Sunday, January 29, 2017

Horror & History: World War II

Blue Devil Island by Stephen Mark Rainey

A Critique by Anthony Servante

Author (Amazon) Biography:

The writer is not the infamous Stephen King antihero Mort Rainey, but the far more nefarious author of the novels DARK SHADOWS: DREAMS OF THE DARK (with Elizabeth Massie), BALAK, THE LEBO COVEN, THE NIGHTMARE FRONTIER, BLUE DEVIL ISLAND, THE MONARCHS, and YOUNG BLOOD (with Mat & Myron Smith); five short story collections; and over 100 published works of short fiction.

Those with long memories may recall that I edited DEATHREALM magazine, from 1987 to 1997. In its decade-long history, DEATHREALM won a bunch of nice awards and featured hundreds of short stories, poems, and essays by authors ranging from the most established professionals to young, aspiring first-timers, many of whom proceeded to carve out names for themselves in the horror/dark fantasy field.

In 2004, I edited a new anthology for Delirium Books, titled DEATHREALMS, which features a selection of short stories from the magazine. I've edited a couple of other anthologies as well. THE SONG OF CTHULHU (Chaosium, 2001) features 20 stories of Lovecraftian horror, and in 2006, I co-edited (with James Robert Smith) a new anthology for Arkham House titled EVERMORE, which features short stories about Edgar Allan Poe.

In summer, 2008, Dark Regions Press released a new collection of my short fiction, titled OTHER GODS, featuring 16 of my tales, including one never-before-published story ("Antidotes"). In 2011, Dark Regions released another collection of my short stories, titled THE GAKI & OTHER HUNGRY SPIRITS.

I have a number of new dark and delightful tales coming down the pike, for which I'll post details when they're available.

Book (Amazon) Summary: 

Autumn 1943, the beginning of the American offensive against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Just west of the Solomon Islands lies a remote desert island called Conquest, where the U.S. Navy stations a new fighting squadron, led by Lieutenant Commander Drew McLachlan, an ace pilot and veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Blue Devils soar into combat--against known and unknown enemies. The squadron's island home may not be secure--in nearby volcanic caves, McLachlan finds evidence of habitation by unknown natives--natives that resemble no living race, that may yet exist in the mysterious subterranean catacombs. As the Solomon campaign enters into its final skirmishes, the Japanese at last turn their attention to Conquest Island. Now the Blue Devils find themselves the target of an overwhelming assault by the desperate Imperial Japanese forces--and an unknown predatory force that leaves mutilated victims as the only evidence of its presence.

The Critique:

In "Blue Devil Island", Stephen Mark Rainey re-creates the historical era of World War Two while melding the elements of a narrative horror story. To capture the essence of Historical Horror, Rainey utilizes period realism, such as language and technical savvy, and imagines an understated Lovecraftian menace into the mix. As such, the seamless story-telling enters that "imaginary time" dimension where fiction and nonfiction become one.

As our story begins, we learn that this is a "true" story that was covered up after the war, but that the narrator, one Lieutenant Commander Drew McLachlan, USN, decided needed to be told in order to recognize the heroes who died in the events leading up to the cover-up:

"I was commanding officer of the Fighting 39 from the day I oversaw its commission until its untimely disbanding, and I can state with the utmost objectivity that no other group of men could have been more professional or more spirited in their service to their country. Sadly, as is always the case in war, many wonderful young men lost their lives during that short but terrible period, and the tragedy is compounded by the fact that many of them died fighting not the Japanese, but an enemy far more insidious and unexpected." (Blue Devil Island, 1st Ed., p. 10).

We are initially introduced to the two elements of this particular field of battle in the second World War: the immediate threat of the Japanese air fighters and the "ultimate horror" on the island.

