Category: ramsey campbell

Secret Movie

Ancient Images (1989) by Ramsey Campbell: Probably the sleekest, most thriller-like novel in the prolific Ramsey Campbell’s catalogue, Ancient Images is a story of detection with occult elements that begin to dominate as the novel progresses. 

It’s 1988 in London, England. Metropolitan TV film editor Sandy Allan witnesses the baffling, apparent suicide of her friend and mentor, a film historian who had just announced that he’d secured a copy of a long-lost 1938 Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi British horror film. But the film isn’t in Sandy’s mentor’s ransacked apartment. 

In order to help deal with her trauma, Sandy uses the mentor’s notebook to reconstruct a list of people to contact about the film. She takes holiday time and with the help of an American film writer sets out to see if she can track down another copy of the film.

Her quest takes her across much of England. Many of the actors and production staff remain alive 50 years later. Not so much the director, who died in a car crash mere days after the completion of filming.  

Campbell does such a fine job of describing the fictional film that one starts to wish it were real — if so, it would be one of Karloff and Lugosi’s finest on-screen team-ups. Along the way, Campbell deals with anti-horror, censorship crazes in Great Britain in both the 1930’s and 1980’s. The English peer responsible for the initial quashing of the film invoked the good of the British people back in 1938 as to why this horror film — and horror films in general — shouldn’t be allowed in Great Britain. In 1988, the ‘Video Nasties’ censorship hysteria is in full-blown inferno.

But Sandy won’t be dissuaded, despite increasingly weird goings-on, the mysterious death of her cats Bogart and Bacall, and a growing sense of being followed. Campbell has noted that Sandy is perhaps his least tortured, most ‘normal’ protagonist. This aids in the generation of suspense — she’s not the sort of Campbell character who would believe in even the possibility of the supernatural. All those times she thinks she sees something at the edge of vision — well, they can be explained away. Can’t they?

Its likable, uncomplicated protagonist and its detective-thriller architecture make Ancient Images Campbell’s most accessible book to non-horror readers, in my humble opinion. It’s a terrific ride with a tense climax. Highly recommended.

Three Chose Adventure!

The Straight Story: written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; directed by David Lynch; starring Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight), Sissy Spacek (Rose), Everett McGill (Tom the John Deere Dealer), Kevin and John Farley (The Twins), and Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle Straight) (1999): David Lynch had no part in the writing of this movie so far as I can tell, a first in his career. The visuals, the soundscape, and the performances of the actors are all Lynchian, though. 

It’s a brilliant, based-on-a-true-story look at one stubborn old man on what seems to be a quixotic quest to visit his ailing brother whom he’s not talked to in a decade. The quixotic part concerns the fact that our protagonist Alvin Straight is too near-blind to drive a car and too poor to afford a bus or train visit from his home in Iowa to his brother’s home in Wisconsin. So he decides to make a six-week trek on a John Deere riding lawnmower pulling a hand-modified, covered cart.

And he does. The bulk of the movie concerns that trek going down the road, the people Straight meets along the way, and the natural landscapes through which he passes, quietly observing. Lynch punctuates the movie with Sublime scenes of thunderstorms, vast fields, and the starry sky above, all of them subject to Straight’s quiet regard. 

It’s the acting, though, that makes The Straight Story especially special. This was a cancer-wracked Richard Farnsworth’s final role before his death. His Alvin Straight is stoic and stubborn, but also extremely protective of those whom he loves — including his mentally challenged adult daughter, marvelously realized by Sissy Spacek. He’s a straight shooter. And his stubborn decency wins over everyone whom he encounters. It’s an extraordinarily sweet movie, especially for Lynch, but I don’t think it’s as out-of-character as many critics did at the time.

For one, Lynch has always been fascinated by idiosyncratic characters. Well, he must be — he’s written so many of them! Alvin Straight is perhaps most similar to the eponymous character in The Elephant Man, achingly human while faced with hardship. But the idiosyncratic characters support the movie throughout as well, from the fine Everett McGill’s (Big Ed!) John Deere dealer to the fellow World War Two vet with whom Straight commiserates about the mental scars of those long-ago battles.

