ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.

figures unseen

figures UnseenFigures Unseen: Selected Stories, the latest collection by Steve Rasnic Tem, is a master-class in weird fiction. The circumstances in these thirty five stories are disturbingly familiar, the settings uncomfortably domestic. Tem’s flawed and damaged characters struggle to hold on to some semblance of normalcy as their lives come apart. They become monsters, but they do not mean to. They misunderstand. They make poor choices. They fail each other the way we all do, at some point. It’s no surprise that reading Tem’s work in Figures Unseen is in many ways like coming home.

***

Steve Rasnic Tem knows his craft. He has published seven novels and more than four hundred short stories over his decades-long career. With his late wife, Melanie Tem, he wrote Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing.

His language is beautiful, tactile and vivid, shot through with descriptions like ”She bought Julie a doll on her way to the airport, a floppy thing with huge, aimless eyes” and “rising with the orderly progress of the flames, set free into air and light, and they all, all of them stopped their lives that day to watch”.

Yet there is so much ugliness happening inside the beautiful descriptions. Human weaknesses and failings. Selfishness. Greed. Fear. Tem can twist a strange occurrence into a catastrophe with a single well-turned phrase, to peel back the skin of normal conduct and reveal the worms beneath it: “He felt sorry for her, but he also felt scared for himself. The woman he had loved had been gone for years, and now he was left with this. He wasn’t a good enough person to handle something he hadn’t signed up for.”

***

I personally find his shorter works sharper and more visceral than his longer ones. These selections in particular stand out for me:

“City Fishing”, is a bizarre coming-of-age tale reminiscent of both Dante’s Inferno and classic zombie fare.

“Houses Creaking in the Wind” provides a grim, brief summary of a man who has lost his wife and children, and may be dead himself.

“An Ending” is a particularly nasty piece about a helpless, bedridden couple dependent on their daughter for their care.

“Little Cruelties” chronicles the disintegration of a man whose attempts to control his wife and son are demonstrated through the rationalized, titular cruelties.

***
Steve Rasnic Tem
Steve Rasnic Tem

Tem also explores some of the more traditional monsters. But in his hands, what is monstrous is the responses to them, the attempts to normalize them, the desire to make them fit into a rational world or to bend the world to fit them.

Two stories here can be identified as vampire tales: “The Men and Women of Rivendale”, and “Vintage Domestic”. Neither fits easily among the common tropes. “Rivendale” offers vampirism as both an inherited disease and a cure for boredom, while “Vintage” phrases it as a desperately private family matter.

“Miri” and “Preparations for the Game” can be called ghost stories, but their hauntings are as much conscience as spirit. The protagonist in “Miri” left part of himself behind when he left his troubled girlfriend, while the main character of “Preparations” is trapped in a constant replay of his own sins.

His werewolf story, “Grandfather Wolf”, places the predator within the context of family resemblances, responsibilities, and love, without ever dipping into sentimentality.

Tem also includes a single Lovecraftian piece, “Between the Pilings”, sad and skewed and effective. In it, Innsmouth becomes a crumbling seaside resort town where the narrator is driven to recapture a lost part of  his youth.

***

The unifying theme of Steve Rasnic Tem’s Figures Unseen is, ultimately, the binding power of the family. These stories are driven by the pain of what fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends do to each other, and for each other. It makes Figures Unseen intimate, disturbing, and hard to forget–because when we strip away the weird and supernatural trappings, we are still left with ourselves.

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.

Last night saw the premieres of two shows I’ve been waiting for: Westworld on HBO and Ash vs Evil Dead’s second season on Starz. The results were a mixed bag, but hope springs eternal.

***

HBO's Westworld
HBO’s Westworld

I have been looking forward to HBO’s take on Westworld for a long time. I have fond memories of being scared silly by Yul Brenner in the 1973 version of it. This Westworld was worth the wait. It unfolds in a sprawling, utterly realistic Wild West theme park where android ‘hosts’ provide a full immersion experience for their paying guests—‘newcomers’, as their programming dubs the human visitors. In the original film, the hosts were more traditionally robotic. The current approach gives us a truer AI, and with an ideological slant towards Battlestar Galactica rather than Ex Machina.

