castle rock
castle rock
Scenic downtown Castle Rock

Castle Rock is Hulu’s finely-crafted ode to Stephen King’s intricate world-building. The series is faithful to the author’s voice and deep sense of nostalgia, and brimming over with familiar names and references. Originally released on July 25 and with the first season still unfolding, it has already been renewed for a second season. If it can grow past the limits of the familiar and the nostalgic, I am heartily behind it.

“People say, ‘It wasn’t me. It was this place.’ And they were right.”

So many threads from King’s mythos are knit together here that anyone familiar with his work will have no problem finding their bearings. The show is built layer upon layer, with a deeply felt sense of the community and its people. It highlights the skill King has always had of making his world big enough for his characters to have lives outside the confines of any particular story.

castle rock
Henry meets …someone

Castle Rock also evokes all the familiar themes of King’s work. It features good, decent, damaged people fighting their dark sides and often failing. There are the expected flashbacks to twelve-year-olds facing the origins of coming horror, godly true believers and evil incarnate, pedophiles, and magical African-Americans. And, of course, there is well-placed classic rock and blues.

“Nothing stays dead in this town.”

The cast is outstanding. André Holland plays Henry Matthew Deaver, death-row attorney and prodigal son at the heart of the unfolding mystery. Bill Skarsgård is…unnatural…as The Kid, a nameless prisoner discovered in a pit at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Scott Glenn gives retired sheriff Alan Pangborn a determined vitality, while Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand shows a quiet desperation beneath her ambition. Rounding out the main cast are Jane Levy as Jackie Torrance, writer and font of local knowledge, and Noel Fisher as Dennis Zalewski, a Shawshank prison guard who sets the story in motion while trying to do the right thing.

Assorted minor characters are well represented by the talented likes of Ann Cusack, Terry O’Quinn, Frances Conroy, and Rory Culkin, among many other.

castle rock
Sissy Spacek, the Once and Future Queen

But the absolute standout is Sissy Spacek. She brings the same convincing blend of fragility and strength to Ruth, Henry’s fierce and failing mother, as she did to her portrayal of Carrie in 1976. Episode 7, “The Queen”, is a star-turn.

Castle Rock‘s Needful Things

As good as Castle Rock is, it isn’t perfect. It takes itself very seriously, and the portentousness does wear after a while. At times the plot twists broadcast themselves, as when Alan teaches Ruth how to do sleight-of-hand. And a few characters have (so-far) opaque or non-existent motivations. This ends up creating inconsistencies in otherwise beautifully drawn characters. One false note is Jackie Torrance’s actions upon meeting the Kid. Another is Alan Pangborn’s wild goose chase. Both are clearly the needs of the plot, and not natural reactions from the characters. The sudden addition of Henry’s son to the goings on also feels like a set-up rather than a character-driven decision.

And just and aside:  While this is definitely a show for adult audiences, the graphic depiction of animal deaths surprised me. Human carnage? Not a problem. But I didn’t expect the Mr. Jingles stand-in to meet that particular fate on-screen.

The emerging evil in Castle Rock is signaled by wildfires, mass shootings, suicides, and ugly family conflicts. But while all the trappings and affected characters are comfortably familiar, the show has not so far taken that familiarity in a new or challenging direction. Castle Rock is a wonderfully done pastiche of all things King, but I am interested in seeing it grow beyond that. There are still three more episodes for Season One.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.

evolution

evolutionThe odd and resonant Evolution is a beautiful and seductive slice of art-house horror. Written and directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, the French-language film circles around its central mysteries without addressing them directly. Its elusive nature is one of its greatest strengths. Evolution left me wondering what the rest of the story could be, but it was satisfying all the same.

***

Evolution is told through the point of view of Nicolas, one of several young boys being raised on a barren, rocky island. The island is populated solely by the boys and their respective mothers, and the nurses and single doctor of the island’s clinic. The boys all resemble each other, as do the mothers, as do the nurses. Their lives are a monotony of the mothers taking the boys to the sea, washing them, dressing them, feeding them, medicating them. At intervals the boys are brought to the clinic. While the boys are allowed to play they are not permitted to swim.

