Saturday, 27 July 2013

Coldheart Canyon: Sex, Ghosts, Movie Stars, and Violence, Not Necessarily In That Order

A Review By: Amelia
Ghost stories are probably the oldest genre when it comes to fiction but why are ghosts always average people who’ve come back from the grave for some extraordinary reason? Why have we never heard a story of Marilyn Monroe’s ghost and how she moans and shrieks in the mansion she died in? Why have we never feared that we’d bump into Humphrey Bogart’s wandering spirit when the sun goes down and we’re left in the dark? Clive Barker must have wondered the same thing when he wrote Coldheart Canyon, a story about excessive celebrity lifestyles and the ghosts that are reaped by the excessiveness.

The story begins in Romania during the 1920s when Romanian-born actress Katya Lupi purchases a unique work of art, a series of sculpted and painted tiles depicting, in a grotesque and obscene manner, the local legend of a Count who is cursed to haunt the nearby wilderness for all eternity. Katya, although she outwardly appears to be an angel and often plays one on screen, is a sexual deviant intent on throwing the wildest orgies imaginable in her Hollywood dream house with all her fellow celebrity perverts in attendance (Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford just to name a couple). Obliviously she’s thrilled by the obscene artwork and displays it with pride, and when it’s discovered that there really is magic in the old cursed tiles, Katya becomes just that much more powerful. Fast-forward about eighty years to the year 2000 and enter Todd Pickett’s life: a twenty-nine year old mega movie star who’s already past his prime. He undergoes plastic surgery but something goes wrong and it leaves him more or less disfigured. His agent sends him to Katya’s ‘former’ home in Coldheart Canyon and although secluded and seemingly abandoned Todd soon discovers that Katya and her deviant subjects still hold court.

The first point I’d like to make is that Coldheart Canyon is written in an interesting way. Barker has always had amazing style. He writes in beautiful prose even when describing the most horrific things, and can create worlds and storylines that the rest of us just literally, could never even imagine: and, of course, Coldheart Canyon is no exception. Barker has written it in a linear plot beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 2000s, but he writes it so that you discover the past by what happens in the present. In the first few chapters of the book you discover how the events of the novel unfold, but not why: the why is left until nearly the last few chapters of the book, which is a fascinating twist to the ending of a book that we, as readers, will think we have entirely sussed out by about page two hundred.

Point number two that needs to be made is how disgusting Clive Barker’s mind truly is. Where as horror is the predominant element in many of his other works, sex is the predominant element in Coldheart Canyon. Now, I’m not saying that Barker’s horror isn’t sick and/or twisted, I’m just saying when you write your sex scenes to appear as horror, some perverse shit is going to go down. One particular chapter comes to mind in which Katya is described masturbating with live snails… I’ll leave you to ponder how and, more importantly, why Barker had this imagery bouncing around inside his head.

Now, lets move onto the characters of the novel (as if the above statement isn’t enough to deduce what they’re like!). Barker has always written very strange and scarred characters: Frank, the hedonist main character of the Hellbound Heart, the Barbarossas, a clan of godlike beings from the spanning epic novel Galilee, any of the characters written about in Books of Blood, just to name a few novels worth! Katya and Todd are no exception to Barker’s strange and scarred repertoire. The two of them are characters driven by their inner demons: inner demons that are masquerading as human desire and are sustained by the excesses of their Hollywood lives.

And, of course, if they weren’t messed up individuals by their own accounts, the location – Coldheart Canyon and the dream palace hidden away in secret to host the kind of parties that nobody was supposed to know about – only strengthened their demons and added to their neurosis. Barker created an amazing landscape when he created the canyon. The house is inhabited by the stunningly beautiful/batshit crazy Katya, mistress of the enchanted tiles that are a cursed fountain of youth. The canyon in turn is inhabited by all manner of strange and horrible creatures: ghosts of dead celebrities being the most prominent of these beings. When Todd discovers the house and moves in he only adds to the chaos of the notorious canyon. There is a catch though; I found that without the bizarre characters inhabiting the canyon, the overall story would have lagged; just as the characters without the location would have made the overall story non-compelling.

