Category Archives: Horror Literature

Old Movie Review: Dracula Reborn (2012)

Dracula Rebornis one of the many movies made for DVD to cash in on the recent vampire fad. Unlike the likes of Twilight and similar such films, it is, as the name suggests, a return to the original sinister vampire of medieval lore. From the get-go it is pretty obviously a grade-B movie. I’ve never heard of any of the actors, directors, or anyone else associated with the film. The plot … well, it isn’t a precise retelling of the original Dracula tale; instead it takes the skeleton of the original tale and fits it to a modern-setting to mold it. Many of the characters from the original book are there, filling similar roles as they did in that excellent story, only transformed into a modern depiction.

 

The story begins with a woman in an empty parking lot, being stalked by a mysterious entity. There are a number brief shots of Dracula crossing the camera for suspense. Then, the woman is taken. Dun dun dun. From there, the story tries to follow, at least for a while, some elements from the original tale. Jonathan Harker, a real estate agent, meets a mysterious stranger on the premises of a large building that the stranger is interested in purchasing. Of course, the meeting takes place only at night, and, of course, the stranger (Vladimir Sarkany a.k.a. Dracula) has brought along an escort (Renfield). Harker shows much of the property without incident until a group of gang members show up, threaten the three “men,” then leave after Sarkany stares at them a bit. Later, they (the gang members) return to do Sarkany in, and he basically mops the floor with them. Not easy to kill Dracula unless you are prepared. From there the story evolves like many other traditional vampire tales. Harker’s wife, Lina, is bitten and the vampire must be destroyed to save her. Harker calls on the help of a certain vampire expert he meets through the boyfriend of another victim of the vampire (Lucy, if I recall). This expert, of course, is named Van Helsing, although he is a young, vibrant man, unlike the elderly, respected scientist of the original tale. They set out to destroy Dracula. Will they succeed? Or will they perish in the attempt?

 

Strengths: like I said, this was a grade-B movie. That said, I thought most of the acting was fine. The special effects were decent given the likely budget, and the plot made a single, logical hole. Most importantly, the tale was intriguing enough to keep me interested. Weaknesses: there was nothing spectacular about this film. It was, although interesting, pretty much standard hunt down the undead without being killed type of stuff. It was really a kind of modern homage to the original tale. As such, it does deserve some credit. My biggest problem with the film was one that is common in most vampire films: they make the vampire look like a hideous monster when it attacks. I remember once had a conversation with a friend a number of years ago and we both agreed that the true horror of a vampire is a subtle one that comes from its virtual undetectability. It is almost entirely human in appearance, and that makes its evil all the more disturbing. My other issue is a minor one. A cross wouldn’t work on this Dracula, because as Van Helsing queries in response to Harker’s query, “What denomination?” The more I think about this, the more of a failing it is. Part of the horror of a vampire is that it is a quasi-demonic creature, literally a minion of hell. And religious symbols don’t work? To me, if you are hung up on denominations, you have at least two options. You can go the “one true religion” route, which would probably be unpopular, or you could simply say, whereas there are multiple religions, there is but one God, and He won’t be particularly picky who He’s going to defend from the powers of darkness. All that is required is a faithful reliance on His power. The particular symbol, as long as it religious in nature, doesn’t matter.

 

Anyway, I’ll give Dracula Reborn three stars out of five.

Fantasy Literature: The Scope of World-building

This is another post on world-building. I wish to explore in a little more detail what I mean by scope when it comes to fantasy literature. Basically, I want to draw the distinction between a fantasy world, a fantasy universe, and a fantasy cosmos.