But Nicolas does swim, one day, and sees what he believes is a boy’s body tangled among the rocks far beneath the surface. His mother brushes Nicolas’s story away as imagination after she investigates. But her denial only raises Nicolas’s suspicions, and he begins to doubt what he has been told. His experiences at the clinic deepen his misgivings about what is happening to him and the other boys. A sympathetic nurse reveals some of the secrets of the island’s inhabitants, allowing Nicolas to recognize that his mother has been lying to him all along.

***
evolution
Nicolas, Mother, and Stella

The cast is tiny, with the focus almost entirely on only three actors. Their restrained performances carry the film easily. Max Brebant is fascinating as the main character, Nicolas–a strange, impassive child who conveys emotion with blinks and sharp intakes of breath. Julie-Marie Parmentier plays the character known only as Mother with the kind of cool, dutiful, detached affection reserved for other people’s pets. And Roxane Duran portrays the kind nurse, Stella, who actually does love Nicolas–although we can only speculate why.

***

Evolution is also an incredibly subtle film, and watching it is like watching a dream unfold. The dry landscape of the island is grey and stark, while the world beneath the sea is rich with color and life. The film moves slowly, and with a finely-controlled sense of what will be left unknown. There are lingering scenes of the ocean, closeups of the characters’ pale faces, repeated, ritualized scenes of the children’s daily routines and of the women taking lanterns to visit the sea at night. The susurrus of the sea, the crunch of feet on sand and gravel, and the murmur of soft voices make up the soundtrack, with only the barest synthetic tones added to certain scenes.

evolution
The clinic

But the film is also ripe with nightmare images. There are shelves full of malformed fetuses preserved in jars. The dim and decayed hospital where the boys waste away drips with water and sagging paint. Food is grey and muddy, and looks as if it is filled with worms.  Even blood takes on a greenish tone when it is spilled.

And the distortion of reproductive roles creates powerful discomfort. There is the bizarre birth ritual enacted by the mothers, the rapt faces of the nurses as they watch and rewatch a film of a caesarian section being performed, the experiments on the boys that echo the way male seahorses carry their young. The intimate interactions between the boys and the women around them are not exactly sexual but are still deeply uncomfortable to watch.

***

Evolution haunts me as a blend of folklore, fairy tale, and exquisite body horror. At first glance it seems a superficial story, but Nicolas’s naivete underscores how much more to this film lies below the surface. This is not a case of an underdeveloped plot stretched to movie length. Evolution is instead a rich, convoluted tale which we can only glimpse through the eyes of someone who is unaware of the bigger picture. It is artful, and disturbing, and quietly horrifying. I highly recommend it.

regrettable supervillains

regrettable supervillains Jon Morris’s The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains is a natural sequel to his The League of Regrettable Superheroes. Let’s face it: Without anyone to fight against, the superheroes are just a bunch of folks running around in funky spandex underoos. Let’s also face that very few supervillains will have the gravitas of Magneto, the moral certainty of Thanos, or the creepy menace of the Joker. Morris is here to once again tell us about all the also-rans who didn’t let their deficiencies stop them.

No matter the shape, size, or strategy of the four-color finks gracing these pages, every one of them had the potential to join the ranks of comicdom’s icons of iniquity. It was only poor sales, inopportune timing, and occasional overshadowing from bigger baddies that consigned so many of these scoundrels to the scrapheap of comic book history. Until now!

***

Morris documents a remarkable assortment of semi-menacing figures that are very much the products of their times. The thirties and forties saw an awful lot of gangsters and confidence men–as well as Mother Goose, Satan, and Captain Black Bunny–before the comics went to war. The fifties and sixties ushered in a bunch of do-badders like Cat Girl and Tino the Terrible Teen, who would fit comfortably in a Batman episode. The seventies and beyond took both oddly concrete and weirdly conceptual turns, with Generic Man, Captain Law, and Uzzi the Clown all serving up exactly what their monikers promise.

regrettable supervillains
MODOK, as lovely as ever

Several of these menaces to society did go on to have fairly (by Regrettable standards) long careers. Batroc the Leaper hassled Captain America over multiple issues. The Human Flying Fish caused trouble for Aquaman, on and off. Swarm stuck around to threaten Black Widow, Ghost Rider, and a few lesser X-Men. And MODOK became the go-to adversary for Marvel, taking on Ms. Marvel, Deadpool, Iron Man, the Hulk, and a slew of other A-list superheroes.

