Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dark Moon Digest #2 (January 2011)

Dark Moon Digest #2, January 2011. Stan Swanson, ed. Florida: Stony Meadow Publishing. 107 pages.

Dark Moon Digest #2 at
Review of Dark Moon Digest #1

[NOTE. This blog entry was flagged for its content, specifically for containing malware. I believe it was the links to the Dark Moon Digest website which are now re-directed to an ad page. I have removed the links and hopefully all is now well.]

(I was flattered to receive two separate requests to review this issue. Any requests or other comments can be sent to casual.debris[at]gmail[dot]com.)

The second issue of Dark Moon Digest delivers on its promise of surpassing the quality of its predecessor. The stories included here are overall superior and there are more of them (eleven versus eight). The non-fiction is generally better written and more involving, though there is still plenty of room for improvement in this area. The issue maintains its easy on the eye interior design, and as for visuals it invests a good deal more space by including artwork, photos, page one of a graphic horror story as well as a zombie cartoon. The variety makes for an evening of entertainment on the couch with a glass of scotch or a mug of cocoa (or both, as is my habit).

The classic reprint here is Kate Chopin's 1894 short short story, "The Story of an Hour." As Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" proved a good companion piece to the opening story of DMD #1, "The Story of an Hour" does a great job in highlighting the techniques of flash fiction writing, and serves well to enhance the two flashes included in issue #2. I have always been mixed about Chopin (nor have I latched onto the recently popular flash fiction bandwagon), but this particular story, aside from illustrating the effects of good flash fiction, contains enough ambiguity that it is well worth a revisit. It can be read online at the VCU site.

Issue two of Dark Moon Digest continues to promise more future excitement by way of themed contests for each of the next three issues, so writers working in genre fiction can keep in mind the deadlines for DMD's call for submissions in these areas: vampires, the paranormal and ghost stories. Visit the website contest page for details or check out the back cover below.

The lead-in story is a little problematic (I am discussing it here in terms of its treatment; the story proper is discussed in its own space below). I am a stickler for reading journals beginning with page one and then working my way through to the end. Editors spend a fair amount of time decided how to organize content, so that anthologies and journals are designed not simply to share individual stories with their audience, but also to create a cohesive whole. We judge these collections not only on the merits of their individual content, but on the merits of the construction of the book. Sitting down to read a journal of horror fiction I am psyched for, well, horror fiction, along with its implications: the suspense and the tension that I enjoy. Lights dimmed and a warm blanket over my feet, a glass of scotch to enliven the experience, and I open the titillating glossy cover to be struck head-on with a comedy. Of course, I can always move over to story number two, but of course I don't. Comedy horror is great, but works better as a brief respite from the tenser bits of fiction.

Moreover, the copy is poorly handled. The rest of DMD #2 is cleaner in terms of copy, far cleaner than issue #1, but this story seemed to have been forgotten in the course of the editing process. First of all there is the incorrect and even inconsistent formatting and use of the dash, which is formatted as a hyphen and frequently used in place of a comma. Secondly, the grammar is all too commonly improper: "All you have to do is lay there" (6: should be "lie") / "bachlorette party" (7: missing an e) / "crows feet" (7: missing an apostrophe) / "during his University years" (7: odd upper casing) / "the wind seemed to push us forward rather than against us" (8: so the wind was nearly pushing them against themselves?) / "double checked" (8: needs a hyphen) / "The paramedics might as well of announced" (8: preposition in place of a verb as of should be have) / "even though I barely had a scratch on me" (8: redundant since you can't exactly have a scratch on someone else)... and the list goes on, adding to it a number misused or altogether missing commas. These errors made for a clunky read, though I was relieved when the other stories were so much cleaner. Perhaps this was a late entry, I don't know, but irksome nonetheless.

I Married a Zombie by Craig Garrett     7/10
Betrothed to the son of a wealthy and powerful family while still a child, a woman must endure the wedding and marriage despite the groom's recent death. An original idea that loses out on its inherently rich potential by placing the bulk of its emphasis on humour and violence.

The story is well structured. It begins in the middle, at the wedding, skips over to the past and works its way into the future. This is a good way to grasp a reader's interest, by plunging them into the unique depth of the plot and slowly revealing what brought our protagonist to such an odd predicament, and then working into the denouement of the whole fiasco. And the denouement of the story is, unfortunately, a fiasco in itself. What I was hoping for was to learn more about groom David's family and their influence on society. A mysterious organization that has the ability not only to intervene in people's lives, alter the nature of their personalities (as with our protagonist's hapless father), but also achieving the ingenious task of bringing their heir back from the dead. No Corleone, Soprano, Hapsburg or Kennedy family was ever able to manage even that. I liked that the nature of the family was not explicitly explained; it did not need to be and really the fun is not in what they are made of but what they can do. The "past" of the story works very well in this respect, but the "future" sequence seems to have forgotten its family history, and resorts instead on blood and guts.

