Deathlog 2018: Part 1

   

     © CKK Corporation / Turtle Releasing Org.

    

As 2018 nears its end, I thought I’d mention those many writers, musicians, performers, artists and personalities who passed away during the first half of the year – folk who’ve inspired, entertained and generally made life a bit more interesting for me.  Links are provided for the people whose deaths were commemorated by entries on this blog. 

    

January 2018 saw a quadruple-whammy of music-related deaths.  On January 10th, we lost Fast Eddie Clarke, last surviving member of the formidable original line-up of Motörhead; on January 15th, Dolores O’Riordan, singer, songwriter and musician with the massively popular (for a time) Irish band the Cranberries; on January 20th, Jim Rodford, bass player with the Zombies, Argent and, for two decades from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Kinks; and on January 24th, the relentlessly experimental, prolific and grumpy Mark E. Smith of the ever shape-shifting post-punk band the Fall.

    

Meanwhile, mid-January witnessed the loss of two actors I remember fondly.  On January 15th, we said goodbye to Peter Wyngarde, suave, stylish and impressively moustached star of TV shows Department S (1969-70) and Jason King (1971-72); though connoisseurs of horror movies would argue his finest hours came with his small but terrifying role in the classic The Innocents (1961) and his lead role in the underrated Night of the Eagle (1962), while connoisseurs of trivia cherish the fact that as a teenager he was interned in the same Japanese prisoner of war camp as author J.G. Ballard.  The next day saw the departure of seemingly indefatigable American actor Bradford Dillman, whose CV included such lovably ropy cinema and TV movies as Fear No Evil (1969), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Moon of the Wolf (1972), Chosen Survivors (1974), Bug (1975), The Swarm (1978), Sudden Impact (1983) and Lords of the Deep (1988).  Though his best role in my opinion was in the original, Joe Dante-directed, John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).

   

                                                                             © ITC Entertainment

         

In the literary world, legendary science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22nd.  Soon after came the deaths of two well-regarded horror writers.  Jack Ketchum, author of 1981’s Off Season and 1989’s The Girl Next Door and co-writer of 2010’s The Woman and its 2011 film adaptation, died on January 24th; while David Case, whose 1971 short story Fengriffin was filmed in 1973 as And Now the Screaming Starts with a top-notch cast of Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beachum, Ian Ogilvy, Patrick Magee and Herbert Lom, died on February 3rd

    

Passing away on February 4th was the actor John Mahoney, much loved as Kelsey Grammar’s blue-collar dad Martin Crane in the sitcom Frasier (1993-2004).  Five days later saw the death of John Gavin, the American actor who was the hero (as opposed to Anthony Perkins’ anti-hero) of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and a credible Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus that same year.  Among other things, Gavin came close to playing James Bond in 1970’s Diamonds are Forever, before a hefty wage-offer lured Sean Connery back to the role.  By an unhappy coincidence, Lewis Gilbert, director of old-school Bond epics You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1978), died the same month, on February 23rd.  And Peter Miles, the prolific British character actor who between the 1960s and 1980s turned up in such TV shows as Z-Cars, Survivors, The Sweeney, Poldark, Blake’s 7 and Bergerac, died on February 26th.  Perhaps best-known for playing Nyder, the conniving, Nazi-esque sidekick to the Daleks’ creator Davros in the classic 1975 Doctor Who adventure Genesis of the Daleks, Miles was the first of several veteran British TV actors to expire in 2018.

   

                                                                                                         © BBC

   

Indeed, a slew of British TV fixtures died the following month.   These were the relentless Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd, who was still performing marathon four-hour shows (“You think you can get away but you can’t.  I’ll follow you home and shout jokes through your letterbox!”) almost until his death on March 11th at the age of 90; Jim Bowen, beloved host of 1980s darts-themed quiz-show Bullseye, who died on March 14th; and Bill Maynard, star of 1970s sitcom Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt! (1976-78) and several Carry On movies, who died on March 30th.

       

Meanwhile, a fixture of American TV, David Ogden Stiers, died on March 3rd.  I’ll always remember Stiers from the classic anti-war sitcom M*A*S*H, the last six seasons of which (1978-83) featured him in the role of the amusingly pompous and truculent but essentially good-hearted Charles Emerson Winchester III.  The same day another American actor, Frank Doubleday, passed away – Doubleday was responsible for the most shockingly senseless murder in movie history, playing a gang-member who guns down a little girl at an ice cream van in John Carpenter’s cheap but masterly Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). 