***

The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains offers an evildoer for every taste. These are a few of my favorite also-ran bad guys:

From the Golden Age of comics (1938-1949):

  • Nazis: Captain America wasn’t the only Nazi-puncher of the Golden Age. Nazis were a favorite–and obvious–target for pretty much everybody in the 1940s. It’s not like Captain Murder, the Human Fly, and Mister Banjo didn’t deserve it.
  • The Jingler: “The Jingler (aka “the Jingler of Death”) begins his career not as a vile poet, but merely a pretty bad one.”
  • Reefer King: “One Mary Jane-laced menace is the so-called Reefer King, a shady dealer of ‘funny cigarettes.’ (At no point in this story are the illicit cigarettes referred to as marijuana or cannabis.)”
regrettable supervillains
Mod Gorilla Boss–stylish and surly

And from the Silver Age (1950-1969):

  • Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man: “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral…it’s all three! That’s some good science.”
  • The Human Flying Fish: “a villain so remarkable he deserves two adjectives in his nom du crime.”
  • Mod Gorilla Boss: “We never learn his name, nor how he discovered his transformational fluid, or even why he was into mod fashion. In fact, the story sheds absolutely no light on the backstory of this bizarre villain.”

And lastly from the Modern Age (1970-present):

  • Ghetto-Blaster: “Ghetto-Blaster hearkens back to a trend in comics when writers clearly named the villain after something sitting on their desks or stored in the hall closet.”
  • The Golden Fuhrer: Proving that Nazis never go out of style for punching–“Who knew that the reanimation of Nazi corpses could be such a good career opportunity?”
  • Tapeworm: “Tapeworm would be one of the most unnerving supervillains in existence even without considering that apparently he smells terrible.”
***
regrettable supervillains
Good ol’ reliable Nazis

The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains relishes the inherent silliness of these awkward bad guys, but it comes across to me as less gleeful than Morris’s earlier book on superheroes. The tone may be unavoidable, though, since villains are not generally known for their fun-loving ways, and their roles are by definition dark. But there are still plenty here who are not so much wicked as just cranky and misguided. There are even a handful who occasionally turn good. Morris’s snarky descriptions of the unlikeliest criminal minds continue to be a fun read.

Overall, The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains serves up some truly remarkable examples of how polite society’s fears get translated onto a comic books pages. It’s an interesting, four-color peek into the back pages of history.

of-dice-and-men

Revisiting another blast from the past

 

 

Of Dice and Men

The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It

David M. Ewalt
Scribner: 288 pp., $26

 

 

 

 

Back in 2013, when David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men came out, I had not played Dungeons and Dragons in probably twenty years. I had no expectation of ever playing again, and only picked the book up out of nostalgia for my misspent youth. But by the time I got around to reading it, I was back in the game and stumbling my way through a new campaign, bolstered mightily by the mercy of some friends who had never stopped playing. Let’s face it, David Ewalt speaks true when he says that “the system encourages long-term engagement, and its one reason why D&D fans are particularly devoted to their hobby” (96). Somehow, despite growing up and assuming our adult responsibilities, a great many of us cannot say a permanent goodbye to D&D.

“The people you play games with become your clan.  They share your experiences, know your strengths and weaknesses, and help protect you from a dangerous world.” –David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men

Ewalt describes a similar trajectory for himself, and uses that as the peg to hang his narrative on. A substantial amount of the book is illustrated with passages describing Ewalt’s reintroduction to the game, his fellow players (including both their real-world jobs and their characters’ professions), and his current, ongoing campaign. Much like Shakespeare, these passages play a whole lot better than they read. This is not his fault, nor is it a criticism. D&D, no matter the version in use, is meant to be lived.

