Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The two scariest books ever written

Since it's now Halloween and the western sky has gone amber here in middle America, the window is rapidly closing for horror-themed posts. I'd better get with it. Soon trick-or-treaters will be making their endless demands and I'll be too busy shoveling candy at them to do much else.

Let us turn now from scary movies to scary books. I wonder: Is it easier to terrify someone with sound and light, or with the printed word? I hold with those who favor print -- properly done, a book can tap into the darkest reaches of individual imagination in a way no movie can. With the imagination thoroughly engaged, the reader becomes a participant in the tale, rather than an observer.

Unfortunately, books are just as prone to cliche as movies are, and it takes a true master to banish disbelief and conjure terror with no more tools than the 26 letters of the alphabet and a few punctuation marks. It's an art, not a craft, and those who can do it are rightly revered.

When I consider the scariest books I've ever read, two come shambling out of the darkness like particularly fearsome specters: Ghost Story, by Peter Straub, and Pet Sematary, by Stephen King.

Straub's Ghost Story came out in 1979; I believe it still stands as the best work of this recognized master of the genre. Straub's style is more literary than King's, but this book lacks the dense, gothic surrealism that infected his later work. That's a good thing. Its sense of dread starts early and never lets up.

The plot is simple enough: A group of old men discover that a tragic mistake they made in the distant past is back to haunt them. By "haunt," I don't mean melancholy ruminations by the fireplace; this is a particularly vengeful spirit that will not rest until each geezer in turn pays with his sanity and his life.

That might not sound so frightening, but Straub's subtle hand creates a reality where ghosts do dwell, and they are not to be trifled with.

Pet Sematary, which occupied a spot on the New York Times bestseller list in 1983, is without a doubt the darkest book in the King canon. It deals with every parent's worst nightmare: the loss of a child. And it poses the very question that led to such unpleasantness in the classic short story "The Monkey's Paw" -- what would you do to get that child back? King was at the top of his game in 1983, grounding his characters in the minutiae of daily life, then drawing you down, by degrees, beyond the most macabre ending you could imagine to something worse. I'm not kidding. King's next scariest book is The Shining, but that's nowhere near as chilling as this one. Too late to scare yourself with it this Halloween, probably, but keep it in mind for next year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween movies: My four to fear

When's the last time you saw a truly frightening movie? For that matter, how many truly frightening movies can you name in, say, five minutes? Besides The Exorcist, I mean. I can think of maybe four offhand, seven or eight if I have another hour to think about it.

So I'm always a bit skeptical during the Halloween season, when movie pundits start picking the scariest movies of all time, such as this top 25 list from Time's Richard Corliss. Demonstrating that 25 films may be about 15 too many, the list includes such fright-fests as Bambi; the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead; and the 50-second Arrival of a Train in La Ciotat, which, when shown in 1896, had certain members of the audience thinking the train on the screen might run them over. Now, these may have been all groundbreaking films in their own way, but scary they were not.

It's facile to say that they don't make scary movies any more, but it's almost true. Since the mid-1960s, horror has not been that large a genre. While the past 35 years have given us hundreds of films and sequels devoted to shock and gore and the unconventional use of power tools, a movie that can instill true fear -- and keep you jumpy long after it's over -- is difficult to pull off and all too rare. I'm not sure 25 of them even exist.

Which leads me to my own little list. I can't say they're the most frightening movies ever made -- like comedy, horror is pretty subjective -- but I'd expect them to rank well above Bambi on the old Fear-o-Meter. My main criterion is this: They're the sort of movies I still wouldn't want to watch alone.

First, The Innocents, the 1961 movie starring Deborah Kerr and based on Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw. Briefly, a governess comes to suspect that her two young charges are being possessed by pair of malevolent spirits. The foreboding builds in every scene, but subtly, with none of the horror cliches that tend to reassure us that it's only a movie. This is often labeled a psychological thriller, but don't believe it. It's a ghost story, and a damned good one. Highly recommended.

The Japanese film Ringu, and to a lesser degree its American version The Ring, are two movies that can make your blood run cold (although not quite so much now that they've been mercilessly lampooned in Scary Movie 3). When you finally get around to seeing the monstrous Samara, emerging in jump-cuts from a big-screen TV, it's one of the great moments in film horror. Two bad both films are fatally dated by the use of a VHS tape as the key plot device.

The Thing. Is this movie really 25 years old? It still seems as fresh and terrifying as the day it was released. At an isolated Antarctic research station, a shape-shifting organism begins culling the crew. Will Kurt Russell get out of it alive? John Carpenter explores the classic aliens-are-among-us theme better than any film has done before. It's one of the few remakes that's not only better than the original -- the original is actually laughable by comparison. As I recall, the monster in that version was played by James Arness.

