Monday, May 25, 2020

Chillers an anthology of tales based on vintage horror flicks

Review by Doug Gibson

Over the long holiday weekend I immersed myself in "Chillers," a new anthology, as the cover notes, of "tales inspired by classic horror films." They've been gathered by Brad Braddock of Arcane Shadows Press, which recently released another anthology, "Bela Lugosi: The Monogramthology," which included homage fiction on the poverty-row films Bela Lugosi made for Monogram studio in the 1940s.

Homage fiction, I prefer that term to "fan fiction," is probably a mixed bag to some. I imagine some purists avoid it. (I've had a few debates with Agatha Christie fans over the new "Poirot mysteries" from Sophie Hannah; I appreciate them and devour every one.). I enjoy the genre and am glad Braddock is helping resurrect it. Above-average homage fiction -- kept in its proper apocryphal shelf -- provides a shot of positive endorphins to readers wanting more from the art they love. Even mediocre homage fiction -- and there's been a lot of that from Jane Austen novels -- reinforces our appreciation of the original material.

The short stories in Chillers are of variant qualities, but all are well-crafted, unique efforts by serious authors, who have other accomplishments in the genre. I'll focus this review on a few I particularly enjoyed but reassure readers that there isn't a "clinker" in the collection. (I assume readers know the films that serve as foundations for the tales, and will avoid plot details; the better for readers to enjoy the stories.)

* Gregory William Mank -- who has written several excellent non-fiction genre books -- writes the short but moving "Elizabeth," a story of Dr. Frankenstein's wife at age 70, reflecting on her life with Henry, 25 years after his death, and "the Creature."

* Frank Dello Stritto, another favorite genre writer, manages to capture the spirit of fan convention events, such as Monster Bash, in "Emmy Knows Monsters." It's a tale of a very young monster movies fan who has the magical ability to see the lost, early film cuts of such classic films as "The Mummy," "Freaks," "King Kong," and more. The ending gives me the same pleasant feeling I get from the finish of one of my favorite, gentle spooky movies, "Curse of the Cat People."

* Robert Kokai Jr., also known as monster show host Drac, has an intriguing tale, "Cryptic," which explores how "Imhotep," so well portrayed by Boris Karloff in "The Mummy," manages to rejuvenate himself through his many, many centuries of existence. It's narrated through the eyes, literally, of one of his victims.

* One of my favorite young authors, Christopher R. Gauthier, whets my appetite for his upcoming novel with the short story, "Dracula Never Dies: A Dedication to Bela Lugosi." Written with lyrical, highly descriptive and emotional prose, it relates the once-famous star, now aging, "Bela Vorlock," reduced to performing spook shows before unappreciative teens. The story almost places me right in the audience of those poorly produced spook shows Lugosi endured starring in to pay the bills 70-plus years ago.

* Braddock's "The Vampire Bat Prelude," entertained me enough to re-watch the vintage classic with an all-star cast, "The Vampire Bat." The prequel sheds more light on the manipulation and destruction of loyal servant Emil Borst by the evil Doctor Von Niemann, portrayed by Lionel Atwill in the film. The exploited Herman Gleib, played by Dwight Frye, also is in the tale.

* A pithy and fascinating story from novelist Christine M. Stoltis, "Hasten: A Prelude to Haxan," pays homage to the famous silent documentary on witches by portraying a real female servant of the devil, one who has no fear of being captured and burnt by humans.

* The story, "The Open Window,' by Stefanie Kokai, also known within the genre as Carita Drac, took a page or two for me to get into but ultimately sucked me in. It's a story of a young woman slowly being dominated and turned into a vampiress by a bloodsucker. The contrast of the "count" during their late-night visits, soft words, gentle caresses, and grotesque slurping of blood, is effectively conveyed on print.

* "An Ending for Bowery at Midnight," by Todd Shiba, is, like his story in ... the Monogramthology on "Black Dragons,'" a sly, over-the-top riff satire on how to take movies that already are bizarre and make them even more bizarre. Shiba know his stuff and is always a good read, but his story seems more like something Frank Henenlotter would conceive of rather than Wallace Fox of Monogram. Perhaps that's the point.

I appreciate all those who contributed to the anthology. These are labors of love, far more than money. Hopefully, enough readers will like the efforts enough to provide a stimulus for another collection.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Book explores Count Dracula on the big screen

Review by Doug Gibson

While reading a BearManor Media book on the vampire film, "Son of Dracula," there was a quote from a book title, "Count Dracula Goes to the Movies: Stoker's Novel Adapted," McFarland, 2017, by Lyndon W. Joslin. The title hooked me and I grabbed a review PDF copy from McFarland.

