BOOK REVIEW: Frankenstein Alive, Alive! by Steve Niles

Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Complete Collection (Frankenstein Alive, Alive!)Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Complete Collection by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novella collects four issues together with some ancillary matter (e.g. draft sketches.) It not only draws upon the Shelley Frankenstein world; it picks up from it as if it were a sequel. That is, it begins on the Artic ice, with Frankenstein’s monster intent upon finding peace – if not an end — frozen in the glacial mass. The story is about the monster coming to grips with its humanity, its monstrosity, and its immortality.

When the monster’s attempt to freeze himself in the ice fails to bring eternal rest, as well as a second attempt of a similar nature, the monster realizes there is no respite to be had in hiding out in suspended animation. It will simply result in a string of rebirths like the one that began his torment. The monster must go about the business of living.

Wandering back to civilization, the monster finds a rare friend among a wealthy doctor, and takes up residence in the doctor’s mansion. At first, this doctor, Dr. Simon Ingles, seems quite unlike the monster’s creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Ingles isn’t repulsed by the creature’s existence and has a nurturing manner that wasn’t to be found in Victor. However, eventually we see that Ingles shares with Victor an ambition to be free from the shackles of mortality.

Ingles wants to harness the power of life to keep his terminally ill wife from dying. The price that must be paid to extend his wife’s life is even more foul than that paid by Dr. Frankenstein. When the monster recognizes this monstrous ambition in Ingles, he is torn about what to do. On the one hand, Ingles has been kind to him, is in many ways a good person, and the monster thinks that it is far be it for him to enforce morality given his own great crimes. On the other hand, the monster is uniquely attuned to the darkness of this desire shared by the two doctors, the desire to be master over life and death, and the sight of this ambition brings out a desire to end Ingles’ life and his despicable plan.

This is a smart story built around the humanity in a monster and the monstrosity in humans. It’s a quick read, being less than one-hundred pages. Bernie Wrightson’s artwork is appropriately gothic, and – except for a few plates between issues, is black-and-white. I’d highly recommend it for those who like classic horror and science fiction, particularly if you enjoy graphic works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable

Dracula: Son of the Dragon (comiXology Originals)Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There is a vast amount of vampiric fiction available today, and no small amount of it focuses on the character of Dracula. This graphic novel sets itself apart by building the story on real world events (such as they are known, and with dramatic license to make the story exciting and the imagery evocative.) At the risk of turning people off (but not intending to,) I would go as far as to say this book leads with history, and makes the supernatural secondary. I actually liked that about it. When I say the supernatural is secondary, it’s not like its eliminated from existence or that it’s purely garnish. There are dragons and vampires, but a story exists with or without those elements.

A story of war and political intrigue in what is now Romania is bookended by the depiction of a meeting between Vlad Dracula and three clergymen. In the opening, Vlad is telling the priests that he is about to let them in on the truth of his story, which they have no doubt heard in mythologized form. At the end, he asks the clergymen to tell him whether he will be allowed into heaven. The body of the story is a flashback from the meeting with the priests. It splits focus between Vlad’s father, who is working to keep his domain under his control by playing the ends against the middle vis-à-vis his Roman Catholic neighbors (notably Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire, and the story oft Vlad, himself. Vlad is a young man. He and his brother are sent to Scholomance (a kind of Slavic Dark Arts Hogwarts) and later become prisoners of the Ottomans.

I thought the artwork was easy to follow and stylistically appealing enough. Some of the frames in the ancillary material at the back were truly beautiful. I often disregard the back-matter in comics because it usually amounts to little more than discussion of how the drafts changed over time – i.e. offering insight into the sausage-making of the book. However, this book had an extensive Notes section that I found fascinating and useful because it explained how points in the book compared with known history. Some of the points that I assumed were pure fiction had a factual basis. Sable also related points to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The creators tried to be consistent with Stoker’s book, as well as with history, when they could. The former wasn’t so hard because readers of Bram Stoker’s will recognize that the titular character is kept largely a mystery, particularly with regard to his backstory.