    

Bowing out on March 14th was Stephen Hawking, proof that having Motor Neuron Disease needn’t prevent you from having the finest mind on the planet – or having the ability to poke fun at yourself by making guest appearances in TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons.  Philip Kerr, Edinburgh-born author of the ‘Berlin Noir’ Bernie Gunther crime novels, died on March 23rd.  And on March 20th, at the age of just 38, Kak Channthy, singer with the splendidly offbeat, catchy and trippy band Cambodian Space Project, was killed in a traffic accident in Phnom Penh.

    

                                       From the Khmer Times Daily News Digest

    

April saw the deaths of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1986) director Milos Foreman on April 13th; soldier and actor R. Lee Emery – who started off on Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) as a technical advisor but proved so hardcore that Kubrick soon cast him in the role of the fearsome Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – on April 15th; actress Pamela Gidley from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) on April 16th; John Stride, one of those afore-mentioned prolific British TV character actors, on April 20th; and diminutive actor Verne Troyer, who’ll be forever remembered as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies, on April 20th.  Personally, I liked Troyer best for his performance in Terry Gilliam’s 2009 film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

         

On April 29th, versatile screenwriter Trevor Preston died.  Preston’s CV ranged from the gritty TV crime shows Out (1978) and Fox (1980) to the popular kids’ fantasy series Ace of Wands (1970-72) to the fascinatingly oddball snooker / musical / horror film Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1987).

      

May got off with a melancholy start with two much-loved performers apparently taking their own lives: Scott Hutchinson, singer-songwriter and guitarist with Scottish Borders indie band Frightened Rabbit, who disappeared at the Firth of Forth on May 9th and whose body was discovered there the following day; and Canadian actress and activist Margot Kidder, Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent in the Superman movies of 1978, 80, 83 and 87, who died of an overdose on May 13th.  Heavyweight American writers Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth passed away on May 14th and May 22nd respectively.  And departing on May 21st was the towering (six foot, six inches) American actor Clint Walker, star of the TV western show Cheyenne from 1955 to 1963 and one of the twelve military convicts in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967).  Two decades later, Walker would supply one of the voices for the title characters of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998) alongside other members of the Dozen like George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown.

     

Japanese actress Yuriko Hoshi, whose 90 films included some fun kaiju ones featuring Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah, died on May 17th, while British actor Glynn Edwards, who turned up in such British movie classics as Zulu (1964) and Get Carter (1971) but will be best remembered for playing Dave, the congenial barman at Arthur Daley’s watering hole the Winchester Club in the TV show Minder (1979-94), died on May 23rd.  May 20th saw the death of yet another Stanley Kubrick collaborator, graphic designer and film-poster artist Bill Gold.  Among the hundreds of posters Gold produced, it’s a toss-up between his one for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and his one for The Exorcist (1973) about which is the most iconic.

   

                                                     © Warner Bros.
                                                        © Warner Bros.

    

June 8th saw the deaths of globetrotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain, and actress Eunice Gayson, the very first cinematic Bond girl (Sylvia Trench in 1962’s Dr No and 1963’s From Russia With Love), and blues-rock guitarist Danny Kirwan, who played with Fleetwood Mac until 1972 (i.e. back in the days when they were good).  June was also when two notable drummers passed away: Nick Knox, who played for 14 years with psychobilly legends the Cramps, on June 15th and Vinnie Paul of the heavy metal band Pantera on June 22nd.  Actress Maria Rohm, wife of the prolific British film producer Harry Alan Towers and frequent star of movies made by the equally prolific Spanish director Jess Franco, died on June 18th.  One day later, so did the kindly, smart and communicative primate Koko the Gorilla.

      

Science fiction and fantasy author, notorious curmudgeon, all-round personality and a hero of mine (especially during my teens) Harlan Ellison died on June 27th.  Two days later saw the passing of the legendary comic artist and writer Steve Dikto, who co-created Marvel Comics superheroes Spiderman and Dr Strange with Stan Lee.  Later on, of course, Lee would be a casualty of 2018 too.

