Archive for Horror

Blood of Dracula!

Dang, it is long past time for me to do some more reviews. Let’s take a look at one of the few comics I was able to buy last year: Dracula, Motherf**ker! by Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson.

We start out with a quick three-page preview from 1889 Vienna as Dracula’s brides turn on him, stake him into a coffin, and bury him.

And then we jump forward to 1974 Los Angeles, as a Hollywood starlet worrying about aging decides she may as well let the Lord of Darkness roam free.

After that, we meet Quincy Harker, an African-American photographer working to take pictures of gruesome murder scenes for the tabloids. And when he realizes somethings weird about some of the photos he’s taken, he ends up on the radar of Dracula and his new brides. And his only hope for survival is… Dracula’s old brides?

Does one schmuck with a camera have a hope in hell when matched up against the most powerful vampires on Earth?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Yeah, I didn’t put a lot of plot description up there. It’s not a long book — only about 70 pages long — and the plot is pretty straightforward. It don’t need a complex, convoluted plot to deserve a thumbs-up.

This one started out not being a big favorite — Quincy mostly served as a helpless nobody who had stuff happen to him, or who got helplessly dragged along by others. But that was because I was assuming he was the protagonist, expecting him to be Jim Kelly in “Black Belt Jones.”

But Quincy Harker isn’t the protagonist. The brides are. Quincy is there as a witness, and he has his part to play in the story as our viewpoint character. But Dracula and the brides are the ones who move the story.

And jeezum wow, can we do some screamin’ about the art on this book? So many of us are most familiar with Erica Henderson through her work on the very friendly “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” and this looks like she stored up every dark, bloody thought she’s had for the past decade just so she could unleash it on the page here.

It’s amazing, lush, absolutely glorious. The nighttime scenes of ’70s L.A. are lusciously decadent, the costume design is beautiful, and the design of Dracula himself is like nothing you’ve ever seen before in any medium. Ain’t very much human form for this guy — just eyes, mouths, and a couple of skinny, elongated arms. His design is the type of thing you’ll probably see in a movie someday, from a design studio that’ll probably have to pay Erica Henderson a decent chunk of change.

My lone quibble about this is the title. Dammit, I just want us to be able to say “Motherfucker” in the title of a book or comic and not have to resort to asterisks.

Anyway, this is a great book, and you should definitely go pick it up.

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The Pumpkin King with His Skeleton Grin

My children, tomorrow is the best day of the year, and I still have time to review another horror tale. Let’s look at one of the best Halloween stories out there, Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge.

Well, here we are — it’s Halloween night, 1963, in the little podunk Midwestern town you call home, and it’s time for the biggest event of the year. But it’s not trick-or-treating. It’s not the Halloween parade. It’s the time when the October Boy, Sawtooth Jack himself, that pumpkin-headed, candy-stuffed, butcher knife-wielding scarecrow, hauls himself out of the cornfield and makes his way toward town. And if he makes it to the church before midnight, there’s going to be big trouble.

Luckily, every teenaged boy in town is in the way, armed with clubs and machetes and kitchen knives and pump handles and more. Why just the kids? Because the only way anyone gets to leave this little podunk Midwestern town you call home is to kill the October Boy before midnight. Seriously. The lucky kid gets permission to go live his life outside of this little hellhole, and the rest of you are stuck here forever. So get after it, kid. You don’t wanna be on the wrong end of the knife when you’re staring down Sawtooth Jack’s crooked grin.

Much of our story focuses on 16-year-old Pete McCormick, on his first year going after the October Boy. He’s a smart kid, smarter than most — he knows he can’t rely on brute strength and bravado to take down a nightmare with a pumpkin’s face — but like almost every other kid in town, he’s stuffed full of resentment and anger. He’s been stuck in this town his whole life, watching his drunkard father get beat down and knowing that’s the best he has to look forward to — unless he can make his escape.

But the October Boy isn’t the only obstacle Pete has to contend with. There’s every other teenaged boy in town, many of them stronger and more violent than he is. There’s Jerry Ricks, the brutal, thuggish cop who’s run the town as long as anyone can remember. And there’s Kelly Haines, the only girl participating in the competition, the person who knows all the secret scandals Pete hasn’t learned about yet.

Will Pete get his free trip out of town? Or will the October Boy drag the town to Hell with him?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a thoroughly fun book, though I hesitate to classify it as straight horror. Yeah, it’s got a pumpkin-headed scarecrow, multiple murders, a conspiracy stretching back generations, and evil both supernatural and mundane, but it feels more like a hardboiled crime novel than anything else.