Please forgive this aside: It is an unfortunate trend for quirky ideas to be treated as comedies. Standard concepts work better as comedies as they evoke ideas of parody and satire, using familiar plots and conventions to bring across new ideas, or simply reworking the norm so that it becomes fresh and re-invigorated. Quirky ideas should be treated seriously. It is difficult in this day and age to be truly original, so when an original idea comes along it can be used to illustrate or to illuminate, to make people think of the world around them in a different light. Kafka's Metamorphosis was serious indeed, revealing a common family situation and a boy's alienation in a truly thought-provoking way. I can even recall first reading the haunting Orson Scott Card story "Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory" though several years have passed, and its impression remains with me simply because it's unusual treatment of character and guilt made me think. I would like to recommend that writers with the ability to evoke original ideas take the time to examine its possibilities, to consider what important aspect of the world around us can be challenged through a different lens, and to approach with the hope, rather than of making someone laugh, but of inspiring them to think.

Barking by Tracie McBride     6/10
In session with a psychiatrist, a man recounts the recent events that reveal his sudden dog-like behaviour. Only the behaviour is not that of lap-dog but something wilder, even rabid. This story is well paced and written with a good amount of energy and humour. The exaggerated manly world-view makes the story work, and is particularly comical knowing this was written by a woman. The opening is unnecessary (the story should begin at "After checking into my hotel...") as are the last three short paragraphs.

Miss Webster's Little Arm by Frances Augusta Hogg     7/10
The boys at the Holy Martyrs Home for Abandoned Children are creeped out by their instructor Miss Webster. It's her cold meanness that trouble them, yet this is not made easier by the fact that she has an extra little arm that grows from her neck. This is a great idea that is fairly well delivered. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to have considered a longer version with more interaction between the kids, but if that were the case I might have read it thinking it would work better had it been shorter. (Writers are doomed to evade perfection, I suppose.) I wasn't too crazy about the end as it was standard fare, and the epilogue seemed pointless, but the story has quite a bit going for it: a great beginning and some terrific character names, such as Prissy Ingram and Sally Potts. I can't really believe that our hero Kenny can borrow binoculars, a flashlight and camera from fellow orphans (and where would he go to develop the film?); could he not be a little more resourceful and find a bazooka or hand grenade? Maybe a can of bug spray?

Thirteen Seconds by George Morrow     7/10
The winner of the DMD flash fiction contest deserves the prize. Late eighteenth century Paris, waiting for his head to be lopped off by way of guillotine, Manget is tormented by a compulsive rush of stats, and he soon recalls the myth that a person's eyes continue to blink thirteen seconds after the head has been severed from its body.

I have never been excessively fond of flash fiction but Morrow does a great job in economizing. The story idea is perfect for something so brief since it is aiming at a singular effect rather than an all-encompassing form of story-telling. The characterization is minute and we're drawn in via sympathy with the simple fact that we know Manget is innocent; this ploy will forever make a reader anxious of the story's outcome and the character's fate. The ending is well delivered, for whether we anticipate it or not (and most of us would) it is nonetheless rendered to its intended effect.

Family Ties by Chris Doerner     7/10
During a zombie Outbreak, a man holed up at home with his wife and daughter must venture out again in search of food. This is the simple premise for this short piece, and though little happens the narrative does a great job at bringing about the conclusion. I was fooled by this one, and pleasantly so. Tightly written with a consistent character sketch of our protagonist, the story is more than just its clever ending.

Tenants: Part One by Kevin McClintock     7/10
The first part of this serialized novella is well done. McClintock is the only returning fiction author from issue #1, and I liked his first entry so am pleased to see him once again within these pages. The story opens on a scene of post-carnage, and we learn that the woman responsible is afflicted with a unique condition: her body is frequently tenanted by an avenging angel that leaves a bloody path of deserving victims that our hero must awaken to flee from. I am glad that the author chose not to open with the carnage itself, since the mystery here is greater, with the reader at a loss to the actual destructive event just as the character is. The title is excellent, serving to illustrate different aspects of "tenancy" in the story, not just our hero's own unusual frequenter but, without giving anything away, the tenants she discovers in the basement. Moreover, the title invokes the notion of fate and destiny, as we wonder if each of us are merely tenants of someone else's grand scheme that simply drags us around in its shell. I am certainly looking forward to part two.

There are some glaring errors in copy and content in this one too, though less frequent than our opening story. "Then" is used rather than "than," and simple verb conjugation needs fixing: "the flesh about the eyes and along the cheekbones are scraped and worn." (46) The term crocodile tears is misused. I am also confused about the time-line in the story's history. We are told that that our hero has been possessed since the age of twenty-four (52), yet later we learn that she was first possessed after recovering from a suicide attempt brought on by the death of her fifteen year-old daughter. Which mystery is greater, her occupying avenging angel or the fact that she became a mother at the pre-pubescent age of nine?

As an aside, the story's title page artwork by Marc Olivent is a nice touch.

The Sidehill Toggler by Steve Scott     8/10
An old man wanders horseback down an isolated path, and is closely observed by a nearby resident as he takes a moment to rest. The boy approaches and the old man begins to tell him the tale of how many years before he vowed to avenge his brother's death by defeating the strange creature known as "the Sidehill Toggler." And an odd beast it is, but whether or not the old man is spinning yarns is an even greater mystery. With a quiet, almost dull beginning, this story is the greatest surprise in the bunch. Its unpretentious delivery promises nothing, yet the build-up is wonderful as the old man speaks, his story and its telling both inventive and humorous. But how can a story of a potential lie come to an end? Very nicely, I think. A story worthy of being anthologized, perhaps even for its title alone.