Ewalt’s style is light, quippy and a little snarky (“D&D scenarios are the microwave dinners of the role-playing world” (100)), but he covers a lot of ground. He starts his journey with a brief history of chess and that game’s evolution into progressively more elaborate war games—from strategy-based systems to miniature-fueled reenactments. He outlines the development of a scattered historical gaming community brought together at conventions. And then he introduces us to the young Gary Gygax, who was deeply into historical gaming before he discovered the joy of gaming and turned it into his life’s work.

Ewalt also gets into the politics behind the scenes of the game at TSR, the personal and business conflicts, the royalty issues, the copyright infringement cases (both by and against TSR and Co.), and the creep toward mainstream popularity and mass-market merchandising that might ring a little strangely for the hard-core among us. He includes the financial mishandling and collapse of TSR, Gygax’s death, and the survival of D&D through its purchase by Wizards of the Coast. Of course, all this is all related in the same adventurous tone as his campaign recollections. It goes down easy.

He even touches briefly on live-action role playing, but until he needed to research it had never done it, and sees it as something ‘other’ than a traditional RPG. The friends I had who were involved in LARPs did not do tabletop games, so Ewalt may be on to something, there.

And because you cannot discuss D&D without it, Ewalt reviews the dark time in the nineteen eighties when the game and its players became synonymous with the seduction of black magic and insanity. This particular slice of awfulness was served during my prime playing days, when Tipper Gore and other parental McCarthyites became determined to save us all from the overblown, misunderstood, and purely imaginary dangers that RPGs and heavy metal music were blamed for promoting.

As a player himself, Ewalt understands very well the group dynamics that are the heart of the game. He describes familiar personality types that just don’t fit anywhere, even in the odd assemblage that is a gaming group. But he also describes quite vividly the emotional bonds that hold even the prickliest mix of players together: “even when a game is over, the bonds that have been created persist…The people you play games with become your clan.  They share your experiences, know your strengths and weaknesses, and help protect you from a dangerous world” (119).

To sum it up: Of Dice and Men is a light yet reasonably comprehensive read written by a person who loves Dungeons and Dragons and always has. Ewalt hits most of the major points of the game, its major contributors, and its development without ever bogging down or preaching it. If you want a refresher course in why you also love playing D&D, this may be exactly the book for you.

The League of Regrettable Superheroes

Revisiting an oldie but goodie

Some comic book superheroes make you think, and some make you wonder. Guess which ones show up in Jon Morris’s The League of Regrettable Superheroes?

“More sophisticated storytelling, including such high-profile critical successes as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, encouraged a new generation of innovative writers and artists to invent some of the most fascinating, thoughtful, well-crafted superhero tales ever produced. We won’t be talking about them, though…”— Jon Morris, The League of Regrettable Superheroes

This labor of love appears just in time for Antman to hit theaters, and reminds us that there were plenty of other righteous crusaders out there who were even more awkwardly conceived of than he. Like Bee Man. And Doll Man. And Nature Boy. There is a great spirit of throw-them-at-the-wall-and-see-who-sticks to many of these comics, and a cheerful disregard for logic and continuity. It’s hard not to feel some affection for these guys once we get to know them.

And we do get to know them, through all the profiles of poorly-conceived and coolly-received superheroes stretching from the thirties into the nineties. Some of them simply missed the mark. Many of them seem to be full-out messing with us (Mother Hubbard? Really?). The whole thing is an extremely amusing snark-fest, but it has to be. Some of these characters are so ungainly the only other option for them is tragedy. For example, there is one benighted creature called Brother Power the Geek, a hybrid hippy/Pinnochio who straggled through two issues before being put out of his misery by the publisher.

Morris, who also runs the comic blog Gone and Forgotten, shows us how all these heroes fit into the grand scheme of things. He provides us with a concise and witty history of the evolution of superheroes in the comics, and the various cultural fashion trends that they followed on the way to their flame-outs. Heroes may be more than merely men, but they don’t exist in a cultural vacuum, after all. All of them arise to face the main threats of their particular days. The early Golden Age years had gangsters and Nazis to battle, the fifties and early sixties had rogue atomic power and the Cold War, and the seventies, eighties and nineties had, well, other stuff—more Russians, and some angst.