A lot of Norman Patridge’s writing is in detective fiction, and his writing style in this book is picture-perfect crime noir. Almost everyone in the book is at least a little bit sleazy — the first thing the hero does on Halloween night is break into a cop’s house to steal his gun, after all. And the book is stuffed to the gills with performative machismo. I don’t even consider that a bad thing! Desperate, violent men doing desperate, violent things to other desperate, violent men is one of the best ways to write hardboiled crime fiction. And yes, Kelly Haines, essentially the only female character in the book, does manage to clock her share of dudes upside the head with a brakeman’s club, but as much fun as she is, as much as she moves the story along, she won’t be mistaken for the main character.

And the main character, by the way? It’s actually a pumpkin. Because we do spend about half the story’s length inside the October Boy’s blazing brain as he’s constructed in a cornfield, his wooden chest cavity stuffed full of candy, as he plots his way through the night, as he remembers his past, as he decides what kind of creature he’s going to be. It’s his desire for revenge that drives the story forward, it’s his decisions and planning that change the town’s fate, and it’s his ability to show mercy that brings the tale to its proper conclusion.

“Dark Harvest” was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and an International Horror Guild Award in 2007, and it won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction in 2006. Publishers Weekly picked it as one of their 100 Best Books of 2006. So it’s not just my opinion, y’all — it’s a great Halloween story, and you should go look for it, read it, and remember what it’s like to run the streets of your hometown with a baseball bat, looking for your showdown with the October Boy.

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Werewolves on Wheels

It’s Halloween Week! It’s been a super-weird and largely awful year, but we get this whole week for celebrating the best holiday of the year — culminating in Halloween itself, on a Saturday, with a full moon! And speaking of full moons, let’s review Mongrels, a novel written by Stephen Graham Jones.

So kids, what do we know about lycanthropy? Well, it’s the power to shift your form, right? The power to become a powerful, unstoppable werewolf, master of the night, destroyer of man and animal alike, savage scourge of the forest, a beast unlike all other beasts!

Actually, according to this book, it kinda sucks. There’s so much stuff that can kill you. You can’t wear tights or panty hose, ’cause if you wolf out while wearing them, they’re sheer enough that they change with you, and when you return to human form, every hair pulled back into your skin drags artificial fibers into your body, into your bloodstream, and you spend all day dying.

You have to be careful driving, ’cause if you wolf out in the car, you can’t drive anymore, and you’re gonna die. You sure can’t go on a boat. You wolf out in the middle of the ocean, you’re gonna go overboard and drown. You can’t even eat delicious trash out of the dumpster, ’cause if the wolf eats a tin can, the human’s gonna suffer for it. And you’re not going to live very long, even if you survive all the hazards. Being a werewolf takes a toll on your body. But no matter how long you live, it’s mostly going to suck.

“Mongrels” follows a kid, an unnamed narrator, as he travels across the South with his uncle Darren and aunt Libby. They’re all werewolves, but the kid hasn’t had his first change yet. Sometimes he wants it desperately, sometimes he’s not so sure. A lot of the time, he’s not sure that time will ever come at all. Darren is a laughing good-old-boy daredevil, and Libby is more careful, but often more savage.

They’re generally flat-broke and on the run from someone — usually because Darren or Libby turned into a monster and ate someone they shouldn’t have, usually a cop. It’s not an easy life, living out of junked-out trailers, traveling in cars that don’t run well, struggling to earn enough money to buy decent food. The kid never finishes out a whole year of school, generally only a few months at a time.

The whole family is fairly invisible, working bad jobs, burning trash out back of the trailer, buying food and wine coolers at convenience stores and truck stops. (I have a weakness for this book because the family spends time in two different towns I’ve lived in, and it’s nice to imagine you could’ve been that close to werewolves while you were buying corn dogs and chimichangas at Allsup’s in college.)

So the kid learns why you don’t go trying to turn normal humans into werewolves, he follows his uncle and his aunt on bloody sprees all over the countryside, he meets other werewolves — very rarely friendly — and once in a while, he gets to make a friend. The whole family goes through uncomfortable scrapes with the law, with angry rednecks, with kidnappers who want werewolves for their pee, with an out-of-control bear. But of all the things that can destroy a werewolf pack, the biggest threat is time. Time moves on, and people, even werewolves, change.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a real hair-raiser of a novel. Sometimes, it’s intensely scary, action-soaked, and bloody. Sometimes, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. And a lot of the time, it’s really sad. Because the life of a werewolf is hard and painful and lonely. You don’t get money, you don’t get possessions, you don’t get friends, you don’t get to settle down, and the future is always a question mark.

Characterization is a real high point for this book. You get to know every nook and cranny of these people’s heads — Libby’s stubborn nature, and her barely secret desire to go back to her lowdown scumbag mate Red; Darren’s good nature and quick wits, so often disarmed by the beast within; the kid’s questioning mind, his yearning to belong, his boundless love and trust in his aunt and uncle, his hopes and fears for his future.

We get few physical descriptions of the trio — Jones says he always considered them, like him, Native American. But we know what they look like where it counts. They look like humans. And they look like wolves.