The new Westworld begins brilliantly, with the barest bones of the original film’s concept. The cast is top-notch, the writing superb, and the convolutions of the plot promise deep and strange directions to come. The pacing is precise, with loops and repetitions that become the story’s wheels within wheels.

There is much to think about, here, about the line between the real and the artificial. In what was possibly my favorite scene, a robot host visibly, visceraly adapts its programming to both follow its embedded script and incorporate discordant (and, what should have been unreadable) new information. And while Ed Harris is cold and creepy as the primary villain, he’s not nearly as terrifying as Yul Brenner was. But then again, I don’t think we’ve seen even a fraction of what his character is capable of. Next week can’t come soon enough.

***

Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action
Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action

On the other side of the spectrum, the return of Ash vs Evil Dead was disappointing. Season one successfully incorporated a semi-serious subplot. But as Ash vs Evil Dead starts season two, it seems to have given up too much of its crazy humor to retain its original charm. While the gore is still cheesy and exuberantly over the top, the show actually feels more like the original Evil Dead film, now—more threatening, less loopy fun. But there’s more missing than just silliness.

Part of the episode’s problem is that it felt very rushed, as if plot and character development had been purposefully sacrificed for incessant action. The end of last season saw Ash and company taking a truce and heading to Jacksonville, Florida. Season two starts with the immediate reversal of the road trip. By the first commercial they are back in Ash’s home town, where lots of random events happen—some campy, some supernatural, some just padding. But none of it is consistent. The episode is a mash up of too many ideas with not enough time allowed for them to gel into a reason to keep watching.

I’m hoping that episode two takes a deep breath and slows it down a little. There are more than enough plot elements to work with, and Ruby is still riding the line between nemesis and ally. The qualities that made the Evil Dead franchise so endearing are still there, if the show’s writers and producers are willing to pick out the strongest ones and run with them. Again.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

He Never Died
He Never Died

He Never Died is a small-scale horror movie that just happens to star Henry Rollins. That was quite enough to get my attention.

Now, I haven’t checked in with Henry Rollins in a couple of decades. It’s good to see that he hasn’t changed much at all. He is still physically imposing, sharp-eyed, and stern. He also has great comic delivery. The starring role he takes on in He Never Died is a real showcase for what he can do.

A few spoilers are coming.

The movie itself is lightweight, with a number of weaknesses. But the script is surprisingly funny, with Rollins’s deadpan performance turning joking lines that border on witty into actual laughs.

Rollins’s character, Jack, is a man of few words. He expresses himself with many eloquent, put-upon sighs and a few unnatural roars. He is slightly chattier than Rowdy Roddy Piper, but not by much. His Jack is a man with big scars, many tattoos, and a purposely limited life. He doesn’t work, drive, drink, or socialize. He eats at the same diner every day. He plays bingo at the local church three nights a week. He buys mysterious contraband from a rogue medical intern every few days. He also happens to be immortal. “I’m in the Bible if that means anything,” he offers by way of explanation.

Then his previously unknown nineteen year old daughter shows up with the intent of getting to know him and interrupts his routine. And soon after, somebody is out to get him.

Rollins is a funny man—he knows how to play this character for all its worth, and his delivery is so dry as to be purposefully ironic. His Jack is so literal, and so sub-clinically annoyed by the people around him, that his reactions can’t help but be funny.

So when Jack is finally prodded to open up to an interested waitress, he recites a resume that includes everything from truck driver, soldier, horse breeder, tinsmith, blacksmith, retail manager, cook, and businessman to prison inmate, medic, and farmer. It is like he is reciting the phone book from memory—or recreating the list of shrimp dishes from Forrest Gump.

Here are a few more of the many, many examples of his dialogue that made me laugh in this movie:

How will Jack find someone to do what he wants? “Money. People like Money.”

