worse things waiting: hard rain falling

Maybe it’s just me, but I think with each passing year it becomes more and more difficult to discover a new favorite book (it goes for movies as well).  You know, the kind of book that immediately gets under your skin and seeps into your DNA.  It happens, but not like it did when I was younger when my taste was still being shaped.  My taste is still changing, I guess, but not like it did when I was in my formative years.  I’m more confident in what I like now and certain in what I hate.  I know what I like and try to stay away from things I don’t in other words.  Life is short and there’s no time to waste exploring the movies of Larry the Cable Guy or the novels of Chuck Palahniuk.

But this blog post isn’t about what I hate.  It’s about what I love.  I’ve fallen in love with the late Don Carpenter.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  I’ve fallen in love with Carpenter’s first novel, Hard Rain Falling, originally published in 1966.  The book isn’t long (it runs only 308 pages), but it feels epic in its modest way.  It feels like a personal epic, charting the life of a petty criminal named Jack Levitt as he roams the pool halls of Portland, Oregon (my hometown) in the late 1940s to his time in San Francisco and prison in the 1950s to his post-prison years in Frisco where he marries a wealthy woman and tries to go straight.  That’s its basic plot.  The novel’s misfit characters, its seedy setting, and the cleanness of Carpenter’s otherwise muscular prose would make for the prime ingredients of a crime novel.  But as writer George Pelecanos points out in his fine introduction to the New York Review Books edition, this isn’t a crime novel although it partly deals with criminals and their milieu.

The real dramatic weight of the book, however, is about male bonding and the struggle of standing tall when the weight of the world aims to crush you.  It’s about existing at the bottom of it all.  It’s about realizing you’re fucked but that you still have to get on with it every goddamn day.  So you try to have a good time while the seconds tick down.  Because whether you’re a rich man or a poor man, a law-abiding citizen or a thief, a God-fearing man or a non-believer—you’re going to die.  Everything you once believed in, everything you ever accomplished, everything you ever dreamed of doing, won’t matter in the end.  That’s so obvious it’s simplistic and stupid of me to even focus on it, but every day most of us live our lives in denial of that simple fact.  It’s understandable why most of us don’t fixate on it every day.  We have jobs, families, loved ones, and obligations to focus on.  To contemplate too much on the impermanence of our lives would be morbid and selfish and unhealthy.

Carpenter paints a harsh world for his characters.  Hard Rain Falling deals with the same thematic elements that noir writers like Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and James M. Cain regularly dealt with.  Carpenter, though, isn’t interested in tying the narrative to melodrama, which was something noir writers routinely did.  I rather enjoy melodrama and there’s nothing wrong with a writer going for outsized emotion if it’s handled with commitment.  But that’s not this book.  This is a page-turner in its way, though it’s a character-driven one and plot is always incidental to the emotional momentum built up from what happens to Jack throughout the book.  At the heart of this story is, surprisingly enough, a love story between Jack and a black pool hustler named Billy Lancing.  The two first meet in Portland at a pool hall and there’s plenty of racial tension in those scenes.  They are not fast friends.  Years go by and both men go through their own significant struggles in life.  They both wind up at San Quentin Prison, become cell mates, and eventually lovers.  It’s powerful stuff… and emotional.  Their relationship, which peaks roughly halfway through the book, nevertheless underlies everything Jack does afterward when he’s back on the outside trying to keep his shit together in San Francisco.  The final act of the book almost feels far-fetched… melodramatic.  Jack the pauper and ex-con falls into the realm of the fast-living moneyed, and he scrambles to hang on when he becomes romantically involved with a quick-witted beautiful rich woman.  What started as a naturalistic post-World War II novel thoroughly in the hard-boiled tradition segues into a picaresque tale with a subtle absurdest edge as it cruises into the 1960s.

There’s no sentimentality here, no melodrama to distance us from the pain.  There’s nothing false to comfort us along the way.  There’s no bullshit. Carpenter isn’t Woolrich or Goodis or any of the other noir writers that when at their best turned being on the skids into dark poetry.  Carpenter eschews any pretense toward doomed romanticism, instead writing about his losers and bums and criminals with clear-eyed realism.  There’s a real tenderness running through the novel, however, particularly in the second half.  Underneath the book’s hard exterior, underneath the toughness of its prose, underneath its snarl, is an insight and sensitivity that haunted me long after I finished it.

