Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Years!

As I'll be out celebrating later tonight, let me send out a quick HAPPY NEW YEARS ALL!

Your Old Pal,

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas 2014

From the Desk of Bookmonkey,

Happy Holidays to all of readers today.

My plans are to sit back, relax, and enjoy the Holiday season (chocolates and all) - tomorrow I'll get back to my healthy living plan, but today is just for living.

Your old pal, 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: The Dungeon 2: The Dark Abyss

The second volume of Phillip José Farmer's The Dungeon series, The Dark Abyss, by Bruce Coville, picks up immediately where The Black Tower left off. Major Folliot and company continue their search for the Major's missing brother and the mysteries of the dungeon get both deeper and stranger.

The second book is a faster read than the first, Coville moves the narrative along at a nice pace and as the characters have already been introduced the action can begin immediately. The novel takes the group through two levels of the dungeon, pits them against some of the most dangerous creatures they've met so far and manages both to answer some questions from the first novel while still leaving the reader looking for more.

As the third book is by Charles de Lint (who happens to be the reason I've picked up this series now), I'm looking forward to getting to the halfway point of the series, so will be starting almost immediately.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Movie Review: Hercules (2014)

Okay, I'm going to admit something a little embarrassing here.  When I was a young boy my favourite two heroes were Superman and Hercules (classical mythology character rather than the Marvel Comics character - who I've never read, but I'm sure I'd like), and NO, that isn't the embarrassing part.

I used to think that if I were to grow up to be a superhero, I would either be called SuperKirk or Kirkules.  Also I made friends and certain siblings call me these names sometimes, and also I may have had a theme song or two I would sing to myself...

Anyway, I bring this up to provide context.  Anytime a new Hercules film or show comes out I'm bound to check it out and then to comment.  And as I have this convenient blog sitting here, I think I'll get up on my soapbox and begin.

This movie was fun.  It was like a mix between the plots of Dragonheart (1996) and King Arthur (2004), in that Hercules is depicted as a man who puts on a show, and that the story is played as a type of story-behind-the-legend type of narrative.

One thing I will definitely say about Dwayne Johnson's performance, he really comes across as a man who has spent years fighting and working at his craft (being a warrior), and his portrayal of a man living up to a legend was actually one of the highlights of the film for me, even more so than the action sequences, and they were great.

The film does play around a little with 3D, so watching it on my regular-old 2D television at home makes it look a little strange anytime things poke out at the screen, but otherwise, the story was fun, the visuals were great, and honestly the end-credit sequence was surprisingly fun and enlightening.

Well worth a watch.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Things I've Noticed: I'm getting pretty excited about computer games

Although I'm a huge fan of console games (currently, I'm playing the PS3 pretty much exclusively, but we have a Wii and over the years I've enjoyed a number of Mario and Zelda games on that console as well), I have to say that every once in a while a good old computer game just grabs my attention and won't let go.

Take And Yet it Moves, for example - I purchased the game a few years back after hearing a positive review on a  show called Little Miss Gamer and found it to be one of the most fun maze style games I've ever come across - the music and images are great (think a sort of papier-mâché collage look), but the mechanics, wherein you not only control the character but also the game world make for an incredibly intriguing game that feels incredibly satisfying to complete level by level.

In the last two weeks I've actually heard a lot about a couple of games that are definitely going to end up on my January purchase list (I don't buy anything this type of year for fear that I may make someones Christmas gift to me obsolete).

The first is called Gone Home, and as soon as I saw the trailer, I immediately thought, "Wow, this is exactly the kind of game my wife would love", mysteries, a lack of punch-and-jump action sequences and a really great immersive feel.

Finally, I've been hearing a lot about the game Thomas Was Alone, which looks like exactly the sort of game I can play when I have a few minutes and also the kind of game that is all right to play while my kids are in the room (I'm looking at you God of War series, for some uncomfortable gaming experiences that started with, "Hi Dad, what are you playing - EWWW!!!!)

Anyway, I just thought it might be worth a mention that the games I'm most excited about right now are pretty cheap, available online, and winning all sorts of awards - Way to go, Computer Games!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Series Review: Afterlife

One of my favourite features that my local public library's website has is the "Just Ordered" menu, which lets me both know, and put holds on, materials that are currently on order, but not yet available in the library.

Case in point, the 2004 British Mystery series, Afterlife, which I had never heard of before, but due to the intriguing cover art of the box (pictured left) and the fact that it starred a pre-The Walking Dead had me interested enough to add it to my hold queue.

The first series lasts six one hour episodes and works as a mystery, following a medium named Alison Mundy (Lesley Sharp - who I loved in Bob & Rose) and an interested academic, Dr. Robert Bridge (played by Andrew Lincoln) who begins the series believing Alison is some sort of con-artist, but begins to believe her view of the world throughout the first season.

The episodes were creepy, intriguing, and had a lot of great personal drama going on, digging into both Robert's recent personal tragedies and Alison's view of the world.  

For a mystery-of-the-week series with an intriguing supernatural bent, I'd say it is well worth the watch.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review: The Hobbit The Battle of Five Armies

So here we are, the end of the second Middle Earth trilogy, and what can I say?  If you loved the previous films, this one will be right up your alley, but if you didn't, there are plenty of other things you could go see at the theatre this weekend.

Taking place almost entirely in the last few chapters of the book, the film has almost 45 minutes of straight combat (which depending on the reader may entice or warn them away from the film).  The image is spectacular, the story works by moving back and forth from the epic (a battle with five armies) to the personal (a friend trying to help another) seamlessly and paying close attention to all the little moments fans will be hoping for.

Was it as good as Return of the King?  Yes and no, the original film worked on a much grander scale, but this film only has one ending.  Much praise must be given to the actors, as they humanize (or hobbit-ize, drwarf-ize, or elf-ize, whatever the case) the story and really draw the audience in.

