Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tales from the Darkside: "The Word Processor of the Gods"

"The Word Processor of the Gods," written by Stephen King.

First published as "The Word Processor", Playboy, January 1983.
Reprinted as "The Word Processor of the Gods" in Skeleton Crew, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, June 1985.

Adaptation for Tales from the Darkside by Michael McDowell, directed by Michael Gornick. First aired 25 November 1984.

Summary: Struggling writer Richard Hagstrom inherits a home-made word processor from his dear departed nephew Jonathan, and soon realizes that by typing simple statements he can alter reality. He is faced with the opportunity to change his life by deleting his nagging wife Lina (Linda in the TV version) and their absent son Seth.

King's short story appears at first a simple fantasy to adapt, yet an important aspect of Richard and Lina's relationship is not well translated and the moral aspect of the story becomes completely skewed. The story is adapted in a fairly straightforward approach, even faithfully transcribing some of King's own lines. The adaptation was produced a year after the story's publication, and able therefore to remain undated in terms of the early 1980s novelty of word processors.

The story presents us with an interesting moral dilemma: is it right to delete the existence of two "unworthy" characters by replacing them with better people? King's short story is satisfying and makes the trade-off welcome, but McDowell's adaptation is morally dented, since the hero of the story is no longer the victim, and deletes the two victims of his own spineless existence.

In the Darkside version, hero Richard is presented immediately as a spineless loser trapped in a marriage to a compulsive eating and nagging wife Linda, while son Seth is locked away in his room incessantly pounding on his electric guitar. We meet Seth only in a photo and, really, the photo of the kid strikes me not as a hopeful guitarist but rather as someone planted on a couch playing video games (I guess at that time it would be the Commodore 64). This is presented to us as average middle American modern man's worst nightmare.

What fails in this rendition of the story is the characterization of both Richard and Linda. "Hero" Richard has clearly done nothing to make a life for himself. He was destined to marry his sister-in-law Belinda but was too spineless to propose, and his wife is fully aware of this. Imagine being married to someone you know is in love with someone other than you, and has married you because there was no emotional involvement? Of course she will be unhappy and nagging, even compulsively eating to fill a void created by a husband who still pines for an earlier love. Hero Richard has not taken any initiative to make something of his life, and has in the process managed to drag another down and produce a son who will likely contribute little to this world. He takes no responsibility whatsoever yet feels he has the right to wipe these two victims off the face of the earth, so that he can be with the woman he loves and seems to love only because she is beautiful (so it would appear; it is the only thing we learn of her). It is true he brings Belinda and Jonathan back from the dead, but in this scenario he should be sacrificing himself for their resurrection.

Richard is presented as a victim because he has a fat wife and a self-interested fifteen year-old son. He takes no responsibility for what he has himself made of his life, does absolutely nothing to redeem himself in any way, and manages to find a way to gain his childhood dream. I was unable at the onset to sympathize with Hero Richard, and wonder what kind of message we are expected to gain from this drama. We choose our paths and make our own mistakes; it is up to us to try and better the world we live in. The philosophy presented to us is that we can still achieve the ideal by doing nothing, or rather by actively sacrificing the victims of our life mistakes. It is likely this apathetic belief-system that has made modern man so lethargic.

This adaptation: 3/10

Director Michael Gornick here revisits Stephen King material which he did, just as poorly, with Creepshow 2. As with the material selected for the movie anthology, King's short story is infinitely better than its adaptation. Though the episode is fairly faithful to the source, King is adept at giving character back-story, and we learn quickly that the marriage between Richard and Lina was once a good thing.

Young and filled with great expectations, their aspirations for the future were quashed when, the one thing they were both relying on, Richard's writing career was sidetracked at the outset by a poorly-received first novel. The couple had placed too much importance on this, unable to accept the possibility that life might require hard word and not offer the anticipated riches that lie in the hearts of most youths. Disappointed by this failure they soon grew apart, and Lina holds what she believes to be a failed marriage against Richard's inability to achieve the riches of such authors as, let's see, Stephen King. Richard is not a failed writer, able to bring in about five grand a year on stories and articles; he has simply not written a bestseller.

We learn early on that Lina is the one unwilling to take responsibility for her unhappiness. Rather than be content with a marriage to a high school teacher and part-time writer, indeed to the man she seemed to have loved a few years ago, she is still hanging onto her dream and reminding her hard-working husband that she "backed the wrong horse." Whatever they believed when young, Lina is responsible for the unhappy state of their marriage. There are clearly no guarantees in life, and Lina's inability to get off her cloud and live in reality is what has destroyed the relationship. She did not marry Richard "for better or for worse," but because he was her ticket to a life of splendid idleness.

In essence, Richard is replacing two selfish people who refuse to serve society in any capacity, and replaces them with two caring, intelligent and creative people whose lives ended too early, and who were victims to Belinda's marriage to Richard's mean-spirited older brother Roger. Unlike the Darkside version, Hero Richard has the sense to understand why he never married Belinda to begin with. Richard did once date Belinda, but forever threatened and bullied by his older brother he gave up the chase out of cowardice and notions of self-preservation. Richard admits this flaw, his cowardice, and recognition of one's flaw is the first step in making amends.

The original short story: 7/10

Comparing the short story with the television adaptation is not entirely fair. Short stories have greater opportunity in sharing information, such as spending even a short paragraph giving back-story, while a twenty-two minute script has various inherent limitations.

It is not, however, impossible.

There is no need in the script for Linda to make certain accusations, such as Richard being in love with beautiful Belinda and not having the guts to propose. This we can eliminate entirely. Rather than be aware of Richard's love for Belinda, she can accuse him of failing in not providing her with the ideal she had not only hoped for, but had expected to achieve through their marriage. "Had I known your novel would fail I would never have married you." Ouch! Now that's a bitch. It's small details such as these that can affect the whole of a work.

