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Vampire of the Mists: The Ravenloft Covenant
Vampire of the Mists: The Ravenloft Covenant
by Christie Golden
Edition: Paperback
68 used & new from $2.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Great Vampire Horror In A Fantastical, Magical World, October 19, 2009
Okay, this is one I've just read recently, and I haven't gotten to any of the other novels in the series nor have I played any of the Ravenloft games, so I'm coming at this from a fresh perspective. 'Vampire Of The Mists' is the first entry in the line of Ravenloft: The Covenant novels, which apparantly spans a broad array of interconnected worlds or lands and features recurring characters and themes, although it sounds like no one character or land is necesarily pivotal to (or even involved with) every single novel. I'll soon be reading more in the series, as Vampire Of The Mists deeply impressed me and offers hints at a vast well of storytelling potential. It's a horror novel set in a semi-medieval, fantastical world like the worlds seen in 'Lord Of The Rings', Terry Brooks's Shannara series or Robert Jordan's 'Wheel Of Time' saga. Or, if you prefer, it's epic fantasy with the dark and ghastly elements taking a more central role than usual. I've actually been looking for a book in this mold for some time.

The main characters of the book are an elven vampire named Jander Sunstar - who despises his vampiric nature and has learned over the centuries to control it to some degree - and the wicked and regal vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich (basically a proxy for Dracula: the similiarities between the two characters are numerous), lord of a distant land that Jander finds himself whisked away to by supernatural mists that seem to be the key to travelling between any of a number of realms. Jander, while living in the land of Waterdeep, lived a solitary existance for decades. He wasn't always a vampire (his backstory unfolds later on in the novel) and now, as one of the bloodthirsty undead, he's cut off from the world of light and green beauty he loves. Over the years, he's learned to live off animal blood, taking human blood only when the craving becomes so great that it, if not fed, will see him lose control and go savage. He can feed without turning a victim into a vampire by taking only a little blood at a time, and finds an unlikely feeding ground in a sanitarium for the insane. It's chaotic and miserable, inhabited by lunatics far gone, and no one is likely to take note of Jander's nocturnal visits to the place. But even as he comes for his blood, the vampire elf takes it upon himself to try and care, in some way, for the residents of this dismal place, bringing blankets and food to the cold cells, and one resident in particular, a young woman named Anna, eventually captures his heart. It becomes apparant that this woman is not natural, never aging, apparantly in her current state due to some curse. The woman's fate ends up being not a happy one (still early in the novel here) and after a horrific tragedy, Jander dedicates himself to finding, and exacting revenge upon, whoever cursed Anna to her unaging insanity. It's then that the strange mists come for Jander and take him to a faraway land, Barovia, a land of darkness where it's far more difficult for Jander to control his feral side. It's here that he encounters Strahd - apparantly one of the major recurring characters in the history of the novels, and Castle Ravenloft, where he becomes a rarity in the castle - an invited guest.

From here you think you know pretty well where the book is going to go and how it's going to unfold from stage to stage, only you don't mind too much because it's such an enjoyable journey, populated by engaging (if sometimes derivative, although neither Jander nor Anna falls into this category) characters, a well realized world of all kinds of terrors and wonders, and strong, descripitive prose by author Christie Golden. Only you're quite a ways in when you realize that not all your assumptions about how the book will unfold aren't necessarily true - at least that's how it was for me. Some unexpected new angles come in to explain things in unconventional fashion, and at least one major curve is thrown near the end of the book that I never suspected.

In horror tales like Dracula, it's sometimes a part of the backstory that this remote stretch of land has lived in fear of the local vampire or sinister family or what-have-you for generations. In many ways, Vampire Of The Mists takes that facet and expands on it greatly: the tale takes place over a number of years, and the land of Barovia is just such a place as often comes into the backstory of characters like Dracula. The villages and farmsteads soldier on year after year in a frightful land, constantly under the shadow of the dreaded and whispered-of Castle Ravenloft and the sinister Strahd. Another element that's often present in these tales - particularly in the older, 1800s-ish stories - are the stereotypical 'gypsy servants' of the villain. In the old days of horror, gypsies weren't exactly treated fairly in their depictions, and Vampire Of The Mists lays the groundwork for rectifying that a bit by presenting a much more balanced look at the gypsies, or Vistani, as they're frequently called here. The gypsies are a peaceful if occasionally rogueish wandering folk, generally greeted with hostility and distrust wherever they roam (an unfortunately accurate historical parralell). The elders of the clan, to protect the very survival of their people from aggression by the other peoples of the land, long ago entered into a secret pact with Strahd: he'll allow them to live under his protection in the wilds of Barovia if they'll serve as his eyes and ears in the land at large. The bulk of the Vistani population is unaware of this deal, and although the elders are aware it's something of a Faustian bargain, felt they had no choice but to go along with the arrangement lest they be the target of persecution not only from the villages of Barovia but the much more dangerous Strahd as well. It's a much more sympathetic portrayal here than the gypsies got in some of their appearances in old 1930s movies, where, with some exceptions, they were seen as simple-minded sycophants to the monster of the day (and frankly they were due some more sympathetic portrayals; a few other horror novels and movies of recent years have also tried to make up for the excessive stereotyping of earlier days). At the same time, the 'villager as persecutor' angle is given some additional dimensions. In the Barovia we see in this novel, many people, particularly the younger generations, have come to be less fearful of the Vistani than their forefathers, and the relationship between the villages and the Vistani are in flux. Two of the main supporting players are a pair of young lovers - a village girl and a Vistani youth. So with different groups - the Vistani, the villagers, even the vampires - it's not as simple as 'this group are the good guys, this group are the bad guys'.