If you plan on seeing it, absolutely attempt to do so in theatre as the story works best on the big screen.

Now all I have to figure out is what my Christmas movies will be for the next three years...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Movie Review: Maleficent

The retelling of fairy tales has always had a particular interest for me, whether as viewer, player, reader, or even attempting to try my hand at writer.  I've long been a fan of Bill Willingham's Fables, and before that the Snow White, Blood Red series, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.

So, a little burned from Disney's last attempt "Oz the Great and Powerful", my family decided to give the 2014 film Maleficent a try.

To begin, the movie looks amazing, the effects are great , the imagery is wonderful, and it visually ties in quite nicely with the 1959 Disney film.  The story works from the point of view of the "evil" fairy Maleficent, who in the original story is the one who curses Beauty to die on the day of her sixteenth birthday.

Stories told from the villains point of view are always tricky; how, in their back story, can you show the audience the reasons behind their dark deeds, and hopefully win their sympathy?  In Maleficent, they (mild spoiler) do this by introducing Sleeping Beauty's father as a character years before the events of the fairy tale.  This works really well, but does ad a certain darkness to the film that moves the intended audience up by quite a few years from that of the Disney Classic.

In the end, both of my kids loved the film, and my wife and I were cautiously optimistic about it.  It's not my favourite villain retelling of a fairy tale, for that you'd need to read Neil Gaiman's Snow, Glass, Apples but it was a pretty great show nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Review: Galaxies, by Barry N. Malzberg

Having worked my way through 80% of David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, I've read a lot of different types of SF; from dystopian futures to time travel and space opera, but until yesterday I had never read anything quite like Barry N. Malzberg's 1975 novel, Galaxies.

The book (sorry for the mild 39-year-old spoiler) is stealth metafiction with a strong satirical bent, but you'd never guess this from the cover.  In fact, the cover image, of a spaceship flying into a skull, looks and reads exactly like a standard classic science fiction novel, still smelling faintly of the pulps, and probably published somewhere in the mid to late 1950s.

Once you open the book however, things go sideways very fast.  The novel moves between the writer talking about himself and his life to concepts of main story and back again, with quite a few musings on science fiction as a genre, it's readers and it's writers.

I absolutely loved this book - the story was fast paced, intriguing, and hard to forget, which honestly describes a lot of the fiction I love.

Well worth the read.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Movie Review: Wind of Change

This weekend I got to re-watch a film from my childhood with my youngest daughter, an Anime film from 1979 called Wind of Change.  The film is a retelling of five stories from Classical Mythology: Actaeon, Orpheus and Eurydice, The House of Envy, Perseus and the Medusa, and Phaethon.

Narrated by Peter Ustinov, the film has the same two characters, a young boy and girl playing the various roles in each version (and sometimes overlapping), and as it was the late seventies, there is plenty of disco music as well (which can be a plus or a minus, depending on the viewer).

For me, the stories are pretty great, and except for the fact that the narrator goes into Falsetto for his female characters, and often falls into a Southern United States Drawl for some characters, the visuals are pretty great, the stories are timeless, and much of the imagery is breathtaking (although may be too intense for young viewers.

Check out the trailer on YouTube and if you happen across a copy, give it a chance!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why you should be watching Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

In general, I'm pretty big on horror comedies.  Although I may not be an expert in the sub-genre, I would definitely say I'm a buff, or perhaps an enthusiast.  So when my friend Ron sent me a link to a blogpost a few months ago about Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, it quickly moved to the top of my "gotta see" list.

The show is a series within a series, being a fictional supernatural horror series from the 80s which has finally been released in 2004 (which is the actual year in which the series is released,  starring actors who are playing other actors and filmed using techniques, editing and music made to appear as if the show was created in the 80s).  The six episodes are interspersed with retrospective interviews from the cast (agin, actors playing the actors who are looking back at their time filming Darkplace), which are pretty darn great.

Yesterday Ron showed us the entire series and I cannot believe that 1) I haven't seen it before, and 2) It isn't available for Region 1 DVD or Blu-Ray players.  

Because this show is amazing, you need to see it, and if horror comedy is your bag, this show must be seen to be believed.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Genre Character of the Week: Major Clive Folliott

The Dungeon was a series conceived of by author Phillip José Farmer, and written by Richard A. Lupoff (vol. 1 & 6), Bruce Coville (vol. 2), Charles de Lint (vol 3 & 5), and Robin W. Bailey (vol. 4). As I’ve been working my way through the works of de Lint, and had come across used copies of various volumes for years, I finally decided to give the series a try this month, which was a pretty good decision as I was introduced to it’s protagonist (and this week’s genre character) Major Clive Folliott.

In the first book of the series, Clive travels from his home in 1869 England to find the location of his missing brother, the explorer Neville Folliott - his journey ends up taking him to another place entirely, a location (World, Level, Dimension?) called "The Dungeon".

What I like best about Clive is both his sense of honour (he searches for his brother mostly on principle - they were not close), and his willingness to step back and look at each new situation with a calm eye (a pretty great attribute for any leader to have).  The story is filled with all sorts of characters out of place and time, and I'm really quite interest to see where the various authors will take it next.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Lately I've become obsessed with Red Dead Redemption

It started out simply, as with every other game I've played on the PS3 for the last few years, I finished the previous game, decide on which to start next and then work at it two hours a week (Saturday and Sunday), for as many weeks as it takes to finish.

To be fair, I've always had a harder time with sandbox-style games (or emersive games as my "Understanding Video Games" course taught me), where you can do all sorts of side missions, explorations, and also buy new outfits, weapons, etc. (or play dress-up, as my wife calls it).  Basically, it's just so easy to say, "5 for minutes and this side mission is complete!", only to discover that your five minutes has stretched into 95 minutes.

Like last night in my latest obsession, Red Dead Redemption (2010), which allows you to play the role of John Marston, who in 1911 visits the western United States to complete some unfinished business.

