Jesse James

Two new horror movies

I'd expected a lot -- maybe too much -- from Trick 'r Treat, the long delayed anthology film that recently appeared on DVD. Yes, it conjures a memorable Halloween mood and setting, but it severely suffers in the plot department. There's nothing surprising or remotely creepy about the story lines, nothing inventive about the direction. Even the usually great Brian Cox's performance feels contrived, tired.

On the other hand, Tom Shankland's The Children, hailing from England and just released on DVD, is a genuinely scary addition to the "killer child" genre (think The Omen, The Bad Seed, etc.). It's almost unbearably suspenseful, disturbing without being disgusting, and directed with a real sense of atmosphere and dread. The snowy environment, complete with swaying trees, is almost a character unto itself. The Children definitely belongs in any conversation about the best horror films of recent years.
Jesse James

Slapdash thoughts on Jeff VanderMeer's Finch


This morning I finished Jeff VanderMeer's brilliant new novel, Finch, a perfect marriage of dark fantasy and darker noir and a satisfying conclusion to the Ambergris cycle. Having closed the book only a few hours ago, I'm still consumed by the city of perpetual transformation and war, by the grotesque gray caps and their fungal magic, by green-gold doors and possible worlds, by fractious rebellions, shadowy characters, and suggested monsters. By VanderMeer's muscular prose, fantastic set pieces, surreal imagery, and deeply affecting denouement.

Now, I can't find my way back from Ambergris to my own world.

So, to exorcise Ambergris from my mind, I thought I'd write an in-depth review about Finch. For the last hour, I've typed furiously, attempting to express my affection for the book in greater detail. With each passing paragraph, though, I'd fall deeper and deeper into VanderMeer's world -- and further away from adequately describing it: The more words I typed, the less I seemed to actually say about Finch.

I could muster no better than this, just a few sentences I posted on a message board right after finishing the book:

This morning I finished VanderMeer's Finch. A tough, bruising story; a perfect melding of fantasy and noir; and a beautiful, fitting conclusion to Ambergris. I must admit, the last page hit me emotionally: It's been a long journey for Ambergris fans, and Finch delivers a bittersweet finale, recording a sort of beginning and ending, taking note of a crossroads, not just for the fictional city but for the author as well. The book, probably my favorite of the year, exceeded my lofty expectations and makes me want to re-read the three-book cycle. For this reader, Ambergris is a masterpiece of modern fantasy and one of the most original works of weird fiction to be published this decade.
Jesse James

Lovecraft Unbound, Edited by Ellen Datlow


Earlier this week I finished Ellen Datlow's new horror-themed anthology, Lovecraft Unbound (2009), featuring 22 contemporary authors riffing on and personalizing familiar Lovecraft themes and settings: impending apocalypse and cosmic horror, Antarctic quests and ancient cities, isolation and loneliness. Given the subject matter, the tone of Datlow's collection could have easily detoured into overwhelming despair.

Lovecraft Unbound, however, is a very well rounded collection and offers a wide range of stories, from irredeemably bleak personal visions (Laird Barron's "Catch Hell") to comical pastiches. While the majority of the stories tend toward the serious, the likes of Richard Bowes, William Browning Spencer, Joyce Carol Oates, and Nick Mamatas bring much-needed levity to the proceedings, providing the collection with a nice tonal balance.

Who am I kidding, though? I like my horror fiction straight up -- dark, scary, and cold sober. Here are a few brief thoughts on such stories, my favorites of the collection.

• Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud team up for the book's auspicious opening, "The Crevasse," which takes place in Antarctica just after World War I. Told in prose pruned to perfection, the authors use Lovecraft's cosmic emptiness, as well as the barren setting, to amplify and parallel the protagonist's profound personal loss. Allow me this hyperbole: "The Crevasse" is Lovecraft by way of Raymond Carver.

• Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Houses Under the Sea" (2007; one of the book's four reprints), the best story in the collection, reinforces Kiernan's place on my list of favorite short story writers. (You disagree? Get thee to her masterful 2005 collection, To Charles Fort, With Love.) A 30-plus-page novella, "Houses Under the Sea" is a straight-up weird fiction masterpiece: arresting in story and adventurous in style, abounding with emotional and intellectual layers, and overflowing with indelibly creepy imagery. It's also a persuasive argument for the power of weird fiction. Quite simply, "Houses Under the Sea" is awesome, the kind of story that keeps me loyal to the genre.

