Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Oh Bloody Hell Eleven Books Of 2013

11) The Flamethrowers:

Following a rootless young woman as she drifts from the Bonneville salt flats, through the pretentious art scene of 70’s New York and into violent revolution in Italy, The Flame Throwers paints a portrait of a character who is adrift in a world that is unmoored. Written with an eye for character, place, a wry sense of humor and a just this side of detached style that recalls vintage McMurtry, but wedded to a sinister undercurrent and global spanning, time slipping narrative that makes it feel like something else entirely, The Flamethrowers is hypnotic, ineffably disturbing and unlike anything else I read this year.

10) The Ocean At The End Of The Lane:

Neil Gaiman’s fable is deceptively slight and simple, but like all of the great man’s work it contains multitudes. Bringing the mystery and terror of childhood to life in a way that few books have. 

9) Double Feature:

What more canbe said of Double Feature than that one critical moment of schadenfreude made me laugh so hard in public that I actually disturbed passersby? It's not isolated either, and a consultation with a severely incapacitated poetry professor provoked a laugh nearly as loud. To give too much of the plot away would be the very definition of spoiling the fun, suffice it to say that Double Feature follows the estranged son of a B movie icon, whose own career as an aspiring director takes some unexpected turns. Intercutting a modern day Amisian farce with wistful remembrances of the initial fracturing of the father son relationship. Funny and humane, Double Feature's final chapters do wraps things up just a touch too neatly. But then again there are far worse sins for a novelist to have than an abundance of generosity towards his characters. Funny novelists are rare, funny novelists free of misanthropy are virtually as common as Dodos. I eagerly await King’s next book.

8) The Double:
Despite featuring what is without a doubt the worst author’s photo I have ever seen, George Pelecanos delivered a superb sequel to The Cut. As he did two decades ago with Nick’s Trip Pelecanos really finds his rhythm on his second go round. The Double deepens Spero Lucas, an Iraqi war veteran who works as a PI, making him a flawed man who try as he might can’t solve everything. And who Pelecanos seems to understand to his core. The plot of The Double starts with a neat set up and ends with a fray of unsolved strands and unavenged deeds, with Lucas not so much saving the day as performing triage the best he can. Pelecanos tends to abandon reoccurring characters after three or four books, but I truly hope he shoots for a longer run with Lucas. He has a rare hero here and despite his flaws Lucas earns that designation, one with a lot to learn and a lot to lose. Most authors would kill for a character this rich. I eagerly await seeing him do so.

7) In One Person:
About fifteen years ago Tom Wolfe engaged in a vicious feud with John Irving and I’m not even going to pretend I was on Irving’s side. But looking at their last two novels side by side I cannot help but feel that some particularly vicious act of literary karma has taken place. Wolfe has descended into shrill self parody going from one of the most engaged working writers to one of our most tone deaf, meanwhile Irving has produced two of his most vital works. Novels every bit as strong as those he wrote in his eighties heyday. I’m not saying Voodoo is involved but I’m not saying it’s not.

Either way In One Person is a remarkable novel. Crafted with Irving’s trademark open heartedness. This is simply put one of the most sympathetic novels, let alone mainstream novels, involving transgendered sexuality, or hell sexuality in general, that I've come across. Funny, tragic sweeping and generous In One Person shows Irving’s skills to be fully intact.

6 & 5) Doctor Sleep, Joyland

As do these two numbers. As I've written before I was genuinely frightened that reengaging with one of his best works would derail King’s late period winning streak, I needn't have feared. Doctor Sleep shows King doing what he does best, ripping into a porterhouse of a narrative, populating it with characters both light and dark worth getting invested in and setting up stakes that truly matter. King doesn't try and best The Shining, he just uses it as a base to tell one hell of a yarn. And if it takes it’s time getting started it’s only because how clearly it all matters to King, both the legacy of his original novel and Torrance’s experiences with addiction and recovery which feel nearly as raw as the material in On Writing.

Joyland, is a slighter novel, but no less pleasurable. Time, place and character have always been King’s tools as a novelist and Joyland excels at all three. Even if it does occasionally feel as though King would like to pull a Colorado Kid and just forget the whole mystery thing.  A few fans groused that together they represented a softer King, this being the same guy who recently wrote the end of Duma Key, Full Dark No Stars, and cheerfully BBQed an entire town at the climax of Under The Dome. But as I said of his son’s novel, generosity is no vice in a novelist.  Watching King practice his craft over the last seven years has been a pleasure. I can’t wait for the next three decades or so.