In the forward, Joslin accurately explains that film is a distinct medium from literature. A novel presented as a film must play to visual strengths. Too much allegiance to everything in the book can make a film stodgy, overlong, boring. As an example he notes that Hammer's "Horror of Dracula" deviates considerable, actually overwhelmingly, from Bram Stoker's novel. Nevertheless, it is a superior, compelling tale that captures the menace of Dracula and the danger he places others in. It's a good, scary film. A comparison is perhaps Jess Franco's dull "Count Dracula," a lifeless attempt, even with Christopher Lee, to make a decent adaptation of the novel. A poor director didn't help either.

Joslin's book is better suited for the devoted genre fan. It's too exhaustive for a casual fan. Even I had no idea that films such as "Drakula Istanbulda" and "Hrabe Drakula" were out there. But I am a big fan, and I watched them and others via the Internet. There are 18 "Dracula" adaptations analyzed by the author. The overviews are well done and filled with not only comparisons to Stoker, but other vampire literature frequently is cited. I recommend not reading straight through the book. It's an unfair slog to just read through. Take time to watch one of the films, then continue reading about another film, watch that that film, and then read another. It's better enjoyed as a reference book.

The author appreciates the 1931 "Dracula," and Bela Lugosi, he notes, is the iconic Dracula, but Joslin also favorably compares the overlong spanish-speaking "Dracula" to Tod Browning's. The mere presence of Lugosi overwhelms the Spanish version, and indeed the other films noted in "Count Dracula Goes to the Movies." Many are very well made, and more faithful to Stoker, but where are they now? Only Lugosi's "Dracula" represents the time-tested visual ideal of Dracula. His staying power is secure 90-plus years after he assumed the role on the stage. Christopher Lee runs a strong second to Lugosi. Joslin's essays on the Hammer films are a fun read. He accurately notes that some films could have benefited from more screen time from Lee. He also notes that the threat of running water to Dracula is represented by Hammer's producers.

The author does an excellent job taking the stuffing out of the poor 1979 adaptation with Frank Langella and the way overrated "Bram Stoker's Dracula." I'd be interested in knowing how Joslin feels about the 2020 miniseries of "Dracula." I loathed it, but I respect Joslin enough to get his take one day.

Many more films are analyzed. There's the classic Universal series of Dracula-related films. The author gives appropriate props to the stylish "Dracula's Daughter" and "Son of Dracula," while noting that John Carradine's Dracula was almost a bit player in the two "House Of ..." films. Reading Joslin on "Son of Dracula," as well as reading the aforementioned BearManor Media book on "Son of Dracula," reveals that Bela Lugosi would never have been an appropriate choice to portray Count "Alucard" in "Son of Dracula." The awkward, menacing, cuckolded Dracula in that movie fully represents the actor Lon Chaney Jr. Lugosi is too cool, and too successful with his vampire brides, to be Count "Alucard."

Besides the Hammer essays, there is a section called "Shades of Stoker" that include both 1970s' "Count Yorga, Vampire" films with Robert Quarry. There's even a section of extremely obscure, micro-budget films that are related to Dracula and vampires. While they are interesting, I think more in-depth space should have been devoted to older, "shades of Stoker films" such as "Condemned to Live," "Dead Man Walk," "Return of Dracula," "The Vampire's Ghost," "Blacula," and, Bela Lugosi's Columbia genre film, "Return of the Vampire."

But this is a great read. It's cheaper via Kindle at Amazon. Joslin knows his subject; feel free to disagree, that's what fans do. But respect his opinions. and again, don't make it a long slog of reading. Take a chapter, watch the film (most are so easy to find nowadays with streaming) and then go on to the next film.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Ghostly Tales of Japan provide supernatural bedtime stories

Review and interview by Doug Gibson

Andi Brooks, who lives in Japan with his wife and son, is the co-author of "Vampire of London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," a book we’vereviewed in this blog. He also oversees the superb, The Bela Lugosi Blog. Andi has also been writing fiction for more than a generation and recently published “Ghostly Tales of  Japan,” (Kikui Press, 2020) an anthology of supernatural stories. (Purchase it here) He dedicates the book to his son, Yuine, which is appropriate because Andi created these stories as bedtime stories for Yuine.

The stories are anchored in Japanese culture and tradition. Most range between a couple to four minutes of reading time, perhaps a tad long in audio. The longest is about a 10-minute read. I am captivated by these tales, which from revenge horror to ghostly reunions that tug at your heart to moral tales, with abrupt, pithy endings in which an unforgiving or unpleasant protagonist gets his or her due.

The first story, “The Hunter’s Wife,” tells of a hunter lucky enough to kill a stag with his arrow. The doe with the stag escapes, but not before providing a piercing stare at her adversary. The hunter marries and has children before the doe reappears in his life in an ending so shocking it kept me awake the night I read it.