How did he get maced in the eyes by his aged landlady? “She’s spry.”

Why is he using pliers to pull bullets out of his forehead? “If I leave the bullets in it’ll heal over and I’ll get migraines.”

It’s hard not to love this.

Yes, there is a heavy-handed religious theme running through the action—less in-your-face literal iconography (that is reserved for the promotional art) than a handful of repeating symbols and figures of unavoidably obvious portent. We aren’t allowed to miss them.

Rollins having a bad day
Rollins as Jack, having a bad day

He Never Died is not a subtle film, and I think it wishes itself to be more clever than it actually achieves. The plot is pretty much a straight line, with the attempts at giving it a crime mystery to supplement the horror playing as awkward rather than deep. The convolutions built into to the story seem simplistic and underdeveloped, not true machinations but things for Jack to do that will let him show off his powers. The inherent violence in the tale is uneven, presented as either over-the-top gore or oddly restrained take-downs that coyly stop before real damage occurs or refrain from showing it.

While Henry Rollins is unmistakably the star, the other actors (Booboo Stewart, Kate Greenhouse, Jordan Todosey, and Steven Ogg, among others) are enjoyable to watch in varying degrees, with their characters’ weaknesses coming in large part from the thinness of the script. None but Rollins rises to great (but let’s face it, everyone except Rollins is effectively a plot device in this), but all are good enough to make this a solid little film.

Still. He Never Died resonates with me like some sort of cheerful, mutant offspring of They Live and The Prophecy. It’s the kind of movie that you can watch repeatedly and still have fun with. And I think that Henry Rollins is to thank for that.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Bone_Tomahawk_Poster
Bone Tomahawk Poster

Bone Tomahawk is a compelling little Weird Western movie, lurking right on the edge of the genre with its combination of laconic cowboys and horrific natives. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk premiered at Fantastic Fest in September, 2015 and went into limited theatrical release in October, 2015. While it has a familiar quality to it, the story is freshly told and effectively, creepily presented.

Spoilers ahead.

For a movie that opens with a throat slitting, a scalping, and an accidently desecrated burial ground, it is almost immediately engaging in a warm way. The oddly literary dialogue is delivered with a western ruffian twang and a sly humor that is unexpected but right. There is a bar named The Learned Goat. There are lines like, “You ask about horses again I’ll slap you red,” and “Sorry for yelling at you.” “My wife used to call me a dumb imbecile all the time. Felt kinda nice.”

The script is a treat. While Bone Tomahawk echoes some of the drawling stateliness of Unforgiven in its pacing, it is not nearly as contemplative and ambles along with jokes and a quicker step. There is precious little music in the film, save for two scenes. The noises of the men and the wind and the moving brush fill the spaces around their chatter. The dialogue follows its own path, separate from the action–witty, bantering, with sarcastic humor running through almost every exchange. The teasing and familiarity effectively conveys the unavoidable intimacy of a tiny community.

The primary cast is led by the ever-reliable Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, an impressively mustachioed old lawman with a penchant for shooting suspects in the leg. Richard Jenkins plays Chicory, the aged assistant deputy, with deep humor and pathos. As Brooder, the town dandy, Matthew Fox is utterly convincing as a very handsome, very vain, very able rake/gunslinger. Patrick Wilson and Lili Simmons play the pivotal O’Dwyers with a modern slant, yet their drives, attitudes, and frustrations a perfectly within context.

fourhorsemen
Riding out

David Arquette as the scoundrel Purvis reminds me of his role in Ravenous, although here is less dissipated and less amusing since his character inadvertently brings monsters to the town of Bright Hope. The troglodytes, as they are called, come in pursuit of him. They capture him, but also take Mrs. O’Dwyer and the Sherriff’s primary deputy, spurring the plot by necessitating their rescue.

