SNEAK PREVIEW: The Shape Of Water

You guys have probably been hearing a lot of movie hype lately. Like, there’s something coming out on Friday? Lucky for me, I got to see a SNEAK PREVIEW of what’s sure to be a December box office smash!

Or, well, a sneak preview of a movie coming out in December. Though apparently The Shape of Water just pulled in a bunch of Golden Globe nominations, and is on track to get the nod for a bunch of other awards. Go fig.

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Which is kind of funny, as all of these awards are being dumped on a monster movie. Or, well, a pseudo-monster movie. Or something. Still, it’s easy to follow Guillermo del Toro’s line of reasoning in coming up with this movie. People love sexy monsters, but most of them have been done to death (pun vaguely intended). I mean, sexy vampires has been baked into the concept ever since the start. Sexy werewolves are a little harder to do, but it’s easy enough to play up the ‘uncontrolled inner animal’ bit without having to make furry jokes. Hell, even sexy Frankenstein is easy, in that the mad scientist builds a sexy monster, because … well, why wouldn’t you? Alternately you could take the ‘Sexy Frankenstein’ thing a bit literally and wear booty shorts with your labcoat, but I digress.

Del Toro thought about all this, and said ‘but what if I did a sexy Creature From the Black Lagoon?’ And, uh, here we are. The Shape of Water is a classic girl meets fishman story. It’s a romance movie (complete with sexy sex scenes and a musical number– just, uh, with a fish man).

Sally Hawkins does a great job as Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning lady assigned to clean out the creature’s tank– where, naturally, she falls in love with the surprisingly sexy monster. Whimsical hijinks ensue. I guess it’s like The Little Mermaid, only in reverse?

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Pictured: Somebody’s Fetish.

The trailers make it look like The Shape of Water only takes place in a vaguely greenish lab and Eliza’s beautifully dingy apartment, but the movie occasionally branches out into other lavishly recreated bits of 1960’s Baltimore, ranging from leave-it-to-Beaver-esque suburbia, to Cadillac dealerships, and more. And throughout the movie, Del Toro makes it evident that the early 60’s were kind of a shitty time to be anything but a straight white guy (and even then it’s not too pleasant). The Shape of Water explicitly takes the side of the outsider: the disabled, the queer, the, uh, amphibious.

As a Del Toro movie, The Shape of Water is at turns beautiful and grotesque– sometimes in the same shot. In particular, the costuming rig they got for the sexy fishman is a feat of practical effects … even though it’s basically a sleeker, sexed up version of the Abe Sapien suit from the Hellboy movies. It’s even got the same dude wearing it! I imagine Mike Mignola’s not too happy about that part.

The best part about The Shape of Water is that it knows its premise is goofy as all get out. It never gets to an insufferable, winking at the camera level, but the movie is surprisingly whimsical, be it in Elisa’s musical soul, or her best friend Zelda’s ‘what the shit is this?’ commentary, or even in the wide-eyed innocence of the sexy fishman.

So yeah. The Shape of Water is a wonderful film, made by weirdos, for weirdos. Definitely worth a watch for the odder souls out there. (Which is to say, everyone reading this blog). I’m sure it’s going to be buried under Star Wars hype (some poor film exec probably tried to bury the movie in December since he didn’t know what to do with a story about a sexy deep one), but I can see it being something of a slow burn, probably with a long life on DVD.

Or heck, there’s gonna be some weird stuff popping up on Deviantart these next couple of weeks. Weirder than usual, even.

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Book Review: The Three Kingdoms

For the whole dozen of you who read this blog regularly, you’ve probably figured out that I tend to read ‘genre’ stuff. I.e: books with spaceships and/or dragons on the cover. But sometimes, I like to change things up. And with that in mind, well … we’re certainly changing things up today.

Y’see, I happened to have a Half Price Books coupon, and while they didn’t have the particular book I was looking for, I stumbled across … this.

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Three Kingdoms, as in “Romance Of The Three Kingdoms,” as in “That thing that all those Dynasty Warriors video games are based on.”

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Some liberties with the source material may have been taken.

So yeah. Three Kingdoms is more or less the Chinese equivalent of the Illiad, or perhaps Shakespeare, in that it’s one of the cornerstones of Chinese literature. Written in the 14th century, Three Kingdoms details the chaos and battles and drama that arose at the end of the Han dynasty, some centuries before. So even at the time it was written, Three Kingdoms was a historical novel. Three Kingdoms has been adapted countless times in just about any media you can think of: TV shows, movies, video games, and so on. And so, curious, I figured I’d be a bit cultured and see what all the hubbub was about.

For the record, I haven’t read all four volumes (yet), so I’m just going to be weighing in after reading the first one. But still, that’s more than enough to give me a feel for the book. And, y’know, for a 700 year old novel from the other side of the world, Three Kingdoms actually holds up fairly well.

This isn’t to say it’s an easy read– Three Kingdoms is ridiculously dense, with tons upon tons of characters to keep track of (some of whom are referred to by different names). But even then, once you get a little ways into it, it’s easy to keep track of who’s important, and who isn’t. There’s the three heroic sworn brothers: Liu Xuande, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei. There are scheming, moustache twirling villains like Cao Cao or Dong Zhuo, and, my favorite, the hilariously fickle Lu Bu. Seriously, that dude switches sides all the damn time.

Furthermore, the particular edition I stumbled across is riddled with typographical errors– to be fair, when you’re dealing with thousands of pages of text in translation, such a thing is to be expected … but still, it looks pretty bad when you’re making errors on the bookplate.