Overall, Coldheart Canyon is a book that can go both ways: you’ll love it, or you’ll hate it. The characters are fantastically flawed – as that is kind of Barker’s specialty – and they’ll draw you in with their constant debauchery and pitfalls. The location of the forgotten dream-palace is haunting and disturbing but picturesque and peaceful all at the same time and will have you eager to learn about every single inch of the wicked place. The plot of the novel will leave you disgusted and enthralled but the pacing may leave you wanting more. That was my one issue with the novel: it seemed to be about two hundred pages too long. There was a point within the narrative where all loose-ends are tied up and each of the characters are left with their own closure, be it death, heroism, nihilism, etc etc, but then Barker continues to add more where more isn’t really needed. It was almost as if he wrote them as an afterthought – a two hundred-page afterthought – that he paper-clipped to his finished manuscript and then hoped for the best.

My final thoughts on Clive Barker’s Coldheart Canyon are that it is a fantastic read. The characters and locations take you to new and exciting realms of fantasy while one foot stays firmly rooted within a realistic landscape. The story is original and reaches, seemingly, into unknown territory as it deals with ghosts of the rich and famous and how they deal with their afterlives of sex and excess. The pacing may throw you off near the end, but if you power through, it is well worth it as Barker truly is a master of prose and horror. All in all, Coldheart Canyon is an irresistible and unmerciful picture of Hollywood and its demons told with the raw narrative power that have made Barker a worldwide horror writing phenomenon.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Superman Red Son: A Communist Manifesto Starring… Superman?

A Review By: Amelia
I’ve always enjoyed fan fiction, it’s a great way to see a side of a character that wasn’t portrayed in their original story. I think that’s why comics are so appealing to me, it’s writers taking an established character and writing their own take on them; and of all the fan fiction and comics I’ve ever read, Superman Red Son has got to be one of the most original and fascinating pieces of writing I’ve encountered.

The whole premise of Superman Red Son is a whole big what-if question. What if baby Superman’s capsule had landed in Communist Russia instead of Capital America? What if Superman fought on the side of Russia and spread Communism to all reaches of the Earth? What if Batman was a terrorist? What if everything you knew about the DC Universe was suddenly shaken up and flipped onto its head? Well, Red Son by the prominent comic book writer Mark Miller answers all these questions and more within its two hundred or so pages!

The characters are standard for a Superman comic: Superman and Lex Luthor are the main focus, of course their roles are reversed with Superman playing the antagonist and Lex Luthor playing the protagonist (well, not really a straight-and-straight protagonist, but he’s less of an antagonist than Superman is as he is fighting for capitalism, the less of the two evils). Then we have Wonder Woman and Batman playing supporting roles within the Communist drama and, being that the theme is indeed Communism, Stalin plays a very large role within the narrative as he’s Superman’s mentor and father figure.

Love Batman's hat. It's cold in Russia and this is a clever mod of the cowl!
The art style is Red Son is good. Good, not great. It’s a very simple style without a lot of detail. Lines are stark, colours are basic, and, overall, it’s a little… plain. There is detail of course, but it’s not on a decadent level and that is definitely how Miller wanted it. The simple art style showcases what this comic is all about: Communism. The straight to the point art with little to no arbitrary detail suits the plot and theme of the comic perfectly–Communism is all about the basics after all.

Superman Red Son is a breath of fresh air. It has such an original premise–a premise that I’m surprised no one before Mark Miller ever thought of. The art style is a little bland compared to other graphic novels (I’m thinking of Batman: Hush in particular, it’s my favourite and I am a bit biased that all art should be like the art in Hush, but I digress). The art is simple but it’s enough to convey what it wants to convey; anyways, Red Son is all about the plot through and through. It’s intelligent, well planned, and the main focus of this Superman piece.

My final thoughts on Superman Red Son are that it is a graphic novel unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It takes what we know of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman and turns it upside down, but in an amazing way. To see such a reversal of the character’s beliefs and values–especially Batman–is something that all comic book readers need to experience. Not to mention all the little details like how Communist Superman’s ‘secret identity’ is a secret–he’s always Superman, he’s never the working man (although if you know anything about Communism, it’s main focus is the working man, but I digress once again). It’s things like this that add all the nice twists that show just how meticulously this comic was planned. Superman Red Son is a manifesto that all Superman fans–and comic book fans alike–should rally behind.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Dad is Fat: A Comedy Book That I Found More Along the Lines of Horror!

A Review By: Amelia
Jim Gaffigan is a hilarious stand-up comedian who became famous for jokes about food and laziness. He can go off, seemingly forever, on cake and bacon and don’t ever get him started on Hot Pockets! Based on how much I love his stand-up performance, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his book.

Dad is Fat isn’t quite a memoir or autobiography; more a serious of funny essay-like stories that don’t quite have anything to do with the previous chapter but aren’t completely separate either.