4) The Republic Of Thieves: Now this is an interesting little bugger. No one in the fantasy genre writes quite as well as Scott Lynch. Oh sure Patrick Rothfuss has the whole conversational literary style down pat, and Sanderson has his efficient world building and can plot like a mofo. But where Rothfuss can occasionally be ponderous when his humor fails him and slide into self parody when his reach exceeds his grasp (“Bless the moon for sending me this lusty young manling” and so forth) Lynch slides through his narratives with the propulsion of a con man convincing you to get a second mortgage. And while Sanderson makes his world building unobtrusive Lynch makes exploring his world feel not like a chore but fun

Lynch through fans for a loop by backing away from the high stakes of the first two novels for what seems like a particularly ingenious game of Spy Versus Spy. For all but the last thirty pages or so of the six hundred fifty page novel, all that seems at stake for the characters in The Republic Of Thieves is their hearts. It is testament to Lynch’s skill that seven year hiatus or no, this seems more than enough.  

3) You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me:

If you know Nathan Rabin, chances are you will be unprepared. I walked into You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, expecting one of Rabin’s trademark outsider looking in works. In the vein of his famous Year(s) Of Flops, or his sojourn through country music. That’s not what this is.

You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, is one of those happy books that increases your good opinion of the author (especially nice when you already like the author in question a great deal). Showing him capable of more than you expected. Simply put You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is self laceratingly honest, incredibly dedicated and howlingly funny. Rabin never condescends to his subject matter and instead throws himself into the loathed subculture of The Juggallos and Phishheads with an intensity that recalls Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. No I’m not shitting you.

Take that aforementioned work and mix it with the hurt, passion and soul of Scott Raab’s The Whore Akron and you might have some idea of what You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me reads like. Buy it. Buy it now. The next three books might be “better” but You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is easily the most undervalued book of the year.

3)Bleeding Edge:

This is the first Thomas Pynchon novel that hasn't read as a period piece to me (which is not to say the first he has written) and to be honest that kind of sort of scares the shit out of me. But it’s hard to be unnerved for so long when the man holding the fun house mirror up to your own time is such a charming host. Bleeding Edge has all the head long energy, virtuosity, absurdest humor and manic paranoia of Pynchon’s best work. A cross between the Gospel according to Groucho Marx and Kafka’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Pynchon remains line by line the most brilliantly unpredictable writer I've come across. Like a man who walks into a drawing room with a sledgehammer which he uses to tap out a delicate version of Fur Elise. Slapstick broad one page (Perhaps no moment of my reading in 2013 was quite so odd as realizing that Thomas Pynchon had made a fucking Daikatana joke), almost unbearably delicate and poignant the next.

Like King Pynchon hasn't so much softened as he has chosen to highlight elements of his work that served as a background hum. Here he adds a wholly unexpected portrait of observant Judaism sans the usual neuroticism and regret, as well as a dedicated portrait of family life. Neither of which shield Pynchon’s heroine from his trademark waves of conspiracy and counter conspiracy and shadowy organizations who never quite coalesce. But which, Pynchon seems to suggest, might serve as consolation enough.

The world Pynchon writes is the world I see outside my own window (how perfectly Pynchonian was PRISM?) this is welcome news.

2) The Wes Anderson Collection: Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection isn’t merely a scrupulous piece of criticism blended with an incisive career spanning interview. Instead it is a book with such a keen understanding of its subject that the book feels less like a book on Anderson as his films as it does an object from one of Anderson films. Few books have brought me as much pleasure. In fact only one book has…

1) N0S4A2: It seems dismissive to describe N0S4A2 as a complete blast and dishonest to call it anything else. At it’s core it’s a page turner, with a stripped down roaring engine of a story. The kind of book that has you glancing at your clock at 3AM as you try and convince yourself that you’ll function perfectly fine at work with five hours of sleep so you might sneak in a few more chapters.

But it only works that deviously because of how thoroughly Hill invests himself in his characters and in his world. N0S4A2 isn't a throwaway, and Hill’s empty devils and tattered angels aren't merely cardboard cut outs and or victims. But people who matter. Hill’s darkness is not simply the darkness of grotesquery but the darkness within the human heart, to be rejected or fed at our will. He gives evil its weight, and as a result good gets its own as well.