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Is it just me, or does “Moss Roborts” sound like a Chuck Tingle character? 

As a classic of world literature concerning the rise and fall of dynasties, it’s easy to make Three Kingdoms sound dry and academic– which is also ridiculously far from the truth. With dozens of characters scheming and betraying each other in order to seize control of China, it’s pretty much Game of Thrones just with kung fu instead of incest and dwarfs. (Cao Cao is totally a Lannister, which I guess makes Xuande and company Starks?) There’s even a slight supernatural element as well, as every so often various sorcerers or goddesses will show up– but even still, the focus of the story is on the grand battles and various characters.

Another fun thing about Three Kingdoms is how each chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Stuff like “Lu Bu was facing many dangers. Would he survive them? Read on.” Anybody who’s ever heard of Scheherazade knows that the cliffhanger is an ancient storytelling trope, but it’s still fun to see it in place here. Furthermore, each chapter has an evocative title describing what happens, my favorite being:

The Man of the Magnificent Beard Rides Alone a Thousand Li

The Lord of Hanshou Slays Six Generals and Breaches Five Passes

(For the record, that’s the title of a single chapter).

The titles are almost like something out of an anime or a kung fu movie– which isn’t entirely accurate, as said animes or kung fu movies are drawing from Three Kingdoms, in spirit if not source material.

Unsurprisingly, Three Kingdoms is super Chinese. Various characters are held up as paragons of virtue or dastardly villains based on their adherence to traditional Chinese values. Most notably, the vilest of Three Kingdoms‘ villains are often shown defacing tombs and disrespecting the Emperor. Though this does also lead to some slight moral dissonance.

For example, there’s a passage where Liu Xuande, a twin-sword wielding paragon of virtue, is fleeing after a military defeat. Xuande takes refuge with a humble hunter, but the hunter can’t find any game to feed him. So, naturally, the hunter kills and butchers his own wife so he can feed her cooked corpse to his guest. And then, when Xuande finds out, he doesn’t recoil in horror at being made an unwitting cannibal– instead, he thanks the hunter for his sacrifice, and then has him lavishly rewarded when he gets back to his home base. Yeeeeeah. Just saying, that’s the sort of thing that gets you rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity in Greek mythology.

Having only read the first quarter of Three Kingdoms, I’m not about to claim any greater understanding of Chinese literature, culture, or history. People far smarter than I have put far more work and thought into this novel than I ever will. Even still, I’m glad I gave it a read– if nothing else it gives the barest hints of context to various Chinese movies I’ve watched over the years. I’ll probably return to Three Kingdoms at some point, even if I’ve already written just about everything I have to say about the book in this blog post.

But for now, I think I’m gonna switch to something a little lighter for my next read. Stay tuned!

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Even John Woo’s done an adaptation! I can only assume Xuande packs twin Berettas. 

Book Review: Dan Abnett’s Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero

I love a good swashed buckle.

Ruffs and rapiers, doublets and decolletage– I eat that kind of stuff up. Thing is, there aren’t a huge amount of books out there that scratch that particular itch. I mean, yeah, there’s Dumas and Hope and the other classics, or the work of modern authors like Arturo Perez Reverte, but when it comes to fantasy novels, most of them are stuck in the same ‘standard’ of vaguely medieval Europe, only with wizards and shit. I blame D&D. Really, the best fantasy take on this sort of thing is Steven Brust’s Phoenix Guard series, but that’s something to cover another day.

With this in mind, Dan Abnett’s Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero has vaguely been on my radar for awhile, but I wasn’t intrigued enough to specifically track it down. I mean, I mostly know Abnett as a dude who’s written a whole mess of Warhammer 40k novels that aren’t about Ciaphas Cain. And, y’know, I’ve heard Abnett’s written some halfway decent 40k novels … but that’s not exactly a high bar to set. Still, I happened to stumble across Triumff (I am not gonna type out the whole title every damn time) in a Half Price Books, and here we are!

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Is it just me, or does that guy kind of look like Blackadder-era Rowan Atkinson?

Triumff is about, well, Rupert Triumff, your typically dashing swashbuckling sea-captain. And while he’d prefer to just lay low (and get drunk), he’s soon framed by an evil conspiracy that’s scheming to assassinate The Queen. Because of course they are. Disguises and swordfights and other general hijinks ensue.

On the surface, Triumff is exactly what it appears to be: there are swordfights and damsels and various feats of derring-do. Of course, the astute reader will have noticed the mention of “alchemy” on the cover, and the “fantasy” tag at the bottom of this post, so we’re onto something a li’l different here. Or, well, a lot different.

See, Triumff takes place in an alternate timeline in which England’s Queen Elizabeth married Spain’s Phillip II, creating a world-spanning “Unity.” This actually has potential for an alternate history take on things– which Abnett completely ignores. Instead, Abnett mucks around with the timeline further, in that Leonardo da Vinci discovered magic and alchemy and stuff, which somehow means that it’s replaced science, leading to the Anglo-Hispanic Unity becoming the leading world power through magic. Or … something.

And also because of the whole ‘magic’ thing, the Anglo-Hispanic Unity pretty much ignores science, which also means that language, clothing, culture, and just about everything else is stuck in a 16th century standard, even in the year 2010. The whole “magic means everyone still wears silly hats!” thing is a pet peeve of mine– it just comes off as lazy writing that ignores the tendency of cultures and languages to change and mutate over time.