If you love werewolves, if you love coming-of-age stories, if you ever lived the low-luck, low-rent, poor trash lifestyle, this book has something to say to you.

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Hulk as Horror

I know this title is still ongoing, at least for a few more months, and I’ve never had an opportunity to review the individual issues — but again, I live four hours away from the nearest decent comics shop, so I’ve had to make do with trades for a while. Nevertheless, let’s review this as a whole production. It’s time to look at The Immortal Hulk, written by Al Ewing and illustrated by Joe Bennett, with cover art by Alex Ross.

When the Hulk was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962, the character was as far as possible from the stereotypical lantern-jawed titan of justice. Stan Lee was inspired by a number of characters when creating him, including Frankenstein’s Monster and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

And the early Hulk showed those influences very strongly. The Hulk was a misshapen brute who could only take his powered form at night. The earliest Hulk was not a “HULK SMASH PUNY HUMANS” dimwit, but he didn’t have the refined intellect of Bruce Banner. He was cunning. He was, frankly, a raging asshole. And he could occasionally shapeshift in strange and unplanned ways.

Of course, time marched on, and it wasn’t long before we had the familiar Hulk we all know — not smart, incredibly angry, often heroic, but not always. But he’s a star. He’s been on TV, he’s been in cartoons, he’s been in movies. He’s safe, snuggly, loveable, at least to his mass media fans.

At some point in the comics, he’d gotten killed — the archer Hawkeye managed to kill Bruce Banner when he was temporarily cured of being the Hulk — but comics being comics, this didn’t last long, and the nature of Hulk’s resurrections had some wondering if he was actually immortal.

So when Al Ewing and Joe Bennett took the series over, they decided to take the Hulk back to his origins. They restored his cunning, merciless personality. They restored part of his original look.

And here’s how Issue #1 went. Bruce Banner is traveling again, staying undercover, and staying out of trouble. He stops in a convenience store at the same time as a kid with a gun decides to rob the place. He flies into a panic and starts spraying lead. The clerk catches a bullet. A bystander catches a bullet. Banner catches a bullet. All of them die.

Until nightfall. The night is when the Hulk rises from the dead. He’s smart. He’s cunning. And he’s angry. Coldly, terribly angry.

He finds the gang who ordered the kid to make the robbery. He takes them out. And the last one, the shooter, insists he only made a mistake, he’s not a bad guy.

And the Hulk smiles.

“The Immortal Hulk” isn’t a superhero comic. It’s a horror comic.

Who is this Hulk? Aside from his devious intelligence and icy rage, he’s much more controlled than most of his personas. He can converse civilly with anyone he wants, and he knows how to make intricate plans to get what he wants. And he still wants justice for the world — however, his plan to get justice involves, well, destroying the world. And Bruce Banner is, for once, in agreement with him.

The Hulk looks very much like the classic Hulk. No non-green colors, no mobster suits, nothing out of the ordinary, at least as far as gigantic green lumps of muscle and malice go. He’s got the giant Neandertal-esque browline, he’s got the snub nose, he’s got the oversized upper lip, the flat teeth, the beady eyes — but the eyes are greener than normal, and there’s plenty of white around the iris. They are eyes that say someone very smart, not very sane, and very, very scary is living inside that skull, and anyone who finds themselves eye-to-eye with that face is likely terrified out of their wits — and this definitely includes the reader.

In subsequent issues, the Hulk destroys a scientist who experimented on his own son using gamma radiation to make him immortal, he gets a hole blown clear through his chest, he tangles with Walter Langowski, the Sasquatch from Alpha Flight, who’s become possessed by an undead spirit who might be either Bruce Banner’s father or the One Below All — the Devil itself — or maybe even both at the same time. He gets carved into chunks and stored — alive and aware — in big glass jars. He gets dragged down to Hell, where he spends a whole storyarc horribly emaciated. He gets his face torn off more than once, always in loving closeups. He gets overdosed on gamma radiation and turns into a tumor of Hulks. We even visit the end of time when the Hulk is the last being alive, monstrously powerful, controlled by the One Below All, a cosmic horror smashing his way through one universe after another.

And over all of this rises the mystery of the Green Door, a magical gateway every gamma mutate sees when they die. What is its purpose? How does it work? Who controls it?

