Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Illumination

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier sold itself to me based on this plot description: one evening, all over the world, pain begins to emit light. A flesh wound, a cold sore, a headache, cancer; all physical pain manifests itself with light which, in the language of the book jacket, glitters, fluoresces, blazes. I knew this would not be science fiction, for the rest of the plot description makes clear that the book will tell the stories of six people who all experience various kinds of pain and who all have contact with a notebook that is a collection of daily love notes left by a husband for his wife.

This book is really a loosely-knit short story cycle, the kinds of stories you'd find in the New Yorker--that's not mean to be a compliment or an insult, just a description. Ultimately, it struck me that both the "Illumination" and the notebook were gimmicks in order to have a framework for otherwise unconnected narratives. Most of the individual stories are interesting, but I wound up being disappointed that the gimmicks didn't amount to much. The plot point of pain emitting light is not crucial to any of the stories; it adds some nice grace notes here and there, but very little is done with it. Is it science or God or something else entirely? One story, about a missionary, seems about to touch on the spiritual nature of the Illumination, but it goes nowhere.

The notebook with its single sentence love notes ("I love how quietly you speak when you're catching a cold"; "I love how you fumble for words when you're angry"; "I love the joke you told an Eli and Abby's wedding reception") winds up being more important to the characters. Each of the six characters takes possession of the book, reads from it, and wonders about its origin; one of the stories is about the man who wrote the notes, which his wife, now deceased, kept in the notebook. One story is about a writer, suffering from terrible mouth pains (ulcers, cancre sores, etc.) who draws inspiration from the notebook for a story she writes.

Even though I felt tricked and let down by the book, I thought most of the stories were worth reading. One is a little creepy: a photojournalist takes a picture of a high school girl cutting herself in public (perhaps to see the Illumination, though her reasons are not clear), winds up taking her in when her parents throw her out, and by the end of the story has joined her in her flesh-cutting activities. The story about the writer is the most interesting one, and it has the added bonus of a story-within-the-story that she writes about communicating with the dead.

The overwhelming feeling I got from the book was sadness. Perhaps because recently I've had to deal in relatively minor ways with the aches and pains of aging, I was touched by the descriptions of physical suffering here, but each character is also going through incredible emotional pain as well. Sometimes, as in the story the husband with the notebook, the tone almost becomes too much to bear. At other times, as with the missionary, it's difficult to pin down what the suffering is about. But rarely have I had a book leave me in such strange, ambiguous moods each time I put it down. Recommended for readers of, well, The New Yorker.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

From a Whisper to a Scream

Netflix streaming is a wonderful thing--on a whim, thousands of movies are available to watch at home, whenever you want. Hit movies, cult films, classics, and best of all, little oddities that you might never have searched out, but run across doing a random search on genres. While looking for a Friday night horror movie, I found this oddity from 1986, From a Whisper to a Scream, aka The Offspring. It's cheaply made, with an odd mix of actors who had all seen better days, but it's grotesquely quirky, and gets away with more blood and kink than a more polished big-studio film of the day would have.

It's an anthology film, set in the cursed town of Oldfield, Tennessee. The frame story has Vincent Price (in one of his last films, but still full of the old fire) telling a reporter four tales of horror set a various times in the past of the town. I have to use spoilers in summarizing the first story because it's just so freakin' weird: a nerdy old man (Clu Gulager) who lives with his sickly sister (who may have an incestuous bone or two in her body) falls in love with a co-worker, but when their first date goes badly, he strangles her, then has sex with her dead body. Nine months later (hint, hint), he goes even further off the deep end and kills his sister (while she's naked in the bathtub!). But something has crawled out of his ex-date's grave and comes looking for revenge. Yes, it's a killer baby born of a dead woman. Far-fetched doesn't even begin to cover it (either the baby or the fact that it took him nine months to kill his obnoxious sister) but the climax is compelling.

The second story, set in the 50's, has a wounded thug (Terry Kiser), on the run from some other thugs, escape into the swamps. He is found and nursed back to health by a black hermit (Harry Caesar) who has stayed alive for hundreds of years through the practice of voodoo. To save Kiser's life, Caesar endows him with eternal life, but when Kiser tries to double-cross Caesar, Kiser soon regrets his gift. The horrific ending is right out of an old EC horror comic--actually, all of these could have come from Tales from the Crypt or the Creepy and Eerie comics of the 1960s.

The next plot, a little more traditional, is set in the 30s and involves a group of carnival performers with Lovecraft’s Traveling Amusements, centering on a young man who can eat metal and glass, the non-freak show girl who loves him and wants him to leave the show, and the forceful woman with supernatural powers (Rosalind Cash) who runs the carnival and is loathe to let anyone go.

The last and best story, also the town's origin story, is set at the end of the Civil War and features a small group of union soldiers led by sadistic, cold-blooded Cameron Mitchell, who guns down one soldier (C.J. Cox) who wants to give up killing. They wind up at the mercy of bunch of Confederate orphans who are given orders by a mysterious figure called the Magistrate. Between these "Children of the Corn"-type kids, and the not-quite-dead Cox, you know the Yankees aren't long for this world.

Each story has its plotholes, but each also builds to a nicely gory climax, with the ending to the second story taking the cake for sheer horror. The acting is variable; Gulager is very good, I guess, but because his character is so creepy and rather unbelievable, you really really want him to die. I also liked Rosalind Cash (maybe best known as Charlton Heston's leading lady in The Omega Man) who does a lot through the force of her personality with a barely-sketched-out character. It was fun to see Terence Knox (the rapist doctor on St. Elsewhere) in a small role. For a low-budget film, the effects are effective--I jumped and yelped and turned away in disgust several times. At one point it was titled The Offspring. Recommended for fans of gory B-horror.