Last night I decided to do a quick side mission, wherein I would help an old-timer put together a bouquet of flowers for his wife's birthday, only to find the task involved travelling to the far corners of the game map and getting into a pretty significant shoot-out.  But in the end the story (sorry for the mild four-year-old spoiler) ended up being a reference to Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily", so I found yet again, another place in my video-game playing life where high school English turned out to be pretty useful.

At this point I'm about a third of the way through the game, and I'm digging it a lot - the mechanics are pretty great, the setting is incredibly well done, and the story is a lot of fun.  In the past I've played previous RockStar games like L.A. Noire and some of the Grand Theft Auto series, but this has been a great find.

Maybe I'll play for a little bit tonight, you know, just for a quick side-mission...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Movie Review: Enthiran (Robot)

Although I’m now two months past my Penguin Classics themed run, I recently saw one of the more interesting adaptations of Frankenstein I’ve ever come across. Enthiran (Robot) first came to my attention back in 2011, when a scene from it was released on YouTube as “Best Action Scenes Ever!!! Which seems to have borrowed heavily from The Matix, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and various anime.

Screened for me by my friend Ron, the film actually works best as a version of Frankenstein, in which a scientist creates a machine, loses faith in its abilities, and then discards it, only to find the machine doesn’t disappear that easily.

Like most Bollywood films, the movie has comedy, tragedy, action, musical numbers and high drama, but on top of that it adds a lot of truly spectacular special effects, and a protagonist you cannot help but sympathize with.

If you’ve never given Bollywood a shot, I’d highly recommend it, the story is great, the songs are a lot of fun, and the action is pretty fantastic.

Monday, December 1, 2014

December Reading Plans

Happy December Everyone!

Having entered the final month of 2014, I’ve got eight books ahead of me and hopefully a couple weeks I can dedicate to clearing out the various magazines, comics and trade (collected comic) collections I’ve gathered over the last year.

Most exciting for me will be the first three volumes in Phillip Jose Farmer’s The Dungeon series, a six-volume collection that has intrigued me for years as I came across various volumes at various used-bookstores, and as I found earlier this year that volumes three and five were written by Charles de Lint, I’ve now got the excuse to finally buckle down and check them out.

Each year after I’ve finished my various pre-selected reads, I hit the magazines and comics I’ve added to my collection – top spot this year goes to the zombie-themed Afterlife with Archie, followed by the Hack/Slash Army of Darkness Crossover, and hopefully catching up with Astro City again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The 2014-15 TV Genre TV season so far...

One of the few downsides of spending every October focusing on a specific aspect of the horror genre is that it diverts my attention from other places - various games, books, movies and television series all have to wait until I have the time to see a few episodes and give my first impressions.

This year has actually been pretty fun overall, The Flash has been a surprisingly fun superhero story that keeps me coming back every week, Gotham, although flowed with a similar premise to Smallville (let's make a superhero show that we promise will never, ever have a superhero in it - except for maybe in the series finale), has been fun to watch and putting the focus on Jim Gordon has made for a pretty compelling story overall.

I'm a little on the fence still about Constantine - as a long time Hellblazer fan myself, and still feeling a little burned by the 2005 feature film adaption (which would have been a fine film if they just hadn't demanded we view it as a Hellblazer film), the series (which has just been limited to a 13-episode run) does some pretty neat things, in tone it's pretty much on the mark, but a bit too heavy on letting John use overt magic, but as I've found most of the episodes to be pretty fun, I think I'll stick out the run as is.

What has surprised me the most this year is ABCs Forever, a crime procedural which focuses on an immortal man which merges a standard murder-mystery with fantasy elements.  If you haven't checked it out yet, it is well worth the watch.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: Svaha

Taking a strong departure in setting from his previous works, Charles de Lint’s 1989 novel Svaha is set in a (mostly) post apocalyptic science fiction setting. Feeling very Cyberpunk (and for my fellow gamers out there, curiously close to the RPG Shadowrun), the novel mixes the stories of a corporate police officer, a messenger, and a first nations man exploring the world his people left behind centuries ago. Working a lot like a William Gibson story, the novel moves between the three storylines, showcasing just how bad this world is, and the types of people who grow because (and in spite) of the environment.

Although Cyberpunk fans may enjoy the book, it is still filled with many aspects de Lint fans (including me) have grown to love, including music, spiritualism and a strong touch of magic. The novel flows quite well, and even through it isn’t a standard fantasy story, it hits all the marks, including great character moments, wonderful imagery and a surprising number of well executed battle sequences.

A great read.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Book Review: High-Rise

A lot of the science fiction I've read over the years tends to put the blame on "the other", whether an alien invasion, technology gone wild or even "the bomb", but every once in a while I hit a story that puts the blame for its setting squarely on society, and J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel High-Rise fits that bill exactly.

The book focuses on the occupants of a luxury high rise building, which bears a lot in common with the concept of an areology, wherein a densely populated building includes schools, shopping, entertainment, etc. allowing many of its dwellers to spend their entire lives within.

This book however, focuses on how quickly things can go wrong in a confined environment and in addition to being a hyper-violent often shocking narrative, for me the focus is on how much the occupants work (both directly and indirectly) to ensure no one else sees exactly how bad things get inside the building.

The book was dark, harrowing, and surprisingly effective, and is well worth the read.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Things I've Noticed: Sometimes watching The X-Files takes some explaining

For the last couple of years my wife and I have been re-watching The X-Files with our youngest daughter, who is working her way through the series for her first time.  The show is both a lot of fun due to the surprise cameos made by all sorts of people before they were famous, and for the storylines themselves.

When watching the series with our teen daughter (born in 1997), we've tried our best to explain to our daughter just how big a show this was in its day.

