doorstep.

Shideh tries to ignore the seriousness of her deteriorating situation. She clings to the modern privileges of her Jane Fonda workouts and a VCR. She clings to the idea that her home is still safe. She is dismissive of her husband’s concerns, and is frequently annoyed with her daughter. And Dorsa is frequently an annoying child, stubborn, suspicious, and obviously more fond of her father than her mother. With him gone, there is no-one to ease the strain between the mother and daughter.

The idea of evil spirits worms its way into Shideh’s thinking when her daughter’s mute playmate gives the girl a charm to protect her from djinn, evil spirits who travel on the wind and steal away what you love. The thought is reinforced by their landlady’s gossip, prejudices, and superstitions, although Shideh scoffs at such primitive beliefs.

The bomb

But then the strangeness begins, with an unexploded bomb crashing through the roof of their small apartment building and triggering the death of the elderly man living on the top floor. Dorsa becomes convinced that her missing doll–a gift from her father– is in the ruined apartment. She develops a lingering fever that defies treatment. As the other families abandon the building to escape the ever-more-frequent bombings, Shideh uses the excuse of her daughter’s illness to remain behind, alone. She and her daughter rapidly descend into the grip of what may be a genuine haunting or a terrible folie à deux.

Much of Under the Shadow’s power is derived from the absence of anything solid to fear. Anvari is frugal with his depictions of the djinn. The spirit is all flapping fabric and half-seen figures, a gaping mouth and a panicked child’s voice. The growing threat to Shideh and Dorsa seems to come from within, as their interactions become increasingly ugly under the pressure of Dorsa’s inexplicable illness and Shideh’s maternal failings. At one point the tension drives Dorsa to physically attack her mother in a scene I found far more wrenching than the scenes of supernatural malice.

Under the Shadow
Dorsa’s doll

In the end, Under the Shadow is an intimate ghost story that reflects the oppression of beliefs, politics, and culture as much as the oppression of the supernatural. Anvari leaves many of the questions he introduces open-ended. He allows the film to keep its loose ends even as he offers a familiar-looking conclusion that in lesser hands would scream of a sequel–because in life, as in art, inescapable uncertainty can be the scariest part.

Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs is in so many ways a quintessential Wes Anderson movie. It is beautifully filmed, the characters–even though they are dogs–are believably quirky yet still slightly exaggerated, and playful, dreamlike storytelling mingles seamlessly with blunt and ugly truths. And yet despite all the charm and genuine sentiment Anderson imbues Isle of Dogs with, there is a flaw at its center which makes it a weaker film than it should be.

The story begins when Mayor Kobayashi, a scheming Japanese politician, has all the dogs in his city banned to an island used as a garbage dump–he intends to kill them after he steals an election. Kobayashi’s twelve-year-old nephew Atari flies a small plane to the island in search of his own dog, Spots, and becomes involved helping all the abandoned dogs manage their own rescue. A group of students lead the resistance against Kobayashi in the city.

Anderson as always assembles a familiar and stellar cast. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Fisher Stevens, Anjelica Huston, and Liev Schreiber all lend their considerable talents to voicing the many dogs. The human characters are portrayed by Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Courtney B. Vance, Frank Wood, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, and Yojiro Noda. Yoko Ono and Ken Watanabe have small, almost stunt parts.

The movie has the flavor of the 1950’s vision of the near future, with a dash of postapocalypse thrown in. There is strong and pointed political commentary. There is a hint of Godzilla and James Bond in the bad guys and their over-the-top mechanical weapons. The artwork and puppetry are amazing, detailed and convincing and realistic. The dogs are beautifully rendered, from their eyes to their dirty fur to their scars. The backgrounds glow. The story is heartwarming without being sentimental, with authentic emotional development and honest consequences. Isle of Dogs has the potential to become a classic.

And yet.

