Sunday, December 10, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 060: The Illuminatus! Trilogy”


Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson – The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975/1984)

Holy excrement… This week, I’m finally getting around to writing about the most wack-a-doo, hilarious, demented, science fiction, conspiracy, adventure-based, religious text (slash) social critique (slash) social deprogramming (or secret society REprogramming) series that I’ve ever read. (I hope that sentence wasn’t confusing… or that it WAS confusing, but only confusing for people who aren’t IN-THE-GNO…) And the squirrel runs back up the tree…because he knows THEY are watching, and I think there’s a tracking program in the digital copy that I read, so THEY also know I’m writing this review! (I’ll try to be nice…)

In 1975, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson released The Eye in the Pyramid, the first of the three books in this trilogy. I’m not exactly sure when the next two books, The Golden Apple and Leviathan, were published, but according to several of the sources I consulted, the three books were packed together in a single 800+ page volume in 1984, and that’s really how this series HAS to be read. Before deciding to tackle this review, I’d already read the first two books, and I found them humorous, confusing, creepy, and even a bit hokey… Now that I’ve read the first two books TWICE, and finally finished the third book, I see how essential the final book is to making sense of the first two---if SENSE is the right word here.

The “story” as told by the two Roberts moves with frantic speed through various characters’ lives, frequently changing points of view, often without signaling that a change is coming. The story is told sometimes in first person, but mostly in third. TIME means almost nothing in these pages, as the tale bounces from “current” to past events, projects into the future, and then slips into extended hallucinatory segments, then spends pages on theories of reality and perception, exposition, and historical information. The narrative contains explicit scenes of sexual content, is swimming in drugs of every variety, and incorporates historical figures, like John Dillinger and Hitler and Lee Harvey Oswald, plus borrowed elements and situations from a variety of sources, from the Principia Discordia to H.P. Lovecraft to Carlos Castaneda to Laurel and Hardy.

There are a few graspable narrative threads that pop up here and there and some recurring characters to cling to, like a drowning swimmer would grasp a floating piece of debris after their boat explodes at sea---but after experiencing the initial shock of the quick jumps and narrative shifts (jarring enough to make Beckett blush), a reader grows accustomed to the style and learns to go with the flow. And those who valiantly push through the weirdness will be rewarded for their efforts because there’s a LOT to love here. The writing, when not being deliberately confusing, is very funny. There is a cunning mixture of the historical and plausible mashed into the blatantly fantastic and absurd, which I personally find charming and fun. The word play is clever, and the names of many of the characters are downright hilarious! (“Banana Nose” Maldonado, Mary Lou Servix, Dr. Vulcan Troll, Padre Pederastia, and Fission Chips (AKA Agent 00005), and so on. Great stuff!). However, if you think Game of Thrones has a few too many characters, you’ll definitely want to avoid this series.

Now, there IS a solid plotline to be found here---it comes in and out of the narrative for the first two books, but solidifies by the third. The gist goes something like this: one of the MANY competing secret organizations vying for world control plans to put together a large rock concert in Germany in an attempt to gather thousands of music fans together and kill them. The cosmic energy released by the deaths of so many people will fuel their nefarious, magical schemes, but luckily for humanity (and the talking dolphins), there is another group, led by a mysterious anarchist named Hagbard Celine, and this second group are either trying to STOP the massacre from happening, or maybe they are just going to use the rock concert to do something EQUALLY disastrous that furthers THEIR agenda. One of the things that this book is excellent at doing is pushing ambiguity into the red. Sometimes you think a certain character or group is evil, then you think maybe they’re good, then they’re evil again---until you eventually reach a point where you start to wonder if “evil” or “good” are inadequate terms. Motives are always in flux in this story, and the narrators are predictably unreliable, and then sometimes it’s just hard to keep the characters and plot threads straight.