Today we checked out the season seven episode X-Cops, which crossed over with the hugely popular reality show COPS - which took a little bit of describing as well - following beat cops around through the events of a tour, blurred out bystanders and suspects, and the regular interaction with the cameraman filming.

It's kind of tricky, for an episode which only takes 45 minutes to watch, we end up spending about fifteen giving our daughter backstory and context for what she is seeing.  At the same time, she seems to be tolerating all this, and is probably much more knowledgable about late '90s pop culture than a lot of her high school-aged friends.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: Lock In

Ever since I came across Old Man's War a few years ago, I've kept my eye out for the latest John Scalzi novels.  Through his writing I've read some great epic science fiction, been introduced to H. Beam Piper, enjoyed a novel that moves from science fiction to fan fiction and back again, and have even enjoyed one of my favourite mixes (although rarely done well), a Science Fiction Horror.

Last month I picked up his latest, Lock In, and at first was a little hesitant.  A brief scan of the description made the book sound like a mix between the Fox series Almost Human, and a Bruce Willis movie called The Surrogates (which yes, I know was based on a comic book).

But I figured, what the heck, it's a Scalzi, and dug right in.

The book is actually pretty great, and although it does have a lot of elements similar to those two texts (buddy cop procedural, people moving around their daily lives through robots), it actually went to a lot of places I wasn't expecting, and had a great murder mystery plot that I feel does play fair with the reader.

The book is a lot of fun, well worth the read, and I'm already looking forward to whatever the author comes out with next.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Things I've Noticed: Edmonton's Medway System is crazy big!

For the last month and a half I've been doing a walking program to increase my overall health, but as I live in Edmonton and can therefore look forward to eight months of winter a year, I've been trying to find a great way to keep up the exercise without having to spend any of it outside.

Luckily for me, I work in the downtown core, and therefore have access to a LOT of tunnels throughout the downtown core - basically I can walk for about eighty straight minutes through various buildings, malls and in one case a school, without heading outdoors and keeping my heat rate up for my entire lunch hour.

Here's what it's brought me so far - I can definitely walk a lot father than I used to be able to, and although I work up a good sweat, I'm not nearly at the level of joggers or runners but for me that's okay - right now I'm just looking for better health overall and if I can find a free way to do it in my city, that's great.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Genre Character of the week: Cynthia “Cyn” Rothschild

As a librarian myself, I’m always happy to see the profession represented in film, television an books, and as the even rarer breed of male librarian, that basically leaves me with Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Flynn Carsen from The Librarian franchise, and that’s about it. Until last month when I came across the Young Adult book Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen. Unlike Giles or Flynn however, this Librarian is no one’s friend, and is actually the villain to the books charming narrator and protagonist (and our genre character of the week) Cynthia “Cyn” Rothschild.

Cynthia is that rare gem in YA fiction, the realistically drawn teenaged girl. Yes, she does have a best friend named Annie and a crush on a boy, but past that she is portrayed as having her own interested and goals, both academic and extracurricular. Specifically she is working as the stage manager for her high school’s production of Sweeney Todd, and while balancing out her life something comes in from left field, a new Librarian named Mr. Gabriel has started working at the school and Annie has developed a crush on him.

There’s just one problem, Mr. Gabriel is (in addition to being a librarian) evil. Not a jerk, not a bad guy, but a literal Demon, and worse yet, one with his eye on Annie and possibly the entire school…

The book is a lot of fun, plays out well and doesn’t cheat, when Cyn makes a mistake she pays for it and when she does well things get a little better. A fun read.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Book Review: Wolf Moon

While I focused most of my efforts last month on the books published under the Penguin Horror imprint, I did set some time aside to read a number of non-horror titles, and by far my favourite was my October book by Charles de Lint, Wolf Moon.

Taking place in a realm of High Fantasy (a world of magic with no obvious connection to Earth), the novel is actually a rather small story of a Harper (a travelling musician) and his attempts to kill an escaped werewolf. The twist is that the werewolf is actually our protagonist, and the Harper the villain. For de Lint, who in every previous book he had written, to take the travelling musician (usually a good guy and protagonist in books such as Harper of the Grey Rose, Mulengo, and The Riddle of the Wren), the idea of focusing the story on the monster, and more importantly, making him sympathetic, was a lot of fun and added a lot of heart to the story.

The main character, Kern begins the story on the run from the evil Harper Tuiloch, and throughout the story finds friends, love, and perhaps even a home, if only he can find a way to outwit or defeat a man who uses his control of music and magic to control those around him.

Although the story doesn’t have the usual quest structure of high fantasy novels, its focus on the characters surrounding a small inn that Kern comes across makes the book a joy to read. A lot of fun, and yet another reason I’m really excited to be working my way through the works of Mr. de Lint.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 31: Endings and Beginnings

Guillermo del Toro begins his introductory essay "Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors" as follows:

To Learn what we fear is to learn who we are.  Horror defines our boundaries and illuminates our souls, In that, it is no different, or less controversial, than humour, and no less intimate than sex.  Our rejection or acceptance of a particular type of horror fiction can be as rarified or kinky as any other phobia or fetish.

The series covers haunted houses, science fiction horror, psychological horror, gothic horror and swings from subtle to graphic.  With the exception of Ray Russell, I had read most of the selections before, but great fiction is well worth the re-read.

What I like best about the series is just how well the material was respected.  Having a small selection of horror in hardcover is pretty great, especially when introductions, annotations and even some filmographies are included.  Until now, the majority of my collection is mainly comprised of mass market paperbacks, as the genre tends to be left out of the hardcover market.

I do hope the collection gets expanded on, as I for one, would be happy to keep reading wherever it goes.

Thanks Penguin!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 30: American Supernatural Tales

The final book in the collection, American Supernatural Tales, edited by S.T. Joshi, is a really fun way to round out the collection.  Using short stories involving the supernatural from as far back as the early 1800s with Washington Irving (the fellow who wrote both Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and moving right up to recent Bram Stoker ward winners like Stephen King and Caitlin R. Kiernan, the title works to introduce reads to some really great stuff as well as showing how the form has changed over the last nearly 200 years.