It’s wise about the world.  It’s wise about people like us.  And I can already tell this one won’t be too far from my grasp no matter where I end up in the world.

That’s a damn good feeling to have.  Let’s hope that the NYRB will republish more of Carpenter’s work.  It’s too vital and honest to be forgotten.

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the triffids are back

I’ve long been a fan of John Wyndham’s apocalyptic science fiction novel Day of the Triffids.  For such a ludicrous concept–giant carnivorous plants, possibly man-made, stalk the earth and leave humanity dead, wounded, or scrambling to fight them off–the book is a gripping read, mostly due to how Wyndham superbly delineates the power struggles between the different gangs of survivors in the waning twilight of civilization.  The relatively mindless terror of the triffids is bad enough.  But with the added pressure of argued, reasoned, collectivized tyranny enforced by a group of soldiers upon our protagonists, it’s difficult to decide what grim fate is worse.

Published in 1951, Wyndham’s novel has influenced everyone from George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland (28 Days Later), as well as spawning two direct screen adaptations.  The first one was a 1962 version starring Howard Keel–sort of fun in a Saturday morning movie and cold cereal kind of way–and from what I can remember it’s not very faithful.  The other version, made for British television back in the early 1980s, lacks the cinematic oomph! that the story demands, but its earnest acting and faithfulness to the source material make it essential viewing.

Here’s a clip from it:

Now, 57 years since its original publication, Wyndham’s monstrous veggies are getting a new chance at life with news that the BBC has commissioned a new mini-series from writer Patrick Harbinson (ER, Law & Order).  The show won’t hit television screens until 2009, so if you’ve never read the book… you have plenty of time to rectify that.

I’m not sure if the majority of Americans truly understand how vibrant triffids are to the collective imagination of people hailing from England, Scotland, and Ireland.  It’s sort of like the difference between Dr. Who in England (it’s part of the culture at large, not relegated to cult status) and Star Trek in the States (cult phenom).  Triffids are part of the culture.  Here in Ireland, hidden away in the wilds, I was more than amused hearing people toss out the word “triffid” to describe an overgrown plant or savage looking nettle.  Thank the gods above and below that I haven’t seen any plant(s) actually move around in the jungle of weeds behind our cottage, but there is a rather large and intimidating looking beast of a plant nestled between the back door and the window that distresses me.  The cat seems to like it, though, so I’m not completely ready to burn it down yet.  But at the slightest sign of aggression… it’s broccoli.

You can read more about the allure of triffids and the perverse love of watching the end of the world in films here.

underrated halloween movie picks

[This was actually supposed to be posted on Wednesday October 29.  Then on Thursday… and then Halloween came around and it still wasn’t up.  Now it’s November 2 and well… Halloween really is every day for those who love horror and the macabre.

You love horror movies and want to host a marathon of them for Halloween… only problem is: you’ve seen everything!  What to do?  You’ve seen all of the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies, you’ve had your fill of zombies, you’ve worn out your discs of Argento, Bava, and you want something a little edgier than your beloved Universal monsters, Hammer horrors, and wispy Val Lewtons.  What to do?  Here are my picks for some underrated horror films sure to scare, disturb, or freak you out.

Possession (1981)

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil are a married couple in peril.  She wants a divorce and her emotionally detached husband doesn’t.  So she does what any person would do in her situation… she has an affair with a monster.  Or something like that.  Crazy, brutal, surreal, bloody, and did I mention… crazy?  This is the trailer for the shorter American cut of the film, thankfully no longer available.

The Keep (1983)

Not a great movie by any means.  In fact, the second half is downright unintentionally hilarious, hideous, and memorable in all the wrong ways.  Up to that point, though, Michael Mann’s one foray into the eldritch regions of cosmic horror is pretty damn good and is a faithful interpretation of F. Paul Wilson’s Lovecraftian-styled vampire novel.  I think this film’s unavailibility on DVD has helped it generate a cult appeal that… well, would wear off pretty quickly if people actually watched it.

