Book and Movie Reviews: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers book cover from Goodreads

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s this moment after watching one of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies (there are four and I’ll have more to say about them later on in this review) when I think to myself “I really should read the original novel by Jack Finney.” Well, after watching all four adaptations again recently, I finally read the book, and what a surprise it turned out to be.

You know the story: seed pods from space arrive in a small town on Earth and begin replacing people while they sleep. What surprised me about the 1955 novel was how faithfully it was followed by the 1956 film adaptation starring Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell and Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll. The first half is essentially the same between novel and film. About halfway through, details and plot points begin to diverge slightly, leading to a different ending. To be honest, the book’s climax seems a little silly, and it’s much less horrifying than the fate of the main characters by the end of the film. The film has its only silliness, in the shape of a framing device tacked on when the studio decided the ending was too dark, but what I view as the film’s real ending is absolutely bone-chilling.

The novel has more room for exposition than the film, and in general this additional information is really interesting. The novel is told in first person by Dr. Miles Bennell, who is even more cheeky and self-centered in the novel than he is in the film. He’s also much more progressive in the novel, which I didn’t expect from a male character created in the 1950s. Dr. Bennell makes particularly incisive observations related to race and gender. The novel cannot avoid all stereotypes, though. Becky Driscoll is primarily a passive and emotional damsel in distress, but there are several great moments in the novel when she becomes much more active and heroic, including coming up with a particularly great escape plan from a seemingly impossible situation.

The pod people plot from the movies is one of my favorite delicious terrors from horror and that creepiness and consistently frightening progression is definitely there in the original novel. The only thing that really disappointed me about the novel was the ending. The film adaptions tend to lean toward darker endings and more ambiguity. They make me feel like the horror has only just begun. The book’s ending instead is lighter and conclusive. It just doesn’t pack the same punch. Until then, though, the book is genuinely creepy and frightening.

The first three of the four movies based on the novel are some of my favorite movies of all time. They work because they capture the fears of their time. The 1956 film directed by Don Siegel is perhaps the best, and the fear it evokes with its seed pods and pod people is the fear of communism, in which your neighbor might turn out to be a communist plotting against America. As I mentioned, the ending gets really dark, though the framing device undercuts this. All of the actors are fantastic, and there is a scene with McCarthy and Wynter near the end of the movie that is one of the great chillers of all time.  The film is a masterpiece of paranoia, the practical effects are still amazing, and the chase scenes are much more frightening on the screen than they are in the book.

The second adaption arrived in 1978, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as the leads. They are joined by a great cast, including Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum, as well as a fun cameo by Kevin McCarthy from the original movie. The fear of the 1970s seems to be of pop psychology and the effects drugs like Xanax prescribed for anxiety and depression have on emotions. The 1978 film doubles down on the special effects and paranoia, and the scream-screech of the aliens when they spot humans will always be frightening to me. The film departs from the novel in many ways and changes the characters quite radically, but it retains the paranoia and creepiness.

The third adaptation from 1993, Body Snatchers, was directed by Abel Ferrara and stars Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth and Forest Whitaker. The movie departs from the novel in many ways. The protagonist here is a teenage girl dragged to a military base by her father, an Environmental Protection Agency agent investigating the impact of the base on the local environment. The fears of the early 1990s seem to be of the military, stepparents, and the environment impact of humans. While the plot is simplified quite a bit compared to the earlier movies and the novel, what elevates the movie in my opinion is just how frightening it becomes. Making the protagonist a young woman and part of a family with a stepmother and half-brother leads to truly horrific moments that make me jump in my seat every time I see them. Meg Tilly is frightening as hell, especially during a monologue in which she asks “Where are you going to go?”

