Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: The Glory Bus by Richard Laymon

This latest offering from Richard Laymon is filled with mindless gore, vile characters, and a plethora of devious acts committed by them that gives one pause on the nature of modern man.

It is, in short, a terrific horror story.

After passing away in 2001, Laymon left us with a legacy of over thirty novels and a myriad of short, brutal stories that saw publication in magazines like Ellery Queen and Cavalier. There have been four books published since his death that are, in my humble opinion, not under the usual scope presented in such classics as The Stake, Savage, and Blood Games. They are, in fact, better - and The Gory Bus is no exception.

In the opening sequence we are treated to the usual Laymon fare: a sadistic psychopath named Rodney has finally kidnapped the girl of his dreams (Pamela) after recognizing her picture in the paper as the school girl he once lusted after. This adolescent obsession has ripened during the years and he's just aching to whisk her away to begin to enact out his fantasies. And that's where things get interesting.

After a colossal standoff in the heart of the Mojave Desert, Pamala finds salvation from a highly unlikely source: an old converted school bus captained by an eccentric who has the appearance of an ex-Marine and a disposition to carry around fully dressed mannequins as passengers on his desert prowling bus. Utterly relieved to be saved from the clutches of Rodney, Pamala decides she'll not prod the reason for his unconventional vocation and decides instead to follow him into the dark heart of a town called Pits . . . a place that has a very small population but is always on the look-out to increase it.

The second plot strand in this story revolves around young student Norman on his way back home from College. Shy, not normally one to pick up passengers, Norman has no choice when rebel James Dean look-alike Duke hops along for the ride. He's even more powerless to intervene when nymphomaniac hitchhiker 'Boots' tags along with them to lead both boys down a path of murder and sex. From here, the plot-strands intertwine and the two groups will meet in Pits to experience the local's unusual hospitality and even more peculiar eating habits.

The Glory Bus, like most of the author's creations, grabs you from the get-go and shackles you in a pious grip that never lets go until the conclusion. I admit to having some problems with latter novels such as Island, often putting the book down for great periods before finishing it. But I found none of that here, and was gratified to enjoy such voracious horror from someone who was a legend in his time.

Review: Riding the Bullet.

Directed by Stephen King's old partner in crime Mick Garris (The Stand, Sleepwalkers), Riding the Bullet is an exercise in horror morality. Based on King's 30 odd-pager of the same name, it details the plight of college student Alan Parker . . . a disturbed adolescent who chooses the long walk in order to see his dying mother and takes a short cut instead.

Riding the Bullet was a phenomenon in e-book publishing history, earning its maker an embarrassing amount of money with a lot of hype attached. If you come to this movie expecting the same kind of buildup, you'll be sorely disappointed. However, it is a faithful adaptation, and writer/director Mick Garris has emulated on an already interesting story and stretched it into a tangible tale with merit. A viewer can tell the production probably had a shoe-string budget and it almost has a 'cable feel to it , but such discrepancies are easily forgiven when we see Garris has a true understanding of King's visions.

Set in Maine, 1969 (where else) Bullet opens up to Alan Parker going through the motions of a break up whilst trying to deal with his teenage angst. Depressed, suicidal, his thoughts are substituted cleverly with the aid of an Alan 'double' who sits by his side like a conscience caricature espousing advice. After a futile attempt at suicide , which mostly comes off as hilarious , he receives a phone call from a family friend about his mother's recent stroke that waylays his plans to catch a John Lennon concert with friends. From here, the viewer is treated to Alan's hitch-hiking journey to get to the hospital . . . and the malign characters he meets along the way.

One of the pit-falls with this the protagonist: Alan can come across slightly annoying; certainly, it's hard to sympathize with a dude like this one. So it's fitting when at last a very special kind of ride comes his way (played by David Arquette) to give him an ultimatum and perhaps teach him a few lessons regarding life, death , and which state is preferable.

For King fans, this movie is worth your time. It moves at a swift pace and is punctured by delicious tid-bits and comical moments (readers of Christine and From a Buick 8 will be cheering). Overall, you come away with the feeling one ultimately gets from a King story: there's an everyman quality to it filled with aching nostalgia.

Review: Bottomfeeder by B.H Fingerman

That's not a very poetic title, I know. But neither is the tone of Bottomfeeder - a novel that lingers refreshingly with me right now writing these words. Having just completed it, the positive effect of the book is instantaneous: with this paragraph I sound like Phil Merman, our narrator. Sarcastic. Cynical. But above all, utterly hilarious.