If you are interested at all in the historical and mythological basis of the Dracula vampire, I’d recommend this book. As I said, the notes will give you a good idea of what was known to be true, what is complete fiction, and what is a kernel of truth enveloped in story sensationalism. Obviously, all the supernatural elements are pure fiction, and also there is a lot that remains unknown, but this graphic novel provides an interesting take on the origins of Vlad Dracula.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Power of Mesmerism by Anonymous

The Power of MesmerismThe Power of Mesmerism by Anonymous
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Occasionally, a book comes along that is so ill-named that one needs to first discuss what the book is and isn’t. If one only read this work’s title, one might think it’s an early self-help book on hypnotism. It is not – not by a longshot. [Mesmerism, named for Franz Mesmer, is an alternative name for a system he called “Animal Magnetism” that involved a prototypical form of hypnotism along with other practices – most or all of which have been proven to have no scientific merit whatsoever. Because the “magnetism” part of animal magnetism bore no fruit, and only hypnotism proved at all useful, the word “mesmerism” became a synonym for “hypnotism.”] If one read the subtitle, the words “erotic narrative” would clue one into the fact that the book is racy fiction. That it is, but that still may not mentally prepare the reader for the particular nature of this piece of Victorian Erotica.

Even for readers generally comfortable with erotic content, this book may be unappealing owing to three controversial forms of content. First, there’s sexual activity that occurs without consent. The fictitious way in which hypnosis is portrayed in the book is key to understanding this issue (it’s a fantastic depiction that is common in fiction, television, and movies because it makes an interesting plot device.) In the book, mesmerism can be used to make the subject do anything the the hypnotist asks them to, and the subject is perfectly amnesiac (i.e. they remember none of what transpired in the trance state.) Real hypnosis cannot be used to force a person to do anything they don’t want to do, and while a suggestion to forget can be made, results will vary. Some subjects will have no memory of the trance, but others will remember what happened with perfect clarity. I should point out that this isn’t the harshest non-consent scenario because all of the characters eventually are made (at least vaguely) aware of what has happened and are depicted as being “into it.”

Second, much of the content is incestuous (and, on a related note, while the lead character’s sister seems to be physically mature, she is presumably not of legal age of maturity – not today’s, at least.) The story revolves around a young man who comes back home from school, having learned the tricks of mesmerism. He first employs them on his younger sister, then on some household staff, then upon his parents, and finally on a cast of friends and family. The final point which some readers will find excessively offensive involves a lecherous and perverse clergyman. [Though individuals offended by portrayals of depraved clergy probably don’t read many historic works of erotica because from at least “The Decameron” (AD 1351) onward a hypocritical and libidinous priest is par for the course in erotic scenes. As one can imagine, the Church and writers of erotica have not gotten along, historically.]

As is common in erotica that leans pornographic, story and character development are nearly non-existent in this work. It’s largely one sex scene after the other with the only internal logic being that they be more scandalous / decadent as they proceed.

Any recommendation must be qualified. If you can’t deal with sexual activity, this book is definitely not for you. But, furthermore, if any of the three types of content I mentioned above are non-starters for you, this also isn’t your book. If you read historic fiction and don’t mind the aforementioned content, you can find this book on Project Gutenberg and other public domain outlets on the web.

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BOOK REVIEW: Othello by William Shakespeare

OthelloOthello by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Othello” is Shakespeare’s tragic take on a plot device he uses in comedies such as “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Cymbeline,” and “The Winter’s Tale.” It’s the story of a jealous husband who falsely accuses his [in fact] virtuous wife of infidelity. Othello is a Moorish military commander, well regarded for his prowess in battle. Unlike Ford from “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Othello isn’t particularly jealous by nature, but he’s masterfully manipulated by one of Shakespeare’s most famously treacherous villains, Iago. In fact, it could be argued that Othello’s virtuous nature blinds him Iago’s duplicity.

[Spoiler warning: I discuss plot details in much greater detail in my Shakespeare reviews than I usually would, because: a.) the plots are generally familiar anyway, b.) many people aren’t comfortable reading Elizabethan language and find it easier to follow if they have a basic idea of what is going on. At any rate, from this point forward plot details are discussed.]

