Thursday, 30 January 2014

MIKE CAREY'S THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

Melanie is a bright ten year old, a bright girl who lives to learn and adores her best teacher, Miss Justineau. Every morning she's taken to classes; taken from her cell by armed soldiers; strapped up like Hannibal Lecter; transported in a wheelchair. Melanie has never been outside, but she lives in an old air base, and isolated fort in a Britain overcome by a deadly spore that has turned much of the population into 'hungries': zombie-like humans who remain listless until the smell of human flesh sends them into a piranha-like feeding frenzy. The uninfected are clustered in a city on the south coast, and in this isolated research centre. Going out means facing the hungries, and also the 'junkers', humans who chose not to retreat, but live out in the world avoiding or battling the hungries.

I haven't enjoyed an sf/horror novel so much in ages. It's a take on a number of familiar tropes, but Mike Carey's novel works in two sections, and draws on two strands of modern speculative fiction. The first, and obvious strand, is dystopian, apocalyptic science fiction, something which has been particularly attractive to British writers at least from the days of HG Wells. Why the British have proved so ultimately resistent to utopias, something Americans have always found tempting, might have something to do with innate pessimism, or disdain for the idea that one's life or station in life can be improved, or maybe simply an expression of what George Mikes identified as the greatest joy in English life: enduring hardship, and the most satisfying hardship to endure was unnecessary hardship.

This dystopian Britain recalls elements of our present day too, and remember that our present day is one dominated by fantasies of vampires and zombies. The former, which is easier to understand, given the obvious sexual undercurrent of vampirism, has given way almost naturally to the latter—why are zombies so popular in modern culture? Do they show us something about ourselves, something lacking perhaps? Or something about a society with only one major value? Certainly when Mrs Thatcher said there is no society, only people with interests, she could be describing a world of hungries.

In the first part of this novel, Carey sets the scene, bit by bit explaining what has happened and exactly what is going on in Britain and at the base, and what the secret of Melanie and her fellow children is. The other part of the story is a more standard race against the inevitable, survival in a world of destruction, but the brilliance of the tale is that there are issues beyond the survival of the people that keep the tale alive.

It's a superlative piece of writing. Carey is just as effective with his military men, his mad scientists, as he is with Melanie, who is the lynch pin of the narration as well as of the story. She is a wonderful creation, a 10 year old coping with curse of unfulfilled intelligence, and ultimately having to figure things out and make huge decisions herself. It's both thrilling in the knuckle-whitening horror sense, and in the sense of the larger personal dilemma, and it is resolved in a way that reminds you that Carey is a comic book writer of some note (I don't mean this in a deprecating way, as I recall particularly his writing on Lucifer, but simply because graphic stories do tend to have endings that work out--I also wonder why he need be M.R. Carey for this book, thought the name does suggest something in the way of Victorian fantasy). So what I meantt to say was the resolution is clever enough to please everyone from old-fashioned sf readers who want their science believable to those who've become invested emotionally with Melanie, and are rooting for her survival. Which should be anyone who reads.

The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R.Carey
Orbit, £12.99 ISBN 9780356502731

Saturday, 25 January 2014

THE LONELIEST: BRUCE ELLIOTT'S ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER

I knew Bruce Elliott's work, because he is one of the writers who filled in for Walter Gibson on The Shadow, when Gibson needed to slow down from the two novels per month schedule of being Maxwell Grant. Like Gibson, Elliott was a magician, and apart from the Shadow his published fiction is anything but prolific. His Shadow novels are relatively easy to spot, especially the ones that concentrate more on Lamont Cranston as a character, and less on the caped avenger himself-- there are three in which The Shadow doesn't even appear. So in my mind he was a footnote, and there was nothing to prepare me for the impact of One Is A Lonely Number, a pulp paperback written a few years after his adventures with The Shadow.

One Is A Lonely Number is published now by Stark House alongside Elliott Chaze's better-known and regarded Black Wings Has My Angel, which I wrote about in my previous post. It is sort of an all-Elliott pulp bonanza. One Is A Lonely Number was originally published in 1952 by Lion Books, reprinted in Justice Magazine in 1956 as The Cocktail Jungle, and then in 1961 by Tower Books as A Woman. If that spinning array of titles confuses you, that's the fate of stuff pounded out for quick cheap publication—Lion was a good step down from Gold Medal, who published Black Wings, and you can see some of the difference right away.

Elliott's prose isn't as penetrating as Chaze's, he hasn't set up situations and characters as carefully to reflect the action. No one is going to call One Is A Lonely Number astonishingly well-written' the way Barry Gifford described Black Wings. But I'd argue that Elliott's novel is, if anything, even more down and dirty, and the gritty flatness of the prose works even better to keep up the frantic downhill pace of the story.

