Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bete Noire, Issue 12 (2013)

Gifford, A. W. and Jennifer L. Gifford, eds.. Bête Noire. Highland, MI: Dark Opus Press, 2013.

Overall rating: 5/10

[NOTE. This blog entry was flagged for its content, specifically for containing malware. I believe it was the link to the Bête Noire website which appears to have been corrupted. I have removed the links and hopefully all is now well. January 2023]

Small press magazine Bête Noire features diverse artforms to showcase different genres, though its primary focus is on horror, as implied by its tagline: "Fear is just a point of view." A short magazine and an annual anthology are offered at a low subscription price, and though works are not of the highest quality, they feature good ideas and are for the most part well enough edited.

As usual I am reviewing only the prose. The seven stories are quite short, including one flash piece. The good ideas are unfortunately not brought to their pinnacle of exploration, and tend to the generic in plot and character, which is unfortunate. My favourite pieces were the first two: Rhonda Parrish's "Feederes" and Enna Limb's "Plague Radio."

There is artwork in the form of "Face the Demons" by R.J. Smuin, which I do not care for, and a photograph titled "Walk Through Skeletal Trees" by Elanore Lennor Bennett, which is passable. The poetry features in issue 12 is made up of "Rough" by Florence Grey, "Death in Summer" by Marge Simon, "Down at the Bottom of the Garden" by J.S. Watts, "Living on the Leys" by Bruce Boston, "The Invasion" by John Grey (which I thought pretty neat) and "Sunset Sonnet" by Amberle L. Husbands.

Feeders by Rhonda Parrish     6/10
A zombie apocalypse as seen through the point of view of an unusually smart cat. A short piece that plays nicely on the notion of "feeders," the term the cat places on his/her owners. An appropriate term since all the members of this new zombie-plagued society are made up of feeders. Cats search new creatures to feed them since their human masters have abandoned them, zombies feed on humans, and human survivors, with few resources, look upon cats and other animals as a source of food. The ending brings everything full circle, and this new society has abandoned all forms of culture and is maintained only by feeders.

Plague Radio by Enna Limb     6/10
Camille purchases a radio at a garage sale, something she refers oddly (and even incorrectly) as a "postmodern" radio, and soon discovers that the instrument broadcasts what appears to be an alien conversation. Inexplicably she is able to translate a few words, and discovers that the conversation has something to do with a human plague. The buzzing voices ring in her head so that she appears infected by both sound and meaning. A loose-ended story, it is suspenseful for the most part, though I would have liked, if not complete resolution, at least a narrower scope of possibility. The story can be interpreted as aliens are infecting humans via electronic one-way communication devices, driving them mad one by one, to Camille being insane and simply hallucinating the impending disaster.

Overtaken by Rish Outfield     5/10
New to the neighbourhood, a young couple learn that the town of Traysi, Arizona, has a unique feature: on every October 13th random community members are taken over by some inexplicable entity, possibly extraterrestrial. Coincidentally and conveniently they discover this odd truth on that particular date, and immediately learn what being taken over means. Somewhat reminiscent in idea only of Robert Silverberg's Nebula-winning and Hugo short-listed short story "Passengers" (Orbit 4, 1968), though not as complex (nor as good)--the beings are even referred to, at one point, as "passengers." Interesting enough, but the plot structure is generic.

Morrigan by Suanne Schafer    5/10
First person narrative told through the point of view of a dead horse, he is the most poetically inclined narrator in the zine. He tells of his continuous rise from sleep as his master searches for a victim. I figured out the ending early on since I was somehow reminded of a famous classic animation. I won't reveal more.

Patterns by Michael Lizarraga     3/10
Latino sexaholic security guard sees figures, mostly faces, in random patterns on tables, walls and such. Worse yet, these figures seem to be speaking to him. Moreover, he's heartbroken after a two-month relationship. There is a lot I did not like about this story. First of all I cannot sympathize or in any way care for a narrator who rapes as part of his need for sex, an experience that leaves him feeling good (and yet inexplicably attends sexaholics anonymous), is temperamental and an obsessive stalker, nor has any other redeeming quality. I cannot buy into his exaggerated grief after a two-month relationship, particularly when the only reason for the grief appears to be that he is Latino and Latinos are emotional people. Finally, it is unclear why he wants to kill his ex-lover. Or I just missed it, having rushed through the latter half. Even the proofreaders and/or editors seemed to rush through it, since there are so many elementary grammatical errors that slipped onto the printed paper. While there are a number of errors throughout the magazine, this story is particularly victimized. "In his lap laid a medium-sized notebook," (47) "...seeing nothing accept the dining table...," (53) and the double-whammy: "Nothing else was outside, accept cricket`s chirps." (53) There are also missing articles and much awkwardness.