The play opens with a furor that is created when Desdemona’s father (Brabantio) is informed by Iago (and Rodrigo) that Desdemona has been “making the beast with two backs” with Othello (still one of my favorite euphemisms for intercourse.) In the court of the Duke, Othello is accused of defiling Desdemona, but the Moor claims that he and Desdemona are legally wed, having eloped and married. Desdemona is summoned, and she confirms this to be true. Iago’s initial plot peters out here because Brabantio has always respected Othello. As it turns out, Othello is being deployed to a military action by the Duke.

Not one to give up easily, Iago advances his treachery while deployed by getting Othello’s right-hand man (Cassio) drunk. Cassio is on Iago’s blacklist, because Iago thinks the Moor should have granted him a post that was instead given Cassio. Cassio loses favor with Othello when the Moor finds him drunk. This ploy sets up a two-pronged plan by which Iago intends to wreck the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. (Iago’s wife, Emilia, is Desdemona’s attendant and bestie. So, while Othello’s virtuous nature seems to create a blind spot of Iago’s duplicity, the villainous Iago appears to suspect imagined treachery everywhere – including the possibility that Othello is bi-backed beasting Emilia [whether he imagines this being a coupling or a menage-a-trois with Desdamona is unclear.])

The twin prongs of the plot are: first, get Cassio to ask Desdemona to smooth things over with Othello about the drunkenness (which will make it look like Desdemona has a more intense interest in Cassio than she actually does,) and second, subtly start planting the notion in Othello’s mind that he should keep and eye on Cassio.

Like an evil genius, Iago plays it subtle – a reluctant accuser. This keeps Iago’s own motivation from being made clear because it seems like he’s just trying to do the right thing. He plants sees but lets other do the obvious work of tending. However, Iago knows some hard evidence will be necessary because Othello isn’t going to go off the rails without at least some circumstantial evidence. He achieves this by obtaining from Emilia a handkerchief that was gifted from Othello to Desdemona. He nags Emilia to steal it, which she won’t, but when Desdemona mislays it, Emilia figures she can shut her ne’er-do-well husband up. [Emilia doesn’t know it’s for some grand homewrecking design. She is dubious of her husband, but figures it’s just a patch of cloth. How much trouble could be caused by letting her husband borrow it for some juvenile prank?] The handkerchief is planted in Cassio’s room.

It turns out that when Othello sees the handkerchief in the hand of a woman known to associate with Cassio, it’s all the evidence he needs to turn things murderous. He asks Iago to kill Cassio (a job Iago outsources to Rodrigo, suggesting that Rodrigo can finally have a chance with Desdemona if Cassio is killed because Othello will have to stay at home rather than the couple moving on to a foreign posting abroad.) Rodrigo ends up severely wounding Cassio while being mortally wounded himself (Iago making sure his treachery doesn’t come out while Rodrigo can still talk.)

Othello kills Desdemona after accusing her of cheating. [Desdemona, of course, thinks he’s lost his mind.] When Emilia questions Othello’s motives, the Moor cites the handkerchief as evidence of Desdemona’s scandalous behavior. Emilia tells him that Desdemona dropped the handkerchief and that Iago took possession of it. It’s at this point that Othello realizes he’s been scammed. Iago dies. Othello takes his own life.

This play is more than a cautionary tale about jealousy. It also shows how an honest man may be too quick to see honesty in others, while a dishonest man feels the need to preempt all manner of imagined plots. It’s among Shakespeare’s more popular works. It’s a simple story, but features richly developed characters. It’s definitely a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Preacher, Book One by Garth Ennis

Preacher, Book 1Preacher, Book 1 by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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After hearing glowing praise about the television series, I picked up this volume, intending to watch the series and wanting to take in the source material. As both the television show and this book were available via Amazon Prime, I ended up reading it in a period overlapping with watching the first season. [I don’t recommend doing it that way. The comic book and series share the same basic premise, but are wildly different in the story details and even shared plot points are revealed in different ways or at different points in the story. One can end up conflating the two in confusing ways because they are neither so close nor different that the stories merge or completely distinguish themselves.]

