SIX SCARY STORIES  Selected and Introduced by Stephen King. Cemetery Dance Publications, 2016. 126 pages. Trade Hardcover $24.95. ISBN #978-1-58767-571-3. http:www.cemeterydance.com

Upon the United Kingdom release of Stephen King’s collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, publishers Hodder & Stoughton and The Guardian ran a short story competition. The major requirement was that all stories provide a “quick, unsettling encounter” for a “shorter, more intense experience.”

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Stephen King agreed to review the six entries that made it to the finals and declare a winner. He was so impressed with all six finalists that he suggested they be published together in one book. SIX SCARY STORIES from Cemetery Dance Publications is the result; and all six stories are premium quality works. They are truly ‘short’ stories, and each includes an intense jolt. The longest story of the bunch is just 24 pages; while the shortest story is 12 pages.

The winner of the competition is the well-deserved and eerie travel narrative “Wild Swimming” by Elodie Harper. Wild swimming enthusiast Chrissie, traveling through some remote regions of Europe, decides to ignore the warnings and take a dip in a Lithuanian reservoir. Author Harper, a journalist, utilizes email messages to tell the story and builds the suspense and tension nicely.

The other stories in the collection are not ranked, but we are going to mention them here in our order of preference.

“Eau-De-Eric” by Manuela Saragosa, another journalist like Harper, relates the tale of a widowed mother raising her young daughter. Mother buys a teddy bear at a second-hand shop and daughter names it after the deceased father, because it “smells like Daddy.” Mother is then unable to separate the toy from the daughter, much to her chagrin, and this drives a dysfunctional wedge between them.

“The Unpicking” is written by Michael Button, a former software developer and teacher, and relates what happens with toys while children are sleeping. A young boy’s stuffed animals and dolls creep out of the toy chest at night and play games. The toy called Nobody suggest a new and dangerous game with dreadful results.

In “The Spots”, by multimedia writer and director Paul Bassett Davies, a subordinate is assigned by the head of government to count the spots on a leopard. He has difficulty completing the task.

The last two stories are from full-time fiction writers.

Neil Hudson tells a post-apocalyptic tale in “The Bear Trap.” The remaining survivors are farmers, and neighbors are few and far between. A young man is left to tend the farm while his father searches for relatives. He encounters a wandering stranger with bad manners who invites himself to stay, and makes fun of the homestead’s resources.

“La Mort De L’Amant” by Stuart Johnstone, the shortest story in the book, presents a stylish scenario with secondary themes involving local colloquialisms. An older man waits on a bridge over a waterfall, about to complete his mission when he is interrupted by a younger police officer.

True to the introduction by Stephen King, these stories are short and sweet, and reach their end result quickly. SIX SCARY STORIES is a fun collection, providing engaging entertainment, and a few jolts along the way.

THE DEEP by Nick Cutter (Pocket Books /Simon & Shuster) 502 pages.  Paperback, August 2015.  $9.99 ISBN #978-1-4767-1774-6

Here’s what the Goodreads summary reveals about THE DEEP:

From the acclaimed author of The Troop—which Stephen King raved ‘scared the hell out of me and I couldn’t put it down.…old-school horror at its best’ comes this utterly terrifying novel where The Abyss meets The Shining.

A strange plague called the ’Gets is decimating humanity on a global scale. It causes people to forget—small things at first, like where they left their keys…then the not-so-small things like how to drive, or the letters of the alphabet. Then their bodies forget how to function involuntarily…and there is no cure. But now, far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, deep in the Marianas Trench, an heretofore unknown substance hailed as “ambrosia” has been discovered—a universal healer, from initial reports. It may just be the key to a universal cure. In order to study this phenomenon, a special research lab, the Trieste, has been built eight miles under the sea’s surface. But now the station is incommunicado, and it’s up to a brave few to descend through the lightless fathoms in hopes of unraveling the mysteries lurking at those crushing depths…and perhaps to encounter an evil blacker than anything one could possibly imagine.”

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I finished reading THE DEEP in bed just before midnight on November 8 as the Presidential elections were wrapping up. Not wishing to watch any more television news accounts of the voting, I went to bed shortly before 11 p.m. I didn’t have a warm feeling about the results. I wanted get a good night’s sleep rather than worry about the election. The rest of my family had also retired for the evening, and it seemed like a good quiet time to finish the book.

I wasn’t as disturbed by the ending of THE DEEP as I thought I might be. As I read through the last third of the book I had a sense where things were going, so I wasn’t surprised. The ending was satisfying but very ominous and dark.
A constant presence in the book is the sense of extreme claustrophobia, detailed in all it’s excruciating agony by the skillful pen of Nick Cutter. I got a personal preview of that as I read the last page in my bed, put the book down, and turned off the lights. Surrounded by blackness, I closed my eyes and managed to fall sleep.