Like I said at the beginning, this was my second time reading through The Eye in the Pyramid and The Golden Apple, and I still had a hard time following the story, (there are SO MANY CHARACTERS!!!), but I have to say this: the series is incredibly entertaining. It’s worth fighting through the confusion in order to get to the hilarious situations and weird philosophy that Shea and Anton Wilson have put together. If you have any sympathy for underground cultural movements (punks or the Situationists or the Discordians or rave culture or any REVOLUTIONARY activists) then this trilogy will probably be of interest to you. It’s not going to appeal to people who want a clear beginning, middle, and end to their stories, nor will it be an easy read for most people. The text is thick, recursive, and confusing. It might help if you’re already familiar with a ton of “higher consciousness” literature in the Tim Leary vein, as well as having the ability to swim in the conspiracy sea (Freemasons, Kennedy assassination, Atlantis, Rosicrucians, Theosophy, The Golden Dawn, etc…), but it’s still a bit of work to get through more than 800 pages of story PLUS the 20 or so appendices, which really do NEED to be read as well to get maximum closure. (The Roberts sneak plot development into the appendices! The dastardly fiends...)

The series is a crazy, drug fueled, sexually unhinged, magic infused, maddeningly paranoid, intentionally ridiculous trip, and one that I will certainly be taking again. I’ve already started looking for my next Robert Anton Wilson book to read, (so get ready for that.) Meanwhile, I’d say, if you’ve got the time and you think you’re mentally fit enough, give the Illuminatus! a try, although I can’t guarantee that you’ll come all the way back from this adventure!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 059: Zombies Christmas Carol”

‘Tis the season…for reading about ghosts and horror stories. (Technically, for me EVERY season is for reading about ghosts and horror stories, but you knew that...) For this week’s review, I’m looking at a graphic novel adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol. It’s been REDONE about a million times already, but this time it has zombies in it! The book was given to me by my older daughter, Frankie, who spends a LOT of time at a cool comic shop in Vancouver, WA, called I Like Comics! (Maybe check them out if you’re in the area!) Thanks for the book, Frankie---and here we go!!!

Charles Dickens (reinterpreted by Jim McCann, David Baldeon, Jeremy Treece, etc.) – Zombies Christmas Carol (2011)

Although everyone has seen an adaptation of Dickens’ novella, whether the Beavis & Butthead version, or Scrooged with Bill Murray, or a local community theater rendition, I’m not sure how many modern folks have actually read the story. Dickens’ original book is decidedly dark, dealing with greed, withered emotions, supernatural horror, and death, and it’s actually a well written and interesting tale. (I’m going to have to reread and review the original real soon. It fits with our current “Haves vs Have Nots” society again...) So the original story, though considered a feel-good classic because of the redemption of Scrooge at the end, is actually a true horror story. Thus the Marvel Comics version isn’t completely out of left field.

In THIS rendition of the tale, Jim McCann, who wrote the script for the comic, adds a viral / spiritual zombie plague element to the familiar story, pushing the tale back to its more Victorian / gothic roots. The horror elements are more than just decorations, however, working on both a metaphorical level and as strong plot points. This retelling is moody and dark, and actually a lot creepier than I thought it was going to be! This is thanks to both the script writing AND the strong art.

The penciling duties for this story were shared by David Baldeon and Jeremy Treece, with inks provided by Jordi Tarragona and Roger Bonet, and despite the fact that the different sections have different art teams, the overall tone is quite consistent---it’s all dark and icky. The lines throughout the book are detailed and expressive, bringing to mind some of the “Good Old Days” of E.C.’s horror comics, with lots of Victorian flourishes, Expressionist shadows, and uncomfortable angles. And the zombies look great. The feeling that the “Hungry Dead” are right on the verge of taking over the population glooms through from the first few pages on. The ghosts, Marley and the Christmas spirits, are also quite well realized. I love the sort of horrific, pre-modern psych-ward look they gave to Marley, who is first shown with this vaguely freaky, caged helmet over his head… I think that most fans of horror comics will find a lot to enjoy in this book.