The book involves an unwholesome but likeable trio who travel together in search of divine answers. The lead character is Jesse Custer, a preacher prone to cursing, drinking too much, and getting in brawls. Early in the telling of the story, we also learn that Custer has been granted a godly superpower – the ability to give people orders that override their freewill – which we learn is called “Genesis.” The other two characters are Tulip, Custer’s love interest, and Cassidy – an Irish Vampire who parties hard but has surprising levels of charism and good-naturedness for a member of the undead.

Book One contains a dozen issues. There are three distinct parts to the story. The first part (Ch. 1 – 4) not only introduces the story (in part through flashbacks as the three sit in a diner telling stories,) but it also shows the three being tracked down by “The Saint of Killers” — an old west gunmen that some angels hire to take out Custer because even the angels can be stopped by Custer’s “word,” i.e. Genesis.

In the middle part (Ch. 5 -7,) the trio heads to New York City in an effort to rendezvous with someone Cassidy knows who might be able to put them back on God’s trail. This puts them in the middle of a manhunt for a serial killer who’s been terrifying the city.

In the final part (Ch. 8 -12,) Custer and Tulip go back to Texas to fix Tulip’s debt problem, but they end up getting caught by two mysterious rednecks who turn out to be henchmen of Custer’s despicable grandma – who plays the role of lead villain throughout the remainder of the book. Chapters nine and ten are largely flashbacks that give the reader insight into Jesse’s background, why he’s so screwed up, and also answers a number of burning background questions.

I thought the ending point was a good place to end the volume. In serialized works I often end up focusing on the question of whether the collected issues present a full story arc. In this case, they did. It is true that a part of the resolution hinges on a bit of deus ex machina that is clearly meant to be part of the hook to keep people reading. However, they pile on the action so it’s easy to miss the importance of this inexplicable sleight of hand. Overall, I thought the story was skillfully delivered.

As many people will have seen the tv series, one point of interest might be whether it’s worth it for said individual to read the comics. As I said, the details of the story are quite different, and so even though the core characters are the same [in some cases only superficially so] and the central ideas (e.g. pursuit by St. of Killers and Genesis) are shared, it’s not the case that you’ll be rehashing the same story. As far as the quality of the two media, I thought they were on par. I’m not going to spout the bookish motto – i.e. “the book is always better.” In fact, I would say there is one way in which the TV show is much better, and that is the character of Tulip. In the comic book she is an unexciting character who largely serves as love interest and damsel in distress. In the show, she easily holds her own weight against the strong characters of Jesse Custer and Cassidy. But that said, I think it’s worth reading the comics and I don’t think a reader will be disappointed.

By way of warning, I should mention that, while it’s hard to pin a genre on this work [Neo-Western / Horror / Anti-hero story?] it is graphic in gore, language, and [though only sparsely] sexual activity.

This is a fun read. It’s a tense story, but has humor and characters to which a reader will be drawn. I’d recommend it for readers of horror and comic books.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

The Third PolicemanThe Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I’m a huge fan of stories involving mind-bending, surrealist worlds, of which this is a masterful example. I also find dry, absurdist humor of the Monty Python variety to be hilarious, and this book has loads of it. In short, for me this book was a match made in heaven.

The opening of the story is normal enough. There are two characters who seem to be inseparable friends, but – in fact – they are inseparable because they conspired to murder an old man in order to steal his money. One man, the protagonist, fears that the other man (who knows where the loot was stashed) will make off with the money, leaving our lead high and dry. After the two have left time for the heat to die down, the partner (who knows where the money is) suggests they go to retrieve and split it. Recognizing that the protagonist doesn’t trust him, the partner suggests that the protagonist go into the old man’s abandoned house to extract the lock-box that they left behind.

The protagonist agrees, and once he enters the old man’s house, we know that he has tumbled down some sort of rabbit-hole. The reader doesn’t learn what the cause of this shift into a dreamlike world is until near the end of the story, but it’s quite obvious that this isn’t the real world. “Dreamlike” is an apt descriptor. While this bizarre world clearly builds on the world as he knows it, it also defies the logic of the world as we know it. Furthermore, as when in a dream, the protagonist doesn’t recognize the strange logic of how this world operates, nor does he truly recognize how strange people’s behavior is.

