Recent Book Reviews
A bold adventure into realms unknown
This week our column takes a look at a recent trend in vampire horror and science fiction where vampirism is not so much a supernatural condition or curse, but a science based disease. The works discussed here represent attempt to ground the vampire in a more naturalistic way, explore new societies in post-apocalyptic settings, and ask questions who is more monstrous; the vampires or the humans who have survived them.
In near future America an ex-federal agent searches for a girl who may be the key to stopping a viral pandemic. Ninety-three years later a frontier community struggles against the creatures that rule the former United States of America.
The Passage genuinely surprised me. I have not been reading many books about vampires, so I dismissed it. That was a mistake. This is a novel that draws you in as it travels through a near future United States of America, a scientific expedition to the jungles of South America, and a post-apocalyptic future that has much in common with the wild west of the 1880s. One interesting feature of this book is that the author uses multiple narrative styles to tell the story, so it includes e-mail, government reports, television transcripts, government proclamations, and a host of other sources that convey a world rapidly spiraling out of control in the face of disaster. This gives a verisimilitude to the world and helps place the events in context.
Cronin’s Virals (the monsters of the book) are unique, combining several of the trends of modern horror (viruses, fast moving zombies, psychic powers) to create creatures whose horror is born of science and nature as much as the supernatural. The characters are interesting and well developed, and despite a large cast spread across two time periods, their individual voices never get lost. It mixes fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and touch of the western to tell an epic story about the choices we make to survive, and the costs we are forced to pay. Although it is a complete story on its own, it leaves some questions unanswered so as to set up the next book in the series.
The Passage (2010) is the first book of a proposed trilogy. The second volume, The Twelve (2012), introduced new characters, caught up with old ones, and again switches time periods between the pre and post disaster era. A third volume, The City of Mirrors is forthcoming.
A Boeing 777 aircraft lands at JFK with all aboard dead. A CDC team, led by Dr. Ephraim Goodweather investigates, and discovers a mystery that may be the first step in an invasion. Meanwhile an elderly holocaust survivor realizes that a long term enemy has returned.
The Strain, and its sequels The Fall and The Night Eternal, depict a modern society under siege by vampires. The vampires in this series are given a more scientific/parasitic origin, but still retain some of the traditional weakness (running water, garlic, …) yet even these are given logical reasons for existing. This book and The Passage share similar ideas, though have different styles, plots, and themes . The Strain was originally conceived as a television series so it features lots of action and a breakneck pace. However, there is still time for character development and I saw some honest surprises I did not see coming.
The novels are relatively short, so if longer works like The Passage are not to your taste, this provides a similar story in a more compact style. Also, being firmly grounded in the modern day, allows the reader an immediate connection to the story allowing it to jump right to the thrills. If you like fast action, relatively accurate scientific investigation of the supernatural, and heroes who are everyday sort of folk instead of magical warriors of light, The Strain is well worth a read.
The Strain (2009) is the first volume in a trilogy, followed by The Fall (2010) , and The Night Eternal (2011). All three stories are complete, and there do not appear to be any future volumes planned.
Additionally, we will have a chance to see the television version as the FX network will be producing a series based upon The Strain for airing July 2014. It is unclear how much of the book will be covered in the first season, and what if any changes will be made to the work.
Of course nothing is speculative fiction is truly new. Richard Matheson provided his own version of the viral vampire apocalypse in his novel I Am Legend. This is the story of the last human on Earth, Robert Neville, and his quest to stay alive and sane in a world dominated by victims of a plague (who happen to act a lot like vampires). Hollywood loves this book, and has adopted it three times to the screen: The Italian-American Co-production The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price, the 70s remake filled with metaphors on race, The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston, and the special effects laden, big budget blockbuster that misses the point of the original work, I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith.
In my opinion, The Omega Man is the superior film, as no one handles a post-apocalyptic future like late 1960s/early 1970s Charlton Heston.
Everyone’s head of the ghost story of the hitchhiker who mysteriously vanishes from the car. It’s one of those tales that get told around a campfire on a dark night. In Sparrow Hill Road we meet the girl who becomes that ghost.
Rose Marshall died in 1952 after being driven off the road in the dead of night. Since then she’s been wandering the roads of America, still running from the man who caused her death. With the offer of a jacket from a living person, she can become corporeal for a while and has found her calling both helping drivers avoid accident and death as well as escorting on those who couldn’t. As the world changes around her Rose stays constant, until events from her past start to threaten her future.
Originally a series of short stories, Sparrow Hill Road brings them together in a single narrative. The bones of their original form are still visible though, and this is a slightly meandering series of stories that start to coalesce into something bigger and darker than Rose was ever anticipating.