Nightmare in Black by Robert Laughlin     5/10
Flash about a mis-heard middle of the night phone conversation. With such an untrustworthy half-asleep narrator, I wonder what part was fiction, a dream fragment, or even if there was an actual phone call.

Separate Ways by Daniel C. Smith     3/10
More thought and about half the text went into the back-story about separated (formerly united) states. In this new backdrop is a man wanting to hop state lines to see his ex wife, and his dad who is around for expository conversation, and for son to say things along the lines of, "How do you do that dad?" when father makes a poignant and obvious point. This story about a country and a man named Ray reminded me of the Pearls Before Swine cartoon from 2007 I've taken the liberty to include here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 4400: Gone (Part 2)

The 4400: Gone (Part 2) (Episode 3.4)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Darcy Meyers
Guest starring Alice Krige, Kathryn Gordon
First aired 2 July 2006
Rating: 6/10

Previous episode: Gone (Part 1)
Next episode: Graduation Day

Though a different director and a different writer on the follow-up to "Gone (Part 1)," the intensity in plot build-up as well as camera work keeps the story consistent. Often second parters act as little more than the climax of a strong hour-long build-up episode (The X-Files was often guilty of this). The let-down in this follow-up is not the level of suspense and mystery, but the idiocies revealed in the plot and its play with time travel.

This shot of Diana signing adoption papers is
reminiscent of M.C. Escher's work, such as Still Life
with Spherical MirrorThree Spheres and the famous
Hand with Reflecting Sphere.
Most time travel tales contain inherent flaws, and this episode from a time travel series focusing on its own self-contained time travel element, has many. For one, Maia's erasure from the present would result in alterations in the lives of other 4400s and in investigations of the 4400, yet none of that appears evident. A major question is that if her removal causes too much stress on others, forcing them to remember her, why not remove her from an earlier time, before the relationships were built, and avoid these difficulties? And why place them in the far past with their same names so that the present can easily find them through historical documents? For more complex flaws, we learn that the desperate people of the future are returning Maia and the four other kidnapped kids to an earlier time where they can help future humans survive their catastrophe, directly implying that they immediately witness the results of returning the 4400 to the present, which itself implies they can constantly tweak the timeline, adjusting any point in the past to accommodate the future events. Therefore why should we worry about any future catastrophe? I wonder also why return the entire 4400 members to the same moment in time? Would it be beneficial to send some even further depending on their roles? The implication in other episodes is that Tom Baldwin is the unifying factor, but I find this difficult to grasp since he is ordinary rather than übermensch. Baldwin is perhaps a good investigator and a good man, but his character and even judgement is generic, and there must be hundreds of other Baldwins out there who can be a unifying element.

I can go on, but won't.

Another moment in the two-part episode I found baffling was that mysterious glass of milk, the one linked to the false lobotomy. The fact that the kids can be taken to that sleep chamber for extraction makes me wonder why the complex scenario of creating a sister in order to kidnap then hole up and terrorize when simply placing them in that chamber is all our future counterparts needed to do? Future humans can extract people from any point in time, so why send one in commando-style? Why rely on the risks of a foot-soldier when an air strike is more dependable and accurate? It's these details that prove prime time television is not a thinking tool.

Yet the most blatant discrepancy is that if you remove five people from their timeline the series should really be called The 4395!

The enveloping idea is that the kids are being extracted from the present timeline because a great evil was let loose in that time, and the kids need to be sent further back to combat that evil. And another bit of idiocy sets in: in exchange for the children Tom must now destroy that evil, which turns out to be Isabelle. A great plot twist, certainly, but if it's that easy, and people from the future can return to physically interact with those of the present, why not simply bring in a more reliable Terminator to inject Isabelle? Why rely on the ordinary and unreliable Tom Baldwin?

There are some nice directorial touches. For instance the episode opens with the same photo of Diana beside a tree that Part 1 closes with, a photo that once included the now gone Maia. (Though I'm surprised no one comments on the fact that Diana keeps by her entrance a framed photo of herself beside a generic tree.) When Diana and Tom are in Nina Jarvis's (Samantha Ferris) office, the camera pans around the glass and we receive a glimpse of Marco (Richard Kahan) standing facing the door. Later he enters and we are left wondering if the character was waiting for an opportune time to interrupt, or if the actor had simply been placed there to wait for his cue.