Co-habting the novel with the vampires are all kinds of other magics and monsters, perhaps best left for the reader to discover on their own. Jander, already walking a moral tightrope before his trip to Barovia as he struggles to not give in to the darkest sides of his vampire nature, has the difficulty of his task amplified in the new, dark land he finds himself in. The strange alternating friendship/rivalry between the gentle, more knowledgable Jander and the cruel, more powerful Strahd, is interesting. In many ways opposites, they're nevertheless both vampires, both apart from almost the entire rest of the world, and neither are immune to the desire for kinnship of a sort - the only difference is Jander is aware that he longs for the companionship of others; Strahd, accustomed for ages to the company mostly of his victims and his undead slaves, isn't. It explains much of why Strahd tolerates Jander's kindnesses towards others, and why Jander (along with his relative lack of power compared to the mighty Strahd), to a lesser extent, tolerates Strahd's barbarities.

A more multi-layered book than many would expect, very good at capturing atmosphere and the feel of different places and settings, and loaded with monsters and mystery, Vampire Of The Mists is enthusiastically reccomended for fans of horror and darker fantasy, and I'll soon be delving into more of the Ravenloft books myself.

3:10 to Yuma (Widescreen Edition)
3:10 to Yuma (Widescreen Edition)
DVD ~ Russell Crowe
Price: $5.00
257 used & new from $0.01

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One Of The 2 Best Westerns I've Ever Seen, October 9, 2009
Definately one of the two best westerns I've ever seen - along with Dances with Wolves - and a movie that prompted me to start seeking out more from the genre, 3:10 To Yuma takes the rugged beauty of the American west and infuses it with a multi-layered story packed with riveting action, intense drama, and award-worthy performances.

Life on the frontier is difficult and sparse for the Evans family. The father, Dan (Christian Bale) is trying to hold things together on a family farm that's being squeezed out by a powerful land baron who's not only dammed the small river the farm depended on for irrigation, but started hiring local thugs to itimidate the Evans family and carry out acts of vandalism and arson - aimed not only at terrorizing the clan, but at making it impossible for Evans to make enough money to pay down his debt and keep the land from being seized. Dan Evans is basically alone against a very powerful group of ruthless enemies, unable to stand up to them without putting his family's life in jeopardy and with no one to call on for the support he'd need in order to fight back. His oldest son thinks him a coward for not doing more than he is, and Dan, full of self-doubt, is also worried that he's losing the respect of the rest of his family at the same time that he seems to be slowly losing their home and livlihood. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum we have outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), whose gang of stagecoach thieves has been terrorizing the region. When the law finally succeeds in apprehending Wade, Evans - by sheer chance - ends up playing a role in his capture. Wade still has to be taken across some distance of wild territory to Yuma, where he'll be put on a train and shipped back east to stand trial. Being part of the band that delivers Wade to Yuma isn't a job that has many people clamoring for the chance to climb onboard, as the rest of his gang is still on the loose and will undoubtedly attempt to rescue their leader and kill his captors. For $200 - enough to pay off what his land has owing on it, Evans agrees to take part in the escort.

