Monday, April 17, 2017

Rue Morgue Reading - "Skin" was probably pretty shocking back in the day

The great thing about the Rue Morgues list of the top 100 horror novels is that it drew from several hundred years of material. In fact, The Monk,  the oldest book in the series was written in the eighteenth century. Ironically, while The Monk has aged pretty well over the centuries, Kathe Koja's Skin, published in 1992, has not.

This is not to say that it's a bad book. In fact, Skin has compelling characters , a fascinating plot, and deals with extreme body modification, a subject that is always ripe for horror. (If you don't believe me, just look at the extreme piercings and  ritual self-mutilations of the Cenobites from the Hellraiser series of films). It's just not really scary which is kind of bad news for a book that bills itself as "psychological horror."

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Skin, at it's heart, is a story about Tess Bajac, a struggling metalworker who wields together mechanical sculpture. Her artwork attracts the attention of Bibi, an aspiring dancer, who draws Tess into using her talents as part of a performing art group. However, it becomes clear over time that Bibi is mentally ill and has an obsession with self-mutilation that leads her to modify her own body in unhealthy ways  though piercings and surgeries. Add into this the Svengali-like Micheal who exert influences over both of the female leads, we have a volatile mix ready to explode.

--Only it never quite does. All throughout the book, we are left with the idea that a something is going to go horribly wrong. But when it does, once in the middle of the book and once again at the end,  it turns out to be nothing you wouldn't find in any conventional thriller novel. To put it in perspective, there are James Patterson novels that are more horrific than anything that happens in Skin.  

Then, if the action is not the source of horror, then it must come from the psychological states of the characters. Unfortunately, that's not scary either. Tess, the point-of-view character, certainly has issues but she is also a decent person who has relationships with toxic people.  As a heroine, she is ultimately too likable for her mental problems to elicit horror. Bibi is too dysfunctional to be sympathetic and Michael is deliberately supposed to be unlikable. As a result, the story comes off as a tragedy about relationships, and not necessarily a bad one, but again ultimately not a horror story.

Then, the only remaining source of horror could be the physical transformation that Bibi practices on herself as she is driven increasingly to modify her body. But again, while certainly not something a healthy person would do to themselves, it never gets to the point where it becomes scary.

I think that a lot of it has to do with the age of the book. Back when it was written, the idea of voluntary surgical body modification was unexplored in popular culture and the people who practiced it were largely an unseen subgroup. Unfortunately, the last few years have resulted in a surge of horror movies regarding surgical body modification with granddaddy of them all being the Human Centipede films, a film series with a premise so disturbing I can't even bring myself to watch them. Furthermore, real people with extreme body modifications began appearing on the public's radar thanks to reality television and online news providers need for click bait. (Google "Lizardman" if you don't believe me).  In today's world, the modifications described in Skin, wile still off-putting, just aren't as disturbing as they were when the book was written.

In the end, I'd say give this book a read if you're a fan of tragedy or relationship drama but if you  go in expecting horror, expect to be disappointed

Friday, March 31, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 3

So here we are the last entry for book 1.  As I said in the last post, the stories I'm going to cover here were not included in the original publication of the first book of Wild Cards. Instead, they were written for the book's republication by in 2010, twenty-three years after the novel's first publication. This is both a blessing and a curse: the stories are no longer bound by having to set up plot threads for the next novels but at the same time they have to take care not to contradict the events of the other twenty-two books.

This problem shows itself most fully in the first new story "Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace" by Michael Casutt.  The titular "secret ace" is one Karl von Kampen, a television producer who secretly possesses the power of "fokus," his pet-name for his  superhuman eye-site.  Karl produces the children's sci-fi  TV show, Captain Cathode, which is up for a lucrative sponsorship deal that is being jeopardized by the lead actor's tendency to disappear for long periods of time. When Karl tries to investigate  of the situation, he finds himself the target of the Medusa Killer, a murderer who literally turns his victims to stone.

To me this story is the epitome of a wasted opportunity. The sole story in the book to completely break free from the traditional origin story paradigm, it is, unfortunately, also pretty much pointless. The characters introduced in this story don't show up again in later books and because of the story's retroactive nature, none of the plot threads can be taken up again until past Book Twenty-Three. Writing new stories for Wild Cards could have been an opportunity to develop some of the characters introduced in the first book. Instead, "Captain Cathode" just feels like a place holder, there to pad out the page count.