Larry Camonille is on the run after a jailbreak in Illinois, and determined not to make the same mistakes that get his fellow escapees caught. He's operating on only one lung, the kind of defect that stands, in a Hemingway kind of way, for a flaw in his character, but he's doing just fine until he's picked up hitching by Vera Pool, and set up with a job at the Welcome Inn somewhere in Ohio. He's working with a teenager named Benny, who's got a girlfriend, Jan, who's got everyone's eye at the Welcome Inn. But she has an eye for Larry.

When you're a popular guy in this kind of noir, it's usually because someone wants something from you. And Vera Pool has a mother in law who's standing in the way of her happiness with the estate left her by her late husband. She's offering Larry five, then ten thousand dollars to kill her. But Larry has an eye for a set-up. He also has an eye for Jan, and Jan figures out who he is. But she doesn't want anything except to run away with Larry. And have him collect her inheritance for her, an inheritance which is being bled away from her by a crooked lawyer and his greedy wife. And she can't touch it herself, because she's only 14.

As the blurb on the front of the original paperback says: 'An escaped con seeks refuge-- finds jail bait!'

The small Ohio town is so corrupt and steamy it could be set in the deep south, and the pull of sexual attraction with Jan might have been written by James M Cain. Obviously, 1952's pulp fictions don't share our sensitivity to sex with underaged women, but even so, you know that it cannot end happily. And Elliott throws in a few twists, along with the almost requisite moment when the careful and smart Camonille makes one stupid mistake, with unforeseen but inevitable consequences.

Where this falls short of Black Wings is that Chaze's novel has two characters, on a relatively equal footing, and Chaze writes each of them with a distinct fatalism. Here the story is Larry's, and the escape he seeks he gets, but not the way he planned. This is a surprising, and surprisingly powerful pulpy read, and Stark House's double is a remarkable read.

One Is A Lonely Number by Bruce Elliott (b/w Black Wings Has My Angel)
Stark House 2012, $19.95 ISBN 9781933586434

BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL BY ELLIOTT CHAZE

Black Wings Has My Angel (aka One For The Money) is one of the most legendary of the early original novels published by Gold Medal Books (in this case in 1953), when Gold Medal was the acme of the pulp paperback lists, and just a few pages in you can see why. The narrator is washing off four months worth of roughnecking on an Atchafalaya River when the hooker is delivered to his room in a cheap hotel in a cheaper town called Krotz Springs. She's a looker, and even he can see she's well beneath her class in Krotz Springs. And when he makes a joke she says, 'Never joke with a tired tramp. No one gets as tired as a tired tramp.' It's love, or something like it, at first sight.

He tries to leave her behind, and she tries to leave him, even taking his money, but they cannot stay apart He calls himself Timothy Sunblade, and she's Virginia but the names don't matter, except as metaphor, because neither person is what their names say they are. He's got a plan, for a big heist in Denver, and eventually she comes along for the ride, and they shack up in a suburban tract house, playing young marrieds while he cases the job and sets it up.

This has everything there is to love about noir and pulp. The terms are often misused and confused for each other, but here the mix of the elements is perfect: the inevitability of bad luck and fate is as powerful as Greek tragedy, but the characters are out of the darkness beneath that post-war American dream. When Chaze sticks them into 50s suburbia, it's like pouring acid into a volatile mix about to explode. And it does. The only thing worse than waiting for the job to happen, and risking the murder that goes with it, and the betrayal that lurks within the natures of these characters, the only thing worse than that is having the job succeed, and then trying to live out your dreams, knowing the nightmares that were tailing you are still on your tail.

Chaze's prose is relentless, delivered in a first-person narration with surprising sensitivity to nuance, but with no gift-wrapping of the narrator's own character. In best pulp fiction mode, he's rendered almost helpless by Virginia's femme fatale, but he's the master of his own fate to some degree, and that is precisely the degree to which he cannot escape from his desire for her. It ends as you might expect, with storms and a mine shaft down which dreams plummet to their death. Compulsive reading.

Black Wings Has My Angel (b/w One Is A Lonely Number by Bruce Elliott)
Stark House 2012, $19.95 ISBN 9781933586434

Thursday, 16 January 2014

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: THE FILM PROGRAMME ON RADIO 4

I was on BBC Radio 4's Film Programme today, discussing the re-release of The Night Of The Hunter with host Francine Stock and the estimable Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound. you can listen to the show on BBC IPlayer (link here), and you'll also hear a fine interview with Thelma Schoonmaker, about editing Wolf Of Wall Street and digital vs. film editing in general, as well as with that film's co-star Jonah Hill. Ours was a lively discussion, the only negative being we all admire the film, so there wasn't the usual diagreement which might have made it a bit edgier! Much of the best talk, as it so often does, took place before the tape was rolling, or had to be lost for space considerations, so I thought I'd just make a few general points about the film.