For me, horror has always worked best as a short story, pulling off terror and horror over the extended form of the novel can be trickily at best and tedious at worst.  This doesn't mean I'm not a fan of horror novels, it just means tat if you grabbed a bunch of horror short stories and a bunch of horror novels at random, I think you would find a high count of great ones in the short story collection.

The book obtains a lot of stories by personal favourite authors, like Fritz Lieber, Richard Matheson, and Caitlin R. Kiernan.  A great introduction to some really scary stuff and a fine way to round out the imprint.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 27: Mr. Sardonicus

So the only purchase I've made in preparation for this month was a $12 Blu-Ray of Mr. Sardonicus, the 1961 William Castle directed adaptation of Ray Russell's Sardonicus.

I had come across a picture of the makeup used for the title character as a child, but other than that unsettling image, I knew nothing about the film.

In terms of William Castle films, I enjoyed the 90s reboots made by Dark Castle of a number of Castle's original films (House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, etc.), and knew the director was famous for stunts related to his films, like on site nurses, buzzers under seats, or in the case of Mr. Sardonicus, an alternate ending for the film depending on the audience of each screening demanding a merciful or unmerciful ending for the main character.

The movie itself is pretty great, it actually uses aspects, scenes and theme from a number of Russell's fiction as seen in Haunted Castles, the leads are great, and I was happy enough to see director William Castle himself, that his films may be the focus of another October in the next few years.

If you have the opportunity, the film is pretty great, and for me, who has seen a lot of horror but never this one, it was a great treat.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 24: Haunted Castles

Of the six books in the 2013 Penguin Horror imprint, Ray Russell's Haunted Castles was the only one I had never heard of before.  In effect, I bought this book 50% because I had purchased the others and wanted a complete set, and 50% on trust in Penguin and Guillermo Del Toro.

The book itself is a collection of seven short horror stories written in the 1950s and 60s.  The most famous of these is one called Sardonicus, which was made into a film in 1961 by William Castle.  This movie, called Mr. Sardonicus had actually crossed my radar back when I was in elementary school and looking through a book on the history of horror cinema (yes, I was the monster obsessed kid in my class).  One of the images in the book is the makeup for the main character, Baron Sardonicus, a man whose face has been frozen in a permanent grin, and trust me, as a kid this makeup really freaked me out, but more on the film later, as I'll be checking it out this weekend.

The stories are all pretty great, my personal favourite was called Sanguinarius, which focused on Elizabeth Bathory, a woman famous for bathing in the blood of young girls.  The story, told from her point of view, was really great, and had a pretty great pay off as well.

Like science fiction author Frederic Brown, Russell seems like the type of Horror author that dedicated fans know well, but mainstream audiences may never have heard of - if you have the chance, definitely check out the book, it's well worth the read.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 22: The Haunting

One of the best parts of rereading The Haunting of Hill House, as compared to say, Frankenstein, is that unlike the story of the monster, there is really no debate over which adaption is the best, the 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise is not just the best version of Jackson's novel, but is probably one of the scariest movies I've ever seen.

I first saw the movie in my twenties and was shocked at how effectively it worked in delivering the story.  The only change I noticed between the two was a bit of reorganizing in scenes and the mild crush Eleanor has on Luke in the novel is transferred instead to one with Doctor Markway, which actually plays a little better for me.

The scares are genuine, work on a psychological level and when the big ones show up (no spoilers here), they are the kind of things that stick with you for days afterwards.

Honestly, it's one of my favourite horror movies, and is well worth the watch, but maybe not late at night...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 20: The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has long been a favourite horror story of mine. Although I’m a longtime fan of monster horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.), there is something really chilling about a well put together haunted house story that just sticks with you.

Jackson’s book is truly insidious, creating in the main character of Eleanor someone that the reader can immediately relate to and sympathize with, and then bringing her to Hill House, a place that is from sentence one, one of the spookiest places to exist in fiction.

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Initially put forth as a doctor’s examination of a reportedly haunted house and the events he and his assistants find there, the story is one of the subtlest examples of horror you can find. The evil in the story builds, slowly but surely, and with the author’s straight-forward prose, you find yourself getting lost in the drama of the four leads just before something really horrible occurs.

As with the first three books in the imprint, the book is put together extremely well, and the introduction by author Laura Miller really got me interested in reading more of Jackson’s work that the two stories I know best (this one and the 1949 short story, The Lottery). The cover art for the book is by far the most chilling of the entire imprint to date, and the book does include a “further reading” section for readers interested in reading more works by or about Jackson.

Simply an excellent read.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 17: The Thing on the Doorstep

Following a reading of The Raven, the first thing that struck me about Lovecraft’s prose was just how modern and engaging it seemed; yes he sometimes got bogged down in detail, and his characters are not the most well drawn, but wow could that guy build a sense of dread. The collection contains two novellas “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “At the Mountains of Madness” and ten short stories, all of which work amazingly to showcase the sense of overwhelming dread and sheer terror he was so good at producing.

The book itself, although missing a filmography like Frankenstein, is by far the most annotated of the imprint so far, giving each story at least a four paragraph contextual description in the notes (discussing year published, written, and any information the author gave on inspirations for the story) as well as point by point notes for geographic, historic, literary, and folklore-based information which may be unknown to the casual reader. All in all the book is a great resource and introduction to the authors work, containing some of my more favourite stories (“The Temple” being an incredible standout, and a great introductory story for those who haven’t ever read Lovecraft before as well).

