Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by J.K. Rowling (Pottermore Publishing) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

An absorbing compendium of magical creatures both familiar and new 

A snake that rises from ashes, lays red-hot eggs, and then dies an hour later. A creature that likes to gorge itself on magic potions and chew on wands. A bird that only flies in the rain. These are just a few of the treats in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s collection of mythical creatures in the Harry Potter universe. The list, according to the book, is compiled by Newt Scamander, a Magizoologist (i.e., one who studies magical creatures) born at the close of the nineteenth century. 

The volume starts with an explanation of the lengths to which wizards are willing to go to prevent Muggles (i.e., humans without magical powers) from discovering these beasts. It also describes the danger classification hierarchy and explains how some creatures (e.g., Centaurs, Merpeople) straddle the spectrum between beast and human (though most have opted for the former classification).

The remainder of the collection details the physical characteristics and behaviours of creatures and offers their Ministry of Magic (M.O.M.) classification ranging from X (“boring”) to XXXXX (“known wizard killer/impossible to train or domesticate”). Examples of the latter include the Basilisk (a snake featured in the Harry Potter series) born by having a frog sit atop a chicken egg, the Acromantula spider that has 15-foot-long legs and is capable of human speech, and the Chimaera (i.e., lion’s head, goat’s body, dragon’s tail). I believe the list’s only X-classified creature is the Flobberworm, which secretes a mucus that wizards use to thicken their potions. According to the summary, it hangs out in ditches and does not move much. Many of the creatures, particularly those in the XXX category, can be beneficial to wizards, but also pose a threat.

Fantastic Beasts includes well-known beings (e.g., Griffins, Leprechauns, Pixies, Fairies, Loch Ness Monster [referred to as the world’s largest Kelpie]) and many others that the author invented. There are creatures that will entertain humans and creatures that will harm humans (or both). Some creatures camouflage themselves as logs or stones, while one rhino-like beast can use its horn to pierce anything (including metal), then inject something that causes whatever is pierced to explode! There’s even a creature called the Puffskein (a favourite among children) that likes to eat boogers. 

One section covers all Potter universe dragons from solitary to man-eating, including the most dangerous: the Hungarian Horntail (XXXXX). Elsewhere, Scamander reveals that the dodo bird, which Muggles have long thought was hunted to extinction, is actually the very much alive Diricawl that can disappear in a whirl of feathers and show up elsewhere. 

The diversity of beasts is best exemplified by two creatures who exploit water. Imps find entertainment by tripping people and watching them fall in. Water Demons, which appear to be horses, jump into rivers to devour the rider, then allow the victim’s intestines to float to the surface. Pleasant.

Perhaps the most frightening subject in this collection is the Lethifold (aka the Living Shroud) (XXXXX), a creature that lives in tropical areas and resembles a black cape moving along the ground. I imagined it as a stingray. It creeps up on its victims in bed, where it attempts to smother them before devouring them. The book features the fascinating story of one survivor.

If nothing else, this compilation testifies to the creativity that Rowling drew from to develop a fantasy series so popular that it often has its own section in bookstores.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Death of Me | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Building to something big, but is it big enough?

It isn’t long into the horror film Death of Me (2020), directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, that the viewer gets the impression that something nasty is in store for protagonist Christine (Maggie Q) and her husband Neil (Luke Hemsworth). It’s a “fish out of water” story in the vein of The Wicker Man (1973/2006) and Midsommar (2019): characters get stuck in an unfamiliar place whose odd inhabitants seem highly interested in them. The question soon becomes, will the payoff that Death of Me is building to be as breathtakingly horrific as that in the former examples?

Christine and Neil awaken in their resort room on an island off the coast of Thailand. Mud is everywhere, the room is in disarray, and they have no recollection of what happened the night before or how they got back to their room. A necklace with a strange symbol hangs on Christine. This necklace will play a key role later. Christine has concerns about a potential typhoon, but the natives take it in stride—there has not been a natural disaster on the island in more than two hundred years. This nugget features prominently in the island’s tourism shtick.