To add to the realism of the Japanese threat and the "Fighting 39", we are provided a list of The Blue Devils VF-39 roster and a map of the Solomon Islands for an authentic view of the locales where the story's events take place. This opening echoes countless World War Two novelizations

and pulp stories, which is important to keeping the realistic but fantastic nature at the forefront of the story. This is just another story of heroic pilots facing dangerous missions. The horror beyond that is that which has been described thus far as "unexpected".

Real Map of Solomon Islands (circa 1943)

Although the roster of pilots is long, it does not include the Marines stationed on Conquest Island. The rivalries and competitive nature that drives the airmen and ground troops reminds one of the competitive spirit between branches of the military, at once friendly but always on the verge of breaking into a fight. This tension not only keeps the story rooted in the daily lives of the characters but also introduces the mounting suspense of the unseen horror that haunts all their dreams. The bickering soon enters supernatural areas as we, the readers, witness the divisions between the strong-willed men and the weak-willed men. Something is influencing this tension for its own ends.

F6 F-5 Hellcat Fighters

Rainey's erudition in the area of World War II fighter aircraft is mercilessly accurate and entertainingly easy to follow. Sometimes authors, for the sake of accuracy, over-describe an engine or vehicle. Rainey does not have this handicap. His descriptions are relevant to the scene at hand, whether it's a smooth landing or a crash landing, an air fight with the enemy (whose fighters are also described right down to the silhouette of their "air-cooled" engines), or a detailed mechanical problem for the ground crew. Every detail adds to that "realism" we need to keep this story "true". For example:

"We had maintained radio silence over the last 200 miles of the flight from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, and would continue to do so all the way down to the runway. The Marine ground support unit, having picked us up on radar, would be ready to receive us, but only after they had confirmed the authenticity of our transmitted friend-or-foe identification signal and their spotters had visually ascertained that we were not a flight of Japs winging in for a surprise attack." (Blue Devil Island, 1st Ed., p. 12).

McLachlan's account of their initial approach to the island not only informs the reader of the situation of danger, it provides a backdrop to a war in progress. When Lieutenant Colonel Dan Rooker, the commanding officer of the ground forces, meets the commander of the Fighting 39, the pilot asks, "'You were there in the dark days?' I asked, referring to the closing months of the previous year, when the Marines steadfastly kept the airfield on Guadalcanal (commonly known as 'Cactus') operational even while ground forces from both sides waged an obscenely bloody battle all around them," (Island, p. 18). With this simple question, we learn the approximation of the duration of the war for these men, the locations overseas, and the type of battles that took place ("dark", "obscenely bloody"). These are COs who have been in the thick of warfare. Forget the supernatural. This is the story of the Marines and the Blue Devils Squadron. Air battles, recons, awaiting orders for new missions. That is, until the supernatural elements nudge the narrative toward the fictional.

Inspiration for the Supernatural Element?

In typical fashion, it is a storm that portends the unreal horrors to come: "Looking up, I could see the remaining daylight disappearing behind huge, billowy clouds the color of India ink, the bases of which were low enough to smother the summit of the mountain. Somehow, the cloudburst seemed a dark omen, as if it portended a much bigger, more furious assault on us that would have devastating consequences," (Island, p. 29). Of course, Rainey is foreshadowing the horrific element lurking in that mountain. Distant drumming and hallucinatory visions bordering on dream and fearful imaginings direct the story toward the pure evil that awaits our heroes (and villains). And our author handles those duties as equally impressively as he does the realistic side of the storytelling. By the time we meet the creature that can only be described as Lovecraftian in scope and dimension, we are so entrenched in both natural and supernatural horror, that we can no longer tell one from the other. This requires exceptional skill from our storyteller and Rainey demonstrates this skill with the creation of well-crafted narrator in Lt. Drew McLachlan.

"Blue Devil Island" is how historical horror was meant to be written and read. When you learn as much about air warriors and lurking horrors amid the backdrop of World War Two, you'll wish your high school history teacher had assigned this book to round out your education. It's not too late to grab a copy today and catch up on what you've missed in those musty old history books.