I can at least see what Abnett’s going for– he wanted to write about people chasing each other around with rapiers, and so he made up a setting to loosely allow that. Oh, and Abnett also uses the modern (but not really) setting to make some awful, awful puns. And heck, I like puns, but there are some real groaners in there. The term “Steve Gutenberg Bible” is used early on. There’s also a pistol-packing character by the name of Clinton Eastwoodho. And there are probably a few more that went over my head because I’m not English. Your tolerance for this sort of thing will directly influence how much you like this book.

Really, between the deliberately anachronistic setting, the shameless puns, and intentionally verbose style, it becomes clear Abnett isn’t channeling Dumas so much as he’s writing snarky English comedy in the style of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. Heck, there’s even an old witch who’d fit right in with Pratchett’s Lancre sisters. The problem is, Abnett’s not near the level of writer Pratchett is– which, admittedly, is a high bar to set. Pratchett got knighted for his humanistic fantasy, after all. It takes a few chapters for Abnett to really hit his stride in this style– and even then, the book’s full of shaggy-dog digressions that go nowhere. And that’s before you get into the subplot about Triumff trying to keep the discovery of Australia a secret.

Which goes all the way back around to the cover– as, despite the alternate history and addition of magic and such, Triumff is a straightforward “God save the Queen!” novel. And, honestly, that’s fine. Most of the jokes are clever (though there are some real stinkers sprinkled in), and the action sequences are well put together (unsurprising, considering all the words Abnett has written about a tabletop wargame). Triumff is fun, but certainly not deep.

So yeah. If you’re a huge Dan Abnett fan and/or you have the stomach for groan-inducing puns, go ahead and order the book off Amazon– for the rest of you, just wait ’til you see a copy on sale at the used bookstore. Worked for me, at least.

“No known weaknesses,” a tribute to the lost art of the filecard.

Yeah, I’ve been slacking lately. I’ve been plugging away at a (frankly terrible) National Write a Novel Month project, which has cut into my reading time, which in turn has cut into my reviewing time … but I figured there’s at least, like, six of you waiting with baited breath for some indication I’m still alive … and, uh, here we are.

And because I’m a big kid, let’s talk about toys!

This post is somewhat inspired by one of my new favorite blogs, The Dragon Fortress, which you should all go follow because it’s awesome. The Dragon Fortress’ coverage of crazy GI Joe figures (and knockoff toylines like The Corps) got me reminiscing about what’s become a lost art.

I refer, of course, to the action figure filecard.

Found on the back of the toy packaging, filecards are wonderful combinations of marketing and storytelling. Basically, the point of a filecard is to tell the little kid just who the hell their new toy is supposed to be. Which was more important than you’d think.

See, Kenner’s Star Wars toys were arguably the first examples of a ‘modern’ action figure. Instead of representing generic cowboys or astronauts or whatever, Star Wars figures were meant to represent specific characters, from Luke Skywalker to … Yak Face. Of course, with the pop culture juggernaut of Star Wars to roll with, it’s not like there were many kids out there who didn’t know who Darth Vader was, so there wasn’t any need for anything on the back besides advertising for more Star Wars toys.

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Fast forward to the 80’s, when Hasbro was getting ready to launch some new toylines of their own. They had the molds … but the problem was, how were they supposed to get kids to care about (and therefore get their parents to spend money on) a bunch of random soldier dudes they’d never heard of before?

Enter Marvel Comics. Hasbro tapped Marvel early on as they were developing the GI Joe toyline, culminating in Larry Hama (an actual army veteran himself) to jump on board and start writing character profiles. Not only did this help flesh out characters for the GI Joe cartoon & comic book, but somebody at Hasbro had the brilliant idea of slapping those character profiles on the back of the packaging, and there you go. I dunno about you guys, but when I was a kid, I loved reading the notes on the back of the package on the drive home after getting a new toy. The filecards even had dotted lines around the edge, suggesting that kids cut them out and save them … which I never did. More’s the pity.

Bill Budiansky went on to do the same thing with Transformers, with the addition of numeric ‘tech specs’ to give a scale of how strong or fast a particular robot was. These stats were completely made up and often didn’t quite make sense (Optimus Prime’s Strength of 10 being the same rating as the city sized Trypticon, for example), but they were still a load of fun. Other toylines followed this example– Ninja Turtles, most notably.

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Incidentally, it is surprisingly hard to find pictures of TMNT filecards.

The typical filecard (or tech spec, or whatever)– could be pretty straightforward. “This character is really tough and he likes to punch the bad guys.” Still, for some characters, their filecard would be the most characterization they’d get … well, ever. Even in franchises with long-running cartoons, there were often characters who never had the chance to show up on screen– or if they did, they’d get like, two or three lines and we’d never hear from them again. So at least if you wound up with Skids or Wingnut or whoever, you at least had something to start with as to where they belonged on the battlefield of your childhood bedroom.

But.

The best filecards are notable because they characters they depict are absolutely insane. Hama and Budiansky wound up having to write hundreds of these profiles, based on little more than a few patent blueprints for the particular toy. So every now and again, things got a little … quirky. I suppose there’s only so much you can write about commandos and ninjas, at which point Larry Hama just started going nuts.

Like GI Joe’s Tripwire! Dude’s a nervous wreck … except when he’s defusing bombs. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds that fascinating and hilarious. Also Hama gets bonus points for making the minesweeper, the default lamest of little green army men, actually interesting.

