Slumdog Millionaire (2008): adapted by Simon Beaufoy from the novel by Vikas Swarup; directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan; starring Dev Patel/Ayush Mahesh Khedekar/Tanay Chheda (Jamal), Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala/Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail/Madhur Mittal (Salim), Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar/Rubina Ali/Freida Pinto (Latika), and Anil Kapoor (Shem): Winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. I didn’t find it as annoying separated from the hype by eight years as I did at the time. Visually, it’s certainly a Dickensian marvel hopped up on goofballs: Danny Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan are nothing if not visually dense, and the editing keeps things at a fever pitch for long stretches. The protagonist remains a character without agency, and I’d still like to see a movie from the POV of his flawed but pro-active brother, who is really the secret hero. And as to Dickensian — well, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, to name two, relocated to India. Recommended.
Undercover Genie: The Irreverent Conjurings of an Illustrative Aladdin (2003) by Kyle Baker: Fun collection of sketches, spot illustrations, and short comic strips from the immensely talented Kyle Baker. Even the introduction is interesting as it points out all the problems of a self-obsessed American comic-book industry (where Baker got his start). Almost out of the gate in the 1980’s, Baker did an enormously impressive, funny, and searingly satiric job of illustrating DC’s wonky Shadow series.
And he kept getting better, especially once he started scripting his own work. These piec es from the 1990’s and early oughts show his immense range as both a writer and artist. On one piece he may riff beautifully on Jules Feiffer. Next up — a funny spot illustration for a magazine article on the band R.E.M.. Baker is one of the great treasures of American cartooning. Long may he reign. Highly recommended.
The Devil You Know (Felix Castor #1) (2006) by Mike Carey (a.k.a. M.R. Carey): The prolific and enjoyable Mike Carey’s first novel after more than a decade of fine work in comic-book writing on such titles as Hellblazer and Lucifer introduces us to London, England’s favourite (ha!) freelance exorcist, Felix Castor. Castor moves through a world pretty much exactly like ours with one significant changed premise: about eight years before the events of this novel, various ghosts, spirits, and demons started to appear in the world. Now they’re pretty much everywhere, with no real explanation as to why the afterlife expelled so many creatures and dead people.
Carey does a lovely job of giving us just enough back-story and exposition to keep us afloat in this strange new world. Exorcism is something that only certain individuals can do, regardless of religious affiliation (of which Castor has none). Castor plays tunes on a tin whistle to work his exorcisms, while others use anything from cat’s cradles to more traditional bells, books, and candles. Exorcism is basically a state of mind and a talent linked to that mind that can take pretty much any form. When it works, exorcism sends the ghost away. Where? Castor doesn’t know.
In this first adventure, the not-very-hard-boiled Castor takes an assignment to purge a rare documents library of a newly acquired ghost which seems to have arrived with a shipment of pre-Revolutionary Russian documents. Of course, nothing is as it seems. Castor will soon come to question the ethics of exorcism itself. He’ll also have to face human crime-lords, a giant were-something that looks just barely human, and a succubus called up from Hell. There will also be an embarrassing moment at a wedding and a moment of seriocomic vengeance at an annoying teen’s birthday party.
Everything goes down smoothly and enjoyably. Carey’s imagination is a fun place to stroll around in, his characters deftly sketched, and Castor an occasionally guilt-wracked but generally witty and humane narrator. And then there’s Castor’s best friend Rafi, in an insane asylum with a demon welded to his soul. That’s partially Castor’s fault, and the Rafi storyline will gain in prominence as the five Felix Castor novels play out. Recommended.
The Naming of the Beasts (Felix Castor #5) (2009) by Mike Carey (a.k.a. M.R. Carey): Argh! Mike Carey hasn’t written a Felix Castor novel since this one. Come back, Mike! Freelance exorcist Felix Castor finally gets his showdown with the demon Asmodeus, who’s in possession of the body of Castor’s best friend. Asmodeus is out and about in London, up to something that will free him from his unwanted mortal vessel without sending him screaming back to Hell. Meanwhile, the supernatural world seems to be shifting, changing the rules that have only been in place for the ten years since ghosts, demons, and other beings were inexplicably unleashed on Earth.