Simply put N0S4A2 is a great story told to its full potential by a master storyteller in full command of his craft. And if there’s anything better than that I haven’t found it. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Unlockeing Keyhouse

After 5 years and 40 densely imaginative issues Locke & Key is drawing to a close on Wednesday. And I'm going to lose my monthly dose of literary smack.
So in tribute to what has been for my money the best book on the racks for over the last half decade. I want to do a little something different. Rather than look back on the highlights of the run I think I'll let you discover them for yourself.
But Locke & Key also offers a puzzle of another sort. Hill is a novelist and has peppered Locke & Key with all sorts of literary references. Some are fun tributes, others offer hints to the mechanics of Hill’s world offered nowhere else in the text, some might hint at whatever end is coming tomorrow. Here are a few of the more prominent ones.

H.P. Lovecraft: Locke & Key follows three siblings, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, who move with their Mother from California to their ancestral home of Lovecraft, Maine in the wake of a family tragedy. There they find themselves heir to their family legacy, a series of reality bending keys. If you are in a horror story there are few worse ideas than moving to a place called Lovecraft Maine. Perhaps only Satansberg, OH and That-Place-Where-All-Those-Camp-Counselors-Were-Butchered, TN can compete.
The Lovecraft influence actually lay dormant for most of Locke & Key’s run as the book developed its own intricate mythology. But the Lovecraft DNA reared its head with a vengeance in the first issue of the Clockworks arc, “The Lockesmith’s Son”. Revealing (via a fantastic Drag Me To Hell reference) that the mysterious Black Door buried beneath the ancestral Locke home leads to the Lovecraftian Gods, the Great Old Ones. Making it approximately the 798th portal to the Great Old Ones that protagonists in horror fiction have stumbled upon.
I have mixed feelings about Hill making the Lovecraft connection explicit- well explicter. On one hand it’s not the first time Hill has used the device, his novella “Voluntary Committal” hinged on a similar reveal. But as Lovecraft himself noted, “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" and ironically Lovecraftian horror has become a very well known quantity. Hill’s homebrewed mythology was up until that point not. Which brings us to…

N0S4A2: In Hill’s latest (and absolutely phenomenal) novel, N0S4A2 the Locke Family makes a cameo on a list of Inscapers. N0S4A2 was an ambitious book, among other things it ties Hill’s previous work into one cohesive universe using the concept of Inscaping.
To simplify, Inscaping is the power to make imaginary things real, or to be more precise, the ability to bring the things inside of your head into the real world, whether they’re actual physical things or abstract concepts (such as when Kinsey Locke first removed and then imprisoned her capacity for grief and fear). Hill uses the Head Key to literalize the process, which allows characters to physically open the mind and access whatever is within it.
Inscapers can be benevolent or malevolent but all eventually pay a great price for the use of their ability. The Lockes are no exception.  
Bill Waterson: In one of the oddest stand alone issues, the first issue of Keys To The Kingdom, “Sparrow”, found Gabriel Rodriguez drawing almost the entire issue in the style of Bill Waterson. It tells the story of youngest Locke sibling, Bode, as he uses the keys to explore the wilderness, recruiting a flock of sparrows in the fight against the evil stalking the family.
What at first seems like an out of left field choice pays off brilliantly, utilizing Waterson’s signature style to bring the New England winter woods to starkly beautiful life. A simple, unshowy mastery and respect for nature and wildlife were always a hallmark of Watterson’s art. It’s put to beautiful use here, as is the emotional transparency of Watterson’s signature character style.
But the true brilliance of the reference comes at the end of the story. After all what is such a situation for a child than one of Calvin’s daydreams come to life, with the stakes risen to terrible proportions.
Ray Bradbury: Bradbury is one of Hill’s biggest, yet least cited influences. Hill has played with Bradburyian conventions before. His first published collection, 20th Century Ghosts, featured the short story “Last Breath” which could have come straight out of The October Country. He also contributed “By The Silver Water Of Lake Champlain” to the collection of Ray Bradbury tributes, Shadow Show.
The Locke & Key standalone “Open The Moon” finds Hill once again trying on Bradbury’s voice for size (the issue is dedicated to him). Exploring Bradbury’s style at his most wistful, “Open The Moon” tells the story of a Locke ancestor’s attempt to use the keys to create a refuge for his terminally ill son.
The story is true to Bradbury’s voice, paying tribute to his singular ability to blend whimsy and sentiment with melancholy, to take the awareness of the omnipresence of death and to use fantasy to disarm it.