McGuire has a good ear for dialogue, and there’s some genuine creepiness in there as well. Sparrow Hill Road is tangentially connected to McGuire’s InCryptid series, so if you’ve read those you’ll recognize the world Rose inhabits. This is the first book in a new series, and there are definitely plot threads that are left open for further books. I’m looking forward to reading more about the further adventures of Rose Marshall.
It used to be that tracking the latest in cutting edge horror, fantasy, and science fiction films required traveling to film festivals, tracking down second hand videotapes, of staking out the local art house or revival cinema to catch a limited engagement. And living in a non-major film market (or really anywhere outside of Los Angeles or New York) made tracking down these films even more difficult. However recent technological advances have made locating these films much easier. Many films open ‘on demand’ through streaming technology and can be viewed from the comfort of your own home. Smartphones and other wireless devices allow these films to be stream anywhere one desires. Recently three new movies have arrived that have traveled ‘under the radar’ and are worth checking out: a very different take on the vampire movie, a horror/sci-fi film that integrates new technology with old fashioned chills, and a documentary about the greatest sci-fi film never made.
Personally, I think being a vampire in the modern world would be ridiculously easy. Most people think you don’t exist so you do not have to worry about tenacious vampire hunters on your trail, vampire fans would actively seek you out, rendering even the thrill and work of hunting unnecessary. And if you wanted to have any killing on your conscience, you could feed off the blood supply, or the dying, or even animals. The thing that would make a vampire’s existence truly terrible would be how incredibly banality of eternal existence. Nothing ever changes, and the humans, who are like vermin to you or if you are charitable affectionate pets, just keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over. How would one keep from getting bored? Jim Jamusch, a director with an interesting filmography of lyrical movies that serve as mediations on life and philosophy, examines that question in his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive.
When Adam, a vampire/reclusive musician living in Detroit, appears to be more withdrawn then usual, his wife Eve travels from Tangier to visit with him and rouse him from his depression. What follows is an odyssey of a long married couple attempting to find something to interest them in a modern world that seems to be in decline. Jamusch presents a very different image of the vampire, showing them as erudite artists and intellectuals who have long ceased to be surprised by the world. His vampires do not engage in power politics or have some sort of organized worldwide council to govern their actions. They are just creatures living their un-lives, where the greatest threat to their wellbeing is feeding on contaminated blood and the isolation of their centuries long existence.
This is a richly shot film with stunning visuals, and eclectic soundtrack, and some wickedly funny humor. Those looking for action or a special effects laden vampire showdown will be disappointed, but if you accept the premise of the film it will be found entertaining. Personally, I had become bored with the concept of vampires, but this movie has proved me wrong, and there may still be fresh ideas for these ancient threats.
The modern theatrical experience often runs the risk of being ruined by the bright light of a tiny screen piercing the darkness during a dramatic moment. Yet smartphones and their associated technologies are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Is there way in which these second screen technologies could be integrated into the movie going experience turning a distraction into an asset? The Dutch seem to think so, and in Sci-Fi/Horror film APP, they show us one potential future of this integration.
APP relates the story of Anna, a Dutch psychology student who wakes up one morning after getting black out drunk at a party to find a mysterious app on her phone. The app, named IRIS, appears to be a helpful companion, but gradually reveals itself to be a sinister intelligence, concerned with propagating itself across as many systems as possible. As IRIS targets Anna’s friends and life, she seeks a way to defeat a seemingly invincible foe.
From this description one gets the impression that APP is a decent sci-fi/horror film with some decent scares and shocks, a few surprising twists, and action and special effects that make great use of a small budget; and this is all true. If ARIIA, the artificial intelligence from Eagle Eye (2008), and the ghostly phenomenon from One Missed Call (2003 for the Japanese original, 2008 for the American remake) had a child, it would probably act like IRIS.
What elevates APP above its genre, is the fact that the movie includes the integration of your wireless device into the plot. Before the movie begins you download an app, and start it once the movie begins. At certain points during the film, hidden cues in the film’s sound track activate the app, and provide you with additional content related to the movie. Usually this consists of security camera feeds, background information, and one part where the app lets you know what the villains are doing to try to counter the heroine’s actions. The app vibrates when content is about to start, so you do not have to constantly divide your attention between your device and the screen.
I found the material in the app interesting, and felt it enhanced the cinematic experience. It was not too distracting, and I had the added challenge of having to watch the movie, read English subtitles, and check the app. Of course the movie is perfectly comprehensible without the app, but that defeats half the fun.
At this point I think second screen technology still has a ways to go in becoming more then a gimmick, but it is heartening to see that there are directors out there willing to try to move the horror/sci-fi film the next step into the future.