As far the zombie element is concerned, I’m probably not the only person in the world who is getting a bit tired of undead horrors, and I read this book mostly because my daughter gave it to me, but I’m glad I did. It’s a quick read, has a solid story (built on a classic structure, of course), and very good artwork and color. The end, which I didn’t expect, and which didn’t QUITE work for me, was okay, but the rest of the book was strong enough for me to overlook the somewhat flat finish. Was it NECESSARY for the creators to add zombies to this story? Not really, but since that’s the game they decided to play, and I knew the rules going in, it wasn’t too hard to play along. The book is dark, kind of sick, not TOO offensive, and has a handful of inexplicable moments, but overall, it’s a fun horror story. I’m sure I’ll read it again in a year or two.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, November 26, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 058: An Occult Dictionary”

Howard V. Chambers – An Occult Dictionary (1966)

For this entry, I cracked into an odd little book that I found a few years ago, which purports to cover “every accepted theory and idea connected to the vast and growing field of the occult,” or so it says on the back cover. That’s ambitious for a book that’s only about 150 pages long, and who “accepted” these theories and ideas? Unfortunately, the book doesn’t say. It doesn’t have a “Works Cited” page, nor does Chambers cite any historical documents, scholars, specialists, or sources of any kind in the individual entries (except when he’s hocking other books in the “For the Millions” series, which this book comes from.) An Occult Dictionary is full of definitions, but with no reason to believe that Chambers didn’t just invent the entries out of whole cloth.

And who is this guy, anyway? I looked for hours trying to uncover any information I could find on Howard V. Chambers, such as an author page or academic credentials or any kind of a history, but I found nothing. There are a few books available by Chambers on topics as diverse as UFOs, phrenology, and dowsing---second hand---on Amazon, but I couldn’t find any information on what qualifies him to write about “the occult.” Maybe he has a secret history, but if he’s an expert, he hides it pretty well.

On to the text. The first thing I want to point out is that this book is over fifty years old, and although most people like to think of “the occult” as being synonymous with “ancient wisdom,” many of the concepts covered in supernatural and occult literature can change significantly in just a few years. For instance, Chambers defines “ORBS” in this way: “In astrology, the space found between planets which aspect one another” (p. 104). Digital photography wouldn’t be available for decades, and the belief that dust particles reflecting light from the camera flash are ghosts wasn’t popular yet. Another possible surprise for some would be the absence of an entry for “wicca.” Although wicca was already starting to bloom (primarily in England) in the 1950s, it wasn’t even on his radar in ’66. Instead, Chambers tends to focus on astrology, spiritualism, a bit of psychic powers, some mythology, and magic-light.

Unfortunately, the quality of the text is not always great. There are some simple mistakes, like when Chambers misnames the world-famous Society for Psychical Research as the Society for Physical Research (p. 23), which is probably just sloppy. (Or, maybe he has a grudge against them.) The written entries are sometimes unclear (many items say that this or that topic “sees,” but Chambers doesn’t provide an explanation for what “see” means), some entries are not in alphabetical order, and there are several flat-out mistakes. For example, the entry on “NIAD” says “Nymphs of rivers, brooks, and springs. See also NYMPHS” (p. 96), but there’s no entry for “NYMPHS.” This type of thing happens few times in the book.

Chambers also seems to bounce between credulity and skepticism. In the entry on “SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY” he writes, “Because of the great possibility of fraud, such photographic work would have to be made under the most rigidly supervised of conditions to have any validity among psychical researchers” (p. 130). This seems to be a reasonable, rational position, but on the very next page, Chambers writes this in the entry under “SUNDAY”: “People born on Sundays are likely to be possessed of psi abilities” (p. 131). And that is definitely NOT reasonable or rational. He even goes straight up believer from time to time, as in his entry on “ASTROLOGY”: “Although the majority of modern scientists consider it a pseudo-science and a sham, it is winning a great number of adherents because of the accuracy of its predictions” (p. 19). The predictions made by astrology are accurate? I’m afraid I have to disagree, but Chambers also wrote an entire book on astrology, so he was probably a fan.

For the most part, Chambers seems like a hack regurgitating the common magical and supernatural concepts of the day. Tabloid mysticism. However, every once in a while, he writes something that is truly nasty or just plain strange. The entry on “SWASTIKA” briefly mentions the mystical significance of the symbol, but Chambers doesn’t even MENTION the connection to Nazis or racism, which is inexcusable (p. 131-132). In the entry on “HUNS” Chambers repeats this nasty, racist belief: “Believed by the Germans to be the result of intercourse between women and evil spirits, and to have many witches among their number” (p. 76).