A very character-driven movie, the two leads are both fascinating, and the hero-villain interplay between Christian Bale and Russel Crowe is among the best in moviedom. Bale's Evans character is willing to do almost anything, take on almost any danger, not just for the physical cash that'll enable him to keep the family farm going, but to prove to people - especially his oldest son, or, perhaps especially to himself - that he isn't a failure or a coward. After years of having no feasible chance of bettering his family's lot, he seizes at this one chance for redemption and doesn't let go, even when it begins to look even more suicidal than taking on the large crew of local thugs back home would have been. In an interesting twist, one of those very thugs is also among the small crew paid to escort Wade to Yuma. Also, unexpectedly, joining the party is Evans's oldest son, who follows along behind them and, by the time he's discovered, can't be sent back home for fear of sending him right into Wade's pursuing gang. Russel Crowe's character of Wade is harder to analyze in terms of motivation, but immensely fascinating in trying to. On the surface he seems to be an unmitigated killer with no values, rules, or code of honor, but as events play out it becomes clear that's not the whole story - it's just hard to tell what the whole story is. As the viewer tries to crack what exactly determines Wade's at-times contradictory actions and behavior, Wade himself seems intrigued by Evans's conduct, who's increasingly willing to go to extraordinary lengths but at the same time unwilling to cross certain moral lines for any reason. It's as if Wade has developed, in his own mind, a sense of what should and shouldn't be in the world, of right and wrong, but has long since decided that any such notions are irrelevant and inapplicable in the real world. But now he's observing somebody who seems to be making an attempt at actually putting such ideals into practice, despite the world's best efforts to show them as ultimately futile.

The dramatic and dangerous journey to Yuma culminates in an escalation of stakes and a tremendous showdown. Evans and Wade have both reached pivotal points, and their performers, Bale and Crowe, have both established their roles as the stuff of legend. All supporting performances are dead-on, and the overall production values exceptional. One of the best movies of 2007, and a must-see whether you're a longtime western fan or have previously seen few or any. 10/10
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 10, 2010 8:23 PM PST

The Ring Two (Unrated Widescreen Edition)
The Ring Two (Unrated Widescreen Edition)
DVD ~ Naomi Watts
Offered by CAC Media
Price: $23.51
204 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hugely Under-Rated Sequel, September 30, 2009
Following the harrowing, unearthly events of The Ring (Widescreen Edition), reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) have moved and are trying to establish a new life away from the horrific memories. But the curse Of Samara (played here by Kelly Stables, doing a great job in taking over the role made famous by Daveigh Chase) isn't over, and has been making its way across the country in search of the Kellers. And, through copies of the original cursed videotape - which dooms those who watch it to die within seven days - claiming new victims along the way.

The angle of the videotape, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't dominate the whole movie. Once Samara catches up with her main targets, things turn. It's still fairly early in the movie here, but I'm going to put up my semi-spoiler warning anyway.


Samara has something different in mind for the Kellers than delivering their overdue death, and winds up possessing young Aidan. His mother's struggle to free the boy, and to get to the root of what Samara ultimately wants, then interweave through the remainder of the movie. As with 'The Ring', the sequel is still hesitant to establish definitively whether Samara is true evil or a tragic victim-turned-monster in her own right, although the answer will be a bit clearer by the time you get to the end of this one. That it takes two full movies to get to some kind of understanding of Samara isn't a minus - the constant guessing and interpreting, and new clues coming in along the way, is a big part of the appeal. Another thing that comes in this time around - and this is never stated outright, only hinted at in the broadest terms (and maybe I'm just reading my own interpretation into this) - is a strange sensation that Samara isn't the only child in the movie with a strong supernatural aspect: there's something inherently different about Aidan too, although (presumably) not nearly as sinister or threatening. I would have loved to have seen this thread picked up and expanded on in a 'Ring Three', but I doubt it will ever be made: David Dorfman must be quite a bit older now, and I'm not sure if the movie would work with the Aidan character being more than a year or so older than he was here. Well, it might... but anyhow I haven't heard of any plans for a Ring 3. Nonetheless, The Ring Two adds greatly to the intriguing dynamic running between the saga's main players.

Horror sequels are often criticised for following too closely to the original, and when they try to branch out they're criticised for being too far removed. Keeping its videotape angle but not making it the main focus of the movie, 'The Ring Two' thus received criticism on both fronts. So it kind of shows the Catch-22 situation sequels often have. Personally, I'm a supporter of sequels, in most cases. (There are certain movies, like The Exorcism of Emily Rose - Unrated (Special Edition) or Audition (Uncut Special Edition) where, no matter that the first is great, there's just no space for a sequel. But in general, I like to see a favorite movie followed up by another chapter or four) But with The Ring Two, I would have thought that even those who aren't as enamored with sequels would be be into it. It does a great job of staying true to the original while introducing totally new themes and angles, and it does it in such a way that they seem the most natural points in the world to follow up with. [Special note - The Ring Two is Not a direct remake of either Ringu 2 or Rasen. Very different paths.