 

A fantasy world is the smallest subset of the three. It’s basically a single world where action in a story takes place. Most fantasy novels use primarily one such world be it Krynn, Middle-Earth, or what-have-you. This is where the bulk of the action takes place. Battles are fought, lives are lost, and the course of history is determined within the confines of this single world. In other words, a fantasy world usually provides the setting for a piece of fantasy literature. But setting can only be understood relative to our own real world experiences. It is natural to picture a fantasy world much like Earth, just being one on which magic works (usually). Because of this, the question can be raised on how the world fits into the universe. Is it a planet, like Earth, orbiting a sun in a separate solar system? In fantasy literature this is only a minor consideration, because it is fantasy. I’ve read numerous books where there were suns, and moons, and stars surrounding the fantasy world in question. However, the structure of a fantasy universe need not parallel our own. For example, the world upon which the action takes place need not be spherical. It could be flat. Ships might sail to the ocean’s edge and fall off.  In such a case, perhaps the notion of “universe” loses its meaning. After all, if the world is flat, it just might extend to infinity and be its own self-contained universe. Regardless, it is difficult to understand how travel from one world to another world in such a universe might be possible. It seems to be the case that everything is geared to and focused on this one world, not its existence in a larger universe. Indeed, in this case, the universe as a whole is superfluous. Why, then, have a moon or stars or even a sun?

 

A similar issue concerns the cosmos. By cosmos I mean the totality of everything (by universe I just mean that which is contiguous in space) which would include planes like Heaven and Hell. So, perhaps the better term is multiverse. Anyway, one must take similar considerations when trying to place your fantasy world in a multiverse. How does it relate? What are the other planes that impact upon your world? Minimally, there is usually a paradise like Heaven, and a place of horror like Hell. The influence of these may be limited to shaping the religions of your world, or there could be more involved interactions. Perhaps demons or angels regularly visit your world and have machinations of dire import. Or perhaps they are not so awe-inspiring and are simply elves from a parallel fairyland. In any event, the choice is up to you, but structuring the relationship between world, universe, and multiverse is a critical step in world-building.

Christmas Vampire Contest: The Jolly Old Elf Meets A Vampire

Instead of my usual post today, I’m going to start a month-long contest with a signed hardcover copy of my novel Drasmyr ($25 value) and a Drasmyr bookmark as the prize. You can find the details of the contest: here. I encourage everyone to sign up for my newsletter and post a response.

Horror Literature versus Fantasy Literature

I’ve been on something of a horror literature kick lately. Well, to be more specific, I’ve been on something of a H.P. Lovecraft kick lately. I have an entire book of his short stories, including two novellas. The book is simply called: The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death. At this moment, I have but one more short story to read, and then I’ll be done. Of course, I’m going to go back and reread some of the short stories and review them for this blog; I’ve already started that process, but I’m going to complete it. Anyway, for much of my life, the bulk of my literary diet has been fantasy. One of the first series of books I ever read were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Prior to that, I think was Watership Down which I think I read for the first time when I was about eight. I’ve been reading ever since. And most of it has been fantasy.

 

As a result of my fantasy diet, I’ve been exposed to all sorts of horrors in literature: undead warriors, dark magic, death, chaos, blood … you name it. I’ve seen it all. Because of that, special effects don’t faze me one bit. A witch casting a spell … is that supposed to frighten me? Come on! I’ve seen it a million times before. The first time I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I read it as a fantasy novel. I thought it was okay, but pretty tame by modern standards. Last year, I read it again for about the fifth time and I walked away knowing I had just read a masterpiece. You can read that review here. I don’t get frightened by horror stories (I’ve read too much fantasy for that), but I do appreciate them more, now—as my review of Dracula will attest to. Fantasy stories are full of adventure and action. As a result of such, sometimes horrible things happen, or at the very least, are expected to happen should the hero fail. The horror of such events is usually derivative of the events themselves. In a horror story, the horror is more ambient and all-pervading. There is an appropriate mood and tone that carries the sinister appeal of the story. There is also a greater probability of death on the hero’s part in a horror story. And if done well, that can be a plus.

 

It is worth pointing out, that by horror I mean horror literature not film. Rarely does a horror film live up to something even approaching the magnificence of the novel, Dracula. Most of the time, horror movies are just blood baths. I wouldn’t even want to put them in the same category. Then again, my experience with horror is fairly limited. I’ve read Dracula and a few Lovecraft stories; but I liked the same thing about both: that ever-present atmosphere of dread and doom. And that, I think, is the distinguishing feature that separates Horror from Fantasy.