Of the series, it is by far the biggest text, and with all of the extra information given, including a “further reading” section both in general and for every story as well, it may be my favourite edition of the imprint so far.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 14: My Introduction to Lovecraft

As I begin to read the new Penguin Horror imprint of The Thing on the Doorstep and other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft (and only now do I realize how I should have spent a little more time thinking of a title for this post),  I think of all the ways I could tackle this post - about how his writing was one of the first examples of horror I came across in my teens that really, seriously terrified me, or perhaps how, as a biracial reader, his all-too-common references to the evils of interbreeding really kind of make me sick, or maybe just how sad it must have been to have lived as hermetic a life as he did.

Let's go back to the beginning, where as an eighth-grader I came across my first example of his writing in an anthology of horror stories.  The story "Polaris" (1918) which not only terrified me in its implicitly, but in the fact that (sorry for the 96-year-old spoiler) it turned my understanding of how a story worked on its head.  The twist (and I don't want to wreck it if you haven't read the story) is something I've now seen in other places, but never as effectively, and as a kid the concept sat with me for weeks, insidiously eating at my mind while I tried to read other stories and ensured that I would continue to visit and revisit Lovecraft's work for the rest of my life.

In the end, I can't think of another writer who so strongly grabbed my attention, and introduced me to just how terrifying horror fiction can be.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 12: The Raven

Beginning the second of the Penguin Horror collection, Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven: Tales and Poems, I was a little leery.  Although I did fine in English in High School, my university background is in Communications Studies, not English, and I've always felt Poe is much closer to LITERATURE, which makes me a little hesitant to review him.

Then I remember that I'm a blogger, and more importantly a life-long horror fan, so I should be a little easier on myself and realize that the worst thing that could happen is comments on my blog (which is - excluding spam - the best thing that can happen on a blog).

So let's go.  

As with the Penguin Horror Frankenstein, this edition is really gorgeous, the cover-image, the fact that it is a hardcover, and even the fact that the edges of all the pages are black add together to make a beautiful object.  Unlike Frankenstein, however, the book lacks in the extra materials department - no filmography, additional notes, chronological info, etc.  Just the opening essay, and an introduction by S.T. Joshi.  Informative, but as compared to the previous book, it pretty much sticks to the original material and that's it.

The stories are great - although it took me a while to get into the rhythms of Poe's writing, a number of the stories gave me chills (especially Berenicé and The Tell-Tale Heart), and surprisingly a couple were quite funny.  Unlike a lot of horror I've read, the stories tend to be focused in a real world setting, with issues of madness, grief and guilt being the focus, rather than ghosts, goblins and other creatures of the night (although one story does have a mummy), and the poems are also quite a treat.

In the end, I missed the extra materials offered in Frankenstein and did wish that the book had contained the story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (one of my personal favourites), but as with any short story collection, certain stories get left out or added for editorial purposes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bookmonkey X Penguin Horror Day 8: Poe and I

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site
As I’m currently working my way through the second book of the collection, The Raven: Tales and Poems, I thought I should focus today on my own history with the author.

Like most people, I’m pretty sure I heard “The Raven” at some point in Elementary school (and I’m also pretty sure quoted, under duress by Mr. Spock in an episode of Star Trek), and the simple idea of a man being driven from depression to madness just stuck with me. In my teen years I made my way through other some of his other works, like “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and again and again, I was just struck by how simply he could move a character from concerned to stressed to madman in such a short piece of text.

Unlike any of the other writers on the list however, I have had the chance to check out the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia (which was pretty awesome, by the way) and I have to say there is something pretty unique about visiting the home of an author you've read a lot over the years.

One of the things I've always found most interesting about Poe's fiction (which may change once I've finished the book) is the fact that much of it works as psychological thrillers (a genre that didn't really exist at the time), in that rarely is the supernatural involved, and instead much of the drive of the various stories is coming directly from the (often guilt-ridden) mind of the protagonist.

Of the six books in the collection, this is one of the ones I was most interested in reading, as I was nervous about how readable the stories may be, and as I'm familiar with a number of the various twists and turns of the stories, whether they would still have the same impact for me.

I'll let you know how it works out on Friday.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror: Day 6: Me and the Monster

Of all the books available in the Penguin Horror imprint, Frankenstein is the one that shares the longest history with me. Since I was a little kid, enjoying The Hilarious House of Frightenstein on television, I was always intrigued by the creature. In the context of that show, it is actually just a prop, never doing anything but being background set dressing for the other characters, but always (in my young mind), bursting with the potential to rise.

I read the book for the first time back in junior high (middle school for my US readers), and having reread it three times since (most recently last week), I am always swept away in the epic tragedy of the story, if only Victor had attempted to help his creature, every horrible thing in the novel could have been avoided.

In terms of movies, everyone should see the 1931 James Whale directed classic Frankenstein as well as the 1935 follow-up The Bride of Frankenstein. Although the second moves away from the original source material, the two films together gave us some of the most iconic images of the creature, his bride and their world that have ever been put to film.

The 1957 Terence Fisher film The Curse of Frankenstein is still hands-down my personal favourite Frankenstein adaptation, although unlike the novel it doesn’t even attempt to make the doctor remotely sympathetic. Played by Peter Cushing as one of the most calculating bastards ever to grace the silver screen, the film sits highly in my favourite movies overall.

Although I have read a lot of Frankenstein-based fiction over the years, my current top incarnation of the character is the version used in Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s The Unwritten, which is itself a story about stories, and full of all sorts of twists and turns, but one of my favourites is the inevitably unintentional rising of the creature by the series main character Tom Taylor.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror Day 3: Frankenstein

NOTE: I have chosen to look at each of the books in the Penguin Horror collection in the order described by series curator Guillermo del Toro in his Introductory essay Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors: on the Penguin Horror Series. 

Okay, so let’s talk about the book a little first.