     

And those were only the deaths during the first half of 2018.  I’ll post an entry about 2018’s second half later this month – and, alas, there are many more still to come.

    

The writer on the edge of forever

 

© Los Angeles Times

 

Harlan Ellison, who was often categorised as a science-fiction writer although he once memorably warned anyone who called him a science-writer that he would come to their house and ‘nail’ their ‘pet’s head to a coffee table’, passed away in his sleep on June 27th at the age of 84.

 

In his lifetime the Cleveland-born Ellison authored some 1800 stories, scripts, reviews, articles and opinion pieces, but it’s as a short story writer that he was best known.  In fact, when he was in his prime, from the 1960s to 1980s, he was responsible for some of the boldest and most exhilarating short stories I’ve ever read.  As a writer, he seemed to push both his imagination and his writing energies to the very limit.  Describing his stories is difficult, but the nearest comparison I can think of is the fiction of Ray Bradbury.  However, Ellison’s work also had counter-cultural and radical political tones that encompassed both the idealism of the 1960s’ civil rights movement and Summer of Love and the cynicism and despair that came with the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 1970s.

 

Frequently his short stories contained a palpable anger too.  Yes, Ellison had a lot of anger in him.  More on that in a minute.

 

Incidentally, by focusing on his short stories, I don’t wish to denigrate his occasional novels.  Indeed, I’d rate 1961’s Spider Kiss alongside Iain Banks’ Espedair Street (1987) and John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (2008) as one of my favourite rock-and-roll novels ever.

 

© Pan Books

 

Ellison wasn’t a big name in the UK, but in the 1970s – perfectly timed for my development as a teenager – Britain’s Pan Books brought out editions of several of his short story collections, like The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969), Approaching Oblivion (1974) and Deathbird Stories (1975).  All had gorgeously psychedelic covers by (I think) the artist Bob Layzell.  It’s fair to say that my 14 or 15-year-old mind was blown by these volumes.

 

I also loved how Ellison prefaced each story with a short essay describing how it had come into being.  These pieces gave insight not only into his combative personality but also into the rich life-experiences he’d had (or claimed to have had).  Before establishing himself as a writer he’d been, among other things, a truck driver transporting nitro-glycerine, a hired gun and a tuna fisherman.  This inspired me when I was a budding writer to try my hand at different jobs and build up my experiences too, though predictably the stuff I ended up doing – stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, working in a shoe warehouse, serving as a deputy warden at Aberdeen Youth Hostel – was rather less glamorous than the items on Ellison’s CV.

 

Some of his work also appeared on television although TV was a medium he generally had a low opinion of – in a 2013 interview he accused it and other modern forms of entertainment and communication of having “reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form that it is beyond my notice.”  For instance, he scripted the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, which has Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy catapulted back in time to 1930s America and confronted with an agonising time-travel-related moral dilemma.  Do they intervene in an accident and prevent the death of a woman called Edith Keeler who (despite being played by Joan Collins) is a noble political activist dedicated to peace, pacifism and public service and with whom, predictably, William Shatner’s horn-dog Captain Kirk has fallen in love; or do they let her die, which means her political movement won’t gain power in the USA, delay her country’s entry into World War II and allow the Nazis to become masters of humanity, which will happen otherwise?

 

© Desilu Productions

 

Thanks to its inventive and thought-provoking spin on time travel, The City… is the best episode of the original series of Star Trek.  In fact, as I don’t like any of the later TV incarnations of Star Trek, I’d say it’s the best Star Trek episode full stop.  Ellison, however, was unimpressed with how the show’s producer Gene Rodenberry and his writing staff rewrote his script and watered down some of its themes and was never slow to sound off about it afterwards.  It may be significant that his later short story How’s the Night Life on Cissalda? (1977) features William Shatner attempting to make love to a revolting-looking alien creature.  Shatner’s toupee falls off in the process.

 

More time-travelling figures in the Ellison-penned episodes Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier that he wrote for the TV anthology show The Outer Limits (1963-65).  Years later, he was incensed at what he saw as plagiarism of elements of his Soldier script by James Cameron while Cameron was making the first Terminator movie in 1984.  Ellison threatened to sue and got a payment of 65-70,000 dollars from Cameron’s financiers and an acknowledgement on The Terminator’s credits.  By 2014 Ellison had mellowed to the point where he could see the funny side of it.  He played himself in an episode of The Simpsons in which he gets into an argument with Milhouse Van Houten.  When Millhouse comments, “I wish someone would have come from the future and warned me not to talk to you,” Ellison grabs him by the throat and screams, “That’s my idea!”