And then there are the weird entries, like this one for “FAUST, JOHANN”: “A sixteenth century German magician and astrologer who is believed by the ignorant to have sold his soul to the Devil for the gift of occult knowledge, power, and youth” (p. 60). Believed by the “ignorant?” The two most famous versions of the Faust story that I know of are by Goethe and Christopher Marlow. I wouldn’t call either of those two ignorant by any stretch. And, what is it that the NON-ignorant are supposed to believe? Another odd entry is this note on the “ILLUMINATI”: “Those occult persons who are able to manifest enough power to cause luminescent glowings in their auras” (p. 77). That’s the entire entry. It’s possible, of course, that Chambers had never heard of Adam Weishaupt or the Discordians (who started their fun in 1963) or any of the other secret societies floating around in the 1960s, but really? Glowing auras? That’s all that the Illuminati are? Smacks just a bit of silliness---or is it obfuscation? Maybe Chambers is a misinformation artist! Maybe---but I don’t really think so.

Overall, the book seems like a hack job to me. It’s a bit dry, took quite a long time to read, and wasn’t altogether that enlightening. (No pun intended.) One could also ask why a skeptic who doesn’t believe in magic, psychic powers, demons, or astrology would bother to read an entire dictionary full of stuff he doesn’t believe in? Because I like symbology and semiotics. I know that people, whether through folk tales, magical thinking, religion, or fiction, imbue their symbols with MEANING. By studying the symbols, we can understand the thinking of the people. Granted, this book is half a century old, and I know I pointed out how these things tend to change over time, but it can also be illuminating (pun intended) to track those changes and try to understand which concepts shift and speculate as to why. HOWEVER, this book is pretty rare, probably wouldn’t be that interesting for most readers, and hasn’t got much to offer. I’m glad that I made it through the book, and I’m interested in the wording on a few of the weirder entries, but I doubt that I’m going to be reaching for this book if I ever need some quick info on a rare bit of esoterica. It really just isn’t that good.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 057: Mad Night”

I’m a huge Richard Sala fan. If I suddenly found myself wealthy, the first two things I would do are buy a vintage pinball machine and get Richard Sala’s entire body of work. I first discovered his brand of weirdness back in the early 1990s, when MTV aired a series called Liquid Television, which included Sala’s bizarre, noir, serialized story, “Invisible Hands.” (It’s still creepy and hilarious. I recommend looking it up.) Flash forward a few years, and I came across this graphic novel, Mad Night, and I realized, instantly, that I had a new favorite.

Richard Sala – Mad Night (2005)

Mad Night was originally serialized in Sala’s comic, Evil Eye, (the individual issues can now sell for anywhere from $10 to $40 or more---but I don’t have any of those, so it doesn’t really matter.) The story falls pretty squarely into the crime / noir / thriller category, but is complicated a bit by two things, Sala’s sick sense of humor, and his amazing art. Let’s look at the artwork first.

Sala’s lines are exquisite. He draws in an old fashioned, cartoony style, very reminiscent of Chester Gould (who created Dick Tracy) or Will Eisner (who created The Spirit), and like Gould, Sala invents a menagerie of oddly shaped and humorously named characters. Odok Ood looks like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and a beatnik. Professor Pestal has a concave head that looks like it would be perfect for mixing potions in, and Herr Schpook is right out of the pages of Dick Tracy, sort of a mixture of Prune Face and Major Toht (the evil Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark). His images are stunning, his “camera eye” is perfect, and his attention to gruesome detail is unmatched (since the passing of Edward Gorey at any rate.) It’s a beautiful book, as all of his that I have read have been.

With the art out of the way, I suppose I should try to explain, a bit, about what’s going on in the story. Enter Kasper Keene, slacker and coward, who wants to borrow a camera from a friend so that he can make a quick couple of bucks photographing the new school catalog for the college he’s attending. The meet-up with his friend to borrow her camera, however, results in a case of mistaken identity, and he suddenly finds himself embroiled in a sinister world of secret societies, bizarre medical experiments, hidden conspiracies, pirate women, puppetry, and MURDER. (Lots and lots of murder…)

Luckily for Kasper (or UN-luckily, as he would explain it), he is also friends with Judy Drood, the hard-as-nails girl detective---who was the actual owner of the camera that Kasper originally borrowed, and subsequently lost. Judy dives into the swirling conspiracy mess, cussing and fighting the whole way, trying to discover who’s killing whom, as well as attempting to get her camera back.