Phil Merman is a vampire. Converted by an unknown assailant years before, he's a fifty-four year old immortal living in the flesh of a young man. He's lost his marriage, his friends, and most other things mere mortals hold dear. Phil spends most nights working a regular job. A semi-regular job. If digitally cleaning up photos of dead people is considered regular. Murders, suicides, drive-by shootings - everything New York's finest has to offer. A vampire still has to pay the bills, and the only down-sides are the hunger pangs that creep in staring at all that spilled sustenance. After knocking off it's time for the hunt to begin. But Phil's still a nice guy; it isn't easy to murder to stay alive. So Phil becomes a bottomfeeder . . . sucking the life out of the lowest common denominator: bums and hobos , addicts and degenerates. At least no one will miss them. And making his dinner appear to be victims of nothing than mere muggings guarantees he'll never get caught . .

Personally, the novel resonated with me. B.H. Fingerman's take on modern life is pessimistic but many of you will nod at his keen observations regarding the boring hum-drum of life: rushing through activities just to look busy in front of others; counting down the hours to fill our voids with food, sex, sleep , or, in the vampire's case , hunting. The truth hurts, but B.H. Fingerman has also made the truth laugh-out-loud funny. And being cynical is just an unpleasant way of telling the truth. Phil's not a God, but he looks down on humanity like one. His nature is supercilious - and a tad too much like this narrators as to be scary.

Bottomfinger is an original take on the vampire novel, with few drawbacks. Like the speech impediment of one our main characters, it stutters a little at the start but slowly builds in crescendo. We journey with Phil as he comes out of his isolated shell, hooking up with others of his tribe and learning valuable lessons on the way. The dialogue is quite realistic , at least, as far as English slang and regular talk is concerned.

The book has already received some high praise from some legends in the genre. Fifty pages in I knew I was dealing with an instant cult-classic.

Review: Children of Men

It's a pity that films of a caliber like Children of Men receive such a limited theatrical release before sharing space with utter tripe on the DVD shelves. Savvy science fiction rarely gets this palatial. Upon my first viewing, I was reminded of Gattica - another highly developed movie that displayed a lot of substance driven by core ideas reflecting the basic sci-fi principals. Both films showcase elite ideas within the genre. If a film like Battlefield Earth is the celluloid equivalent of a t-shirt and thongs , then Children of Men is a designer suit . . .

Children of Men (like the Wachowski Brothers V for Vendetta), is set in the not-so-distant future where fascism has taken hold of a democratic England. Years ago such a scenario might have been laughable - but with Western countries obliterating civil liberties in our own three dimensional world at a frightening pace, the paranoia inherent in the writer's message is obvious: This could be a reality, and creative people will never stand for it.

It's London, 2027. November 16th to be precise. Fresh from his role in the film Inside Man, Clive Owen is Theo Faran . . . a man immersed in a gritty world where factions are carrying out bombings in residential areas on a daily basis. The future is as one would expect: giant screens are plastered to the sides of skyscrapers like gargantuan LCD monitors broadcasting government propaganda. Every street corner is New York's Times Square. This approach representing the future may cause some disbelief. After all, we're living in the future - and it didn't quite pan out the way the previous generations envisioned. Such a backdrop is not the crux of the story, however. The root of the narrative lies with the haunting reality that in this future, having children is a long-lost dream. During the opening sequence we are informed through news feed and flashbacks that our DNA is at an end. Mother Nature has decided to pull the plug, so to speak, and the youngest person to exist is only nineteen years of age. Because of this the world burns, and England (survivalist nation that it is) has somehow come out of the carnage relatively unscathed. Keeping illegal immigrants out has become the government's top priority . . . and harboring them is a major crime.

Theo is reeled in by an old American flame (Julianne Moore) to help with some logistics regarding an immigrant . . . a very special immigrant. Thankfully, Julianne does not play an A-list role, and her character is used sparingly and to great effect. Halfway through we're treated to scenes that will make your jaw drop. I say this because of the original techniques used: there is a lengthy car sequence that appears as if it is shot in only one take using astonishing camera rigs that defy conventional film-making. This continues right throughout the film's duration, setting itself up with some real hackle-raising moments.

Michael Caine plays the supporting role of Jasper to perfection as one of Theo's scapegoats when Theo runs afoul of the authorities and terrorist factions. A hippie-intellectual enclosed by despotism, he surround's himself with Beatle-esque tunes that give the film a certain English verisimilitude and add some light panache to what is otherwise a very bleak film ensconced in the dark futility of the future.