Also included on The Ring Two is the short movie 'Rings', which takes place between the two full-length movies, and covers more fully the trail of horror as duplicate copies of the first videotape begin to turn up, and the urban legend becomes better known. It's a great part of the saga that absolutely should Not be skipped, and stars characters only glimpsed in Ring Two.

The Ring (Widescreen Edition)
The Ring (Widescreen Edition)
DVD ~ Naomi Watts
Price: $8.16
425 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding, Haunting And Shocking Horror, September 30, 2009
Remakes of Asian horror movies have been a bit of a mixed bag. They're almost always at least good, but many times a fair bit behind the original versions. 'The Ring', the movie that started the trend, is actually one of the ones that exceeds its predecessor. It keeps everything that made Ringu good, but benefits from some added angles, better special effects, and deeper characterization on some of the supporting players. Also, it's not a shot-by-shot remake: in several instances backstory elements have been substitued for an alternate take on things. In this case, both the original and the remake had equally cool takes on the backstory. But I've always felt that if you're going to do a remake you just have to do Some things differently so it actually Is a different take on the same idea, not just a reshooting of the exact same movie. The Ring differentiated itself enough so that you'll want to watch both versions, and enjoy not only the same theme but the differences here and there. [Note - there's also a third version, The Ring Virus, a Korean remake of Ringu that came out, I believe, before the American remake. I've really got to get on the ball and see that one too.)

The basic premise behind The Ring is now one of the best known set-ups in horror: there's a videotape out there, of unknown origin, and everyone who watches it dies exactly seven days later. In addition, immediately after watching the tape, the viewer receives a phone call as a warning of their fate. You never hear exactly what's said on the call, but you can just make out enough of it that, by that and the reaction of the person receiving the call (this is one of the things that really made The Ring so great - the tremendous jobs various performers did in reacting to things that aren't fully shown on screen) it really brings an instant air of sinister otherworldliness. Naomi Watts plays the reporter who investigates this strange urban legend after four kids die after watching the tape - one of them her niece - and eventually comes into possession of the tape itself. Totally disbelieving of any truth to the supernatural legend, she nonetheless watches the tape, looking for possible clues. And proceeds to receive the phone call that all viewers are said to receive. It quickly becomes impossible to discount anything about the legend, and worse still, Watts is horrified to get up one morning and find her young son Aidan (David Dorfman) innocently watching the video he found. Now it's a race against time to track down the origins of the tape and try to stop the curse before it reaches its fated conclusion. The trail leads to the story of a little girl named Samara (Daveigh Chase), now dead several years...

The Ring is a multi-layered horror story that gets scarier and scarier as it unfolds, riveting from the start but leaving the biggest and most memorable frights for the end stages. The visual imagery of The Ring has become iconic in horrordom, including the stone well, first seen on the videotape itself, and the climax is a masterpiece. Outstanding performances all around. This is a horror must-have.

Laid to Rest (Unrated Director's Cut)
Laid to Rest (Unrated Director's Cut)
DVD ~ Bobbi Sue Luther
Price: $9.99
41 used & new from $1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Inventive, Unique Slasher With Strong Performances And Effects, September 24, 2009
Laid To Rest opens with a woman (Bobbi Sue Luther) waking up in a coffin in a morgue with no memory of how she got there or of who she is, only to quickly find herself the target of a blade-wielding killer in a chrome skull mask. From this promising premise the movie quickly finds itself in some very contrived situations - for example she finds a phone in the mortuary to call 911; not knowing where she is, they have to trace the call and need her to stay on the line for another 30 seconds: as the operator gets to about fifteen, the woman sees something that catches her attention and in a daze wanders over to it still holding the phone. As the count reaches about 28 or 29 she accidentally pulls the phone unplugged - that kind of thing, and there's more glaringly contrived incidents than that in the first 20 minutes. So one could be forgiven for thinking the movie isn't going to live up to its potential. Fortunately, After the first 20 minutes or so, all contrivances abruptly end and the movie quickly forges itself into one of the most original and well-made slashers of the past few years.