And while the movie takes its stubborn optimism from Alvin Straight, it’s also shot through with darkness remembered and long contemplated by Straight, from a horrible secret of his World War Two career as a sniper to the bitterness and alcoholism that led to falling out with his brother. Maybe the movie contains one too many Alvin-delivered homilies about the importance of family, but I think what’s put on the screen earns those homilies their imaginative space. It may be a sweetheart of a movie, but it’s the dark moments that put that sweetness into high relief. Highly recommended.

Garth Ennis’ The Demon Volume 1: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by John McCrea and others (1993-94/Collected 2015): Ennis and McCrea’s anarchic, vulgar take on Jack Kirby’s non-anarchic, non-vulgar Etrigan the Demon is a hoot for those with a strong stomach. It’s no more faithful to Kirby’s original conception of a demon who fights on the side of the angels than, well, pretty much every other take on The Demon after Kirby’s. Indeed, the only comic book that ever came close to Kirby’s energetic mix of super-heroism and the supernatural is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy

Ennis and McCrea, like Alan Moore and Matt Wagner before them, make Etrigan a barely controlled monster. They make the human Etrigan shares a body with, Jason Blood, into a whiny incompetent. They make the various supporting characters into buffoons and punchlines. So it goes. It all works because Ennis and McCrea are really good at ultraviolent horror comedy. It also works because they introduce their super-powered hitman character (cleverly dubbed Hitman) in the course of these issues. Hitman would get his own series. As is pretty much always the case with Ennis, he’d seem a lot more comfortable and a lot less scabrous writing his own character.

The standout story arc here sees Ennis and McCrea bring back DC’s venerable weird war series The Haunted Tank. The cognitive dissonance generated by a story of an American tank haunted by a Confederate general taking on a bunch of resurrected, supernatural Nazis with the help of a nihilistic Demon is a wee bit mind-blowing. Perhaps never moreso than in a scene in which the Demon explains to the Nazis why he finds them repugnant. It’s crazy fun, and it allows Ennis to himself resurrect some of the ridiculous maneuvers the dinky little Haunted Tank once performed so as to defeat seemingly endless hordes of vastly superior Nazi machinery.

Is this Kirbyesque? No. And Ennis’ decision to have Etrigan speak in rhymes all the time — based on a long-standing, DC-wide misreading of Kirby’s original Etrigan , who only occasionally spoke in rhyme — can make for some truly godawful writing at points. But, you know, Nazi zombies in tanks! Recommended.

Ramsey Campbell, Probably (1968-2015/Collected in 2015 Revised Edition) by Ramsey Campbell, edited by S.T. Joshi: 40 years of non-fiction pieces by World’s Greatest Horror Writer Ramsey Campbell. There are autobiographical pieces which illuminate Campbell’s often harrowing early life, essays on various writers, pieces on social issues related to horror, and essays and introductions originally written for Campbell’s novels and short-story collections. 

In all, they’re dandy. And so many of them in this big book from PS Publishing! Campbell is thoughtful and often self-effacing when he writes about his own work, and those essays that do this offer a wealth of information about how and why certain decisions were made in the writing process, and what Campbell thinks about those decisions in retrospect. 

He’s also debilitatingly funny in many of the essays, never moreso than when he deals with The Highgate Vampire hoax. There’s also hilarity to be had in portions of his self-appraisal (for some reason, a section on his attempt to include the word ‘shit’ in a Lovecraftian story submitted to August Derleth’s Arkham House nearly had me lying on the floor). 

His essays on writers are occasionally scathing but for the most part positive. A melancholy essay on the late John Brunner stands out as a painful meditation on what happens when a very good writer is forgotten in today’s publishing climate. A wide-ranging essay on the novels of James Herbert is a sensitive reappraisal of that (alas, also late) best-selling writer’s work as a foundational stratum of working-class, English horror shot through with deeply held social concerns not usually seen in English horror up to that time.  Many of the writers Campbell writes about are also friends, thus shedding a certain personal light on writers ranging from Robert Aickman to the (then) Poppy Z. Brite.

General pieces include the almost-obligatory ’10 horror movies for a desert island’ essay, several examinations of horror in general and the general public’s attitude towards horror, the ‘Video Nasties’ censorship hysteria in the Great Britain of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and examinations of the history of horror. Campbell’s lengthy autobiographical essay “How I Got Here” is also invaluable in understanding his life and work. He’s almost painfully self-revelatory at points, while remaining refreshingly free of self-pity. 