Morris breaks his chosen heroes out alphabetically by era for ease for reference. And he does pad his catalogue a little bit by including a few characters that were actually advertising gimmicks or product tie ins, like AAU Superstar and NFL Superpro. But these shills did actually appear in comic books, making them superheroes in a very broad sense.

There are quite a few female superheroes documented here, too, ranging from the humanly heroic Pat Parker to War Nurse to the ghastly Fantomah to the happily married Pow-Girl and the cheerfully odd Squirrel Girl. They are, like their male counterparts, representative of their eras. However, in one unexpected and disturbing illustration, the 1976 character Captain Ultra shoves to the ground a female superhero who dares to flirt with someone else. I didn’t think the seventies were still so cavalier about casual dating violence, but I guess I was wrong.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The illustrations are generous, with at least one full page of each entry devoted to a cover or a representative inside page from the comic. The art, in all its four-color glory, is frequently familiar. Many of these titles came and went by way of Marvel and DC, and more than a few big names have been involved in these misfires. Even such giants as Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, and Stan Lee produced some less-than super heroes in the giddy rush of the early days and in the quest to stay relevant in the following decades.

In my humble opinion, some of the more colorful superhero failures from each era are, to begin, these three from the Golden Age (1938-1949):

  • Atoman: “If Atoman’s origin isn’t the first in comics that directly references Albert Einstein, it’s certainly the only one that makes mention of Nobel-snubbed physicist Lise Meitner.”
  • Doctor Hormone: “Apparently, eternal youth and half-animal soldiers could take Doctor Hormone only so far.”
  • Madam Fatal: “Resembling something like a mix of the films Taken and Doubtfire, Madam Fatal represents one of the truly unique characters in comics.”

And three more from the Silver Age (150-169):

  • Dracula: “he ended up clothed in a skin-tight purple bodysuit, with a broad red belt and some sort of bat-eared bonnet.”
  • Fatman the Human Flying Saucer: “a plump but athletic character.”
  • The Sentinels: “In their civilian identities, they wore domino masks as part of their musical gimmick, like a really toned-down KISS.”

And a final sextet from the Modern Age (1970-present):

  • Assorted lesser X-Men: Snot, who does exactly what you think he does; Maggott, “whose power is ‘being infested with parasites’”; and Beak, “He has light bones and weird feathered limbs, but he can’t really fly; his only offensive power is pecking.”
  • Skateman: “one of the few street-level vigilantes in the history of comics to have taken justice into his own hands while wearing pristine white booty shorts.”
  • Thunderbunny: “All Bobby must do is concentrate, clap his hands, and he is transformed—into a giant pink rabbit clad in Spandex!”

As Morris points out early on in The League of Regrettable Superheroes, the overwhelming majority of superheroes have bizarre origin stories—and many of the characters he profiles here are no more or less unlikely than Superman, Spiderman, or the Flash. Many he includes aren’t really that bad at all, despite being variously irradiated, immolated, and reconstructed by aliens. Some of the “regrettable” titles were even modestly successful in their time. Surprisingly, several of the characters he pegs as failures were, by his own admission, interesting and had fairly decent runs. Some have even been revived at least once. They just didn’t strike the same chords with the American public as the ones who became the big guys did, and so fell by the wayside rather than striking gold in reboot and retcon heaven. Some of these heroes may even be worth tracking down and getting better acquainted with through the rather colorful resources of the Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus.

As always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

 

misfits and monsters

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits &Monsters is, not surprisingly, pretty strange. Goldthwait–a man known for his incredibly dark sense of humor– writes, produces, and directs the new comedy series airing on TruTV with a fully self-aware sense of the absurd. So far, the half-hour episodes play more like Tales from the Crypt than the Twilight Zone. Foul language abounds, blood flows freely, and even the background characters are scathingly cynical. Truly, there is something for everyone.

It Begins With Bubba
misfits & monsters
Seth Green is not a werewolf in this show

Misfits & Monsters begins its run with “Bubba the Bear”, a fairly standard tale of a children’s cartoon come to life. Seth Green (Robot Chicken, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) stars as a mild-mannered voiceover actor whose work comes back to bite him. Bubba the Bear is the role he inherited when the original voice actor had a breakdown and was institutionalized. But Bubba isn’t happy with how he is portrayed, and breaks into the real world to make his point. Graphically.