The couple’s plans to leave the island are thwarted, and they soon discover on Neil’s camera video footage from the previous night. It shows some bizarre stuff, including one of them killing the other. They try to unveil what happened while things around them grow increasingly chaotic: hallucinations, deceptions, and regurgitations abound. 

When the couple walks into situations, the proverbial record screeches to a halt and all the natives glare or smile at them. Many of these locals are depicted as untrustworthy. Even the couple’s American neighbour Samantha (Alex Essoe), who keeps pushing Gatorade-looking mixed drinks, seems suspicious as she empathizes with Christine. And throughout the film, there is talk of a “festival.” Sound familiar? 

The beginning overdoes it with Enya-like chanting in Thai while characters sit and brood or stare into the distance. Moreover, one grows weary of the aerial shots of the island, though some of that is necessary to establish a sense of place. 

On the whole, however, the low-budget film is worth the watch. Maggie Q and Hemsworth quarrel convincingly and effectively portray the shock and indignity that come with their situation. The casting director made a fine choice with Maggie Q, who looks like she could be a native, but has the American personality down pat: bold in all the right ways, willing to stand up for herself, and insistent on knowing what is happening. 

Ultimately, Death of Me explores the age-old question of whether the health of many can be justified by the suffering of a few. It could have been much better and rawer if it did away with the silly, dream-like supernatural sequences.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Everything Has Teeth, by Jeff Strand | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stomping on empathy: jerks, dummies, and sociopaths abound in comedic horror collection filled with snappy dialogue, cliché twists, narrative acrobatics, and delightful absurdities 

“The Car” introduces a pair of male vampires arguing over who gets to be the metal car figure for a board game they’re about to play. Behind them, cages hold screaming, suffering, or dead “donors.” This scenario—similar ones appear throughout the short story collection Everything Has Teeth—demonstrates a key component of preeminent comedy horror writer Jeff Strand’s toolbox: when characters show indifference to, rather than sadistic pleasure in, the humiliation and suffering of others, the result can be quite funny. 

Often, short story collections have their hits and misses. Not so in Everything Has Teeth, in which each story is as unpredictable and original as it is delightfully preposterous. The volume brims with odd predicaments and eccentric characters. A jackalope makes the murderous rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail look like a child’s toy. A 32-year-old virgin anorexic rape victim goes on a vengeance killing spree whose victims aren’t what you’d expect. A kid goes into conniptions about the possibility of getting eaten by a bathtub. A railroad worker participates in spike-driving competitions with increasingly difficult (and outlandish) challengers. The collection even offers a slightly more serious piece that pays tribute to the author’s father. 

Everything Has Teeth shines with Strand’s characteristic rapid-fire dialogue, the content of which often jars with what is happening in a scene. Take, for instance, “A Bit of Christmas Mayhem,” in which Strand’s recurring novel character Andrew Mayhem runs into three axe-wielding Santas in an alley. “I first noticed that something was awry,” says Mayhem, “when two of them slammed me into the brick wall and the third held the blade of his axe up to my face.” The quartet argues about when an axe-wielding Santa first appeared in movies and films. 

In “Deformed Son,” the car of one of those ubiquitous traveling blender salesmen breaks down. He stops at the home of a farmer, who repeatedly warns him not to go into the basement where his deformed son lives. According to the father, the kid is so ugly that the blender salesman would be forever mentally scarred upon seeing the boy. The salesman can’t resist seeing the source of all the wailing and chain rattling in the basement. The following sentence stands out: “The door was locked. But it was locked from this side, so he unlocked it.” Think about that—that’s funny.

More than one story is written completely in dialogue. Once such piece, “Tin Cans,” presents two killers who try to force their captive to plead for her life via a tin can with a string that leads to another can near a Jesus statue in the window of an adjacent building. The woman spouts off a couple clichés, such as, “I’ll do anything.” Her persecutor then questions whether she’d be willing to inflict on herself a variety of tortures “because that would save me a lot of trouble.”

