Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Black Book of Horror, edited by Charles Black (2007)

Black, Charles, editor. The Black Book of Horror. Mortbury Press, 2007. 298 pp.
The Black Book of Horror at Goodreads
The Black Book of Horror at ISFdb
Mortbury Press website

Appropriately dedicated to Herbert van Thal (1904-1983), the legendary British editor of the Pan Book of Horror Stories series as well as numerous other original and reprint anthologies of the 196os, 70s and early 80s, The Black Book of Horror features some great, inspired writing.

I had not heard of many of the authors collected here and was really excited to start this one. Some good reviews, a brilliant cover and a newly awoken desire to read horror fiction sent me to the Book Depository to order a copy. (Living in Canada many of these British publications are quite pricey when considering shipping and currency exchange. The Book Depository has allowed me to broaden my reading scope with their great selection of British fiction.) When the book arrived I nearly jumped for joy (one of the great joys in life is receiving books in the mail), though about a month passed before I could start reading.

The book itself is very handsome. The cover art by Paul Mudie is gorgeous (I encourage you to visit his website); the facial expression combined with the smooth backdrop and warm colours is enticing. The pages of the book he is holding are exquisitely and minutely detailed, and there is a glow on the figure and his chair as though he were facing a fireplace. He is looking directly at us, and I get the impression that I am facing this man, the fireplace between us, to my left, and I can feel the warm blaze as I look into the deathly gaze of this near skeletal host. I don't dare move, so remain tight in my own seat, somewhat on edge should I need suddenly to bolt, and listen to the tales he is about to share with me.

And for the most part these tales are very good; in fact, this is the strongest anthology I have read in any genre so far this year. There are no true duds in here though there are a couple of weaker stories, and only one that I did not like. There is a little inconsistency that I will put down to editing (though this is an assumption): while some of the stories are incredibly tight, a few others, including some good ones, feel unfinished, whether because it is filled with typos ("The Sound of Muzak") or reads well but could have been even better with some tighter sequences ("Subtle Invasion," "Lock-In"). This is a minor point, but I would be interested to know what caused this, and hopefully editor Charles Black will some day publish an overview of his experiences and the processes of putting this series together. Incidentally, there are no female authors in this volume, and the first volume that includes a woman in its contents is #3 (unless there are some in disguise). This is merely an observation.

Now for the stories. While I might be critical of specific elements in certain stories, it does not necessarily diminish the strength of those particular works, nor of the anthology as a whole.

"The Crows" by Frank Nicholas. Real estate professional Ronson returns to his Aunt Jess's house where he lived for a short time as a child; he has now returned to claim the property following his aunt's death. Though the story spans perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes in time, it is a patient process of rediscovery, with Ronson moving toward and through the old house while flashes of confused memory piece together a dark and terrifying history. The writing is well controlled, the bits of memory potently revealed and Nicholas manages to give us some great lines, including "These were memories that brushed his skin and pecked at his eyes until they smarted with tears," a line more revelatory than Ronson could imagine. "The Crows" is a difficult story to write and Nicholas has managed to keep it consistent and interesting throughout. It is a great lead-in story. 8/10

"Regina vs. Zoskia" by Mark Samuels. The story of a minor law firm employee who gets mixed up with the unusual, lucrative and seemingly endless case involving the inhabitants of a mental asylum who cling to an unusual idea as proof of their sanity. Well written, the characters are all well delineated and Dr. Zoskia in particular is described with great visual sense. I liked the surreal ending and how it questions the actuality of everything else that occurrs in the story. The final line, however, is needless and seems to have been added in order to explain the ending, or at least remove its ambiguity. Without that last line the story would have been a good deal more effective. One of three previously published stories in the collection, as "Regina vs. Sycorax" in the now defunct website The Art of Grimscribe, November 2004. I wonder how that version differed from the one printed here. 7/10