The woman flees the mortuary, totally disoriented, and after stumbling down the middle of a lonely stretch of highway, finds herself picked up by a kind truck driver (Kevin Gage). He's doubtful of the 'masked killer' story she tells, thinking she's been in some kind of accident and is confused. In a whole string of contrivances, his truck is running low on gas, the nearest police station or hospital is miles away, and he can only take her home (where their phone isn't working) where he and his wife (Lena Headey from 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles') will care for her until morning when the wife's brother is scheduled to show up. Having made its way through all these unlikely, convenient coincidences through strong execution, it's full steam ahead from there as the coincidences stop and some really inventive turns and developments start coming. After the chromeskulled assailant invades the isolated country home of the trucker and his wife, it's a chase through the countryside and various 'stops' along the way - a mobile home deep in the forest, a gas station the characters eventually make it to, etc. - as the killer pursues, dispatching different characters as new ones are brought in to join the flight from 'Chrome Skull' (as the end credits refer to him). Well paced, well made, good special effects, with extremely strong performances all around, especially from Kevin Gage. Chrome Skull has equiped himself not only with a variety of blades but with a shoulder-mounted camera to record his kills. Very little of the movie unfolds 'on-camera' in a Blair Witch style, but the camera fits the 'thrillkiller' nature of Chrome Skull, and plays a valuable role in filling in some of the mysterious back story later in the movie, when some of Chrome Skull's intended victims find themselves in possession of the camera an its recordings.

Among the best slashers of the past few years, bloody and suspenseful with an original villain and likable protagonists, Laid To Rest is a must-see for fans of Friday The 13th, Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street, et al.

DVD ~ Maria Lanau
Price: $9.99
28 used & new from $6.30

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Four-And-A-Half Stars - Ferocious Horror With An Unexpected Ending, September 14, 2009
This review is from: [Rec] (DVD)
[REC] is the movie the 2008 Quarantine was based on, and while I liked Quarantine, I feel that the original is superior.

A female reporter with a Spanish nightly news show regularly goes on assignment with her cameraman, taking the viewer behind the scenes of some profession or situation; in this case, a night in the life of the firefighters at a local station. Thus the movie begins as if it were an unedited reel of this kind of documentary, complete with mistakes and start-overs that would have been excised if the tapes had ever made it to air in a conventional fashion. Most nights the firefighters don't end up responding to an actual fire; sometimes they're called out for an animal rescue, or to assist a person who's taken a bad fall, or something else of that nature; other times the entire evening is spent at the station hanging around, playing basketball in the court, making small talk. The prospects of the reporter, Angela (Manuela Velasco) following the crew on anything especially splashy seems low, although the firefighters themselves seem good-naturedly enthusiastic about having a young, attractive reporter in the firehouse to be interviewed by, relieving the repetiveness of most nights's routine.

When a call comes in for assistance to a nearby apartment building where an elderly lady is apparantly either ill or injured in her apartment and unco-operative (perhaps highly confused) with the neighbors trying to coax her out, the station sends a truck out on this routine call, with Angela and her cameraman along for the ride. Little does anyone know that this call is going to end up being anything but routine, and in the most terrifying way. The firetruck arrives at a scene where the situation is already beginning to spin out of control; the police are there and aren't too thrilled to see reporters on the scene, and the situation with the woman upstairs is about to turn ugly. Angela senses some kind of story in this, and instructs the cameraman to keep filming.

Now, here's where the movie jumps its first big hurdle. When this technique of 'recovered tape capturing everything because the character was filming it' started to be used frequently, back with movies like The Blair Witch Project, it worked because it was fresh. The reasoning of keeping the cameras going seemed to work in that one, where it was a student documentary project, and keeping the camera going somehow kept the strange happenings on somewhat familiar ground, made it slightly easier because there was something else to focus on, gave them film to go over later and try and find their way out of the woods they were increasingly lost in, etc. But the 'camera' theme has been used a few too many times. I liked Cloverfield, but thought it would have been better if they hadn't used the videocamera theme, or, perhaps, had used it for say, half the movie and gone the rest of the time with a more conventional approach (i.e. maybe having a surviving character recount events to the authorities for that part, and use the videocamera angle for an earlier portion of the movie representing a character who doesn't survive?) Anyway, even though this technique has lost a lot of steam, '[REC]' made it work again, and it pulled out every trick it had to to get it working. There are times when the scene is pitch dark, and the night light on the camera's eyepiece is the only way for a character to find their way about - they can then try to guide other characters who still can't see clearly. There are times when the camera has actually been turned off and left on the floor, and a little child comes over to play around with it, turning it on in the process, and then leaving it running where it ends up filming things nobody even intended to film. Even the way when the cameraman is running he'll end up hitting the camera on the wall and the audio goes out for some time, until a second bump jars it back on. All this helps [REC] completely clear the hurdle facing movies like this, which is the "Why don't they just forget about the bloody camera and Run?" hurdle. Working especially on this point, Angela and several others begin to think that some kind of massive coverup is going on, and then there's a tangible reason why documenting everything is so important.