“The Fierce Stabbing and Subsequent Post-Death Vengeance of Scooter Brown,” another all-dialogue treat, involves a cop interrogating a murderer with a matter-of-fact approach to his gruesome crime. The interrogator asks the murderer, Mr. Galen, why he thought it necessary to stab his victim 43 times. “Well,” says Galen, “I was trying to kill him.” 

Also watch out for Strand’s point of view nimbleness. The omniscient narrator in “Apocalypse of the Yard Gnome” not only introduces himself as such, but also questions how omniscient he is when a character does something unexpected. The narrator goes so far as to cut off a character’s sentence, stating that you the reader probably don’t want to hear all that. 

Another story that plays with perspective (and competes with “Apocalypse of the Yard Gnome” for the title of the collection’s most outrageous) is “The Sentient Cherry Cola That Tried to Destroy the World.” It’s almost as if Strand teamed with a schoolboy to write this frenetic tale. The author explains how the soda can became sentient through a ceremony involving naked Wiccan witches, then got closed off in a refrigerator for months. At one point, a teenage kid opens the fridge, looks at the can, and then puts it back. The narrator breaks in: “Ha! You thought he was going to drink the cherry cola, didn’t you? Psyche!” When the soda is finally released, it wants to kill. Naturally. As the soda wreaks havoc, the people fight back. One guy activates a cannon he’d always wanted to shoot. This opportunity doesn’t pan out well. Later on, there just so happens to be “the 23rd annual Cannon Festival” in a neighbouring town. The coincidence is so blatant that it’s funny.

Most characters in this collection are self-absorbed jerks, dummies, sociopaths, or any combination thereof. “Nails” is about one such jerk who’s with a woman he enjoys spending time with, but he doesn’t want to marry her and plans to “trade her up” eventually. His nails start to grow long . . . so long that he starts hurting himself and others. The scenes in which nails break off are hard to read without cringing. 

Another jerk/sociopath takes centre stage in “Stumps.” The remorseless killer protagonist—if that’s what you want to call him—explains his killings in a matter-of-fact tone. He ends up limbless and unable to die . . . and explains his predicament as if he’s talking about what he had for breakfast. 

One of my favourites in this collection is “It’s Bath Time!” A child is reluctant to take a bath because he thinks he’s going to get eaten by the drain. The boy’s father—he reminds you of the guy that says “that would never happen” during a movie—uses reason to explain to his wife the futility of such a fear. Something under the bed or in the closet, maybe. But not getting pulled down the drain. 

Strand also allows women to get in a few good licks. In “A Flawed Fantasy,” a man at a bar meets an attractive brunette who asks him about his fantasy, then ridicules him until she agrees to fulfil it… provided he is willing to indulge her fantasy, which turns out to be ultraviolent. The woman doesn’t have an ounce of empathy—problematic in serious fiction, brilliant in this application. 

On the numbskull front, there are selections like the dialogue-heavy “Bad Bratwurst.” Here a struggling bratwurst shop owner is visited by a cast of Dumb and Dumber-type characters. One thinks that bratwurst comes from plants. Another forgets which way to hold a gun. “Scrumptious Bone Bread” focuses on a bonehead who wants a taxidermist to help him make bone bread from his victims. This Einstein confuses the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk with the vegetable-pushing Green Giant. 

Everything Has Teeth even offers a couple pieces that fit the splatterpunk subgenre. In “The Story of My First Kiss,” strand employs his trademark insensitivity to human suffering. A teacher lifts a severed human head as if it’s a spit ball and asks the class who did it. A boy’s punishment for killing a friend is getting grounded. The boy beats somebody to death with a hammer and his parents get mad and yell at him. Kids start a “food fight” by throwing a victim’s innards at each other.  