Moreover, casted to play Richard was character actor Bruce Davison (best known as Senator Kelly in X-Men). Davison here is overly soft, expected to appear as a victim since he seems like such a nice guy. In reality he would appear haggard, frustrated and depressed. A better bet would be not a visually accepted "nice guy," but rather a visually recognised overworked and exhausted guy.

The choice to adapt King's short story was a good one, but the handling of the shady moral areas transforms the episode into an uncomfortable portrait of suburban America. Perhaps it is precisely that which makes this a tale from the Dark Side.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays from Casual Debris

Have a happy and safe holiday season, to you and your families. I will be with mine shortly.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Norman Bogner, Snowman (1978)

Bogner, Norman. Snowman. New York: Dell (#18152), February 1978. 221 pages (my copy, right)
. London: New English Library, 1979. (below)

Rating: 4/10

Snowman at ISFdb

Snowman at Goodreads
Snowman at Goodreads

Some differing opinions:

Review at the PorPor Books Blog.
Review at The Groovy Age of Horror.

Dell, 1978
Dissenting opinions are as common as blogs, so I am including links to two reviews that offer assessments very much at odds with mine. While these reviews do mention certain weaknesses in Bogner's novel, they are generally recommending the book, whereas I am surprised not that it is out of print, but that it was ever printed in the first place.

Norman Bogner's 1978 novel Snowman is essentially an adventure story with some elements of horror. The Himalayan Yeti has made its way to the Sierra mountains in California, where he has transformed a brand new ski resort into a self-service snack bar. The snacks decide to rebel, but afraid of turning away potential visitors (i.e. re-stocking the snack bar), the head cheese decides to hire some mercenaries, led by Daniel Bradford and his Sherpa guide, leftovers of the legendary snowman dinner of 1966.

I enjoyed the first six chapters, totalling seventy-four pages of blood and amoral behaviour. When the local ski queen is torn to pieces, her remains left as evidence that she is only the appetizer, small town newspaper mogul Jim Ashby manipulates resort managers and the town sheriff to buy some time and locate former great Daniel Bradford. Our '66 survivor is now an outcast, since popular belief is that the nineteen victims of his tragic expedition to the Lhotse mountain face were disposed of not by the legendary Yeti, but by Bradford's own cowardice. Now Bradford wants revenge, and as soon as Ashby locates him on an Indian reservation somewhere deep in a dusty desert, I quickly lose interest in the entire adventure, and can hope only that the snowman has a healthy appetite.

At first I thought this was because I found Bradford comical, with his pop mysticism complete with peyote-popping and a bearded Yaqui buddy. Yet why should I lose interest over this? Why not instead hope that our famished snow creature uses him as a toothpick? I realized only after finishing the novel that what bothered me more than the badly conceived character was the extreme switch in setting. Bogner managed to get me all cocooned up in the icy mountains of Sierra, boarded in with the colourful resort staff he described at length, only to remove me from that grip and toss me into its complete antithesis: an open, sweltering desert landscape. When I was plopped back into the snow, I just didn't care for it anymore. Gone was the coziness; gone the icy excitement of silliness to come; gone was my interest.

Yet like our wintry hikers I trudged on, only to groan at the ludicrous page-and-a-half love story between Bradford and resort Public Relations officer Cathy Parker. The entire scene was an afterthought, possibly forced onto Bogner by his publishers ("We need a love story here, Normy. What we need is SEX!"). All of a sudden the penetrating cold is again heated up by the penetratingly bad writing and awkward breast fondling. There really isn't any heat here: the sex is dull and brief, yet long enough (pun intended) to inform the curious reader that rugged and manly Bradford is a tender lover, leaving us to wonder what genre we have unknowingly been tricked into reading.

[Tiny spoiler.] Cathy disappears through much of the novel, as do the colourful characters we meet at the still-entertaining beginning. Why should we be made to read about Erich, the German instructor who was hired despite a bad record because the company believed he might give the resort a European flavour? This is a good detail, but we never see the guy again. Additional afterthoughts are the sudden re-introduction of Ashby in the final chapter; he disappears throughout much of the latter novel, only to re-appear briefly in the final pages wallowing in guilt. This is an inappropriate comeuppance for the character: he needs to have been eaten up. Indeed, he should have been a fitting dessert!

NEL 1979
Aside from early-Ashby there are no interesting characters. The mercenaries are stock: the white Vietnam war veteran; the black dude; the tall long-haired American-Indian; the Sherpa guide; the white American loner dude. Cathy Parker, who I initially believed would be the novel's hero, keeps changing personality page-to-page. And the snowman, with his heat-ray vision and animal call mimicry, is not too threatening. There is an early Kodiak-killing scene that is quite good, but I think since some portions of the novel are told through the monster's point of view, it does not appear as threatening to the reader as it does to the characters, who knows less of the creature than we do. And it doesn't help when you're cheering for the beast.

[Some more spoilers.] I am baffled as to why Bradford selected these men in particular for the snowman hunt. They are not terribly resourceful. The Indian is afraid of heights, the black guy won't step inside the cave, while the traumatized war vet rants on and on about being a peon in the war, and they are all actively argumentative. Even their limited talents cannot be utilized on the mountain: the explosives expert, for instance, can't bring along any explosives since it would cause an avalanche. Then why recruit the guy! Each freaks out at some point, and they all get killed. In fact, Bradford doesn't even inform his gang that the snowman can expertly mimic any living animal, so that one guy gets called away because he thinks he can hear someone, only to become a late-night bite. Moreover, Bradford doesn't seem to care about these guys; rather than call in the government he wants to bring these men up against the twenty-five foot monster because he wants vengeance. Yet revenge for what we do not know: the death of nineteen members of his team or the fact that he has since had to live in exile on an Indian reservation, discredited and humiliated? It is unclear what is driving this man, and labelling his drive in terms of "revenge" is too simplistic a way out. Captain Ahab he is not. He isn't even Captain Crunch.