One great novel, three great movies. And then there’s 2007’s The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig as gender-reversed versions of the novel’s protagonists. This movie is terrible! The fear of the Aughts seems to be of pandemics and bodily fluids. The invasion spreads by vomiting on other people; it’s even grosser on screen than it sounds. There are no pods, just gross skin effects. No other fears are that well developed. Veronica Cartwright is always great, but her cameo here is wasted. The movie isn’t all that frightening, there aren’t any particularly captivating or scary scenes, and the talents of all of the actors are completely wasted. Unlike the earlier movies, The Invasion doesn’t really seem to have much to say. It doesn’t offer any compelling parallels to the contemporary world. It just seems to exist as an exercise to distill the novel to the very basics; it fails miserably.

But three great movies out of four is an incredible track record for any franchise. I think this rate of success is the result of Jack Finney coming up with a timeless and frightening plot particularly worthy of film adaptation. It’s one novel I think should be adapted about once every decade, because pod people are a great device for reflecting on our changing times and fears. What would an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie look like today, in 2017?

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Movie Review: Beyond the Gates (2016)

Beyond the Gates movie poster

Beyond the Gates movie poster

Beyond the Gates movie poster

Beyond the Gates (2016), directed by Jackson Stewart, written by Jackson Stewart and Stephen Scarlata

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beyond the Gates is one of those slow-burn horror films that may bore some viewers but the nostalgia and character building are going to make fans of the rest. Barbara Crampton makes a great but frightening VHS guide to another world who is not to be crossed. Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson are great as mumblecore brothers trying to return to childhood camaraderie. Brea Grant is fantastic as the older brother’s girlfriend caught up with the horror unleashed when they play the last VHS tape their dad played in the back office of his video store before he mysteriously disappeared. If you like neon violet back-lighting, unexpected visitors, and 1980’s practical-effect gore, then this movie might be for you!

Review: Nightmare Magazine, Issue 46

Goodreads image of Nightmare Magazine Issue 46 cover

Nightmare Magazine, Issue 46 (July 2016)Nightmare Magazine, Issue 46 by Nightmare Magazine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found some of the stories in Issue 46 of Nightmare Magazine to be a little opaque, making for interesting reading and leaving me to think about possible meanings. “Red House” by Gavin Pate begins with finding a girl lost in the woods but it splinters into several possible stories, perhaps because of the girl’s fragmented mind after trauma. The horror arrives in specific scenes that may or may not have happened, and in the ambiguity of who of at least three possibilities is the monster in the story. I tend to fear uncertainty in stories as my own failings as a reader, so it’s comforting to read how the writer in the accompanying interview views uncertainty as possessing “its own kind of unsettling.”

I enjoyed “Whose Drowned Face Sleeps” by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky, particularly because of its unsettling imagery matter-of-factly described. The supernatural is like water in this story, and as the waters rise, so does the horror. There is a separate horror in the awful behavior of the character James, and a kind of justice in how these two horrors come together. It isn’t clear to me exactly how or why the characters “R” are intertwined in the way they are, but this leads to possible meanings due to fragmentation and uncertainty like in the previous story.

“Der Kommissar’s In Town” by Nick Mamatas explores a near-future dystopian escalation of the Occupy protests. Tension and horror comes from multiple sources, including the government’s pending advance on the protestors’ encampment, a violent murder, an the shocking entity that may be behind the murder. Thrust into the middle of this is the protagonist Charlotte, an experienced and cynical negotiator. The story deftly navigates issues of class, race, and gender. The biggest surprise to me is how the urban setting is involved in the situation, leading to a mind-blowing ending. I feel the writer is tapping into a fascinating new understanding of the city that suggest an exciting new subgenre (or maybe the subgenre already exists; it’s one I would like to read more of.)

My favorite story of the issue is a reprint of Seanan McGuire’s “Anthony’s Vampire.” I love how the story jumps right in, gives us two compelling characters, and follows them to a surprising and powerful ending. McGuire is definitely one of my favorite writers and it’s past time I start tracking down more of her stories.

Both essays in the issue are exceptional. In “The H Word: On Writing Horror,” Tananarive Due provides an upsetting reason why many people watch, read, write, and find comfort in horror. The panel discussion of “Demonic Possession.” helps clarify why these narratives are so interesting, and why movies after The Exorcist often fail to do the topic justice.