After waking, I learned of the shocking election results. I did not anticipate this outcome. I’m afraid it’s an indication of the temperament of our nation. It feels like I’m still engaged with the ending of THE DEEP. Ominous. Dark. I feel the walls moving in.
I still choose hope over hate. I’m hoping that a man who’s words can be so divisive can also become a changed man whose words can bring people together, to work together and accomplish something positive.
I didn’t mean to write a political commentary here. But, the connection between book and reality was so strange and ironic that I felt it relevant to mention. Let’s turn our attention back to THE DEEP, a book that has earned over 1,000 reviews on Goodreads. Reader opinions are mixed, as you might expect from a horror novel as relentless, tenacious and malicious as this.
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Nick Cutter is definitely a new voice in horror fiction, and one to keep an eye on. I’m certainly going to explore THE TROOP, his earlier novel as well as his other works. Nick Cutter is a pseudonym used by Canadian author Craig Davidson to separate his horror fiction from his conventional literary fiction. His horror fiction seems to be out-selling his other works, which is good for horror fans. There should be more to come. Before Nick Cutter, he also wrote two horror novels under the pseudonym of Patrick Lestewka.
The blurbs on the back cover of the paperback, as well as the summary at Goodreads and other sites can be a little misleading. A reader might think that the ‘Gets is the primary conflict of the book. It’s just the mechanism that Cutter uses to set up the real conflict — which occurs in the pitch black atmosphere that surrounds and applies pressure to the research station in the depths of the deep, deep sea.

The ‘Gets is a marvelous construction, a destructive cocktail of several diseases including Alzheimers, Parkinsons, measles and the bubonic plague. It’s a bit disappointing that Cutter didn’t see fit to add some more scenes about the outbreak and some of the consequences. Other writers might have devoted half a novel or more on this. Cutter obviously had a larger and more complex threat envisioned for this novel.
When we first hear of it in the early chapters, the virus is already widespread and gaining ground everyday. There is one extremely graphic and horrifying scene where Luke Nelson, the main character, tries to assist a victim.

A virus of this magnitude commands the attention of health organizations and governments across the globe, willing to spend the money and resources to find an effective means to eradicate it, or worse case scenario, contain it. The discovery of “Ambrosia”, a mystery substance from the depths of the ocean that might protect its host from the ‘Gets, prompts the quick outlay of millions to erect the Trieste, a research station eight miles below the water’s surface to harvest and study Ambrosia in the deepest, darkest and coldest depths of the Mariana Trench.

Among the three scientists confined to that research station is the brilliant Clayton Nelson, the estranged older brother of Luke. One of those scientists fled the station, only to return to the surface in a mutilated state of death. Government agents soon contact Luke, when the research station loses communication with the surface. The last message received was a request for his assistance. Soon after, Luke is transported to the Hesperus, the massive ship that serves as the surface command center for the Trieste, being prepared for descent in a two-person sub to reach the undersea station and investigate.

Along the way the reader learns of Luke’s personal descent into despondency that occurred long before these events. Luke is trying to reconstruct his life after the mysterious disappearance of his young son and the subsequent break-up of his marriage. He and brother Clayton have sibling issues of incompatibility, perhaps brought on by a horrific childhood together suffering the torments of a dominating and character-destructive mother. Confinement to the research station will soon cause these memories to come to the surface again, as Luke recalls all his childhood and adult fears in waking nightmares where the lines between reality and dreams blur and fuse together.
He does reach the station, courtesy of the capable navigation of Alice “Al” Sykes, a brave athletic Navy lieutenant who provides shuttle service between the depths and the surface. What they find are the two scientists working independently and secretive, along with two Labrador Retrievers, plus some mice and bees, all destined for experimentation with Ambrosia.

When some mishaps cause conditions at the research station to imperil sustained survival, neither scientist can be persuaded to leave. Clayton is obsessed with studying the substance while the other scientist, Dr. Toy, has seemingly gone mad and locked himself in.
All this time in confinement, surrounded by darkness and icy, highly pressurized water takes its toll on the inhabitants. Nightmares and waking visions constantly play with their sense of reality. Cutter details the impact of such a claustrophobic setting for maximum impact. Each character is not only fully realized but each also experiences their own personal form of madness. Are all these visions, one more horrific than the next, just in their heads or are they real? Are there really miniature black holes opening up all over the ship, or are the inhabitants experiencing a shared hallucination?

Is Ambrosia a ruse, designed to provide a vehicle for something much worse than the ‘Gets to invade the surface world? Or is it a universal cure for not only the ‘Gets, but other debilitating diseases as well? Trick, or treat?
Once we become immersed in the depths of this book, Cutter does not stop bringing the horrific visions, one after the other, each more gruesomely described. Cutter excels at depictions of body horror and mutilation.