An interesting tale, almost fable- or parable-length, very short, “The Kindly Old Woman Who Wasn’t,” provides a very succinct commentary on how society offers prefer to remain away from truth so long as they are satisfied.

“The Ginkgo Tree and the Drunken House” is a captivating story of love surviving a mortal tragedy and the loved one’s unconventional resurrection.

My favorite story, the longest, is “The Homecoming,” a tale of an adult somehow finding his way back home to his long-dead parents to receive assurances and renewals of love he has long sought. One knows at the end that this visit will impact his remaining years
“The Story of Matsudo Hideyuki” had a Twilight Zone-type eeriness. It involves a man, out of place in the modern world, finally solidifying an existence in the past he craves to  be in.

As mentioned, the stories, there are 30, are steeped in Japanese history, traditions, religion and culture. Below this review is an interview with the author. The stories are very well-crafted and possess lyrical prose blessed with the author’s gentle intellect and knowledge. In spirit, if not necessarily style or subject matter, they remind me of “The Harafish,” by Naguib Mahfouz. Enjoy the interview with Brooks, who lives in Tokyo with his family, below.
Interview with Andi Brooks, author of Ghostly Tales of Japan

1) How long have you been writing short fiction? Was your interest sparked by Japanese life, history and culture, or was there an earlier genesis?

Brooks: I first attempted to write short fiction in 1992. I was laid off work with a very handsome payoff, which included six months paid leave and a contractual clause prohibiting me from taking another job during that period. With all of that time on my hands, I decided that I would try my hand at writing. The first story I wrote was an ecological sci-fi tale called The Visitor, which was miraculously published in an anthology. Although I remember the thrill of seeing the book on the shelves of a local bookstore at the time, I haven’t got the courage to reread the story now!

After this unexpected initial “success,” I threw myself into writing. The short stories I wrote at that time were all heavily derivative of 1950s sci-fi and were, probably quite rightly, all met with scathing rejections. My other rejections from this period included a radio play featuring a life-size cardboard cutout of Vincent Price as one of the main characters and a grade Z trashy sci-fi horror film script called The Butcher Girls, which got as far as scouting locations and actors before ending up on the scrapheap.

After that I restricted my writing to non-fiction. I contributed articles of varying merit on vintage films to various magazines in the UK and the U.S., which culminated in the Bela Lugosi biography “Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain,” with Frank Dello Stritto.

I didn’t do any further writing until moving to Japan in 2006. At a creative loose end, I tried to fill the void by writing an unpublished volume of humorous poetry and some darkly humorous short stories heavily influenced by Vivian Stanshall’s “Rawlinson End” for my short-lived first blog.

I finally threw all of my energy into putting together The Bela Lugosi Blog for a few years until returning to my main passion of music. I reactivated my 1980s record label, promoted a monthly live event in Tokyo and produced my own music.

As recounted in the introduction to "Ghostly Tales of Japan," I started writing Japanese ghost stories completely by accident. My son and I had been really captivated by the world of the Japanese supernatural since catching an episode of the long-running supernatural animation series Ge! Ge! Ge! No Kitaro on TV shortly after arriving in Japan when he was three-years-old. Bedtime reading sessions alternated between Dr. Suess and the world of yūrei (Japanese ghosts) and yōkai (Japanese supernatural creatures). One night when he was around six, we read a story from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Kwaidan.” When he learned that it was the last one in the book, he asked me to tell him another story, so I made up what was to become the first story in “Ghostly Tales of Japan,” "The Hunter’s Wife." I made up more for him until he stopped requesting them.

I completely forgot about the stories until about three years ago when I visited a small historic pond in Tokyo called Muchi no Ike (commonly translated as the Pond of the Whip), which, legend has it, is inhabited by kappa, an amphibious supernatural creature of Japanese folklore. I didn’t see any of them, but the atmosphere inspired me to write a story, which in turn reignited my interest in the old stories I’d written for my son. When I reread them, I liked them sufficiently to decide to try to write enough stories for a collection. There were lots of stops and starts until last year when I threw all of my energy into the project.

2) You have a tremendous knowledge of the land you live in? How was this interest sparked? What resources did you utilize to learn this much?

Brooks: Most things in my life just seem to come out of the blue. Whenever someone hollers “Hey, let’s put on a show!” I always seem to be at the front of the queue. If I remember rightly, that’s how the Bela Lugosi biography came about. Frank phoned me up from America and said, ”Hey, lets write a book!” The thought had never occurred to me, but of course, I just said okay.

That same attitude led me to Japan. Until 1998, my knowledge of the country was pretty much restricted to Godzilla and documentaries about World War II. It was a place which didn’t really register in my consciousness.