As I mentioned above, Sala has a wicked sense of humor, and this comes out in the weird character names, as well as in the bizarre and freakish situations that Judy and Kasper (completely against his will) find themselves in. The dialogue is snappy and entertaining, and keeps some of the darker things that happen in this story from diving into straight, Grand Guignol terror. Make no mistake, Sala holds nothing back. This story is swimming in nudity, gore, and numerous extremely disturbing scenes, but because of Sala’s cheeky tone, the whole thing comes off as a clever romp. Not kid friendly in the least, but wonderfully entertaining for those with a taste for the sinister and grotesque. I wouldn’t say it’s SCARY, but definitely DARK, and one of my favorite books from the last few decades. (I’m trying not to give too much away, since half the fun is seeing how the chaos unfolds.) I’ve read it five or six times already, and I’m sure I’ll read it again.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 056: Monsters and Water Beasts”

Shane Grove*, molder of young minds (and a teammate on my Thursday night bowling league), found a book for me that he knew, thanks to my love for the weird and “unexplained,” was going to be right up my alley! He wasn’t wrong!!!

[* Mr. Grove is also the only person, so far, to write a guest review for RADB, when he provided a second opinion on Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After you read this review, go check that one out!!!]

Karen Miller and Sergio Ruzzier – Monsters and Water Beasts: Creatures of Fact or Fiction? (2007)

Monsters and Water Beasts is a middle reader book (intended for kids between the ages of 8 and 12) in which Miller writes about a small selection of well known “cryptids,” and Ruzzier provides some fantastic color artwork. Miller starts each chapter by retelling a personal encounter by an eyewitness to some strange creature, and then Miller follows these stories with possible explanations for whatever the witnesses saw. Most of these explanations tend to run towards the “believer” side of the spectrum, and only a cursory mention (and usually subsequent dismissal) of the skeptical position makes it into each chapter. Miller covers nine different monsters in all, touching on the biggies: Bigfoot, Mothman, The Jersey Devil, Champ, but she chooses to avoid a couple of “classic” critters. (No Nessie? No Chupacabra?) I suppose sticking with just a few creatures gave her the chance to look in greater detail at her chosen beasts and still keep the book relatively short, which is important for a middle reader book. A 700-page tome (which you’d need to cover EVERY cryptid) would be too imposing for youngsters.

 As I mentioned briefly above, Miller tends to lean pretty heavy on the believer angle, using phrases like “experts” and “some scientists” when discussing evidence that supports the various beasts, which of course lends credibility to the pro-cryptid argument, and she usually discredits the skeptical arguments after only briefly mentioning them, if they are mentioned at all. To be fair, a middle reader book that said in no uncertain terms, “Monsters aren’t real! And Santa is just your parents…” probably wouldn’t be very popular with the target audience. However, I do wish that Miller had provided a more balanced presentation of the topics, as Joel Levy did in his book Unsolved Mysteries. Levy told the folklore account, mentioned what believers thought had happened, covered the skeptical and mainstream beliefs, then ended with the “fringe” theories, making certain that the reader knew these weren’t accepted by the majority of the researchers or scientific community.

A quick look at Miller’s “Selected Resources” reveals a number of prominent cryptozoologists and chroniclers of the weird, including Loren Coleman, Bernard Heuvelmans, and (perhaps the most famous name in the cryptid pantheon) John Keel! If these are Miller’s sources, it’s no wonder the book leans towards the believer end. I’m not seeing anything here from the skeptical community. Where is Joe Nickell’s account or Ben Radford’s or Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero’s work from Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic Magazine? It’s entirely possible that Miller has never heard of any of these authors, but Joe Nickell has been writing skeptically on weird topics for decades, and has appeared on a bunch of talk shows and programs about strange phenomena. Granted, skepticism isn’t as fun when you’re a kid, but I still think it’s important to at LEAST let kids know that not EVERYONE is a believer. At one point, Miller even calls the skeptics “cynics,” which is not the same thing. (And I think Miller takes the “believer” perspective WAY too far, even leaving HOOP SNAKES open for possible discovery by zoologists. Maybe they’ll find a giant blue ox, too!)