And it turns out almost anyone with powers based on gamma radiation is going through their own terrible, horrific mutation. The Absorbing Man, who can drain gamma radiation, ends up with his body split open and his skull and spine waving in the air like a serpent when he absorbs too much. Betty Ross regains the ability to turn into the Harpy, but a far more powerful, horrific version, willing and eager to kill and eat anyone who gets in her way — including the Hulk himself. And the Abomination becomes an even more dreadful monster, an acid-spitting horror with a maddening, indescribable anatomy. Rick Jones is missing, presumed dead, for quite a while before he eventually shows up and starts making his own disturbing transformations. And the Leader? No one really knows where the Leader is…

And yes, there’s horror and body horror and battles against characters who should be familiar but have become bizarre and creeptastic, but we should also acknowledge that the character work here is thoroughly excellent. It’s not just that the gamma mutates change their personalities every time they shift shape, but the other supporting characters are all well-done, too. The two most important in this series are Jackie McGee — not the antagonistic reporter from the ’70s TV show, but an African-American reporter for the Arizona Herald, who’s following the Hulk to write articles about him — and General Reginald Fortean, the commander of Shadow Base, a secret anti-Hulk military project.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The key question is this: Is the series worth reading? And the answer is: You’re damn straight it’s worth reading. It’s great to see long-form horror starring familiar superhero characters, particularly Marvel’s original Silver Age horror character. Al Ewing’s writing, stories, and dialogue are all excellent, and Joe Bennett’s art is downright revelatory. His characters are wonderfully expressive, showing every moment of fear and pain, as well as layer upon layer of rage — and the horrors he shows off are, even for those of us protected by the impenetrable barrier of the comics page, surprisingly and sometimes gut-clenchingly terrifying.

The series won’t last forever — it’s probably got about a dozen issues to go, at this writing, before it reaches Issue #50, when Ewing plans the end. But there are plenty of collected editions you can pick up right now.

Is it worth reading? If you love the Hulk, if you love horror, if you love great comics, it’s not just worth reading, it’s required reading.

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Take a Walk on the Wyld Side

Okay, as long as I’ve got the time and the energy, I’m gonna keep reviewing some good horror. Today, let’s take a look at one of my favorite books of the last few years, Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand.

The story is told as an oral history of a 1970s British psychedelic folk band called Windhollow Faire. Their first album was an unexpected smash hit, but since then, tough times have followed the group. One of the group’s singers recently committed suicide, and they are expected to release their sophomore album soon.

The band is a mix of personalities, all skilled musicians, and all very young. There’s Ashton, a supremely skilled bassist; Jon, the drummer, still in the closet about his sexuality; Will, a multi-talented musician who plays rhythm guitar, fiddle, and mandolin; and Lesley, the group’s sole American, a charismatic and hard-partying singer.

But the true virtuoso of the group is their lead singer and guitarist Julian Blake, a reclusive, eccentric genius.

They’ve traveled to an old run-down mansion called Wylding Hall for a little isolation, partly to rehearse, partly to mourn their deceased bandmate, partly to reconnect with each other musically, and partly to drink, get stoned, and party.

The summer is fun for everyone but… weird. Lots of strange happenings here and there. Nothing much worth mentioning, everyone thinks… but a lot of very unusual stuff going on.

And at the end of the summer, the band’s manager comes for a visit and brings his new state-of-the-art portable recording studio, all stored in the back of his van. Everyone’s been rehearsing for months, and they decide to take the new equipment for a test drive. The band sits down together in the courtyard of the mansion and plays a full album’s worth of music, all live, all one take. When the last note is played, a local kid with a camera snaps a few pictures of the band.

The music is perfect. The photos are used to create the iconic album cover. The record, named “Wylding Hall,” becomes an instant classic, acclaimed by critics, loved by fans… but quickly gone from the airwaves.

And Windhollow Faire never records another album. Because Julian Blake vanished into thin air the day after the album was recorded.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The most enthusiastic thumbs up I can give. This is a fantastic book, deliciously weird, and perfect for any reader who loves slow, subtle, creepy horror.

While much of the novella is focused on the band members, their interactions, and their recollections years after the fact, little tidbits of strangeness are scattered throughout the narrative. Wylding Hall itself is not just an old mansion but downright ancient, dating back to the 14th century and continuously built up and expanded over the centuries, so different wings of the house are from wildly different times and architectural styles — a Victorian wing, a Tudor wing, a Norman wing — and some even older…

The house is a maze of empty rooms, locked doors which are sometimes mysteriously unlocked, stairwells that lead nowhere, a room carpeted with thousands of dead, mutilated songbirds.

And every member of the band, at one point or another, suffers a small, minor injury that leaves behind a lasting, painful scar.

Even the band’s visits outside the house turn out weird. The local pub, the Wren, is mostly normal — aside from a lot of weird photos of wren hunters on the walls. And unusual bird imagery can be found almost everywhere, both inside Wylding Hall and out.

And the photographs of the band taken by the local amateur photographer focus on a girl in white who no one noticed, no one knew, no one saw again. And she clearly held the deepest and darkest secrets of anyone else.

But all the strange happenings, all the unusual moments, they can all be explained away. Life is full of strange coincidences, little surprises, odd things that never make sense. Life is strange, but the strange is, once you look at it, perfectly ordinary.

Until that moment when it isn’t ordinary at all. Until that moment when reality shifts just a bit too far out of alignment. Until that moment when you have to walk away from your friends and burn your photos because you can never look at each other again without remembering the fear.