But I must admit the NEL cover is really quite neat.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tales from the Darkside Season One: Overview & the First Eight

[Edited on 29 June 2010: formatting, new screen shots & more detail on "Slippage."]

This article covers the pilot and the first seven series episodes

For episode 8, please visit here
For episodes 9 through16, please visit here
For episodes 17 through 23, please visit here

Tales from the Darkside is one of several anthology series debuting in the 1980s. The pilot episode aired just in time for Halloween, on October 29th, 1983, with the series beginning a year later on September 30th, 1984. The success of the series, as well as that of HBOs The Hitchhiker, proved that these half-hour anthology series were marketable, and helped generate a genre anthology fever that was brought to its acme in 1985. Darkside was possibly inspired, or made possible, by the long-running British Roald Dahl-inspired series Tales of the Unexpected, bringing the concept to North America.

Produced by Richard P. Rubinstein, George A. Romero & Jerry Golod, the more direct influences, according to Romero, were the once popular, highly entertaining EC Comics (also the inspiration of his earlier collaboration with Stephen King, 1982s Creepshow) and The Twilight Zone. The show ran in syndication, allowing the writers a little more freedom with the "darkside" aspect of the show, so that characters were often defeated by whatever force they were up against, though these characters normally deserved their defeat. (Prime time TV has a history of not allowing the "bad" to "win" at the end, since corporate sponsors who paid for the advertising spots did not with to be associated with "bad." Hitchcock struggled with these issues throughout the ten-year run of his own series.)

With its low budget, episodes were generally set in a single location, and featured few characters. The show also allowed younger directors a crack at making these shorts, and this was also probably a consideration in keeping costs down. Aside from Bob Balaban, many of the directors who worked on the show never ventured far from television.

The show was successful and helped pave the way for additional mystery or fantastical anthologies to be produced for television. The decade's mid-point introduced big-name players into the anthology frenzy, and four series were launched that same season: the first The Twilight Zone revamp, the reworking of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Ray Bradbury Theatre, and the incredibly dull, unoriginal and over-sentimental Stephen Spielberg entry, Amazing Stories. (With a smaller budget, Darkside was nonetheless better received than AS, and the better of the two by a long shot; NBC put a lot into the show as Spielberg was attached to it, though its two-season contract was not renewed as the show performed poorly). While TZ lasted a single season (though a lengthy one with forty-four episodes), AS survived two with a single episode more at forty-five, and AHP and Darkside each aired for four, though the latter produced more episodes with a total of 89 and a pilot, while AHP aired seventy-six plus a two-hour pilot movie. (The Canadian produced Bradbury ran for six seasons, though they were short seasons and the show totalled sixty-five episodes).

The late 80s brought us a couple more fantastical series, with the extremely low budget Canadian Monsters in 1988 and a revamping of Tales form the Crypt in 1989; both had respectable runs. There was also the surprisingly successful Canadian series Friday the 13th which technically was not an anthology since it followed regular main characters, yet each episode focused on a distinctly separate story-line with a fresh set of supporting characters. A pre-Darkside 80s anthology show was 1981s Darkroom, hosted by the wonderful James Coburn. I watched this as a very small kid & while I remember having loved it, I was so small that I remember little, and the online consensus is that the show's half-season was half a season too long.

As with the other anthology series of the 1980s, Darkside had its share of veteran contributors, such as George A. Romero among the production team and scripting the pilot and a couple of additional episodes. The pilot was directed by Bob Balaban (later co-developer & actor in Robert Altman's Gosford Park) and a vast array of familiar (and not yet familiar) actors taking on various roles. Like most anthology series, Darkside is inconsistent, yet despite some truly forgettable episodes, it did manage to produce a solid amount of strong entries, as well a small number of truly innovative episodes, such as "If the Shoes Fit..." (S1E18) and "Going Native" (S4E17).

"Trick or Treat." First aired 29 October 1983. Directed by Bob Balaban. Written by George A. Romero. Starring Bernard Hughes, I.M. Hobson and Max Wright. 7/10

"I never overcharge, I never cheat, but I expect to collect every penny that's due me. That's the secret of my success."

Old miser Gideon Hackles believes he has never in his life received anything for free and has the entire struggling valley community wrapped around his finger, thanks to a collection of IOUs. Each Halloween he invites the valley children to search his house where he has hidden the bundle, and the child who can find it will have his or her family debt wiped away. Though as part of the search each child must face a series of fabricated frights.

Overall a strong, well produced pilot, it features an excellent performance from Bernard Hughes as Hackles and from accountants Mr. Bindle and Mr. Bundle (I.M. Hobson and Max Wright, respectively) in a well conceived and executed opening sequence. It is in fact that opening scene that makes the episode: it does well in presenting Hackles and contains some wonderful humour and some of the best dialog Romero has ever written, along with a great little climax of its own. The scene is well staged and directed, so that despite the episode's somewhat weak ending, it nonetheless remains above average. A great testament is that, like any good play, the opening sequence is well worth re-watching. In addition, the odd mechanisms that Hackles uses to frighten the children are fun to watch, and are nicely foreshadowed by the clock that cleverly activates his shop's open/closed sign. The unfortunate ending spoils the episode a little, though it is thematically appropriate. I must add that despite being such a horrible miser, Barnard Hughes's portrayal and the actual sympathetic script make me feel for the old bastard.