Old Movie Review: Cool Air (2006) (H. P. Lovecraft)

Cool Air is a film based on the short story of the same name written by H.P. Lovecraft. I have never read the short story so I can’t say for sure what liberties were taken with the script; although it seems likely that it did take a number, if for no other reason than that the film is set in modern times.

 

The film tells the story of Charlie Baxter, a struggling screenwriter, who takes up residence in an apartment in a large townhouse near Malibu. From the outset, it is apparent that he is surrounded by strange characters. The quirky landlady and her autistic daughter run the house; the man across the hall from him is strangely reticent as a matter of course; and the mysterious doctor living upstairs remains sequestered in her room pretty much all the time. The combined cast give a strangely compelling aura of mystery to the setting. Struggling from writer’s block, Charlie seeks inspiration from the strangeness of his own surroundings. He begins a tale in which a “mad doctor” plays a prominent role. Then, he suffers a heart attack and, crawling upstairs, is saved by the doctor’s timely intervention. When he comes to, however, he must grapple with the unwitting truth of the mad doctor in real life as the inhabitants of the house begin to reveal their secrets one by one.

 

There is a lot of narration in this film. I found that a refreshing change from the usual cinematic experience. This was one-half movie, one-half Lovecraft reading. And the voice it was done in, a low, tired, and worn voice, fit the film perfectly.

 

Strengths: overall the movie was good. The narration, as noted above, added to the mystery and intrigue. There were no logical flaws, and no loose ends. The acting was decent, and the setting … strangely innocuous. It was a great juxtaposition for the macabre events it told. Weaknesses: well, it was a low-budget film, so the special effects were somewhat lacking. They were okay, just not up to the full-blown Hollywood standard. But special effects alone don’t make a movie. This one easily made up for it with a good tale to tell and a number of clever touches. I particularly liked the bit at the end where the movie claimed it was the work of Charlie Baxter and his return to screen writing. Anyway, other than being limited in special effects, I have no other serious complaints regarding the film.

 

Ultimately, I will give four stars out of five to Cool Air.

Short Story Review: Dreams in the Witch House (H.P. Lovecraft)

The short story Dreams in the Witch House by H.P. Lovecraft is a devilishly good horror tale coming in at thirty pages or so. A few months back I reviewed the movie The Dark Sleep based on this very short story. You can read that review here. Having now read the story, I can compare the two, and I can unequivocally state that they are really quite different. The movie is only loosely based on the story; it had about three or four shared elements, and that’s it. Plus, the movie had a reasonably happy ending. Not so Dreams in the Witch House.

 

Anyway, the short story begins with the main character, Walter Gilman, living in a run-down garret in “changeless, legend-haunted city of Arkham …” Gilman is a student at a nearby university, caught up in studying advanced mathematics and quantum physics, as well as folklore. What has brought him to this particular building and the apartment therein, is his knowledge of said folklore. Apparently, the infamous witch (again, this is a witch with a Lovecraftian spin, not a practitioner of modern Wicca), Keziah Mason, of the Salem witch-trial days who escaped from Salem, and fled here to Arkham, along with a strange rat-like familiar that was often seen haunting the house and local area these many years later. The crux of the story is very much the crux of much of Lovecraft’s writing. He operates under the premise that advanced science and mathematics can be used to “rediscover” occult secrets; in this case, the secrets of witchcraft. As a result of his studies, Walter Gilman, while exploring the occult side of mathematics, using it to inadvertently travel across dimensions, is drawn into a confrontation with the ghost of Keziah Mason, and her hideous rat-like familiar, as well, one of Lovecraft’s personal favorites, Nyarlathotep … the crawling chaos. I won’t dwell on the final result; I’ll let the intrepid reader find out for him/herself.