Much of the episode focuses on Diana losing the will to live after having lost the daughter she was not supposed to remember having. Her ties and relationship with Maia is a strong part of the series, and a positive outlook on adoption, particularly the unpopular adoption of older children. Diana wants to be with Maia so badly that she takes advantage of Alana's architectural gifts and locks herself up in a false reality with a false Maia, aware that the act is suicide. Rather than weaken the episode with potential sentimentality, I found this element worked well.

4400 Christopher Dubov's (disappeared 29 June 1999) only purpose in the episode is to aggravate the intense feelings of loss Diana is experiencing following Maia's extraction. Though the idea of smelling pheromones is pretty intriguing. But to what purpose? I ask. How can that help future earthlings to survive the impending catastrophe?

Shawn and Richard partner up in wake of their tensions, thanks to egging by Matthew. I question only Matthew's interest in the partnership since Shawn is likely more easy for him to manipulate than Richard. Like many actions and events of late, character motivation is often fuzzy. Isabelle is nonetheless in the picture, though Shawn tries to dump her: "I don't want this relationship to end. So it won't." A nice creepy touch. (Reminds me a couple of women I've dated.)

In short, "Gone" proved to be entertaining and even intense at times, but a little thinking can unravel the ultra loose time threads and plot points.

Joyce Carol Oates, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011)

Oates, Joyce Carol, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, New York: Grove/Atlantic (Mysterious Press), November 2011

The Corn Maiden at Goodreads
The Corn Maiden at IBList

Rating: 7/10

I'm familiar only with Joyce Carol Oates's earlier short stories, and with the exception of the excellent "Family" (Omni, December 1989) and an early aborted attempt at The Mysteries of Winterthurn (aborted not because I did not like it, but because it was not what I was looking for at the time), have not read any of her work in some time. I was largely impressed with this collection, primarily by the incredible amount of energy displayed by long-time author Oates, who manages to read like an ambitious new author, taking stabs at making topical allusions and being aware of contemporary youth attitudes (though likely her researchers, should she have any, helped her in these regards). Or perhaps I'm being ageist.

There is a cold, calculated efficiency to her writing, making it feel at times clinical, yet it is well balanced by touches of humanity and sympathy, particularly when dealing with issues close to home, such as widowhood. The recent stories, dating back to 1996 though most published since 2010, come across as fresh, vibrant and filled with genuine suspense. The idea of "nightmares" (as per the subtitle) is not always evident, though there is consistently a sense of threat and desperation; in fact the desperation is so pronounced, from the intertwined characters amid a kidnapping in "The Corn Maiden" to the goody-goody twin in "Death-Cup" and the recent widow in "Helping Hands," that a more appropriate collective title might have been The Corn Maiden and Other Desperations.

Stories are consistent in tone and approach, and even varying elements or minor allusions are referred to in more than one story, from two stories (appropriately two) being about twins (though vastly different), to references to international crises and national economic difficulties. With its quieter tone and toned-down level of energy, "Helping Hands" stands out as being the stylistic oddball, though its quietness lends it a greater sense of desperation. "The Corn Maiden," though as intense as the bulk, shares multiple points of view (despite its limited third person approach), and is structurally divided into titled sections. The similarities, however, did not bother me one iota, and I felt an unintentional interwoven quality at the recurring elements which I quite enjoyed. The book, as a result, receives a sense of unity that is often lacking in single-author collections.

The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares is a definite recommended read.

The Corn Maiden     7/10     (Transgressions 4, Ed McBain, editor, Forge Books, 2005)
Sociopath high schooler Judith "Jude" leads her cronies to kidnap a quiet, friendless Marissa on whom she'd like to perform the sacrificial ceremony of the corn maiden. The story is told through several points of view, indeed all points of view and experiences, from Jude, her collective followers, Marissa's mother, the implicated teacher Mikal Zallman. Only the Corn Maiden receives no voice. A powerful and completely engaging novella that manages to generate tension not only in whether the kidnapped girl will be rescued but also in the immediate lives and consequences on those closely affected by the incident. I particularly liked the mother's stream of consciousness as she tries to muster up the courage to phone 9-1-1.

Beersheba     6/10     (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, October 2010)
Resentful diabetic Brad Shiftke receives a call from his estranged stepdaughter. Friendly at first, Shiftke soon realizes she is unstable and dangerous. The word "Beersheba" can refer to a number of events related to the city, and most likely to Elijah's refuge after Jezebel ordered that he be killed. The idea is possibly that Shiftke's former wife, also unstable, ordered (or trained) daughter Stacy Lynn to eliminate him, since daughter at least is convinced he was responsible for mother's death. It's Shiftke's ex-wife rather than Stacy Lynn who is here associated with the evil Jezebel. A good, tense story, though not as tight as the others in the collection, and though interesting, the characters are not as well delineated. I do like that we learn little of Shiftke and that his innocence in his ex's death is questionable, though I would have liked a little more emphasis on that particular point. Told in third person rather than first, there is no unreliable narrator, though the third person is limited to Shiftke.