Running with the Pack by Graham Williams     6/10
No, the title is not referring to someone fleeing with a box of cigarettes, but rather to an unhealthy interest in lycanthropy. Hannah wants so much to be a werewolf and Lonnie transforms her in time for the full moon. Yet as short stories have been telling us repeatedly since Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," watch what you wish for. This story is a parody of the modern notion of regular teenagers wishing to become supernatural creatures, a need partly rendered by young love. (Had I fallen to the whims of my own "first love" I would now be living in a jungle meting out spiritual advice over the internet; but thankfully that fate has fallen to the next guy she dated). Hannah learns soon enough that being supernatural does not make you invulnerable, and that young love, alas, is surely fleeting.

Down Cellar by Jeremiah Dutch     7/10
Old man Eli Sparks recounts a little childhood adventure featuring bitter elderly neighbour Mrs. Eunice Walker, her strange unwanted nephew Louis and a little spider living in the down cellar. A great title and a good narrative voice makes for a quiet and effective read. To balance out the needless violence and gore of "I Married a Zombie" we have some sincere suspense and good character interaction between all concerned, including the bit players. I was, however, troubled to learn that old Mrs. Walker turns out to be fifty years of age, which to me is really quite young, and as I read until that shocking revelation I was picturing a woman of about seventy-five.

The Book of the Month Club by Graham Williams     6/10
Loving husband and inattentive father Harlan Creed answers the door to a quiet man he assumes is a member of his wife's book club. The irony is made obvious early on: he is in fact a zombie munching on more than just the plentiful snacks Mrs. Creed has laid out. The story is amusing yet is too long for what it is. Since we're in on the joke early the events become a little repetitive. It's by far better to round out a magazine on a light note, I think, than to begin on one, so the light humour of this piece is well placed at the end.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season One: Episodes 17 to 23

This article covers episodes 17 through 23
For the pilot and first seven series episodes, please visit here
For episode 8, please visit here
For episodes 9 through 16, please visit here

And here are the final six episodes from season one. More oddities, and a solid final third.

"The Madness Room." (S1E17) First aired 5 May 1985. Directed by John Hayes. Written by Thomas Epperson. Starring Stuart Whitman, Therese Pare and Nick Benedict. 6/10

"The raindrops are speaking to me. They're saying 'Deceipt!'... 'Deceipt!'... 'Deceipt!'"

Wealthy Edward Osborne is at his large home one evening with his young wife Cathy and business partner Michael Fox. Playing with a Ouija board, Cathy learns from a spirit named Ben that there is a walled off room in the house, and that he, the spirit, is living there. This episode is quite good, but the messy and completely illogical ending weakens it.

Half-way through the episode is a moment of anticlimax. Just before entering the madness room, amid dramatic music, the wife pulls out a gun, and this is where the commercial break was originally inserted. When we return to the action, glued to our screens after being forced to watch commercial products waved at us from the screen, the wife says that she brought it with her "just in case." The false suspense is irritating, and reminds me of the scene in Stephen King's Misery when Annie Wilkes complains to Paul Sheldon that those old radio programs cheated their listeners by creating false cliffhangers. Alas, Annie, it is not just the tool of old-time radio programming. Of course the gun is needed later, but by then I was already a little annoyed by the manipulative scene.

The silliness of the ending involves a spoiler, so it's time to shrink the font a little. The spirit wants the door closed, and later tells the husband to drop the key in a crack in the floor. This essentially dooms all three of them, as we learn that the entire fantasy was created by wife and colleague to kill off wealthy husband. How anyone can be so idiotic, especially when devising such an elaborate plan, to get rid of the only key to the door is beyond logic. And why does Ed even lock the door in the first place? Well, it turns out neither of them wrote that last line, and, oh my lord, there is actually a ghost in that room, even though we learn that the room was just built during some renovations as part of the elaborate scheme. So where did this ghost come from? Are we supposed to be mesmerised by this clever twist, even believe it? Dear reader, thank you for reading this far... but, oh no, there's a ghost in my blog! Mwa-hahahaha!

The idea is not terribly original, and we do know that there is some kind of plot afoot, yet the suspense is well done and for most of the episode I was unsure as to who was trying to trick whom. Stuart Whitman as Edward is good, and Therese Pare is fine as Cathy in her first of two Darkside appearances, the second being "Baker's Dozen" (S3E9), while she was also a stand-in for the series. Unfortunately, Nick Benedict as colleague and lover Michael is weak: "Ever since I was a kid I've heard... bad things about Ouija boards." Which is interesting because ever since I was a kid I've heard bad scriptwriting.

"If the Shoes Fit..." First aired 12 May 1985. Directed by Armand Mastroianni. Written by Mastroianni and David Gerrold from a story by Louis Haber. Starring Dick Shawn, Harry Goz, John Zarchen and Catherine Ann Hayes. 7/10

Senatorial candidate Bo Gumbs arrives at an odd little hotel during his campaign tour, where he unceasingly presses his image to the apparently only two hotel employees. Arrogant, loud-mouthed yet somehow charming, Gumbs is quite clownish, and that odd hotel pair seem to be helping to fulfill his clownish destiny. Gumbs is played by Dick Shawn, an excellent casting choice for both comedic talent and reputation as an off-the-wall performer, and Shawn does an excellent job at getting across the various levels of Gumbs's persona, from out-and-out hyperbolic campaigner to the more subtle tones of one confused yet straining to maintain the charm that runs his persona. This is among the more unclassifiable episodes, and despite a very low rating on IMDb (a 3.7 on the first forty votes), it is among my favourite first season episodes.