The strangeness begins with the protagonist’s discovery of the man he killed – apparently living – in the house. The conversation gets off to an odd start when the protagonist discovers that the old man will only answer yes / no questions in the negative, and so he’s been giving false information about half the time. Their meandering conversation shifts onto the titular “policemen,” who – while vaguely authority figures – are involved in all manner of inexplicable activities from making garments that indicate the length of a person’s lifespan to taking measurements of unexplained quantities for unexplained purposes (or – perhaps – no purpose.) The protagonist reasons that since these policemen seem to know so much, they will surely be able to tell him where the lock-box is located.

As I said, the book contains a lot of absurdist humor. Some of this derives from the policemen’s obsession with bicycles. When the protagonist arrives, they just assume he is there about a stolen bicycle (or bicycle parts) and – no matter how he tries to convince them otherwise – they continue to answer his inquiries about other matters in terms of bicycles. (There’s also a bit of an unexplained obsession with pancakes, as when a difficult problem is called an “insoluble pancake.”)

As I say, I love this kind of book, and I thought this is a particularly skillful and amusing example of the genre. I’d highly recommend it for readers who like their fiction trippy. Despite huge doses of surrealism, it’s easy to follow what is going on in the story, and to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen, Vol. 1Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The protagonist is a lesbian Norse warrior, Aydis, who is living in exile in the wilderness. After she was discovered making out with a girlfriend, two unappealing fates were offered: marriage (to a man) or death. Her father, recognizing that neither of those options was acceptable to his daughter or himself, pretends to accept the death sentence, but instead of killing Aydis he helps with her escape. The story is set in a period in between the heyday of Norse Mythology and modernity. The story refers back to mythological events (and since many of those characters are immortal it includes a few of them,) but it’s during a time when Christianity is spreading in the region and some of the old ways have been forgotten or dismissed by many.

The four issues contained in this book follow a quest that involves Aydis going to rescue a Valkyrie named Brynhild who was long ago imprisoned on a mountain in a circle of fire for defying Odin. Then – once Brynhild is freed –the quest continues in order to keep the rescue from being reversed and becoming meaninglessness. [Brynhild must be married to a mortal to escape imprisonment, but since that means she must repeatedly see her mortal spouses die only to go back to her prison. Aydis intends to see this reversed.]

I found the writing engaging and action gripping. While I’m no expert on art, I was able to follow the action in the panels and found it stylistically interesting and distinct – though I couldn’t tell you anything about what that style is.

My primary criticism revolves around my own preference for a volume having a self-contained satisfying narrative arc. This volume had plenty of great action and relatable character objectives. Admittedly, this is a tough standard for work that is by its nature serialized. However, at the end of the book one feels the set up for the continuation of the story (the cliffhanger) much more intensely than one feels there was any kind of conclusion and resolution. For readers who are predominantly series readers, this may not be a problem, but as one who reads one book at a time, I need to feel that something was resolved over the course of the story.

I think the book was bold and successful in turning conventions on its head. The primary convention under attack is the distressed damsel – a helpless character who needs a man to come along to rescue her. The book also takes the social issue of persecution based on sexual preference in a scene within Brynhild’s parallel (but intersecting?) quest.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. If you like the story idea and tend to read in series, then this is a great volume to pick up. If you’re not sure you want to be drawn into another series, you may decide to exercise more caution.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hamlet by William Shakespeare

HamletHamlet by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is probably Shakespeare’s most popular work. If it’s not, it has to be in the top three. One reason for its popularity relates to language. There’s probably a higher density of widely-quoted lines, and phrases that are part of common speech, in this play than in any other work of literature. From Polonius’s warnings to his son (e.g. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”), to Hamlet’s soliloquized attempts to think through a course of action (“To be, or not to be: That is the question:”), to Hamlet’s wisdom in moments of lucidity (”There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” or “There is more in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”) to the many other quotes from various characters that appear across pop culture and everyday speech. “Methinks she doth protest too much,” “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and “Sweets to the sweet” [or variations thereof] all derive from this play.