There is a sense of casual heroism among the main characters, of competent men shouldering their load without complaint—the familiar Western ethos of honest, imperfect men doing what needs to be done. When Sherriff Hunt declares, “I’m riding out with Mr. O’Dwyer, because there isn’t a choice for either of us,” the immediate response of Brooder and Chicory is that they will go, as well, because they each feel a personal responsibility for what has happened and a need to make it right.

The tension in Bone Tomahawk rises slowly, like water coming to a boil. Before we ever see the troglodytes, we are on edge from encounters with other, less ghastly men. While travelling, Brooder mocks the sherriff, Chicory, and O’Dwyer for ever having married. But his own heart is broken when his horse is badly hurt when she resists being stolen by thieves in the night and he has to put her down. “Thank you, for your service,” is all he says. It is an underplayed scene, and more affecting for it. The humor drains out of the film quickly after that.

Brooder and his horse
Brooder and his horse

Brooder actually develops as a fascinating character to watch. In a remarkable bit of acting, Matthew Fox shows Brooder beginning to go into shock after losing his hand during an ambush by the troglodytes. But even while shaking from the blood loss and pain, he ties off the stump and asks for the repeater rifle and dynamite. “I’m far too vain to ever live as a cripple,” he says to his companions, as he chooses how to die.

The unnamed tribe of troglodytes reminded me of the wendol of The 13th Warrior and the Carkers of Anthony Boucher’s “They Bite” in their brutality and described cannibalism. They are human but monstrous, decorated with tusks and skulls, ghostly in a coating of ashes, wielding the sharpened jawbones of horses as battle axes. They inhabit an avoided place known among the local Native Americans as the Valley of Starving Men—an area of dry dirt hillsides scraped into walls and inset with animal skulls. They do not speak–“What kind of tribe doesn’t have a name?” “The kind that doesn’t have a language. Cave dwellers”—instead, they use weird, hollow howls through bone whistles set into their throats.

Hunt_and_trog
Bone Tomahawk troglodyte

While the troglodytes are made bestial, the camera does not linger on them or use them for jump scares and shock value. They are presented rather matter-of-factly, much as the townsmen approach them. The horror is understated, with relatively (if not actually) little gore. What bloodshed there is, is graphic and grotesquely believable—scalping, evisceration, dismemberment, torture, a man split in half. But this is not sexy horror movie gore. It is meant to look as real as it does.

I was never a Western fan (Clint Eastwood doesn’t count—he’s his own genre). I always preferred action and horror. But there is an everyman’s nobility to the Western genre. With the employment of stellar actors, a deeply engaging script, and some outré human evil, Bone Tomahawk becomes a film that crosses genres in a satisfying way. While not particularly frightening, it is a well-told, entertaining, and unsettling film that is grim enough to be, truly, weird.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Cthulhu 2000 Arkham House cover
Cthulhu 2000 Arkham House cover

Nothing like a new year for ringing in the Old Ones! Cthulhu 2000: A Lovecraftian Anthology is one of many fine Mythos-inspired collections that have been assembled over the years. Edited by Jim Turner, Cthulhu 2000 was initially published by the legendary Arkham House in 1995 and reprinted by Ballantine/Del Rey in 1999—just in time for the Millennium (or the impending apocalypse of Y2K, as it was known at the time).  Cthulhu 2000 contains eighteen stories, many by authors we have mentioned before, written over the span from 1964 to 1992—and although none of the stories is set at the millennium, they are all meant to be relatively current events. A handful were culled from other Lovecraft-themed anthologies Arkham House had put out previously, but most of the rest came from such esteemed magazines as Interzone, Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

It’s hard to argue with those kind of pedigrees. And so, on to my notes on the contents—while all are fine reading, I have starred the ones I think are essential:

“The Barrens” by F. Paul Wilson is a plainly-written novella that places Lovecraftian elements convincingly in the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

“Pickman’s Modem” by Lawrence Watt-Evans is a bit of joking Mythos whimsy, an unexpected approach to cosmic horror.

“Shaft Number 247” by Basil Copper is a tight, guarded, claustrophobic story set in an underground—possibly underwater– warren of tunnels and shafts. In tone it reminds me of John W. Campbells’ Who Goes There?