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To be fair, the dude’s named Tormod S. Skoog. He’s destined to be a weirdo.

Though really, as per the usual when it came to GI Joe, Cobra got all the crazy stuff. Case in point, Raptor, an evil yuppie accountant who doesn’t wear a shirt and tries to kill people with birds. TRIES to. I mean, look at that filecard– he hasn’t even finished his evil bird project yet! I can only imagine the hilarity that would ensue when Jurassic Park came out, and some Cobra bad guy wanted to name himself Raptor ’cause he thought it sounded badass, only to find out the name was taken.

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Seriously, his action figure didn’t even come with a gun.

But my first true toyline love will always be Transformers, so let’s check some of this out. Like, how about a nihilistic Decepticon? You know, for kids!

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Or the Autobot Tailgate, who apparently can’t get his head around the fact that toasters aren’t people. Dude wants to be Spartacus of the used car lot.

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Incidentally, IDW’s current Transformers comic has completely ignored this profile, instead making Tailgate into a too-cute little dude who falls in love with Cyclonus. I am not making this up.

I couldn’t say how many kids actually paid attention to these profiles, especially the stranger ones, but they’re still pretty great. If nothing else, they add flaws and character quirks to what would otherwise be faceless toys. For dudes like Tailgate, it’d be the most characterization they’d get for years– and for dudes like Raptor, it’d be the most characterization they get ever. Unless Raptor shows up to commit bird-related tax fraud in some comic book or something, which I really hope happens.

But, the market has changed, and toy packaging has long since changed along with it. Collectors (like myself, cough) are certainly a thing, but I get the impression that most Kids These Days(tm) are more interested in playing with their ipads or pokemon or bayblades or whatever. See also: the death of Saturday Morning Cartoons.

The other, less “get off my lawn” factor at play is that the action figure market itself has changed. Instead of producing dozens upon dozens of different characters, toy companies focus on a core cast, and produce endless permutations of them. So you’ve got Batman, Underwater Batman, Space Batman, and so on and so forth. And why would you need a thing on the back talking about who Bruce Wayne is? Everyone knows that already, so you might as well just put some instructions on the back for that toy’s gimmick and have done with it.

The same argument can be made about nearly any superhero who’s got a movie out these days– or heck, even Optimus Prime’s reached the point where he doesn’t need introduction anymore. So we can have Optimus Prime, Underwater Optimus Prime, Space Optimus Prime … you get the idea.

Though now that I think of it, the roots of this probably reach back to Mattel and Barbie, if not further. I mean, every little girl has an Underwater Barbie, a Space Barbie, a Battle Damaged Barbie, and so on, right? But that’s different, since it’s dolls and not action figures.

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These days, you’re lucky if you get a sentence or two on the back of a new action figure. A lot of companies have gone to multi-lingual packaging to make international sales easier, which I guess may teach some kids how to say “Megatron is the most ruthless of Decepticons” in French. So I guess that’s kind of a silver lining, right?
But yeah. Just thought I’d touch on a wonderful little bit of pop culture ephemera that doesn’t seem to be much of a thing anymore. Heck, if I get really ambitious (or lazy), I might even make looking at random and entertaining character filecards into a semi-regular feature. Stay tuned!

Book Review: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge.

So! October’s over, and now I can read something besides cheesy horror paperbacks.

Stuff like science fiction paperbacks! But good ones! At least, in this particular case. See, a lot of the fun of this blog is digging up obscure and insane sci-fi & fantasy novels that have otherwise been forgotten by history. On the other hand, sometimes I read, y’know, quality literature, and have stuff to say about that.

Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky is the latter case.

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A friend of mine heartily recommended A Deepness in the Sky to me some years ago– and I actually started reading it some years ago … until I accidentally left my copy in the bar where I’d been having lunch. Friends don’t let friends drink and read, folks! I finally tracked down another copy, and finally got around to reading it– and heck, I even finished it back in early October but put off reviewing it until now so I could stay ‘in theme.’ So this review’s been a long time coming, I guess.

This is somewhat appropriate, as the action of A Deepness in the Sky takes place over decades, with flashbacks and background stretching back thousands upon thousands of years before that. Vinge has a brilliant sense of scope– though this can lead to one of the book’s very few flaws, in that it’s very. Deliberately. Paced. This isn’t to say that nothing happens (quite the contrary, honestly), but if you’re looking for a rollicking adventure novel, A Deepness in the Sky isn’t quite going to scratch that itch.

A Deepness in the Sky is a hard book to summarize. On the surface, it’s about two competing fleets, from two competing human civilizations, first warring, and then working together as they prepare to make contact with an alien civilization. On the one side, you have the Queng Ho, a civilization of interstellar traders who are (very) loosely based on old Chinese exploration fleets. On the other side, you have the Emergents, an empire of socialist technocrats. Vinge does a hell of a job portraying the Emergents as absolutely vile— which is saying something. The whole of Emergent civilization is based upon the idea of ‘Focus,’ a method of enslaving the human mind and setting it to a single purpose. It’s far more terrifying than standard depictions of mind control in pulpier work, which goes a lot farther in making the Emergents into terrifying villains than typical depictions of ‘AND THEY WERE SPACE NAZIS’ that a lesser writer might lapse into.

And things get more complicated from there! See, the Emergents and the Queng Ho arrive in the alien star system at the same time– the Emergents attack the Queng Ho, but the two fleets cripple each other in the ensuing battle. Ostensibly, the Emergents ‘win,’ but they’re forced to work with the Queng Ho as they wait to make contact with the aliens.

