Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Streeting Today: EDWARD LEE'S HEADER

Edward Lee's novella, "Header", appeared in a limited publication run from Necro Publications in 1995. While I'm a complete geek for Lee's writing, I haven't had enough luck to come across any affordable copies of this hard-to-find book. In recent years, other examples of Lee's works have appeared in affordable paperback editions, including the excellent FLESH GOTHIC and most recently THE GOLEM, so now stout-hearted readers who don't mind strong doses of sex and violence can easily enjoy Lee's special brand of "splatterspunk." In addition, we can also enjoy Archibald Flancrastin's film adaptation of "Header" (released on DVD courtesy of Synapse) which, contrary to even Lee's expectations, comes close to capturing the author's gritty and gruesome style. It's also nice to see Lee acknowledged in the title (which, judging by the DVD cover, is officially EDWARD LEE'S HEADER.) Lee himself appears in a cameo, along with fellow author and kindred spirit in dark letters, Jack Ketchum.

The plot of the film follows the return of Travis Truckton to his backwoods home after a stint in prison. There, he reunites with his "grandpappy," who enlightens him on the truth behind his parents' death, along with the joys of the "header," which, if you know Lee's work, is as bad as it sounds. Eventually, their path crosses that of Stewart Cummings, an ATF agent who carries out his own rule-breaking to care for his invalid girl-friend. All of this ends badly in ways one might not immediately expect.

After the less than satisfying results of GRUBGIRL, an xxx rated version of Lee's Grub Girl character, EDWARD LEE'S HEADER provides us with a surprisingly satisfying visualization of Lee's warped world. The film moves briskly, and visually, we learn the details of a "header" in alarming detail. Cast members play their parts well, especially Dick Mullaney, whose rendition of "Grandpappy" may be destined for a place of honor in horror film history. In the "extras," we find interviews with cast and crew, including Lee and Ketchum. A stand-out moment occurs when director Flancranstin waxes poetic on how he hopes the film will serve to raise our consciences on the horrific nature of violence, "re-sensitizing" us to its reality rather than functioning as mere entertainment. Needless to say, the resulting film does not support this weighty purpose, but thankfully you can just ignore him and watch the film.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Putting the Bite on Soledad Miranda

The above image comes from Jess Franco's 1970 production, COUNT DRACULA, a film that marketed itself as a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. While it fell short in that area, Franco still gave Christopher Lee a stage on which he could portray Dracula the way he'd always wanted to. Playing Mina, Soledad Miranda falls prey to the count in the above scene, resulting in a kinetic moment upon which Lee remarked, "I have played this scene many times, but this woman is giving me something no other actress ever has" (quoted from Tim Lucas' liner notes for VAMPYROS LESBOS).

Miranda carried this kind of sensual energy into Franco's later production of VAMPYROS LESBOS, a film that returned to Bram Stoker territory, this time very loosely adapting "Dracula's Guest," a short work that we now know Stoker originally planned as an early chapter in DRACULA. Franco makes no direct connection between these two films. Miranda's character, Countess Carody, alludes to her earlier life as Dracula's lover, though one almost wishes that Franco carried the Mina name into this film, thus implying a loose connection between the productions. The (r)evolution in Franco's aesthetics would find reinforcement in the (r)evolution in a character whose vampirism involves a rejection of masculine/patriarchal authority.

Franco likewise resists formal conventions in the film, and while his critics frequently point out how his non-comformist streak can result in awkward and even sometimes awful film-making, VAMPYROS LESBOS marks one of his grander achievements, an erotic masterpiece of vampire cinema. The film's nightclub scenes--an erotic spectacle within a spectacle--calls attention to a vampiric consumption of energy that takes place through the gaze of the spectator--by extension including the spectator of cinema.

In particular, the scenes of Miranda, donned in her nightclub garb, reaching forth to the film's viewer effectively break the fourth wall, so to speak, making our own spectatorship (and desire) the subject of the film on some level. As the vampire in these scenes, Miranda is simultaneously lethal, sad, and sensual. She gives a quintessential performance in a landmark film of erotic horror.