Next time we'll take a look Stories From the Great War, World War I, with "Kneeling in the Silver Light", a horror anthology edited by Dean M. Drinkel.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

SPLIT (20016)
Directed and Written by M. Night Shyamalan

Critiqued by Anthony Servante

Go see the movie and come back. Wait a minute: Go see “Unbreakable” (2000), then go see “Split” and then come back. Or just read the damn thing. This is not a review. It goes way beyond that. This is a fanboy weeping for joy. David Dunn is back!!

Going in to “Split”, I was not thinking about M. Night Shyamalan's notorious twist endings. “The Visit” (2015) was focused more on the build up than the payoff, although the twist ending made sense within the context of the story. “The Sixth Sense” (1999), however, had an ending that changed the whole dynamic of the film--it became Bruce Willis's story rather than the story of Cole Sear played by Haley Joel Osment. The dynamic in “Split” is similar. It seems like Anna Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy's movie, but as the surprise ending(s) show us: It is still Bruce Willis's story. What?? Allow me to explain. Did you see the "SPOILERS!" warnings above? Good. Proceed. 

Split” deals with Kevin Wendell Crumb (played by James McAvoy), a schizophrenic, who has 23 recorded personalities. Allusions to the supernatural are drawn in connection to Kevin. If you've seen the trailers for the film, you know there may or not be a 24th personality known as The Beast, the culmination of “The Horde”, the 23 combined personas turning into an animalistic man-creature that can grow muscles, extend his height, and climb walls like, well, like Spiderman. McAvoy, who plays the many personas of Kevin, speaks of the difficulty of playing The Beast: “[T]he hardest part was playing the character that comes up at the end — the much-talked-about, avenging character at the end. He was difficult because he couldn't just be a bad guy, but he also couldn't be an over-the-top, monstrous villain. He had to be somewhat in between that. It was just hard to find that balance that would make it definite that he wasn't a normal guy, but he wasn't so mental that we would think, 'What is he? Should he put on a costume and have superpowers?' So that was pretty tricky.” He also complained having to wear high heels, which female cast member insisted were comfortable shoes, but which he found painful. But let’s discuss "Split" a bit more before venturing into that twist ending.

Taylor-Joy (left), Jessica Sula, Richardson (right).

The movie centers around two sets of characters: the three kidnapped girls who are sacrifices for The Beast; and Kevin Crumb and his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley, known for her roles in “Carrie” (1976) and “The Happening (2008), another Shyamalan directed film). The three kidnapped girls, Casey, Marcia, and Claire, are played by Anna Taylor-Joy (“The Witch” (2016), Jessica Sula, and Haley Lu Richardson, respectively. The storyline revolves around the girls trying to escape while both they and we, the audience, learn about Kevin’s many personalities. What is important is that two of the personalities have hijacked Kevin and are initiating the birth of the 24th Personality. A layer of the supernatural is added by a Skype conference that Fletcher holds with other doctors around the world, where she explains that schizophrenics have manifested traits in their new personas that utilize a part of the brain unreachable by the initial persona. It seems that with multiple personas, the brain and its control over the body are more accessible for molding or malleability. For example, it is pointed out that a blind patient has two personas who can see, that the optic nerve was repaired by the brain for the new personalities but the initial patient remains sightless.

McAvoy (left), Buckley (right).

It then becomes a waiting game for the audience to see if the 24th Persona will emerge, or, if as Dr. Fletcher believes, that it is only a “bogeyman” being used by two of the personas to control the other personalities. The doctor believes this because one of the personalities has a fetish for watching young girls dance nude; she feels that this personality is manipulating the others for his own sexual pleasure. But this persona insists that “The Beast is on the move".

The Beast

The patient movie-goer will be rewarded to find that “The Beast” does emerge. He is a superhuman. He withstands two shotgun blasts at point blank range. He bends steel bars. The 23 personalities of Kevin Crumb have united as “The Beast” or “The Horde”, the media’s name for him. Kevin escapes, Casey is rescued, and the news is transmitted from a local Philadelphia diner. As patrons watch the TV, one of the women notes that the press has dubbed the schizophrenic killer “The Horde” for his collection of personalities and comments that there was another man in a wheel-chair who also had a name given to him by the media. David Dunn, who is sitting at the edge of the diner counter, turns from his meal and coffee and says, “Mr. Glass.”