The charm and intrigue lies in the episode's notion of absurdity. Gumbs has arrived in a king of alternate reality that may exist only in his head. The world has suddenly transformed around him, the people appear strange and not only become wholeheartedly involved in his image, even encourage it to its depths. Yet, if we were to examine the situation closely, the world is exactly as it always was. Gumbs does not transform magically into a clown since he already is one, and in the eyes of his campaign manager, no transformation actually occurs. What is happening, on a subtle level, is that Gumbs is beginning to see himself as he truly is, and though he fights this vision early on, he accepts it by the end, driving off in a clown mobile. It's a positive thing, really, and while we can hope for him to change and become a better candidate and a better person, he achieves what most do not, which is the acceptance of self. We can further speculate (though I'm flying well off the context of the episode since there is nothing that explicitly implies this), that since he does accept himself for who he is, he is more able to begin affecting any changes.

Co-written by David Gerold, the man who scripted the excellent Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," as well as a number of other television shows, and directer Armand Mastroianni in his second of four Darksides. Mastroianni went on to a lengthy, on-going career as television director, which included episodes of War of the Worlds, Friday the 13th and a host of television movies.

"Levitation." (S1E19) First aired 19 May 1985. Directed by John Harrison. Written by David Gerrold from a story by Joseph Payne Brennan. Starring Joe Turkel, Brad Cowgill, Cynthia Frost, Antholny Thompkins and John Marzilli. 6/10

Young Frank drags buddy Ernie to a run-down circus sideshow where once famous illusionist Kharma is now performing. Excited to witness Kharma's incredible, awe defying levitation trick, Frank is terribly disappointed to see a performance filled with standard, childish magic tricks, from flowers disappearing and reappearing, to a bland guillotine routine. Not allowing his childhood idol to disappoint him, Frank instead antagonises the veteran magician.

This is another good episode, though the acting by the young men is a little weak. Joe Turkel, however, is great as Kharma, and a somewhat plodding, repetitive episode is saved by a strong ending. Another of the "he gets what he deserves" episodes, though his fate is perhaps unjust.

"It All Comes Out in the Wash." (S1E20) First aired 26 May 1985. Directed by Frank De Palma from an original script by Harvey Jacobs. Starring VinCE Edwards, James Hong and Ellen Winthrop. 7/10

Ruthless businessman Henry Gropper visits an unusual Laundromat, one which, for a steep price, will wash out not just stains and dirt, but a person's sins. With a free conscience, Gropper is able to aggressively pursue his business interests, taking people down whenever it benefits the bankbooks. A good moral story that is carried by strong performances by Vince Edwards as Gropper and prolific character actor James Hong as Chow Ting. The concept itself is intriguing and the episode build-up is very good, even though there is no actual plot. It's the good monologue and Edwards's ability to solidly deliver on the script. The body of most Darkside episodes tend to drag on, particularly those with no clear linear plot. Because of the lack of setting and characters, the show relies heavily on monologues, from people talking on the phone, or talking to themselves. The monolog is well written here, bettered by the delivery, and the phone conversations remain linked to the story-line, though they don't actually move the story forward. The ending here, which is not shocking nor surprising, is a little too sudden.

"Bigalow's Last Smoke." (S1E21) First aired 9 June 1985. Directed by Timna Ranon, written by Michael McDowell from a story by Kenneth Wayne Hanis and Craig Mitchell. Starring Richard Romanus, Sam Anderson and Howard Dayton. 7/10

Chain-smoker Frank Bigalow awakens in his apartment without cigarettes. After an intensive search, he discovers that he is not in his apartment, but has been kidnapped as part of a non-smoking program he had inquired about long before. He is now caged inside a replica of his apartment, and the quitting program has already begun.

This is a very well constructed episode, utilizing some common prison story elements, such as the unseen inmate next door, and a good performance by long-time TV actor Richard Romanus as Bigalow (he was also Michael on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets). The familiar face (and mostly it's just his face) of Sam Anderson appears as the appropriately named Dr. Synapsis. There are some elements that are never fully developed, or just don't go anywhere, such as the breaking of the alarm and, suddenly, another appearing in its place, as well the unseen inmate, who sort of disappears. Of course there is a psychological element that allows for a surreal quality in the unfolding of events, and the overall strength of the episode forgives the minor problems. The ending is excellent and, to me at least, unpredictable as well as appropriate.

"Grandma's Last Wish." (S1E22) First aired 16 June 1985. Directed by Warner Shook from a teleplay by Jule Selbo. Starring Jane Connell, Gregory Itzin, and some others. 6/10

Grandma isn't getting younger. She's become forgetful, unhelpful, and a bit of a nuisance. Her family wishes she would agree to go to a home, but she likes it fine right here with her son, his wife and their teenaged daughter. Finally family forces her into a corner, and she no longer has a choice in the matter. But because they love her, they want her final week at home to be special, and offer her a wish, any wish in the world, that they will promise to help materialise.