On the positive side, the book is pretty fun, and Miller’s choices for personal encounter stories were engaging. My favorite element of this book, though, is actually Sergio Ruzzier’s art. He draws a few images for each chapter (as well as the cover), and I’m very entertained by his renditions. His Mothman is a literal interpretation based on very early sightings, where the witnesses claimed the creature had no neck, huge wings, and giant saucer-like eyes. What he draws (you can see it in the cover image) looks more like a blemmy from medieval travel stories than the highly stylized, Frank Frazetta painting that most of us think of today. Other excellent interpretations are The Jersey Devil (p. 40) and his rather creepy “cadborosaurus” (p. 80).

Overall, this isn’t too bad of a book, and I’m betting that young persons who are interested in monsters will find a lot to enjoy here. Miller follows the tried and true method of introducing each creature with a bang, and Ruzzier’s illustrations are very enjoyable. My suggestion for parents hoping to balance the believer opinion with the skeptical would be to read the book with your kids (or before or after) and then discuss the monsters with them. For a very enjoyable (though somewhat PUN heavy) science based show about monsters, I recommend the podcast, MONSTER TALK, with hosts Blake Smith and Dr. Karen Stollznow. They also start each show with the folklore stories, but then bring on scientists (like Dr. Todd Disotell, Dr. Kenny Feder, Dr. Steven Novella,), psychologists (Dr. Chris French, Dr. Richard Wiseman), and skeptics (Dr. Joe Nickell, James Randy, Daniel Loxton), and a number of other specialists in art, history, theology, journalism, etc., to discuss the evidence, historical context, and cultural factors behind the monsters, ghosts, and other strange phenomena they cover. It’s one of my favorite programs, and they have done episodes on several of the creatures that Miller and Ruzzier address in this book.

So, to conclude, the book is pretty good. Its tone is a bit credulous for my taste, but the artwork is great, and there is always the possibility that kids will get interested in the monsters and then eventually find their way to science because of the stories! I know I did! I grew up on In Search Of and Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unexplained type of books, but here I am today, an advocate for scientific skepticism! This book is fun for what it is, and like I said, it’s worth the price of admission for the artwork alone. (Thanks again to Shane Grove for bringing the book to my attention!)

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 055: The Crow”

A couple of decades ago, I was at a comic book convention, but I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so I went around carefully eyeing every booth for “MUST HAVE” materials, knowing I was only going to get a couple of books. At one booth (I can’t remember whose booth it was anymore), I spotted a comic I’d never heard of, which had this dark figure on the cover wearing a trench coat and what almost looked like Alice Cooper face-paint. It was spendy, about $10, but I was intrigued, so I grabbed it. It ended up being James O’Barr’s The Crow #2, put out by Caliber Press, and the book was great… (I also spotted a humor title called The Tick at that convention, but I think that’s a topic for a different post.) A year or two after this convention, they made a movie out of the comic, and the price for the book that I’d bought jumped up real high, (my copy was a first printing,) so I made an executive decision and decided to sell the book to a local comic shop. I got enough in trade to buy The Crow graphic novel (basically the original Caliber run collected by Kitchen Sink Press) and a whole bag of books from the 50 cent bins. (Trading GOLD for trash. That’s the way it works with me…)

James O’Barr – The Crow (1994)

I’m sure a lot of people have seen one of the films based on The Crow, or maybe the television show, or read one of the novels or maybe even read some of the comics, but THIS series is where it all got moving---I think. Personally, I’ve only seen the first film, the one with Brandon Lee as main character, Eric, and I really enjoy that---but for me, I’ll take the original comic series.