It’s not hard for readers to feel the fear of these characters as they try to overcome the challenges and find a way to leave. Cutter makes you care, even when you may have to let go. At least, the ending provides a release.
THE DEEP is not flawless. It does drag in passages, and some readers may grow weary of the numerous flashbacks. However, the best parts are so engaging and creative that Cutter deserves the attention he is currently receiving.

“Train to Busan” – Movie Review

South Korea's impressive zombie flick

Title: Train To Busan Hangul Title: 부산행 Literal Translation: For Busan Run Time: 118 minutes Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment (USA) / Next Entertainment World (International) Director: Yeon Sang-Ho Writer: Park Joo-Suk, Yeon Sang-Ho Cinematographer: Lee Hyung-Duk Producers: Lee Dong-Ha, Kim Yeon-Ha Starring: Gong Yoo, Kim Soo-An, Ma Dong-Seok, Jung Yu-Mi, Kim Eui-Sung, Choi Woo-Sik,… Continue reading “Train to Busan” – Movie Review

South Korea's "The Wailing"
South Korea’s “The Wailing”

Title:  The Wailing

Hangul Title:  곡성

Literal Translation:  Gokseong

Run Time:  156 minutes

Distributor:  Well Go USA Entertainment (USA); 20th Century Fox (South Korea)

Director / Writer:  Na Hong-Jin

Cinematographer:  Hong Kyung-Pyo

Producers:  Lim Min-Sub, Seo Dong-Hyun, Kim Ho-Sung

Stars:  Kwak Do-Wan, Hwang Jung-Min, Jun Kunimura, Chun Woo-Hee, Kim Hwan-Hee


For anyone familiar with South Korean film and television, it is not an understatement to say that the industry centered in Seoul tends to be far more inventive than the American industry, the latter stuck in an endless cycle of rehashed ideas and average execution.  America beats a genre to death, preferring to regurgitate over and over that which has found even a modicum of success (see just about any found-footage film produced since the abysmal “The Blair Witch Project” or any James Wan film).  South Korea is certainly not free from guilt in that department Their rom-com series and movies can be just as formulaic as the American counterparts and much of what comes out of the country is mired in youth culture, just like in America.   But what sets the Korean industry apart from the American is their willingness to take huge risks on both the large and small screens on a fairly regular basis and thereby breathe new life into various genres far more regularly.

Hollywood, it seems, has taken notice.  20th Century Fox has made a sizable investment in Korean cinema of late, co-producing over a dozen films in exchange for certain distribution rights and, presumably, American remake rights.  And Fox has its hands in one of South Korea’s biggest theatrical hits, writer/director Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing, an atmospheric, tense and immensely suspenseful horror film which takes just about every trope of the horror genre, throws them in a blender and in the process reinvigorates a genre that desperately needs shaking up.

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (in itself a testament to Fox’ faith in the film), The Wailing is set in the peaceful, rural village of Gokseong (the literal translation of the Hangul title 곡성), a town where everyone knows everyone and nothing untoward ever seems to happen.  Policeman Jong-Goo (the always reliable Kwak Do-Wan) is awakened one rainy morning to help investigate a brutal murder of a family…a murder, it seems,was perpetrated by the father of the family.  From the moment we meet Jong-Goo we expect him to be the head of the police, someone who will emerge as the hero and save his village from whatever we’re about to witness.  Instead, Na and Kwak give us a somewhat bumbling subordinate, a sergeant who is often late to work and seemingly disinterested in the dull routine in a town where nothing ever happens. The fact that he fucks around on his wife and isn’t even smart enough to hide the fact from his young daughter Hyo-Jin (the impressive Kim Hwan-Hee) is testament to the fact that this is a man utterly bored with his life.

Arriving at the crime scene, Jong-Goo is struck by the man in and handcuffs sitting on the porch. Covered in festering boils and with eyes glazed over, he seems a broken man, zombie-like.  The horror that awaits him in the main room of the house is beyond unbelievable, almost ritualistic:  an entire family slaughtered, blood covered walls, belongings strew about in heaps.  It clearly shakes Jong-Goo to his core…perhaps being the first time he has even seen any real crime although his career and he are both clearly in their middle age.  A co-worker tells Jong-Goo that the neighbors seemed to think the man had eaten poisoned mushrooms as his behavior had been strange for days.  A reason Jong-Goo is all too happy to accept.