Imagine if you will that it is the mid-1970s. The benchmark for excellent science fiction in cinema was set by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. It will be at least five years before Star Wars arrives and ushers in the age of the Sci-Fi blockbuster. But one man has a plan for a science fiction film that will alter human consciousness. Alejandor Jodorowsky, the surrealist Mexican filmmaker of El Topo and The Holy Mountain wants to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune for the cinema. He plans to have it star Orson Wells as Baron Harkonnen; Mick Jagger (of the Rolling Stones) as Feyd-Rautha; and at the cost of $100,000 dollars a minute Salvador Dali as Shaddam Corrino IV, Emperor of the Universe. It will feature art by the French comic illustrator Moebius and an up and coming Swiss designer named H.R. Geiger. Also he plans to have Pink Floyd score part of the soundtrack. Then it all fell apart. However, thanks to the impressive film documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune we get the opportunity to hear from the visionary himself how this film would have come to pass.
One part mediation on the creative process, one part story of how a director assembled a group of established and legendary performers to fulfill his vision, Jodorowsky’s Dune takes the viewer into mind-scape of a visionary director who wants to make a film that will start a revolution.
Through a massive 3,000 page illustrated scrapbook which he had bound and professionally printed, we are given an idea of the film Jodorowsky conceived. He explains how he recruited performers as diverse as French Heavy Metal Band Magma, his own son (who underwent two years of martial arts training to be Paul Atrides), and Orson Wells (lured to the set with the promise of all you can eat French Food) to join his crusade to bring enlightenment through his science fiction masterpiece.
This is a deeply felt film, examining the creative process, as well as Jodorowsky’s own unique perspective on creativity, story, and filmmaking. Knowledge of the book Dune is not essential, and might even get in the way of one’s understanding of the unfolding panorama laid out before the viewer. If one loves cinema or science fiction, one may come to deeply regret that is probably the only opportunity we will ever have to see Jodorowsky’s vision on film*.
*Many of the ideas Jodorowsky’s had for Dune were re-purposed in two comic book series: The Incal (1981-2011), on which he worked with Moebius, of which several volumes are available in English; and The Metabarons (1992-2013), also originally published in French but available in English translations.
Facing the complications and stresses of pregnancy as a couple attempts bring new life into the world. Striving and fighting to raise a child that can function in society as a compassionate, successful adult. Staring out the window at your suburban neighborhood and watching your identity stamped into conformity minute by passing minute. These are fears all of us can understand. We may never (hopefully) have to fight the zombie apocalypse, be chased around our house by an urban legend, or peer into the abyss of strange geometries that drive men mad, but we must all confront the horrors of everyday life.
Ira Levin (1929-2007), a playwright and author, examined these domestic horrors in three books written in the late 1960’s and 1970’s: Rosemary’s Baby (1967), The Boys From Brazil (1976), and The Stepford Wives (1972). Each of these novels share a number of traits with the subject of my last column, The Exorcist. Like The Exorcist, their titles and plots have become a part of the cultural shorthand we use to discuss current events and social trends. Also, like The Exorcist, each spawned a relatively successful or critically acclaimed movie. Finally, as novels focused on everyday horrors drawn from common experiences, they make for excellent introductions to the horror genre.
The Who may have made it a statement, but Rosemary Woodhouse may be asking it as a question. She and her husband seem to live a charmed life. They have moved into a new apartment, her husband has a great new job, and the neighbors seem always ready to pitch in and lend a helping hand. Yet as strange occurrences happen to friends from her old life, and has her child continues to grow insider, Rosemary starts to believe that the people around want her baby for sinister purposes. Is she the subject of a crazed conspiracy, or is it just the hormones and emotions of pregnancy acting on her mind?
This book is a good read that keeps one guessing as to the true nature of the situation until the climax. It raises questions of just who we are as people, and how much of ourselves do we sacrifice to an unborn child.
Son of Rosemary (1997)
Ira Levin wrote a sequel novel to his original work. Set in the then future year of 1999 (32 years since the birth in Rosemary’s Baby for you fans of foreshadowing), this book focuses on a grown-up Andy Woodhouse, his charitable foundation, and Rosemary’s attempt to figure out why she cannot shake the feeling that her son is up to something terrible.
I have not read this book, but if you are interested in more of the story with the original characters, it exists.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and Ruth Gordon
A fairly accurate adaption of the novel, and a well-acted and shot film, Rosemary’s Baby conveys the sense of isolation of a woman trapped by her perceptions and by the new life inside her. It is definitely worth a viewing.
Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) – Directed by Sam O’Steen and Starring Stephen McHattie, Patty Duke, and George Maharis
A made for television movie, this production has little connection to the original book, and tells an entirely different story the Levin’s 1997 sequel.