The star they’re orbiting inexplicably goes dark for years upon years at a time, so the alien civilization (along with all other alien life on the planet) goes into hibernation every couple of decades as part of their life cycle. That is, until a brilliant alien scientist starts unlocking the potential of nuclear power to maintain civilization through The Dark, and … well, it gets more complicated from there.

A Deepness in the Sky pulls from a lot of different stuff, which is what makes it so great. It’s got the rise and fall of civilizations that you’d see in a Foundation or a Dune novel. The whole On/Off nature of the star (which is soon labeled On/Off, natch) and the alien world that rises in its orbit feels like something you’d read in ‘logic puzzle’ Sci-fi, like Niven or something– and heck, there’s even a part where the brilliant spider scientist’s plucky kids are kidnapped by bad guys that feels like the part of every Star Wars EU novel where Han & Leia’s kids would get kidnapped again and again. But none of that’s canon anymore so I digress.

Did I mention that some of the most human and relatable characters of the book are greebly spider monster aliens? ’cause Vinge is that good of a writer. The Spiders go through a cold war of their own, with a couple of characters (brilliant but eccentric scientist, his beautiful and hypercompetent spymaster wife, the grizzled old sergeant, the aforementioned plucky kids, and so on) straight out of TVtropes. The brilliant thing Vinge does is portray the Spiders as outright alien– but he works in little touches here and there. For example, ‘Smith’ is a common Spider last name, because any industrial, metalworking civilization is bound to have blacksmiths in there, and so on.

A Deepness in the Sky won the 2000 Hugo Award for best novel, along with a whole mess of other various awards– and rightfully so. It’s a legitimately great book, well worth reading for any science fiction fan. Which, again, leads to one of the book’s few flaws, in that A Deepness in the Sky goes in, well, pretty deep (I will not apologize for that joke), so someone not quite as familiar with various sci-fi tropes and stuff might not get as much out of it.

But then again, if you’re reading this blog, I bet you’ve been around the block already.

So go read A Deepness in the Sky. Totally worth it.

Hallowread ’17, Part 5! Gary L Holleman’s Howl-O-Ween

And we wrap up the 2017 Hallowread with, appropriately enough, Gary L. Holleman’s Howl-O-Ween, another random horror paperback Jeremy foisted on me. All and all, I’d say this has been my best October’s worth of horror books yet– between Grady Hendrix’s wonderful Paperbacks From Hell, and the sheer gonzo insanity of Panzer Spirit, this has been a fun couple of weeks.

Which makes it a shame that Howl-O-Ween is pretty disappointing.

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Howl-O-Ween centers on a dude named Cyrus Trigg, who is hired as a bodyguard by the (naturally hot, naturally redheaded) diamond dealer, Kyna Rand. The names should be your first clue off the bat that we’re gonna have a rough time here. What the hell kind of name is ‘Kyna?’ It sounds too much like ‘kinda.’ Then again, ‘Kinda Rand’ would be a fun way to describe somebody who’s a really terrible Objectivist, but I digress.

Anyway, Kyna isn’t ‘just’ a diamond merchant– she’s actually a smuggler, moving black-market ice! Dun dun dunnn. Well, illegal diamonds … and the occasional magical artifact. See, her criminal boss/boyfriend, Bryan (of course it’s spelled with a y) is also something of an evil sorcerer, unbeknownst to Kyna. And so, as part of her smuggling, Kyna picks up an evil magical voodoo necklace that Bryan’s goons stole from an even eviler voodoo witch doctor down in the Caribbean.

Said witch doctor, who is only referred to as The Dark Man, naturally wants to get it back. And this is where we run into Holleman being terrible at names again. See, The Dark Man is a fine enough (if kind of generic) name for a villain … but it doesn’t help that The Dark Man’s minions are nearly exclusively referenced to as “the goateed man” and “the bald man” through the end of the novel. They’re not even important enough to get capitalization. It just comes off as weird and annoying after awhile.

The bald man, for the record, is a werewolf– who winds up biting (but not killing) Cyrus early on in the book, and that’s what puts the ‘howl’ in the title. And, y’know, there’s a lot of potential for a book about a werewolf fighting an evil witch doctor and his zombie minions. It’s just that … Howl-O-Ween is not that book.

For one, Cyrus and Kyna don’t really act like they’re in a horror novel. Or even a crime novel. I mean, they’re tooling around the country with who knows how much cash and diamonds, and it honestly comes off as more of a road trip vacation than a crime caper. Hell, it seems that they spend most of their time going shopping and doing touristy stuff as opposed to, you know, diamond smuggling. Which one could argue that they’re using as a cover … except that, every couple of chapters, Cyrus has to fight muggers, or zombies, or gun-toting criminals, or fucking snakemen, and yet they keep on going on like it’s just a fun vacation. I suppose it ‘helps’ that Kyna has a weird but convenient tendency to get knocked out whenever Cyrus is about to turn into a werewolf and bite off faces. Hell, even if it weren’t for that bit, Cyrus is a pretty shitty bodyguard, often roaming off on his own (or allowing Kyna to do the same).

While published in 1996, Howl-O-Ween definitely has the grindhouse cynicism of a 1980’s horror novel. Memphis is described as a southern belle who’s been raped, and San Fransisco is apparently filled with armies of AIDS patients. There’s plenty of sex and gore, too– Cyrus and Kyna wind up doin’ it on page 76, and they go at it again and again every few chapters, with escalating explicitness.