Back at the station on night-shift, Jong-Goo and his partner are discussing the case.  Jong-Goo believes the poisoned mushroom story.  His partner, however, has heard other rumors spreading throughout the village…that strange things had never happened here until an older Japanese man (Japan’s ever impressive Jun Kunimura in an alternately sympathetic and frightening performance) moved into a remote house in the forest.  In fact, he says, one village saw the old man — wearing nothing but a fundoshi – in the forest tearing apart an animal with his bare teeth, devouring it. It’s a true ghost story moment in the police station as the storm rages outside.  Jong-Goo chides his partner for believing such nonsense, hinting at the underlying bigotry of it.  When the electricity suddenly goes out, the two cops are frightened out of their wits at the sight of a naked woman standing right outside the door; yet, when they go out to investigate, the entire neighborhood is dark and the woman has vanished.

The next night, Jong-Goo is late again responding to the scene of a house fire.  When he arrives, officers are trying to restrain what seems to be a distraught woman survivor flailing around like a madwoman, growling and grunting, biting officers to get loose.  Jong-Goo attempts to help restrain her but she breaks free and as one of the bodies the officers are clearing from the house seems to come back to life, both the woman and the victim attack Jong-Goo, shaking him to his core.  Especially so since the wild woman was the woman he had seen the night before, naked in the rain outside the station.  When he notices the Japanese man at the scene calmly watching the events, the rumors take hold in Jong-Goo’s psyche.

As deaths continue to mount, more and more outlandish rumors spread about the Japanese man, his possible involvement with the murderers.  Still, Jong-Goo looks for a more believable scenario.  As he guards the fire scene, Jong-Goo ruminates to his partner about the possible cause.  As they talk, a young woman in white who they have never seen, sits on her haunches just outside the scene and literally throws stones at the two cops.  As the woman is clearly crazy, they try to ignore her.  All the killers had festering boils, Jong-Goo surmises, so it must be some kind of infection; he instructs his partner to check with the local clinics as to any possible outbreaks.

Alone at the scene, Jong-Goo still tries to ignore the woman in white as stones gather at his feet.  Finally, the woman comes nearer, explaining that she witnessed the crime, saw the woman murder her family.  She states that the rumor is that the Japanese man is a ghost who sucks your blood and steals your soul.  And if one has seen him, one must beware…the ghost is stalking you.  Still mentally fighting against unfounded rumors, Jong-Goo seems to gloss over her warnings about the Japanese man; rather he excitedly calls his partner, stating that he has found an eyewitness. Problem is, when he turns to speak with her again, she has vanished.

Besieged by vivid nightmares of the Japanese man’s purported animalistic nature, Jong-Goo is starting to feel the toll the case is taking on him.  And when his daughter suddenly takes ill, displaying symptoms eerily similar to those of others who have gone on to become killers, he enlists his partner and a local villager –who claims to have witnessed the animal side of the man — to pay the Japanese man a visit.  On their way through the forest, the three stumble upon carcasses of dead animals.  “I told you,” the villager screams.  Then as if the spirits are conspiring to keep them from the house, the heavens open up and the three must rush back to the village due to a strange accident that falls upon the villager.

At the hospital, Jong-Goo witnesses the violent death of yet another man covered in boils. That night, he witnesses his daughter undergoing a similar fit during the throes of her illness and when his daughter’s behavior becomes more bizarre, Jong-Goo’s mother-in-law wants to call in a mudang, a shaman, to find out what is wrong with the girl.

With growing dread for his daughter, Jong-Goo decides that he and his partner will try again to visit the old Japanese man.  This time they enlist the help of a young Deacon from the local Catholic church (a nod to “The Exorcist”), ostensibly as a translator.  Finding the old man’s home vacant and knowing full well that they are breaking the law, the trio enter and is shocked at what they find in a hidden room: a makeshift altar, photographs of the victims taken both before and after their deaths, and, in the center of the room, a mound personal items belonging to the victims…and future victims. Amongst the belongings is the shoe of Jong-Goo’s daughter, Hyo-Jin.

Knowing full well that his daughter’s life is in peril, Jong-Goo finds himself spiraling further and further into the realm of uncertainty and panic.  Is the Japanese Man evil incarnate as others so strongly believe?  Is the mudang his family has called in legitimate?  Who is the mysterious woman in white?  Ultimately he’ll find himself torn by this trinity of bizarre outsiders and not only is the survival of the village at stake…but his own family’s fate hinges upon him discovering the true source of evil that has come to visit Gokseong.

If there sounds like there is a lot going on in The Wailing, you’re right…there is.  And in the hands of most directors, this would probably end up a god-awful mess.  But writer/director Na handles it all with the skill of a virtuoso conductor.  Na clearly knows all the tropes of horror films exceptionally well and is willing to misdirect you down the paths most often taken only to pull the rug out from under it all at a moment’s notice.  He expertly keeps the viewer off-balance and, therefore, on the edge of their seat.