David Dunn in Security Outfit (Superhero Spectre-ish)

It was not the storytelling that made this movie work for me. It was the surprise twist that we have just entered the extended universe of “Unbreakable” (2000) , the story of a superhuman. Let’s not confuse a human with supernatural power with superheroes like Spiderman or Superman; those are comic book figures. In the world of Unbreakable, Bruce Willis plays a normal man who comes to learn that he cannot be hurt and has great strength. Mr. Glass, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is the villain, who explains that for every human with one extraordinary power, there is one who is his opposite, one who is so fragile that his bones break like “glass” at the slightest impact. Elija Price educates David Dunn to teach him that he is “unbreakable”, cannot be hurt (Dunn walks away unscratched from a train crash, the only survivor). In “Split”, the 24th personality is a superhuman who feeds on people who have never been victimized, the “impure”. When Willis hears the news on the TV in the diner that “The Horde” has escaped after his killings, we know that during the last fifteen years that Dunn has been fighting crime and has zeroed his attention to this new menace. Chapter three of the “Unbreakable” trilogy can now be made. Nerds rejoice!

Hooded "Hero"

This is an excerpt from a M. Night Shyamalan interview re Split's connection to Unbreakable:

Interviewer: Did you always conceive of this a being part of the Unbreakable universe?
M. Night Shyamalan: This was always part of the Unbreakable world. Kevin Wendle Crumb was a part of the original, original script for Unbreakable. I pulled him out because it just wasn't balancing right. But a bunch of the scenes that are in this movie, I wrote 15 years ago. They were as is. Patricia opening the door. Hedwig's first scene. Those were all written already. And it's literally from the same moment that I created all the characters, all three of those characters. But I knew I wanted to do a movie about him because I just loved him so much, and I thought it's a rich world for storytelling, so I was super, super excited to finally make it.

Interviewer: You've teased an Unbreakable sequel for years. Was this it? Or are we going to see another one with Bruce Willis as the star?
M. Night Shyamalan: This is down the line, but my hope is to make one final movie that combines the two.

Unbreakable Part One

As such, “Split” is the origin story for a possible (probable?) nemesis for David Dunn, the unbreakable superhuman. The Horde (or The Beast, aka, The 24th Persona) has emerged from the infighting of his many personalities in the form of a supernatural creature who will continue to kill the “impure”, innocents who have not suffered or been victims of violence. In the original screenplay for Unbreakable, according to M. Night Shyamalan, Kevin was the villain that David Dunn would fight to rescue the girls, but that with The Janitor and Mr. Glass, Kevin didn’t fit. The director has finally found a way for the schizophrenic to fit the Unbreakable universe—by becoming The Beast.

So fans of “Unbreakable” can indeed rejoice. The only thing left to decide is if “Split” is part two or 1.5, leaving the door open for “Unbreakable 2”, and if “Split is part 2, will the next Unbreakable movie be called part 3. Nerd questions, I’m sure, but we fans of David Dunn have awakened after fifteen years. Who cares what it will be called, only give us Unbreakable vs.The Horde, please. I may not get all schizophrenic about this, but you never know. Has anyone seen my high heels?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Off Kilter TV: 
Where Horror Rears its Ugly Head on Family Television