The episode’s dialogue is at once predictable and surprisingly, deeply snarky. Confronted by Bubba, Green’s character justifies his work with,“Stuttering’s just a tradition…like Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Hugh Grant.” And when Bubba comes for revenge, he declares it “time to get all Revenant on your ass.” 

“Bubba” ends exactly as you expect it to, which is quite all right.

A Shaggy Dog Tale
misfits & monsters
A political animal

The second episode is “Face in the Car Lot”, a 1970s-set extravaganza of politicians and other creatures of the night. Starring David Koechner (Anchorman, The Office) as car-salesman turned presidential candidate Del Wainwright and Tara Lynne Barr as the plucky reporter trying to prove he’s a werewolf, this episode plays like an extended comedy sketch.

When asked what scandals may come up during the campaign, Wainwright confesses, “I ate a toddler once. When I was a werewolf.” This is not enough to derail his campaign–not by a long shot. A hippy vampire shows up with evidence of the crime, but  the political machine just keeps rolling. Many of the lines are lifted almost verbatim from current commentary, tweaked lightly for lycanthropy. It is at once enjoyably silly and quite uncomfortable to watch.

More Misfits & Monsters, Please

There are six more episodes to round out the first season, but TruTV doesn’t give viewers the opportunity to binge. Which, based on the first two installments, I totally would. What I’ve seen so far of Misfits & Monsters is refreshingly goofy. The show is smart enough to be interesting but not so full of itself to wear out its welcome. The stories presented thus far are pretty standard, with the plot twists broadcast early on. But Goldthwait still gives them enough of a snarky twist to make their conclusions funny and satisfying anyway.

I would have to categorize Misfits & Monsters, broadly, as familiar tales well-told. And I look forward to more of that in the rest of the season.

lovecraft country

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country starts with a fascinating premise–what would it be like as an African-American to battle the forces of darkness while also battling the rampant racism of 1950s America? Matt Ruff gives the idea a good run in his episodic 2016 novel. The interconnected stories are well-paced and well-told, and open-ended enough to justify the anticipated television series based on the book. But there are some issues with what is actually delivered.

***

Lovecraft Country is fast-moving and full of action, but spends precious little time in Lovecraft country proper.

Atticus Turner, an African-American  Korean War veteran, travels from Florida to Chicago at his father’s request, only to find Montrose Turner is gone. With his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus follows his father’s trail to a haunted New England town. The trio rescue Montrose from the clutches of one wizard, only to have the wizard’s son continue to trouble them and their families long after they escape back to Chicago. As if that continuing menace weren’t enough, all this happens under the long shadow of Jim Crow.

The plot is loaded with mystery and threats, and each chapter focuses on a single character as part of the larger story. The individual experiences use familiar horror and science fiction tropes from Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and leaven them with touches of sarcastic humor. The world is a strange place. Might as well laugh.

***

However, the characters are less well-drawn than I had hoped. Atticus is the brave hero, Letitia the spunky sidekick, Montrose the prickly, righteous father, and Braithwhite the slick, heartless wizard. Wives, children, and friends have similarly distinct attributes, without great depth. The only ones I felt had adequate development were Letitia’s sister, Ruby, and Atticus’s Uncle George. The others all move briskly through the action without making a huge emotional impact. As an ensemble, they work extremely well, and are believable in the bounds of the story. But they are not characters for the ages.

***

And, much to my disappointment, Lovecraft Country has only the barest hint of Lovecraft in it. Ruff dwells on the occult, rather than the weird, and the mystical goings-on do not tap into any especially cosmic sense of horror. At one point, Ruff touches on the inhumanity behind canonical Lovecraftian weirdness–

“…when you invoke the language of Adam, you’re addressing nature, and nature doesn’t care, it just does what it’s told. If you garble your instructions–transpose a letter, stress the wrong syllable–you’ll get what you ask for, but it might not be what you want.”

–but he fails to capture it. The supernatural pushes in through ghosts, potions, and spell-casting. With the exception of a couple of interludes in another dimension, the tentacled horrors and amoral other gods simply aren’t here. And if Lovecraft taught us anything, it’s that there is plenty of room for cosmic dread and racism in the world.