The stories frequently contain elements that would be considered mistakes by writing instructors—the difference here is that Strand calls himself out to humorous effect. In “John Henry, The Steel-Drivin’ Man,” the narrator breaks from the action at an inopportune moment to reveal his relationship to a key character, then apologizes to the reader because he really could not find a better place to fit that information. 

In more than one story, characters narrate what’s happening to them. Normally, that would be a beginner’s mistake. With Strand, it’s comedic genius. “The word ‘ow’ does not come close to encapsulating the sheer volume of unpleasant sensations that are coursing through my body at this moment,” says one character in “Bad Bratwurst.” “And I’m losing a lot of blood!” 

“Cry” offers an example of a would-be cliché twisted into an absurd scenario. It begins, “My tears spill onto the keyboard as I write this.” Usually, a sentence like that would be a red flag—this is going to be melodramatic muck. But this is Jeff Strand, whose next sentence is “It’s pretty much because I just finished rubbing habanero peppers in my eyes.” Thus begins the plight of one character (another insensitive jerk) who goes to extremes to make himself cry.

Everything Has Teeth is the example of a great mind playing in a sandbox, albeit a sandbox filled with blood and body parts. One would be hard-pressed to find a boring section—even the author’s notes are sharp and entertaining.–Douglas J. Ogurek*****

Monday, 1 March 2021

Oedipus, Carthago, Sweet Tooth and other reviews in brief

Brief reviews of the books I finished reading (or listening to) in February. Creators, publishers, etc as per Goodreads; apologies to anyone left out. (Apologies as well to everyone waiting for TQF69! Almost there!)

Hedra, Jesse Lonergan (Image Comics): Short, silent graphic novel about a spacewoman who sets off from an Earth devastated by nuclear war to find plant life that can survive in our soil. Interesting use of panels throughout, for example some that twist around the page to convey the feeling of crawling through caves. ***

The Victim, P.D. James (Faber & Faber): A former assistant librarian thinks back to the year that followed his divorce, and all the effort he put into preparing what he thought would be the perfect murder. It's very good. I was surprised by how unconcerned he was about DNA evidence, but then realised it's from 1973. ****

I Am Legion, Vol. 1: The Dancing Faun, John Cassaday, Fabien Nury, Laura Martin (Humanoids Inc): Two supernatural body-swapping blood creatures, one in London and one in Nazi-occupied Romania, are up to no good. One of their abandoned bodies sparks a murder investigation. Looks great throughout, but it's very much a chapter of a story rather than a complete story in itself. ***

Carthago, Vol. 2: The Challenger Abyss, Christophe Bec, Eric Henninot, Milan Jovanovic (Humanoids): A scientist's daughter is kidnapped by a reclusive billionaire, to force her into joining a megalodon hunt. A big summer blockbuster of a comic that already had a lot going on before throwing a giant yeti, a secret undersea base and a dinosaur attacking a U-boat into the mix. The animals look spectacular throughout. ***

The Raven King, Liz Tuckwell (Demain): DI Lis Liszt of the Supernatural Crimes Squad is assigned a sneery DC while they investigate the disappearance of the ravens from the Tower of London. Nice little story. The denouement perhaps overestimates the effect of throwing one's female body at a hulking thug during combat. ***

Sweet Tooth: Deluxe Edition, Book One, Jeff Lemire, José Villarrubia, Michael Sheen, Carlos M. Mangual (Vertigo): After Earth is devastated by plague, some of the survivors start to have children who appear to be human-animal hybrids. Gus lives in the woods with his father, but gets forced out into a world that's not kind to people like him. A classically Vertigo mix of fantasy and violence. ****