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Book Review: The Year’s Best Fantasy First Annual Collection

Book cover of The Year's Best Fantasy First Annual Collection edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

The Year's Best Fantasy First Annual CollectionThe Year’s Best Fantasy First Annual Collection by Ellen Datlow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me over a year to read this 1988 collection of short stories selected by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, but it wasn’t because of any problems I had with the anthology. I’m rating this 5 stars for a very good reason: nearly ever story in the collection are themselves 5-star worthy. Some stories overwhelmed me so much with their greatness that I had to take a break to process them, which led to gaps in my reading this anthology when I fell into reading some other book. Every time I came back to this anthology, though, I immediately encountered another incredible, thought-provoking story.

I mean, the anthology starts with “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by Ursula K. Le Guin! This is one of my absolute favorite stories and it is one that lingers. So many stories in this anthology are like that. I sometimes didn’t want to move on; I wanted to savor and think about what I had just read. Sometimes I even fell into a jealous gloom, despairing that my own writing will ever come close to the level of craft on display here.

There are other stories that simply shattered my understanding of how short stories in particular fantasy genres should work. Stories like “Haunted” by Joyce Carol Oates and “Halley’s Passing” by Michael McDowell scared me half to death! These are decidedly disturbing, even icky, horror stories that showcase their author’s incredible use of craft. In “Halley’s Passing,” for example, McDowell uses a close third-person narrator that relays real-time violence in matter-of-fact, even bureaucratic detail. That combination elevated my terror from the very beginning, so that when I reached a horrifying further revelation near the end, it wasn’t all that surprising, considering.

Yes, absolutely chilling and disturbing horror, often offset by other genres of fantasy that are more humorous, soaring, and absolutely gorgeous in setting and detail. Mood often shifts story by story, though there are also interesting pairings of stories with similar moods and subject matter throughout the anthology. Stories like “Words of Power” by Jane Yolen and “The Maid on the Shore” by Dalia Sherman offer powerful moments of empowerment and achievement soon after other stories of frightful horror.

I would love to write a review about each and every story, but the last one I’ll focus on has to be Alan Moore’s “A Hypothetical Lizard.” Until this last story, the one criticism I had about the anthology was the lack of diversity in characters. There are (too) few people of color, though it is possible that readers could see diverse characters in stories that don’t really describe the characters in great detail. Until “A Hypothetical Lizard,” there are no LGBT characters; instead, there are jarring uses of “faggot” in a couple stories, though the characters uttering this word are meant to be despicable.

The last story, and Windling’s pick for best fantasy story of the year, is “A Hypothetical Lizard,” and it is a stunning and inclusive story to end on. Not that it has a happy ending, but Moore’s characterization of the transgender character Rawra Chin is very loving, though in keeping with 1988 one would not expect Her story to have a happy ending. I think that Moore’s use of homosexual and transgender characters to tell a universal story of love and betrayal is powerful and very much appreciated in an anthology of stories that otherwise ignores LGBT people.

The other thing I love about “A Hypothetical Lizard” is Moore’s level of craft. In fact, he’s on an entirely different level than any other writer in the anthology, and this story, at least in my opinion, seems the most timeless because of it. The cinematic vividness of his descriptions includes a scene where the character imagines the black stones of the courtyard below her as a pool of water, and what it would be like for her to dive into the water and swim away. I’m going to be studying this and other passages for years as I try to improve my own writing. Another example: a perspective change that is jarring but absolutely perfect for the story. I cannot rave enough about Moore’s level of craft. It’s just stunning.

So, yes, this anthology took me over a year to read, but it is also my most favorite book over that same period of time. It includes some of my favorite short stories ever. What Le Guin, Oates, McDowell, Moore, and everyone else in the anthology accomplish with their tales is so inspiring.

I’m in awe.