“His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” by Poppy Z. Brite is lush and filthy, and rotten with the Louisiana swamps. Overall the story is more vampiric than cosmic, but it approaches life and death as much less rigidly defined states, both desirable for different reasons.

“The Adder” by Fred Chappell introduces a new type of corruption wrought by the Necronomicon, one based on proximity rather than familiarity.

“Fat Face” by Michael Shea uses rich, visceral Lovecraftian language in this tale of a bubble-headed hooker’s encounter with a shoggoth in modern Los Angeles.

* “The Big Fish” by Kim Newman brings in Geneviève Dieudonnè from Anno Dracula to help a private detective who has run up against Dagon and the Deep Ones. Noirish, funny, and scathing, Newman incorporates studio Hollywood, wartime xenophobia, and organized crime into a lovely bit of Lovecraftiana.

“‘I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket…But by God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!'” by Joanna Russ is another story that is not overtly within the mythos, yet evokes the same sense of the beyond—gaping, hungry, and utterly inhuman.

Cthulhu sketch by Lovecraft
Cthulhu sketch by Lovecraft

“H.P.L.” by Gahan Wilson is typically, blackly funny, with a still-living Lovecraft, a resurrected Clark Ashton Smith, a Cthulhu Kids TV show, and some human sacrifice thrown in for good measure.

“The Unthinkable” by Bruce Sterling (normally known for his cyberpunk) brings Lovecraft into the Cold War, reframing the nuclear bomb as a weaponized Old One.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T. E. D. Klein—a novella I highlighted once before in my review of The Year’s Best Horror Stories, is a chilling interpretation of Lovecraft’s mythos made even more remarkable when set among other Lovecraftian tales. Insidious, dark, and haunting.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” by Esther M. Friesner is an unabashedly silly use of the Old Gods to help negotiate a contract with a predatory romance publisher, and a goofy break from all the cosmic despair. I don’t generally go in for funny spec, but Friesner is laugh out loud excellent.

“The Last Feast of Harlequin” by Thomas Ligotti is perhaps closest in style, vocabulary, and mood to Lovecraft’s originals—doomed and sullen and more subtle than you might at first think. This story uses clowns in their older sense, not as jokes but as warnings.

“The Shadow on the Doorstep” by James P. Blaylock is suggestive and moody, but without any particular plot or resolution is merely a dark vignette.

“Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe is as surreal and compelling as one could want, with an ancient Egyptian god lingering in the American heartland. The sweep between dreamland and real horror is classic Wolfe.

“The Faces at Pine Dunes” by Ramsey Campbell is suitably indistinct and creepy, with Campbell’s hallmark slippery language and barely described horrors.

“On the Slab” by Harlan Ellison retells the myth of Prometheus with his unmistakable scalpel wit and a peculiar and dismal conclusion.

“24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” by Roger Zelazny is the remarkable story that drew me back to this anthology. Gorgeous, dreamy, poetic, highly structured and literate and mannered and mythic—it is the story of a personal quest tied up in Japanese art, government agents, and cyberpunk elements.

In his introduction, also titled “Cthulhu 2000,” Jim Turner posits the question, “Why is it, one wonders, that a reclusive writer of weird-fantasy stories, who during his lifetime couldn’t even earn a decent living, now possesses the power to inspire, and even to affect the lives of, readers around the globe?” (xi). He goes on to answer himself with references to cosmic dread and a conception of evil that “conveyed no absolute meaning” (xiii), concluding that, for some authors who followed him, Lovecraft offered “a mythopoeic underpinning of appropriate magnificence and awe” (xvi). Those would be the intellectual answers. The more intuitive one is that Lovecraft inspires by the sheer possibility he opens with his various gods, monsters, and hangers-on. There are no limits. Anything can happen in this primordial atmosphere. And, as the stories above demonstrate, it frequently does.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Before any more time goes by I’d like to review A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—a strange, small, Persian-language vampire movie set in Iran but filmed in California. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, it began making the rounds of film festivals almost two years ago and was finally released online in April. So far it has only pulled in about $500, 000 at the box office. But while it isn’t a money-maker, it is a popular darling. The low-key, positive word-of-mouth about it never stopped—and for good reason.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night claims to be a vampire spaghetti western, and in some respects it is. But it is also a stylized horror film, a supernatural romance, and possibly even an avant garde coming-of-age story for our human hero. This is one of those weird, beautiful little movies that straddles classic and experimental in interesting ways and is well worth the hundred minutes it will take to watch it.