Among the few Darksides in which the humour works, due partly to its quirky nature, but particularly to Jane Connell's performance as Grandma. The episode also features TV icon Gregory Itzin as a retirement home rep. Now to be honest, the family doesn't deserve what they get at the end, and Grandma's wish does illustrate even to her the difficulties of living with an older grandmother (though this one is far from facing many disabilities), but there is something fun in the episode's second half, which makes up for a somewhat irritating opening. The intentions are good though the message is messily conveyed and the execution contradicts its intention.

"The False Prophet." (S1E23) First aired 4 August 1985. Directed by Gerald Cotts (his second outing) and written by Jule Selbo (again), from a story by Larry Fulton (Art Director on Darkside's pilot episode). Starring Ronee Blakley, Justin Deas and Bill Fiore's voice. 7/10

"Beware of False Prophets!"

Addicted to the hope eked out by various agents of fortune, from astrology to cards, and particularly from electronic fortune-telling machines, Cassie Pines arrives at her small-town bus station. She's been directed here by Madame X, her favourite electronic fortune-dispenser, because on a bus stopping at Lubbock she is to meet her special Sagittarian love. Here she encounters Horace X, son of Madame X, who warns her away from this path because of danger, and tells her to beware of false prophets. To complicate matters, in walks Heat Jones, who immediately and aggressively pursues her. What to do? Poor confused Cassie is aflutter, as is the audience by such an unusual episode, starring country singer Ronee Blakley as Cassie and life-long soap actor Justin Deas as Heat. Both actors are great, with Blakley begging sympathy and Deas occasionally awkward, but it's perhaps Bill Fiore's voice acting as the machine Horace X who steals the show. I wasn't initially sure what to make of this jumbled mess, but I sure enjoyed watching it. There's an underlying warning about letting others set your destiny and make your important choices, and there is also the idea that it's best to be uncertain of your future so that you can enjoy the present.

The story is essentially an allegory, with each male figure embodying clashing ideals. Heat Jones is the "in the moment" guy, personifying the idea that you should let life guide you as it comes, while Horace X embodies the attitude that it's best to play it safe, that happiness can only be achieved when the outcome is already clear. Cassie is struggling with these two notions, wishing for happiness but unsure what to trust.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 1964

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 4, April 1964. Richard E. Decker, editor. 160 pages

Overall rating: 7/10

AHMM April 1964 at the Alfred Hitchcock Wiki
AHMM April 1964 at Goodreads

From the Alfred Hitchcock Introduction on the inside cover:

Dear Friends: Just as the robin is the harbinger of Spring, so here, in this April issue, you will find robbin' and other crimes solved in mystery and suspense to presage hours of reading enjoyment.

"Other crimes solved" is an odd descriptor, particularly since more than one crime in the issue remains unsolved, at least from the legal point of view; the criminal revealed to the reader alone.

This introduction, penned no doubt by a staff member, perhaps even an intern, includes a blurb for "my new anthology, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS STORIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME, which, by Jove, she never did." A reminder that these magazines served well in promoting related merchandise, including other magazines owned by the same parent company.

Marketing aside, this is an overall strong issue, highlighted by a clever Jack Ritchie piece, an excellent Lawrence Block story, and an obscure comedic treasure by David Mutch.

(I apologize for the quality of some of the photos, but not wishing to crease the pages I needed to hold the magazine half-way open. Some page are also unfortunately yellowed.)

Public Office by Elijah Ellis     6/10

Working on a rainy Saturday afternoon at the county courthouse, County Attorney Lon Gates receives a mysterious phone call, telling him to "go look in the dome." Sure enough he goes, and at the dome finds the dangling corpse of the former county attorney. A fairly standard mystery, entertaining for what it is: a small town who-dun-it that evokes former ties...

The 1960s drawing and colour are a treat; it is behind the table of contents on the left side, facing the story itself. The three dimensional image is actually quite effective, and though not the strongest story for a lead-in, it's definitely the strongest work of art in this issue.

Wilson's Luck by David Mutch     8/10

A grumbling incompetent police officer tells of homicide's hero "Red" Wilson, and how his career has progressed through luck. I've never heard of David Mutch, but he appears to have had a few stories published in AHMM. This one is skillfully rendered as it drips with irony and tongue-in-cheek humour, much of it laugh-out-loud. The truly bumbling narrator recounts a tough case that Wilson closes on pure luck. Of course, his interpretation of luck might, in another's view, be construed as skill. Potayto, potahto...

Some great lines include, "...which is a big nut house or, if you want to be polite about it, what you call a 'home for the mentally arranged." There's also a precious scene with Wilson trying to explain a detail of the case to our fool, who has asked what certain audio tapes contain: "We haven't heard the tapes yet. The governess has them. Being English, she likes to live in England." Reminiscent of some of Mark Twain's ironic tales, such as "Luck," this was a pure joy to read.

(Anyone know anything about David Mutch? If so, please share your knowledge.)