 

Strengths: there was enough depth to keep the reader interested; the writing was typical Lovecraft with a masterful use of mood and surreal atmosphere that gave the tale a very haunting aspect. Weaknesses: I’d say the length: it was too short to be a novella, and too long to really be a short story. I guess it might qualify as a novelette, but I think it should have been expanded more into a novella. He had a lot going that could have enriched the story even more.

 

Anyway, I’ll give H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House four stars out of five.

Novella Review: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a rather long novella (112 pages) written by H.P. Lovecraft. It tells the story of a certain mental patient by the name of Charles Dexter Ward. It begins with his early formative years where he displays an interest in all things antiquated. It then moves on into his early twenties when trouble starts. However, in order to tell the story properly, early in the work Lovecraft takes us back another 170 years or so, to the life and times of Joseph Curwen. Joseph Curwen is a practitioner of witchcraft—and I don’t mean an innocuous Wiccan. Oh, no, Joseph Curwen delves dark and deep, and has no qualms about killing anyone who gets in his way. It begins with the summoning of the shades of long dead people, but other horrors are hinted at, too.

 

The story starts with Joseph Curwen on his farm in Pawtucket, R.I. (I think it’s Rhode Island) where he is ensconced in his magical rites. His exceptional long life and other dark dealings breed sinister rumours about him. Eventually, the populace rises against him, raids his homestead, and in a final battle manage to kill him. But his activities are not through. Fast forward, 170 years to the time of Charles Dexter Ward. This young budding historian is the descendant of Joseph Curwen’s. And, when he discovers a painting of the old sorcerer, almost an exact double of the man. Ward, entranced by his own love of history and the things of a bygone era, continues to dig, and dig deep. Soon, he is traipsing off to Europe in his search, only to come back a changed man. Now, his family begin to truly worry for him. His searches have affected his mind. He has become obsessed. And, when two mysterious strangers join him in his efforts, the family’s worries multiply. The strangers are odd folk; some might even say sinister. What hold does the long-dead Joseph Curwen have over these men? And what is their ultimate design? I’ll leave that for the intrepid reader to find out for himself.

 

Strengths: this novella is horror, it is not fantasy. As I have read countless fantasy stories, horror stories never manage to “shock” me. I have to be in the right mood for a horror story to really sink in and absorb the ambience. That said, I enjoyed this novella immensely. It told a pretty gripping tale, and it told it well. All the loose ends were tied off, and yet a whole range of facets were left to the reader’s imagination to fill in. Lovecraft does that a lot. Weaknesses: I think some of Lovecraft’s writing may be overburdened with long, multi-syllabic words and descriptions. That’s usually a mistake of young writers, and I’m not sure when this particular piece was written in Lovecraft’s career. In any event, it can make his writing cumbersome at times; although, then again, that may just be because he was writing one hundred years ago (or nearly so) and the language may have changed slightly since now and then.

 

Anyway, I’ll give The Case of Charles Dexter Ward four stars or maybe even four and a half stars out of five.

Old Movie Review: Solomon Kane (2009)

Solomon Kane tells the story of the ruthless mercenary, Solomon Kane, and his quest to save his own soul from the black deeds he has done. His stories were originally published in Weird Tales by Robert E. Howard, the creator of the Conan series (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Kane). I’m not sure how close to the original stories this movie keeps (because I’ve never read the stories), but on first blush it seems faithful. Solomon Kane is a tale of gloom, death, dark sorcery, and demons.

 

The story begins with Solomon Kane leading an assault on a castle. A skilled warrior, he wades through men like a scythe through wheat, only to find the treasure room to be guarded by a room of mirrors. He leads his mercenary men through, but these mirrors are portals allowing demons to reach through and claim his men. Finally, he breaches the final door and enters the treasure room where he comes face to face with “The Devil’s Reaper,” one of the more powerful demons, indeed the harbinger of the devil himself, who tells Solomon Kane that his black deeds have sealed his destiny with hell. Unprepared for such, Solomon dives out a window and flees. Then, he must begin the long journey back to redemption forsaking violence … at first. But soon he learns that through dark sorcery a former priest has summoned demons that now haunt his homeland enslaving the poor and converting the strong. It is up to him to stop the dark sorcery of this corrupt soul and release his homeland from the demons that besiege it. Will he be successful? Or will the forces of hell reclaim his soul for their own designs?