In broad strokes, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes place in a decaying western town where the life of a young man rapidly losing hope intersects with the existence of a vampire willing to show a measure of mercy. The town, called simply Bad City, is a bleak landscape of factories, tiny houses, packed apartment blocks, chain link fences, and graffiti. There is a railroad, and oilfields, and flat, dusty stretches of scrub. Bad City has its wealth, but it doesn’t trickle down.

Amirpour plays with incongruity throughout the film. Her vampire is a predator, one who will slaughter her chosen prey with no mercy and then steal anything of value she can easily carry away. But she is also capable of letting a young boy go under the implied threat in her question, “Are you a good boy?” She spares a not-entirely jaded prostitute, telling her the shared truth “You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting. It passed long ago. And nothing ever changes.” And when she meets Arash, stoned out of his mind and wandering the streets dressed as Dracula, she makes the decision to bring him to her home when he tells her, “I’m lost.”

And lost he is. Arash knows he is being pulled inexorably into a criminal life, and his only chance to save himself is to get out. “Let’s leave Bad City. Come with me. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone” he begs the vampire. His wants, her mercy, and the decisions they make while knowing they do not know each other are the core of the story. Desperation is a serious driver.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night--Arash and the Vampire
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—Arash and the Vampire

The black-and-white cinematography in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is gorgeous, at turns hallucinatory and starkly real. There are elements of Eraserhead, Near Dark, and Let the Right One In (the original, not the remake) in the lighting and atmosphere, and even something reminiscent of The Last Picture Show in the setting. Sheila Vand as the unnamed vampire and Arash Marandi as Arash, the young man who courts her are both luminous, beautiful creatures. It is hard to look away from any of Amirpour’s actors—even the criminal Saeed (Dominic Rains) and the aging prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) are rendered beautiful in their dusty, night-ridden world.

An amazing, electronica-heavy soundtrack carries along the story’s shifting moods effectively. For example, the opening scene has Arash walking past an open trench full of discarded bodies to the distorted rhythm of a tinny, carnivalesque song slowing down like a music box in need of winding. In between the songs there are strange, still moments without dialogue that only deepen the soundtrack’s effect. Even when the characters speak with each other, the dialogue is spare, structured, and often oddly formal, with much of the emotional weight remaining with the music.

But Aminpour doesn’t stand strictly on formality. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night she makes clever use of several old tropes. Classic vampire postures are reinterpreted here, with the vampire girl lying awake on the bed in her basement bedroom during the days, or her black chador billowing behind her like wings while she rides a stolen, completely incongruous skateboard through a deserted neighborhood. Beneath her flowing cloak, this vampire wears jeans and a striped tee shirt. And her basement room seems to be made of remembered eighties high-school trivia—a mirror ball, not-quite Madonna and Bee-Gees posters, string lights, a turntable and records. But against the teen-aged backdrop, there is something incredibly mournful in the young vampire’s face, framed by the black chador, her dark eyes ringed with kohl, blood smeared around her mouth like lipstick.