The most ordinary of the stories in the collection, it is nonetheless well written and suits the overall mood of the book. Perhaps placed in the middle as a kind of intermission story would have worked better.

Nobody Knows My Name     7/10     (Twists of the Tale, Ellen Datlow, editor, New York: Dell Books, 1996)
Nine year-old Jessica is threatened by the affection bestowed on her new baby sister. Even at the summer cottage at Lake St. Cloud, previously a wonderful refuge for the family, the baby's needs and cries are overwhelming. It is only in the grey-haired cat that Jassica can find solace, as the feline appears to understand her predicament, and to know her name. A great psychological horror story, where a passive, unbalanced little girl finds her new reality suffocating. With the ending Oates manages to create a final image that is horribly tragic.

Fossil-Figures     7/10     (Stories, Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio, editors, HarperCollins, June 2010)
Twins Edgar and Edward Waldman are distinct opposites. Edgar is the "demon" brother, wishing to suck the life from the other that shares the womb, resentful that there is even another when there should be only him. Edgar is born healthy and develops into a healthy and successful man, while frail Edward becomes a reclusive artist. Perhaps my favourite story of the collection, and evidence that Oates, despite her aggressive energy and not too likeable characters, can transform a tale of unsympathetic opposing twins into something quite touching.

Death-Cup     7/10     (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 1997)
Another tale of opposite twins. Here it is Lyle, the simple book binder who resents the manipulative Alastar, the prodigal son who has obviously returned following a lengthy absence for some conniving plot centred around the passing of their wealthy, philanthropist uncle. Thinking it a duty to society, Lyle plans uncharacteristically to murder his brother with the wild death-cup mushroom.

Another effective tale, "Death-Cup" focused primarily on character. Automatically the reader sympathizes with Lyle, as Alastar is the obvious bad guy and the third person narration is limited to Lyle's point of view. Lyle is nonetheless not a terribly sympathetic character. He is too simple-minded and dull, and we can only wonder at his envy, as he focuses on his brothers birth advantages.

Helping Hands     7/10     (The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, New York: Mysterious Press, November 2011; Boulevard, Fall 2011)
Recent young widow Helene Haidt visits Helping Hands in Trenton, New Jersey, to drop off some of her late husband's clothes, and there meets Nicolas, veteran of a recent war in the Middle East. Grieving, alone and lost, Helene takes to Nicolas, hoping they can be friends.

Cover of the e-book edition
There is less of the overtly horrific here, and the titular nightmare in "Helping Hands" is the unexpected abandonment of one's long-time spouse, something Oates herself suffered in 2008 following more than half a century of marriage. Helene is lost on many levels, in her finances, in a part of New Jersey she is unfamiliar with, among people with whom she is not used to sharing company, and in her own sense of self as her life was for many years associated with that of her husband's. She seeks companionship with a man from an entirely different world, from Trenton in contrast to her affluent Quaker Heights, whose experiences are nothing she can ever imagine, to the point that she convinces herself he is someone other than whom he obviously is. He is gruff and rude and self-interested, whereas she is overly sensitive and genuinely sympathetic. This need for companionship brings about a kind of tragedy we experience as greater than that of her husband's death, since as the reader we watch helplessly as she sets herself up for defeat. Oates succeeded tremendously in making me feel for this victimized woman. That desolate family room at the end reflects the barren desolation in Helene's life.

Helene's widowhood gives her a different point of a view, a completely skewed sense of reality. She sees not who Nicolas is, but projects upon him a personality and situation she would like to save him from. She believes he has been injured in battle, and though he appears to confirm this with descriptions of rehabilitation, her vision of a "damaged" person is a projection of her own damaged self. His scars might be evident, whereas hers are internal. She makes excuses for his behaviour and his station in life from a need for companionship alongside a naturally well-meaning and sensitive self. She is not naturally attracted to him, but subtly hopes for something to eventually develop, once he is no longer as damaged and has his life on the right track. She is attracted to an idea of Nicolas that she has herself defined, brought on by the belief that he is "damaged." His damage is more psychological than Helene is willing to admit, and Oates does well in never fully revealing his state.