"The Older Man" by Gary Fry. While on a scaffold painting the outside of a newly purchased house, a thirty-nine year-old man experiencing a mid-life crisis witnesses an unusual sight through one of the upper windows. By day a general labourer and by night a rock and pop cover artist, Jack Preen is faced with his weakening body as he discusses basic sociology with a new, much younger co-worker. Another story with a strong character emphasis, the horror element is almost incidental and I found myself interested more in Preen's own reflective state than in whether or not he saw a ghost. The potential ghostly element is nicely linked to Jack's musings and the end is revelatory in both plot and theme. A very nice story. 7/10

"Power" by Steve Goodwin. This one needs a re-read simply because I'm fairly certain I missed many points. An Englishman is in Poland where he is drawn to an abandoned Jewish cemetery and soon reluctantly befriends a local skinhead by the name of Marek. The young skinhead has taken a liking to the narrator while aggressively pursuing the notion of living life fully while forgetting the dead and refusing to fear the inevitability of death. Very well written, I was drawn into the story and Marek's character but was left wondering about certain plot points that seem to drop out unexpectedly, like Magda, the woman who accompanies the narrator through the cemetery at the beginning of the story. I will re-visit this one soon, not just for clarity but to better understand what I like about this story--the kind of story I am normally not drawn into. 7/10

"Cords" by Roger B. Pile. The first weaker story of the group, "Cords" is interesting in concept and presented in a straightforward method. Unlike the first four stories, it is interested more in its integral idea than in the characters or the method of its telling. While the concept is original and quite neat, as a story it ends up a little weak and predictable. 6/10

"The Sound of Muzak" by Sean Parker. An alien creature searching for a host finds itself mixed into a muzak recording, and inadvertently reeks havoc on shoppers. This is the only story in the collection I consider forgettable. Though long, it reads like a summary of events. Characters are merely standbys and the events themselves are dull. Moreover, the tone is non-committal, bordering on comic but oddly restrained. The oddest thing is that among the selections in this cleanly-edited anthology, this one is filled with typos. I would be curious to know the back-story if there is one; was this piece a last minute inclusion rushed through the editing process? 4/10

"Shaped Like a Snake" by D. F. Lewis. First published in Ghosts and Scholars #17, "Shaped Like a Snake" is a somewhat amusing short piece about Oxford Historian Dr. Tom Magri at a vacation hotel near a golf course. Magri learns of an odd and convoluted local wives' tale from Myrtle, one of the hotel helpers. This story works well because it gives little away directly, using a combination of details about Magri and Myrtle's comical monologue to tell its tale. 7/10

"Only in Your Dreams" by David A. Sutton. Late at night a little girl is awake, insisting that the jelly man is coming. Her overworked father has no patience for the interruption but her mom tries to reassure her that the jelly man exists only in dreams. This short piece was truly tense and the nature of the jelly man, though clearly linked with daddy's work, is never directly revealed, nor are the events leading to the finale. The writing is controlled and the concrete reality of a house at night and two sleeping children functions well amid the more abstract moments. Excellent build-up and a great finish, this was one of the better stories in the collection. 8/10

"The Wolf at Jessie's Door" by Paul Finch. I've been wanting to read something by Finch since I came across The Extremist and Other Tales of Conflict; a great cover and a strong review made me curious about the book and about Finch. This introduction to his work was not disappointing, and in fact, "The Wolf at Jessie's Door" is an example of great horror writing. A novelette, the story tells of an ex-cop/current failed writer Adam Verricker who awakens from a drunken stupor in the middle of the night and sees an immense sheep dog staring at him from outside his window. As luck would have it, his old flame from his police academy days has been relocated to his general area, including Adam's low rent and crime infested sub-area of Trapp Hill. Though slightly curious about the dog, Adam is more interested in rekindling his relationship with Jessie and pursues her a little maddeningly on the pretense that it is her duty to investigate. The story is well written, the characters very real, with a strong and unrelenting Jessie fighting off a somewhat lovable though very pathetic Adam. The mystery/horror element takes a back seat to Adam's obsession and desire, but as with every powerful story of its genre it all culminates well at the end. Nothing predictable here, the end has a slight element of ambiguity that works very well. My overall favourite from the anthology. 9/10