Most people think of this book as a ghost story, a tale of a haunted house. To me, this could never be a mundane, commonplace haunting. This is a story of a group of friends accidentally straying into a liminal, otherworldly place with rules that cannot be understood, penalties that last a lifetime, and knowledge too terrible to believe. The master of Wylding Hall is cruel, capricious, beautiful, bizarre, monstrous, and all-powerful.

If you love rock and roll, if you love glorious, eerie weirdness, if you love beautifully told horror, you will want to pick this one up.

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How to Read Lovecraft in 2020

As we discussed a few months ago, H.P. Lovecraft has become more popular and critically accepted at the same time as more readers are becoming aware of his truly noxious racism — and for those who already understood how racist he was, they’re realizing that it’s okay to say his racism was deeply wrong, no matter how popular he’s gotten.

And this leads to a pretty important question for horror fans. Lovecraft is second only to Poe as far as how influential he’s been for the horror genre. Every major writer has read him, and most have written pastiches of him, and thousands of horror readers have read his stories and, for the most part, enjoyed them.

But despite his popularity and influence, is he really someone who you want a fledgling horror fan reading? Do you want a kid who’s learning to love horror — or even worse, a young reader of color — to open the book to “The Red Hook Horror” or “Herbert West — Reanimator” or “The Rats in the Walls” or “On the Creation of We won’t finish this title because Fuck Lovecraft“?

Do you really want to take a new horror reader and rub their nose in the fact that the early foundations of the genre were built on deep, poisonous hatred and racism?

The question is: What’s the best way to read Lovecraft in the modern world? What’s the best way to introduce Lovecraft to young readers in 2020?

The answer is: Don’t.

Seriously, Lovecraft’s stories are almost a century old, most of them are written in archaic or old-fashioned styles, and he’s most important as a writer who influenced other writers. For new horror readers, it’s probably better if they read contemporary horror writers instead of the old-timers. And that’s not just my opinion — librarians and literature experts say younger readers are more likely to stick with a genre if they have new, contemporary books to read that speak their language, rather than decades-old works that have an off-putting style.

Rather than treating Lovecraft as someone who every horror fan should read, classify him as someone for intermediate- or expert-level horror readers. Once they’ve read enough to know they enjoy horror, and once they start expressing interest in reading older writers or writers who influenced current writers, start introducing Lovecraft to them — along with careful explanations of what a monstrously racist shitbag he was.

It’s not like there isn’t plenty other horror writers out there, right? And plenty other cosmic horror tales, too. The TVTropes page for “Cosmic Horror” has a gigantic list of cosmic horror tales, in literature, comics, film, TV, games, and more, by an absolutely gigantic list of creators. Lovecraft may have popularized this subgenre, but hundred, even thousands of other writers old and new have moved it forward. Many of them make wonderful, scary reads.

If you want to read Lovecraft, go ahead. I certainly don’t want to stop you — personally, I always enjoy reading “Pickman’s Model,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” But there are so many more writers out there — and so many better. Look around for your new favorite, and let’s welcome new grandmasters as they surpass the old.

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Taco Tuesday

Okay, folks, wanna hear about the weirdest comic I’ve read in a long, long time? Let’s take a look at Apocalypse Taco by Nathan Hale.

Things start out, well, kinda predictably for a middle-grade graphic novel. It’s production night for the high school’s production of “Brigadoon,” and that means an all-night set-building session. Responsible Ivan and deeply irresponsible Axl are the lone junior-high kids on hand, solely because their mother is the drama teacher. The wrestling team raids the drama club’s pizza stash, and eventually, the food runs out, and everyone gets hungry.

Ivan and Axl are assigned to go get food from the nearest McDonald’s, thanks to a handful of MickeyD’s gift certificates. And Sid, a high school girl with her own truck, volunteers to ferry them to the restaurant and back. But Axl manages to lose all the gift certificates, so the three of them decide to stop at the nearest Taco Bear instead, ’cause Mexican food sounds more appealing.

And that’s when things start getting weird.

The Taco Bear is full of customers — but there aren’t any cars in the parking lot. And the doors are locked, so no one can come in. So the kids go through the drive-thru and pick up their order. And the food transforms into shapeshifting flesh monsters.

After throwing the food out the window, the kids race back to the school, only to find that all the drama students are also shapeshifting flesh monsters. And the school itself is a shapeshifting flesh monster.

Basically, everything is a shapeshifting flesh monster at this point.

The kids drive off, pursued by other cars, which are, of course, shapeshifting flesh monsters. They find an ally who’s a ball of arms — and when the arms get cut off, there’s a grad student underneath.

And then everyone gets sucked underground into an immense slime hive of replicating skin bees.

Is there any way for Ivan, Axl, and Sid to escape? Has the world gone completely mad?