Amirpour is skilled with these contrasts. There are ripples of playfulness, even silliness, generated by the skateboard and by the wanderings of a fat, placid cat. There are also elements of the surreal in characters like the silent man in a fancy western shirt, full female makeup, and a delicate head scarf dancing with a balloon, or the multiple unnamed people dumping bodies into the open pit in full daylight. The combination is one of carefully weighted unease and amusement.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night--Vampire, Cat, and Arash
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—Vampire, Cat, and Arash

In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour has created a small jewel of a vampire movie. With understated but well-placed gore and a reliance on what is not said, she makes a movie that is at once familiar and still asks her viewer to think. Even her final scene strikes a note of uncertainty, questioning what had seemed until then a foreseeable resolution. I enjoyed the discomfort. I look forward to what will come next.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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manhattanghoststory
A Manhattan Ghost Story, 1984 cover art

As I mentioned in my previous post, my first encounter with the late T.M. Wright was his 1984 novel A Manhattan Ghost Story. I picked it up as a teenager, thinking it was just another cheap horror novel. I was wrong. It treated the dead differently than anything else I’d read before—not as monsters, but as damaged people trying to get by. The old physical copy of the book is long gone, but the mood of the story has always stayed with me. It is a horror novel without horror. It is sad, instead of scary, thoughtful instead of graphic. Sentimental. Wistful. Messy, like life.

In many ways A Manhattan Ghost Story is an earlier rendition of the stylistic and conceptual quirks found in The Last Vampire. But while the two novels are thematically related, they look at the central idea of the lingering, still-wounded dead from opposite sides of the veil. I think because it has a living protagonist, A Manhattan Ghost Story is a more direct narrative. But it still repeats itself at frequent intervals because of the habits and patterns the ghosts are caught in. It is also inconclusive. It begins and wanders on to an end but never truly resolves—a difficult trait in a novel.

Still, A Manhattan Ghost Story may have been Wright’s most commercially successful work. It was optioned several times (with the rights last purchased by Disney in 2006), but in the end it was never filmed. Which may be for the best. The prose is straightforward and the settings mundane, but this is a strange, slow, dreamy, and at times blunt novel built on layers of perception rather than on action. What happens is often just repetitive motion, fragments of lives remembered and replayed on a loop, because so many of Wright’s characters are already dead.

In A Manhattan Ghost Story, Wright’s POV character Abner Cray receives the unwanted gift of seeing ghosts. Abner doesn’t realize it until after he has met and fallen in love with the ghost of his best friend’s murdered girlfriend. The novel follows Abner as he learns, painfully, to distinguish the living from the dead when he has already been drawn too deeply into their world.  As Abner explains, “I have learned that the living are not very different from the dead.  And I have learned that you often need a very good eye, indeed, to tell the difference” (50).

Here, Wright’s ghosts are physical and social and superficially have agency—but they exist within narrow parameters, able to create an illusion of free-will while repeating bits of their own pasts in a quest for resolution. The ghosts themselves are haunted. And this makes any interaction with them unnerving:

“‘Unfinished business,’ that’s what my mom says.”  He sounded much more petulant, now—a little angry, in fact.  ‘You want a puppy?  You can have one cheap.  Two dollars.’  I looked back at the boy… and the boy was staring up at me and giving me his   heart-rending plaintive smile again.  ‘Hey mister, you want a puppy?’ he asked. ‘You can have one cheap.  Two dollars.’ I didn’t answer. I had begun to have an understanding of what exactly was happening to me, and of the world I’d stumbled into” (123).

The world Wright creates for the dead is as full and busy as the world of the living, and as complicated, because in many aspects they aren’t very different: “Pettiness survives.  And jealousy.  And pretentiousness, fear, loneliness, depression.  I have learned that the living haven’t yet cornered the market on misery” (135). But there is more to it than that: “…the dead sing, and laugh, and sit up, look around, cry, want. And they’re confused, too.  Confused and lonely.  And they hurt.  And, at last, they come apart and go off to someplace else” (212). Essentially, Wright’s ghosts experience an incomplete and abbreviated version of their lives, existing as their own echoes before fading out.

It is finally that coming apart that brings A Manhattan Ghost Story to its indeterminate end. Abner may love a ghost, and she may in her way love him, too. But none of that can keep her anchored in the world: “I am coming apart,” she said.  “We come apart.  We all come apart … We leave.  We go away” (205). It is the ultimate unfinished business.