Things improve somewhat in the next story, "Powers" by David D. Levine, which may not be essential but does at least serve a purpose. This is the Wild Cards universe retelling of the real-life story of Francis Garry Powers, an American pilot who was shot down and captured while piloting a spy plane over the Soviet Union. In the real world, Powers was released as part of an exchange of hostages by both sides. In this version of the story, he is rescued by the story's protagonist, Frank Majewski, a middle-aged ace.

"Powers" uses the real-life incident as a backdrop for what is essentially another origin story. (Majewski receives an appropriately super-hero-y sounding name at end of the story). However, it has a lot of fun riffing on the similarities between the super-heroes and the spy genre, namely code names and secret identities. Also, it shows what the aces were doing during the McCarthy era, a period of time that is constantly referenced but not really shown during the series proper. It also answers a minor mystery about the fate of a side character, 24 years after it was introduced in the first edition of this book, and then never mentioned in subsequent books. (See what I mean when I say that it could take a while for this series to wrap up plot threads.)

Another problem presented by these stories is there placement in the book as a whole.The book maintains it's chronological conceit which means that the new stories are inserted into the appropriate place between the older stories. The problem with this is that three of the  older stories "Witness', "Degradation Rites" and "Shell Games", contained a plot arc that continued from one story to the next. In older editions, these stories followed one another, allowing for a uninterrupted narrative thread.  However, since the new stories take place years before "Shell Games", they are inserted after "Degradation Rites". The result is that the book main narrative arc comes to a complete stop to tell two essentially unrelated stories and, as a result, the narrative flow is broken, to the book's detriment.

The last story, "Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan" by Carrie Vaughn, is the best of the new stories. Set in the 80s, the story tells the backstory of Jennifer Malloy,  aka Wraith, a heroic thief who is prominent in the later books in the series. Here, she is still just a reserved young woman who is hiding her ace ability to turn intangible at will.  Unfortunately, an evening clubbing with a friend goes south when she inadvertently encounters Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, and gets embroiled in a conflict over some stolen money. While doing this, she learns to loosen up and enjoy stealing other people's things. (There are probably worse lessons to learn but none immediately spring to mind.)

"Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan" is the best of the new stories, mainly because it ties in more to the series as a whole.  In the original version of the series, Wraith was not introduced until the third book, by which time her career as a thief was already well underway. "Ghost Girl" gives us a sense of how she got to that point as well as working as a stand alone heist story.

Because the Wild Cards series has so many characters, theres simply isn't enough room to flesh all the character's backstories as much as one might like. Thus, the opportunity to write new stories for a new edition of the first book was an opportunity to go back and fill in some of the gaps. (I personally would have liked to get some background on Perigrine, who is arguably the most public female heroine in the early books, or seen some of Hiram Worchester's days at the crime-fighting Fatman.) Since only "Ghost Girl" takes full advantage of this opportunity, the other stories seem less consequential to the series as a whole. Thus, I would argue that the 2010 edition is for hard-core completists only.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Rue Morgue Reading- The Straw Men

Today, my blog will undertake a new project. Yes, yet another project that will come out in nowhere near a timely fashion.  As my friends and family know I am an avid reader of Rue Morgue magazine which focuses on horror in all aspects of popular culture. It is, in short, the thinking man's Fangoria.  A few years ago I read their article on the 100 best horror novels and decided to read them all. Every--- single--- one.

And I'm going to be sharing my opinion on every single one of them you my dear readers. I'm going to read them in no particular order but I will read them and discuss whether or not I think they are any good. Aren't you lucky?

First up: The Straw Men by Michael Marshall.

Let's get the first thing out of the way. This book is the first in a trilogy that deals with the efforts of Ward Hopkins, ex-CIA agent, in opposing the enigmatic criminal/terrorist organization that call themselves the "Straw Men." I actually the second book in the series some years ago and was left unimpressed (SPOILERS: If the end of your gritty thriller novel about a serial killer involves telepathic Neanderthals, reconsider your ending.)

By all logic, I should hate the "Straw Men" as well. And I will admit that there are some parts of the story that seem to tread into ridiculousness. (The "Straw Men" are implied to be behind pretty much almost everything bad that has happened for the last sixty years from the Altamont concert shootings to the war in the Middle East).

And yet it works. The story is a murder mystery dual investigation plot where two seemingly separate investigations turn out to be connected. One plot follows Ward Hopkins as he discovers evidence that the car accident that killed his parents may have been deliberately arranged. His search leads him to a gated community called the Halls, which is run and inhabited by members of the Straw Men. Hopkins is left trying to find out his parents' connection to the organization, a search which leads to disturbing revelations about his own past.