 

In fact, Ellison was highly litigious.  After discovering his writing, I found an interview with him in an American magazine called Future Life where he talked about suing Paramount Television.  He accused Paramount of stealing the premise of a story about a robot policeman that he’d co-authored with the writer Ben Bova and turning it into a TV show called Future Cop (1976-78) without their permission.  “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” he declared in the interview.  Later, when I was playing rugby for my school and while we were trying to psyche ourselves up against our opponents, I inadvertently let slip with Ellison’s phrase: “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” I exclaimed.  That earned me some strange looks from my teammates.  Nailing asses to barn doors was not common lexical usage on south-of-Scotland rugby pitches.

 

I can honestly say that for a period when I was a teenager Harlan Ellison, with his mind-bending fiction, his braggadocio, his adventurous backstory and his take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude, was the person I wanted to be.  Of course, that changed as I grew older, became less impressionable and more mature, and learned more about Ellison and revised my opinions.  I began to appreciate that Ellison’s persona involved a fair bit of self-mythologizing, egotism and unwarranted cantankerousness and bloody-mindedness.  When Stephen King commented that he knew one writer who regarded Ellison as the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift and another writer who regarded him as a ‘son-of-a-bitch’, I found myself in sympathy with both viewpoints.  And by the time I read a profile of him in a non-fiction book about science-fiction writers called Dream Makers (1980), written by Charles Platt, I was disappointed but somehow not surprised to encounter a character rather too driven by vanity and rather too desperate to impress.  Ellison and Platt later fell out badly – violently, it’s said – though not as far as I know about the unflattering profile in Dream Makers.

 

Also falling out with Ellison was the English writer Christopher Priest, who took issue with Ellison’s editorship of the Dangerous Visions series of science fiction anthologies in the early 1970s.  There was meant to be a third volume in the series but for reasons known only to Ellison it never appeared, leaving a lot of submitted stories in limbo and depriving a lot of authors of potential earnings.  This seems hypocritical of Ellison considering how famously touchy he was about payment for his own work – he’s said to have once mailed a dead gopher to a wayward publisher as a protest.  And although Ellison was a vocal supporter of the USA’s Equal Rights Amendment, much of that good work was undone in 2006 when, in a moment of dirty-old-man madness, he fondled a female writer’s breast onstage at an awards ceremony.  From the footage I’ve seen of it, I suspect Ellison thought he was just indulging in some ‘innocent’ schoolboy malarkey.  Understandably, though, the writer at the receiving end was highly pissed off at him.

 

© Pan Books

 

But while I came to have mixed feelings about the character of the artist, my enthusiasm never waned for the art itself.  And Ellison’s literary legacy includes at least ten short stories that I’d number among my all-time favourites by any writer.  I’ve listed them below:

 

A Boy and His Dog: a post-apocalyptic satire that’s a spot-on blend of anarchy and irreverence, featuring as its main character a telepathic and sarcastic canine.  It was filmed in 1975 by L.Q. Jones and though the movie version isn’t perfect, it still holds up better than a lot of other, more portentous sci-fi films made in the same decade.

Along the Scenic Route: a biting analysis of the relationship between Americans and their cars.  Detailing how a couple out for a leisurely drive end up competing in a lethal demolition derby, it prefigures movies like the Mad Max ones.

Bleeding Stones: quite simply a story that made my jaw drop with its combination of brutality, blasphemy and surrealism.

Count the Clock That Tells the Time: describing how a lethargic never-do-well gets trapped in a weird, ghostly netherworld, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of wasting your time and frittering your life away.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer: an unremarkable little man suddenly finds his soul transplanted into the body of a Conan the Barbarian-type swordsman in a blood-and-thunder fantasy land.  What follows is a merciless dissection of the inadequacies of the nerdy males who read sword-and-sorcery stories.

Hindsight: 480 Seconds: a haunting story about a poet who volunteers to stay on an about-to-be-destroyed earth after the rest of humanity has been evacuated, so that he can provide a commentary on his planet’s dying minutes.

