Saturday, February 27, 2010

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 with a very small population but whose inhabitants are on the look-out to increase it.

Our second plot strand 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 - leading 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.

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 . . . who must choose between a shortcut or the long walk on the road to a dying mother. 

Riding the Bullet
was a phenomenon in e-book publishing history, attached with hype and earning its maker an embarrassing amount of money. If you come to this movie expecting a similar buildup, you'll be somewhat disappointed. However, it is a faithful adaptation, and writer/director Mick Garris has built upon an already interesting story, stretching the narrative into a tangible tale with merit. Though a production budget is lacking, fiscal shortcomings are pardonable knowing Garris has a genuine understanding of King's vision.

Set in Maine (where else)? in 1969, Bullet introduces us to Alan Parker. Going through the motions of a break up riding coattails with suicidal ideation, Alan's thoughts are cleverly substituted with the aid of a 'doppelganger' who sits nonchalantly in the shadows espousing advice. After a futile attempt at self-termination (which mostly comes off hilarious), Alan receives a phone-call detailing his mother's recent stroke, the incident waylaying any plans to catch a John Lennon concert with friends. From here, we become a passenger on Alan's hitch-hiking journey ... and meet malign characters on the way.

Minor pit-falls: our protagonist comes across as unlikable ...  so it's fitting when a special kind of ride pulls up (David Arquette), who offers Alan an ultimatum concerning life, death, and which state is preferable.

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

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 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.

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 writers 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 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 giving 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.

Flesh and Blood by Graham Masterton

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 can escape and finish what he started. To end his line and 'Bad Blood.' Meanwhile pudgy Sheriff of Cedar Rapids, Luke Friend, investigates the homicides and finds himself inexorably drawn into ancient mythological secrets involving an entity known as The Green Traveler; 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 stringing the book together involve genetic research facility the Spellman Institute and their latest trophy to further the cause of science: Captain Black. America's largest pig, Captain Black 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 . . . but he's unaware the donor is none other than one of Terrance Pearson's murdered brood, a descendant of the immortal Green Traveler. 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 to further her cause to make America a vegan society.

Recently, there was discussion with a group I'm involved in regarding giant authors who can fly under the radar. Although well versed with most horror fiction writers to have made an impact in the last twenty years, Flesh and Blood is my first foray into the realm of Graham Masterson. But it won't be the last. His mythology of Janek the Green seems to be totally original; an entire folklore evolved from scratch. Janek's minions include ghostly beings reminiscent of Cenobites . . . each of them having an individual function to perform in relation to butchering Janek's victims. Flesh and Blood works like something sweet on the stomach; it tastes rich and dark but is ultimately bad for you. Throughout the many scenes, lights stutter and flicker, and Graham unleashes the plausibility factor 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 instead of page numbers, be prepared for a prolonged wait. Coming into the climax I felt an editor's zeal kick in, muttering at minor errors. Commas became out of sync, displaying the rhythms of long-winded syntax. 

As plot-lines converge, we are treated to a massive final showdown. Like King's Needful Things, our stage is lit up in a subtle yet apocalyptic face-off. Unfortunately, it does try a little too hard, with too many pages, many of which (might) have been clipped in half.

Overall, as a writer, Masterson is certainly no hack. The book has intelligent philosophical undertones regarding meat consumption in 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. Over the decades, Graham has been more than prolific, and Flesh and Blood is only the beginning of (what will no doubt be) a long affair with a very impressive resume.

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 tour.

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 of Candyman fare) and father to teenage son Robin (Logan Leerman) Walter's dimension is radically altered when he hesitantly starts to read the novel 'The Number 23' by Top Secrets. The premise of the book - 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 irrational mind, like a tongue returning to cavity, will always come back to 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 I 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 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

Brother Odd by Dean Koontz

A thriller writer who needs no introduction, 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 reason 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 other writer's appear positively blocked.

For those not familiar with our protagonist, Odd Thomas is basically the boy from The Sixth Sense all grown up. While reader's of supernatural fiction might find this foundation insipid (knowing it's been tapped in the genre numerous times before), Dean managed to charge the original novel with an almost magical sentimentality. Its sequel, Forever Odd, felt somewhat lackluster in comparison, falling short of capturing the original charisma. Whereas the best books are often written from the heart, Dean seemed to use his head in that instance. With this in mind, I hesitantly approached Brother Odd, hoping the author had received critical feedback. 

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

One glowing positive: the cast in Brother Odd is eccentric and hilarious, Dean using his continued tradition of humor to the fullest extent. However, one of the main players, the Russian born Rodian Romanovich, could have been handled more deftly - his character is clumsy and often oppressive, his lines out of sync with the real. The salvation to the book comes in the form of Koontz's philosophical questing on the nature of reality. In recent journeys (such as One Door Away From Heaven or From the Corner of his Eye), this blend of science and the supernatural is always enlightening. Whether it be 'spooky effects at a distance' or 'a strange order underlining all chaos', the optimistic and life-affirming messages are there for people to decode. And for pessimists like yours-truly, this can be 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. A true enigma, the amount of words poured out reflects someone born to the pastime.

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

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. After the dark debacle of the Books of the Cataclysm, Sean has revisited the path where he started ... and, dare I say, where he belongs.

Apart from the humbling cover, I was immediately struck by the title: Saturn Returns. It gels. From the beginning, the story rolls off the synapses in much the same way. While the term 'layers are stripped away' is probably used all too frequently in reviews, 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 seeking God itself on the fringes of space.

One could say this is the premise: 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 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 burgeoning memories indicating that he, at times, certainly wasn't 'a decent man.'

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

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

You too will be electrified.