In the beginning, one is certain one is going to get a zombie movie.  Clearly more influenced by the recent “infected” trend than Romero’s classic zombies, Na sets it up perfectly…the wild eyes, the biting which one is certain will spread the infection throughout the village, the boils and clouded eyes.  But even this, Na tempers, eschewing smash cuts and deafening sound effects standing in for true scares in favor of a tension and suspense that is truly unnerving.

That tension and suspense is incredibly reminiscent of Hitchcock and rarely in horror films do we see it utilized let alone done well…the last truly great example I can recall is Ridley Scott’s original Alien.  Na isn’t afraid to take his time with the set up; he knows he needs to slowly build that dread, that tension to keep the audience where he wants them, as unbalance as Jong-Goo. Now, Na could not have done this alone and credit must go to both Kwak, as Jong-Goo, and cinematographer Hong Kyung-Po (Snowpiercer).

In the case of the former, Kwak is a journeyman actor know for playing characters who are often conniving businessmen or overzealous military men as he does in the excellent “The Attorney,” (2013), where he brutally pursues the prosecution of student activists, bringing them up on trumped-up charges as the then-repressive South Korean government expects him to.  The Wailing is, for Kwak, is a bit of a departure.  Jong-Goo is not particularly smart or devoted to doing what is right.  He is just your average Joe – a bit inept and bumbling — trying to make sense of what is insensible.  He is not a hero, but an everyman.  With his doughy face and middle age paunch, he isn’t so different from you or me, and Kwak nails it as to how each of us would probably react in similar bizarre circumstances (as opposed to how we imagine ourselves reacting).  He brings levity to the piece as well and in the end…he just doesn’t know what the fuck to do…but he is going to try and do what he can as best he can despite being scared out of his mind.

If the case of the latter, cinematographer Hong Kyung-Po frames the film exceptionally well, adding much to the creepy atmosphere.  Hong knows that the scenery of South Jeolla and Gokseong County do much of his work for him. The remoteness, the seeming tranquility of lush green mountains, becomes a character in and of itself.  Hong doesn’t waste his time on fancy Hollywood lighting set-ups; he eschews that, opting instead for natural lighting for the vast majority of the picture.  This not only serves the locale well, but also the actors who are shot very naturally, supporting the everyman aspect of the characters.  Add in a lot (and I mean a lot) of rain, and the mood of the film naturally becomes creepy.  Hong also understands the benefits of long shots and stationary cameras.  He knows that what you can barely see is many times far more frightening that what runs up into your face.

So, just as we are settling into what we are fairly certain is going to be a zombie film, Na turns that on its head and begins to lead us down the path of prejudice.  This is going to be a story about unfounded fear of outsiders, about exacting vengeance on someone who has done nothing except be different.  This man has done nothing to warrant the suspicion around him except be Japanese.  Now, don’t get me wrong…Na does not beat us over the head with this.  It is done very subtly, aided in part by Jong-Goo’s desire not to jump to conclusions based on innuendo.  Anti-Japanese sentiment due to Japanese Colonial rule over South Korea lingers in the air in this film, but it is never once directly stated.  It is implied.  And what makes this all the more interesting and powerful is that nearly all of the characters in this film are middle-aged or younger…all of them far to young to have lived through Japanese rule.  The prejudice, therefore, is inherited, handed down from prior generations.  Again, none of this is blatant and it can go by almost completely unnoticed especially if one doesn’t know the historical background of the country.

Kunimura, as the Japanese Man, plays his role beautifully well with this respect.  He gives an understated performance that lends him an unrelentingly creepy air when needed and a brutal ferocity when it is called upon.  The problem with the latter for us the viewing audience is we’re never quite sure whether these animalistic adventures are real or if they are simply part of Jong-Goo’s nightmares, a symptom of his succumbing to an underlying prejudice exacerbated by fear and rumor.  Later in the film, Kunimura turns in a heartbreaking performance when we the audience are led to believe he is an innocent bystander of all of this.  Even this fear of the outsider direction Na takes us in, he also manages to turn on its head.

And just when we’re all getting comfortable with that, Na pulls the rug out from us again, referencing both “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” in short order.   As Jong-Goo and his partner set off for the second time to visit the Japanese man, they enlist the help of a young Deacon (Kim Do-Yun, a relative newcomer to Korean cinema) from the local Christian church to serve as their translator.  For those familiar with classic horror films, this gives us a bit of a chuckle.  Clearly, though Na has fashioned his victims to be somewhat zombie-like in a piece of misdirection, their convulsive behavior when close to death was clearly meant to evoke Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”  So when the Deacon shows up, we know where Na is headed.