The second thread follows Jim Zandt, a former police officer who left the force after his daughter was abducted by a serial killer called the "Upright Man."When the "Upright Man" returns, abducting a fourteen year old girl named Sarah Becker, Zandt is called in by his ex-lover, FBI agent Nina Baynam to assist in the investigation.

This sounds like pretty formulaic crime thriller fair but make no mistake-- "The Straw Men" is a horror novel. The Straw Men's philosophy feeds into one of the most basic fears- that human beings are hopelessly corrupt on a fundamental level and that it is not evil, but rather virtue, that is an aberration. The book contains some scene that can only be described as nihilistic (the revelation of what animals the Straw Men keep in their stables is incredibly bleak and depressing).

Plus, Ward Hopkins is good lead. Just enough of a shady past with government that it's plausible that he could survive the unlikely scenarios he finds himself in but with little enough combat experience, that it's clear that he is completely in over his head. It makes the stakes so much higher and thus, his victories so much more rewarding.

The ending of the book as befits a trilogy is open-ended, leaving room for the next book. But trust me when I say that reading the sequel is a massive waste of time, especially because of Marshall's decisions to introduce science-fiction elements to the plot. The first book has enough a resolution that I was satisfied but that's a subjective judgment and if you're the type who absolutely need to know what happens to the characters in a book series, you might want to give it a miss.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 2

The first of the stories is "The Long Dark Night of Fortunato" by Lewis Shiner. This story introduces another character who will be a major player, a pimp known only as Fortunato. When a serial killer begins targeting the girls he work with, Fortunato is at a loss until the Wild Card virus grants him pseudo-mystical powers. (He can best be  be described --- and there is absolutely no good way to say this -- as a sex powered wizard.) Forutnato soon discovers that the killer has ties to an ancient cult with sinister designs.

This story is probably the most violent and disturbing of the many stories in the book, primarily for one of the most uncomfortable interrogation scenes ever set to paper. However, it is actually a fascinating character study both for what it reveals about the larger universe and what it reveals about the main characters. First, the story explores is the first to really explore the idea that the Wild Cards virus acts on the subconscious thoughts of it's hosts. Thus, the abilities and deformities it grants its hosts are based on their subconscious beliefs and fears. Fortunato is, uh, practicing  a Tantric ritual when his powers emerge and, as a result, his vast powers only work when he preforms the appropriate spell.

The idea of the Wild Card begin able to grant people abilities baed on their beliefs allowed the series to bring in characters who would normally be outside its scope in a world where super-powers come from a single source. Fortunato is an uncouth analogue for mystical heroes like Dr. Strange and Dr. Fate. In later stories, the virus  would allow for the creation of an android hero similar to Marvel's Vision and mythological figures who serve as Thor analogues.

Fourtunato himself is a rather complex character. Technically a "hero", simply because he sets himself in opposition to an unquestionably evil organization, he is still a criminal himself who exploits women for a living. His greatest fear is that, to quote Spider-Man, "with great power comes great responsibility." The character's constant struggle with the idea that, as much as he may deny it, he has an obligation to uses his powers to help others or, at the very least, for things other than criminal activities drives much of his actions throughout the series.

The next story is "Transfigurations"by Victor Milan is set in the late 60 and early 70s and follows Marc Meadows, a MIT student who has become enamored with the hippy movement and is looking to enter the drug scene. The plot is pretty impossible to discuss without spoilers so SPOILER WARNING. Meadows spends most of the story awkwardly courting his old grade school crush and dithering back and forth on whether or not to take LSD for the first time. He finally takes his first dose as a fight between two aces breaks out, a fight which is then broken up by the appearance of a third ace called the Radical, who subsequently disappears. Mark wakes up the next day with vague memories of participating in the fight and begins experimenting with drugs in an attempt to determine if he was, in fact the Radical.

This story feels the most frustratingly incomplete.  Give what we learn about Meadows in the next book, his quest to become the Radical is merely the beginning of his transformation into an ace. Thus, "Transfigurations" reads more the first half of an origin story and since Meadow's transformation is already complete in the second book, the reader doesn't get to see the second half. Furthermore, the story sets up a subplot about the conservative ace Hardhat and his quest for his daughter which is then completely dropped as the character never appears again. Despite this, it's impossible to hate this story as Meadows himself is the nicest character in the first part of the series and quickly endears himself to the reader.