For those who have never read the book (or seen the first film), here’s a short synopsis: a young couple, deeply in love and preparing to get married, is set upon by a group of merciless thugs who violate the girl and murder both. Through some supernatural agency, Eric returns a year later as an avenging spirit to hunt down the men who committed the crime and make them pay. The book is violent and dark, and told through a combination of flashbacks, dream sequences, and noir violence, and the art style is an appealing mixture of scratchy, indie action and beautifully framed, painterly Art. (Capital “A.”) The story, though stylistically rendered, is pretty straight-forward: ghost guy with weapons kills the Hell out of the bad guys. However simple the premise, it’s the DETAILS that make this book work.

As a young adult with a penchant for the gothic, The Crow hit a nerve. The protagonist looked a bit like Robert Smith from The Cure, (sometimes), and O’Barr even quotes lyrics by The Cure and Joy Division in the book. In addition, O’Barr’s dream-scape imagery created a chilling and haunted world full of supernatural goings-on (as well as a certain amount of justice, which seems unlikely considering the darkness of the comic. In the end, however, the bad guys get what’s coming to them.) There are other little touches, like the spectral crow who accompanies Eric and gives him advice, like a haunted Jiminy Cricket, and the way Eric’s gun goes “Boom! Boom!” when he shoots it, which is a more cataclysmic sound than just “Bang! Bang!” It’s a subtle touch, but the cumulative effect of each one of O’Barr’s little touches is a book that is deep and chilling.

The book is dark, brutal, offensive, disgusting, and disturbing, but has a strange beauty to it, and a solid sense of gallows humor. O’Barr’s art style is sometimes rough, sometimes sublime, and should be enjoyable for anyone who likes horror or has an 80’s goth aesthetic. His action sequences, in particular, are excellent, incorporating motion lines, noir atmosphere, and cinematic angles. It should be obvious from what I’ve mentioned so far that this is not a kid’s book, but just to be crystal clear, this comic contains offensive language, extremely violent imagery, a scene of graphic sexual assault, drug use, and wicked horror visuals throughout. There is also some blasphemous content and a dangerously depressed tone that might be diagnosable as indicative of severe mental illness. But it’s also pretty clear that, with this book, O’Barr is working through some serious mental anguish (and a few lines in the introduction by John Bergin suggest that this is the case.) It’s a dark book, but enjoyable on a few levels, at least for someone like me who loves horror, but has a soft spot for seeing the bad guys getting what’s coming to them. Even though the book is over 20 years old now, it still holds up---and there still isn’t much in this world that can compare to its raw horror and existential despair. If you think you’re strong enough, give it a read.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 054: Something Wicked This Way Comes”

Ray Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962/2014)

Bradbury is a legend. He is directly and/or indirectly responsible for dozens of classic films, he wrote something like 30 books, and I even enjoyed his weird, 80’s television show, Ray Bradbury Theater, which fell pretty firmly in the Tales from the Darkside, Amazing Stories, Twilight Zone vein. One of my favorite films based on his work is Something Wicked This Way Comes, released by Disney in 1983 and starring Johnathan Pryce and Jason Robards. I found Pryce’s performance as Mr. Dark, the evil ringmaster of a demonic carnival, to be mesmerizing. (Some of you might know Pryce from his role as the High Sparrow in a fairly recent season of Game of Thrones.) Despite my love of the movie and fascination with the character of Mr. Dark, I’d never read Bradbury’s original novel. I thought I’d better fix that---and just in time for Halloween!

For those who have never seen the film or read the book, here’s a quick plot summary. In a small, midwestern town, two young boys (both 14) are best friends, live across the street from each other, and do everything together. Though both are mischievous, the two boys have different personalities. Jim is more impulsive and adventurous, and Will, the son of an aging library janitor, is more introspective and innocent. One late October, just as the boys are starting to experience the first hints of sexual awareness (a subject that has opened a tiny rift in their otherwise rock-solid friendship) a storm blows into town, and with it, a strange, sinister carnival. Sneaking out, as boys do, they race to the carnival grounds only to witness some supernatural goings-on, including a carousel that can manipulate a person’s age! (When the carousel goes backwards, the rider gets younger, when forwards, they grow older.) For a young person on the verge of sexual awakening, the prospect of being just a little bit older seems enticing, and Jim is inevitably drawn to the idea. Will, more sober, knows Jim mustn’t give in to the temptation.

