Sunday, February 17, 2019

Anime at its Craziest - Beserk

Image result for berserk 1989 animeYes, I'm slow to the game. I know Beserk has been around for a long time - the manga, the animated series, the films, and some more recent iterations. But to be fair, I started watching the original show Beserk many years ago, and didn't get to the second episode. It just didn't grab me on the first go-around. But my anime tastes being what they are (that is, very very picky and primarily interested in dark narratives), I came back around. There's only so many times you can watch Vampire Hunter D, after all.

So. I said crazy. And I mean that. It's craziest at the end, of course, when Griffith finally fulfills his destiny to become some kind of bloodthirsty god, but that's not the only crazy. Guts is crazy too - swinging that humongo - sword everywhere, killing 100 men in a single sitting, and making someone cold and calculated like Griffith, whose every move is made for the purpose of ascending the Midland crown in this pseudo-medieval period fantasy, completely lose his shit by walking away from their merry band of men. The story's a whirlwind, and begs to be binged.

What I love about Beserk is how completely unafraid it is to go completely over the top, especially at the conclusion of the series where we finally get more about the significance of the Behelit, the magical amulet Griffith always wears, which protected him from a demon. Very few things actually disturb me to watch on screen, but I gotta tell you, I squirmed. And just when you think things couldn't get any more despicable, they come right back at you again. Kudos to the animators and their sick, sick minds.

The other best aspect of this epic tale is the relationship between Griffith and Guts. They are both so strong and distinct in different ways, and it was so satisfying and interesting to see their dynamic shift over the course of the show as Guts slowly became his own man, and sought for Griffith to see him not just as a soldier or a highly skilled lapdog, but to hope to be equal to him by refusing to obey him, and finally honing not just his sword, but his own sense of will and self-control. It was fantastic, and supremely satisfying to see how much Griffith's men (and woman) idolize Guts. But as much as Guts is a threat to Griffith's own rise, he is under Guts's spell too, which makes for some pretty dramatic twists in the plot that ultimately lead to this crazy, bloody conclusion.

Which is not a conclusion at all. My only regret about this show was how little we got of the cosmic forces at work behind the scenes, with the exception of the last handful of episodes. That kind of fantastical mythicism always gets me up in the morning, and I came away wanting so much more of that, less of the political drama that takes up a good chunk of the middle of the series, and I want a return to the post-demon apocalypse world in which the show begins. That's the show I've gotta see.

K. Rating: 4/5

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Poetic Cruelty - In the Woods

You know me - I usually don't go for big-hype books. But the titles and blurbs from Tana French's books held a fair level of intrigue for me. So I gave In the Woods, the first title in her crime series a spin.

Wow. I can't remember the last time that a book felt so complete, like it hit every single literary  sweet spot I ever had. Childhood trauma and broken memories, a possibly haunted forest, small-town secrets in the past and the present, family dysfunction, the ruin of the idyllic summer, and...oh. a possibly haunted forest. With an ancient celtic altar.

Like I said, wow. That would have been enough, but this book just kept on giving. The prose was absolutely, positively beautiful. Even though this is ostensibly a story about the disappearance of a young girl, a rising star in her town, there was such a glow over everything in how it was all described, that made the darkest elements of the book (and they are dark, and my god, original) that much darker.

I love how the investigation had so many possibilities, and not all of them grounded in the natural world. It was wonderful to see the forest and what happened to Det. Ryan as a child treated with such tight ambiguity. Yes, of course I would have loved more, but it was delicious and done with a deliberate and deft hand.

I was so invested in both of the primary detectives, both in terms of their investigation and in terms of their personal lives and histories, and their relationships with each other - I still am, given that it's an ongoing series. My only complaint is that I didn't get as much closure as I wanted at the end of the book. Again, it's an ongoing series, so I get that certain things will be left undone, but there were things that were left undone that gave the impression that they would never be done, and that was unsatisfying. Only time will tell, but my disappointment in the last eighth of the book (really it was just the very very end that was a letdown for me) was a function of how invested I had been from the very beginning. Despite coming away unhappy, I can't do anything but recommend this book very highly.

K. Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Great Decade for Horror - My Best Friend's Exorcism

The minute I heard about My Best Friend's Exorcism, the "typical" exorcism story taking place in a high-school in the 1980s, I was hooked. What a great premise, to put these two things together. And boy did it deliver.