A Critique by Anthony Servante


SEINFELD: The Bizarro Jerry Season 8, Episode 3 

The 137th Episode

Off Kilter TV: Introduction
On family television, we normally expect to find comedy from Sitcoms like I Love Lucy, drama from Perry Mason, adventure from Bonanza, and suspense from Mission: Impossible. What we don't expect to find is Lucy killing a homeless man, Perry Mason defending an android, Little Joe entering a haunted ghost town, or the IM crew outwitting a supernatural criminal. Such shows would be off kilter, introducing elements of horror to otherwise normal family television shows past and present. I'm not talking about "It was all a dream" endings or Scooby Doo finales that have rational explanations for the supernatural villains. No, I'm talking about straight-on oddities or out-of-place events and proceedings that do not fit the expected routines common to the overall timber of the show. For those of you familiar with this column, you know I like to find episodes in popular TV shows that do not fit the mold of the regular format. For those of you visiting this column for the first time, welcome to my examination of "The Bizarro Seinfeld".

Let's get to it.

The Bizarro Seinfeld

The Summary:
After breaking up with Kevin and becoming "just friends", Elaine meets Kevin's circle of friends and experiences his lifestyle; she notices that Kevin's life is the exact opposite of Jerry's life. Meanwhile, Seinfeld dates a woman with "man-hands", huge construction worker's hands that are not indicative of the woman's beauty. George uses a picture of Gillian to enter the "forbidden city", a night-club that is not what it appears to be. And Kramer is swept into a job when he is mistakenly taken for an employee, and he begins to take the work seriously although he doesn't even know what it is he's supposed to be doing there. The work begins to alter his relationship with his neighbor Jerry.

The Cast::
Jerry Seinfeld – Jerry Seinfeld.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Elaine Benes.
Michael Richards – Cosmo Kramer.
Jason Alexander – George Costanza.
Tim DeKay – Kevin / Bizarro Jerry.
Kristin Bauer – Gillian.
Pat Kilbane – Feldman / Bizarro Kramer.
Kyle T. Heffner – Gene / Bizarro George (credited as Kyle T. Heener)

The Critique: 
Season 8, Episode 3 features four elements that make the story stray from its normally “about nothing” format. The first element is the bizarre world where Elaine discovers alternate versions of her primary group of friends. The second is the mythical creature “man-hands”, half beautiful woman, half giant appendages. The third is the supernatural where George Costanza attends a nightclub that doesn’t exist. Cosmo works diligently where he is not employed and begins to take on a "marriage" appearance with Jerry. Let’s look at each element more closely.

In a traditional episode of SEINFELD, Jerry and his friends enter situations where their foibles are exploited for laughs. In one episode, for instance, George buys a cream from China that is supposed to stop and reverse balding. George must have the Chinese food delivery man translate his order to China for the cream and later finds that the hair tonic stinks. Kramer takes pictures of the hair's before and after "growth" while Jerry tries to figure out which of his female fans left him a tape with explicitly suggestive language. That's it. No big denouement. No grand moral to the story. That pretty much describes an average SEINFELD show.

In "The Bizarro Jerry", the elements of horror and the absurd seep into the production. Elaine breaks off her relationship with her boyfriend Kevin and suggests that they become "just friends". Kevin is taken with the idea, starting the whole "bizarro" notion. Bizarro, in the Superman comics (which Jerry collects and admires) is an absurd version of Superman: where Superman appears human, Bizarro Superman has a white face with craggy skin like broken blocks of ice. The most prominent feature of Bizarro is that he inflects his sentences with reverse subjects and objects; "I like her" becomes "Me like her", and so on. When Elaine meets Kevin's friends, Gene and Feldman, she finds that their likes are opposite to Jerry and his male friends' likes (Kevin's group reads, Jerry's doesn't; Kevin's is helpful; Jerry's is selfish). She tells Jerry about this odd duality, and Jerry explains the world of Bizarro Superman to her. Thereafter, Kevin is referred to as Bizarro Jerry, Gene as Bizarro George, and Feldman as Bizarro Kramer. Although Elaine prefers Kevin's group, she finds that her behavior is the opposite of what they expect from a friend, since she behaves as if she were with Jerry's group, where she has always been and has been accepted.