"Size Matters" by John Llewellyn Probert. This is an amusing story of a troubled man who uses the inheritance from his mother to buy the one thing he believes will help lead to a better life: a seven-and-a-half inch penis. Amusing with a neat little punchline. 5/10

"Spare Rib: A Romance" by John Kenneth Dunham. I quite liked this one. It begins as a light anecdote-like tale of a loser waking in his own vomit, only to reveal itself in the course of the short narrative as something a little more serious with some interesting thematic overtones. Somewhat (though loosely) reminiscent of the W.W. Jacobs classic "The Monkey's Paw." 7/10

"Subtle Invasion" by David Conyers. A man searches his vast property in the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, for a wasp's nest after his daughter is stung. He finds the nest, and along with it something rather... unusual. And quite disturbing. This was a good story that could have been great. There are bits of weak writing scattered about, such as the unintentionally comic moment when the narrator's wife says "No one knows," and the narrator responds internally, "No one on television knew either." These awkward bits tripped me up and broke the story's momentum. Also, the scenario with the bikers is a scenario in which we always meet bikers (I'm being vague in order not to reveal anything integral), and finally the last line really dragged it down for me; an over-used idea and a sentence that could have been more effectively constructed. 6/10

"A Pie with Thick Gravy" by D.F. Lewis. A slice of flash fiction about a malevolent meat pie (yes, my "slice" was intentional). Short, quick, amusing, nothing more. 5/10

"Lock-in" by David A. Riley. Originally published in Hallows Eve, 2006. A group of older men are at the local pub in Edgebottom one night when the darkness outside begins to consume anyone who attempts to enter it. This story had the potential to be truly exquisite, but some problems with writing and/or editing mar it a little. The main problem is that the characters are often indistinguishable from one another; they are like a pack rather than individuals, with the exception of the first two victims who are nicely singled out. The foursome of elderly drinkers would have been each a little more unique had they not been members of such a single group, and had the narrator not dwelt on them so early as a group. Moreover, the dialogue is at times weak, and the author has the unfortunate habit of explaining the motives behind his characters' motions or words. For instance, someone makes a joke, obviously to make light of a tense situation, so obviously, in fact, that the author does not need to state, "...he said, trying to make light of a difficult situation." Nor does he need to explain that the characters are opening the door carefully "as no one wanted to risk suffering any of the mutilations that struck those who had already tried to get out that way." (p. 128) (I've discussed this odd technique when reviewing Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box). Finally, the explanation of the darkness is a bit of a cop-out; I don't even need an explanation since I was so caught up in the situation. It is possible, however, that the explanation was an attempt to tie the story in with those classic demonic British stories of the Van Thal era. A lack of explanation can make such a situation even more sinister; we awaken and the world is suddenly a different place. Aside from these criticisms I enjoyed the story very much: the suspense was strong and consistent, my interest never waned, and the ending was something truly unprecedented. 7/10 (easily could have been an 8)

"Last Christmas (I Gave You My Life)" by Franklin Marsh. On the verge of starting a new life, a woman on the road stops at the quaint Bide-A-Wee Guest House where the odd owners insist she join them for their little Christmas party. Marsh's story is part of a tradition of stories dealing with unusual road-side inns and their owners, often ghosts and often harbouring strange secrets, or secret knowledge of their unsuspecting guests. I quite enjoyed this one. Understated and adequately under-written, it is short and makes its point well. The eccentric owners are a pleasure to read. The ending is predictable; I saw it coming as soon as... but that would be spoiling it. Also, I would not have finished it the way Marsh did. I don't mean the resolution but the final image and that uninteresting final line. 7/10