Oh, and there’s an essay on British spanking-based pornography. Really, you can’t go wrong with this collection. How often is one going to find revelatory close readings of major H.P. Lovecraft stories and brief ‘plot’ synopses of faux-English-school-girl spanking pornography in the same book? Highly recommended.

It Hides in the Light

Experimental Film by Gemma Files (2015): As brilliant a new novel Canadian or otherwise as I’ve read in a long time, Experimental Film is also a dandy horror novel. It’s an almost perfect expression of the sort of documentary approach to horror that H.P. Lovecraft codified. It’s also a moving character study of its narrator and her troubled relationships with pretty much everyone in her life, but most notably her young, autistic son.

Lois Cairns has lost her regular jobs as both a film journalist and as a teacher of film at a Toronto diploma factory dedicated to film. But a freelance assignment to review the latest experimental offering from a pretentious, obnoxious film-maker ends up revealing to Lois what appears to be footage from an unknown, early 20th-century Canadian director that the pompous contemporary film-maker has interpolated into his own work. And so the detective work begins — and the eternal quest for grant money!

Cairns’ investigation soon suggests that the mysterious footage was filmed by the even more mysterious Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb. Whitcomb was the wife of an early 20th-century Canadian businessman. She vanished without a trace from a sealed train compartment in the 1920’s, leaving behind only a film projector. Decades earlier, her only son had also vanished somewhere in or around the Whitcombs’ house in Ontario’s cottage country. 

And we’re off. Experimental Film does many things very, very well. Files’ narrator earns our sympathy despite (and also because of) her bouts of self-pity, self-loathing, and nastiness. This sympathy comes in part because the narrator is intensely self-aware, and aware of her many moments of nastiness. She’s also surrounded by keenly observed and rendered supporting characters, most notably a brilliant former student whom Cairns hires to work on the movie about the search for the movie and Cairns’ autistic son.

The accumulation of documentary detail, and the details of the search for the lost movie or movies, all work very much in long-standing horror traditions. More importantly, they’re expertly done in this novel. Files creates a convincing alternate history of Canadian film. And she does so in a gradually building horror narrative in which both sudden, almost epiphanic shocks and the creeping terror of the slow build are both given their moments. 

Perhaps most rarely for a horror novel, Experimental Film is

genuinely funny throughout. And it’s not the tiresome horror humour of the Crypt-keeper and his ilk, nor the deadly jolité of many an omniscient serial killer or Joker knock-off. It’s just funny — sardonic at certain points, cynical about the art scene.

In all, this is a fine novel, and one that will hopefully win readers and appear on courses of study for years to come. It’s also a hell of a travelogue for certain portions of Toronto. It even has a scene set in Sneaky Dee’s. The only thing it’s really lacking is a climactic appearance by the helpful ghost of Al Waxman. Highly recommended.

Holiday Grab-Bag!

Mars Attacks!: adapted by Jonathan Gems, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Martin Amis, and Tim Burton,  from the trading card series written and illustrated by Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell, and Norm Saunders; directed by Tim Burton; starring Jack Nicholson (The President/ Art Land), Glenn Close (First Lady), Annette Bening (Barbara Land), Pierce Brosnan (The Professor), Martin Short (The Press Secretary), Sarah Jessica Parker (Natalie), Michael J. Fox (Jason), Jim Brown (Byron), Natalie Portman (The President’s Daughter), Lukas Haas (Richie Norris), Rod Steiger (General Decker), Pam Grier (Louise Williams), Jack Black (Bill Glenn Norris), Lisa Marie (Martian ‘Girl’), Sylvia Sidney (Gramma), Tom Jones (Himself), and Janice Rivera (Byron’s Busty Co-worker) (1996):

You may think Mars Attacks! is vicious until you see the insane 1950’s trading cards it’s based on. Holy crap! I wish the insanity got going a lot sooner in the film, or that ten minutes were trimmed from the first half. But it’s still a triumph of a sort, a snarky ‘FU!’ to Hollywood blockbusters and good taste. Nods and homages abound, to the spinning flying saucers of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, to This Island Earth, to Dr. Strangelove.  It’s a witty, pissy movie. No wonder it bombed. Jim Brown is terrific as a heavyweight boxer turned Las Vegas greeter, and the rest of the cast is a hoot as well. Highly recommended.