T.M. Wright
T.M. Wright

It is the falling apart, I think, the going away, that is the saddest aspect of A Manhattan Ghost Story. While Wright’s last vampire outlived his wants, these ghosts have not. They still desire what they had in life, even if it is messy and incomplete. Even if it is always unfinished. In that, they are indeed very much like the rest of us.

Thank you for that, Mr. Wright. And, goodbye.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

I went into The Visit, the latest offering by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s, with high hopes and restrained expectations. I hadn’t seen anything of his since Signs and, based on widely-held critical opinions, had no reason to regret that. But there had been some good buzz about The Visit. Maybe Shyamalan had found his footing, again.

I think in some ways he has. The Visit is quite an effective little horror film about two children meeting their grandparents for the first time.  It was made for only 5 million dollars, and relies on nothing but finely-tuned acting and sharp camera work to make it scary. And it was—I jumped, I flinched, I gasped in shocked surprise. Is it derivative? Absolutely. Is it predictable? Frequently. Is it scary? Yes, indeed. While it has its flaws, The Visit is well-constructed and well-cast, with a minimum of gore and a number of solid scares leading up to the big finish.

Spoilers ahead

The Visit--Rebecca and Nana
The Visit–Rebecca and Nana

Visually, The Visit grabs the eye. Against the isolation of a rural winter and the drab costumes of Pop-pop and Nana, the children’s bright yellow, green, and pink clothing demands attention. It also allows the gradually-revealed threat to blend into the grey background until it is ready to spring.

Shyamalan sets up The Visit’s style immediately, by giving his adolescent female character a camera and the mission to make a documentary of a week with her never-met grandparents. Her project becomes the impetus for the storytelling and the device upon which Shyamalan hangs his cinematography. There is almost seamless editing between traditional filming and the hand-held/found footage effect, to the point that it is not always clear which is which. Certain scenes are strongly reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and the similar films that followed. I think the technique is better realized, here, even though it loses any shock value it may have had.

The cast is talented. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould as the protagonists Rebecca and Tyler have an easy chemistry that is almost too familiar for siblings of their ages (15 and 13, respectively). They are precocious and funny and comfortable in their roles, even when saddled with goofy quirks. As the children’s mother, Kathryn Hand invests her character with a youthful energy that speaks of an immature parent. She loves her kids, but the impression I got was that they parent her as much if not more than she parents them.

Deanna Dunagan as Nana brings an often believable portrayal of barely-checked madness to the film. She has a face like an aged china doll, making her lunatic turns all the more shocking. Peter McRobbie is less obviously insane as Pop-pop, and he inflects his character’s paranoia with the suggestion of a real desire for connection. At times he seems so lost it is difficult to not feel pity for him.

There were some false steps in the movie that bog it down. The children’s weaknesses are too precise and are exploited a little too plainly in the final showdown, taking away some of the impact. The final confrontation came across to me like a cheap thrill, an opportunity for an easy fright and a little gross-out. And I was left with a few random questions: Why do concerned neighbors stop by instead of calling? Why is there an internet connection fast enough for glitch-free Skyping, but no cell phone service or land line? Why did their mother not introduce the kids to their grandparents on Facebook? Why, knowing that their real grandparents have been replaced by progressively-more-unhinged strangers, would Rebecca ever go down in the basement?

My Take Away

Visiting Grandma
Visiting Grandma

Questions aside, I think The Visit is a small, scary movie that dips regularly into the obvious. The climax of the film is still Shyamalan’s usual twist, and it is intense and heavy-handed compared to the wonderfully inflicted build up. Its final message of “Don’t hold on to anger” seems just a wee bit maudlin after what goes before it.

But it is still a pretty good movie. The Visit probably won’t turn out to be as enduring or fondly remembered as The Sixth Sense, but it is well worth seeing. It is funny, it is tense, it is frightening, and it somehow makes you care about all of its characters. Even the wrong ones. That’s the kind of twist it is hard to see coming.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!