Finally, Salem's Lot (1979), which is a unlikely pick for two reasons: It was a made-for-TV mini-series, and it starred David Soul at the height of his cheesy power in "Starsky & Hutch." But for my money, it's one of the best vampire movies ever made. Yes, it had Hutch, but it also had James Mason, who exuded sophisticated evil in every scene. The film's chief vampire had nothing in common with the sex symbols who inhabited the role before and since; he was totally vile and totally evil, and it was no coincidence that he resembled that other great vampire from 55 years earlier, Nosferatu. The image of an undead child scratching at the second-floor window of his brother is still as creepy as they come.

But as I say, horror is subjective, and what keeps my head under the covers at night might not do the same for you. Also, what used to be scary sometimes cannot stand the test of time. I mentioned The Exorcist above, but that groundbreaking film has been undone by countless parodies; the sight of Linda Blair's head executing an awesome 360 is now more campy than creepy. Too bad; it was a classic.

What movie, or movies, stick in your mind as the scariest of them all?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The White Witch in a suit from Talbot's

Here at the Tilda Swinton Fan Club, we would be happy to see her in a Burger King commercial. But when she co-stars in a solid thriller like Michael Clayton -- well, let's just say we're orgasmic. No, scratch that. Delighted, that's the word. Well, quite pleased.

Swinton's turn as the amoral, paranoid corporate lawyer -- who defeats her Arrid Extra Dry in the first 10 minutes of the film -- is sheer genius. She's definitely on the short list for best supporting actress; you read it here first. Swinton has this way of making her eyes opaque, like a shark, while the rest of her exudes acute desperation -- the kind you get when you're in over your head and need to make sure no living person ever finds out the things you'll do to stay afloat.

George Clooney, in the title role, isn't bad either. He plays a "fixer," a corporate lawyer who no longer practices law, but cleans up the sort of messes that can crop up for any major U.S. agrochemical corporation. At some point, he begins to question if this latest mess isn't beyond redemption.

It's impossible to say much more about the plot without giving it away. While the movie's choice of corporate America as the root of all evil might be a bit too predictable and preachy, the writing is superb and the direction is subtle. No gunfights here, or car chases; only one car explosion. I liked it anyway. The story is nuanced enough to warrant a second viewing, but it's not the sort of piece that leaves you scratching your head when you're leaving the cineplex. I'd say it may the best film I've seen this year. (Which is not saying a great deal, since the last film I saw at a theater may well have been Ratatouille.)

Still, fours stars out of five. Three thumbs up. Two winks and a kiss. Dave Bob says check it out.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dumbledore and the frisky lads at Hogwarts

I always hate it when readers dream up qualities for fictional characters that are never alluded to in the books in which they appear. That is precisely why fan fiction is so unfailingly awful. But I really hate it when authors indulge in the same juvenile exercise. After all, if it were a trait germane to the character, why wasn't it in the book? And so we come to J.K. Rowling's startling announcement the other day that wise old Dumbledore, the bearded headmaster of Hogwart's, is gay.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Being gay, I mean. But isn't saying so a little like Mark Twain deciding in his dotage that Huck Finn and Jim were lovers? Or Charles Dickens revealing years later that Scrooge was suffering from Alzheimer's? Characters are precisely the sum of the words on the printed page. No one, not even the author, should come back later and revise them in an offhand remark. At the very least, it is a violation of the basic tenet of fiction writing: Show, don't tell. (I don't know, maybe Dumbledore could have had a collection of Barbara Streisand records or something.) By simply telling, Rowling is subtly insulting her readers.

Besides, if anyone in those books was going to be gay, I'd have bet on Snape.

Fooling around with a new camera

I have temporarily gone off reading to mess around with a new camera I bought, a Canon G9. It comes with a time-lapse feature, enabling it to take a frame automatically every second, or every two seconds. As you can see, this feature will revolutionize the world as we know it; it enabled me to mow my front lawn in 1/60th the normal time. All I can say is, thank God for YouTube.

Wunderbar! No? Well, soon I'll get back to the big stack o' books, which includes Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand (did she really need the world "clean" in that sentence?) and Ken Follett's World Without End, a sort-of sequel to his excellent Pillars of the Earth, published way back in 1990. Also, The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill, which has gotten pretty decent reviews.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

When things fell apart in Paris

Eventually, I will move on from this fascination with things French. But for now, I can't seem to stop. At the moment, I'm reading the excellent novel Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. This is a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is a historical novel written while the history was still in progress: the Nazi occupation of France starting in 1940. As the New York Times notes, it is likely the first work of fiction to be written about World War II.