But quotability isn’t the sole basis for the play’s popularity. While it’s certainly not the most action-packed of Shakespeare’s plays, that is actually part of what makes it unique and makes its lead character relatable. Shakespeare’s works are full of tragedy resulting from rash conclusions that – in turn — result in ill-considered actions. How many times have we seen the case of a man who is too quick to believe his wife or girlfriend has been unfaithful, and – after the cataclysmic fallout – he then discovers that it was never true in the first place. Hamlet turns the convention on its head, showing us what can go wrong with a character who – in true scholarly fashion – is prone to paralysis by analysis. Hamlet is prone to drawn out contemplation that results in missed opportunities – not to mention, tragic neglect of his love interest, Ophelia. [Such over-analysis is exemplified by the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy as Hamlet considers suicide.] It might seem like inaction would make for a boring play, but the tragedy unfolds never-the-less. [And in the instances in which there is fast-action, it proves flawed as when Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius.]

Another element of the play’s success hinges on a technique for which Shakespeare was a pioneer and an early master, strategic ambiguity. We don’t know the degree to which Hamlet is insane versus pretending, regardless of hints in the form of moments of lucidity. At least until the final act, we don’t know the degree to which Hamlet’s mother is in on Claudius’s plotting. We also don’t know if Ophelia is a lunatic when she is handing out flowers, or if she’s cunningly delivering a masterful series of passive-aggressive bitch-slaps. Shakespeare is careful with his reveals, and sometimes chooses to not offer any at all.

As most people are at least vaguely acquainted with the story, I’ll offer only a brief description. [But if you don’t want the story spoiled any more than it has been, call it quits here.] Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home from college. He’s bummed because, not only did his father recently die, but his mother has remarried his uncle. Hamlet might be able to cope with this apparent disrespect [arguably to him as well as his father because young Hamlet was next in line of succession], but then his father’s ghost appears to Hamlet. The ghost tells him that he (Hamlet’s father) was murdered by Claudius, and the ghost insists upon revenge. Hamlet doesn’t want to be punked by a malevolent spirit, so he has a group of actors modify their play so that it depicts the assassination as the ghost described it. When Claudius is shaken up by the scene and leaves the theater, Hamlet feels certain that the ghost spoke true. When Hamlet goes to visit his mother, he believes that Claudius [or a real rat] is spying on him and stabs out at a rustling curtain, but he actually kills Polonius (father to Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia, and a guy who doesn’t deserve to die – despite being a bit of an irritating know-it-all.) Polonius’s killing triggers a sequence of events that ultimately results in Hamlet being sent to England, Ophelia committing suicide, and her brother, Laertes, coming home intent on getting revenge for Polonius’s murder.

Hamlet discovers that Claudius sent him off with a “Please kill this man” note, but Hamlet manages to replace the King’s order and escape. He returns to Denmark in time to happen upon Ophelia’s funeral. He’s distraught about Ophelia’s death, despite having been a complete jerk to the girl whenever he wasn’t completely ignoring her. Laertes is angry at Hamlet for killing Polonius and giving his sister a lethal case of heartbreak, and there is a tussle. This is broken up and an agreement is made to have a gentleman’s duel later. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, this is part of a plot engineered by Claudius and Laertes. [To be fair, Laertes doesn’t know what a treacherous villain Claudius is, and how much the King’s previous plot – killing Hamlet’s father – is the cause all the play’s unfortunate events – as opposed to them resulting from Hamlet being part crazy and part jackass.] Claudius and Laertes poison the tip of Laertes’ rapier, and Claudius doubles down by pouring some more poison into Hamlet’s cup [which Hamlet’s mother ultimately drinks, followed by forced consumption by Claudius at the hands of Hamlet.] In true tragic form, the end is an orgy of death.

This is a must read (or see) for everyone – both for the language and the complex and interesting characters.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 [Marvel Masterworks] by Stan Lee (+Ditko & Kirby)

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection includes the first ever appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15, as well as the first ten issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man run from 1963. The story (told by Lee in the intro) is that “Amazing Fantasy” was about to be discontinued, and this gave Lee and team the opportunity to present a character that the powers-that-be found too ridiculous to merit consideration (but no one cared because the series was going under.) Lee’s instincts were right. Marvel got tons of love letters to the character, and Lee was able to sell the idea of a stand-alone comic.