The Tempest: But by far the text most central to Locke & Key is The Tempest. The image of the Shakespeare play performed with real magic is introduced in “Intermission” the first issue of Headgames, arguably the best issue of the entire run. It’s an event returned to time and again, the lynchpin that sealed the fate of the Locke family.
Echoes of The Tempest can be seen across Locke & Key. Like The Tempest, Locke & Key is about a child (or in this case children) kept in ignorance of their legacy by their parents. It also doesn’t take much to connect The Tempest’s magical character Ariel, sealed in a pine, to the main antagonist of Locke & Key the demonic Dodge who begins the story sealed in a well.
But I am most interested in how The Tempest might hint at the ending of Locke & Key. The Tempest ends with Prospero, a practicing sorcerer, drowning his book of spells. Given the handy grotto beneath Keyhouse, where several of the principles are now trapped, it’s possible that the story might end with The Locke children drowning their keys.
However, it is possible that another, darker, meaning is hinted at by the reference to The Tempest. After all among the play’s most famous lines is the phrase, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
If you REALLY want to hear me geek out about Locke And Key (and other things Joe Hill) over an extended period of time, be sure to check out my book Son Of Danse Macabre, available on
The Kindle and Nook.  2.99 Cheep!

Friday, December 6, 2013

That Obscure Object Of Remakes With Potential That Somehow Do Not…

Since it was released a decade ago Oldboy has felt almost like a dare to American filmmakers. The shock still hasn’t come off of it. It is a caustic film, rage choked in a way that makes it feel legitimately dangerous on a level above the average foreign melodrama or fanboy geek show. And it accomplished this not because it pushed away from American ideals of filmmaking but because it embraced and made sweet unnatural love to them. Oldboy isn’t a great film because it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before, we know the tools it uses; a premise that is like some sort of Hitchcockian platonic ideal, an eye for action and a well shot showdown, a gripping mystery and a gloating villain. Like Oh Dae Su’s hammer, Oldboy takes these familiar tools and uses them to hurt us- to say nothing of the hero. And ever since Tarantino anointed it with the Grand Prix it’s like it's been grinning, asking, “Can you do the same? Can you still hit this hard? Play this rough?”

Well points for trying.

Out of all the directors who have taken up, and then put down the challenge I found Lee the most intriguing in a just crazy enough to work sort of way (yes even more than Spielberg- let’s face it fellas there was no way certain stuff was going to show up in a Spielberg movie, in one of his “This Is For A Serious Purpose” films such as Munich sure, but not one of his “entertainments.”) Sure it was nothing much like anything else in his filmography, but then again there’s no two films that are much like one another in Lee’s filmography. While there’s a certain image everyone has of a Spike Lee joint, he’s also able to put on other writer’s voices (albeit through his own filter) like Richard Price or David Benioff, step offstage for his documentaries and follow his various muses through the structures of musicals and biopics. Nothing in his filmography immediately made me think of him for Oldboy, both nothing discouraged that notion either.

It’s not even fair to stand by the old critical phrases like “interesting failure” when it comes to Oldboy, because Oldboy doesn’t so much fail as it does succeed at aims that no one else is going for. It’s as though Lee invented an alloy that no one knows what to do with, let alone wants.

The smartest decision Lee makes with the material (and oddly enough the one he seems loath to admit to) is setting the film in New Orleans. By transplanting Oldboy into the south, he transforms the story into an maniac Southern Gothic. It’s one of those head slapping, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that,” ideas, because it’s the only Western context in which Oldboy can even be parsable. Set Oldboy anywhere else and the long imprisonment and web of incest at the heart of its plot would seem outlandish, but in the south, well that just feels like another day in Yoknapatawpha County.

Brolin does dedicated work bringing “Joe Doucett” to life. Both as the grieving monster he becomes when he’s unleashed and as the tormented figure he embodies when he’s torn down again and again. The hotel sequence at least matches the original, and nearly tops it with Lee cooking up a vignette involving a short lived pet of Brolin’s that’s more personally cruel than anything that happened to Oh Dae Su. When he’s unleashed, he’s less showy than Min-sik Choi’s performance, but arguably more damaged. In one key substitute Lee exchanges a scene where Dae Su fought a street gang in some generic violence, with Joe going up against some well meaning Dudebros in the middle of a pick up game, who as far as they know are merely trying to prevent an assault. Brolin nearly cripples them. There’s a real sense that he may no longer be a man fit to be released. That the damage done to him has already run too deep and may be permanent.