There are missteps which I believe keep Isle of Dogs from being as fully wonderful as it should be. For one, I found the names distracting: Kobayashi, Atari, Major Domo, and Yoko Ono are all so obvious as to be dismissive. For another, the use of tired character clichés like the schoolboy hacker undercut the strength of the storytelling. But Anderson’s biggest mistake is that he inserts a transfer student from Cleveland, Ohio into the middle of his story’s Japanese political battle, and makes her the spokesman and heroine of the resistance. She is blonde, loud, and brash; if this was meant as a knowing wink toward the trope of the white savior, it missed its mark by a hemisphere. If the character was in earnest, the tone-deafness is uncomfortable to witness. While Anderson has been accused of cultural appropriation, what comes across to me is more a lazy attempt at cleverness that falls short of its intended effect.

As a long-time fan of Anderson’s work, I truly enjoyed all the familiar, oddball personalities and the reliable charm he brings to his storytelling. Despite its problems, Isle of Dogs is a lovely, touching movie. But I hesitate to call it one of his best.

The Terror, AMC’s  new horror series, is well worth your time. Based on Dan Simmons’s 2007 novel and executive produced by Ridley Scott, it is the fictionalized retelling of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. In this version, the fantastic elements intensify an already harrowing tale, where the natural world is as much a monster as the supernatural threats that plague the doomed men.

At the cairn

The cast is full of many familiar faces, all in fine form. Jared Harris (Resident Evil: Apocalypse, The Expanse) stars as Captain Francis Crozier, a veteran of previous Arctic expeditions and commander of the Erebus. Ciarán Hinds (Excalibur, Game of Thrones, Justice League) plays Captain Sir John Franklin, commander of the Terror and of the expedition. Tobias Menzies (Game of Thrones) is Commander James Fitzjames, second in command of the Terror. Paul Ready (Tipping the Velvet) plays the sympathetic and humane ship’s surgeon. Rounding out the main cast are Ian Hart (Harry Potter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) as ice master Thomas Blankly, Adam Nagaitis as the devious, low-ranking mate Cornelius Hickey, and Nive Nielsen as Lady Silence, the daughter of a slain Inuit man.

The characters’ backgrounds of prejudice, piety, ambition and failure are briefly and efficiently given. The prior arctic experience of much of the crew looms over the current endeavor–the men know what danger faces them, and know how much luck will be needed to survive the trip.

The first three episodes build on the repercussions of Captain Franklin’s decision not to seek a sheltered bay for the winter. The Terror and the Erebus become frozen into the ice pack. Spring comes without a thaw, rations spoil, and exploratory parties end with the accidental shooting of an Inuit man and an animal attack on the men. What might be a bear begins to stalk the ships’ crews, killing Captain Franklin and several others.

Premature hope for The Terror’s men

The Terror shows great restraint in spinning its bleak and unnerving tale. The plot bides its time, building tension with patience and attention to detail, from the class distinctions to the technology to the china on the captain’s table. The camera lingers on everything–the bleak arctic landscape, a sailor’s wasted corpse, a drafty seat-of-ease–with similar portent. The sense of discomfort has no particular source, making it hard to shrug off. Everything, and nothing, may be a threat.

This subtle sense of danger seeping through every frame of The Terror creates a brooding, gothic quality in the show. The shrouded, monochrome landscape and the dark hulks of the ships, the half-seen creature menacing the men are all part of the oppression.

The violence when it comes is shocking not because it is over the top but because it is long- anticipated, abrupt, and only partially seen. The characters (save one) do not get any clearer view of what attacks them than does the audience.  Bodies are not recovered. The form of the monster is only suspected. The sprays of blood over the snow are so copious and dark as to be almost dreamlike. But the resulting damage is realistically, almost clinically, portrayed, and the overall effect is one of detached yet pervasive horror.

With three episodes currently available for streaming, and seven still to air, The Terror has already created a compelling and thoroughly disturbing mystery. It would be a shame to waste it.