The Snarl of a Leopard by Arthur Porges     5/10

Harry Wright is approached by the firm's accountant Myron Coolidge, who has discovered that Wright has been sneaking company funds to support his gambling habit. Soft-hearted, Coolidge warns him to return the money in a week or he would report him for embezzlement. Rather than comply, the amoral Wright devises a plan to rid himself (and the world) of the accountant, untroubled by the fact that it would likely harm others as well. The plot he devises to kill the accountant is neat, but the rest of the story felt flat. Too many coincidences, for one thing, and while the opening conversation between the two men is well written, the rest was done by rote.

When This Man Dies by Lawrence Block     8/10

Reading this issue as a kid, Block's story was the first AHMM piece that really nabbed and surprised, on par with the AH Presents reruns I used to love (and in all honesty still do). Edgar Kraft, an average working man drowning in debt who likes to bet on the horses, receives an anonymous note that includes a man's name, and reads, simply:
When this man dies
You will receive
Five hundred dollars
When the name does die (at a hospital of old age) Kraft receives, again via mail, the five hundred in cash, with a simple note: "Thank you." Another such note arrives, this time offering a sum of seven hundred and fifty dollars, and the grateful Kraft wonders why him? And I won't give anything more away.

Block's story, even the second time around (though after many years) is a terrific body of suspense, the story steadily mounting and capping with a great finish. Designers did a fantastic job to ensure the final sentence is printed just at the bottom of the right-hand page, so as the reader reads, the ending does not appear to be just ahead. No eyes will temptingly glance to the finish and the surprise becomes even more of a surprise. There is, however, more to this story than the gimmick. Block wrote this out in a detailing of events rather than through individual scenes, so there is little dialogue and we remain glued to Kraft, as curious and anxious as he. The tone is actually light, edging on comical without spilling over, which adds to the unusual premise. Very well constructed and written story.

Small Town Justice by Leo R. Ellis     5/10

Driving through the town of Millvale, minding his own business, Eddie McCabe is promptly arrested for the murder of Miss Lucinda Devlin, the woman townsfolk were hoping would re-open the local mill and halt the Millvale's economic downfall. It's quite obvious who the guilty party is, but how can poor Eddie prove it, especially from prison? What do you know... a fairly good, quick read, but I didn't care for the ending.

[SPOILER: The immediate confession by such an amoral criminal seems more convenient than likely.]

Silence is Gold by Jack Ritchie     7/10

With their uncle recently murdered, four cousins sit around speculating about the inheritance they are about to receive and wonder which one of them is the culprit. The story is a straightforward third person narrative mixed in with first person internal monologue, and the combination of internal and external action reveals the identity of the murderer. A really fun and clever story, as expected from the great suspense short story writer Jack Ritchie. During my period of re-reading these old AHMM issues, somewhere in the mid-80s, Ritchie was among my favourite of its regular contributors.

First Flight by Bob Bristow     5/10

Flying over a bay toward Mexico on a vacation tour, Roger Neff and his wife Kay receive the gift of first flight when the pilot has a sudden ruptured ulcer and passes out. Man takes control while woman screams hysterically and Mexican is in siesta. Airplane! had more suspense.

A Transfer in the Bronx by Sasha Gilien     6/10

Every morning a forty-two year old bachelor rides the subway to work, from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Over time he becomes aware that while people do get off at the 177th Street station, no one ever gets on. This is an interesting little fantasy though I'm not sure how clearly the mystery is revealed. The vagueness works well, though it's trying to be more threatening than it appears to me; this might be the result of some poor aging. Of course, there might also be a detail that I'm just not getting. Reading this as a kid (I remember this one too) I was more confused (or perhaps it was disappointment I felt?) than today.

Little Red Hoods by C.G. Cunningham     6/10

A man staying near the town of Wheeler has been enjoying the high life, but is now running out of money. During a visit to town and the local bank he notices two small boys playing stick-up with the customers, and this gives him an idea as to how to replete his dwindling account. A suspenseful read with a good ending.

Vengeance with Flowers by Glenn Canary     7/10

A fourth man is found dead at home, execution style, and the only clue the lieutenant has to the identity of the murderer and the motive is a note to the latest victim from a woman named Anne. A nicely economized story, its quickness helps heighten the suspense. Moreover it has a great ending... even a little sad.

Kitten in a Cage by Frank Sisk     5/10

I remember in my youth not caring much for Sisk's short stories, thinking they were nicely character driven but lacking in the plot and surprise department. Of course, I was young when I was reading these back issues, and expectations at a younger age can be unrealistic. Having now read this Sisk piece, I suppose I was a perceptive youth.

At fourteen, protagonist Marcella Campion is alone at home as mother has gone for a show and some cocktails. The poor neglected girl is fed up with mommy's self-interested lifestyle. The short piece does well enough in delineating the relationship, yet the use of feline imagery is overdone: Marcella is described as being a kitten while her mother is a full-grown cat, references to claws, purring on the telephone and our kitten recalling being curled up contentedly in daddy's lap. The ending sort of just happens and has little to do directly with the plot, and I don't mean it comes out of nowhere, just that nearly any story can end like this.

Prisoner by Howard Clark     6/10

I remember this one well, or at least the solitaire game it introduced me to, which I played at the time but wouldn't recommend it as it is based on pure chance and no skill (or about 1% skill if counting up to thirty requires any). I haven't come across the game at any other time and wonder if it is of the author's invention.