I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea even today, when it's considered a work of genius—some people find Robert Mitchum's performance theatrical and over the top, and many find the mix of noirish expressionism and fairy tale oddly disconcerting in a Southern Gothic thriller. At the time it must have, as I said on the show, confused people: look at the poster left and ask yourself if you're getting a thriller, a romance, or a western?

I had some of those feelings myself when I first saw the film, but was won over the way great films often do: by getting you to suspend your disbelief, and accept the story the way it is told, the way it appears, on film, as film. And this is where Laughton is so good. There are borrowings, from Griffith as much as Expressionism, from the Grimm Brothers as much as film noir, but it drags you into that world and gives you a child's perspective of it. We are all children in the cinema anyway, and Laughton reminds us of that.

I mention Mitchum's performance, which I think reflects Laughton's own bombast and flamboyance. I'd recalled his Rembrandt, who as played by Laughton became a two-fisted bar-room brawler, a he-man figure who would put Pollock to shame. Laughton was lucky, because Mitchum brought his own brooding sexuality to a role built on fear and hatred of that sexuality, and he played it with a cunning that worked against the somewhat passive character we remember from film noir, from Out Of The Past, helpless in the web of the spider woman.

But Loughton as a theatre director specialised in getting to the disturbed underneath an actor's surface: just before he made his only film as a director, he was coming off a great success with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, in which Lloyd Nolan, no method actor, played Captain Queeg. I think Mitchum took the freedom Laughton offered and ran with it.

We talked a lot about influences, which got lost apart from my mention of Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood, and John Huston. But you can't have children on the river without Huckleberry Finn springing up, and it's hard to have any southern fiction in the 20th century without the cadence and tone of Faulkner seeping through. You see Davis Grubb in Harper Lee, for example, and you see Hazel Motes in Harry Powell. There's a lot of Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road) too, and at the other end of the spectrum, you might note the epigraphs from Moby Dick which Grubb used in the novel, and think of Melville's other great novel, this one set on a river boat: The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. Which describes Powell perfectly. It's significant too that the film is set specifically on the Ohio River, which marks the northern boundary of the South.

We talked about the influence of this film, and I tried to make the wider point of the steamy South as a natural setting for noirish tales of greed and passion. We should have mentioned Winter's Bone, based on Daniel Woodrell's fine novel, in which the dead body underwater plays such a part. You can see the effects of Laughton's style perhaps in David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch. And I see a lot of Mitchum and a bit of Laughton in The Beguiled; not that Don Siegel strove for much in the way of expressionism, but you can compare Eastwood the seducer to Mitchum working on Ruby, the eldest and most vulnerable of Lilian Gish's strays. That scene is shot in an ice cream parlor: even the sign above their heads seems lascivious in context, and Gloria Castilo could be auditioning for Baby Doll or Lolita. In many ways she is the central character in terms of the film's morality: she is the one Lilian Gish may save from the fear of his own need for love.

More doubling: of course Ruby is the opposite reflection of Pearl, whose name recalls Hester Prynne's illegitimate but pure daughter in The Scarlet Letter. I'd mentioned how perfect Sally Jane Bruce is for the role: her's is a doll-like face, Elizabeth McGovern or Molly Ringwald, and of course her doll is central to the story. A few other cast notes: Shelley Winters was in Laughton's acting class in Los Angeles, one senses he knew what he was getting from her. James Gleason, who is so good as Uncle Birdie, actually replaced Emmett Lynn in the role. And Peter Graves is excellent as Ben Harper; he's playing the same sort of character he played in Wagonmaster, only softened by his children, as you might expect in a fairy tale.

And of course there is Lilian Gish, who nearly turns the film into a fairy tale by herself. She brings the echo of the silents, of Griffith, and of a certain timelessness that invites the viewer to accept the tale the same way he would accept her bible reading at the start. It is, for adults, a tale of the vicious repression of sexuality to God and to Mammon, something Gish rises above. I still recall vividly Gish coming on stage at the Dominion Theatre after a screening of The Wind, and that same ageless presence was still there.Stanley

The work of Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer, is magnficient. Cortez, born Stanlislaus Krantz, was the brother of the heartthrob Ricardo Cortez, one of the best of the homegrown Valentinos. Stanley didn't shoot many 'big' films, but made them count when he did (Magnificent Ambersons being the best-remembered). He has a catalogue of odd B movies to his credit, but he achieved something memorable here. And the set designer, Hilyard Brown, did Creature From The Black Lagoon, and what else is this film but that one with the monster being a human? 