Airplane!: written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker; starring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Murdock), Lloyd Birdges (McCroskey), Peter Graves (Captain Oveur), Julie Hagerty (Elaine), Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack), and Robert Stack (Kramer) (1980): Airplane! established that Mad magazine’s rapid fire, kitchen-sink approach to satire could thrive in the movies. Don’t worry if a joke fails — there’s already another one on the way. The movie also retasked former dramatic actors Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges as mostly deadpan comedians. For Nielsen especially, it was the start of a career resurgence. The movie also helped change NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s public image from that of a humourless, standoffish sourpuss. Highly recommended.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Adam DRiver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), and Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke) (2015): Yes, it borrows a lot of plot points from previous Star Wars films. And there are a couple of sequences in which necessary explanatory dialogue seems to have been left on the editing-room floor. But it’s still a great deal of fun. And the casting of the young leads, especially Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, is terrific. 

I’d rate it far ahead of the three prequels and somewhat ahead of Return of the Jedi. And I’m optimistic that subsequent installments may be better. For some reason, I imagine J.J. Abrams breathing an Admiral Ackbar-style sigh of relief once the box office and the reviews started coming in. He’s not an original film-maker, but he’s one hell of a pastiche artist. Highly recommended.

ESPN 30 for 30: Four Falls of Buffalo: directed by Ken Rodgers, narrated by William Fichtner (2015): Often mournful, sometimes humourous re-evaluation of the Buffalo Bills NFL teams that went to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990’s — and lost all four in another unprecedented feat. The movie certainly highlights the unfortunate fact that for a lot of people, finishing second is far worse than finishing 32nd. That this bizarre, heart-breaking, triumphant series of seasons happened to much-maligned Buffalo seems weirdly apt. One of the best of ESPN’s usually excellent 30 for 30 documentaries, with tons of new interviews and lots of interesting archival footage. Highly recommended.

Holes for Faces (2013) by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:

“Passing Through Peacehaven” (2011)   
“Peep” (2007)
“Getting It Wrong” (2011)
“The Room Beyond” (2011)
“Holes for Faces” (2013)
“The Rounds” (2010)
“The Decorations” (2005)
“The Address” (2012)
“Recently Used” (2011)
“Chucky Comes to Liverpool” (2010)
“With the Angels” (2010)
“Behind the Doors” (2013)
“Holding the Light” (2011)
“The Long Way” (2008)

Excellent collection of horror stories from the 21st century, with the venerable Ramsey Campbell — first published in the 1960’s by Arkham House —  demonstrating that he’s still a master of both terror and poignance. Many of these stories deal with the effects of childhood trauma as remembered and re-experienced by an adult. Sometimes the antagonist is a supernatural menace, though in many of the stories, the problem could actually be a delusion. Throughout the stories, Campbell’s often near-hallucinatory descriptions of people, things, and events keep the level of unease high. 

The stories also deal with children facing supernatural and non-supernatural terrors, perhaps none more acutely than the increasingly confused 13-year-old protagonist of “Chucky Comes to Liverpool.” Here, his mother’s involvement in a community campaign against horror movies — and her obsessive ‘protection’ of him from all evil media influences — causes major psychological problems. It’s a fine story that works even better if one has read Campbell’s essays on some of the censorship ‘debates’ he attended during various English campaigns against horror movies, some of them hysterically focused on the Chucky franchise.

The effects of old age are the focus of several stories, sometimes aggravated by those recurring childhood traumas, sometimes twinned with a separate character facing new childhood trauma. There are parents inflicting psychological traumas on their children. And there are trains and train stations. Seriously. 

Sometimes the train is the problem, sometimes the station, sometimes both… and sometimes not being able to find a train station leads one into dire supernatural peril. Given the focus on (as the back cover says) “Youth and age,” the emphasis on trains and train stations, on arrivals and departures, seems only natural. There may be non-human and formerly human monsters throughout the collection, but they’re mostly seen only in vague half-glimpses of terrible import. Their occasional complete manifestations, when they come, can be shocking, but it’s the reactions of the various characters to the supernatural, or the seeming supernatural, that makes the stories so strong. We may not all meet ghosts, but we all know guilt and fear and regret. Or a hatred of Physical Education classes. Highly recommended.