A father of three and small-time farmer, Terrance Pearson, slaughters his young children by decapitating them in what appears to be systematic executions. One of them escapes and Terrance is caught. He has no regrets, and only wishes he could get out and finish what he started. To finish his line and 'Bad Blood.' Meanwhile pudgy Sheriff of Cedar Rapids, Luke Friend, investigates the homicides and finds himself drawn inexorably into ancient mythological secrets involving an entity known as The Green Traveller - a creature who is more plant than man and seems to regard his offspring through the generations as nothing more than a food source -

So begins the foundation of this startlingly gruesome and bizarre novel. Other elements that string the book together involve genetic research facility the Spellman Institute and their latest trophy to further the cause of science: Captain Black , America's biggest pig who is the size and weight of a small car. Dr Garth Matthews wants to implant the genetic code of a human child into Captain Black's brain . . . and what he doesn't know is that the donor is one of Terrance Pearson's murdered brood, a descendent of the immortal Green Traveller. Rallying to stop this unethical practice is animal rights activist Lily Monarch , a girl with secrets from her past and someone who will do anything in order to further her cause to make America a Vegetarian society.

Recently, there was discussion with a group I'm involved in regarding giant authors who can sometimes fly under the radar. Although well versed with most writers of horror fiction who have made an impact on us in the last twenty years, I'm ashamed to say Flesh and Blood is my first foray into the realm of Graham Masterson. But it certainly won't be the last. The mythology of Janek the Green seems to be totally original in its construction; Graham has evolved an entire folklore from scratch. Janek's minions include ghostly beings who reminded me of Clive Barker's Cenobites . . . with each of them having an individual function to perform in relation to butchering Janek's victims. The entire novel works like something sweet on the stomach; it's tastes rich and dark but is bad for you. Lights stutter and flicker throughout the many scenes, and Graham unleashes the plausibility factor very well: we believe in Janek the Green , and we sympathize with the monstrous Captain Black.

But Graham Masterson is certainly no James Patterson. Fifty pages can stream by without a single break in the narrative. And if you're a reader who stops at a chapters split-ends to have that elusive toilet stop instead of page numbers, be prepared for a long wait. Coming into the climax of the novel I found an editors zeal kick in, muttering under my breath at obvious mistakes. Commas became common place and out of sync, displaying the rhythms of an over confident writer who needed to be reeled in a little by his editor. That said, I believe these long-winded parts to be responsibility of the editor. It was he or she that was supposed to be on clean up duty, not sleeping on the job.

As all plot-lines converge, we are treated to a massive final showdown. Like King's Needful Things the stage is lit up in a small but apocalyptic face-off. Unfortunately, it does try a little too hard , and with too many pages. I had the distinct impression many of them could have been clipped in half.

All is forgiven, however ,as with any long novel there is going to be pitfalls and positives. Overall, as a writer, Graham Masterson is definately no hack. The book has intelligent philosophical undertones regarding meat consumption in our modern society, the ethical treatment of animals, and our own brainwashed ability to turn a blind eye to the activities of those who lead us. Thankfully, Graham has been very prolific over the decades, and I know this is just the beginning of what will be a very long love affair with his impressive resume.

DVD Review: The Number 23

A story of detailed obsession, Joel Schumacher's The Number 23 is a periodical odyssey of one man's escalation into the dark corridors of insanity. There are many things to applaud here, and I think avid readers of dark fiction will be smart enough to embrace what I think is a stylish and sophisticated movie.

The Number 23 was always going to receive some negative attention. Just mentioning the Director's name is enough to illicit a groan from some quarters. And with Jim Carrey playing the lead role I'd bet scalpels were being sharpened at the ready, leading some viewers to perform an artistic vivisection while the scenes played out before them. That said, I think Jim Carrey has played enough dramatic roles that anybody worth their salt will know he's capable of practically anything . . . including the part of Walter Sparrow, an animal control employee who stumbles onto a manuscript that will change his life forever.

Happily married to Agatha (Virginia Madsen from Candyman) and father to teenage son Robin (Logan Leerman) Walter's dimension is radically altered when he hesitatntly starts to read the novel 'The Number 23' by Top Secrets. The premise of the book that almost every malign occurrence or mundane event in one's history can be traced to a number (in this case 23) is something that carries a lot of weight (both in the film and in our everyday lives). One can find evidence of this uncanny strange order to chaos almost everywhere: the hidden cracks of superstition still rears unrelenting today after the advents of 9/11. The number of so-called 'coincidences' linked to that day and numbers almost defy logic . . . and yet the un-rational mind, like a tongue returning to cavity, will always come back to the hidden significance and what it all means. Upon venturing further into the book this all becomes frighteningly real for Walter as the red manuscript delivers what it promised: A heart wrenching novel into paranoia.