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Review: Nightmare Magazine Issue 1 October 2012

Nightmare Magazine, October 2012Nightmare Magazine, October 2012 by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m reading the most recent issues of Nightmare Magazine and also going back to the beginning to read every issue.

“Property Condemned” by Jonathan Maberry is a great standalone story set in (according to the interview with Maberry in this issue) the same town where some of his other stories and novels take place. Not having read anything else by the writer, I really appreciated how well this story worked and how chilling it turned out to be. The action begins like the best Amblin productions: four kids on bikes heading toward what they think is a haunted house. Where it ends up is much darker, though, and much more Stephen King than Steven Spielberg. In the interview with the writer, I learned something I didn’t know about the psychology of abused children, and it actually lends to the story a tiny, grudging element of hope where at first I only saw hopelessness. As a reader who unfortunately understands a little too well what the protagonist suffers at the hands of his father, the story resonates and gives me a lot to think about.

“Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron is a gory chase story that leads from Alaska to the East Coast while the protagonist flees a being he probably shouldn’t have messed with in the first place. There is a lot of tension and horror to contend with and the pace is nonstop. I especially like the elements that seemed Lovecraftian in a story that already works well with the mythology it’s updating. The ending is horrifying and satisfying, although I was left with a few questions I don’t think were answered, including what it was the protagonist had done (prior to the events of the story) to lead to this fate.

“Good Fences” by Genevieve Valentine is vivid psychological horror centered around a burning car and an increasingly paranoid, isolated, and perhaps insane city resident. The horror is in inaction and cowardice bred by apathy. The story is dreamlike and surreal, but ultimately I don’t think it matters if these things are really happening or if it is all in the protagonist’s head; it is horrifying no matter what the reading (which is something the writer points out in her interview.)

My favorite story in an issue of great stories is “Afterlife” by Sarah Langan. Like the previous story, there is some question to the protagonist’s sanity, though I think Langan clearly suggests the supernatural elements are really happening (and she says as much in her interview.) The horror is Grey Gardens-like–a daughter and her mother trapped in their home by mental illness, social anxiety, physical and emotional abuse, and poverty–with supernatural elements that offer the protagonist moments of great heroism.

What is so horrifying about the story is not the ghosts but how they ended up there, their choice between fates, and how this parallels the protagonist’s situation with her mother. The labelled jars are going to give me nightmares…

Fantastic issue!

Final note: to truly appreciate Jeff Simpson’s art spotlighted in the issue, these must be viewed on a big color screen. http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/non…

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Review: Nightmare Magazine Issue 45 June 2016

Nightmare Magazine, June 2016 (Nightmare Magazine, #45)Nightmare Magazine, June 2016 by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, wow, this is a great issue. I haven’t read a lot of horror short fiction in recent decades and I’ve been curious to see what writers are writing about. Thus, I’m a new subscriber; it has already been rewarding.

What interests me most about “Great Black Wave” by David Tallerman is the technology of modern and near-future warfare, and how it might provide a handhold for an ancient evil to ascend into the modern world. There are also elements in this story that remind me of one of my favorite Dean Koontz novels, Phantoms.

The surprise of “The Finest, Fullest Flowering” by Marc Laidlaw is how subtlety the tension builds in a story that doesn’t otherwise seem to have much horror in it. At first. The ending gave me a delicious and unexpected chill. The story is a very satisfying read.

“Things of Which We Do Not Speak” by Lucy Taylor is full of repressed awfulness that explodes into unsettling psychological horror. It’s a truly uncomfortable read but also a masterfully written examination of the darkness hidden inside people.

“Ruminations” by Rena Mason brings together contemporary reality and a vaguely science fiction and frightening future via a supernatural bridge. I love how genres mix in this story, but the mixing is grounded by two very captivating characters who make it seem all too real.

The nonfiction in this issue is interesting, though the “The H Word” column seems to continue a conversation of which I haven’t read previous installments. Joyce Carol Oates is interviewed and provides nice insights into the horror-writing side of her work.