In Monte Carlo, fortune hunter Gerald Liggett offers big guy Earl Montclare a little challenge involving a solitaire game named "Prisoner" and Montclare's wealthy sister Daphne. This one is alright, with a neat little twist. The title drawing on the left is excellent.

The Big Hate by Carroll Mayers     3/10

Lieutenant Costa is sent to pick up runaway felon Cal Ramsey on a tip, giving him the opportunity to avenge his sister's death. The melodrama in this one is just too much: "Bringing him in is a two-man operation. And I mean two-man!" And figuring out how the story ends is a single-cell operation. And I mean single-cell!

Sheriff Peavey's Double Dead Case by Richard Hardwick     6/10

The body of Asbury Abernathy is unexpectedly uncovered at a construction site, and Sheriff Dan Peavey, along with his less competent troupe, investigate the woman Abernathy ran out on a couple of years back. However, with the corpse's face unrecognizable and some odd goings-on at the former Mrs. Abernathy's household, perhaps Asbury is still alive? Mystery with some slapstick comedy makes for an okay read. The thing about these average mysteries is that they work better when shorter, and these novelettes are only truly successful if they have earned their length with some unique element, be it a truly suspenseful mystery, a great set of characters or a unique method of delivery. They also work better when less predictable.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season One: Episodes 9 to 16

This article covers episodes 9 through 16
For the pilot and first seven series episodes, please visit here
For episode 8, please visit here
For episodes 17 through 23, please visit here

Tales from the Darkside was a mixture of horror and fantasy, often mixing in elements of mystery and/or comedy. There was also some unique storytelling and great innovation, a few even difficult to categorise. Though many come across as weak, at times dry and often predictable, their intent is nonetheless unique for television.

"A Case of the Stubborns." (S1E9) First aired 2 December 1984. Directed by Gerald Cotts. Written by James Houghton from a short story by Robert Bloch. Starring Eddie Bracken, Bill McCutcheon, Tresa Hughes, Christian Slater and Brent Spiner.

"A man in your condition's got no right to be askin' questions. When the Lord calls, you're s'posed to answer!"

In a rural southern community, to the annoyance of his daughter and grandson, a stubborn old man refuses to believe that he has died. Attempting to produce this episode was a gutsy move for Darkside. I read the short story many years ago and have revisited it since; I even own a copy of the October 1976 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in which it originally appeared. The short story is funny, entertaining, and has a marvellous ending; its only fault is that it drags near the end. This adaptation is surprisingly faithful, sometimes funny, featuring a strong lead performance, an alright ending, and contrary to the story, its pre-reveal sequence is too quick.

Electing to shorten the "voodoo woman" scene was a good decision, only it's so brief here that it fails to engage; indeed, this is among the small number of Darkside episodes that features such a large, involved cast, so giving everyone the opportunity for adequate screen-time is a challenge. Changing the ending is also necessary: the original ending is effective because you don't see Grandpa outside your own imagination, and Bloch uses precisely this to surprise the reader. Darkside's version tries not to sway too far from its source, but as soon as the kid pulls out the "magical" substance you know exactly what is going to happen. Though the final image loses the element of surprise, visually it's quite neat; Bloch's final moment is both surprising and visually (in the mind's eye) superb.

Grandpa Titus Tolliver is played by long-time character actor Eddie Bracken, who is fantastic as the stubborn old man. In the story it is the grandson who holds the pieces together, but here a fifteen year-old Christian Slater proves that as a teenager he was just as weak an actor as he was as an adult. Completely overshadowed by Bracken and the rest of the cast, Slater drags this episode down a notch, something made clear when he is the focus of the last five or so minutes; I suspect that it was partially due to his weakness that the "voodoo woman" scene was shortened. In fact, the premise of grandpa's stubbornness with Bracken's superb physical portrayal and verbal delivery make up the bulk of the episode. Even the preacher is given an extended scene, and Brent Spiner (android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) gives an all-out, crazed performance as Reverend Peabody that is fun to watch.

Maybe "gutsy" is a strong word on my part, but I am impressed with the attempt of translating something to screen that works so well on paper, and despite casting Slater, Darkside did do a good job. A strong script by eventual daytime soap writer James Houghton and good direction by Gerald Cotts (his first of four Darksides), as well as the acting, pull everything together nicely. Not only is it a difficult project, it makes for an unusual episode, and originality is certainly something that has always been lacking on TV.

"Djinn, No Chaser." (S1E10) First aired 13 January 1985. Directed by Shelley Levinson, written by Haskell Barkin from a short story by Harlan Ellison. Starring Colleen Camp, Charles Levin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 3/10

A down-on-their-luck newlywed couple (Colleen Camp and Charles Levin) buy an old lamp from a mysterious vendor that turns out to contain a cranky genie who, rather than grant them wishes, makes their life intolerable. I haven't read the original source material, and am mixed about Harlan Ellison's work in general. Whatever the original story, this episode is incredibly poor, and is generally considered among the weakest of the first season episodes. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looks impressive as the genie (he looks impressive, period), but is quite weak in his delivery, the ludicrous fake "old" English rolling awkwardly off his tongue. As an actor, the 7'2" basketball superstar will always be best remembered for his role as co-pilot Roger Murdock in the craziness that is Airplane!