The master of the carnival, Mr. Dark, is covered in living tattoos, and has under his control a cadre of odd characters, including The Skeleton, The Lava Drinker, The “Dwarf” (to use Bradbury’s word), and The Dust Witch (sometimes called a “Gypsy” by Bradbury; although some of the language in this book can be a bit insensitive by today’s P.C. standards, I don’t think Bradbury intended to be offensive.) Bradbury names this cast of interesting side-show characters, but unfortunately, only the Dust Witch really has anything interesting to do in the story, beyond lurking about and being menacing.

The novel’s setup is fascinating, and the concept of a supernatural carnival that can grant wishes is creepy and enticing, but sadly, Bradbury’s language is so dense that I had real trouble navigating the prose to get to the “here’s what’s actually happening.” I know that some people will really enjoy Bradbury’s language and texture, but let’s face it: IT’S PURPLE PROSE. I’ve read enough Victorian Gothic literature to know purple prose when I see it, and this stuff is so purple it feels like I’m reading directly off an eggplant! The language can get so drenched in metaphor it becomes confusing, and often feels indulgent. (A screeching solo where a riff would do.) Rather than complain, I’ll just give you an example. Here’s a scene in which Jim and Will watch Mr. Cooger, one of the proprietors of the carnival, ride the carousel backwards and become a little kid:

“Another and another time around under the sky and trees and Will whispering, Jim counting the times around, around, while the night air warmed to summer heat by friction of sun-metal brass, the passionate backturned flight of beasts, wore the wax doll down and down and washed him clean with still stranger musics until all ceased, all died away to stillness, the calliope shut up its brassworks, the ironmongery machines hissed off, and with a last faint whine like desert sands blown back up Arabian hourglasses, the carousel rocked on seaweed waters and stood still” (p. 79.)

Notice, if you will, that this is ONE SENTENCE. Don’t get me wrong, some of the imagery is poetic, and I’m cool with poetry, but this is a dense, complex, labyrinthian sentence, and it’s not uncommon in this work. When describing magic, I think some poetry is warranted, even necessary, but Bradbury takes this to extremes. Here’s another example, this time describing Will’s father who gets his hand broken by Mr. Dark:

“Where his left hand should be was this swelled blood pudding which pulsed with such ecstacies of pain it fed forth his life, his will, his whole attention. He tried to sit up, but the pain hammerblowed him down again” (p. 226).

It’s a bit much. In fact, there really aren’t that many actual events that even happen in this book because everything takes a minimum of three pages to be described, even when it's not that important to the story. In fact, several things that DO occur, and seem to point towards future events, fizzle into dead ends. Bradbury makes a big deal about selling a lightning rod to the boys early in the book to protect Jim’s house from a lightning strike that the salesman says he’s sure is coming, but the lightning strike never happens---unless it’s a metaphorical bolt, but if that’s the case then why did he need the lightning rod? And this is just one of a number of scenes that seem to come and go without directly impacting to the story. (To be fair, they do meet the salesman again, after he's been turned into one of Mr. Dark's freaks, but there's no lightning...)

What does happen is freaky and strange, and the idea of a supernatural carnival full of magical creatures who feed on fear and sorrow is brilliantly creepy, and don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I finally read the book, although it took a lot more work to get through than I thought it would. Bradbury’s imagination was deep and dark, but he was also a product of his times. As I mentioned, there is some non-P.C. language in the book, but not too much. In 1962, this book would probably have been considered downright polite. Another issue I have with the book is with a scene towards the end where Will’s father basically beats him, smacks him in the face several times and smashes him across the ear, in order to get him to BE HAPPY and dance and be silly. I’m not buying that for an instant. A 14 year old who is being beaten by his father would not and COULD NOT laugh about it. Bradbury had some strange, old-fashioned views on boyhood (and besides the evil Dust Witch, most of the other female characters in the book are basically made of cardboard.) Something Wicked is considered a classic, and there are certainly people out there who will find Bradbury’s prose style charming, but for me, it was more work to read the book than I’d hoped it would be. I might reread it again someday, but it’s going to be a long while before I do…

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)