When Jong-Goo, his partner and the Deacon arrive at the house in the woods (another nod to bygone horror), the Japanese man is not present, but the house is guarded by a chained, black Rottweiler (hello “The Omen”). Na builds the tension is this scene expertly with minimal camera movements and edits. There isn’t any overbearing, ominous music to help build the suspense either. We know the Japanese man could return at any second. The constant barking of the dog as he tries to break free and the utterly realistic performances of the actors gets us there, taking us almost to the breaking point.  And when the dog breaks free to attack (evoking yet another horror classic) and the Japanese man returns, we are unsettled by the utter quiet and simplicity of the ending of the scene.

The nod to “The Exorcist” transforms into much more than an homage when Jong-Goo’s daughter starts displaying animalistic behavior, convulsions and foul language.  We’re settled in for an exorcism movie.  But even here Na plays with us.  Is it really demonic possession or simply an illness?  Huge kudos must go to young actress Kim Hwan-Hee as Hyo-Jin, Jong-Goo’s daughter.  In a performance that rivals (and perhaps even surpasses) Linda Blair’s Oscar-nominated performance, Kim – without the aid of make-up or special effects – gives us an “illness” that is utterly believable no matter how you look at it…demonic possession or simple epilepsy. You buy either explanation…a tack that, again, helps the viewer empathize with the confusion coursing through Jong-Goo.  He desperately wants to cure her…but from what? A natural illness or an unnatural one?  And here is the tipping point for Jong-goo, that moment when he crosses from wanting to find the right answer to needing to find the quick answer.  And the quick answer is that the Japanese man is evil incarnate.

This transformation of both Hyo-Jin and Jong-Goo works because director Na has spent the time in his film to firmly establish their relationship.  Unlike American horror films which give us a whole 5 minutes of “family time” at the beginning and expect us to be emotionally invested in characters, Na carefully crafts the relationship between father and daughter, giving us meaningful scenes throughout a large chunk of the film.  Even after the murders start happening, we get to see real moments between parent and child (and, one wonders at times which is which) that are not throw aways.

When the family calls in the mudang Il Gwang (one of South Korea’s most popular actors, Hwang Jung-Min), yet another outsider enters the fray and we feel we are firmly ensconced in an exorcism film.  Hwang’s shaman is not at all what we expect.  He’s motivated by money, drives a very nice car, sports turtlenecks and a pretentious little ponytail.  In short, he comes off more like a discount Steve Jobs that a heralded shaman.  Yet, he comes with a sterling reputation.  We’re immediately off-put.  Is this guy a quack or the real deal?  Do we trust him or do we not?  After an all-too-brief exam of the girl and the environs, Il Gwang explains that Hyo-Jin is possessed by a powerful ghost that must be driven out else the whole village will perish…and then the ghost will move on to the next village.

Not sure what or who to believe, Jong-Goo reluctantly agrees…and he agrees not interrupt the proceedings or the consequences will be dire.  And in a stunningly orchestrated climax to the film (at just over the half way mark), Na gives us a cacophonous, riotous “exorcism” steeped in mysticism (nod to “The Serpent and the Rainbow”?) that is almost unbearable in its unrelenting tension.  Hwang as the mudang, Kim as daughter Hyo-Jin and Kunimura as the Japanese man give stunning performances enhanced by Na’s judicious editing and Hong’s gorgeous cinematography.  It’s beautiful and brutal and almost too painful to watch.  We know utterly how Jong-Goo feels when he stops it all.

After that, our final reference to “The Exorcist” occurs when Jong-Goo and the Deacon seek out the guidance of the church Pastor.  The Pastor explains he has heard many things about the Japanese man…that he is a university professor, a monk…many different things, and yet Jong-Goo chooses to believe the worst. With unrecognized irony, the Pastor asks, “This ghost?  Have you seen it?  How can you believe in it if you have not seen it?”  Ultimately he tells him that the Church can not offer any assistance.

After that, the film moves confidently toward its conclusion, losing none of the suspense or horror along the way despite still having nearly half of its running time to go.  Na expertly shifts the focus amongst all the different elements.  What is evil?  Who is evil?  Who do I trust?  Who do I believe?  Is evil merely a matter of perspective?  How do you recognize evil and if you can’t how do you fight it? Jong-Goo in paralyzed…by fear…by doubt…by the need to be rational…by his emotion…by who or what to believe in.  And we viewers share the depth of his despair.