"'Shalt Though Know My Name?'" by Daniel McGachey. McGachey's story employs the trope popular in the early modern short story: it is told by a narrator who tells of a friend who hears it first hand from an acquaintance it happened to. This technique was used in the late nineteenth century to create the illusion of authenticity without having to bring the author to bear, as he was never actually part of the events himself, and even his good friend only heard tell of it. The fantastical tale we are told is of an all-too serious scholar who was researching some old papers in a small isolated town museum, when a past competitor and possible plagiarizer suddenly appears. The serious scholar then proceeds to uncharacteristically play a practical joke on his competitor, and as to be expected the joke turns into a horrible tragedy. The technique is well handled and the prose is strong, the characters interesting and the overall effect is solidly creepy. Nothing surprising plot-wise, but a nice little ending and some great description to cap off a good, solid story. 8/10

"To Summon a Flesh Eating Demon" by Charles Black. Professor Greydin insists that The Book of Setopholes does indeed exist, despite his colleague's open ridicule and his pupil's non-committal interest. There is some good humour and I liked the interaction between the three different men, though admittedly the point of view shifts could have been smoother. Very closely related to the stories collected by Van Thal, it is a pleasure when the editor of an anthology includes a story of his own and it turns out to be one of its most enjoyable entries. And a great decision to end it here, with a story that is at times classic, at times comic but consistently suspenseful. 8/10

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One Step Beyond - Season One (1959)

  • Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond
  • Three seasons: January 1959 - July 1961
  • Episodes: 97 (according to the IMDb, but other sources differ)
  • Created by Merwin Gerard
  • Director/host: John Newland
One Step Beyond was an anthology series that ran from January 1959 to July 1961. I had never heard of it before finding a copy of the first season DVD at my library, and since I like anthology series I immediately snatched it up.

Anthology series were popular throughout the 1950s, and One Step Beyond was one of a number that tried to blend a fantastical element with its dramatic story-telling. The show was not a copy of popular The Twilight Zone; in fact its first episode aired seven months before the latter's seminal, groundbreaking pilot "Where Is Everybody?" Instead of science fiction, horror or mystery, it utilized "factual" paranormal events to present its drama. It was quite successful, running for three seasons, quite a feat when most shows of its kind did not survive even one. The show lacked the originality and breadth of The Twilight Zone, featuring fairly traditional ideas and presenting them in a straightforward, conventional manner. What rescued many of its episodes was the show's often character-based drama, almost as though it were modelled after The Naked City (without its consistently excellent cast). Unfortunately, One Step Beyond was often predictable and uninteresting, though it did feature a small number of strong dramatic episodes. Of the first season's twenty-one episodes, I liked nine, but thought only five were well above average: "Emergency Only" (episode #3), "The Dead Part of the House" (#9), "The Devil's Laughter" (#11), "The Navigator" (13) and "Echo" (#20).

As with The Twilight Zone and the legendary Alfred Hitchcock Presents, each episode of One Step Beyond was bookended with an audience directed introduction & epilogue. Its host was the show's director, a serious though likable John Newland. Though a little too serious at first, the opening season experienced a noticeable change as the introductions became increasingly lighter in tone. Though Newland did not openly commit to believing in any of the paranormal elements presented in the show, he was so knowingly suggestive with his slight shrugs and active eyebrows that he might as well have claimed the events happened to him. After a handful of episodes he became a little playful, smiling at the audience and even having some fun, as in the Charles Beaumont scripted "The Captain's Guests" (episode #18) where he walked up the steps of the haunted house amid creepy sounds, looking quite worried at what might lie around the bend or behind the next door. Unlike the distant and often intense Rod Serling, Newland appeared friendly and neighbourly, the kind of guy you might trust as a guide into the unknown. Though unlike Alfred Hitchcock's humourous parodies and nonsensical monologues, Newland's introductions were (often overly) serious presentations of the episode's specific paranormal event. Moreover, unlike both Serling and Hitchcock, Newland was unfortunately faced with some poor writing, and forced to actually utter the nonsensical line, "Explain it we can't, but it has been reported as true by those to whom it happened." Talk about empirical evidence. Whether or not Newland was selected as the show's host for his affability or simply to cut costs (he was the show's prime director) I do not know; an interview with Newland I recently read did not address this point, mentioning only that he was the producers' choice prior to selling the idea.