The Oedipus Plays: An Audible Original Drama, Sophocles (Audible Studios): This was one of my favourite ever Audible books. The first two plays, despite their tragedies, often had me chuckling thanks to the dialogue sometimes sounding, in the mouths of modern actors, like an Absolutely or Armstrong and Miller sketch. For example: "I will go, but you know there are conditions." / "Tell me. Once I hear them I'll know what they are." At times the arguments people had sounded just like online arguments, with all the same tactics and complaints: people haven't changed all that much! The drama still packed a punch. Then the third play knocked my socks off. Hayley Atwell was thrillingly virtuous as uncompromising Antigone, doing what she thinks right despite the consequences, and Michael Maloney was equally excellent as the king whose desire for order and obedience leads to his own ruin. The scene where his son tries to persuade him to clemency was especially stunning, and so full of wisdom. There's a reason new adaptations of these plays are still being made, twenty-four centuries after they were written. *****

Sweet Tooth: Deluxe Edition, Book Two, Jeff Lemire, José Villarrubia, Carlos M. Mangual (Vertigo): A man of violence tries to look after a gentle little deer-boy, whose very existence could be to blame for humanity's doom, or could be its salvation. It's enjoyable and looks great, but on the whole it's quite familiar territory. The symbolic covers for each issue are very good. ***

Carthago Vol. 3: The Monster of Djibouti, Christophe Bec, Eric Henninot, Milan Jovanovic (Humanoids): Dr Melville and two colleagues take individual submersibles down into the ocean off Djibouti to look for a giant shark, with predictably unfortunate consequences. Other shenanigans are interspersed among awesome drawings of giant beasts and wonderfully detailed dinner spreads. ***

Can You Just Die, My Darling? Vol. 1, Majuro Kaname (Kodansha Comics): A boy gets infected with an illness that makes him want to murder the girl he loves, Hanazono. It also gives him super-strength. He resists, but everyone else in school loves her too and the infection is spreading. On the whole, rather unpleasant, but Hanazono was quite funny. ***

The Devil's Own Work, Alan Judd, Matt Godfrey (Valancourt Books): After a decent first book, a writer is made much more famous by his scathing review of a big name author's latest tome, and is invited to interview him. Only one will leave the room alive! An interesting story of supernatural literary ambition, read very well by Matt Godfrey. ****

Batman: The Dark Knight – Master Race, Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert, Klaus Janson, Eduardo Risso, John Romita Jr. (DC Comics): Surprised by how much I enjoyed this, after how much I didn't enjoy Holy Terror. Plus, part of The Dark Knight Return's appeal was it being the last Batman story, and sequels make it just another Batman story. But this was great fun. I loved Andy Kubert's art, and how epic and legendary it all felt. ****

The Funeral Birds, Paula R.C. Readman (Demain Publishing ): A can-do wife joins her detective husband on the case of a murdered woman. Needed a bit more editing (e.g. "It looks to be a grave. An old very one."), but I was amused by the husband/wife team and the way the husband's hunches came via a ghost granny making him want to poop. ***

The History of Sketch Comedy, Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key (Audible Original): An enjoyable audiobook about the history of sketch comedy, from the ancient Greeks through to one-season wonders on Netflix. Co-writer and narrator Keegan Michael-Key also talks about his own influences and career, and acts out favourite sketches like Fork Handles with infectious enthusiasm. Nice! If there's a criticism, it's that it makes US comedy sound rather rule-bound and regimented, but maybe that's because it is? The "You can't do that!" refrain in each chapter sounds a bit odd to listeners used to sketch shows where people regularly do all that and more. I was also struck by how few US sketch shows there seemed to be, whereas the episode about the UK was packed solid even without mentioning Not the Nine O'Clock News, Harry Enfield, French & Saunders, The Fast Show, Absolutely, Big Train or The League of Gentlemen. ****

The Banks, Roxane Gay and Ming Doyle (TKO Studios): Three generations of women team up in an attempt to rob a creep. There's potential in the idea but the book feels far too rushed, with duff dialogue, plot handwaving and even unfinished art in a few places. The robbers keep saying how good they are, but seem like complete blunderers. **

Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton, read by William Russell (BBC Audio): The first Doctor and chums on a world of giant insects! Oddly fond of this since it's long been the audiobook I put on when I'm poorly and need to sleep. It's perfect for such times because William Russell's reading is warm and grandfatherly, and the story is very, very dull. ***