***

Lovecraft Country is as fun a read as a horror novel about grossly racist Natural Philosophers can be–which is, oddly enough, very. But perhaps it’s a reflection of Ruff being white while his characters are not that the closing scene of Lovecraft Country seems too pat, like the conclusion of a Very Special Episode of a sitcom. And for a novel with such ambitious ideas, the tidy wrap-up sells the whole grand, entertaining plan just a little short of where I wanted it to be.

Ant Man and The Wasp

Ant Man and The WaspAnt Man and The Wasp is very much like its predecessor–a lightweight, likeable Marvel Universe flick that is still essentially a throw-away. It has the same cast as the first movie, the same tricks, and a little bit of story arc for an audience to invest in. Ant Man and The Wasp does introduce some potentially interesting new characters, but it is ultimately an exercise in getting from the first Ant Man to whichever Marvel blockbuster Scott Lang is meant to show up in next.

Some Minor Spoilers Ahead

The usual suspects are all back.  Paul Rudd is still charming as Ant Man, but he isn’t allowed to be as warm and funny as he was in the first movie. More emphasis is placed on his dad skills this time around. Evangeline Lilly continues to be intense and hyper-competent as Hope, while Michael Douglas continues to be snarky and arrogant as Hank Pym.

Michelle Pfeiffer joins the cast as Janet van Dyne, in a role so predictable I wonder why she did it. We also get Laurence Fishburne as Bill Foster, an old frenemy of Hank Pym from their SHIELD days, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost/Ava. I truly hope she gets her own movie someday. The perfunctory overview of her origins and her relationship with Foster raised a whole lot of questions I would like to see answered.

Despite the star power of the main characters, the secondaries are the real interesting ones. Michael Peña’s Luis owns every scene he is in. Randall Park is great as the awkward FBI agent Jimmy Woo, while Walton Goggins is cheerfully sleazy as black marketeer Sonny Burch. Unfortunately, T.I., David Dastmalchian, and Bobby Cannavale were given far less to do than in the first Antman–and the film suffers for it.

Stay On Target!

Overall, it’s a strange mix of too little and too much.

The plot comes across to me as flat and perfunctory, with the characters moving through the script without truly believing any of it. The action is solidly done but meaningless, since only some of the characters rise enough above caricature to make it worth caring about their outcomes. Which is a shame, because the cast is certainly capable.

Piling on that weak foundation are too many problems for any one of them to really matter. We are presented with a dangerous new antagonist in Ghost, a quest to bring the original Wasp out of the quantum realm where she has been trapped for the last thirty years, a persistent probation officer, and a wanna-be crime lord looking to steal Hank Pym’s discoveries. In between all that, our hero is doing his best to be a good dad to his daughter, despite being an ex-con superhero currently riding out house arrest.

The incredible shrinking quantum lab is pretty neat, as is giant Ant Man wading into the harbor to retrieve it. Scott Lang’s suit issues are an effective running gag, and the giant ant hanging out in Scott’s apartment is good silly fun. But the fun stuff isn’t enough to lift Ant Man and The Wasp above its issues.

What Bugs Me

I wanted to like Ant Man and The Wasp. I like the actors, I like the characters, I like the gimmicks. But the whole film ended up being less than the sum of its parts. Once again, Marvel puts Ant Man into a cotton-candy movie that is fun while it lasts but no longer–and, this time, less entertaining than it should have been.

harlan ellison

harlan ellisonHarlan Ellison died last week at the age of 84. He was a genuine legend in science fiction, by all accounts larger than life and twice as abrasive. I never met the man, but he has still been a part of my life for decades.

When I was around eleven years old I found a paperback copy of Again, Dangerous Visions stuck on the basement shelf where unwanted paperbacks ended up. It was the sequel to his transgressive 1967 anthology–and it was enough to suck me in and show me how sharp science fiction could be. Later, I read the man himself–the glorious I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and Deathbird Stories.  I watched the supremely 70’s film version of A Boy and His Dog on VHS. I learned the empowering mantra “Pay the writer”.