• When I finished reading Laird Barron's novella "Catch Hell," my hands were shaking. Not only with fear induced by the story, but with admiration for Barron's adroit writing. With how he slowly unveiled his characters' identities, imbued the text with deeply personal pain and perversity, and manipulated this reader's expectations from page one -- even the title, seemingly generic, smartly sets up the story's mingling of pagan and Judeo-Christian horror themes. Certainly, Barron is one of the most erudite of horror writers, and "Catch Hell" proves he knows not only his Lovecraft but his Arthur Machen and Ira Levin as well. To this reader, Barron seems intent on producing only major stories, as if he's trying to redefine the horror genre one publication at a time. I think he's succeeding.

Because I can never resist an opportunity for a list, I'll conclude with my ten favorite stories from Lovecraft Unbound.

1) "Houses Under the Sea," Caitlin R. Kiernan (2007; reprint)
2) "Catch Hell," Laird Barron
3) "The Crevasse," Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud
4) "The Din of Celestial Birds," Brian Evenson (1997; reprint)
5) "Marya Nox," Gemma Files
6) "Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love," William Browning Spencer
7) "The Recruitor," Michael Shea
8) "Machines of Concrete Light and Dark," Michael Cisco
9) "Sight Unseen," Joel Lane
10) "Leng," Marc Laidlaw
Jesse James

Ti West's The House of the Devil

Though I've only recently seen it, I can state without reservation that The House of the Devil (2009) is one of the best horror films of the decade. It establishes Ti West, who wrote, edited, and directed the picture, as American horror cinema's most exciting, smart filmmaker. No "torture porn" or gratuitous gore here, just real acting, writing, and directing in service of a story that inexorably builds to a fever pitch and honors horror directors of yesteryear. West's clearly fond of Rosemary's Baby and The Shining, amongst other horror gems from the 1970s and 80s that prioritized setting, lighting, and camera movement over cheap scares. I haven't been this impressed by a horror film since Let the Right One In.

If this one comes to your neighborhood, don't miss it. Better yet, purchase
The House of the Devil through Amazon's Video on Demand.
Jesse James

Under the Dome: To read or not to read?

I consider myself one of Stephen King's "Constant Readers." But I'm on the fence about whether to buy (and read) his new novel, the 1,000-page Under the Dome. At that length, I'd better be darn certain of the book's quality before giving my time and shelling out my cold, hard cash.

Advance-reader copies of Under the Dome are making the rounds; Google brings up a couple blog reviews. And here are excerpts from the first two professional assessments that I've come across.

King keeps a huge cast very busy in his third-biggest novel ever, but most of its members are flimsily realized. However, his explanation for the dome has a prestigious pedigree (Shakespeare’s King Lear), and his way with mayhem remains nonpareil. - Ray Olson, Booklist

The frequent accusation that King writes too long is sometimes deserved. However, when he works in an epic mode, depicting dozens of characters and all their interrelationships, he can produce great work. He did it with The Stand and with It, and he has done it again here. - Karl G. Siewert, Library Journal

Aside from the seven-book Dark Tower series, I've never been hugely taken with King's "epic mode," but have responded more positively to his more intimate, personal works (to say nothing of his corpus of short stories, particularly Night Shift, a seminal collection of modern horror). My favorite of his novels include 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Green Mile, Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis (actually, five interconnected stories), and Lisey's Story. I must confess, though, that I've missed out on a few of his major works, notably Pet Sematary, Misery, and The Stand.

So, there you have it. Under the Dome: To read or not to read?
Jesse James

In preparation of Halloween


It's a dreary, rainy night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Trees are already shedding their leaves, and the most wondrous of seasons, fall, is officially upon us -- it won't be long, now, before the very streets I walk through incessantly inspire me to reread my favorite stories from The October Country.

Needless to say, I've been thinking of ways to best enjoy the Halloween season. Of course, those ways involve reading a lot of books and watching a lot of movies. Here's what I've got in mind.

