Read Recently — January 2005

Slasher Films: An international filmography 1960 through 2001 by Kent Byron Armstrong

I don’t like slasher flicks. The main reason for this is that movies are truly a superior form of entertainment–once I am entered into one it is harder for me to get out. I’m speaking, of course, of movies viewed at a cinema, rather than at home on TV; in the latter case there are so many distractions that it is easier to get pulled out even if one cannot navigate out on one’s own. I’m probably not making sense.

When I watch a movie at the cinema I’m immersed in the experience. The screen is huge and the story becomes more real. I also tend to empathize with the characters; while I know on one level that what they experience is fiction, amusement to us, I am also always aware that it is real to them. That’s why I can’t watch effective horror movies, though bad ones, like Nightbreed, for example, don’t trouble me.

Slasher flicks are particularly problematic, because few of them measure up to the artistry of seminal works such as Halloween, or Friday the 13th (I’m even willing to grant that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a work of art, though it is a deranged and uber-disturbing work). Most of them (even the sequels to the above) become celebrations of the triumph of evil over the innocent (even if the hero/ine triumphs at the end of the first film, he or she is usually killed off in one of the sequels while the killer goes on killing, unstoppably; many slasher flicks deny you even that minor triumph), with the creativity going into newer and more grotesque ways of killing people. I can’t find that amusing; a diet of such films would kill me, perhaps literally.

So what I was thinking when I picked this book up will have to remain a mystery. Certainly, I don’t understand it. The reviews consist mostly of a short plot summary and a paragraph on whether the killings were amusing or creative enough and whether this makes the film good or bad. Armstrong further limits himself to human or human-like killers, and thus denies himself access to the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series, Alien, and Predator, all of which share enough elements with the slasher flick to make such an analysis interesting.

I also submit that Psycho is not a slasher flick.

So whether this book is for you depends on how much you enjoy that sort of film. I don’t, I never will, and I might even argue that if this topic interests you there are better books than this about it.

Dwellers in Darkness by August Derleth
Continuing my re-discovery of Derleth, I am pleased to find a not un-talented writer when he is away from Lovecraft. This is a collection of (mostly) non-Cthulhu mythos (mostly) horror stories, quite short and often quite effective. There is one Cthulhu mythos story, quite well told with none of Derleth’s usually clumsiness in this area–basically the story of a Coroner’s Jury that seems about to be forced to bring in a verdict of accidental death by magic. There are also two very short mysteries involving the character Judge Peck, about whom I believe Derleth wrote a couple novels.


1421: the year China discovered the world by Gavin Menzies

A while ago, when I was reading Lion’s Blood, I was discussing the book with one of my staff and the issue of the Chinese colonies on the west coast of America in that world was raised, and we were wondering how plausible an idea that was. A few days later I wandered into a bookstore and found this hardcover on the remainder rack. Obviously, I was meant to read it.

Menzies, a former submarine commander for the Royal Navy, argues that in the titular year Chinese fleets circumnavigated the globe, touching on all continents except Europe, seeking information and trade, landing settlers where circumstances forced it (such as when several junks were destroyed off the Americas), and leaving behind them maps that got into European hands and drove their own voyages of discovery. Only the unfortunate bad omen of a lightning strike in the newly built Forbidden City led to China withdrawing from the world instead of dominating it.

Menzies presents a convincing, but circumstantial, case. There is possible convincing proof out there–there may be the ruins of junks buried under that sand in some locations, but so far as I have heard it remains speculation only.

Oh, but Menzies does create an explanation for the Piri Reis map that doesn’t involve extra-terrestrials; for that alone we owe him a debt of thanks. 🙂


The Sign of Fear: A Judge Peck Mystery by August W. Derleth

A mystery by Derleth. Renowned archaeologist Christopher Jannichon returns home to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in the dead of night and terrified of a number of mysterious signs he has received on postcards from locations close to him around the world. He fears they are threats, though he cannot quite explain why, and now the signs are even in the snow outside the house.

In addition to Christopher and his hunch-backed brother Cornelius, the house is occupied by their housekeeper. They are shortly joined by their sister Elka, and gradually by most of the rest of their extended family. Christopher calls in the D.A. to discuss the perceived threat; fortunately the D.A. has Judge Peck, a distinguished juror who has also solved a mystery or two in his time. Fortunately, because soon there is a mystery as Elka drops dead, apparantly terrified to death.

The Judge foils a couple of attempts on Christopher’s life, showing that the killer doesn’t intend to stop at just one. There is no shortage of suspects, (almost) the whole family being there, and the police shortly make an arrest. Judge Peck believes they are wrong, though, and undertakes to defend the accused in a trial at which the identity of the true murderer is, of course, exposed.

An interesting story, with a truly surprising killer, and I found the difference between police procedures and evidence availability between 1935 and now to be interesting as well. DNA makes some things much easier.


Good Guy, Bad Guy: Drugs and the changing face of organized Crime by Yves Lavigne

Lavigne wrote an earlier book that I read, about the Hell’s Angels. He’s not a very good writer; profane certainly and not without interest, but he needs a better editor to be good. He writes here about a wide range of criminals, from black street gangs to Asian triads and the Cocaine Cartels. He also writes about the men in the DEA, FBI and CIA who fight this kind of crime so ineffectively. Lavigne often comes across as racist (I don’t know that he is, but he comes across that way–like I said, bad writer, may not want to give that impression, but it’s hard to tell)–his chapter on black street gangs ends with him lamenting the cancellation of the American Draft, since the military would give young black men much-needed discipline that would presumably direct them away from a life of crime, should they survive fighting rich men’s wars. That sort of colonial attitude tends to colour his sections on other races as well. He’s very down on white criminals as well, though he tends to tar with a less broad brush there. He’s also very down on liberals. He opposes decriminalization; he seems to feel more money and weapons should be given to the drug warriors, that approach having worked so well so far.

Oh, and the book is 13 years out of date.

Not recommended.

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