I’m Looking for Kadak: Kurt Vonnegut meets Woody Allen in this comedy about the frustrations of a group of aliens on a far-flung planet who’ve converted to Judaism.

One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty: another time-travel tale, this one about a man going back in time and befriending his younger self when he’s a bullied, insecure child.

Pretty Maggie Money Eyes: a sad and unexpectedly tender story of a woman’s spirit inhabiting a Las Vegas slot machine.

Shatterday: the unsettling tale of a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself.  In fact, this other self is a sinister doppelganger who’s appeared from nowhere and is planning to usurp him from his existence.

 

And that’s my Harlan Ellison Top Ten.  Thank you for the entertainment and inspiration, Mr E., and Rest In (non-cantankerous) Peace.

 

© Pan Books

 

Short, sharp shocks

 

© New English Library

 

In this blog-post I’d like to talk about my favourite volumes of short horror stories – books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks.

 

Three things have inspired me to write this.  Firstly, tomorrow is Halloween, the time of year when all things macabre are celebrated.  Secondly, I’m about to start reading the 2015 short-story collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King, who despite being famous for telephone-directory-sized scary novels like Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Stand (1978) is also, in my mind, a great practitioner of short horror fiction.

 

And thirdly, in my previous post, I mentioned how in my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because – typical Scottish summer weather – it pissed non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, the 1978 volume of stories by Stephen King.  So, to keep boredom at bay, I spent the three days reading that.  Not only did Night Shift stave off boredom, it entertained, enthralled and terrified me too.  It was probably the first book of scary short stories I’d read in its entirety and it made a big impression.

 

Here, then, are my ten favourite collections of short horror stories.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to books of stories written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or who were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988) by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that indulges his love for the Gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… is a fine showcase for McGrath’s short stories.  It features tales about, among other things, a diseased angel, a hand that starts growing out of somebody’s head, a community of anaemic vampires and a little girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden.  And if you think that sounds surreal, wait till you get to The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay as seen through the multiple eyes of an insect; or The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that’s narrated by, yes, an item of footwear.

 

© Penguin

 

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

Horror stories are often likened to dark fairy tales and Angela Carter’s short fiction commonly explores the overlap between the two.  For me, The Bloody Chamber is her best collection.  It provides adult, Gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story).  It also contains one of the most languid and gorgeous vampire stories ever, The Lady of the House of Love.  And werewolves get a look-in too thanks to the stories The Company of Wolves, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, which were later incorporated into the classy 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and scripted by Jordan and Carter.

 

Books of Blood, Volume 1 (1984) by Clive Barker

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such were their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – King himself being its slightly old-fashioned Elvis.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood rather portentous; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the spoof demon story The Yattering and Jack and the wistful but surprisingly-upbeat Sex, Death and Starshine, which is about a haunted theatre (and no doubt draws on Barker’s experiences running the Hydra and the Dog Theatre Companies in the 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues – the latter surely a candidate for the title of Scariest Story Ever.

 

© Sphere

 

Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has long been regarded as Britain’s greatest living horror writer and Dark Companions is an ideal starting-point for anyone new to the Campbell oeuvre.  Both grim and believable, his short stories take place in a recognisably frayed and decayed modern Britain, populated by lonely people whose everyday fears gradually take on tangible form.  Highlights include the distinctly un-Christmassy Christmas story The Chimney; The Depths, a dismaying exploration of why someone would want to write a really nasty horror story; Mackintosh Willy, which combines childhood fears of the bogeyman with all-too-real themes of homelessness and child abuse; and The Companion, surely the best ‘haunted-fairground’ story ever written.

 

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

As I said earlier, Night Shift helped inspire this list, so I can’t not include it here.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since then but the visceral tales in Night Shift, and the unpleasant things that inhabit those tales, have stayed with me for nearly 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous carnivorous slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle.  But it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a twelve-year-old boy scout.

 

© Panther

 

The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is someone else I couldn’t not have on this list as, to me, the guy was a god-like genius.  He could turn his hand to writing anything – horror, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and, yes, our old friend ‘mainstream literature’ – but The October Country is probably his purest collection of macabre stories.  It features such wonders as The Scythe, about a man who finds a mysterious scythe, starts using it and becomes the Grim Reaper, harvesting souls rather than wheat; The Jar, wherein a man buys the titular jar at a fair and becomes obsessed with the indescribable something that’s floating around inside it; and the splendidly-morbid Skeleton, about a paranoid man convinced that the bony figure embedded inside his own flesh is an imposter and he has to somehow remove it.