In the end, Na delivers a stunning film full of depth and unbelievable amounts of suspense and tension.  He never once lets up, managing to create a film which is both an homage to some of the best horror films ever made and a steely deconstruction of them.  He takes the mythology of horror and reweaves it into a new pattern. He never resorts to gimmicks to illicit scares.  He doesn’t spoon feed his audience (that having been said, there is one moment where make-up effects are used in what seems to this reviewer as a minor attempt to satisfy western audiences).  The ending is purposefully ambiguous (a fact which seems to have caused some consternation to some western reviewers).  Na presents a lot of questions, but offers no easy answers…because ultimately, like in real life, there aren’t any.

If you like your horror films complex and nuanced, I urge you to seek out this movie when it arrives digitally or on disc (the film is available now on EST and Transactional video on demand, with disc distribution in early October).  There is a lot to see in The Wailing and you may walk away with more questions than answers, but it will stay in your mind long after the end titles have faded to black.  Rarely is cinematic horror this good.

WEIRD DETECTIVE #1 (Dark Horse Comics; June 15, 2016 release date) $3.99, 46 pages. ISBN #6156800013 00111. Script by Fred Van Lente. Art by Guiu Vilanova. Colors by Mauricio Wallace & Joseph Gonzalez. Letters by Nate Piekos of Blambot. Cover by Guiu Vilanova & Mauricio Wallace.

H. P. Lovecraft connoisseurs will devour this book. The savants will praise it’s faithful homage to the Mythos of the Master. It’s pages contain enough ethereal pleasures to please the palates of even the most persnickety of pundits. The rest of us will find it very tasty indeed.

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Writer Fred Van Lente, our spirit guide throughout WEIRD DETECTIVE, takes some familiar Lovecraft tropes and mixes them into the pop culture blender, along with police procedural, detective and “buddy-cop” elements as well as healthy dashes of respectful references to classic movies and television. This concoction is carefully infused with copious dashes of humor, sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt and bold, but always appropriate to the scene and often laugh out loud. It’s a specific spooky smoothie that makes WEIRD DETECTIVE so easy to slurp down.

Every month brings new works in literature, comics and media that borrow themes from Lovecraft’s universe. A large majority attempt to be steadfast to the dark and unsettling nature of those tales of horror and macabre fantasy. There is plenty of the same, along with the standard threat of alien invasion/influence behind the scenes in WEIRD DETECTIVE. The difference is the blend of humor with the horrific elements, which should make this more accessible to a larger audience. Van Lente may be the first writer to make it easier for the general readership to access some of the Lovecraft magic. And in doing so, he may just earn a deserved seat at the right tentacle of Cthulhu.

Portrait recadré de Lovecraft
Portrait recadré de Lovecraft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before revealing it’s delectably devilish contents, the cover of WEIRD DETECTIVE beckons to all lovers of Lovecraft lore and pulp noir fiction. The title itself harks back to the days of pulp magazines like Weird Tales, The Shadow, and Doc Savage Adventures. The typeface reflects the predominant font style of those times. The cover illustration promises a mix of crime with the mysterious. A detective, seemingly backed up against a brick wall, holds up his badge of identification. However, Detective Sebastian Greene’s shadow does not silhouette a human form, but rather something much larger and alien. To entice us further, the story title on the cover proclaims in large bold face “The Stars Are Wrong.”

Monstrous black tentacles erupt from the inner credits to lead us to the first page and captions containing cryptic philosophy against a cosmic backdrop. (“The most merciful thing in the world, I think . . . is the ability of the mind to correlate all its contents.”) The next page brings us to modern day New York City, where a female murder victim is discovered at the bottom of a community swimming pool. The captioned narration continues, and expands upon the meaning of the opening page.

The narrator is none other than Detective Sebastian Greene, as we are audience to his somewhat condescending thoughts. It quickly becomes apparent that he is different and strange, not cut from the standard detective cloth. For one thing, he possesses seventeen senses. Soon after arriving at the crime scene, he employs one of his extra senses – – Rennakesh,or emotionalocation, to quickly assess the mental space of his newly assigned partner.

That partner, Sana Fayez, is not without her own set of observational skills. The body of the victim in the pool has been neatly eviscerated, with only a bag of skin remaining. As Chief of Detectives Thomas Malone wonders how the body got there without anyone noticing before the pool opened, Fayez points out that the shell is so thin it could have slipped in through the intakes valves of the pool’s water system.

Grim as the situation is, it lends itself to some wry humor (which writer Van Lente is very adept at utilizing). As Fayez looks upon the body in the pool, she comments “It’s like when my little niece empties a juice box . . . She sucks it dry. Until it implodes.”

Six pages into the story and it becomes apparent to readers that they have seen just the tip of the iceberg, and that glacial construction will contain a bounty of police procedural, horror, fully fleshed characterizations (including the secondary players), mystery, science-fiction, and humor – – all perfectly balanced and measured out in just the right proportions.