"The New Man." First aired 30 September 1984. Directed by Frank De Palma. Written by Mark Durand from a short story by Barbara Owens. Starring Vic Tayback, Chris Hebert, Kelly Jean Peters and Paul Jenkins. 4/10

At the end of the day Alan Coombs (Vic Tayback) is finishing up some work before heading home when a boy named Jerry appears wanting to accompany him, claiming to be his son. Coombs, however, does not have a young son. Back on the wagon after many hardships, Coombs's family is convinced that he has been drinking again. This episode is quite a mess. The premise is interesting but it does not move from there. Coombs rages on and on about being sober and not having a son named Jerry, and a little ending is tacked on pretending to be a twist when really it is meaningless. Tayback is fine when he is screaming and angry but a little lackluster in the opening, calmer moments, whereas the supporting cast, with the exception of Paul Jenkins as Coombs's boss, are weak. An unfortunate season opener and follow-up to the strong pilot.

"I'll Give You a Million." First aired 7 October 1984. Directed by John Harrison. Written by Mike Durand and David Spiel from a story by Harrison. Starring Keenan Wynn, John Petrie, Bradley Fisher 5/10

"There's nothing like a good old public execution, is there?"

Two highly amoral businessmen have grown incredibly wealthy with their shady dealings, and now, late in life, Wynn offers to buy the sickly atheist Petrie's soul for one million dollars. As an atheist, it's the easiest million he could ever make. Like the previous episode this one starts off well but plummets full-force in the final act, when the writers lost control and went for the downright obvious. What makes this watchable is the performances by the two veteran actors, Keenan Wynn and George Petrie, with Petrie looking appropriately ill (physically and spiritually) and Wynn exceedingly vibrant with that crazed mustache and nutty sideburns. Bradley Fisher appears as the devil, looking like a prissy Goth kid pretending to be a vampire, and comes across unfortunately comical. Fisher will reappear in another small part in the much better episode "No Strings" (S4E5).

[SPOILER: With a different ending this could have been a better episode. The reveal of Wynn's buying the soul as a gamble that Petrie would offer an additional million to buy it back was great, but this is followed by the most generic finish, with a dead Petrie appearing along with the devil, wanting the soul. Petrie's make-up is senseless: he was cremated so would not appear as a corpse, and even if he were buried his death that very morning would not result in such decay. A better ending would have been an additional reveal with Petrie himself having played at death for some other hidden purpose. Sadly wasted.]

"Pain Killer." First aired 14 October 1984. Directed by Armand Mastroianni. Written by Haskell Barkin. Starring Lou Jacobi, Farley Granger and Peggy Cass. 5/10

A man is stricken with severe back problems and though he tries everything, the pain just seems to worsen. Finally he stumbles upon a guaranteed cure, but the hitch is that the cure requires that he perform an act of murder.

To contrast the previous two entries, this one actually starts off slowly and improves in the second half. The first part is like an old-time husband/wife comedy routine, only the jokes are flat, and while the actors do their best, Lou Jacobi's odd and continuous eyeball twirling reveals little and adds nothing to the interplay. Farley Granger, however, is great as Doctor Roebuck, and introduces the neatest half-point twist we've seen so far in the series. The ending too is quite good, and it's just too bad Granger had to perform that evil laugh with thunder & lightning suddenly appearing at the window. Another devil--and there will be many devils in the episoes and seasons to come--though perhaps not as obvious a devil as most. The thunder and lightening and evil laugh were probably intended to add to the element of humour, but since the humour was quite weak, this little moment did little of anything.

"The Odds." First aired 21 October 1984. Directed by James Steven Sadwith. Written by Sadwith from a story by Carole Lucia Satrina. Starring Danny Aiello, Tom Noonan and Robert Weil. 7/10

"I've never been cheated, I've never been broken. I'm still the best."

On a steaming hot day, bookie Tommy Vale receives a visit from a man making large bets on long shots, and winning each bet. Vale soon recognizes him as Lacey, the son of a man who took his life after losing everything he had to Vale. The first overall strong episode since the pilot, it is well written and well acted, particularly Tom Noonan as Bill Lacey with that great goofy laugh, and Danny Aiello makes a great Vale. The simple set in the rundown bar helps to focus the tension on the character dynamic. The best thing about the episode is the ambiguity in the nature of these men, and the question of who is truly responsible for Lacey's death. While Lacey accuses Vale of cleaning him out, Vale tells him that he should have focused more on his family than on his gambling habit, and by killing himself he left that family destitute. Note also that at the beginning, as soon as "the kid" places five hundred on a sure loser, Vale cautions him to try another horse; "I don't want you to get hurt," he says. The ending is good, but while not spectacular, with all its its positive elements, this episode is not one that needs to rely on a twist ending to be enjoyable. In fact, it was so enjoyable that I can even forgive the cheesy effects.

[Oddly the show was on hiatus for the week of Halloween. Perhaps last year's Halloween pilot was supposed to make up the first season's seasonal episode? It's possible that "Trick or Treat" was re-broadcast on the October 28th time-slot, but I can't confirm this just now.]

"Mookie and Pookie." First aired 4 November 1984. Directed by Timna Ranon. Written by Dan Kleinman. Starring Justine Bateman, Tippi Hedren, George Sims and Ron Asher. 3/10

(The only thing creepier than a 1984 model computer is Justine Bateman's blank stare.)