"Again" Ramsey Campbell: VILE THINGS

VILE THINGS, a recent anthology from Comet Press, presents a different side to Ramsey Campbell. In "Again," his contribution to a collection that strives for "Extreme Deviations of Horror" (as worded in the book's subtitle), Campbell delves into some perverse territory, while still adhering to his usual elegant prose style. To relate too much of the story would rob it of its shock value, but it begins with a young man making his way down a country path, where he finds an old woman outside a decrepit bungalow in need of help. She has locked herself outside, and the young man dutifully tries to help her inside. And then there are the flies . . .

Other writers represented in VILE THINGS include Graham Masterton and Jeffrey Thomas, along with some less well-known names, like Brian Rosenberg, who serves up an unforgettable story about competing fishermen. Find it here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer Reading: THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER (1976) by Ramsey Campbell

Cue up Bill Evans' "Quiet Now" in the mp3 player for this one. In fact, if horror writers like Peter Straub (think "Pork Pie Hat") like to tie their works to jazz, then we must think of Ramsey Campbell as the Bill Evans of horror. Just as Bill Evans marked a softer contrast to the harder-edged bop of his time, Ramsey Campbell takes a different route from that of many of his contemporaries, eschewing overt shocks in favor of creating a building sense of dis-ease in his reader, in this case starting with a traffic accident. Clare, the driver of a car in bad need of repair, learns that not only has the accident killed her brother, who was sitting in the passenger seat, but that at some point during the aftermath, someone stole the arm from his corpse. From there, Campbell introduces Edmund Hall, a crime writer, who calls upon Clare to help him search for the culprit. Operating on hunches and circumstantial evidence, Hall suspects that Kelly, an old school-mate, committed the act, leading to narrative that takes increasing diabolical turns, culminating in the story of a magician in the black arts who manipulated pregnant women with a collection of dolls. From there, we learn how the titular doll "ate" his mother--a truly macabre moment in the novel.

In DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King reserves a few pages for discussion of this novel, and while passing decades have robbed it of some of its freshness (Satanism and black magic seem almost quaint in horror novels now), King aptly likens Campbell's narrative structure to that of Bram Stoker's DRACULA in that Clare and Edmund partner with others, including a cinema owner, to pursue their quarry, much like the "committee" formed by Mina, Seward, et al in Stoker's text. I'd add that both novels share a somewhat anti-climactic ending, where their respective conflicts are resolves in a somewhat abrupt, even convenient manner. Still, in the case of THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER, Ramsey Campbell succeeds in capturing a decaying urban landscape, punctuating the haunted mind of his "monster." Campbell provides an awkward (and easily detected) twist about his true identity, but the terror of his circumstances still has the power to affect the reader, as we see a monster perhaps not so much born as created. Now out of print, THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER can still be found online in relatively inexpensive used paperback editions.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Summer Reading: TO WAKE THE DEAD by Richard Laymon

Until the last decade, Richard Laymon's books remained relatively hard to find in the US, and sadly, Laymon died suddenly in 2001, just as Leisure had begun re-issuing several of his titles for readers who once had to seek out relatively expensive British editions. His style makes him ideal for summer horror reading: crisp, intensely visual sentences, with narratives driven by punchy dialogue and marked with generous servings of sex and violence. In recent years, I've enjoyed discovering (or re-discovering) favorites like ISLAND, THE BEAST HOUSE, ONCE UPON A HALLOWEEN, BITE, and the absolutely masterful THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW. To the best of my knowledge, TO WAKE THE DEAD (British title: AMARA) did not see publication in any form until 2002--a shame, since it joins these others as one of his most entertaining efforts.

As usual, Laymon pumps this book full of adrenaline, giving us a blissfully entertaining mummy novel, the kind that Bram Stoker would NEVER have imagined for JEWEL OF THE SEVEN STARS. Laymon's mummy, Amara, has earned the gift of eternal life after giving the Egyptian god Set a son. Her resurrection takes place in the Charles Ward Museum (wink, wink to Lovecraft readers), ultimately affecting the fates of a large cast of characters. In fact, TO WAKE THE DEAD represents a departure from the usual structure of a Laymon novel, as he weaves together different narrative arcs, many of which do not have an obvious connection to Amara's path of terror until the very end. Discovering Laymon's overall narrative design marks part of the pleasure of reading this novel, but the rest stems from the delirious violence that takes place, as Amara rips, bites, and shreds her way through the cast of characters. Laymon wrote novels that seem designed to entertain himself, and fortunately, we now have the option of sharing in the joy, as TO WAKE THE DEAD so aptly provides.