The Story
For those who have not come in contact with the Frankenstein story, it’s pretty simple (sorry for the 195-year-old spoilers, but seriously what can you do?), you have a doctor who decides to create life, he does this by putting together parts for a variety of human bodies and creates an eight-foot tall monster that disgusts him so completely that he abandons it almost immediately after creating it.  The rest of the book follows his attempts to remove himself from any responsibility for the creature and the creature’s attempts to live in our world, and failing that, get some understanding from its creator.

Let's just say things do not work out well.

If you've never actually read the original novel, you are in for a huge treat – the story moves along incredibly quickly, is very readable and the tension that builds throughout is second to none.  As this was my fourth or fifth read through, I was pretty happy to come across this description that the doctor gives of his own upbringing (which to be fair, many a first-year English major has likely made this comparison before me):

I was [my parents] plaything and their idol, and something better – their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties to me.  With this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control. (Chapter 1)

And with this sort of upbringing, you would think he would treat his own creation better, but if he had, where would our story be?

The Packaging

First of all, the fact that the book is a sturdy hardcover, with a wonderful cover by Paul Buckley, ensures that it has a prominent location on my living room bookshelf.  The Book comes with an introductory essay by del Toro, a wonderful introduction by author Elizabeth Kostova, and then a great number of extras, including a reading guide, a chronology of author Mary Shelley’s life, and a filmography looking into 21 selected Frankenstein films (more on this Monday)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bookmonkey x Penguin Horror: Day One

So here we are again at the beginning of October, with a month ahead to examine another aspect of the horror genre. In the past I’ve done deep dives into series like Twilight, Hack/Slash, and Saw, and then over trends in horror like Reimaginings. This month I thought it would be best to go back to some of the roots of horror and hit some great literature at the same time. To do that, I’m going to spend the next thirty days diving into the six titles released under the Penguin Horror imprint last year.  This is largely for two reasons:

1) For my birthday two months ago, my friends and family got me the entire collection, and I thought it would be a nice excuse to use them.

2) As someone who has collected horror for decades, I have a massive collection of mismatched, creased, and roughed-up paperbacks and the idea of some very nicely put together hardcover titles in my favourite genre is too good to pass up.

The six titles: Frankenstein, The Raven, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, The Haunting of Hill House, Haunted Castles, and American Supernatural Tales, were curated by Award-winning filmmaker and longtime horror literature fan Guillermo del Toro, and as I’ve been enjoying his work in film since my wife and I first caught Mimic back in 1997, I thought I would give the collection he put together with Penguin books a shot.

The stories covered throughout the series cover 182 years of the genre (Frankenstein was published in 1818, and the final story in American Supernatural Tales, was published in 2000), but for a guy who has been reading horror pretty consistently over the last three decades of my life, the series seems like a pretty good place to visit (and in a few cases revisit).

So stick around for the next month, learn a few things about my love of the genre and perhaps even get bit by the horror bug a little yourelf…

NOTE: Thanks to my pal Mike for this month's great Paul Buckley-inspired banner art, which includes an image of the series spines I got from this great article about the cover illustrations done by Paul Buckley

2nd NOTE: I grabbed the fanned-out cover image from The Fire Wire Pop Culture blog in case you'd like to see close ups of each title.

Book Review: Greenmantle

After reading Jack the Giant Killer (1987) last month and absolutely loving it, I was kind of nervous to see how the next title would measure up. Luckily for me, Greenmantle (1988), is an incredibly effective book which mixes elements of Fantasy and Crime/Thriller together. The story focuses on Freddie Treasure, a woman who has just won the Wintario lottery and relocates to her childhood home with her teenaged daughter Ali. At the same time the story focuses on an ex-Mafia hitman and his attempt to escape his criminal past.

What I love best about this book was how much it made me think of books like American Gods, Fables, and The Unwritten, in that it plays around with how stories work, where they come from, and what they mean. In the case of Greenmantle, the story focuses on the great god Pan, and his various manifestations throughout mythology and the world. Tying this concept into a crime thriller and adding aspects of Fantasy (the story includes a number of classic Fantasy elements), sounds like it should have muddled up the plot, but the book works so well I was at times shocked at how nicely it all fit together. Add into that the fact that Frankie’s daughter listens to John Owczarek (one of the main characters in Mulengro) and reads Caitlin Midhir (the lead in Yarrow), and the book works both as a story in its own right and as a continuation of the amazing world de Lint works to create throughout his fiction.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gearing up for October

As we’re heading into my yearly Halloween-themed month, I’m currently at work reading the primary stuff I’ll be reviewing (the 2013 Penguin horror imprint), and am also hunting down a variety of films, comics and other related texts to chat about as well.

At this point I’ve got at least one movie connected with each reading (except for American Supernatural Stories – it’s my last one so I’ll be researching it later in the month), but have been happy to find related materials from all sorts of places (friends, used-book stores, Amazon, and in one case the special features of a DVD I’ve owned for quite a while now).

I’m still hoping to knock out a Charles de Lint review before we start but my reviews on new genre TV (Constantine, Gotham, American Horror Story: Freak Show, and The Walking Dead) will all have to wait until November.

Looking forward to it!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Genre Character of the Week: Helward Mann

Last year I got pretty excited when first viewing the trailer for the Science Fiction film Snowpiercer.  The premise of that film, which focuses on a post-apocalyptic human society limited to existence on a moving train seem such a strange and unique idea I didn't think there had been anything quite like it before.

Then I read the 1974 Christopher Priest novel Inverted World.  In the novel, narrated (sometimes) by our Genre Character of the week, Helward Mann, the city "Earth" exists on rails and moves slowly across a landscape, and has been for years.  To be fair to the film, the city moves at a very slow pace, and there doesn't appear to have quite the same class divisions as described in the film, but there are enough similarities, I was comforted to know that classic SF had again touched on this idea decades ago.

What I really like about the character of Helward in the book is his position of being both the character the reader is meant to relate to, while at the same time basically being a guide to the strange world in which he exists.  His story begins with an incredibly evocative sentence:

I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles,

which is just an amazing way to show the reader just how different the world of this book is from ours.