Verdict: Thumbs up. But boy, I’ll tell ya, I never imagined I’d find a middle-grade YA graphic novel so absolutely drenched in body horror.

If you’re into body horror, this is pretty great stuff. Besides the flesh monsters disguised as fast-food bags, lockers, cars, and people, you’ve got the grad student/arm monster, you’ve got a monster made of teeth, you’ve got giant mutated bees, you’ve got a vast underground temple of gooey, writhing meat and tentacles.

If you’re getting this for a junior-high or upper elementary school student? Well, read it before you give it to them, and then decide if you think they can handle it. I’m not sure there’s anything as scary as the monster from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” but the sheer overwhelming volume of squishy tentacle horrors makes for some pretty intense moments.

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The Trafficking in Black Lives

I had some other stuff thought up to review today. And in fact, I’d planned on reviewing this particular book a bit closer to Halloween. But when the time’s right, the time’s right. So we’re going to look at The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.

This is a novella written just four years ago, and it’s basically a rewrite of H.P. Lovecraft’s notoriously racist short story “The Horror at Red Hook.” And that means, before we get to LaValle’s book, we’re going to need to talk about Lovecraft, his books, and his legacy first.

It’s the 21st century, and after decades of critical neglect, Lovecraft has become accepted in the last few years as one of the most influential horror and fantasy writers in history. The mainstream critics are a long way behind horror fans, who have been fanatically loyal to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos almost from the moment HPL died.

Lovecraft’s extensive correspondence with other writers, including Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and dozens of others, influenced the development of horror fiction in the first half of the 20th century, and the popularity of the Lovecraft Circle has influenced fans and creators ever since. You will be hard pressed to locate a horror writer who hasn’t been inspired by Lovecraft’s stories — and who hasn’t written his or her own pastiche of his works.

But Lovecraft had some very significant problems of his own that hinder attempts to spread his fandom more broadly — namely, that he was a racist. And not in that “Oh, everyone was racist back then” sort of way that you can kinda ignore. He was a full-on racist, at a level that even his friends thought was much too extreme.

And this wasn’t racism that he kept private — he was very public about his racism, and it showed up prominently in several of his stories. He’d probably always been a bit racist — you might expect it from a sheltered, slightly snobbish man from New England who idolized an archaic British society he hadn’t even been born into.

But that changed in 1924, when Lovecraft got married and moved from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City. He was not very successful at finding work, at least partly because he had a bad attitude about job-hunting and seems to have believed that he was entitled to good jobs, just because he was an educated, quasi-aristocratic white man. But his wife had a successful hat shop and was able to pay all the bills.

But when the shop failed, and she moved out of the city for a job, Lovecraft continued to be unsuccessful at job-hunting. He had very few marketable job skills, and he really felt that as an intellectual and “aged antiquarian” (he was just 34 years old at the time), most jobs were beneath him.

Pictured: Racist Motherfucker

So he had no money and no job, and he lived in the racially mixed Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn among black people, Puerto Ricans, Italians, Irish, Polish people — none of them the noble English aristocracy he aspired to be, and all of them managing life better than he was.

So his low-level racism, fueled by his fear of poverty and his resentment of not living his preferred lifestyle, blossomed into high-level racism and bigotry — not merely against African-Americans but against white people he didn’t feel were pure enough.

The direct result of this period of Lovecraft’s life was “The Horror at Red Hook,” which was published in Weird Tales in 1927. This may be the most disliked Lovecraft story — it’s a poorly written story, and even Lovecraft was dismissive of its quality — and the level of xenophobia is absolutely noxious.

Lovecraft’s racism showed itself in other ways, too — the protagonist’s cat in “The Rats in the Walls” is named after a racial epithet, and one chapter of the multi-part “Herbert West, Re-Animator” is devoted to a monstrously racist depiction of a black boxer.

Most significantly, Lovecraft’s racial attitudes became a major theme of his fiction — the fear of horrific sub-humans interbreeding with pure human stock can be seen in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and others.

Ultimately, that may be what makes Lovecraft’s horror tales so powerful. He managed to take his own fears — unfounded though they may have been — and used them to create fiction that has influenced generations of creators and fans.

Nevertheless, even though many fans enjoy Lovecraft’s work — including a not-insignificant percentage of people of color — the depths of Lovecraft’s racism have become more difficult for people to stomach, particularly in a time of increasing diversity. More writers and fans are talking about how to address the fact that the most influential horror writer since Poe has stories you’d be ashamed to show your non-white friends.

And now — finally — we return to LaValle’s novella.

LaValle is an African-American writer who loves Lovecraft’s stories, even knowing that HPL was a racist. In fact, he dedicated the book “To H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.” As he says in an interview with Dirge Magazine:

He feared non-white people. He feared poor white people. He feared women. He damn sure feared New York City. And yet, to his credit, he actually transferred that sense of horror to the page. He couldn’t filter it out and that’s one of the things that made him great. If I lost that I’d lose the thing that makes him a singular artist.