The reason a coverup is suspected is simple: just after the abrupt, violent confrontation with the supposedly ill (but now ragingly homicidal) woman upstairs, the building is abruptly sealed off by security forces from the outside. It's supposedly strictly a 'precaution' until health officials can arrive. The firemen, the police, Angela and her cameraman, and the residents of the apartment building soon have more to fear than trying to figure out why the authorities are doing this, as other people - starting with a cop who was bitten by the berserk woman, start to turn the same way. Unable to leave the building - police riflemen are actually in position to shoot if anyone tries to break out through the upstairs windows until they're covered over with some heavy barrier - the situation escalates into total pandemonium.

Quarantine followed this movie very closely - not shot for shot all the time, but a fair bit of it - right up until the last fifteen minutes or so, which is where [REC] really distinguishes itself. Looking for shelter and means of defence anywhere they can find it, several characters find themselves in a long-unused apartment on the top floor. This happens in both movies, but what they find up there - and what it reveals or implies about the origin of this situation - in my opinion, [REC]'s end stage is incredibly potent and makes the movie even scarier; Quarantine's is a bit anticlimatic. [REC]'s final act is totally horrifying and surprising on multiple levels. Not trying to bash Quarantine, which was well done, and as for the fact that the ending was different - well, if you're not going to do Some things different, why do a remake? The Ring (Widescreen Edition) and the 2007 Halloween - Unrated Director's Cut (Widescreen Two-Disc Special Edition), for example, changed some things around and took different paths here and there, so they and their predecessors are similar but distinct. On the other hand, Ju-On and the 2004 The Grudge are practically the same movie, just one's in Japanese and one's in English (the sequels to each were Very different to one another though). But while Quarantine was a good movie, I think [REC] is definately the stronger and scarier of the pair. Tremendous special effects, fine acting and characterization, and some of the most unnerving, unnatural Howls erupting from the bestial killers you can imagine, make this a great addition to the powerful recent crop of Spanish horror. Incidentally, although [REC] only got its North American debut recently, [REC] 2 has already been filmed and is going to start playing overseas within the next couple of months, so we can hope it won't take as long for this one to be released worldwide.

by Peter Straub
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
47 used & new from $0.01

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Totally Unique Horror/Dark Fantasy Masterpiece, September 14, 2009
This review is from: Shadowland (Mass Market Paperback)
An innovatively written tale spreading across the territory of horror and dark fantasy, Shadowland is equally driven by concept and by characters, and is an indispensible addition to the library of any devotee of the fantastic or just excellent novels in general.

The style in which the book is narrated is unique, something I've never encountered elsewhere. It's written by a character - now an author - who played a small role in the events during his youth, and who has, years later, gathered the rest of the story through extensive talks - sort of half-interviews, half-conversations - with another character, Tom Flannagan, who played a more direct role in the events being recounted; a lesser role is played by further talks with other characters who were more or less peripheral to the big events. The fact that the author character is never identified by name lends an additional dose of eerie authenticity to the tale.

It starts out - after a pair of prologues touching on dreams of ancient wizards, and on the world of stage magic where some of the acts may not be 100% illusion - in 1950s Arizona and the start of the school year at a private school, an institution very austere and unforgiving even for the era, where the teaching staff is mostly unpleasant and many of the older students arrogant thugs, and a hard year is set for Flannagan and Del Nightingale, the two main players of this part of the novel. The novel's narrator is present for the events of this section, and plays a fairly signifigant side role, as he, Flannagan, Nightingale, and several other first-year students at the Carson Upper School form friendships and try to make it through the year, which includes not only the familiar, worldly difficulties, not other, more exotic, troubles lurking in the background. One of the interests Tom is introduced to early in the school year is magic, which is Del's passion, and something he practices most of the time he's not in school, achieving a high level of skill at. Uncannily high, in fact...

After many threads have woven together and subplots have beun to meld, we find ourselves ready for the next act, as summer dawns and Del invites Tom to come along with him for his annual trip to his Uncle Cole's estate in New England. Coleman Collins is a rich recluse, at one time a world-famous stage magician, and now mentor to Del during the summer months. It's here that the main thrust of the novel takes place. Tom meets, for the first time, the array of people Del's come to know during his consecutive summers at the estate: Collins's small band of roughish - servants? friends? lackeys? - Tom isn't quite sure; a forlorn and beautiful young girl named Rose; and the mysterious Coleman Collins himself. Many characters aren't necessarily what they seem, and during the school year and, especially, during that fateful summer that follows where Del and Tom co-apprentice under Collins, we encounter wonderous beauty, riveting tension, the telling of fantastic fables within the larger story, and a character who's slowly revealed to be one of the most believably and disturbing evil characters in horror history. The twists and turns are many: some bring unexpected brightness to the tale, some are very dark (one in particular hits like a sledgehammer right to the heart). Some aspects of the book - the true motivations of certain characters; the spiritual/theological meaning behind certain revelations - are wide open to individual interpretation, and that can actually be a good thing: sometimes things are better off not spelled right out, but left for the reader to make up their own mind on (the identity of the 'dream wizard' early on, for example). Some may think the first section of the book - the school year, which is largely a 'lead-up' phase - occupies too much page space, but I like the time the book took in establishing its characters and in letting the more mystical elemets seep in gradually.