The episodes themselves were a little all over the place. Those that succeeded were the ones with a good cast and script, that managed to mold the paranormal with the character-based drama. Many of the episodes dealt with serious human situations, such as "Epilogue" which dealt with a recovering alcoholic (Charles Aidman) trying to regain his family, and "The Dead Part of the House," featuring a man (Philip Abbott) and his daughter moving in with his sister (Joanne Linville) following the sudden death of his wife. These episodes were interesting and dramatic independent of their paranormal element, and the supernatural was well interwoven. While "Epilogue" was predictable and its fantastical element a little silly, the possible ghosts in "The Dead Part of the House" were integral to the family dynamics and the episode concluded very nicely, even warmly. Another favourite is "The Navigator" (episode #13) which was set on a ship and featured a heated relationship between a forgetful aging sea captain and his youthful first mate who was sent from the company specifically to write a report on the captain's mental health. The men discover that someone had written incorrect co-ordinates that sent the ship off-course into dangerous icy territory, which sets off a tense investigation almost reminiscent of The Caine Mutiny. The character dynamics made for a strong dramatic presentation though the supernatural element became predictable in the last five minutes. Unfortunately the actor playing the first mate, Don Dubbis (who actually had an uncredited role in The Caine Mutiny), looked the part very well but was a little lopsided in his performance.

Among sillier episodes are "The Dream," "The Return of Mitchell Campion," "The Aerialist" (which features some horrible Italian accents) and "The Front Runner." Not only were these chapters predictable, but were stuffed with filler to bide time until we reached that ending. "The Devil's Laughter" (episode #11) on the other hand, had an uninteresting twist but was so well scripted and fantastically acted by little known New York character actor Alfred Ryder that it is worth a re-watch. The surprisingly good and well acted episode (though you can tell the actor playing the bartender never poured a drink in his life) "Echo," is marred when the protagonist (Ross Martin) witnesses the ghostly image of a gunman in his hotel mirror. Though the gunman is supposed to be an illusion, the effect is so poorly filmed that the actor's shadow appears on the wall beside and beneath the mirror, and as he shoots the sparks and gunsmoke are clearly visible in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. This completely breaks the illusion of a tense moment that while a frightened Ross Martin sat bathed in sweat, I was actually bathing in laughter.

It is clear why this show did not become as recognizable to later audiences as The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents: it lacked the creativity, originality and consistent strong cast. Production values were quite strong ($30,000 to $50,000 an episode), though the incredibly vivid images on the CBS/Paramount DVD are no doubt far superior than those broadcast through a 1959 TV screen. Like its two more popular rivals, One Step Beyond also had a revival series. It was titled The Next Step Beyond and continued to feature host Newland, but it did not catch on and could not survive its maiden 1978-79 season. Newland himself had a long and successful television career as actor, producer and mainly director, including episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Route 66, Wonder Woman and the Star Trek episode "Errand of Mercy" which introduced us to the Klingons, as well as the successful and acclaimed 1973 TV movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Despite these successes he is barely remembered today, and known primarily as host of this very average television drama.