While I can appreciate gratuitous blood and boobs as much as the next guy, Howl-O-Ween never really comes together. I think the biggest thing missing is a sense of fun– or even of any Halloween-y-ness at all. Like, October 31st is a deadline for magical plot reasons, but Holleman never mentions candy, or costume parties, or even as much as a pumpkin. (At least, not in the chunk of the novel I read– I wound up skipping big lengths of it ’cause I was bored and wanted to get this review done by today). Really, when your title is a cheesy pun, I would expect the book to be … you know, fun. Heck, it could even be black comedy, like in a Nightmare or Elm Street, or even Evil Dead, but Holleman just plays Howl-O-Ween straight, much to its own detriment.

Of course, now I’m wondering if written horror has the same comedy tradition as horror films do … maybe that’s something I’ll look into next October!

Hallowread ’17 Part 4! Tom Townsend’s Panzer Spirit

I try to stay apolitical on this blog, but I figure it’s time to make what may (sadly) be a controversial statement to some corners of the internet.

Fuck Nazis.

The evils and failures of the Third Reich have been well documented by more talented folk than I, so I’m not going to play historian here– nor should I have to. This said, there’s only one good thing that came out of Hitler’s Germany: Nazis make great villains. I mean, they’ve got evil looking uniforms, they tend to be pretty incompetent in the long run, and you never feel bad about punching them.

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Which brings us to this week’s cheesy horror paperback (thoughtfully provided by my man Jeremy of A Brew To A Kill): Tom Townsend’s Panzer Spirit. Basically, Townsend sat down one day and asked himself “wouldn’t it be awesome if the car from Christine was a tank?” And … well, there you go. Panzer Spirit is about a haunted Nazi tank (a Jagdpanther, to be precise) that is awakened from its hibernation in the 1980’s, and starts wreaking havoc in Cold War era Germany. Oh, and the Russians want to capture the ghost tank too, because Cold War. Sadly, Townsend wasn’t the first person to think of a Haunted Tank, but that’s beside the point here.

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Crossover? Crossover.

Opposing the nazi ghost tank’s rampage are a couple of pulpy hero-types: Desert Eagle-toting tank historian Jim Fafner, and designated love interest Sherri Vail. Jim is a bit over the top– he’s former military, and a lot of his ‘restoration’ work on old tanks is actually done in various middle eastern or African warzones, so the term ‘mercenary’ wouldn’t be inappropriate. He’s got nothing on Sherri, though. See, Sherri is a comic book artist– a ridiculously successful comic book artist. Like ‘mink coats and Ferraris’ rich, at a level that I’m pretty sure not even Todd McFarlane got to. Oh, and early on in the novel she mentions she’s flying to London for a week for an important game of Dungeons and Dragons. This kind of stuff, while hilarious, makes me wonder if Townsend actually knows how D&D works. Considering the book came out in 1988, right on the tail end of the Satanic Panic, I’m gonna go with ‘no.’

Jim recruits Sherri (from the Texas Renaissance Festival, no less) when he recognizes the evil-elf logo emblazoned on the Nazi ghost tank as identical to a bad guy in Sherri’s comic, The Princess of Elfland. See, it turns out that Sherri got the image from some ancient scroll of elf-lore and/or her own visions of her past life. Because Sherri is actually the reincarnation of some elven warrior princess, you know.

It gets better.

The reason all of this fantasy stuff pops up is because of the ghost tank’s origin story. See, in a lesser book, the author would have just said something like ‘this one Nazi was a super-asshole and so his ghost haunts this tank now’ and had done with it. Townsend’s got no time for that– instead, he lays out the backstory in which Nazi occultists discover the secret of elf-steel, or “mithreil.” At which point any Tolkien nerds or video game fans are thinking “that sounds a lot like mithril,” and you are exactly right. Sherri even mentions the Tolkien connection towards the end of the book.

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Sidenote: The Jagdpanther, like much other Nazi hardware, was terribly engineered and prone to all kinds of breakdowns. How much of this haunted elf-metal would fix is up for debate

To recap: Panzer Spirit is about a haunted nazi tank made of mithril that fights a square-jawed military historian and a reincarnated elf princess turned comic book artist.

This is why I have a blog, folks.

So yeah, with all the elf-talk, Panzer Spirit is almost more of a fantasy novel than a horror one. Townsend adds in a fair amount of gore, at least– though really, he kind of runs into the problem of there being only two ways a haunted tank can kill you: it can blow you up, or it can run you over. Both of which are unpleasant, sure, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels of lurid madness of other horror books. Townsend also has a weird literary tic where he notes “that was the last thing he ever thought/said/did” right before the nazi ghost tank kills somebody.

Anyway, Panzer Spirit is a crazy novel, but a well researched one. Townsend served as a tank commander in the US Army himself, so he brings his first-hand knowledge of tank stuff (but hopefully not ghost tank stuff) to the page. One could almost argue that he brings too much tanker stuff to the book, as there’s only a couple of pages where the Nazi ghost tank fights an Apache helicopter (and the ghost tank wins). I mean, air superiority goes a long way– and I can’t help but wonder how the ghost tank would hold up against a couple of pissed off A-10’s, but I digress.

Though in a funny little turn of events, at the very end of the book, there’s an add for Blood Farm, one of my favorite trashy horror paperback novels. Turns out, Panzer Spirit and Blood Farm were both put out by Pageant Books, which makes me want to track more of their stuff down. If I’m lucky there’s even more batshit crazy horror books where these two came from.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m gonna play some Wolfenstein.