The next interlude gives us a status update of the world in 1971. Written as a Tom Wolfe pastiche, it introduces the celebrity culture that has sprung up around the aces in the wake of the Turtle's emergence as a crimefighter. This interlude primarily serves to introduce the cult of celebrity that has grown around aces, and flesh out a location that will important in later books: celebrity restaurant Aces High, run by Hiram Worcester, formerly the Fatman, a retired hero turned restaurant owner.

The next story is "Down Deep" by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper which introduces a group of sewer dwelling heroes. The main protagonists are Mafia princess and aspiring social worker Rosa-Maria Gambione, her client Bagabond, a homeless woman who can talk to animals, and "Sewer Jack" Robicheaux, a were-alligator sewer maintenance worker. When Rosa's fiancee, a member of the local mob, is murdered by the mysterious Subway Vigilante, it precipitates a gang war that draws all three protagonists to the sewers to stop the Mafia from carrying out a massacre.

This story, though better than "The Sleeper",  introduced what are honestly my least favorite of the Wild Cards characters from the first book, Bagabond and Sewer Jack. They're not terrible characters by any means but they always seemed disconnected from the other characters and more like they should be part of a separate series. There are lip service mentions to characters from the previous stories but they really do not figure into the action. (Admittedly, a major character in this story had previously made a cameo earlier in the book but that was more to set up their appearance in this story then anything else.)

According to Martin, this story was written before the decision was made to set the first Wild Card outbreak in the 1940s and had to be re-edited later to fit the setting. This definitely shows in the story. A scene where Bagabond and Sewer Jack come to realize that they are both Aces makes sense in a context where the virus is a relatively recent phenomenon but not so much in a setting  where Aces have been around for over twenty years. The story is not bad. I just wish it felt more like it was part of the larger series.

"Down Deep" is followed up by a story that focuses more on the true victims of the Wild Card virus: the disfigured jokers. Another interlude show establishes two revival joker advocacy groups operating out of Jokertown, a joker ghetto in New York City. One is the The Joker Anti-Defamation League, which advocates for non-violent resistance led by an elephant Joker who goes by the name of Xavier Desmond. (No points for guessing who inspired this character). Opposing him is the militant Joker's for a Just Society, led by Tom Miller aka Gimli, whose Wild Card virus has turned him into a super-strong dwarf.

This situation is then explored more thoroughly in the disturbing story "Strings" by Stephen Leigh which introduces the Wild Card's universe first major super-villain and is impossible to discuss without SPOILERS so consider yourself warned. The story starts, in the 1940s, with a brutal murder instigated by the emotion controlling ace known as Puppetman, who we soon learn is only 11 years old. The story then jumps to 1976 where the Jokers for a Just Society are threatening to riot if their demands aren't heard. The story follows Succubus, a joker prostitute, who is spying on one of her clients, pro-joker right Senator Gregg Hartman, on behalf of Gimli. There are several hints throughout the story that Puppetman is actually Gimli, but we eventually learn that Puppetman is Senator Hartman, secretly using his powers to provoke the jokers to riot as part of a bid for the Presidency. Eventually, Puppetman's powers lead to his own undoing but he escapes detection to plot again another day.

This story sets the tone for what villains are like in the Wild Cards universe. Since the heroes are themselves incredibly flawed, the villains, by contrast, are all massive psychopaths so the audience knows who to root for. This is true of this story which also includes fun little bits of world building: the Jokertown Riots of 76 will be a plot point throughout the series and the story include an action-packed team-up between several of the ace heroes which introduces several new characters. The story also adds an element of suspense as Gregg Hartman is almost universally loved by both jokers and aces, all of whom are unaware of his inner depravity.

Unfortunately, this story highlights what can be the most maddening aspect in the Wild Cards universe. Because of the multiple writers working on each story and the needs of each book, plot threads and characters introduced in one book can be ignored for multiple books before being followed up on, if they ever are. Despite being Wild Card's first major villain, Puppetman does not appear outside of cameos for the next two books which is a shame because he turns out to be a fascinating character. Another character introduced in "Strings" the enigmatic Black Shadow, won't show up again for several more books despite the story dropping hints that he is more than he appears. The downside of setting up an interesting world with lots of characters is that you have to wait awhile before some of them get a turn in the spotlight.