Rosemary’s Baby (2014) with Zoe Saldana and Jason Isaacs
A forthcoming NBC television mini-series, this is a four hour retelling of the original novel. It will be interesting to see what changes have been made to a now almost fifty year old story, and how it accounts for some of the aspects of the conspiracy in a world with cell phones and the internet.
Yakov Libermann is a hunter operating out of Vienna, who is trying to track down those Nazis that fled the fall of Germany at the end of World War II so they can be made to face justice for those crimes. When he receives a tip on the location of Dr. Josef Mengele, a Nazi Doctor responsible for horrific human experiments (and still at large at the time Levin wrote his novel), Libermann heads to Brazil. There he uncovers a series of planned murders, and a conspiracy to revive a dark secret of the Third Reich.
An interesting book that blends the Nazi hunting of the 1960s and 1970s with what was at the time cutting edge medical science; The Boys form Brazil leads us to question what has more impact on our nature: our upbringing or our genetic coding.
The Boys from Brazil (1978) Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and Starring Gregory Peck, Lawrence Oliver, and James Mason
A suspenseful thriller, the film is shot in the conspiratorial style common to the works of the 1970s. It is an angry film featuring dynamic performances by three classic actors. In-jokes and references in other media have probably spoiled the ending, but it is still worth a look.
When Joanna Eberhart, a successful photographer from New York City, moves with her husband and children to the tranquil suburb of Stepford, Connecticut, she is disconcerted by the strangely submissive and docile wives who live in the community. Joanna begins to suspect that the woman are somehow being compelled to act in this fashion, and attempts to escape what she fears may be her eventual fate. However, the forces behind Stepford may be far stranger than she can possibly imagine.
Asking questions on issues of conformity, feminism, gender roles, and the way suburbia gets into ones soul and sands away the unique edges of a personality; The Stepford Wives is a suspenseful read. Unfortunately the ending of this book has pretty much been spoiled, as the concept of The Stepford Wife has become so ubiquitous it is often used as short hand to label any woman that sublimates their individuality to home, family, or domesticity, at the cost of their career. If you have never seen one of the movies however, I encourage reading the book first.
The Stepford Wives (1974) – Directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, and Peter Masterson
The original, in my opinion, is the superior film. It captures the paranoia and disassociation the 1970s seemed to be produce in American culture. In the chaotic 1970s the 1950s dream of suburbia started to seem like a conformist trap, and I think this movie is stronger for its closeness to questions of that time about Feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Additionally, it features a script by William Goldman, who maybe one of the best screenwriters of the modern day. He discusses the making of The Stepford Wives in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983).
The Stepford Wives (2004) – Directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, and Bette Midler with Christopher Walken and Glenn Close
A bigger version, with bigger special effects, broader comedy and action, and a sprawling plot that does not quite add up (basically the ending reveal renders several scenes of the film impossible). It is not as good in my opinion as the original. But it may be more accessible to modern audiences, and I would pick Nicole Kidman over Katherine Ross if I were choosing a Stepford Wife. The movie also has a different ending then the original book.
There is an additional passel of television movies that continue the legacy of The Stepford Wives:
The Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980) a television movie retelling of the original book with different plot mechanisms and results.
The Stepford Children (1987) a television movie where the Stepford processes are applied to both the women and the children of the town.
The Stepford Husbands (1996) a gender-swapped version, where the husbands get Stepfordized by their wives, and the plot of the book is inverted.
(By this point you’d think that word would have gotten around to stay out of Stepford).
Ira Levin has one more speculative fiction novel:
This Perfect Day (1970)
Levin engages in some technological dystopian world building. A member of society wakes up, discovers the truth of society, is offered a chance to be a leader, and sets about to bring the whole system down. In the vein of 1984 or Brave New World with some very late 60s touches (i.e. institutionalized drug use).
The Nanny (1987) by Dan Greenburg
A young couple is having trouble with their infant child. They contact a child care service to arrange for a nanny. The nanny arrives with some particular attitudes, and bizarre incidents begin to occur. It was made into a 1990 film called The Guardian (directed by William Friedkin and starring Jenny Seagrove, Dwier Brown, and Carey Lowell). A rather different adaption of the book, it can be counted as further evidence that you probably should not trust the welfare of your child to ancient druidic cults (see also Warlock II: The Armageddon, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and Halloween The Curse of Michael Myers).
Bethany’s Sin (1980)
Robert R. McCammon’s second novel takes the situation of The Stepford Wives and flips it around. In this case the men of the community are held in line by a powerful ancient force that has control of the town’s women with grave plans for the rest of the world.