Gaffigan goes into great detail about his children and family life within the essays and, well, that’s about it. I do realize that when Gaffigan wrote this book he did it with every intention of only making it about fatherhood, but by about half way through, you’ll want him talk about anything else. Seriously, anything else at all! There’s only so many times he can say how terrible everything is and then add ‘just kidding–I love my kids and they’re great and you should all have kids too’ (that’s not an exact quote, mind you, just how I perceived the whole book).

Dad is Fat is an alright book, which definitely disappointed me because it could have been so much more than it was. I did laugh out loud at a few bits and I absolutely guffawed at more than a few of the pictures and their captions but I found that the funniest bits were the bits I already knew because he’d already used them in his stand-up routine. Not to mention that–although he preaches how wonderful it is to have children–the stories he told of his five children were enough to leave my (already sky-high anxieties about having children) pretty much maxed out all the way through! As a side note, I should point out that I’m terrified of giving birth/having children and, because of this, I found myself unable to get completely into it. A book that was supposed to be funny, actually ended up being more than a little terrifying for me!

My final thoughts on Dad is Fat are that it’s an okay book. Some parts were really hilarious (mostly because of their accompanying pictures), but a lot of it was just reading through his stand up (which is better if you watch him actually perform it) and, although still funny, wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked up this book to read it. I’d say read this book if Gaffigan is completely new to you and his re-used stand-up is still fresh. Even better though, read it if you need a reason not to ever have five children: as if any of us needed anymore reasons than we already have to not have five children!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Hellbent: The Most Lovely Story Ever Written About Hell

A Review By: Amelia

I’m a huge fan of The Crow; just the fundamental idea alone pleases me on a primordial level. I love the idea of an entity with the power to return a dead person to the world of the living to seek their revenge against those who wronged them. Gives me shivers, you know? So when I stumbled upon a whole book full of fiction based on the idea of The Crow, I could hardly contain myself!

The Crow: Shattered Lives & Broken Dreams is a book of fiction and poetry based around James O’Barr’s The Crow. All the stories within the book are one-shots and have no connection to one another but all have something to do with the themes of The Crow (death, rebirth, revenge, etc etc). The particular story I’m reviewing today, written by A. A. Attanasio, is about a couple of demons, Dren (the liar demon) and Nergal (the flayer demon) that begin to hear the voice of an angel from deep within the depths of Hell. The angel promises salvation from Hell and Dren and Nergal have to either ignore it, and stay in Hell’s eternal torment, or trust it and hope it isn’t a trick.

The location for 99% of this story is Hell. Not a metaphorical Hell, or a Hell-like place, actual Hell; and amazingly the author describes it beautifully. It’s a barren landscape, icy cold and bleak but within the bleakness, there is incredible beauty. It speaks to the talent of Attanasio that he is able to create splendour out of the depths of Hell.

The themes present within this short story are that of hope, repentance and the idea that you really can change. Unlike other Crow based stories, this is about inner change and not external change (like slaying your enemies for what they did to you, as an example). Dren hears the voice of an angel and suddenly even the lowliest demon in Hell has something to hope for. The voice is offering him a second chance and, although it may be a horrible trick, Dren trusts it and within that trust, and his own willingness to change, he finds salvation from the pit of Hell. It gives me comfort to think that if a demon can find hope from his bleak surroundings, that I can find hope in anything as well.

Hellbent is such a breath of fresh air. Some short stories are about as clear as mud (anyone who took English lit. in university will know that) but Hellbent lays all its cards on the table right away. It’s a story about a soul who has suffered long and hard in Hell and is granted a second chance; it’s a hard story to pull off but Attanasio does with his beautifully written prose. Honestly, if you read this story for one thing, and one thing alone, read it for the prose. Attanasio writes in such a way as to make you feel empathetic for the main character–a demon!–as he struggles to escape Hell–which is bleak and beautiful all at the same time.

My final thoughts on Hellbent are that Attanasio makes Hell beautiful and that is no easy feat! Plot, characters, prose, they all interweave to become a great short story. Of course, what drew me so deeply into this story is that Attanasio took something ugly and made it beautiful and that’s the same thing that James O’Barr did with The Crow (and I’m connected at the soul to The Crow!). Hellbent is truly beautiful and, whether you believe in Hell, demons, or the afterlife at all, it’s a story that should resonate deeply within you because doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance: a chance to repent and grow and change? I think so, and Hellbent has given me the hope that it’s possible for anyone.