Castor is a fun hybrid of hard-boiled detective and snarky, ironic commentator. Carey’s put a lot of thought into Castor’s world, in which scientists and occultists alike try to master the spirit world before it masters them. If there’s a flaw here, it’s that it’s hard to care about Felix’s best friend Rafi. He willingly participated in the ritual that stuck Asmodeus in him. Moreover, we’ve never seen him unpossessed in the series: we’re told over and over again what a charming rogue he is, but we never really have that shown to us. It makes the stakes somewhat light: like some of Castor’s occult colleagues, I find it hard to justify worrying so much about keeping Rafi alive when the demon riding his body is racking up such a death toll.
But other than that and a last couple of pages that reminds me of all those 1960’s and 1970’s American TV dramas that ended with everyone standing around laughing despite the catastrophes that came earlier in the episode, The Naming of the Beasts is a fun and often wildly imaginative ride. More Castor please! Recommended.
The Missing (a.k.a. Virus) (2007) by Sarah Langan: Winner of the 2007 Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers’ Association for Best Novel, The Missing is a horror novel of its time. Specifically, it makes a lot more sense when one thinks of U.S. adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the tepid governmental response to Hurricane Katrina. This is a horror novel about how the Bush Administration lost a war against monsters. And I think that informs how it won that Best Novel award, because it’s certainly not a great horror novel. Timely, though, and of its time.
The Missing is Sarah Langan’s second novel. It takes place an almost literal stones-throw away from the setting of her first novel, The Keeper. They’re both set in small-town Maine — The Keeper in the run-down industrial town of Bedford and The Missing in the adjacent upscale town of Corpus Christi. The Keeper picks up about a year after the disastrous (for Bedford, anyway) supernatural events of The Keeper.
This time around, we begin in Salem’s Lot territory, as a mysterious virus buried in the woods near Bedford infects a child and a teacher during an extremely ill-advised school field trip to the Bedford woods. The virus, which seems to be both sentient and telepathic, kills most people and turns the rest into what are basically amalgams of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Corpus Christi could be in trouble. So, too, the world.
Langan’s a pretty brave writer. She’s not interested in providing sympathetic characters. Our main characters are instead deeply flawed. So flawed, indeed, that the novel eventually suffers. Harking back to my Bush thesis, the authorities in their entirety are utterly incompetent. Not the authorities of the town — of the United States. Despite the fact that the virus causes its monsters to sleep during the day-time, nothing is done about them other than a half-hearted quarantine of the town, swiftly broken. We get the point — it’s Katrina all over again, but Katrina with monsters.
But between the incompetent indifference of the authorities and the incompetent unpleasantness of most of our protagonists, all of whom do at least one unforgivably stupid thing, we’re left with an apocalypse one simply isn’t invested in. And as the vampiric qualities of the monsters echo such novels as Salem’s Lot, we’re not even given an interesting apocalypse with unpleasant characters as we got in, say, Thomas Disch’s The Genocides. Monsters run around killing and eating people. The disease spreads. Good times!
Langan is a solid writer, one gifted with the ability to create complex characters. There are a couple of people left to root for by the end of the novel. But the last fifty pages go by in a blur of telling and not showing, as the scale of the infestation suddenly goes national. It’s a last fifty pages that seem to gesture towards a sequel that never materialized, one in the vein of Justin Cronin’s later The Passage trilogy or even Max Brooks’ World War Z.
And for all Langan’s strengths, she’s nonetheless created an unpleasant novel that fails to horrify in the end because its sub-textual critique of the Bush government forces its depiction of governmental response to a crisis into the realms of the absurd. Lightly recommended.
And Then There Were None (2015): adapted by Sarah Phelps from the novel by Agatha Christie; directed by Craig Viveros, Basi Akpabio, and Rebecca Keane; starring Maeve Dermody (Vera), Charles Dance (Judge Wargrave), Toby Stephens (Dr. Armstrong), Burn Gorman (DS Blore), Aidan Turner (Lombard), Harley Gallacher (Cyril), Miranda Richardson (Miss Brent), Paul Chahidi (Morris), Sam Neill (General MacArthur), Anna Maxwell Martin (Ethel Rogers), and Noah Taylor (Rogers): Fine, grim, darkly filmed BBC/Lifetime miniseries adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel that has now boasted not one but two currently unusable alternate titles. Making Christie this grim cuts against decades of weirdly light-hearted adaptations of her work. It works. And if your only exposure to this story is the 1940’s film adaptation, you’re in for a surprise: the plot is almost relentlessly faithful to Christie’s original, with only a few cosmetic alterations. Recommended.