Bizarro Mirror Images

Note: It is odd that there is no Bizarro Elaine in this episode, but that one should exist that we don't meet since Elaine clearly has stepped out of her "human" realm to hang around with the Bizarro friends. Elaine returns to Jerry's group, but Kevin's group remains Elaine-less, neither human nor Bizarro.


The second element to emerge from this off kilter episode is the "creature" Jerry describes as "man-hands". On his first date with Gillian, Jerry is taken aback by the monstrous size of her hands. He later tells Elaine of Gillian, "The hands of a man. Like a creature out of Greek mythology. She was part human, part horrible beast." As Seinfeld tries to concentrate of Gillian's lovely countenance, she finds ways to intrude her hands into the date, cracking a lobster with her bare hands and wiping a smudge from Jerry's face with her calloused fingers. After he decides to stop seeing her, he accepts another date with her in order to steal a photo of her for George (we'll discuss that next). Gillian catches him and grabs his hand holding the photo. Later we see Jerry's arm in a sling, suggesting that her grip was so powerful that she caused his arm damage.

The third element is a mysterious nightclub that only appears to the super-famous and beautiful people. George refers to the place as "the forbidden city". He gains entrance when he shows a picture of Gillian (Jerry's date) to a beautiful receptionist and tells her it is a photo of his late fiancee, Susan (who died licking the envelops for her wedding event to George and is poisoned by the old glue that seals the invitations). At the nightclub, George continues to show the photo to other pretty girls and is invited back to the club. He shares his success with the beautiful people at the club with Jerry and invites his friend to join him on his next visit. However, George accidentally destroys the photo and asks Jerry to get him another from Gillian. Jerry does not succeed and when George returns to the nightclub alone with a photo cut from a magazine, his charade is discovered and he is escorted from the club. He does return though with Jerry in tow just to prove to Jerry that he was at this forbidden club, but finds that the place is a meat-packing factory and there is no sign whatsoever that a club ever existed. George knows there was a club, but Jerry assumes he was lying--again. Ironically, as they leave the factory, the camera moves over the photo that George clipped from the magazine. We know that George was there. But was the nightclub there? The term "forbidden city" takes on a whole new air of meaning. Was it real or do the "beautiful people" have their own reality? And did George glimpse their reality? The question in the episode remains a mystery.

The Forbidden City

The last element involves Kramer and the job he undertakes. While Cosmo is standing in an office, he is swept into a meeting at the corporation. The other employees never question his appearance and accept him as one of the team. Kramer is so taken by the job that he begins going to work every day. The odd element here isn't that Cosmo is working for no pay whatsoever, but that his relationship with Jerry turns absurd in the classic sense of the word. Think of the word as the "bizarro" of today. Something peculiar that one would find in a David Lynch film: a little person speaking in reverse, a stranger walking into a strange house he's never been in and sitting down to dinner, while everyone at the table (mom, dad, daughter and son) accept him without question. The reversal in this case is that Kramer and Jerry begin to act like a married couple. Jerry complains of Kramer's late hours at work and that his dinner got cold. He also complains that Kramer never takes him out anymore and that their relationship may be in trouble. Kramer begins to develop an ulcer from working too hard (although he's only been there a few days). Eventually someone at Kramer's job realizes that Cosmo doesn't know what he's doing and terminates him. Kramer says that he never really worked there, and his boss repeats the words with the secondary meaning that, "No, he never truly was working there (as have all the other hard workers)".

Jerry Complains about Kramer's New Job

Jerry's group returns to normal once Elaine, George and Kramer return to their normal roles, and the episode ends with the Bizarro group (Kevin, Feldman, and Gene) giving a group hug while Kevin says in Bizarro World fashion, "Me so happy".

As an Off Kilter episode of family TV, The Bizarro Jerry utilizes elements of bizarro absurdity, grotesque mythological creatures, supernatural nightclubs, and an absurd role reversal for Jerry and Kramer. The visit to the Bizarro World is short-lived for our heroes, but, as we see at the end of the episode, it continues for Kevin and his friends. Me so happy too with this episode.