This one's about a pair of fraternal twins, Mookie and Pookie (nicknames, of course), and how brother Pookie dies and leaves sister Mookie instructions to complete a computer program, Mookie soon discovers that dear departed Pookie is somehow "in" the computer. Pretty idiotic, but not the concept (any idiotic concept has the chance of being well produced), but mostly due to dad who is horribly cruel to Susan (that would be Mookie) and tries some idiotic plot to make her believe that Kevin (you guessed it, Pookie) asked him to unplug and sell the computer. That's right, it's Daddy Darkside, and mom tries to keep the peace. This one features Tippi Hedren (from the brilliant film The Birds) and Justine Bateman (from the less than brilliant TV sitcom Family Ties). It gets a rating of 3 only because of the artwork in the house; there's an Escher in Pookie's bedroom.

"Slippage." First aired 4 November 1984. Directed by Michael Gornick. Written by Mark Durand from a story by Michael Kube-McDowell. Starring David Patrick Kelly, Philip Casnoff and Kerry Armstrong. 4/10

"For some reason, known only to forces beyond all of us, the layers of time have steadily been lifted." Apparently this is how commercial artist's speak.

Artist Richard Hall is fading away. First his boss can't find his paycheck, then his application for a new job goes missing, and suddenly he is no longer receiving mail. Soon people seem to be forgetting him. From there it gets worse on more levels than one, leaving me to hope that I will eventually forget this episode. Well, not really; there is a fair amount to learn about how not to make a short play.

This episode fails on a few crucial levels, which is unfortunate because it has potential, and there are some nice touches tossed into the mix. The script is laden with references to Hall's slippage, often in the form of rhetorical questions, from his boss telling him "Wouldn't want anyone around here to think you were slipping, now would we?" and his wife telling him to "Keep calling. I mean, you don't want them to forget you, do you?" Perhaps it's too laden, but either argument, that the weight makes it obvious or that it's all part of the fun, is valid. I like that the episode begins with the artist watching himself in the mirror, and that he is working on an ad campaign for a vacuum (get it?), the "thin air" vacuum. Some touches can also be seen as idiotic or neat: Hall's favourite movie is It's a Wonderful Life (deck the Halls?), a detail followed shortly by his visit to his mother reminiscent of George Bailey, only this version is dull.

One of the episode's main problems is David Patrick Kelly's portrayal of Hall (Kelly was great as the less than passive Sully in Commando). The problem is there is no desperation, not even when his mother won't recognise him. I understand h is passive and that that's part of the point, but even a passive man will grow desperate. There is also an unfortunate scene between Hall's wife Elaine (Kerry Armstrong) and best friend Chris (Philip Casnoff), where Chris awkwardly caresses her and presses her face into his shoulder. The episode is capped off by a ridiculous moment, the front door opening and closing on its own. (I suspect it's the director walking out on the actors.)

The episode does feature a happy ending, for by the end this vacant, spineless and incredibly dull small town boy ceases to exist; a blessing to all who knew him, I'm sure.

"Slippage" was directed by Michael Gornick, his first of four Darksides, which include the ptoblematic "Word Processor of the Gods" (S1E8) and the excellent "Circus" (S3E1). Gornick is the guy behind the mess that is Creepshow 2, and little else. The story idea was likely "inspired" by Richard Matheson's excellent "Disappearing Act" which was filmed for the original The Twilight Zone as "And When the Sky Was Opened."

"Inside the Closet." First aired 18 November 1984. Directed by Tom Savini. Written by Michael McDowell. Starring Fritz Weaver, Roberta Weiss, and the first really cool Darkside monster. 7/10

Pretty graduate student Gail Aynsley rents a room from a veterinary scientist Dr. Fenner. The room once belonged to Fenner's daughter, and in it is a tiny closet (reminiscent of Alice's Adventures through the Looking Glass, though not that tiny). Soon Gail, and the viewer, suspect that something is living in there. Creepy indeed. Very well shot and acted, this is the first genuine horror episode since the pilot, featuring some nice chills, great make-up effects (as we'd expect from a Savini project). And since my ratings scheme is objective and scientifically based, this one gets an extra point for the pretty graduate student.

Tom Savini's first of three directorial efforts also introduces the first cool monster. Of course Savini is best known for his make-up effects in Romero's Dead films, and all three of his episodes highlight some fine use of make-up. Directing his make-up work is well done, filming the creature in quick segments at first, covered in dark shadows, heightening our curiosity until finally unafraid to let us see the entire creature in a moment of shock.

Fritz Weaver, is great as the serious Dr. Fenner, and is recognizable from films such as Marathon Man and Creepshow, and numerous TV shows, including two excellent The Twilight Zone episodes ("Third from the Sun" and "The Obsolete Man"). Also well cast is Albertan native Roberta Weiss who is not as recognizable but much prettier (she is best known as Alma in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

James Herbert, The Rats (1974)

Herbert, James. The Rats. London: New English Library, 1974.
_____. The Rats. London: New English Library, February 1980 (my edition).
_____. The Rats. London: Pan Publishing, March 2010.

Rats at Goodreads
Rats at ISFdb
Rats at IBList

Rating: 7/10

NEL 1974
There is nothing intelligent about James Herbert's The Rats: the social commentary is incidental, the writing is plain, and while the structure is interesting it is far from ground-breaking. Yet the novel is, without respite, highly entertaining.

"Without respite" is an easy claim as the book is quite short, but Herbert's structure, the short sequences, constantly changing locations, growing tensions and simple writing make for a speedy, tense-filled read. The novel is structured around various rat attack scenes interspersed with quieter moments. Tender scenes of love (sex) between our hero Harris and his lover Judy, or tender scenes of officials discussing (arguing) the vermin problem. (Seriously, nothing about this novel is tender: the sex is fleeting and unnecessary while the officials are portrayed as competitive and limelight hungry.) The novel progresses with a mounting rodent threat and the increased involvement of East End high school art teacher Harris, all of which come to a satisfying climax.