And finally, may favourite of all the photos I found while I was writing this piece: Laughton, Winters and Gish out for dinner in Hollywood, 1955. Why are these people smiling? Or trying to smile?





Wednesday, 8 January 2014

MIKE MIGNOLA'S HELLBOY: MASKS AND MONSTERS

Masks and Monsters consists of two team-up stories. In the first, written by James Robinson and drawn by Mignola, Hellboy meets Batman, but actually teams up with the modern Starman, in a tale which involves modern day Nazis and a plan for world conquest set in the rainforest jungles of the Amazon. The original Starman has been kidnapped, because his research is crucial to the Nazi plan, and it is a tale of rescue, both of a father and the planet. It also reminds us who our real monsters are.

The second story, written and laid-out by Mignola, but drawn by Scott Benefiel and inked by Jasen Rodriguez, teams Hellboy up with Ghost, a spirit avenger armed with two non-spectral .45s, to fight another plan for world domination. This one comes from a resurrected spirit of an ancient Babylonian god, but derives from some brutal murders back in 1939. Since Hellboy is the world's greatest paranormal investigator, this is paranormal worthy of his talents.

Both stories are entertaining, showing different sides of the Hellboy character, which is a facinating one: The Thing combined with a hard-boiled detective perhaps. But I couldn't escape the idea that they would have been better had the drawing assignments been switched. Benefiel's art works best with highlighting the combination of spectral qualities and pin-up looks of Ghost, but might have been even better suited to the rumble in the jungle, although I accept the early part of the story set in Gotham City is perfect for Mignola's own art. Mignola's darkness, the hard-angles shadows and hard-edged almost abstract figures, is in a line that goes from Kirby through Steranko, and Chaykin, and I couldn't help but feel it might have adapted itself to the almost Dr Strange quality of the Ghost tale.

But the other thought which I couldn't escape was that the better team-up of these characters might have been Batman and Ghost. They are both driven by the urge for venegeance, to an almost sociopathic level (of course Ghost is a ghost). The Ghost's costume aims more at the flesh than the ectoplasm, but you see the point. It's a natural team-up, and a woman already dead is perfect for The Batman, if not Bruce Wayne. But when I looked at her twin .45s I could not help but thinking of The Shadow, the most obvious stylistic precursor of The Batman. And I discovered quickly that Dark Horse had indeed done a team-up with them: that's something I now will have to check out.

Hellboy: Masks and Monsters by Mike Mignola et al
Dark Horse Books 2010, $17.99,  ISBN 978595825674

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S OPERATION NAPOLEON

On the surface, the glacial surface, Operation Napoleon is very different from the Erlendur novels which have been so successful for Arnaludur Indridason. It's a fast-moving thriller, about a Nazi bomber lost in an Icelandic storm in 1945, which the Natnajoekull glacier gives back in 1999. And it's an airplane that the US wants desperately to retrieve, and retrieve in absolute secrecy.

Indridason handles the thriller neatly, building the plot elements slowly, with the same misdirection thrown out by the authorities—the thriller element, will the Americans get the plane, and more important get away with what they do to protect their secrecy, is well done, but the real thrill is in the mystery, as we weave our way through the misdirections thrown out by the authorities.

But the real story is the struggle of a young woman, an Icelandic bureaucrat called only Kristin, to find out what has happened to her brother, leading a rescue party, who stumbled across the recovery operation, phoned her, and was tortured and left for dead. And that struggle illuminates, in stark detail, some of the differences between the Icelandic and America character, in the wake of the whole debate about Iceland's role as a key point in the military web of the USA. It is a case of simple versus complicated, nuanced against simple, straight-forward against very crooked indeed. And it's one Indridason obviously relishes.

He stacks the deck somewhat, in a playful way that for me undercut the suspense. The two intelligence agents chasing Kristin are called Ripley and Bateman, who are of course two of American fiction's most memorable sociopaths. Which makes a comment, in its way. The original commander, trying to recover the plane back in the Forties, is called Miller, which suggests the simplicity of the so-called 'greatest generation'; and the two Icelandic brothers who originally witnessed the crash seem to share some values. While his replacement in 1999 has a Lithuanian name, Vytautus Carr, which kept me thinking of Red October, while the man he puts in charge on the ground is called Ratoff, which seems a bit of overkill.

If the secret, once revealed, is a little anti-climactic, and somewhat unconvincing (it all happened, obviously, despite the crash) it's an audacious plot that reflects back on the roots of our modern malaise; perhaps the greatest generation weren't all so great after all. It's impressive to see Indridason turn from the slow build of tone in the Erlendur series to something far more staccato, and do it so well.

Operation Napoleon by Arnauldur Indridason
translated by Victoria Cribb
Vintage, £7.99, ISBN 9780099535638