So rather than completely reject Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, LaValle decided to subvert it.

And so in LaValle’s book, we meet Charles Thomas Tester, 20-year-old black man living with his slowly-dying father Otis in an apartment on 144th Street in New York City. Otis is a fantastic musician, but Tommy is really pretty bad. He knows only a few songs on the guitar, and his singing voice is not at all good.

Still, Tommy roams the city wearing a nice but carefully threadbare suit and carrying a guitar case, because black musicians on their way to gigs get less harassment in white parts of town. The guitar case is empty so he can carry illicit merchandise inside — Tommy is a smuggler of unusual artifacts, and he’s been hired to obtain and deliver a small book called The Supreme Alphabet to a rich white woman in Queens called Ma Att. She pays him well for the book, but doesn’t realize that he’s secretly removed the last page of the book to keep her from causing too much magical mischief.

Soon enough, Tommy is on the radar of a wealthy, occult-loving man named Robert Suydam, who invites him to play music at a party he’s giving at his home. Immediately afterwards, he gets acquainted with a corrupt private detective called Mr. Howard and a weak-willed, occult-loving police detective named Thomas Malone, who are tailing Suydam. Otis fears for his son’s life — it’s not smart for a young black man to be seen in certain neighborhoods after dark — but the lure of easy money is too much for Tommy to resist.

He meets Suydam once in his home prior to the gathering and learns some of his host’s occult powers — Suydam shows him visions of the Sleeping King under the sea, which is more than enough to convince Tommy to skip the party the next night.

But when he gets home, he learns that Mr. Howard killed his father while trying to find the last page of the Supreme Alphabet for Ma Att. Alone in a racist society that considers him barely above an animal, Tommy sees no better solution than to return to Suydam and his gospel of overthrowing the world to benefit the downtrodden. But when he learns that Suydam’s guests are the criminal dregs of the world, he realizes that the problem is not a hateful, racist political regime — the problem is mankind itself. And Charles Thomas Tester makes a dangerous, fateful choice.

Days later, Robert Suydam has an army of followers, a new headquarters in Red Hook, and a new lieutenant — Black Tom, a grim black man wearing a natty suit and carrying a bloodstained guitar. But is Black Tom merely the assistant? Or is he calling the shots for something much more terrible than anyone expects?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This book packs a lot of horror in its 150 pages — not just cosmic horror, but the terrors facing black men from Harlem in the 1920s. It changes the Robert Suydam from “The Horror at Red Hook” from a garden variety sorcerer villain to a more three-dimensional — and more pitiful — character. And Det. Thomas Malone, the weirdly poetic and sensitive NYC cop from “Red Hook” stays fairly sensitive but gets to be more active and more interesting.

But the best flip of all — Lovecraft’s most racist story gets a new star, a black man who serves as both hero and villain. We see New York through his eyes, see the violent cops, see the dangers of the subways and the new neighborhoods and the white kids who follow him looking for fights. We see his own prejudices, his friends, the difficulties in finding honest work when everyone is allowed to cheat you. We watch him make the terrible decisions that happen in horror stories — and in the end, you realize that for Tommy, those decisions were actually the right ones.

He ends up as a murderous supernatural destroyer — because why shouldn’t he? When the whole world is against you, is working to grind you down, to destroy your family and friends, whether or not they obey the laws, to disregard you as a worthless, ignorant beast — well, why not just pull the curtain down on the human race? Yes, of course, to the reader, we can think of more socially acceptable solutions. But consider if Lovecraft had written this story — Tommy Tester would’ve been the villain solely because he was a monstrous, deformed, black-skinned cartoon. LaValle gives us a smart, ruthless, terribly powerful African-American man with extreme but logical motives.

Let’s say it one more time for the kids in the back row: When you live in a world that utterly devalues a large segment of the population, that demands absolute subservience from those people, that demands the right to debase them, humiliate them, steal from them, and kill them, punishes them when they defend themselves, and bars them from protesting that abuse, even if done peacefully — and if you then decry them when they take stronger ways to say “NO MORE” — you should strongly consider that you are not the hero of the story, and are very likely to be the inhuman beast at the heart of the tale.

Lovecraft might have deplored LaValle and his story, with its more enlightened view of black people, of New York, of a society geared to crush people just because they have the wrong skin color. I suppose we’ll just have to live with phantom Lovecraft’s disappointment. Because it’s a great story, and you’d love reading it. Go pick it up.

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Batman vs. Cthulhu


Batman: The Doom that Came to Gotham

This is normally something I’d prefer to review before Halloween. But DC, in its infinite anti-wisdom, chose to release this last week instead of in October, and I’d rather not wait ’til next Halloween to review this. Heck, it took us 15 years to even get this collection, so who knows if DC will leave it in print for the next ten months.