"All a Clone by the Telephone." (S1E11) First aired 20 January 1985. Directed by Frank De Palma and written by Haskell Barkin. Starring Harry Anderson, Marcie Barkin and Dick Miller. 5/10

Failing scriptwriter Leon's new answering machine begins to interfere with his life. The machine is a 1984 colossus, about as large as a medium household printer. The episode is not terribly funny or even interesting, since it follows a to-be-expected plot-line. Harry Anderson does a good job in the lead, while being half-way through his first season as Judge Harry Stone on the successful sitcom Night Court. Anderson fits the failed writer dweeb role well enough, and competently pulls off the required facial expressions. He is even convincing as an unshaven smoker. Haskell Barkin's second Darkside script following "Pain Killer" is less competent, and is another weak attempt at oddball fantastical comedy.

"In the Cards." (S1E12) First aired 27 January 1985. Directed by Theodore Gershuny. Written by Gershuny from a story by Carole Lucia Satrina. Starring Dorothy Lyman, Carmen Mathews and Teri Keane. 6/10

"What a way to make a living."

Popular tarot reader Catherine is secretly a disbeliever in the supernatural and the power of the tarot, and makes a good living by dispensing feel-good fortunes to her clients. Until a woman switches her cards. Not only have her predictions become accurate, they have also become deadly.

As with most Darkside episodes, this one becomes predictable half-way through, yet it is nonetheless enjoyable. The sets, lighting and cinematography work well, utilizing shadows and candlelight, though at times their logic is odd: at one point in a matter of moments the set switches from normal evening lighting to darkness and candlelight. Mood overcomes logic. Moreover, this one economizes poorly, as we learn the identity of the woman who planted the magical cards by a friend who just happens to guess correctly ("Oh, that must've been Madame Marlena"). The acting is quite good on all counts, even the bit parts, with a truly great dual performance from veteran stage and screen actor Carmen Mathews; she is almost unrecognizable between the sweet new client at the beginning and haunted fortune teller Madame Marlena near the end.

"Anniversary Dinner." (S1E13) First aired 3 February 1985. Directed by John Strysik. Written by James Houghton from a short story by D.J. Pass. Starring Alice Ghostley, Mario Roccuzzo and Fredrica Duke. 7/10

"It's going to be a wonderful anniversary."

Before their twenty-fifth anniversary, an elderly couple living on an isolated ranch take in a young runaway. Half-way through, the episode becomes utterly predictable, but it is nonetheless fun to watch. There are a number of neat shots, like the axe when the young couple first walk away from the house, the scene cutting to Elinor cutting some beef, but as neat as all this is, the cleverness is unfortunately a little overdone, the camera lingering far far far too long on the over-sized wooden spoon above the door. Veteran Alice Ghostley does a fantastic job as wife Elinor, Mario Roccuzzo is uneven as husband Henry, while Fredrica Duke as the young girl is plain bad. Directed by Darkside's most consistent regular John Strysik, his first of six.

"Snip, Snip." (S1E14) First aired 10 February 1985. Directed by Terence Calahan. Written by Tom Allen and Howard Smith. Starring Carol Kane, Bud Cort and Ed Kenney. 6/10

A meek mathematics professor dabbling in black magic quits his job when he uncovers the numbers of a popular lottery. When his number misses by a single digit, he seeks out the hairdresser who has won the prize. This episode is a lot of fun and has more surprises than most first season episodes. Its attempts at humour fail, but Carol Kane delivers an excellent performance as the hairdresser, and Bud Cort manages to keep up with her as the desperate professor.

"Answer Me." (S1E15) First aired 17 February 1985. Directed by Richard Friedman, written by Michael McDowell from a story by McDowell and Dennis Schuetz. Starring Jean Marsh and a rotary telephone. 6/10

This odd story follows a second rate British actress who has just moved to New York City seeking work. The apartment she has taken on as a sublet is nice, except the phone next door rings incessantly in the middle of the night, and someone is constantly banging on the walls. The episode is a one-woman show with a strong performance by Jean Marsh (who played Alicia alongside the wonderful Jack Warden in the brilliant Twilight Zone episode "The Lonely").

"Answer Me" soon becomes predictable, even silly at its climax, but Marsh's performance and a well crafted, dimly lit atmosphere make it worth watching. The apartment, with its deserted hallway and silent elevator, is effectively creepy, and the music is quite good, moving from eerie to comical cords whenever Marsh can finally return to sleep. The ending is unusual, the phone coming across unfortunately hilarious rather than threatening, though I give the director and editor credit for creating a nifty phone-attack scene; it's not something easily managed, and makes today's mobile phones appear quite innocent.

"The Tear Collector." (S1E16) First aired 24 February 1985. Directed by John Drimmer, written by Drimmer and Geoffrey Loftus from a story by Donald Olson. Starring Jessica Harper and Victor Garber. 4/10

Jessica Harper is the woman prone to tears while Victor Garber is the prissy-looking collector of tears, physical ones. Both actors do a fine job but it's playwright/actor Eric Bogosian who steals the show with his cameo as an aggressive homeless man. This is yet another odd entry, though despite the solid acting it comes off as dull and just a little silly.

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