The movie seems to be a fictional nod to the 'pulp fiction' style detective magazines of the sixties. Everything is daubed in ethereal tones like a faded issue of Stephen King's The Colorado Kid. Close-ups are smeary as though the camera lens is salved with Vaseline. I really enjoyed this aspect of it, and you can tell the producers and would have had a lot of fun in the editing room. Another interesting facet is the way the story is told, with the characters playing characters, often with a much darker edge; a nuance used in what must literally be thousands of films. Then we have Jim Carrey or Walter 'narrating' these gritty chapters and I sometimes thought this might be a film for us 'readers' out there. You know - the types who will always hold the written word above the moving picture? Writers, perhaps? When Virginia Madison's character says to her husband: Almost every time a read book it's like the author stole a piece of me only I knew, I smiled knowingly. And this one:

'What are you doing, honey?'

'Reading -'

'Are you insane?'

As a reviewer I cannot recommend this film to everybody; some will go out of their way to point out factual errors and the often tedious way we are ushered through it. There is a wearisome treasure-hunt involving all members of the family and the guesswork involved can ultimately be ugly. But if, like me, you're an individual who feels upset that we live in a day and age knowing how a magician provides the illusions . . . then sit back and enjoy a very dark ride.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review: Brother Odd by Dean Koontz

A thriller writer who needs no introduction whatsoever, whose scalpel clean prose has given an entire generation reason to read, Dean Koontz delivers us the third book in his popular Odd Thomas series. Although at times his tomes have given us numerous grounds to skip them altogether , or perhaps throw them across the room , one cannot help but feel admiration for such a prolific, industrial and unbelievably swift composer whose work ethic makes most writers looked positively blocked.

For those not familiar with our protagonist, Odd Thomas is basically the boy from The Sixth Sense all grown up. Readers of supernatural fiction might find this foundation unbearably insipid, knowing it's certainly been tapped in the genre numerous times throughout history. But Dean charged the original novel in the series with an almost magical sentimentality; the sequel, Forever Odd, was somewhat blighted in comparison , and fell very short capturing the charisma of the original. Whereas the best books are written from the heart, Dean seemed to use his head with the sequel: a strategy that more often than not ensures failure. With this in mind - I hesitantly approached Brother Odd, hoping that Dean had received critical feedback regarding the second book - and attended to what was said.

In this volume, Odd Thomas has retreated into the snowy Sierra mountains and joined a phalanx of monks as a 'guest' resident of St Bartholomew's abbey. He also shares his space with nuns (of which some are privy to his secret), psychically and mentally challenged children , a dog named Boo and the ghost of Elvis Presley. But his peace in isolation doesn't last long as one of the monks goes missing and then is subsequently murdered in a hellish manner as an affront to his beliefs. It's not long before the shadowy Bodach's make their return, sniffing and salivating along the corridors of St. Bartholomew's as harbingers for future carnage to follow. Unless, of course, Odd can outwit this destiny with all the talents at his disposal.

The cast in Brother Odd is eccentric and hilarious, with Dean using his continued tradition of humor to the full extent. However, one of the main players, the Russian born Rodian Romanovich, could have been handled more deftly; his character is clumsy and oppressive, his lines out of sync with the real. The salvation to Dean's errors comes in the form of his philosophical questings on the nature of reality. Those of us who have taken the journeys One Door Away From Heaven and From the Corner of his Eye will know his blend of science and the supernatural is often enlightening. Weather it be 'spooky effects at a distance' or 'the strange order that underlies all chaos' , the optimistic and life-affirming messages are there for people to decode. And for pessimists like yours-truly, this can often be beneficial and gratifying.

Dean Koontz is a writer guarantor, an author whom (like a four-star restaurant that rarely disappoints), promises a story that will sufficiently entertain even when he is batting at the bottom of his game. Rarely, when such huge input is put out into the masses can we criticize. I must admit, the green eyed jealously bug has surfaced within me regarding him: This guy is an enigma; the amount of words spewed out reflects someone who is born to the pastime.

Brilliant, sometimes terrible, but nevertheless a treasure - the religion of reading and its disciples are ultimately lucky to have him.