 

Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison has managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least – his name is little-known and his work is hard to come by in Britain.  Among his many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorable are the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of frittering your life away; and the deeply unsettling title story, about a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself – or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.

 

© Penguin

 

Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite’s collection Swamp Foetus was a revelation when I read it in the 1990s.  It’s inhabited by the archetypes of traditional Gothic fiction – ghosts, zombies, freaks – and by characters from another type of Gothicism, the modern-day sub-culture that arose when kids, inspired by punk, new romanticism and Edgar Allan Poe, started dressing in black, applying kohl eyeliner and listening to bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure.  Swamp Foetus thus has stories like His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood wherein decadent, black-clad, absinthe-swigging youths fall foul of ancient voodoo / vampire horrors.  That said, no Goths are to be found in the best tale here, which is Calcutta, Lord of Nerves.  Calcutta… takes a fresh angle on George A. Romero’s original trilogy of Living Dead movies.  In the films, Romero’s zombie apocalypse is a very American one, with barely a mention of events in the rest of the world.  Brite imagines the same apocalypse happening amid the beggars, dirt and noise of a developing-world city.  What happens?  Nobody seems to notice it that much.

 

Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1996) by Dorothy K. Haynes

The late Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her short stories are often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, still lorded over by the Presbyterian Church, and are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Maybe her best one is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a weird little creature that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Also featured in Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch are her takes on legendary beings like banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling), which are satisfyingly grim, creepy and un-romanticised.

 

© Black and White Publishing

 

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I’ll just say here that this is, for me, his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents – the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary conservative – but everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room, for example, is a phantasmagorical story about a strange doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a mysterious woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease at the loss of face-to-face interaction caused by new communications technology.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1981.  He’d have hated our age of smartphones and social media.

 

Days of Godzilla past

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Lately, I found myself on a Qatar Airlines flight – tired, practically brain-dead, but with a neat little inflight entertainment audio / video system installed in the seat-back in front of me.  It seemed a good time to search the system’s cache of recent movie releases and select a couple of big dumb blockbusters that’d pass the time and not tax my weary mind unduly.  I ended up watching X-Men: Days of Future Past, the second prequel to the original trilogy of X-Men movies that appeared between 2000 and 2006 and were based on the Marvel comics; and this year’s remake of Godzilla.  Here’s what I thought of them.

 

When I heard in 2011 that they were filming a first prequel to the X-Men trilogy, entitled X-Men: First Class, set in the 1960s and featuring Scotsman James McAvoy and Irishman Michael Fassbender in the roles of the saintly Professor Xavier and the villainous Magneto (who’d been played in the original series by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen), I was apprehensive.  I had bad memories of the last time there’d been a prequel to a successful science-fiction movie trilogy starring a Scotsman and an Irishman.  Yes, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace, I’m looking at you.

 

In fact, I didn’t think X-Men: First Class was bad – it was just slightly disappointing that its story was told in such broad brushstrokes.  Now comes X-Men: Days of Future Past, with a cast that includes McAvoy and Fassbender and Stewart and McKellen.  You see, while most of it is set in 1973, part of it is set in a grim war-torn future, which means we get to see the young non-wrinkly Xavier and Magneto in the 1973 bits and their old wrinkly versions in the future bits.

 

Actually, watching this movie was weird for me because it was around 1973 that I started reading Marvel’s X-Men comic.  In the 1970s comic I remember Professor Xavier already being old, bald and confined to a wheelchair – i.e. he already looked like Patrick Stewart.  He certainly didn’t look young and funky like James MacAvoy in Future Past.  Meanwhile, the comic’s themes of ostracism, exclusion and racism, in a world where humanity co-exists uneasily with mutants who’ve developed superhuman powers, went completely over my juvenile head.