Hallowread ’17, Part 3! Blood Rite by Michael Falconer Anderson

And for our next review, we go back to THE BOX, the big ol’ mystery box full of random genre paperbacks I nabbed almost a year ago. Ten bucks for twenty nine books comes out to a little over thirty cents a pop. So, uh, value there?

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In any case, one of the horror paperbacks is Blood Rite, by Michael Falconer Anderson. Dude’s got a heck of a name, there– I wonder if he just went by ‘Michael Anderson’ and then added the ‘Falconer’ in there to spice things up, make himself sound a little less generic. But I digress.

Originally published as The Woodsmen in England, Blood Rite centers on a young woman named Karen, who, after a rather awful date, winds up getting lost in some creepy wooded stretch of rural England. She then gets chased around by two smelly dudes named Clay and Oates (I’m gonna have to try really hard not to write Hall & Oates each time) who may or may not be some kind of vengeance zombies who were burned at the stake in the 1800’s. Clay and Oates kill a couple of people, only to get thoroughly shotgunned by the hunky older dude Karen winds up hooking up with no apparent reason. Then there’s a cliffhanger twist at the end. That’s it.

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One of the few cases where the English cover is more boring than the American one.

So yeah. Blood Rite is a fairly generic horror story– the rural English setting reminded me vaguely of The Wicker Man and similar works, which in turn has me wondering why the English are so terrified of the countryside. I gueeeeess there’s a slight parallel in ‘evil mutant redneck’ stories in the U.S., but it doesn’t quite line up to me.

Everyone knows a horror story’s only as good as its bad guy, and in that respect, Blood Rite falls short. ‘Evil warlocks back for vengeance after dying hundreds of years before’ is a great origin story, but Clay and Oates don’t do much to really distinguish themselves beyond that. I mean, hell, they menace Karen fairly early in the novel … and then she winds up roaming around all night on her own without getting murdered. If this were presented as Clay & Oates deliberately letting her go to torment her further, that would be one thing … but as it is, it just makes the two dudes look slow and incompetent.

Now, I can be fairly forgiving of plot holes if a book delivers in other respects, but Blood Rite … doesn’t. Maybe I’m just jaded, but Anderson never really goes into the sort of crazy, lurid gore that I’ve come to expect in my cheap horror paperbacks. A lot of it feels like he’s just phoning it in– I mean, he’ll describe ‘and then there was blood!’ and that’s about it. Probably the worst bit comes early on in the novel, where somebody stumbles on Hall and– I mean Clay and Oates doing their evil human sacrifice ritual. Again, fairly promising stuff, as evil goes– but then Anderson makes a big deal of how evil the two guys are because they’re saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards. DUN DUN DUN.

Seriously, if that’s all it takes for crazy Satanic power, I’m starting to wonder what Judas Priest was getting into.

But yeah, Blood Rite is a short, generic horror story, and I honestly couldn’t recommend it unless you were really, really into stories about people getting axe-murdered in England. Though a little bit of research (read: google) tells me that Anderson wrote some other horror novels, the most famous of which was The Unholy, a story about HITLER’S HAUNTED SKULL getting brought to small town England and summoning demons and stuff there. Makes me wish I’d found that one in the box instead.

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Then again, if I did review The Unholy, I might just get called a “SJW snowflake” or something by a bunch of asshole trolls for not covering “both sides” correctly.

But October’s not over yet, so stay tuned!

SNEAK PREVIEW’D! Happy Death Day

Courtesy of my buddy Jeremy (the dude behind A Brew to A Kill) and Destroythebrain.com, I got to see a free preview of the upcoming horror movie Happy Death Day.

Sadly, it’s got nothing to do with that one Dethklok song.

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Happy Death Day boils down to the elevator pitch of “what if Groundhog day was a slasher flick?” Jessica Rothe plays a sorority girl named Tree (do people even name their kids that?) who gets ready to go to a party for her birthday … only to get stabbed to death by a killer in a creepy baby mask. Happy Death Day proceeds to go into its gimmick as Tree wakes up that same morning, fated to re-live the same day … and get inevitably murdered at the end. And so, Tree is left to solve her own murder through trial-by-error. Kind of like one of those ‘choose your own adventure’ books, or replaying the same level of a video game over and over again ’til you get it right. Was it the creepy stalkerish dude? The queen-bitch sorority president? The married professor/doctor that she’s surreptitiously hooking up with? Or maybe even the professor/doctor’s wife? It’s … something of a long list.

Happy Death Day is rated PG-13, which I looked at slightly askance as a jaded horror nerd. But even with these misgivings, I rather enjoyed the flick. The thing about PG-13 rated horror is that you can’t pour on gratuitous blood and nudity (a.k.a. “the good stuff”), so directors have to think of a gimmick to make the movie stand out. In stuff like Lights Out, it’s playing around with light and cinematography. In Happy Death Day, they play around with the narrative, instead.

Really, Rothe is the MVP of Happy Death Day, as she’s pretty much in every scene (for obvious reasons). She does a great job progressing from a vapid sorority girl to someone who’s genuinely freaked the hell out by her situation to straight-out Buffy-mode. I get the feeling Rothe had a lot of fun with the role, especially since ‘first incarnation’ Tree is super, super bitchy to everyone. It’s important to portray her as unsympathetic early on, as that gives her room to develop as a character, and also because the audience then won’t feel bad watching her get stabbed, drowned, blown up, hung, run over by a bus, and so on.