Note: Although originally published in November 2006, I felt a personal review was warranted given the popularity of the trilogy.

Review: Saturn Returns by Sean Williams

Saturn Returns, the first book of Astropolis, marks a pivotal time in the career of Sean Williams. Like the title metaphor, it seems the author himself is going through a personal homecoming of sorts. After the debacle of the Books of the Cataclysm, Sean has revisited the path where he started , and, dare I say it, where he belongs.

Apart from the humbling cover, I was immediately struck by the title: Saturn Returns. It just gels. From the start, the story rolls off the mind-tongue in much the same way. The term 'layers are stripped away' is probably used all too frequently in reviews, but it certainly applies here. Perhaps more than anywhere else. For our protagonist, Imre Bergamasc, is truly lost after awakening in the body of a female hundreds of years after his own murder. His resurrection is overseen by the Jinc , a gestalt hive mind intelligence that seeks God itself on the fringes of space.

One could say this is the premise about the book: After awakening two-hundred years after death, a former mercenary commander tries to recover his own memory and discovers the possibility that he caused the fall of civilization. This, however, cannot quite measure the sum of its parts. In science fiction, ideas have long held sway, often eclipsing characters and their motivations. But Saturn Returns is about people. Real people. Setting itself up as an original and grandiose masterpiece of Space Opera.

During his day, defined by the Continuum (be it the Federation or the Hegemony, one has to name a future galactic empire), Imre Bregamasc led a motley crew of elite super soldiers on campaigns spanning centuries. With great responsibility comes great conscience, and Imre is not immune to the pitfalls of leadership, with bourgeoning memories that indicate he, at times, certainly wasn't 'decent man.'

With honesty and aplomb Sean shows us that, unfortunately, wars will never be won: it's the human condition and mirrors the current global situation. No matter how hard we travel and how hard we evolve, human beings, at their very basic, will always be warring machines -

During the reading of this tome, knowing that he was only a couple of suburbs away when composing, it electrified me.

You too will be electrified.

Review: Hostel II

As I stand here on the podium to review Eli Roth's third experiment into celluloid and fear, I feel as though my head is on a chopping block: With different mediums giving almost up-to-date information pertaining to a certain film (in this case Hostel II), it can sometimes wither the observer: is there anything new to add to an already assuming crowd? This comment, however, is naive , for certainly there are many whose affiliation with a new release is haphazard at best - and it is this audience for whom reviews should be scribed.

Considering the immediate ejection of making the sequel following the first, I think many assumed a rushed, forceful (and perhaps even bland) follow up would ensue. But Hostel II is anything but; the casual way that Eli let's us in is a smooth trajectory and relaxed. Although I don't know for sure, I'd bet my dog and lot a sequel wasn't even cogitated before writing the first, so Eli is to be commended for this blending of the two as if he knew all along subconsciously where it was going. Surprisingly, elements of the first film are given treatment and an epilogue - ushering the viewer into a movie that is as harrowing and repugnant as any to come to life.

With the back-drop of Rome to inspire them two female artists and one tag-along geek (Heather Matharazzo from Welcome to the Dollhouse), become slowly seduced by a gorgeous fellow female student and the culture to eventually become residents of the Hostel. How each of them are charmed is unique to their individuality , slowly they are separated from one another by mysterious (but at the same time obvious) minions for the Hostel and their owner - a kind of hackneyed European personality that is surprisingly transparent throughout the film. As an accompanying plot-strand, two successful American businessmen have traveled en-route to secure their illustrious prize; one is bull-headed and ready to go; the other is squeamish and unnerved by what lies ahead - but not all is as it seems and Eli pulls out some plot-twists and turns that even the most cognitive might find hard to pick.

For lovers of psychological horror, this film is not for you: the scenes of debauchery border on the obscene - and I suspect that if the first movie wasn't successful, Hostel II would have had a hard time finding a distributor. An avid horror fan would think sequences like this would be cheesy on paper considering what they entail; however, they are not. Eli has made what might normally be laughable tid-bits into a womb of thought that is the real deal. As an aficionado for over half my life-span, there were definitely moments I ruminated on the legitimacy of a genre we all know and love when it is taken to such macabre extremes. However, this genus of film runs in my veins , so to speak - and I personally walked away pleased and happy with the results

For those interested in the mythology of the Hostel, the background is delved into a little further. The editing and direction are superb - as is the lavishness of the outlandish sets , and the unfamiliarity of Europe for those of us in Australia gives this film some credence. Things can happen in such an exotic and far-flung environment - and that's what scares me the most.