 

The movie starts in the future, with a surviving band of mutant superheroes, including Xavier and Magneto in their Stewart and McKellen incarnations (obliged yet again to join forces), making a final stand against an onslaught of destructive super-robots called Sentinels that’ve been programmed to wipe out mutant life-forms.  Indeed, in this apocalyptic future-world, the robots seemed to have done a good job of wiping out ordinary human beings too.  Desperately, Xavier and Magneto send the soul of the spike-fisted and eternally-youthful Wolverine, played as usual by Hugh Jackman, back in time to 1973.  There, in the body of his earlier self, he’ll try to prevent the incident that causes the creation of the Sentinels and begins the chain of events leading to the future war.

 

Yes, James Cameron ought to have sued the filmmakers for nicking his future-war / time-travel ideas from The Terminator movies.  Then again, Cameron himself was sued by the writer Harlan Ellison, who accused him of nicking his ideas from episodes he’d written for the old Outer Limits TV series.  So who knows where this scenario originally comes from?

 

Once Wolverine is back in 1973 (or in an exaggerated movie version of it, rife with wide lapels, shoulder-length hair, discotheques, mirror-balls, Vietnam Wars and crooked-looking US presidents), he goes off to enlist the help of the James-MacAvoy-version Xavier and Michael-Fassbender-version Magneto.  This isn’t easy, since (1) Xavier / MacAvoy has become a disillusioned junkie and (2) Magneto / Fassbender has been captured and imprisoned in a concrete cell many floors below the Pentagon.  To spring Magneto from his Pentagon cell, Wolverine assembles a mutant team consisting of the reluctant Xavier, the hairy but brainy Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a nonchalant teenager in a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the power to move faster than lightning.  And it’s here that the movie enjoys its best stretch.

 

The scenes where the superfast Quicksilver sprints through the Pentagon while bodies, bullets, flying knives and tumbling furniture drift through the air around him in eerie slow-motion are stunning.  Though if everything else is moving so slowly, I can’t figure out why his personal stereo (surely an anachronism in 1973 anyway) continues to play Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle at normal speed.

 

With Magneto free, Quicksilver disappears from the movie (alas) and the other characters jet off to Paris, where a Vietnam peace summit is about to begin and where the crucial event that’ll lead to the future war is about to happen.  Mystique, the saucy blue-skinned shape-shifting mutant played by Rebecca Romijin in the original trilogy and by Jennifer Lawrence in the prequels, is due to gun down a scientist / business mogul called Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who’s designed the blueprints for the Sentinels.  Horrified by Trask’s murder, which it interprets as an act of mutant terrorism, the US government will go ahead with Trask’s plans and start manufacturing the Sentinels.

 

Well, Wolverine and co. manage to stop Mystique from doing the deed but – surprise! – back in the future, nothing changes.  Those pesky Sentinels are still there, besieging the fortress where the pension-age Xavier and Magneto are holed up.  The Beast helpfully explains that although you can go back in time and change one event, the overall flow of time may continue in the same direction.  To emphasise the Beast’s theory, the filmmakers show a famous episode of Star Trek based on the same idea, The City on the Edge of Forever, playing on a TV in the background while he’s speaking.  (Curiously, that episode was written by Harlan Ellison too.)

 

What follows, with the government and the still-alive Trask going ahead with the Sentinels’ production, Xavier and Wolverine trying to stop them and the Fassbender-version Magneto deciding, as usual, to jump ship and do his own nefarious thing, is a tad mechanical.  However, the likeability of both the characters and the actors manage to hold one’s interest.  There’s even a moment where, thanks to some mind-transfer jiggery-pokery, the young and old Xaviers are able to communicate across time.  Actually, it’s the young and old Magnetos who really need to hold a conference – so that McKellen can tell Fassbender to stop being a dick, get mucked in and help the others.

 

There’s fun in seeing the retro-looking but unfeasible Sentinels – far beyond the capability of 2014’s technology, let alone 1973’s – being unveiled on the lawn of Richard Nixon’s White House.  If you’ve seen the other X-Men movies, though, it’s best not to think about them too much because there’s a morass of continuity problems.  For instance, I can’t figure out how Patrick Stewart’s Xavier is still alive during the future war, since we saw him vaporised in the third movie, X-Men: Last Stand.  (It was suggested at that movie’s end that he’d transferred his soul into another man’s body, but surely his new body wouldn’t look like Patrick Stewart.)