After another brief interlude consisting simply fictionalized media quotes from various characters in the book, we come to the 1980s with "Comes a Hunter" by John J. Miller, the  final story in the book excluding the epilogue. This story depicts Daniel Brennan, an army deserter, who receives a letter from an old friend telling him that Kien Phuc, the South Vietnamese general behind the deaths of Brennan's old army unit and his wife, is in New York City. Brennan arrives in the city to find his friend murdered and his friend's daughter, Mai Minh, kidnapped. Adopting the costumed identity of Yeoman, Brennan must rescue the girl from Kien's ace lieutenant Scar.

I have mixed feelings about this story and they all stem from Yeoman himself. He's an interesting character, a non-powered vigilante in a world of super-heroes but-- and this is important-- his main weapon is a bow and arrow.  He's one of the more competent heroes in the series but -- he uses a bow and arrow. His stories, especially in this book, introduce elements that become important in the larger series, especially the joker information broker Chrysalis, but --- he uses a bow and arrow. Bow and arrow characters, like Green Arrow and Hawkeye, always strained suspension of disbelief when they appear in comics so when one appears in a book series with pretensions to towards realism like Wild Cards, the same suspension is totally shattered.

The book as a whole is probably my favorite of the first three Wild Card novels but it's also the hardest to judge as a single work. The book is more concerned with world-building than with telling a singular story but it does a good job with what it sets out to do. Each story in the book introduces new plot threads and characters that suggest potential stories of their own. Believe me, this retrospective doesn't even begin to cover all of the minor characters introduced in this book, some of whom will become major characters in subsequent volumes.  Overall, the book does it's job which is to suck you into the world of Wild Cards.

That's it, then. The book's over right. Well no. See, when Tor Books, took over the publishing of the series in the late 2000s, they reissued the first book with three all new stories. And I'll go over the stories in part three.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Super Short Reviews: "A Cure for Wellness" runs on too long but is worth a watch

Pretty much every reviewer is asking themselves the same question about "A Cure for Wellness": namely, how in God's name did this movie get made? It's the kind of movie that Hollywood executives generally shy away from: a big-budget horror film that traffics primarily in surreal unsettling images and a general weird atmosphere. Movies like this don't get bank rolled by 20th Century Fox. They get made on a shoe string budget in the filmmaker's back yard and go straight to DVD.

I suspect the reason this movie exists is that director Gore Verbinski is a big enough name in Hollywood to pursue passion projects like this dues to his success with the Pirates of the Carribean movies. And though he's mostly associated with those films these days, it's important to note that he also directed the seminal 2000s horror film, The Ring, so it's not like he doesn't have genre cred. But the film itself is so strange and non-commercial, that it's hard to see anyone green lighting it. It's possible the studios didn't know what the film was going to be like when they read the pitch. As a bare bones outline, the plot isn't something that hasn't been done in horror movies before.

The story involves Lockhart, a young stock-broker played by Dane DeHaan, who is tasked by his employer to locate the CEO of his company, Pembroke (Harry Groener). Pembroke has apparently suffered a nervous breakdown and is refusing to return from a trip to a health spa in the Swiss Alps known for its healing waters.

Lockhart goes to the health spa but, after a car accident, he suffers a broken leg and stays at the spa while he recuperates. He begins to suspect that the director of the spa, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), is hiding something. He soon discovers that he can not leave the spa and begins to investigate the strange goings-on which have a mysterious connection to an incestuous family of nobles killed in a fire hundreds of years ago. So far, this sounds like the standard set-up for a haunted house/ castle with a dark secret movie.

But the plot of the film is mostly an excuse for a variety of disturbing set pieces many of them involving eels. (This, by the way is the first horror film, I can think of that makes use of the fact that eels are kind of terrifying. I, personally, have always felt that they have disturbingly human eyes.) "A Cure For Wellness" by the way ,is the kind of film, where any Freudian overtones that come from having the main character menaced by eels are, of course, completely intentional.

Anyways, the set-pieces, long with some truly good acting, are the real reasons to see this movie. Dane DeHaan, an actor who always looks like he is on the verge of a mental breakdown anytime he appears on screen, is perfectly cast as Lockhart. Casting Jason Isaacs, a steel,-jawed, classically handsome, non-nonsense type as the main antagonist makes an excellent counterpart to the manic, increasingly unhinged DeHaan. And Mia Goth's odd and etherial performance as Hannah, a young patient at the clinic who Lockhart befriends, is captivating.