The only thing more awesome than this
book is its cover. 
Now, I'll tell you (though you should already know by now, if you read this blog regularly, which of course you should), I have seen lots and lots and lots of exorcist stories. There's a level of expectation in terms of where the story is headed, and what kind of demonic shenanigans you might expect to see along the way. There's also tales (both in fiction and film) that do this better than others.

My Best Friend's Exorcism is one of the very best exorcism stories I've ever come across. Part of its strength lies in the fact that the exorcism itself does not constitute the majority, or even the center, of this book. It's the possession itself which takes center stage here, and it is brilliantly done. Not to say you don't expect possessed persons to do certain things, but the specifics were really unique, ingenious, and so organic to the setting. The setting was so real, and so grounded to the plot, that I felt this story couldn't have taken place in any other place or time, it was that intricately woven together. At the same time, it was a biting commentary of the American social mores and failings of the eighties. And that is some literary feat for a story trope that is, in the grander world of horror, tropish. It was the freshest, most diabolical horror I have read in a good long while, and going down into the depths with Gretchen and Abby felt like a breath of fresh air from all the people who wish they could write good horror, who bank on selling sub-standard horror to the undiscerning public, and who fall terribly, terribly short of all the potential that this genre, by devil, still has to offer. Go get this book - that's all I can say.

K Rating: 5/5

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Great Premise, Lackluster Execution: The Houses October Built

The Houses October Built PosterThat's always the way, isn't it? You hear of a book or, in this case, a movie, that sounds awesome. A found-footage film about dark rides. You go into it all excited, and everything starts out good, but then somewhere down the line things fall apart. That's the case with The Houses October Built (2014).

My first disappointment was the exclusive focus on modern haunted attractions, rather than vintage, Coney-Island style dark rides. But I was okay with that, as the film started off with a solid framework for talking about the staffing of such attractions, and how for some workers, the line between themselves and their characters, themselves and the people they scare, can be easily blurred. That was a great concept for a horror film, and once again made the found-footage film (my not-so favorite medium) make perfect organic sense. How else would you see the inside of these places?

The idea that some people, especially at extreme attractions, don't know when to call it quits was quite creepy. But toward the end, the main plot of the story started to take a tangent for the fantastical. I like the idea of an attraction being more immersive, and going beyond the borders of an indoor space, but when the haunted actors perform criminal acts, it's hard for me to imagine people continually going along with assault in every sense of the term. The ending got even muddier, and the less-than-skillful camerawork with shaky frames (like when the camerman is running) was not as deliberate as it could have been. I'm well aware that artistic shots of nothing or of abstract motion are part of the tropes of this subgenre, but it has been done better by others, and it didn't heighten the mood here-only my confusion.

K Rating: 3/5

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Lesser than Lovecraft - The Fisherman

I was dragged The Fisherman by a nice-looking cover (yes, I shop with my eyes), and the suggestion that this would be a Lovecraftian story. Well, it was. Sort of.

The book starts off dealing with the protagonist's grief at the loss of his wife, and finding solace in fishing. Fishing takes up all his free time, and he eventually gets another man who lost his whole family to come fishing with him as well. Just when they're going up to a new fishing spot called Dutchman's Creek, and you start to get the impression that this is going to be more like Pet Sematary, the story screeches to a halt so that the cook at a diner can tell the two men (and by extension, you) a story that takes up 80% of the book. All in one hour talking to these guys at the diner. Yeah, ok. This is the meat of the book, make no mistake. Why it's couched in this idea of a contemporary frame story is beyond me. It goes way past the old gothic trope of someone telling you of a tragedy long ago that you are now doomed to repeat through your own folly. There's entirely too much length and detail dedicated to the story of resurrected people/fish in the past for it to operate as simply a marker of trope within the book.

That's not to say there weren't good moments, or some interesting concepts - the description of the black ocean in which the Leviathan (not Cthulhu of course, that would be unoriginal) rests was good, but it was also entirely predictable. Things that did go off the Lovecraft path were not very believable. People don't just grumble about dead men walking and let it go on for weeks and months - that stretches my imagination just a bit too far. And I don't know what the ending was supposed to be about, traveling through the coastal city of the black ocean. It was too left-field.

I regret that Langan didn't take the idea of the "Man in Black" (true HPL fans know who this is) and run with it. That's a less developed part of Lovecraft's literary mythos, and it would have been cool to see a really good rendition of such a storyline outside of an Arkham Horror encounter card. Oh well, I guess that means I'll have to do it. Eventually.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Problem of Presentation: Wolf on a String

One of my biggest pet peeves is when books sell themselves on one story, but are actually another once you start reading. That's what happened with Wolf on a String. I bought this because the jacket copy talked of a murder mystery set in Imperial Prague, which is actually quite intriguing to me. That's not, however, what I got.