That changed when I reluctantly went to a party in 1998. I started to chat with a stranger who was living in Japan at the time. The alcohol had clearly been flowing rather generously as she said, “Hey, why don’t you come over for a visit?” One month later I arrived in Japan for a month-long stay. Even though I thought it would be a one-off trip, when I returned home I began to study Japanese and to read classical Japanese literature, which often has a healthy dose of the supernatural, and histories of the country.

To be truthful, I would describe my knowledge of Japan, its culture and its history as selective, but I have always been fascinated by history and enjoyed research. Whenever I come across an interesting snippet or someone tells me something interesting, I jot it down in a notebook for possible use in a story. I often visit local museums and places of historical interest. Japan has lost an awful lot of its historical structures due to wars, natural disasters and the relentless march of progress, but everywhere there are signs and markers on the streets relating the history of the place. The ghosts of the past are on almost every street corner. My own garden has a statue of Jizō (the Japanese incarnation of the Buddhist deity Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva) which has supposedly been standing there for at least 400 years.

To be truthful, I often feel like the character in my story “The Story of Matsuda Hideyuki,” a man who lives in the present, but has one foot firmly planted in the past.

One thing which was very important to me when writing the stories was that they were all historically and culturally accurate. They may be works of fiction, but I tried to make the background settings and details as real as possible. I want to eventually have the book translated into Japanese, so I don’t want a Japanese reader to feel that they are not natural or to think that some aspect is impossible. I basically write two kinds of stories. They are either directly inspired by a place I have actually visited, such as Muchi no Ike in Tokyo or Nijo Castle in Kyoto, or inspired by historical or cultural knowledge I already have.

For the latter, I write the story first and then check that that it fits the historical and geographical context I have given it. For that, I consult either my own library or the Internet. Quite often the information I need exists only in Japanese, so my Japanese wife is very helpful in helping me to research sources which are beyond my ability to read or understand. One of the most difficult stories to square with reality was “A Pilgrim’s Tale.” I already knew about the ancient pilgrimage route upon which I set the story, but the lake by which the main events take place was of my own creation. I suppose it would have been okay to have a fictitious lake as the average reader would have no idea of the geography of the pilgrimage route, but it went against my desire to have each story 100 percent believable. It took quite a bit of searching before I could find a real lake which fit my own.

3) What is your son's favorite story/ies?

Brooks: Funnily, although the book is dedicated to him and without him it wouldn’t exist, he hasn’t read it yet! Some stories he remembers from when I read them to him when he was younger and others he knows because I discussed them with him. So, he feels as if he has already read it.

His feedback was very helpful during the writing process, especially for “The Story of Matsuda Hideyuki.” I was very unsure about the ending and actually had two versions. When I asked for his opinion, he choose the one which is in the book. I discussed the possibility of using the alternative, perhaps more subtle, ending in the forthcoming paperback version, but he was adamant that I shouldn’t change it.

4) Anything else you want to add? I am impressed with your pacing, the abrupt endings, either terror or moral story ending. The first story really grabbed me. It stays with me, the ending.

Brooks: I have very little faith in my ability as a writer. I know the story ideas are good, but writing does not come naturally to me. It’s an often painful process. All of the stories have undergone countless revisions. Whenever I thought they were finished, I would reread them and find so many flaws. I was never happy, but in the end I had to tell myself that enough was enough. I could have gone on revising them forever. Despite that, even when the proofreading was completed I found myself doing some tweaking. I suspect that I would still want to revise them if I sat down and reread them now.

The Japanese have a particular knack for reinvention. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, the deities were given Japanese incarnations. Many Japanese legends and myths have a Chinese origin. You can find the same folktales retold throughout Japan with regional flavours added. There is a tradition of writers of each age rewriting and adapting stories for their own times. Popular kabuki plays were rewritten by subsequent generations of writers to keep them relevant for current audiences. Even a startlingly original story such as “Ring,” by Koji Suzuki follows the tradition of incorporating and updating already very well-known elements of folklore.

Anyone familiar with Japanese ghost stories will recognise the well, the long black hair and the white funeral garb as centuries-old staples of Japanese horror. To some extent, I have tried to do the same with my stories, to connect them both directly or indirectly to a recognised tradition to make them acceptable to a Japanese audience. To do this, I totally absorbed myself in written, pictorial and filmed adaptations of Japanese ghostly stories.

The abrupt moral story endings you mentioned were influenced by medieval Buddhist setsuwa, a teaching tool used by itinerant monks to illustrate the laws of karmic causality. The abrupt horrific endings are more akin to the sensational horror stories of the Edo era (1603-1868) a period when the telling of ghost stories as a popular entertainment came into its own. It is an effective format still popular in modern short storytelling. We will have to wait for the Japanese translation is completed to discover how successful, or not, I have been.