It is also among the best. Better reviewers than I have praised this book, and I won't attempt to pile on more superlatives. But the fact that Némirovsky wrote this without the luxury of historical hindsight makes it even more remarkable. The knowledge that she died at Auschwitz not long after makes it poignant beyond words.

Maybe it's a trivial note, but having just been to Paris I was struck by Némirovsky's humane, incisive observations of how things unfold when civilization is withdrawn from the most civilized society on earth: Nobility and barbarity in varying proportions, and no small amount of cluelessness. Just as it would be for any other society, I think. When the Nazis come to town, whether in Paris or Peoria, the center cannot hold.

I'm pleased to see that Suite Française currently resides at No. 7 on the New York Times' paperback trade fiction list. And that's without an endorsement from Oprah's staff of readers. I'd love to see it at No. 1.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A space filler until a better idea comes along

While waiting for a new shipment of books to arrive, and while struggling with the dread of paying the fine that awaits at my local library, I had a look at the New York Times list of "The 10 Best Books of 2006."

Yes, I'm aware that 2006 has been over for about 10 months now. Sue me. It's not like I'm getting a lot of blog ideas via e-mail. So in a sense, it's your fault. Also, I've got a day job too. At least I think I do; I'll have to phone them.

Anyway, without clicking on the link, can you name even one of the best books of 2006, as decreed by the Times? Two? Five? How about who won the 2006 Super Bowl? I didn't think so. (It was the Pittsburgh Steelers.) Fame is so fleeting.

On the books question, I named one, and it's no coincidence that it's the only book on the list that I've read: Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick. I mean, it's no Learning to Sing, Clay Aiken's autobiography, but it ain't bad. It ain't fiction either, and if I keep doing posts like this, I'm going to have to call it Dave's Bullshit Warehouse.

The only other book on the Times list that I have the slightest interest in is Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. This is because it's billed as a murder mystery, and I haven't read many of those lately. Also, the title is irresistible. Can anyone recommend this, before I roll the dice with Amazon? The reviews mention that this Marisha Pessl is also a bit of a hotty, but that has nothing to do with my interest. That would be puerile. And if there's one thing the Fiction Warehouse is not, it's puerile.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Diana files: 11 sleuths try again

Shoe leather: That's the way you solve cases.

And so, 10 years later, 11 jurors spent the afternoon milling around in a Paris traffic tunnel where the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, intersected abruptly with a nondescript concrete pillar. No word on what they found, beyond some psychic vibe about who really iced the People's Princess. Maybe cigarette butts of a brand favored by Prince Phillip. Or the Queen's cell phone number scrawled inside a soggy Buckingham Palace matchbook.

Diana, as you know, was murdered at the behest of the in-laws because of ... well, this where it gets really mysterious. Because this was a murder without credible motive, means or opportunity. A conspiracy that seemingly makes no sense. It's crazy, some would say. Yeah, I say: crazy like a fox. Crazy like Mr. Ed.

It was a gutsy move, staging the hit in full view of the paparazzi. I'm still not sure how they pulled it off, making it look precisely like a Diana's drunken driver hit the tunnel at twice the speed limit and lost control. To the untrained eyed, it was just the sort of preventable accident that might befall anyone who lacked the judgment God gave a goose. Subtle work, you've got to give them that.

Actually, I'm not real sure who "they" are either. Somebody sick of seeing blurry pictures of Diana sucking face with Dodi, maybe. Fortunately, I have an alibi. More likely, it was somebody wanting to prevent embarrassment to the royal family -- although the only things Di hadn't yet done to embarrass them were a full-blown crank habit and a job at Hooter's. Personally, I wouldn't rule out Elton John, who got quite a bit more mileage out of "Candle in the Wind" after the princess' untimely demise.

It's a big case. Bigger than a breadbox. Bigger than a two-bit gumshoe like me, sitting in my darkened office in the Hotel Ralph with half a bottle of cheap whiskey. But no doubt all will be revealed in the fullness of time. If not in this fourth official probe, then surely the fifth or sixth. These things take time. After all, it's been 30 years and we still don't have goods on who smoked Elvis.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The red-hot ladies of the Louvre

I don't know what the big deal is about the Louvre. They only have three things worth looking at.

I'm kidding, of course. But to the thousands saluting the Winged Victory, Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo with their cell-phone cameras, the rest of the world's best-known museum might as well be an oversized Furniture Mart. To hell with Botticelli or Renoir; they're there to photograph the Big Three and then get their asses on over to the Eiffel Tower to stand at the end of a 90-minute line.