This is a hard book to critique. It’s the dawn of a much beloved character – arguably Marvel’s flagship to this day, and there are many solid reasons for that love. That said, this ground-breaking collection of comic books that would launch a vast empire [or multi-verse] around one of the most popular characters ever, is in many ways fairly amateurish (e.g. in an early episode the lead’s alter-ego is called “Peter Palmer” for a whole issue, presumably because Lee forgot that “Parker” was the correct last name and there was no editorial oversight.)

So, this collection mixes tremendous strengths with some cringeworthy elements. I’ll start with the former for two reasons. First, I think they ultimately outweigh the weaknesses, and – judging from the immense popularity — most people seem to agree. Second, and probably far more important, is the realization that criticizing Lee almost 60 years later is a little like faulting Edison for the short filament life of incandescent lightbulbs. Lee, Ditko, and Kirby were on the sparse end of the learning curve. [I also realize that the lack of objective editorial oversight that made “the Palmer debacle” possible may have also made the series much better because of a lack of second-guessing by higher-ups.]

So, what are the strengths? First, Lee builds an extremely interesting and sympathetic character in Peter Parker / Spider-Man. Parker is beleaguered with problems (e.g. bullied at school, raised by a single aunt who is elderly and [in some issues] in poor health, and he’s constantly in need of cash to keep the household afloat.) Spider-Man is made tremendously powerful, but not invulnerable. He is presented with a steady stream of moral dilemmas in which he could easily solve a problem using his power if he weren’t compelled to act morally. Second, these early episodes did a tremendous amount of foundational heavy-lifting for the enterprise. It’s not just his origin story. Many of the members of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery that are most well-known and which have been drawn upon for the movies (e.g. The Vulture, Doc Ock, Sandman, and Electro) feature in these early issues. The bulk of Spider-Man’s world – minus his most well-known love interests and the Osborn’s [Norman, Harry, and the Corporation] – are presented in these pages.

The bulk of the weakness is in dialogue and internal monologue. First, there is a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. [If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s explanation of things that should be clear to the relevant characters (and to the reader,) but that are said anyhow.] Part of the reason for this is the serialization issue (i.e. one doesn’t want someone to be penalized for joining in the middle of the series, so one is constantly rehashing backstory – but there are more and less skillful ways to do this.) Beyond the serialization conundrum, there seemed to be a lack of faith that readers would understand the action from the drawings. [However, while the art might seem crude by today’s standards, I think it did a very clear job of conveying the dynamism of action.]

Second, there is sometimes flimsy psychology behind character motives. This is best exemplified by a soliloquy by J. Jonah Jameson at the end of the collection. He explains, to himself, why he hates Spider-Man, and it presents a man who is a villain in his own mind, as if he realizes his own faults but insists on moving forward with them. (As opposed to thinking that he is the hero of his own story and acting from that deluded belief.) I don’t know the backstory, but it reads as if someone said, “Why does Jameson continue to hate Spider-Man?” and the staff had no idea besides that it increased plot tension nicely. So, they wrote the kind of weak explanation that a person tends to engage in when one attributes nefarious motives to one’s employer or anyone else one doesn’t get along with. That is, they suggested that Jameson is just a jerk because he feels like being a jerk (not because he is operating from his own motives and worldview, which don’t necessarily align with Parker’s.) [Actually, a brief mention early in the collection hints that Jameson doesn’t like Spider-Man one-upping Jameson’s son, which is a much more interesting motivation than the others presented.] A possible third weakness is an excess of cornball. I suspect this tendency results from Lee trying to appeal to what he thought kids would find hip. (Which may or may not be the same as what they actually did find hip.) I’m not so sure about this one, as I think it’s something that people love about Lee’s work –e.g. alliterative naming schemes, strained metaphors, and narcissistic internal monologuing.