You feel like you know the characters deeply in this book, and come to truly care about their fates; the magical elements feel real, and sometimes it seems that the weirder the magic gets, the more genuine it feels. As I said earlier, this is a must for fans of horror or dark fantasy (maybe of fantasy in general), and also recommended for fans outside of those fields. The only caveat for readers not into horror or dark fantasy is that when Shadowland gets dark, it gets DARK. There are some frightening and wrenching moments in here, but in the end all the book's elements blend together for a tale that's haunting in more ways than one.

Superman #188 : Kicking the Dog (DC Comics)
Superman #188 : Kicking the Dog (DC Comics)
by Chuck Austen
Edition: Paperback
5 used & new from $1.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One Of The Best And Most Powerful Single-Issue Superman Stories, September 8, 2009
This is one of the best self-contained Superman stories I've ever read. It was only fitting that confirmation that comicdom can still do such powerful stories in a single issue came immediately after the Superman titles so successfully told an epic eight-parter in the excellent Superman: Ending Battle (Superman # 186 thru Action Comics # 796).

Long derided by some comics fans as being too much of a 'nice guy', Superman enters this issue as a man who's finally had enough. Uncharacteristically hammering the living daylights out of various low-level supervillains - and refusing quick surrenders - all over Metropolis, seemingly oblivious to the swath of property damage he's causing, he's even making jokes about it; a jolly, semi-manic exterior covering the brutal rage and frustration underneath. What's caused this abrupt change in behavior is a mystery for Lois Lane to try and puzzle out before Superman does some really serious damage he can't take back.

A very powerful issue that delves not only into the vast levels of power that Superman wields but doesn't always show because of the extent to which he often holds back against lesser threats, but to the things all that power Can't do anything about. Packs an emotional wallop, but writer Chuck Austen also manages to inject some genuine comedic moments, while penciller Tom Derenick and the inking team of Rapmund and Mendoza, backed up colorists Tanya & Rich Horie, deliver visuals perfectly suited to the tone of each scene, whether it be tragic, all-out action, comedic or otherwise (not to mention one of the sexiest looks for Lois by any art team). It's a shame that issues like this sometimes get lost in the shuffle because of a perceived lack of blurb-worthy milestones ('First Appearance Of Such-And-Such', 'Death Of So-And-So', etc.) Those issues often do live up to their hyped, milestone status (other times, of course, they don't), but sometimes relatively unheralded issues are also among the greatest.

Courtney Crumrin and the Prince of Nowhere
Courtney Crumrin and the Prince of Nowhere
by Ted Naifeh
Edition: Paperback
29 used & new from $0.36

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One Of The Darkest And Most Haunting Crumrin Stories, September 7, 2009
Courtney Crumrin - comicdom's premiere pint-sized curmedgeon - and her uncle Aloysius continue their European travels in this tale that takes the duo to Germany and into the history of the Crumrin (or Krumrhein) family, and into some of the darker territory the books have yet explored, as both the horrors of vampirism and the internal, more personal horrors - disillusionment, fear and depression are beginning to close in on Courtney after all the tragedy she's witnessed - are confronted.

Aloysius, who's come to this place specifically looking for a cure to a secret that's plaguing him, is caught blindsided. It's never been stated explicitly (and it's never had to be) but Aloysius has appointed himself Courney's de facto guardian and defender (and in many ways, she's become the same for him, albeit more subtly) but he's focused on keeping the little scamp from the external threats (monsters, otherworldly realms) and bizarre situations she's always wandering into, and has never stopped to consider the inner turmoil that may be burrowing deeper and deeper into Courtney's young psyche, or the unexpected ways she might try to cope with it. This is one of the most tense and edge-of-your seat Crumrin tales yet told.

The Courtney Crumrin comics are often thought of as 'childrens comics' despite their darker elements, but really they go wider than that. I'm not saying that they aren't great for the young 'uns (although they may be too scary for, like a five or six year-old) - children are smarter than they're given credit for, and anyways few books are going to be more potentially disturbing to a child than sitting through a round of the nightly news or going through the years and years of the schooling system. But the Crumrin books - and many fans already know this - are simply one of the most appealing overall concepts out there, good for fourteen year-olds, forty year-olds, ninety year-olds, males, females, longtime comics lovers, people who've never read a comic in their life, whatever. I feel that they have the potential to tap into many of the same currents that have deservedly made properties like Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord Of The Rings, and the pantheon of Studio Ghibli anime movies such worldwide successes. More frightening (not that 'frightening' is a bad thing for a story to be!) than many of the entries the above examples contain, but also with tremendous comedic value, vast imagination and ability to impact on many emotional levels, this series is a goldmine just waiting for the world at large to discover it.