 Unfortunately, the movie starts strong but runs out of steam in it's third act where it begins to drag. (After about the third unsuccessful escape attempt, you'd think they'd realize keeping Lockhart around is more trouble than it's worth and just kill him.) What begins as a horror story that plays with ideas that the true disease of mankind is the scourge of wealth and capitalism become a more straight-up monster movie. The ending play out like an R-rated Universal monster movie, while one revelation recalls the 1971 Vincent Price mad scientist movie The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Furthermore, you get the sense that the only reason that the movie wind up this long is that Verbinski and the studio decided to change the ending. Without to much spoilers, there's a bit towards the end of the film with a gorgeous shot of the Swiss Alps, that would have been a great place to end the movie.  As it is, allthough the film is worth a look, it runs out of steam in the last half-hour

Monday, February 13, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 1

The first Wild Cards book, and not incidentally my favorite so far, is ironically one of the ones I read most recently.  Unlike most of the other books in the series, the first book is almost entirely set-up and therefore, is not as concerned with running plot threads. It's mostly about introducing the characters and getting things set up for the next book in the series.

A warning: Because this book sets up so much of the rest of the series, it is impossible to discuss large potions of it without spoilers. I am going to attempt to do this while giving away as little as possible. Also because a lot of the stories work as  character introductions, I am giving a lot of the pieces more analysis than I would otherwise. This means book one will be split up into multiple posts.

The "heroes" of Wild Cards tend to be an erratic bunch. Though capable of genuine heroism, they are  also largely neurotic, self-destructive, and sometimes plain unlikable. Nor are all of them crime fighters, although most of the Aces are at least part-time adventurers, if only to keep up appearances. Although they are often drawn into conflict, many of the "heroes" choose to use their powers in other ways.  For instance,  Dr. Tachyon, the character who is arguably the protagonist of the first ten books in the series (as much as Wild Cards can be said to have protagonist), is a medical doctor who occasionally forays into fighting criminals and aliens.

Dr. Tachyon is introduced in the prologue material that is found to the first volume (brilliantly presented  as a pastiche of the writing of Studs Terkel).  Tachyon is an alien Takisian and one of the designers of the Wild Card virus. He arrives on Earth with good news and bad news: On one hand, he has successfully stopped his fellow Takisians from dropping the virus on Earth. The bad news is, in the process, five canisters containing the virus have been lost somewhere in the United States.
This leads to the first story in the book "Thirty Minutes over Broadway! Jetboy's Last Adventure!" Jetboy is Robert Tomlin, a war veteran at 19, who thanks to his natural skills and a series of improbable circumstances found himself the pilot of an experimental jet plane at the the age of 12. A lost soul, he returns to America after World War II where he finds himself lost as his exploits have been mythologized to the point where the population considers him a super-hero.  Unfortunately, his plans to retire and write his memoirs are derailed when a disfigured criminal calling himself "Dr. Todd" finds the lost canisters of the Wild Card virus and threatens to drop it on New York. Jetboy is called into stop him but, as you probably guessed from the title of the book and the stories, he doesn't succeed.

This story probably had the strongest impact on the Wild Cards series as a whole, simply in terms of setting.  George RR Martin had  approached his friend science fiction writer, Howard Waldrop, about contributing to the series. Coincidentally, Waldrop had been kicking about an idea for a short story about a character named Jetboy and offered it for inclusion in the anthology. The only catch was that Waldrop wanted his story to be set in the late 1940s. Martin had originally intended for the Wild Card virus outbreak to occur in modern times (which would have been the late 1980s when the book was written) but Waldrop refused to budge on the issue.

Ultimately, Martin decided that he wanted the Jetboy story in the book and significantly altered the scope of the novel. Instead of taking place in modern times, the stories in the first book would take place in chronological order, exploring the history of the world, spanning from the late 1940s to the present era. This works to the novel advantage as the history of super-heroes in the Wild Cards universe  was the able to mirror the history of comic books in the real world. Pulp adventurers like Jetboy give way to superheroes like the Four Aces. This is followed by a period in the 1950s what the heroes are gone or operate outside the public eye before the return to prominence in the 1960s. Someone familiar with the history of comics will recognize the metaphor for how super-hero comics rose to the prominence in the Golden Age of Comics and then suffered a decline in popularity before resurging as the dominant force in the medium during the Silver Age.