The movie’s best moments are when it leans into the ridiculousness of its premise, with Tree embracing a ‘don’t give a fuuuuuuck’ attitude about trivial things– especially when, y’know, she’s gonna get murdered. Most importantly, she gets her head around the whole ‘reset button’ fairly quickly, and proceeds to act fairly sensibly, given the circumstances.

On the other hand, Happy Death Day has a somewhat … ramshackle plot, and the masked killer does have a little bit of the ‘inexplicably superhuman serial killer’ thing going on. I mean, you’d think Tree could just get her hands on a car somehow and drive to somewhere the killer wouldn’t get her, but asking questions about a movie where someone relives the same day over and over might not be the best course of action. The third act doesn’t quite stick the landing, mostly through the overuse of red herrings. That, and there’s a little bit where Tree mentions she gets weaker with each ‘reset,’ meaning she can’t do this indefinitely … which isn’t really brought up again. Oh, and the soundtrack verges towards the teenybopper at certain points, but again, this is a PG-13 rated movie, and the kids should get off my lawn.

Still, I enjoyed Happy Death Day, and it’s dark comedy was enough to make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. It’s not as tightly written as Groundhog Day, and it doesn’t have any of the existentialism, but the flick’s still worth a watch, if you’re in the mood for something occasionally tense but not too particularly gory.

Hallowread ’17, Part Two! Live Girls by Ray Garton

Vampires! They’ve always been the go-to ‘sexy monsters,’ what, with the neck-biting and vaguely threatening ethnicity and all. Various writers have taken various takes on the ‘sexy vampire’ bit over the ages, though– The Lost Boys went punk rock (with saxaphones), Anne Rice opted for glam-rock fabulousness, and Stephanie Meyer showed us what happens when vampires use abstinence-only sex ed.

Which brings us to Ray Garton, who’s take on vampires is basically “what if they were super, super sleazy?”

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Incidentally, Live Girls is recommended in the ‘further reading’ appendix of Paperbacks From Hell. Also incidentally, I happened to pick up Live Girls (from the dollar paperback bin, natch) several months before I knew Hendrix’s book existed. Serendipity!

In any case, Live Girls is set in New York City– specifically, New York City in the 80’s (the book was published in 1987), which is to say it’s a crowded, decaying hive of pollution and misery. It seems there’s barely a chapter that goes by without someone running into a grotesque hobo or a pushy drug dealer. The whole concept of ‘the city’ as a fearful, hellish environment is one of those interesting tropes of the 70’s/80’s that pervades everything from the Dirty Harry movies to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And so, Ray Garton adds vampires.

Stripper vampires.

It’s that kind of book, folks.

But let’s be honest here– the whole point of dollar-bin paperbacks is the lurid, trashy fun, and Garton certainly delivers on that part. The book centers around a dude named Davey Owen: a sad sack stuck in a dead-end job churning out cheap pulp fiction for an unscrupulous publisher. (Not projecting there, are we, Mr. Garton?). After his shallow girlfriend dumps him (to go back to an abusive, drug-dealing ex boyfriend, natch), Davey decides to go to a sleazy strip joint called Live Girls. Since this is the 80’s, said strip joint’s right there in Times Square.

It’s Davey’s first time in such an establishment– and, y’know, as luck would have it, he meets a beautiful woman named Anya … who, naturally, is a vampire. And, naturally, she gives him a blowjob through a hole in the peep-show wall that culminates in a bite in a very uncomfortable place.

Like I said, it’s that kind of book.

The rest of the book plays out fairly predictably, as Davey tries to come to terms with his progressing vampirism. The supporting cast is just as predictable, from the grizzled reporter looking into the murder of his sister and niece, to the ‘good girl’ love interest, down to the ‘we’re just jerks who are here to be eaten’ characters. Seriously, the preppy asshole’s name is Chad. Though one of the things that got me was that allegedly ancient (all we’ve got is her word to go on, after all) head vampire’s entire ‘domaine’ consists of a peep show joint and a slightly more upscale nightclub (that also has vampire strippers). I mean, seriously. Dracula had a castle. But I guess it’s better than just a farm in Iowa?

Live Girls doesn’t short the gore and sleaze– throats are ripped out, blood is guzzled, and there’s even a scene involving a vampire and a woman on her period that goes in the exact direction you’re thinking. Except for the part where Mr. Rogers is playing on the TV in the background when said scene happens.

That. Kind. Of. Book.

One of the key things about any vampire story is figuring out what ‘rules’ they play by. Garton’s vampires do the standard stuff: they’re strong, they can hypnotize you, they turn into creepy stuff like bats and snakes, and so on. They edge a little bit into ‘bullshit vampire’ territory in that they don’t have the ‘traditional’ weaknesses like sunlight or holy water … but they at least have a debilitating allergy to garlic (which the characters never take advantage of). Though in an interesting little twist, drinking ‘tainted’ blood– which is to say, druggie blood –causes these vampires to mutate into hideous body-horror monstrosities, so that’s kind of cool. Just say no, kids!

But yeah. The book chugs on for awhile, alternating between explicit gore and mostly-explicit sex (and sometimes combinations thereof!). So, if you’ve got more delicate sensibilities, this might not be the best read for you. However, if you’re a more jaded sort of reader in the mood for some trashy fun, Live Girls is definitely worth checking out. I mean, I’ve read stuff that’s a lot crazier and a lot more offensive … but that might just be my fault.