Having said that… there are some amazingly hypnotic scenes early on–e.g. the opening few minutes, the discovery by the two Wehrmacht soldiers of the hidden tomb, Scott Glenn’s “awakening” and his subsequent journey to the Keep–that easily separated this from the glut of slasher and gore films flooding the screens around the same time.  Hopefully, Paramount will unleash Mann’s “director’s cut” (rumored to be 180 mins) onto BluRay and DVD soon and I’ll be pleasantly surprised by how wrong I am about that second half.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

This is one of director John Carpenter’s lesser known movies, but one that has always had its share of supporters… me being one of them, though I didn’t come on board until the mid-1990s.  It has two terrible lead performances by Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, some hilarious unintentionally funny scenes, and yet… yet… it scares me.  In fact, it contains one of the scariest moments that I’ve ever seen in film.  And no, it has nothing to do with Jameson Parker.  My gods, what was Carpenter thinking when he hired him?  Guess he came cheap.

Santa Sangre (1989)

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky, no stranger to surrealism and provocative subject matter (see the cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain), here conjures up what is arguably his most cohesive and overall best film.  It’s also a strangely moving film, while never abandoning the grotesqueness and violence that frequently shape Jodorowsky’s films.

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

The nightmare of childhood indeed.  Plenty of great films have been made about the loneliness, pain, and horrors of adolescence–Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, Robert Mulligan’s The Other, Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Leolo, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, to name just a few–and though I don’t think Philip Ridley’s feature debut deserves to be placed in the pantheon, it sure does pull you down into its dark undercurrents, leaving you unsettled and lost afterward.  I haven’t seen it since 1990, so my recollection of it may be a bit foggy.  But I often think back upon the film’s American gothic sensibility and surrealistic touches… and that awful moment with the frog.  And then there’s that thing in the barn… and those greasers in the car… and that vampire….

Here’s the trailer.  Also look out for the great Viggo Mortensen in an early role.  Mortensen would team up again with Ridley for the director’s second film, The Passion of Darkly Noon.

Dust Devil (1992)

When South African director Richard Stanley’s post-modernist science fiction/horror Hardware was released in 1990, it seemed like the work of a true stylist and pessimistic visionary… a long fetid industrial howl in complete opposition to the overblown escapist fantasies that the Hollywood studies churn out and have perfected.  Hardware felt like a true cinematic comrade to the so-called cyberpunk literary sub-genre that was already burning out around that time.

Hardware wasn’t a hit when it came out and it quickly disappeared from theater screens in the US.  I managed to see it three times at the cinema and eagerly wanted to know where this Richard Stanley was going to lure us next.

But when Dust Devil was finally released a few years later, it arrived straight to video from Paramount as an 87 minute mess (courtesy of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax) and I was left frustrated by its incoherence. Then I read a review in Sight & Sound where a longer cut of it had been released, fleshing out the film’s more mythic ideas as well as the storyline involving Zakes Mokae as cop on the hunt of the supernatural serial killer played by Robert Burke.  Thankfully, the “Final Cut” and an even longer workprint are readily available on DVD, giving us an opportunity to reevaluate it.  Now, if only Stanley would direct a new feature.

Here’s the video trailer for the “Final Cut.”  Warning: graphic violence.

Dark Waters (1993)

The 1990s were not a great time for the supernatural horror film, especially of the European variety.  But for lovers of Argento and Fulci, Mariano Baino’s feature-length debut is a hot shot of sinister atmosphere and monstrous evil.  While pretty much ignored in the years after its release, the film has garnered a much deserved cult audience since its stellar US DVD release a few years back from NoShame.  A minor classic to be sure.

Cemetery Man (1994)

Here’s another brilliant, inspired Euro cult classic from around the same time as Baino’s film.  Although most serious horror aficionados were familiar with director Michele Soavi from his numerous supporting roles in films like Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, Lamberto Bava’s Demons, and many others, as well as his own directoral work with StageFright and The Church, it was Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man that made many of us realize how brilliant Soavi truly was.  Based on the long-running Italian fumetti (comic book) Dylan Dog, the film was unavailable legally for years in the US before finally being given a disastrous theatrical run a couple of years later.  The best Italian horror film of the 1990s, without a doubt.  And a zombie film to boot… when zombies were far from being hip.