First off, this book wasn't thick enough to be period fiction. There was very little world-building here, unless you count the name-dropping of famous personages who lived in Prague at the time of this story. And sorry, most people don't know who Johannes Kepler is. I do, but that's what I get paid to do. At any rate, he had nothing to do with the story. The major players (most of them fictionalized) are well-fleshed out, which I wish I could say for our protagonist. He started off fine, a scholar from a smaller village trying to make his way in the Prague court, but the problem is that the character never grows, and as a result his immaturity and poor-decision making grates more and more as you read. For someone who is highly educated, the guy is an idiot. I understand a degree doesn't make you smart with women (which is what most of the book is about), but that's got nothing to do with an ability to think logically about who might have killed the emperor's young new mistress. Oh, that's right, this is about a murder! Of the emperor's you g mistress! I almost forgot...

And that's really the problem. The story is not truly about the unwinding of this mystery - that's very clear very early on. It's really about Christian Stern's ridiculously brash love affair with the emperor's older mistress (ahem), which preoccupies his time so that momentum on the investigation screeches to a halt. Hmm. Some mystery. No, indeed more time is spent with Stern trying to unravel the machinations of the emperor's court, trying to figure out the sides in some great game (which we're not privy to, since politics play no part in this tale whatseover). As I said, the book simply was not thick enough to carry the weight of such a story. The majority of the language was about how besotted Stern became with this older, "tainted" woman (his words, which I do in fact take umbrage with).

The absolute worst part is that Stern seems to realize that everyone around him is playing him, including his lover, but he does nothing about it. No progress is made on the murder investigation - he has the resolution spelled out for him very neatly by people who (rightly, it seems) treat him like an oblivious pawn, and the story ends with him running away from the whole mess. Wow. I've never seen a complete abdication of self-realization or growth on the part of a character, a main character, that I can recall.

If you want to write what I'll call a male-centric bodice-ripper in murder mystery dressings, then say so. It wouldn't sell very much, because mostly women read such works, and they want something where women aren't just props for a protagonist with more play than seems reasonable. I guess it still is historical fiction, but with an off-kilter focus and terrible characterization. I don't know what else you call that, other than bad.

K Rating: 1/5

Sunday, January 6, 2019

My Favorite Dane, Uhtred Son of Uhtred: The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom PosterI love Uhtred son of Uhtred. I've been loving him (his show, I mean, The Last Kingdom) since I first started watching only a month or so ago. It's got everything I want in a period piece, and all in spades - danger, humor, politics, romance (although it's always thwarted - poor Uhtred), an overarching story and lots of smaller plot and character arcs that are really thoughtful and well-developed. Many of the characters have come and gone over three seasons, except for Uhtred of course, which makes his life much harder and more tragic than it ever would be at this early stage of British history marked by Danish occupation. In real life, anyone like Uhtred would be dead a hundred times over, but he is the kind of character that you love to root for. And man, is his life rough - lots of failed romances and lost friends (usually ended in a grisly death), serving a king who needs you but despises you, and constantly unable to get the one thing that you want - the title, land, wealth, and safety that you were born to. All while trying to juggle growing up Dane in a Saxon world. But that complexity is what makes Uhtred, Son of Uhtred and all of the characters in his world so compelling to watch.

This third season though, was a bit less balanced that the two previous ones. This ongoing love/hate relationship between Uhtred and Alfred is a bit stale, although I recognize its purpose and am enjoying the rise of Alfred's son Edward. The end of the season (and of Alfred) felt like the best justice Uhtred's had in a long while. I felt the same way about the tension between Ragnar and Uhtred (essentially, the pull b/w Saxon and Dane as being iterated in these wars), although how it was implemented here (with Uhtred pulling away from Alfred) was very interesting, and it was refreshing to see him interact independently with Alfred's children. I did NOT see that coming to Ragnar. I did NOT see that coming from Aethelwold - but it was played quite effectively, so kudos to that. Skade should have been gone in 2 episodes. I saw her as a drag on these more interesting things, and would have much rather spent more time with Aethelfled in Mercia, who has a plot that is immensely more interesting than the sadistic bitch who pulls (makes that pulled) chain of every male in sight.

Lots of great things set up in this season, and I'm excited to see the show take some new directions in Season 4. (Cue the dramatic Viking music).

K. Rating: 4/5

Image result for viking woman singing
You know what music I mean...