 

Future Past also has a moment where an X-shaped beam of white light, with blue edges, is projected onto James McAvoy’s face.  The light resembles a Scottish Saltire and the actor had expressed concern about how stills of this might be used before the Scottish independence referendum.  “There’s an image of me…” he groused, “with basically a Saltire on my face, and I’m like, ‘Oh please, don’t use that for the f**king Yes campaign.”  Well, just for you, James, here’s that image with the Saltire on your fizzog.  Vote yes!  (Next time.)

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

In 2010, Gareth Edwards directed the low-budget British science-fiction movie Monsters, which was one of the most unexpected cinematic pleasures of recent years.  It’s a ruminative piece wherein two people are forced to traverse an abandoned central-American wilderness that a returning space-probe has inadvertently contaminated with alien life-forms.  In the process, they learn as much about themselves as they do about the weird creatures shimmering through the jungles around them.

 

I had mixed feelings when I heard that Edwards had departed for Hollywood to helm a big-budget remake of Godzilla, the 1954 Japanese movie that made its titular character, a giant, scaly city-demolishing monster, an icon of popular culture.  I thought it a shame that Edwards couldn’t continue to work in the UK, making small, personal and no doubt interesting movies.  On the other hand, if someone had to make a new version of Godzilla, it might as well be him.

 

The 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, was a gloomy parable about the horrors of the atomic bomb – nine years before Godzilla flattened Tokyo, the Japanese had seen that bomb flatten two more of their cities.  But subsequent Godzilla movies lightened up.  Godzilla became Japan’s unofficial champion, battling against other, nastier monsters like Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah whilst wrecking more Japanese cities in the process.  Edwards’ remake tries to have it both ways.  It wants to replicate the sombre tone of the original, but also to have some monstrous adversaries for Godzilla to fight against and more cities – Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco – to level.

 

The film starts with two giant parasitic creatures called MUTOs being found, in larval form, in the fossilised remains of a vast creature that clearly belongs to the same species as Godzilla.  Years later, the MUTOs emerge from their chrysalises, one of which has ended up in Japan and the other has been transported to the USA, and start destroying everything in their paths.  They aim to meet up, breed and unleash hordes of new MUTOs on humanity.  Then, however, Godzilla emerges from the depths of the Pacific.  He’s a last survivor of an age when such gargantuan creatures overran the earth and, occupying the top of the food-chain, he’s programmed to hunt down, fight and destroy those MUTOs.

 

The movie’s best scenes are those where Edwards’ talents are most on display.  An early sequence set in a Japanese city that’s been long abandoned, Chernobyl-like, due to a supposed accident at a nearby nuclear power station – the disaster was actually caused by the arrival of one of the MUTOs, which feed on nuclear energy – evokes the strange, crumbling wilderness of Monsters.  There are memorable images later too, such as one involving a burning train and one where a group of marines jump out of a plane and skydive, trailing coloured streams of smoke, into a giant grey cloud of ash and dust below – the cloud marks the spot where Godzilla is slugging it out with the two MUTOs in the middle of San Francisco.

 

Unfortunately, the film is undone by its disjointed plot.  We have to rely on David Strathairn’s American admiral, whose warships are monitoring the Pacific, to find out what’s going on.  He shouts stuff like, “A MUTO has been spotted here!” and “Godzilla has been sighted heading there!”  And it doesn’t help that the film’s most interesting characters, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, disappear early on, leaving the less engaging Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the main focus.  Taylor-Johnson’s character displays an unlikely knack for surviving deadly situations.  I counted four seriously life-threatening predicaments that he manages to escape from during the film.  In two of them, he’s the only survivor while everyone else dies.

 

Fascinatingly, one of the movie’s supporting characters, a scientist (who again exists mainly to shout bits of plot exposition), is played by the English actress Sally Hawkins.  She’s best-known for playing the lead character in Mike Leigh’s 2008 comedy-drama movie Happy-Go-Lucky.  Maybe she could persuade Mike Leigh to direct the sequel to Godzilla.  I’d like to see how Leigh’s celebrated improvisational techniques would work with performers like Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah and the Big G. himself.

 

Anyway, to sum up.  X-Men: Days of Future Past — 7.5 out of 10.  Godzilla — 6 out of 10.

 

(c) Warner Brothers / Toho