The events in WEIRD DETECTIVE occur within the urban landscape of modern New York City and boroughs, a palatable palette of city streets and criminal hangouts deliciously illustrated and colored by the art team of Guiu Vilanova, Mauricio Wallace and Josan Gonzalez. Throughout the story, weirder elements begin to creep from the fringes onto the canvas in an effort to transform the landscape into something much stranger. Anytime those large purplish tentacles push forth behind the story panels in the foreground, the reader realizes that the menace is growing.

Weird D page

Despite all the intriguing and engaging story elements in the foreground, it’s this sub rosa menace that is at the heart of the main conflict/threat/challenge in WEIRD DETECTIVE. Following the swimming pool incident, two murders occur on the upper floor of a residential renovation site. A man is sucked into the underworld when he’s at his most vulnerable and exposed. His traumatized and fleeing girlfriend takes a wrong turn, and falls to her death on the streets below. Both victims come from shady backgrounds. Assumptions are made about the death of the girlfriend, resulting in war between two crime families.

English: Fred Van Lente (born February 14, 197...
English: Fred Van Lente (born February 14, 1972 in Tacoma, WA) is a Dutch-American writer, primarily of comic books and graphic novels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The various sub-plots within the first issue are more than enough to make readers want more. However, it’s the rich characterizations that will bring them back. Van Lente has an empathic ability to get deep into the head of his characters, even when they are alien, and employs the story to bring out their individual potency, fervor, and foibles.

WARNING: SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.
If you prefer to be completely surprised when you read WEIRD DETECTIVE, stop reading this review now.

As in most of Lovecraft’s work, the story in WEIRD DETECTIVE is told in first person. His narrators are always horrified by events and react passively. However, narrator Sebastian Greene is unperturbed, alert and active. He’s not the usual Lovecraft victim of circumstances. Greene is an alien, possessed of unusual mystical abilities, and on a mission to help save his otherworldly civilization from the encroaching Old Ones.

The alien inhabits the human form of Greene in order to move about within the New York Police Department, where he seeks to uncover the unearthly infestation and find a weakness his species can exploit. He resides on a small houseboat, and shares the habitation with a telepathic smart-aleck cat.

As depicted by artist Villanova, Greene is tall and slender with a sallow complexion and prominent cheekbones, a profile that appears very similar to portraits of author H. P. Lovecraft. His attire, from trench coat to hats, reflects the pulp detectives he tries to emulate in his speech and manners.

His awkwardness provides several humorous moments, as he struggles to understand common behavior and street language. His co-workers consider him to be unconventional and strange, attributing his peculiarities to his nationality (Canadian, a running joke). Unable to explain Greene’s recent success at solving some puzzling crimes (by using his extra-sensory abilities), Chief Malone assigns Detective Sana Fayez to keep an eye on him and learn his secrets.

It’s an unlikely partnership, and an engaging dichotomy. Fayez has her own set of peculiar traits and difficulties. After a “whistel-blowing” incident,she’s been demoted from a prominent job in counter-terrorism to this new position, and tasked with tailing Greene as penance.

The working hours in her job seem to be in conflict with the working hours of her same-sex roommate (lover?). She’s trying to care for her infant son (apparently from an earlier relationship) and doesn’t trust nannies. When all else fails, she shows up on a crime investigation with the baby in a front-loaded papoose. When the crying infant stops wailing in the presence of Greene, she jokingly asks him “Will you come live with me?’” He seriously responds “No. I have a cat.”

One of the many humorous exchanges in the issue occurs as they drive away from a crime scene. Greene’s thoughts begin to wander as he considers the perplexing (to him) consciousness of the human race. He absentmindedly stares at Faye, who’s driving the car. She thinks he’s sizing up her physical attributes and accuses him of staring.

She lectures him: “Don’t . . . Just, you don’t need to deny it, just don’t do it. . . . And I’m telling you, if you have any weird, like, Princess Jasmine, belly-dancing, Thousand and One Night’s fantasies going through your head, kick that shit to the curb, or I will do it for you.”
Greene: “I don’t, uh . . .”
Fayez: “And here, I was hoping you and I played for the same team.”
Greene: “I have been invited to join departmental softball team, but first I need to acquire the requisite equipment . . .”
Fayez: “No, I mean I thought maybe you were gay.”
Greene: “We do not have the ‘gay’ in Canada.”
Fayez: “Ha! Jesus, you are repressed. What’s next? You’re going to say they don’t have hockey?”
As the conversation ends, Greene types a query into his smartphone: “What is hak!”

As the issue ends, an unlikely connection/partnership is revealed between the Great Race and the underworld, and Greene seems willing to compromise the safety of his new partner in order to learn how to defeat the creatures.

WEIRD DETECTIVE bears repeated readings, and promises more unearthly delights to come.

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