And it’s moments like these that make it all the more frustrating when Oldboy just goes dead for long periods of time. Including the infamous Hammer sequence which now plays out with all the impact of Side Scroller The Movie (though interestingly enough Lee has a much better handle on the up close and personal violence that precedes it). There are some, well let’s call them deliberate, choices that make up the film. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Sharlto Copley fan than I, but man I’m not sure what’s going on here. I’m not going to be as condemnatory as nearly every other review I read, because it feels like he was giving Lee exactly what he was asking for. But he plays the mastermind, the cancerous heart of the mystery, as history's most malignant Upper Class Twit Of The Year contestant.

His character is Lee’s most overt political statement in the film, portraying the one percent as decadent and depraved lunatics. Emphasized by one of the few deviations from the plot that Lee makes underlines this with a sequence, that once again, only works if you’re thinking of Oldboy as a Southern Gothic.

Lee does makes some other changes to the ending, though not the one you are thinking of, credit Elizabeth Olsen for not flinching from the material (and while we’re at it Michael Imperiolli does well and Samuel Jackson seems to be having the most fun). And, just for a little extra kick of confusion out the door, I’m reasonably sure I find this ending more satisfying than the original’s.

So here we have a movie equal parts infuriating and fascinating. One that strings perhaps forty minutes of electric scenes between eighty minutes of dead weight. I can’t in good consciousness recommend Oldboy to anyone as a film. But I would absolutely recommend anyone who was interested see it as an experiment. I guess at the end of the day I feel like my biggest problem is that if someone were to capture Spike Lee and pose him two all important questions of his own, “Why a remake?” and “Why this film?” I’m not sure he could answer.

And now to a remake that I’ve just been plain too dispirited to write about until Oldboy got me thinking about it again.

Let me be perfectly clear, there are other directors whose underuse disappoints me. Kim Peirce is the only one who makes me angry.

It’s not just because she’s an auteurist woman working in a field where both are in short supply. It’s because she’s really fucking good. If the director of Boys Don’t Cry and Stop Loss had a nine and five year gap between films respectively and was named Jim Bob I would still be pissed. And unlike so many films that get shucked for their last ounce of name recognition Carrie was ripe for reinterpretation.

Few works capture the nastiness of adolescence as sharply as Carrie. The rage, the isolation, the loneliness, the thwarted potential, none of it has aged a jot. And in the wake of cyber bullying scandals, school violence and the highly publicized rash of gay teen suicides Carrie hardly needed to remind anyone that it was still a pertinent, potent piece of material.  So let’s just recap. We have a remake that is:

A)     More socially relevant than ever.

B)      Despite the excellence of the previous adaptation, there was material in King’s novel that just couldn’t be portrayed at the time, most of Carrie’s apocalyptic final rampage was excised. Leaving plenty of plumb new material to mine for the new adaptation.

C)      Would be helmed by a director who not only would almost have to offer a more interesting take on the gender politics than Brian DePalma, who has always had a well let’s just call it complicated relationship with women, but who knows the rhythms of small town life in her bones. This was someone who wouldn’t just make Carrie matter, she’d make it hurt.

So there you have it. A remake with a bonafide reason, strike that, multiple reasons to exist.  Why the only way they could screw it up is if they ignored the book completely, pretended that the last thirty five years never happened, and just readapted DePalma’s film!

…anybody want to guess what they did?

It’s hard to know who to be mad at with Carrie. Sure Chloe Moretz was miscast, but she does honorable work, and she’s able make at least one line near the end really hurt. I understand that Peirce may not have had as free of a hand as she was accustomed to and some of her detractors have been unfair in their criticism of her handling of her horror material, there’s at least one gore gag here that goes cheekily far, and while her prom scene may not match DePalma’s it has its moments. Julianne Moore does fine work as Margret White. It would be easy enough to call it a hard won single, off of what should have been an easy grand slam.

And yet, the sheer, stubborn unwillingness of Carrie to engage with anything leaves such rationalizing feeling hollow. There’s NOTHING new here, no unused material from the book, no attempt to understand the new kind of bullying that will follow kids home through their computer, no attempt to portray how questions of sexuality are used as an attack, no new empathy, no new insight. It might as well have been titled Carrie! Again! And that’s the last thing it should have been.

Well it made money at least, which means that maybe Peirce’s next film will get off the Launchpad a bit easier. But now her all too short CV carries something else new. A disappointment.

Oh also I saw Frozen, it was pretty neat.