• Tonight, Cindy and I are attending a midnight screening of Ti West's homage to 1970s horror cinema, The House of the Devil. This new, stylish trailer has certainly raised my expectations.

• I'm looking forward to David Herter's October Dark, the latest entry in Earthling Publications' (who first brought us Conrad Williams' The Unblemished) line of Halloween books. Don't think of balking at the $50 price tag: The Unblemished is one of the most beautiful book objects in my collection, and October Dark promises to be no different. Still unconvinced? October Dark also boasts a wonderfully Bradburyesque cover (above), an introduction by Jeffrey Ford, and an irresistible plot.

• On October 6, the Halloween-themed anthology film Trick 'R Treat finally sees the light of day on DVD. Hollywood studios planned multiple theatrical releases for this well-reviewed film, only to shelve it time and again. Amazon.com reviews, while not always the most reliable, support other reviews I've read around the web: Trick 'R Treat, surely, has the potential to be a new seasonal favorite.

• On the mass-market-paperback front, keep an eye open for Sarah Langan's new novel, Audrey's Door, due for release next week. Langan's already proven to be a master of the Stephen King-style, small-town horror novel (The Missing may be the best of its kind since King's own 'Salem's Lot). Now, she turns her attention to New York City and the haunted-house tale. I, for one, can't wait to see how she personalizes this subgenre!
Jesse James

Favorite films of the decade, so far (revised: 12/13/2009)

With a new decade approaching, it's time to reflect upon the movies that captured our imaginations from 2000-2009. There are a lot of movies I'd like to see before finalizing my list of favorites, such as Soderbergh's two-part Che and the six-hour Italian TV-series The Best of Youth, to say nothing of a dozen or so interesting-looking films to be released later this year. Here, though, are the films (and cinematic television) that have most impressed me, that have moved me in some profound way and have stayed with me throughout this new millennium. It should go without saying, but I'll reiterate it anyway: This is my list, meaning it's very personal and not in any way meant to be an objective summation of the decade.

Top 30 (in alphabetical order)

A.I. Artifical Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg)
American Psycho (2000, Mary Harron)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)
Carnivale: Season 2 (2005, Daniel Knauf)
A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, (2008, David Fincher)
The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, Julien Schnabel)
Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
Generation Kill (2008, David Simon and Ed Burns)
I Heart Huckabees (2004, David O. Russell)
Inglorious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)
Inland Empire (2006, David Lynch)
Kings and Queen (2004, Arnaud Desplechin)
Mad Men: Season 2 (2008, Matthew Weiner)
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001, Joel and Ethan Coen)
Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)
The New World (2005, Terrence Malick; preferably, the "Extended Cut")
Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-Wook)
Public Enemies (2009, Michael Mann)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)
Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne)
The Squid and the Whale (2005, Noah Baumbach)
Spirited Away (2002, Hayao Miyizaki)
There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The 25th Hour (2001, Spike Lee)
Yi Yi (2000, Edward Yang)
The Wire: Season 1 (2002, David Simon and Ed Burns)
Zodiac (2007, David Fincher)

I'll stop now before I feel guilty for leaving off Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Nicolas Winding Refn's crime-saga Pusher, Joss Whedon's Firefly and seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the first (and only awesome) season of Battlestar Galactica ...
Jesse James

The Unconsoled

I’m making my way through Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (1995), a very odd, surreal book overflowing with scenes of absurdity and humor. I'm currently on page 350 and still don't know what to make of it – its tone and dialogue remind me of the films of Luis Bunuel. But its story takes its time giving up its secrets.

Mr. Ryder, a world-class pianist, prepares for a pivotal recital in an unnamed European city. Much of the plot, as it is, consists of characters delivering long, winding monologues that reveal bits and pieces of the city's bizarre history. Some scenes are very funny (particularly those scewering the cult of personality), others rich with gothic atmosphere. Some are intriguing (such as when Mr. Ryder attends a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey -- starring Clint Eastwood!), some are downright plodding. Overall, though, Ishiguro's writing is wonderfully modulated -- you get the feeling the author intended every word of this 550-page novel. And, since I can't seem to stop turning the pages, consider this a recommendation.