As a gawking tourist myself, I'm familiar with the compulsion to see and record every landmark in the guidebook. But at the Louvre, the crowds milling around these particular pieces radiate the impatience and hunger of paparazzi -- how many blurry pictures will constitute proof of the visit? How many bizarre poses? Would that idiot in the cargo shorts please move a little to the left?

These great works became famous because they were masterpieces; today they are just three more celebrities, unable to thwart the crowds and cameras by ducking into waiting limousines. Fortunately, their patience is limitless. Viewed from the back of the room, Mona Lisa's forehead and enigmatic eyes seem to float, amused, in a sea of tiny LCD screens. Venus, from her higher vantage point, gazes past the throng with the perspective of 21 centuries. She's not wearing panties either, but somehow makes it work better than Britney Spears. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, her head in some other place, seems not to regret the fact.

No doubt celebrity has always attracted the insincere like moths to a porch light. The difference today is that they all have digital cameras, and are mostly unaware that it is possible and preferable to shoot indoors without flash. But no matter. The good part of it is that, with the crowds concentrated elsewhere, the rest of the vast Louvre remains hushed and dignified, and conducive to appreciation of the long-dead geniuses who have adorned its endless corridors. Even on the weekends.

But enough about Paris. I'm off to the bookstore to see if I can't find some worthy fiction. In the meantime, I'm in the middle of A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke's amusing and semi-fictional take on his year as a Briton in France. Not really up my crime-fiction street, but so far, not bad at all...

Friday, October 5, 2007

A few notes on Paris

Our trip to France was lovely, marred only by the near-lethal cold I managed to contract on the transatlantic flight back home. Better then than at the start of the trip, right? Today my throat feels as though I've been gargling battery acid, but the golden memories help mitigate the pain. As the saying goes, we'll always have Paris.

We did all the things tourists usually do when they visit France, so I won't expound on them. Instead, here are a few impressions from a first-time visitor who doesn't speak the language. No doubt they'll seem hopelessly naive to veteran Francophiles, but it's my blog.

On our first night in France, we were treated to dinner by representatives of the mayor's office of the city of Orleans. As it happened, it was the final night of the city's three-year-old river festival, culminating with a fireworks show. We stood with a crowd of about 80,000 and watched the pyrotechnics light up the night and the Loire River. It was a splendid display, but what struck us most was the civilized nature of the crowd: No parents cursing their children; no drunken teens fistfighting, no shouted cell phone conversations, no shoving for better views. In short, none of the behavior that can make large public gatherings so memorable in the States. Are the French somehow more civilized? I don't know. But they've been at it longer, so the idea seems plausible.

In Paris, I was struck by the number of people riding bicycles to work, and somehow peacefully coexisting with cars, trucks and motorcycles. There is something inspiring about seeing well-dressed men and women nonchalantly pedaling through traffic without benefit of helmets or logoed spandex. Maybe it helps that Parisian drivers seem conditioned to share the road. Where I live, that is decidedly not the case.

One of the things I'd often heard about France is that anybody can be on strike on any given day. Apparently so. On our way back to Charles De Gaulle airport to drop off the rental car, we noticed traffic in the other direction backed up for miles. In the front of the line: an army of taxi drivers, who were registering their displeasure at certain fare rules proposed by the government. Those unlucky enough to be caught behind the roadblock seemed sanguine enough about it, sitting on car hoods and smoking or chatting on cell phones. Evidently the French are used to this sort of thing. We canceled our plan to get a cab back into the city, and took the train instead.

Paris is filled with museums, but you quickly become aware that the city itself is the best museum of all, so steeped in history and culture that you can't walk anywhere without crossing the steps of the famous and infamous. And so you keep walking, awed by one grand vista or another, or struck silent by some curving cobblestone street where someone well-known lived, loved, dreamed or died. Sometimes all four. I can see why Hemingway was taken by it. The place he first lived in Paris was a couple of blocks from our hotel. At least one of the bookstores he haunted still exists. (See above.)

Because the dollar is so weak against the euro right now, France is an expensive place to visit. One of the few bargains to be had there is the wine: We found all sorts of great local wine in the Loire Valley for three or four euros a bottle. I quickly calculated that I couldn't afford not to drink as much of it as possible. I only wish I could have brought a couple cases home.

As a dutiful tourist, I also took hundreds of snapshots, a few of which are displayed here. They're no different from the millions of others taken every day by first-time visitors to France, but I'm glad to have them. Have a look and let me know what you think.