Dead Birds (2004)

Now for one of the best American horror films from this decade, the supernatural Western Dead Birds.  Starting off like The Wild Bunch when a group of AWOL Confederate soldiers rob and shoot up a bank, the film careens into Lovecraftian cosmic horror when the bandits retreat to an abandoned plantation mansion.  Strong performances, especially from Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, and Isaiah Washington, and a deliberate pace help draw us into the creeping inevitable doom these characters face.  Highly recommended.  Why this wasn’t given a proper theatrical release from Columbia Pictures is beyond me.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Premiering at the 2005 HP Lovecraft Film Festival in my hometown Portland, Oregon (where I first saw it and reviewed it for VideoScope magazine), this short is a true labor of love.  Based on Lovecraft’s tale of eldritch terror and madness from beyond the stars, the film is a black and white homage to silent film (think Guy Maddin mixed with Weird Tales) and is surprisingly faithful as well.  Until Guillermo Del Toro finally makes the long rumored At the Mountains of Madness… this is the supreme Lovecraft adaptation around.  And there’s even a stop-motion sequence too!

more pelecanos

I couldn’t resist posting this great feature on George P. Pelecanos:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jul/27/television.books.culture

And just the thought of Pelecanos possibly helming a feature film adaptation of his fabulous Shoedog–the first book I ever read by him–certainly gets my wheels turning.  Published in 1994 in the US only in hardcover (it wasn’t issued in paperback until ten years later), it was extremely hard to come across and if you did manage to find a copy… most likely the price was jacked up by lot lice book dealers.  Anyway, the book is a hard boiled novel in the great tradition of the genre–fast, punchy, and darkly satisfying.  It may lack the social awareness and moral depth of his great books, but it’s still a favorite of mine for personal reasons.  Also, it’s got that fucking car.  Brilliant.

pelecanos

For fiction lovers, if you aren’t aware or haven’t read George Pelecanos then you are simply missing out on the finest living American crime writer.  Since 1992 when A Firing Offense was published, chronicling the increasingly boozy and dire missteps of private investigator Nick Stefanos (Nick also featured center stage in Nick’s Trip, and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go before coming in and out of the subsequent books) through the 2006 The Night Gardener (about the return of a serial killer who murdered three people in the 1980s) Pelecanos has charted the through-lines of crime, murder, and the possibility for redemption.  These are moral tales in their way.  Although I would hate to discourage anyone from reading them who loathes the Western genre, in many ways that’s exactly what Pelecanos’ tales of struggle are–urban Westerns.  Much like the best shoot ’em ups (think The Outlaw Josey Wales, Rio Bravo, The Wild Bunch) violence is only one facet, a corruptive end result within a far richer thematic canvass.  The struggle of characters to maintain diginity, honor, and the essential need for comraderie/family in a world seemingly coming undone are the true preoccupations of his characters and of this consistantly fascinating writer.

For the record, I’ve always been partial to the stand alone Shoedog (the first book I read by Pelecanos back in 1997) and the early Stefanos novels, the “D.C. Quartet” books, and the Derek Strange and Terry Quinn series.  Wait!  That’s like all of the books.

I’m a fan.

Sunday the Washington Post ran a lengthy and good profile of Pelecanos… hence the reason for this blog post.  I guess I should also mention that Pelecanos was also a contributing member of the HBO series The Wire… the best damn (non-fantasy) television show ever.  Dont’ agree?  Well, I know this cat named Omar Little who may be paying you a little visit then.  He’s very persuasive.  Very.

I’ve been doing my part in trying to get people to read Pelecanos since I first “discovered” him.  In the last few years he’s caught on with the general public and each book has gotten richer, better, and more complex while still delivering the crime fiction goodies.  But I know some of you still haven’t taken the plunge.  Pelecanos’ new book, The Turnaround comes out in August, so there’s no better time to seek him out.

You can read more about Mr. Pelecanos here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/15/AR2008071502119.html?sid=ST2008071801830&pos=