The story itself works as a good starting point for the series. It starts of as a deconstruction of pulp adventure stories. Sure, Jetboy is a remarkable pilot but his adventures have been exaggerated by the media. (At one point, he complains that his comic book series has crafted fictitious super-villains for him to fight.) However, as the story progresses, the Wild Card virus eventually turn the story into a straight example of an adventure story complete with a real super-villain for Jetboy to fight. This sets up the greater theme of the series that the  mere existence of the Wild Card virus quite literally transforms a previously realistic world into one where the tropes of fantasy and science-fiction are part of everyday life. Plus, it's a fun story with a great final confrontation scene on Dr. Todd's blimp fortress.

The next story in the book is "The Sleeper", by Roger Zelazny, which focuses on one of the first victims of the virus' release, 14 year old Croyd Crenson, the titular Sleeper.  Caught in the initial outbreak of the virus, Croyd falls into a coma and awakens transformed into an adult man with invisibility powers. Croyd soon discovers that every time he goes to sleep, he awakens months later with a new appearance and Wild Card power. Sometimes he awaken as a powerful ace, other times as a hideous joker. Croyd turns to crime to support his family and, fearful of the changes that come when he's sleeping begins abusing methamphetamines.

At the time the story was written, Roger Zelazny was portably the most popular writer working on the Wild Cards series. (In fact, when the book was written in 1986, Zelazny was more well-known than Martin himself). Furthermore, Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, would become a mascot for the series often appearing in the stories of the characters. This makes sense given the characters versatile nature: Though he was generally a lovable outlaw, if he took to many amphetamines, he would become a paranoid lunatic who could serve as a formidable antagonist.

And yet the stories with him as the protagonist tended to be pretty weak. In fact, I would say that "The Sleeper" is the weakest story in the whole anthology. It just kind of meanders from plot point to plot point. Croyd gets his powers and commits some robberies. He accidentally kills a security guard while high and feels kind of bad about it but the thread is dropped and goes nowhere. He commits more robberies and ruins a wedding and that's about it. The story doesn't end so much as it just sort of stops. When the character's cameos in other stories are more compelling than the character's own stories, you know there's a problem.

The book begins to shift into high gear with "Witness" which introduce Jack Braun, a.k.a. Golden Boy, the fallen Superman of the Wild Cards universe. A war veteran like Jetboy, Braun is a young aspiring actor who finds that he can generate a golden force field that renders him bulletproof, super strong and (eventually) ageless. The handsome Braun is soon recruited into the organization known as the Exotics for Democracy, popularly known as the Four Aces, a group brought together to overthrow dictators and impose democracy worldwide. At first regarded as heroes in America, the Aces are accused of having Communist ties after a bungled mission to China and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Braun, desperate to preserve his burgeoning Hollywood career, names names with disastrous consequences for the rest of the Four Aces.

"Witness" was nominated for a Nebula award and it's easy to see why. The story is by far the best in the book. Superheroes opposing HUAC is not a new idea but usually the heroes stand fast and re-affirm their integrity against the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. As nice as that might be to believe, the truth  of what would happen is probably closer to what happens in this story. Under the pressure to conform or be labeled Un-American, even the best people can crack and wind up doing damage to those closest to them. (A message particularly relevant to those of us living in the Trump administration). The story is a tragedy where heroism vies with self-interest and looses.

We see the other side of the story in "Degradation Rites", by Melinda Snodgrass, where Dr. Tachyon, having been deported to Europe by HUAC,  takes the lead for the fist time. Having become an alcoholic drifter, he finds an American newspaper announcing the death of Blythe van Rensaeller a.k.a. Brain Trust of the Four Aces. Gifted with power to permanently copy the minds and personalities of others, Brain Trust meets Dr. Tachyon in early days of Wild Card outbreak and she leaves her abusive husband for the alien. Their affair is passionate but she becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the other personalities in her head, a situation that ultimately comes to a disastrous resolution at the HUAC hearings.

No two ways about it: This story is bleak. Tachyon begins the story and ends it as a street person.  As result, you know from the beginning that the story is going to end badly: there is an air of melancholy even during the happy parts.  It does bring up a problem with the early Wild Cards novels in that there are not a lot of female perspectives. Importantly, the first female "hero" in the Wild Cards universe exists entirely to be killed off, giving Dr. Tachyon angst and provide a motivation for his rivalry with Golden Boy. On it's own merits, the story is another strong tragedy: I just wish it's portrayal of female characters had aged better.