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Review: Phobos Magazine Issue Three: Troublemake

Phobos Magazine 3: Troublemake: weird | fictionPhobos Magazine 3: Troublemake: weird | fiction by Luke St. Germaine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The poems and flash fiction in this issue tend to feature ornery characters, leading to lots of humor and dark twists. Something else besides the flower is in the gifted pot in “The Lovely Amaryllis,” leading to some really great images and humor in a story told through email. “Sack Race to the River” reads like magical realism, starting dark and just getting darker. “Bad Spelling” is all about the title pun, with an abrupt and horrific twist. I found “Broads and Batwings” pretty opaque but I think there is something Lovecraftian to it. “Troublemake” introduces a character with a signature voice, one to root for in a circus setting.

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Review: Phobos Magazine Issue Two: Emergence

Phobos Magazine Issue Two: Emergence: weird | fictionPhobos Magazine Issue Two: Emergence: weird | fiction by Amanda C. Davis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Several absolutely fantastic and often chilling flash horror, fairy tale, and science fiction stories. Some highlights: “The Hitchhikers” remind you to always look behind you. Or don’t. “Moonspots” waits for daddy to come home. “Questions For the Ages” prepares you to spot twentysomething time travelers in your job as a time cop. A dying woman learns from her twin what she should do when necessary in “Bred in the Bone.”

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The Years of Fantasy and Horror

The Year's Best Fantasy, First and Second Annual Collections

The Year’s Best Fantasy, First and Second Annual Collections

I fondly remember buying a few editions of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling in the 1990s. I was in my twenties and while many of the stories and their level of craft were opaque to me at the time, I felt I had stumbled onto a magical tradition. Even then my mind boggled at the idea of anyone reading and sampling so many short stories from so many publications in a single year, year after year. Each edition included an annual summation of fantasy by Windling and of horror by Datlow, as well as “Horror and Fantasy on the Screen/in Media” by Edward Bryant, obituaries, and honorable mentions. The anthology series was published every year from 1988 through 2008. What dedication to such a wonderful project!

I’m a different reader and a different writer than I was at the time. I recently purchased the first two editions in physical paperback form, to begin my own survey of fantasy and horror writing over the years. I hope this personal project will give me a sense of the breadth of these genres to inspire and inform my own writing. I am reading new short stories as well, in such publications as UncannyFireside, Crossed Genres, and Lightspeed, but I think a tangential trip through time and across genres can only benefit me.

This effort was prompted by the recent death of Tanith Lee, a name that seemed familiar to me because I’m certain I read and loved one of her short stories in an edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. I don’t like having vague recollections of people and their works, especially after they die. Reading these anthologies will also introduce me to the works of many other writers I would like to get to know through their writing, by attaching their names to stories I love.

All good writers are readers, and all good genre writers also read the other authors in their genres. While I frequently write science fiction, and I’m reading a great deal of science fiction, especially short stories, these days, I also write fantasy and horror. Even if I didn’t, I would want the influence of fantasy and horror writing on my science fiction. I cannot explain why, exactly. Each genre has its particular approaches and elements, but perhaps we are in an age (or have always been in such an age?) were the boundaries between genres are porous, perhaps even illusionary. For example, Charlie Jane Anders wrote a novelet titled “Palm Strike’s Last Case” that appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The story combined elements from different genres and subgenres. I was so impressed and inspired by her story; it taught me that stories can indeed and with great success cross and merge genres.

I need the background in genre only reading can provide. I need to know what other writers are (and were) thinking and writing about. I need to know how their concerns have changed over time. I need to know how they are crossing and merging genres. Tonight I crack open the first annual collection of The Year’s Best Fantasy (as it was called in the first two editions before “and Horror” was added) to find out what short stories from 1987 grabbed the attention of Datlow and Windling, to uncover the tropes and trends of the time, to read stories I haven’t read yet from some of my favorite writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, to find out what George R. R. Martin and Harlan Ellison were writing at the time, and to discover new favorite writers. Through their work I hope they will guide my hand a little in my own writing.