Aside from a very few episodes I would not recommend this show to the general public, though it is unfortunate that those few strong and well written episodes are forgotten since the rest of the show was quite mediocre. There is a Best of... DVD available, and in the case of One Step Beyond I think it is quite appropriate.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Robin Maugham, The Servant

Maugham, Robin. The Servant. London: Falcon Press, 1948
______. The Servant. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949 (my edition, below right)
______. The Servant. London: Prion, 2000 (bottom left)

The Servant at Goodreads
The Servant at IBList

Rating:     7/10

"Something is rotten in the state of London."
The Servant

Robin Maugham's 1948 novel The Servant is best remembered by Harold Pinter's 1963 film adaptation, also titled The Servant, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Dirk Bogarde. The film is quite different in content and approach, mainly because it was produced during a very different era. Maugham's novel is a grim depiction of post-war London; a squalid city where both the privileged and unprivileged must struggle to carve a place for themselves in society. Rules have changed, however, as the world has turned upside down.

As with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the story of Tony and his relationship with his manservant Hugo Barrett is told through the point of view of an observer, an old army buddy of Tony's. It is through Richard's eyes that we witness Tony's steady decline. Unlike The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway, however, Richard understands Tony's background and is aware of his current dilemma, and tries actively to intervene and change the course of Tony's descent.

The novel opens with newly retired yet still young World War II army officer Richard Merton beginning a new job at a publishing firm. Not particularly a literary man, the job is an attempt at remaining productive and a functioning member of modern society. The war is over and the officer's previous role has become obsolete.

These three male characters are mirrored by three female characters: Tony's initial love interest, Sally Grant, Hugo's sickly niece Vera, and Richard's housekeeper Mrs. Toms. The pairings are made interesting because they defy logic: the serious Richard should be paired with the intelligent Sally, the two servants should be paired out of rank, and the careless Tony should be linked with Vera. Of course appearances deceive and as we learn more about the character relationships we also discover the darker sides of some of these individuals and their ugliest desires.

The Servant is well conceived and well written. It is a short book with a plot so simple that there appears to be no plot at all. The progression of character decline is believable and Richard is a straight character with some subtly revealed flaws. What Maugham is expressing about post-war London is that society has transformed so intensely that the world seems to have turned upside down. Servants act like masters and masters lose control over their desires, becoming themselves enslaved. There is a powerful scene when Tony, defending his overly generous attitude toward his manservant, accuses Richard of hypocrisy when the latter explains that the flaw in military reunions is that the officers are separated from the average soldier. Richard argues that there is equality among men rather than among those of rank, though he refuses to believe that one's manservant can be on equal footing with the homeowner.

There are some problems with the novel. First of all, Chapter II is unnecessary; it is needless for Richard to explain that his life did not revolve around Tony but that he is condensing the years as he is focusing on Tony's story. Then there are some odd non-sequiturs when the narrator jumps from one moment in time or simply hops over to a fairly unrelated idea. It does not happen often but when it does the effect is glaring. I understand that the idea of space breaks was not common at the time, but the need for a stronger relationship between sentences and ideas seems to have been neglected.

Aside from these truly minor points, Maugham's novel is quite strong and unfortunately barely known; most people who have watched the movie adaptation are likely unaware that it was based on a novel. Both versions are strong and as they are both different, products of very different decades, the one can be watched and the other read without damaging the experience of the other.

A note on my copy (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949). I found this book in a box outside a library just last week. The volunteers collecting donations for the upcoming book fair often leave unwanted or unusable books in front of the side entrance for passersby to take. This was one of many excellent finds I have made over the last few years. It is the first American edition, a handsome hardcover with its original dust jacket nicely bound in hard plastic. The spine has a tear and the pages are brown (though not too brown for a 1949 edition) but otherwise it's in great condition. The cover is a great depiction of the novel, with its drawing of a man seated with a drink being looked over by an attentive young woman and, a little further back, a manservant with a tray, his head bowed and eyes closed. The woman can be either Sally or Vera, though I suspect it is Sally competing with Hugo for Tony's attention. The cover is dark, mostly black and grey but touched up with some browns and reds. The inside flap states: "Jacket design by G. N. Fish" but does not specify jacket art, though that might be what it's implying.

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