Even if the world-at-large never latches on, though, the books continue to reward those who know they exist. If you're a Courtney fan you need to get this volume; if you're new to the Crumrin saga the best place to start is with Courtney Crumrin, Vol. 1: Courtney Crumrin & The Night Things (Courtney Crumrin (Graphic Novels)). Highest possible recommendation.

Courtney Crumrin And The Fire Thief's Tale (Courtney Crumrin (Graphic Novels))
Courtney Crumrin And The Fire Thief's Tale (Courtney Crumrin (Graphic Novels))
by Ted Naifeh
Edition: Paperback
30 used & new from $3.78

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Crumrin Masterpiece, September 7, 2009
The comics world's number one little curmedgeon, Courtney Crumrin, and her Uncle Aloysius are off to travel Europe, and this gem of a tale finds the pair in Romania, home to all kinds of wonderous and frightening legends and folklore. The pair stays at the rural home of an old friend of Aloysius's, a priest named Alexi Markovic.

The world the two Crumrins live in is one of secret societies of wizards, of powerful arcane sorcery, and of mysterious creatures supposedly of myth living in the shadows. Their world could be said to be the blurry border between the mundane, 'everyday' world and the world of legend and magical realms - the parts of the world that 99% of the population doesn't realize truly exist. So it's no surprise that the home territory of one of Aloysius's oldest allies would also be home to supernatural beings living alongside man, especially this deep in the wooded lands of Eastern Europe, where so many of the most enduring legends have their roots. This part of the land is far removed from the bustle of modern cities and skyscrapers, and it's a land where many still believe in the old tales and the old ways. And it's here that the pair encounters a great supernatural tragedy, already beginning to unfold before their arrival.

It's in Courtney's nature to stumble into such situations and to take it upon herself to try and right them: despite her cranky disposition, her constant (and comedic) grumbling, and her trouble-magnet tendencies, the little grump has a heart of gold and an idealistic (though she'd never admit it) view of how things ought to be. In fact, it's probably her constant disappointment at the contrast between how Courtney feels the world should be and the way it is that plays a big part in makinmg her so irritable. That, and her indignation at the differences between the way the grown-ups around her present what they say and teach, and the way they often conduct themselves. All that, of course, doesn't take away from the charming fact that occasionally you have to call a spade a spade and a pint-sized curmedgeon a pint-sized curmedgeon. If I'm making the Crumrin books sound all solemn and ever-introspective it's not intentional; actually all this material makes for a mesmerising, at times whimsical and often hilarious series of tales and misadventures, but it also goes pretty deep into the philosophical/meaning-of-things angle at times, and the two (seemingly contradictory) veins mesh perfectly for an outstanding overall package.

Now, Aloysius, on the other hand: rather than being inclined to instantly insert himself into every situation and fix it, Aloysius may seem, to first-time readers especially, jaded and distant. But the whole story isn't always on the surface. One gets the impression that the character has a huge backstory full of triumph at times but frequently tragedy, and disappointed hopes that left him an austere, disattached man like he was in the very beginning of the Crumrin adventures (Courtney Crumrin, Vol. 1: Courtney Crumrin & The Night Things (Courtney Crumrin (Graphic Novels)) when he and Courtney first met. But the meeting of the two seems to have started Aloysius on a personal journey. In one of the most touching relationships in comics, Courtney - the misfit little girl unable to relate to either her own parents or to most children her own age, and Aloysius - the disillusioned, weary (and secretly lonely) old warlock, have formed a bond as they both grow and seek to find a place in their world - which includes not only the day-to-day realities of cities and towns and school and irritating relatives, but of monsters and powerful magic tomes and hidden kingdoms.

The unfolding 'supernatural tragedy' mentioned earlier resonates very deeply with Courtney, as we begin to see just how deeply an earlier loss continues to haunt the littlest Crumrin to this day, and just how deep the bond between Courtney and another character ran. Meanwhile, the appealing team-up of Aloysius's truly ancient magic and Father Markovic's newer, Christianity-based magic, may or may not be enough to stop the mundane but deadly power of human bigotries and ingnorance-based fears.

Writing and art are first-rate and totally distinctive; this is another Crumrin masterpiece.

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