Although there are a lot of places in which I disagreed with the actions Heward took, I still appreciated the way the story moves him about to best show the world in which he lives, and in the end, (sorry for the lack of spoiler here), I simply love what the author does with the character.

If you've never read it before, it is definitely worth a look.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Movie Review: The Maze Runner

Yesterday my seventeen-year-old daughter and I checked out the latest YA-based adaptation to hit the screen, The Maze Runner. Based on the 2009 novel by James Dashner, the film follows Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who begins the film being deposited in “the Glade” a small area of relative security in the middle of a massive maze.

Having seen a lot of YA adaptations over the years (from Twilight to Divergeant – which to be fair sounds like a great title for a paper on these types of films) I’m happy to say The Maze Runner stacks up pretty nicely. The story is equally strange and terrifying, much of the plot focuses on the mystery of the situation Thomas and the other boys (the film has a virtually all-male cast), have found themselves in, and very much like Lord of the Flies, society in The Glade is broken down to simple rules and is unfailingly brutal towards rule breakers.

For me the standout performance in the film belonged to Will Poulter as Gally. Considering his hilarious turn in last year’s We’re The Millers, this character is almost a polar opposite, really well defined, and surprisingly understandable.

The visuals on the maze itself are quite stunning and honestly may be best viewed in a full-sized screen environment, so if you can, try to check out the film while it’s still in theatres, and let me know what you thought.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Movie Review: Oculus

Although nearly a year after the fact, I finally got around to seeing the 2013 horror film Oculus last night, and honestly, it was pretty darn good.

The movie focuses on two grown siblings, Kaylie and Tim Russell, and their attempt to prove the evil and supernatural nature of an antique mirror called "The Lasser Glass" which they believe is responsible for the death of their parents.

The film uses two parallel story lines, focusing on Kaylie and Tim as adults and children, and as the effects of the mirror grow throughout the film, the story lines begin to overlap in really interesting and intriguing ways.

Considering the film's chief antagonist is an inanimate object, much of the strength of the film comes down to the story, the editing and the acting (standouts were Karen Gillan, playing the adult Kaylie, and Katie Sackhoff, playing Kaylie and Tim's mother).  Personally, one thing I really enjoyed about the film (sorry for the mild year-old spoiler) is the fact that although a history of the mirror is given, its origins are never explained, leaving them to the audiences imagination (a lot like some of the best Lovecraft stories, come to think of it).

In the end, the film is pretty great, has some fun twists and turns, and definitely kept me guessing until the end.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reading Series: Jumping right in or playing catch up

One of my favourite super-hero comics these days is Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. If you’ve never read it, you really owe yourself a look. The stories focus on Astro City, which, like Superman’s Metropolis or Batman’s Gotham, has more than its share of heroes and villains, but with Astro City, the stories focus on all sorts of different residents of the city, over the course of decades and seen through the eyes of heroes, villains, and regular folks on the street.

The problem for me is, the series actually started back in 1995, and although it has a relatively small run, the time between each new release is long enough I’m always forced to decide between trusting my memory of comics I read 20 years ago, or re-reading the entire series each time a new volume is released.

I'm currently two volumes behind the current trade (technically three volumes, but I only buy my collections in softcover, rather than the pricier hardcover versions which show up a few months earlier), and so I can either jump in exactly where I left off, or re-read seven other volumes first.

Luckily, the series is pretty excellent, so if I decide to re-read, my punishment is to read an awful lot of good comics and get myself extra excited for the new stuff.

Well look at that, I think I just answered my own question!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Me and my tunes

After finishing grad school I was quickly able to increase my reading-for-pleasure habit from seven books a month back up to ten. This was excellent, as it gave me another Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction book a month to comment on.

But after a couple weeks, I realized that if my reading habits had slid back a little during school, my music tastes had virtually withered away. I’d spent the last few years listening to my aging iPod playlist, which, to be fair got updated time to time by my wife, who listens to a lot more contemporary music than I do, but for the large part, my musical tastes tend to live comfortably in the years between 1999 and 2004 (ages 23 – 27, respectively).

So, I decided to do something about it, and as a library-trained list making guy, I decided to use some basic filters.

New music comes out at an incredible rate – even if I limited myself to just listening to my local top-40 radio station or watching the music videos linked from the ads at the beginning of YouTube videos I watch, I would be checking out dozens of new songs a week.

So I turned to the Billboard charts – which have been keeping track of the top 100 songs currently in play since 1958, and selected the American list (where the lists originated), the Canadian list (where I live), and the UK list (as my musical tastes tend to lean that way if left alone), and began listening to the top ten on all three lists every Monday.

What I noticed right away is that there is a lot of overlap. With the exception of the UK list, which varies somewhere between 2 and 8 songs from the American list on any given week, the Canadian list tends to be roughly 60% identical to the American, if not in ranking, at least in which songs are on the list.

I’m not sure if listening to all these tunes (which usually means listening to about 18 songs a week, as I don’t listen to the same song if it appears on another list), is making me smarter, more culturally aware, or relatable to my kids, but it does tend to mean I’m a little bit faster in recognizing songs playing on the radio.

And as I'm adding new tunes to my iPod playlist can’t be considered completely golden oldies anymore.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

I've got October Covered!

Hi All, just a quick heads up that I've finally figured out my theme for this year's October Blog-a-thon (is that a word?) and it's kind of crazy but, I'm going to focus on on some books.

Yup - rather than hitting the movies again (although there will be some movies), and instead of checking out some comics (although I may mention some of those as well), this year I'm going to be looking at the Horror imprint from Penguin Classics.

So get ready to join me on a deep dive into six classics of horror literature… if you dare.

Actually, just join me - the reading should be fun and I'm a little hesitant to start a game of dares online.