If you are a fan of comic books, you must read this as a piece of history and for some very entertaining superhero stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

CarmillaCarmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This gothic vampire novella is about 25 years older than its more famous subgenre peer, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Le Fanu’s work is not only much shorter, but is written in a more approachable style. The story takes inspiration from an event that is recorded in a book entitled “Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al.” (1751.) This tract on spirits, demons, ghosts, revenants, and vampires was written by a Benedictine monk and scholar, Dom Calmet. The story in question involves a village that was said to be having a problem with nocturnal visits from vampires. Try as they might, the villagers couldn’t get this vampiric pest problem under control. A mysterious visitor from the east (usually referred to as a “Hungarian”) stopped into town and offered his services, and – as the legend went – he succeeded in eliminating the vampires. A version of this story is presented late in the novella (Ch. 13) and it’s only then that one learns how that story influences the one Le Fanu writes in “Carmilla.”

The story in “Carmilla” revolves around a young woman who serves as the first-person narrator, Laura. Laura lives out in the countryside with only her father and the household servants. She is starved for interaction with people her own age, and her only female interaction is with the help. Early in the story Laura is excited because a friend of her father’s (the General) is supposed to be coming to visit, and he will be bringing his own ward – a girl of Laura’s age. But that visit is cancelled, and we learn that the girl fell ill and passed away.

When a carriage overturns on the road in front of Laura’s father’s property, it seems that Laura will get the female companion for whom she’s been yearning. The occupants of the carriage that we know of a are an adult woman and her daughter, Carmilla. The woman is unharmed, and says she must make her way to some distant location urgently on unstated business. However, her daughter, Carmilla, is frail by nature and it’s too risky for her to make the remainder of the journey. Laura’s father, a kind man who recognizes his daughter’s loneliness, offers to host Carmilla for a time until her mother can return for her.

Carmilla’s visit starts out well enough. Everything is normal during the day. Over time, Laura recognizes some dismaying personality traits of her visitor (i.e. Carmilla is a bit elitist and narcissistic,) but Carmilla is not without her charms. The nights, however, start getting progressively stranger and more disconcerting. At first, one can’t be certain to what degree something real is transpiring. I thought Le Fanu did a fine job of capturing the hazy hypnopompic world where one isn’t quite certain what is dream and what is reality. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that Laura is experiencing a real loss of vitality. Carmilla seems to be suffering similarly, but they have no basis to think this is new. Among Carmilla’s nocturnal strangeness is the fact that she’s a sleep-walker. One night she disappears and it’s thought that she might have been abducted or run away, but then she turns up none the worse for wear.

I’ll let the reader discover for him- or herself how events play out in the story.

Much has been made of the lesbian element of this story. In true Victorian nature, this isn’t at all explicit or graphic. The reader is given no reason to believe anything sexually romantic transpires. All one knows for a fact is that Carmilla is up-front about being into girls. As for Laura, all we really know is that she is comfortable with a certain degree of intimate physical contact from Carmilla that includes hugs and face touching in conjunction with comments of a vaguely suggestive nature. Laura could be a lesbian or bisexual, but she could also just be naïve and / or starved for physical contact. I don’t know enough about Le Fanu’s views to draw conclusions about any ulterior messages he may have intended. While the obvious ulterior intent is erotic, there are some who argue that the story presents an anti-lesbian message (i.e. don’t let your daughter hang out with touchy-feely friends or she’ll get “turned.”) I’m not enough of a literary historian to know whether such intent existed. Perhaps those who suggest this know enough about either Le Fanu or the literature of the time to have a sound basis. However, I don’t think one could reach that conclusion from the story alone.

I enjoyed this story. For writing from 1872, it’s readable, and – as I mentioned – I think Le Fanu does a good job of describing the supernatural elements of the story in a way that captures the surreal feel. Readers of modern vampire stories might be bored from the lack of crimson arterial spray and sundry grotesqueries, but the novella has got some other fine qualities such as how the story unfolds, i.e. how reveals are made. Not to mention, Le Fanu creates a character whose fate one cares about (rather than random redshirts stuck into the story for the express purpose of being slain.) If you liked Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or other vampire fiction, I think you’ll definitely want to give this one a read.

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