 

Strengths: this movie had a lot of elements I liked: magic, demons, sword fighting, and courage. The hero, although starting as a villain, was likeable in a macho, kick-butt sort of way. The innocent were innocent, and the evil were clearly evil. Sometimes, that can be refreshing. There was also the overriding theme of redemption (although it was redemption through violence) and the oft-repeated lesson that sometimes evil cannot be reasoned with. Both are good marks for the film. Weaknesses: well, some of the dialogue was weak, in my opinion. Also, the story began kind of slow. Although, setting the stage for a character as a man of peace may be a worthwhile goal, it has a tendency to be boring. Plus, at this point, I’ve seen it done a million times.

 

All that being said, the film was still worth watching. I’ll give Solomon Kane three and a half stars out of five.

Short Story Review: Polaris

I have a whole book of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. One of the first ones in the book is a short piece entitled “Polaris.” It comes in at only 4 pages or so. But that is all it needs. Polaris is a clever little piece about the mystery of the North Star and dreams (the entire book is a collection of dream related stories, actually).

 

It tells the story of a man living in a house by a swamp who spends a great deal of time watching Polaris. Its position fixed in the sky gives him considerable pause to ruminate and wonder about hidden meanings. To him, it seems as if the star has a message, perhaps to him, but one that has been lost in time. So, he begins to dream. He dreams of an ancient civilization 26,000 years in the past; a civilization called Lomar that flourished at an earlier time at which Polaris held a similar position in the firmament (according to astronomers, the actual position of the North Star does change, but very slowly, as a result of a wobble of the Earth’s axis. This phenomenon is called precession (I think) and it causes the apparent motion of Polaris in the sky. It takes the star approximately 26,000 years to complete one cycle and return to the same position—it’s a clever little scientific insert into the story). After some time he assumes an identity in that civilization of a craven man who possessed incredibly keen eyes. As a result, he is tasked with watching for the advance of a hostile army of creatures called Inutos: “squat, hellish yellow fiends” that have been plaguing the ancient kingdom. Atop the watchtower, the accursed narrator is bewitched by Polaris and falls asleep. Instead of keeping faithful watch, he dreams of a future time in which he is a man grown accustomed to sitting by his window in a house by a swamp to stare at the North Star. He cannot wake from this dream, and no matter how he tries to explain his predicament to those around him, they do not believe him. There is no record of a long lost civilization called Lomar; the only beings to ever dwell in these frozen wastes before are the Esquimaux: “squat, yellow creatures.” (Another name for Eskimos is Inuit, a word deliberately close to Inuto) By the end of the story, the narrator’s descent into madness is all but assured as the division between dream and reality is so obscured. Which story is the dream? And which the truth? Is the narrator a dreaming watchman who has failed his countrymen in the lone task to which he was appointed? Or is he a modern day man who has lost his grip on reality? Or … is he a modern day man who is the reincarnation of a dreaming watchman who failed his countrymen? The story does not answer these questions; it simply asks them and leaves the reader wondering and with a profound distrust of the seemingly mundane North Star.

 

The only weakness in the story that I can think of is the possible accusation of racism against Eskimos. But that seems a trifle unfair and a bit too PC for my tastes. He described the Eskimos and imagined a conflict 26,000 years in the past with an imaginary ancient civilization. In the conflict, the Eskimos are the aggressors and every culture in history has been an aggressor at one point or another. If you seek to be offended by such, you can choose to be so; but for myself, I don’t think imagining conflicts between cultures or even using the terms “squat” or “yellow” to describe someone or a group of people is necessarily racist. I can see how it can be interpreted that way, but I choose not to (then again, I’m not an Eskimo). Putting all that aside, I thought this was a great story.

 

Overall, I’ll give this short story four and a half stars out of five. Most excellent!