The rodent attacks begin in localized areas with a small number of victims, and progress to mass attacks such as a subway train and Harris's own high school. It is interesting that with the early attacks Herbert chose to give the victims quite a bit of back-story, then quickly had them consumed by rats. I'm not aware if this were at the time a convention, but I was fully immersed in the back-stories, from the closeted salesman Henry Guilfoyle to the once religious Irish girl now vagrant Mary Kelly. For whatever as yet unknown reason, I enjoyed the technique.

These chapters are set beside those of Harris's early involvement as one of his students appears in class with a rat bite, and the tension mounts until we find ourselves amid more large scale attacks. The structure of an active chapter followed by a quiet one allows the reader a bit of a breather between attacks, which is needed since each attack starts slowly and mounts nicely. If we were to jump from one maddening climactic moment to the slow quiet beginnings of pre-attack, it would be more difficult each time for the reader to muster up the required energy to get involved with the scene. The drawback is that some of the quieter chapters, such as when Harris and Judy visit the countryside, come across as a little dull, but really I believe this is because their relationship itself is a little dull.

Though I was invested with the early victims and their history, I didn't care too much for Harris or Judy. Our teacher's story is that he is originally from the East End and knows the rat area well, which gives him first-hand experience with the vermin and allows him, a simple school teacher, to become part of the government operative against these rats. While it was not strictly necessary for such a book to have a single protagonist, it lends the novel a sense of continuity which I liked, probably because the book is so short. Moreover, utilizing an average guy in the midst of the action can easily bring the reader into that midst as well. This is no fully-trained special forces rodent killer operative, but just some dude who happens to be quick-witted and concerned for his fellow Londoners. As for Judy, she is a non-character, present only so that our hero Harris can have someone discuss the stress of the invasion, and more importantly, so he can get laid.

Herbert's writing is nothing special but that is an advantage for such a fast-paced read. It would have been nice had he not used the same words over and over and over again, but that's a minor qualm. What did not work for me stylistically is his attempt at internal monologue. A few characters, from Harris to the required British official Foskins (who is a good deal more complex than Harris) had their internal thoughts brought out in the midst of the story in awkward third person narrative. When Harris and Foskins are at the pub together and Harris leaves, we are suddenly wallowing in Foskins's thoughts, an odd leap since the main character has just stepped away and I felt jolted by Foskins's unexpected voice. Another ill-use of the interior monologue occurs near the end, as Harris is rushing toward the novel's climactic scene. Here the rats are continuously being referred to as "evil," which bothered me. Simply put, they are not evil but animals acting on instinct. I believe the word is supposed to be attributed as part of Harris's own stress-filled perceptions, but it ends up coming across as a poor attempt to create drama and to increase the threat of these creatures.

I mention earlier that the social commentary is incidental. Apparently some people were upset at the portrayal of London's canals and garbage situation, but I did not find it accusatory. There is some direct yet brief comments suggesting these areas be made sanitary, but there is no alternative considered, no solution offered, no soap box beneath the author's feet, and no character that represents a better way of life. Moreover, the sanitation situation is necessary for the plot to unfold. There is in addition a scene depicting city workers using virus injected puppies as easy prey to the rats in an attempt to spread a poison throughout the rodent populace, and Herbert is careful not to offend animal rights activists by continuously explaining how Harris is sickened by this and refuses to actively participate. Repeats it often enough to irritate me, and even has Harris lifting a puppy and caressing it, giving it some raw meat as a kind of last supper and thinking moreover of what a wonderful animal lover Judy is... give it a rest.

Of course we learn that the rats were mutants created by nuclear testing in New Guinea, for aren't monster creatures always the result of radiation? It was radiation, after all, that helped the aliens regenerate for the TV series The War of the Worlds, the ants to evolve in THEM!, and so forth. No, Herbert is not shouting out against weapon testing, but really this information is unnecessary and I did not care what caused the rats to mutate and attack, only that they were there. We do, I suppose, need this information since it does help bring us to the rodent lair, but I wanted nonetheless to comment on this point.

Pan 2010
Another strong aspect of the novel is Herbert's depiction of London. The city is a dark, filthy urban centre of heartache and lost opportunities. The poor community souls we meet have each found some sort of pre-rat infestation sorrow, even tragedy in the case of poor Mary Kelly. The tube stations, dingy churchyards, cinemas and even the zoo are all seen in the dark or, in the case of the high school, in the light while showing off the grilled windows, creepy basements (we don't see it except for the rats and the boot of some poor soul) and disorganized staff. Harris's own flat is located near the top of a taller building, feeling immediately that it is safe from the ground, and in a brief sequence we watch alongside Harris as the streets below are infested with hordes of the over-sized creatures. The only truly safe place appears to be the government buildings, where people discuss the situation openly and nobody thinks to look over their shoulder. London is truly the most complex among the characters, and the city adds a good deal to the narrative.

As an aside I came across this description on the audio version: "For millions of years man and rats had been natural enemies. But now..." This is odd since humans have been on the Earth for a mere two hundred thousand years, one fifth of the alleged time span. Does that diminish our long-standing relationship with the vermin? Well, since I cringe simply by typing "vermin" then they must be my natural enemy (and yours too, and I suppose some rats I know personally see me as their natural enemy, simply by the token that I am human). Herbert's object of attention alone can muster up some nasty chills while reading the novel, and as fair warning, I've never been phobic towards any form of rodent, but I admit some of the scenes in this work had me making some less-than-attractive faces.