A Hole in the Head     6/10     (Kenyon Review, Fall 2010)
Plastic surgeon Dr. Lucas Brede is puzzled that so many of his regular affluent New York patients are requesting that he perform on them the medieval operation of trepanning, which involves drilling some holes in one's skull. Shocked and offended, Brede adamantly refuses request after request, thinking that the world has gone mad. Yet as a result he is losing patients, and the period of national economic hardship forces him to eventually be convinced by a quieter client who swears to secrecy and offers the doc a large sum. He is horrified and anxious at the prospect of the operation, having encountered unresolved difficulties while a med student drilling skulls for routine procedures.

There is a shift in the tale from the existential and somewhat absurd to the tale of suspense. The suspense element leaves the incomplete plot unsatisfactory, thought the lack of a resolution works well with the existential elements. Similar in several ways to the previous story, "Helping Hands," as it deals with the affluent amid an international crisis, and how the effects of international crisis manages to seep into the otherwise isolated privileged world. Written (published, at least) not too far apart, an idea from one might have triggered the idea for the other, or perhaps Oates has been reflecting on international crises and the U.S. economy.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The 4400: Gone (Part 1)

The 4400: Gone (Part 1) (Episode 3.3)
Directed by Morgan Beggs
Written by Bruce Miller
Guest starring Alice Krige, Kathryn Gordon
First aired 25 June 2006
Rating: 7/10

Previous episode: Being Tom Baldwin
Next episode: (you guessed it!) Gone (Part II)

For some other articles on film or television of the past, please visit Todd Mason's links on this week's Tuesday's Overlooked Films, etc.

The third episode of season three follows a triad of main threads: the disappearance of some 4400 children, including Maia, the escalating tensions at the 4400 Centre centering around Shawn, and Tom Baldwin's revealing insecurities in his relationship with Alana. Analysis will be limited since it's fair to see how these threads are resolved in Part 2.

A far superior episode to "Being Tom Baldwin," there are some potential flaws in the time travel aspects played upon here, and the direction of Part II might very well reveal some nonsensical elements. Some nice camera work, rotating shots to escalate tension and anxiety as well some good distance shots. There is good humour and a fine performance by Alice Krige as Maia's sister Sarah. Director Morgan Beggs has been an Assistant Director for film and television for over twenty years, and worked as AD on several episodes of The 4400 beginning with season two. He will return as Director in the final season for the episode "Ghost in the Machine" (4.11). "Gone" was written by third season Co-Executive Producer Bruce Miller, who penned several episodes of Eureka.

The main plot stream in "Gone" is the disappearance of Maia along with four other young 4400s. Creepily, Maia announces to mom Diana: "You will forget me," and while initially we are led to believe the forgetfulness is related to her kidnapping, we learn later that it is more literal. Indeed, the multiple twist ending here is quite strong and surprising. There is good humour thrown in with Diana quipping about missing teen Lindsey Hammond's on-screen photo: "Just once I wish a 4400 could smile for their picture," and later Marco discussing his study of Maia's journals: "I did find out how I was gonna die... Yeah, that was interesting. No, no, don't worry, it's actually kinda cool." A potential anachronism features Maia in her old 1946 bedroom listening to the wonderful Ella Fitzgerald singing Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," which I believe is her 1956 recording. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)

There is brewing tension and conflict between arguably the show's two most morally conscious men: Richard and Shawn, as they are both being manipulated by the less than moral Matthew and Isabelle. Shawn is forced to fess up of his dealings with the Nova group when he learns how easily they can get to him. Yet more disconcerting is how dangerous Isabelle is, who is already closer to him than anyone else, as she exhibits her powers by levitating Matthew, so that actor Garret Dillahunt can practice for his future curled over hovering moment in that other time travel project, the entertaining Looper (see screen shot at top right).

Finally, as Tom Baldwin feels more antagonized by members of the 4400, Alana is alternately becoming more tied to the centre. Heather Toby returns (the teacher from "Suffer the Children" 2.4) to inform us that Alana has been offered a teaching post at the centre, one in which she can utilize her gifts to help others. Tom's jealousy is interesting, a weakness from a tough guy main character. He walks in on Alana and Heather on the couch as they practice the former's holodeck abilities, while the latter, coming out of her trance, says: "That was incredible!" As though Tom had walked in on some other kind of intimate, yet naughtier, act. Appearances seem to indicate it is merely sharing her ability with others that he objects to, as though he is sharing her with others, though perhaps we will learn something new down the line? (Somehow I doubt it; Tom Baldwin is not that deep a character.)

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