The story is followed by an interlude which provides further background  prosecution of Wild Card victims during the HUAC era which eventually leads to the formation of the Senate Committee on Ace Resources and Endeavors.  The unholy lovechild of HUAC, Marvel's SHIELD, and the Avengers, SCARE initially drafted Aces and forces them to use their abilities, in secret, on behalf on the US Government. By the end of the book, the organization has become more public and morphed into the closest thing the Wild Cards would  have to a superhero team for a while but its history lent its activities a vaguely sinister cast throughout the series.

Public heroes will not return until the 1960's with the story "Shell Games" by Martin himself. Having been allowed back into the country by President Kennedy, Tachyon has remained a drifter. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, a powerful telekinetic Ace named Thomas Tudbury decides to use his powers to fight crime.  Hiding his identity inside an armored shell propelled by his telekinesis, he dubs himself the Turtle and begins fighting crime. When a Joker bartender who has befriended Tachyon is kidnapped,  Tachyon is forced to team up with the Turtle to find her.

This story is a fun little adventure story. The Turtle makes a good twist on the armored superhero, concealing his identity with a mobile assault vehicle rather than a suit of armor but he's not as developed here as he is in later stories.  "Shell Games" is slight if read on its own but if read in conjunction with "Witness" and "Degradation Rites", the stories work as a mini-trilogy detailing the fall and ultimate redemption of Dr. Tachyon. Along with an brief interlude, establishing that Dr. Tachyon ultimately opens up a clinic in Jokertown designed to treat Wild Card victims, these three stories contain the closest thing the first novel has to a narrative arc, one which ultimately comes to a satisfying conclusion. The remaining stories in the book will be devoted to setting up plot threads and characters explored more closely in future books.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Wild at Heart - A Wild Card's Retrospective -the Beginning

So, back in August, award winning writer George R.R. Martin, known mostly for Game of Thrones, publicly announced that there would be an upcoming TV series based on his long running Wild Cards series of super heroes novels. Admittedly, calling this series Martin's brainchild was a bit of an over simplification. Each novel in the series is a actually a group of interconnected short stories with multiple writers  that serve to tell a complete story.  The series began in 1986 and continues to this day, enjoying a resurgence within the last decade, due to the popularity of Game of Thrones.

Martin based these books on Superworld roleplaying game he was enjoying with several friends (many of whom were established science fiction writers). Superworld was one of many superhero table-top role playing game that proliferated during the 1980s. Playing the game, Martin was inspired to write a book about his character, an superhero called the Turtle who fought crime while piloting what was essentially a flying armored tank.

However, Martin found himself reluctant to abandon the characters created by other writers in the game and, instead, convinced them to contribute stories about their characters to a shared world anthology "novel." Although not as well known today, shared world anthologies were common in the late 1980's. These would be science fiction anthologies/novels set in the same fantasy world but worked on by multiple writers. Characters and settings from one stories would show up in stories by different author, crating a sense of continuity between each story.

The shared world of Wild Cards was Earth, albeit an Earth where first contact with an psychic humanoid alien race called the Takisians occurred in the late 1940s.  Due to Martin's insistence that the superhero characters should all get the power (with a few exceptions) from the same source, the Takisians bring with them the  a virus which they have invented to boost their own considerable psychic abilities.

Naturally, the aliens decide to test the virus on the genetically similar humans. Despite efforts to stop this, the virus is released above New York City and soon gets sucked into the jet stream where it spreads all over the word.

The results are catastrophic. Unfortunately, the virus kills most of the people who contract it and leaves the majority of the survivors freakishly disfigured.  The disfigured survivors are dubbed "Jokers" and reviled and scorned by society. Most of them are segregated into a Ghetto area in New York called Jokertown. However, a small number of survivors are not physically affected but instead endowed with abilities far beyond those of mortal men. These people dubbed "Aces" are often perceived as heroes by the public and enjoy a measure of celebrity as well as infamy. The virus is dubbed the Wild Card Virus due to the random disfigurement and powers it grants to to those unfortunate or luck enough to contract it.

News of the upcoming TV show reminded me of how much I loved these books when I was kid. I read the books out of order when I was a kid before losing interest. However, out of nostalgia,  I was finally moved to read the first book in the series and it was fun to reconnect with the characters. Because of this, I have decided to write up a retrospective on each book of the series. This retrospective will have no fixed schedule. Given that there are twenty-six book in the series (with more to come), I am going to have to take break just so that I don't burn out especially to locate the harder to find books. Hopefully, the few people reading my blog will enjoy this.

Next up, an introduction to the series important characters while I review the first book in the series called appropriately enough Wild Cards.