  • There's a great discussion of the other killer-crazed animal novels that were spawned by the popularity of The Rats at Vault of Evil, titled "Rivals of The Rats."
  • The novel was filmed as Deadly Eyes, released in 1982. I haven't seen it though I understand it is terrible, lacking budget but also imagination, with dogs dressed up to imitate the larger rats.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Be Read with Caution

Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Be Read with Caution. Ed. Eleanor Sullivan. New York: Dial Press, 1979. (Printing history)

Tales to Be Read with Caution is among the last hardcover Hitchcock anthologies published during the director's lifetime. It contains stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine between 1958 and 1974, though oddly the introduction and dust jacket blurb claim that no story here has seen print since 1972, when in reality eight of thirty (that's 26.6%) were initially published in either 1973 or 1974. The only non-AHMM story contained in this anthology is Charlotte Edwards's novelette, "The Time Before the Crime," among the strongest of the stories. Moreover, the contents make up a healthy portion of the monumental 1976 anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Best of Mystery (Galahad Books). Perhaps the 636-page Best of Mystery was too costly to be a bestseller, so the contents were filtered into slightly smaller hardcovers, but this is just speculation.

The contents are, as usual, a varied mix; the first half is clearly stronger than the second, but the final story makes for a great finish. Caution features fewer duds than most Hitchcock anthologies published in the 1970s, though it also contains fewer "classics." The two strongest stories are the oldest and the most recent: veteran Bill Pronzini's highly entertaining and surprising "Here Lies Another Blackmailer" from 1974, and Charlotte Edwards's 1958 psychological suspense novelette "The Time Before the Crime." Also included in the collection is C.B. Gilford's fine entry "Frightened Lady," which received an Edgar Award nomination for best mystery short story of 1972.

The brief untitled introduction attributed to Hitchcock is, as is the case of most later anthologies, not of any note. It mentions only that there are stories from each of the married Matthews pair, Stephen Wasylyk's first published piece and Gilford's Edgar-nominated entry. Incidentally, it will not be until 1986 that a story from AHMM will receive the Edgar, with the award presented to John Lutz for "Ride the Lightning" from the January 1985 issue (Lutz also has a strong story included in Caution).

And for the stories.

"A Melee of Diamonds" by Edward D. Hoch. (AHMM, April 1972)
I have never been a fan of the overly-prolific Hoch, and his stories seem to appear in nearly every mystery anthology published throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This one features an interesting premise but the story itself is unintentionally comical as it presents Captain Leopold in a reckless and unintelligent light. I wrote a review of the story when I first read it, urged by my frustrations over the unnecessary death of a character, all due to hero Leopold's bumbling. The review is right here. 4/10

"One for the Crow" by Mary Barrett. (AHMM, March 1973)
A filmmaker searching for a spot to shoot a film is impressed with the "local colour" of a certain rural area where a previous filmmaker had gone missing. You're right, that's exactly how it ends. 5/10

"Happiness Before Death" by Henry Slesar. (AHMM, April 1974)
Hitchcock favourite Slesar delivers yet another good story. A self-centred hand model is determined to make his manic-depressive wife happy in order to prevent an attack of conscience once he finally murders her. It's great when a strong premise is handled well and made into a good story (eh, Mr. Hoch?). 7/10

"The Letters of Mme. De Carrere" by Oscar Schisgall. (AHMM, February 1958)
In this short epistolary story, a civic lawyer receives a letter from a small town notary concerning Mme. de Carrere and the recent events surrounding her. In his seemingly well-intentioned correspondence, the notary makes a point to mention some letters that may have unfortunate implications for the lawyer himself, should they be made public. Another good story, well conceived and well written with a satisfying conclusion. 7/10

"Linda Is Gone" by Pauline C. Smith. (AHMM, November 1973)
A young woman wanders away from a community picnic and finds herself stricken with amnesia and wandering aimlessly through California. Meanwhile her husband is arrested for her murder. Another good read. 7/10

"Which One's the Guilty One?" by Edward Wellen. (AHMM, May 1959)
An aging liquor store owner identifies a suspect from a police line-up as the man who recently robbed him, but when he discovers that the person he picked out was a police officer placed as an extra body in the line-up he begins to doubt his certainty. This would have made a good entry to Hitchcock's TV show; I read the story in black & white. 6/10

"Frightened Lady" by C. B. Gilford. (AHMM, July 1972)
Nominated for the Edgar Award as best mystery short story of 1972, it lost out to "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington. A man drives by the home of a woman he has recently had an affair with only to learn that she has been murdered. Good stuff. 7/10

"The Followers" by Borden Deal. (AHMM, August 1958)
A disillusioned high school teacher is heading home with the recent PTA donations in his coat pocket. He soon notices that three youths are following him. Fairly bland and very 1950s. 4/10

"Never Shake a Family Tree" by Donald E. Westlake. (AHMM, March 1961)
Among my favourite mystery authors, this one does not disappoint and is among Westlake's most reprinted stories. In researching her genealogy, a lonely woman places an add seeking information on the mysterious second wife of a previous relation and is soon contacting by a gentleman wishing to exchange information. Both mysterious and fun. 7/10

"Here Lies Another Blackmailer" by Bill Pronzini. (AHMM, June 1974)
An indolent young man witnesses his uncle and guardian killing a stranger in the yard of their home, and decides to capitalize on the situation. A great concept very well executed. The ending is marvelous and completely unexpected. 8/10

"The Missing Tattoo" by Clayton Matthews. (AHMM, April 1972)
A carnival tattooed lady is found dead on her trailer floor with one of her tattoos missing. Average mystery with no surprises. 4/10

"The Fall of Dr. Scourby" by Patricia Matthews. (AHMM, June 1974)
Heading up the Administration Building Tower of the State University, Ms. Gladys Grumly sees a body fall past her down the stairwell. The better story from the Matthews couple, but while better written its mystery is also fairly average. 5/10