So the plotline? Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City after years exploring the world and discovers a secret conspiracy stretching back years that threatens to destroy the city, if not the rest of the world. So far so typical? Sure, sure, almost every Bat-storyline reads something like that.

But in this case, everything’s been crossed over with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. You’d think that’d be a strained concept, but it works out amazingly well.

Oswald Cobblepot is a mad professor, waddling naked around the Antarctic with a bunch of tumor-covered penguins. Mr. Freeze has more in common with the cold-dependent Dr. Munoz from Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.” Killer Croc is a mutated Deep One. Poison Ivy shows up as a seductive plant monster. Barbara Gordon is a literal Oracle, interacting with the spirit world to see the future. Ra’s Al Ghul shares an origin with the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. We get appearances from Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent, Jason Blood, Oliver Queen, and more, all twisted around the axes of pulp fiction and cosmic horror.

Verdict: Thumbs up. If you’re not a Lovecraft fan, you’ll get a very good pulp horror story. If you are a Lovecraft fan, you’ll get shivers of joy every few pages whenever a new permutation on HPL’s creations appears. It’s really pretty amazing how perfectly some of Batman’s rogues gallery fit into Lovecraft’s archetypes.

This was written by Mike Mignola and Richard Pace, and though the art is by Troy Nixey, it’s clear that Mignola dropped some heavy hints about what the art should look like, ’cause it’s very Mignolian (Mignolanian? I don’t know.). Of course, Mignola specializes in pulp, especially pulp horror, and some of the images we get here are just gloriously creepy — Cobblepot wandering in the Antarctic, Wayne’s ship frozen in the bay, Harvey Dent’s transformation.

The only villains we don’t get are the two we might most expect — there’s no Joker, and there’s no Cthulhu. Perhaps Mignola planned them for an eventual sequel?

Again, this series has been colossally rare for the past 15 years — the few copies for sale online would cost you about $50 for each of the three issues. But here it is, all collected into a single volume at last. If you let this one slip away from you this time, you don’t need cosmic horrors to drive you mad.

No Amazon link this time — it’s brand new, so check at your local comic shop.

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Sailing the Seas in Lost Carcosa


While the Black Stars Burn by Lucy A. Snyder

Y’all know by now that I’m a fan of Lucy Snyder’s books, and she’s got this new collection of short stories that just came out. As expected for a horror specialist like Snyder, there’s plenty of scary stuff. There’s also a number of stories from other genres, particularly science fiction and medieval fantasy, and there’s even a story about a time-traveling alien doctor who runs around in a police call box…

Some of the stories we find inside are:

  • “Spinwebs” – a weird little fantasy tale about a family encountering prejudice because of the giant telepathic spiders that live in their home.
  • “The Still-Life Drama of Passing Cars” – a quiet tale of a woman and her children driving in the car — but something isn’t right about any of them…
  • “Through Thy Bounty” – an old favorite — the aliens invade, and a captive is ordered to cook for the invaders. Their favorite dishes? Let’s just say they prefer all kinds of human meals.
  • “Cthylla” – the untalented daughter of a computer genius and a celebrated actress befriends an artist marked for death by a doomsday cult.
  • “While the Black Stars Burn” – a talented but tortured violinist is used to open the way for the terrible King in Yellow.
  • “Jessie Shimmer Goes to Hell” – in which the lead character of Snyder’s Jessie Shimmer novels goes to Hell, faces a monstrous demon, and must claw her way back home.
  • “Fable Fusion” – a story originally written for a Doctor Who fiction anthology, this features the Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace investigating creatures of myth running around Prague.

Verdict: Thumbs up. If this collection has a theme, it’s the disintegration of families — and Lovecraftian monsters.

Lovecraftian horror tends toward the nihilistic — but in this case, what really carries that nihilism banner is the rampant destruction of family units. Sometimes, the ends of these families are deeply sad — the families, no matter how small or poor, were loving and caring, and the survivors will be left without their loved ones and the people who they turned to for support. And in other cases, the destructing families should’ve been put to the torch years ago. Sadistic fathers, cultist parents, two-faced spouses, and more. And the end of those families still leave the survivors in bad places — and the non-survivors in much, much worse places, too.

But there are plenty of great monsters in here, too. And while not all of them are Lovecraftian, quite a few are. And actually, more than you’d expect have deep connections to Robert W. Chambers’s “King in Yellow” mythology. Chambers’s turn-of-the-century surreal horror has been a big thing for the last few years, and it’s great to see that Snyder is able to make lost Carcosa’s favored son work so well. I’ve been a huge fan of Chambers for years, and it’s always a thrill to see well-done stories about the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, and all the associated figures.

On top of all that, I’d just like to say that, as a non-Doctor Who fan, I really enjoyed the Whovian “Fable Fusion” story.

So you like grim nihilist horror? You like the King in Yellow? You like Jessie Shimmer and Doctor Who? Go pick this up.

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