The Killer Vol. 1: Long Fire, Matz and Luc Jacamon (Archaia): A ruthless hitman thinks about his career while waiting for a target to show up, then scarpers to Venezuela when things go wrong. Apparently I read a different edition of this already in 2011, but I didn't remember much after the first issue. His worsening frame of mind is conveyed in interesting ways. ***

Robert Silverberg's Colonies: Return to Belzagor, Vol. 2, Philippe Thirault and Laura Zuccheri (Humanoids): Second and final part of an adaptation of Downward to the Earth follows a bunch of humans on their journey to see a mysterious ceremony of renewal. A good story, but the book's biggest strength is the art of Laura Zuccheri, who really makes it feel like we are on an alien planet. ***

The Metabaron Vol. 2: Khonrad, The Anti-Baron, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jerry Frissen, Valentin Sécher (Humanoids): The Techno-Admiral's flunky Tetanus devises a plan to destroy both his boss and the Metabaron by cloning an Anti-Baron, but it all goes horribly wrong, especially for the clone's mothers. Typical Jodo-nonsense from the Incal-verse: beautifully drawn and full of casual misogyny. ***

A Quiet Apocalypse, Dave Jeffery (Demain Publishing): In an England where a virus killed almost everyone and deafened most of the survivors, a former teacher kept as a slave for his ability to hear tries to make his way to freedom. Appropriately bleak, but malapropisms, mistakes and overexuberant prose work against the post-apocalyptic tone. **

Carthago Vol. 4: The Koube Monoliths, Christophe Bec, Milan Jovanovic, Eric Henninot (Humanoids): The megalodons become public knowledge after a terrible tsunami leaves one aground in Malaysia. Spectacular art as ever, with beautifully drawn animals and awe-inspiring undersea locations, but it's book four now and the ongoing story has barely moved forward since book one. ***

Mr Salary, Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber): A 24-year-old woman returns from Boston to Dublin to visit her dying father, and stays with an older relative by marriage who lent her a room during her penniless university days. About as steamy as a book can get without being explicit. ****

Dante and the Lobster, Samuel Beckett (Faber & Faber): Belacqua goes out to get some stinky cheese but it isn't stinky enough. He collects a lobster for his Italian tutor, and gets upset when he realises it's still alive and she's going to cook it. The book includes 14 blank pages at the end for anyone minded to write a continuation. ****

Free Speech and Why It Matters, Andrew Doyle (Constable): A short (very short: the main text ends at 55% of the ebook) run-through of arguments in favour of free speech, arguing that protecting the free speech of our political enemies is a key part of protecting our own free speech. Not funny like his Titania McGrath books, but it makes its point. ***

Buck Danny Vol. 1: Night of the Serpent, Francis Bergèse (Cinebook): While flying over the Korean DMZ an American is dazzled and left reliant on the autopilot, which stubbornly refuses to go anywhere but north. Buck Danny (in his 49th Belgian tome, but first from Cinebook) is involved in the rescue mission. A good, detailed, Bigglesish adventure. Had to re-read the bits that take place in darkness to properly understand what was going on. ***

Sergeant Bigglesworth, C.I.D., Captain W.E. Johns (Hodder & Stoughton): After World War II ends, Biggles and his chums get a job investigating airborne criminals. Their first assignment is to stop a gang of ruthless thieves led by a Nazi and an American mobster. It's the early Sopwith Camel stories that I love, but this later book (the 32nd) had its moments. Biggles is surprisingly obnoxious at times, but made me chuckle with his occasional ejaculations. (Maybe I shouldn’t have drawn attention to this ebook: it’s now been removed from the Kindle store.) ***

A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor (Faber & Faber): A racist grandma gets her son and his family into serious trouble by sneaking a cat into their car and asking to see a plantation on which she was wooed in her youth. It's very good, but, like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, I rather regret reading it, because now it's in my head forever. ****