"Within the Law" by John Lutz. (AHMM, April 1972)
A man is persistently following the person he is convinced killed his wife. This one is quite good with some nice surprises and tight suspense. 7/10

"Act of Violence" by Arthur Gordon. (AHMM, July 1959)
Following a business layover in Jamaica, where the heat can make a man do almost anything, our hero quickly falls for a beautiful woman who immediately throws herself at an infamous rogue. No real surprises in this one but nonetheless a good, suspenseful read. 6/10

"The Loose End" by Stephen Wasylyk. (AHMM, April 1968)
While replacing a friend in a lobby newsstand, a police detective, retired after losing his left arm, watches a small-time crook wander in and out of the elevators. 6/10

"That So-Called Laugh" by Frank Sisk. (AHMM, May 1968)
The body of a filmmaker is discovered with a curious note in his bathrobe pocket. Very short and just as average. 5/10

"A Very Special Talent" by Margaret B. Maron. (AHMM, June 1970)
After seven years of blissful marriage, a man discovers that his wife is a murderess. Amusing and highly entertaining with some good laughs. 7/10

"The Joker" by Betty Ren Wright. (AHMM, May 1962)
To capture evidence of his wife's infidelity, during a party at their home a practical joker places a tape recorder on the balcony. A pretty good idea that ends a little too oddly (I won't say why since that'll be spoiling it). 6/10

"The Man Who Took It with Him" by Donald Olson. (AHMM, November 1973)
After many years of courting, a woman marries a stingy man she believes has amassed a fortune. The reader knows better and the story does not disappoint. 7/10

"The Plural Mr. Grimaud" by Jacques Gillies. (AHMM, September 1959)
An American detective stranded penniless in Paris must accept an odd offer of employment: the wealthy Mr. Grimaud needs a body double since he believes that someone is trying to kill him. This was a great premise that started well, but the denouement came too quickly and suddenly. Evidently the character, behind the readers' back, does some investigating and tosses out his theory on the situation. 6/10

"Pseudo Identity" by Lawrence Block. (AHMM, November 1966)
Tired with his suburban middle-class life and of his cold and distant wife, a successful copywriter constructs a second, fictional identity in New York's Village. Things get complicated when he inadvertently discovers that his wife is also leading a double life. A great premise and a good story, the ending is over-explained in a truly unfortunate dull finish. 6/10

"That Russian!" by Jack Ritchie. (AHMM, May 1968)
Ritchie has always been among my favourite AHMM contributors, and this is another good contribution though not among his best. On a ship headed to New York are a number of Russian and Eastern European athletes participating in an upcoming meet. A Hungarian hammer thrower tries to help a Russian sprinter evade the commissar that is shadowing her. Not quite a mystery but a very amusing tale from behind the Iron Curtain, and once which features a non-America or British hero. 6/10

"The Very Hard Sell" by Helen Nielsen
. (AHMM, June 1959)
A used car salesman is discovered in a black Cadillac he was trying to sell, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound. Police Detective Sommers investigates, and as suspected by the reader, it is not suicide after all. An interesting procedural piece with a nice criminal element. There's a dated moment regarding marijuana, when it appears to be a life-ending drug, and immediate gateway to the harder stuff. Paranoid, but the story is pre-1960 so we can smile, shake out heads and move on. 6/10

"The Privileges of Crime" by Talmage Powell. (AHMM, March 1967)
An amusing little story about a small-town sheriff and his deputy who nab a man clearly guilty of a fouled-up robbery, but must treat him carefully so as not to aggravate his rights. 6/10

"Comeback Performance" by Richard Deming. (AHMM, March 1973)
In a small hotel a wheelchair-bound man and his wife get caught up with some kidnappers. This one starts off well, patiently and nicely built-up, but ends flatly as it is all-too predictable. 5/10

"The Tin Ear" by Ron Goulart. (AHMM, September 1966)
Detective John Easy's partner was just killed while pursuing an adultery case in San Amaro, and Easy heads down to investigate. This one was reprinted in Best Detective Stories #22 though it's not too clear why. Some amusing banter and nice touches, but the mystery itself lacks in mystery. Easy figures out too easily what's going on and sets himself up as a decoy to prove it. 5/10

"Infinite License" by Dan J. Marlowe. (AHMM, September 1968)
"A detective in a big city sees a lot of bodies, but I'd never seen a body like this." This opening line can refer to all types of bodies, yet what our big city detective is bemused by is the well-dressed corpse primly and properly laid out on his own bed in an apparent suicide. This very short piece offers up a neat little idea with a lot of promise, but the ending, though appropriate, is not terribly satisfying. 5/10

"The Montevideo Squeeze" by James Holding. (AHMM, November 1973)
In Montevideo, Uruguay, an organization by the name of the Big Ones is pressuring a taxi company to cough up some protection money. A simple little mystery; not knowing the direction this one is taking might make it predictable to many, but I was slow on the uptake. 6/10

"The White Moth" by Margaret Chenoweth. (AHMM, September 1969)
"Forrest Blake had been dead less than a month when he first came back." A young widow to an old, wealthy man is having post-mortem visions of her less-than-dearly departed husband, in which he holds a key that transforms itself into a white moth. A great opening sentence followed by a great paragraph quickly pull the reader in. The latter portion is not as clever and ultimately predictable. 5/10

"The Time Before the Crime" by Charlotte Edwards. (Cosmopolitan, May 1958)
While one man receives a summons for jury duty, another man is heading toward a life of crime. An intriguing novelette of two very different men, yet both desperate in their own way. The psychology is well employed and though the reader might at some point or other figure out the grand ending, there are enough smaller surprises along the way to make this a good, tight read. The only story not from AHMM as far as I have been able to research. 8/10

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