Over the course of his long career Ellison published more than 1700 works, ranging from short stories to screenplays to essays, from comic books to literary criticisms. He was recognized with multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar awards for works that changed the face of science fiction on page and on screen. He earned the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers Association and by the World Horror Convention, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

But none of that matters if you don’t read him.

Unfortunately, it often takes the passing of a major author to inspire people to discover, or rediscover, their work. So it is with Harlan Ellison. Even though he continued to write prolifically, his heyday was the sixties and seventies when he was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction with his dangerous anthologies and subversive short stories.

These are a few of his works that I consider essential:

dangerous visionsStories
“A Boy and His Dog”
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”
“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“Soft Monkey”
“Jeffty Is Five”

Collections

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
Deathbird Stories
Shatterday
Angry Candy
The Essential Ellison: a 50-Year Retrospective Revised & Expanded

Nonfiction
The Glass Teat

Television episodes
The Outer Limits   “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”
Star Trek   “The City on the Edge of Forever”
The Starlost “Voyage of Discovery”
Masters of Science Fiction “The Discarded”

As editor
Dangerous Visions
Again, Dangerous Visions

Graphic novels
Phoenix Without Ashes

There’s plenty to say of Harlan Ellison as a person, good and bad–and it’s all out there for the googling. But as I mentioned earlier, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I had only his vast body of work to judge him by. And by those lights, he was a star.

trade yer coffin

trade yer coffinTrade Yer Coffin for a Gun by Mer Whinery is one truly weird Western. It reads like a mash up of From Dusk Till Dawn, High Plains Drifter, and Zombie–this is a big, bold, B movie of a book that revels in its inspirations. Let’s face it: any tale that brings in references to Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci right from the start is going for a certain tone. And it achieves it.

A Wild and Witchy West

The story follows Jubilee “Sugar” Bava, her twin brother Cutter, and their elder brother Micah–mercenary gunslingers collectively known as The Haints. Orphaned and driven out of their home town of Coffin Mills by corrupt officials, the trio are lured back to battle a supernatural threat to the town’s children. Of course, the opportunity for bloody revenge has something to do with it, too.

Did I mention that Sugar Bava is also the Witch of Fulci Holler? And that there are not one, but two monstrous horrors to defeat? And that another witch shows up to help?

Over the top is an understatement. Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun has vampires, witches, ghouls, zombies, prostitutes, gunslingers, necrophilia, black magic, white magic, Satanism, and a little Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. There is so much packed into Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun that a lot of potentially interesting details get pushed to the side from sheer lack of space. Micah’s tragic marriage, one monster’s connection to another, Sugar’s need to drink blood–all are dropped into the story without context. They left me wondering, and wishing for an explanation.

Riders of the Purple Prose

Whinery does a solid job of evoking the bleak, haunted North Texas where Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is set, describing scenes in cinematic detail. All his characters speak in a thick television Western dialect, where guns are irons and the sheriff is the law, adding nicely to the atmosphere. Everywhere, his use of language is enthusiastic, and his prose incredibly, abundantly purple. For example: “It ventured a step further toward Sugar, reaching out an emaciated, sore-riddled arm, a root-like latticework of black veins squirming beneath the cemetery of its skin.” Or,  “Its corrugated surface glistened with an oozing pink slime and was lit from within by a sinister orange fairy fire, phantoms and forms fluttering clumsily inside the nimbus of the illumination.”

Despite the overall overstatement, there are some quieter, finely tuned descriptions among all the gore: “The sort of quiet that came before carefully chosen words”, and “The town of Coffin Mills went bad that day, and never knew the Grace of God again.”

However, the sloppy editing throughout the book interferes with the raucous action and undermines the atmosphere-building. For example, the first chapter heading promises a cold October night, but twice in the following pages we are told it is spring. Sugar Bava rides a pure white mare that several pages later has a chestnut mane. And littered throughout are overlooked typos that make the characters’ dialect harder to read than it should be.

Trade Yer Coffin for a Copy

After all is said and done, Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is an entertaining page-turner for those with a taste for horror and gleefully excessive  gore. I don’t know how well it would stand up to a second reading, but the first time through was good, old-fashioned, gross-out fun.