Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More edited by August Derleth

Sleep No More was a 1940s anthology of horror fiction put together by noted Wisconsin historical fiction (and horror) author August Derleth.  It featured primarily creepy stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a paperback reprint came out.  To make it a manageable size with the binding limitations of the time, only the first nine stories were included; and presumably there would have been a sequel with the rest had sales justified it.

Stories from Sleep No More

“Count Magnus” by M.R. James leads off with the tale of a would-be travel book writer who visits Sweden and wakes up something that should have been kept sleeping.  Like many tales from the era, it’s told at a remove, reported by someone who found the protagonist’s papers and pieced together the story from them.  That aside, it’s an excellent example of horror by implication–none of the presumably gory bits happen on page, and the results are not directly described.  The moment of most terror is a lock that should not be open being open.

“Cassius” by Henry S. Whitehead is set in the West Indies.  A man who’s had an ugly growth removed is hunted by a small but deadly enemy.  It starts well, but the explanation for the terror is heavily racist, involving some dubious genetics and “race memory.”  Also, the ending is an anticlimax.

“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood is the oldest story in the collection.  A schoolteacher who altered his holiday plans on a whim finds himself at a Swiss inn with no vacancies.  Wait, there is one room, but the catch is that the occupant just vanished a couple of days ago–they may or may not be returning.  The room’s atmosphere is oppressive, leading to thoughts of suicide.  Unnatural thoughts!

“The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith has a desperately unemployed man (who happens to know Arabic) get a job as secretary to reclusive scholar John Carnby.  Carnby turns out to be an occultist with eccentric habits, and a fear of leaving his room at night.  Supposedly, the noises in the halls are rats, but the glimpses the secretary gets don’t look like any rats he’s ever seen.  Mr. Carnby needs some passages from the Necronomicon translated at the highest priority, passages about sorcerers being able to come back from the dead.  The job does not end well.

“Johnson Looked Back” by Thomas Burke is a rare second-person story.  The reader is addressed as though they were Johnson, who is pursued by a mysterious blind, handless man.  The narrator urges Johnson not to look behind him, but of course he does and dooms himself.  The ending is kind of kludgy, suggesting the whole story is a metaphor.

“The Hand of the O’Mecca” by Howard Wandrei is set in Minnesota, not far from Mankato.  Finnish-American farmer Elof Bocak is crossing the fields at night to woo his neighbor, Kate O’Mecca.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the superstition about bats on the ground.  Some nice local color, but the twist is telegraphed.

“‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” by H.R. Wakefield concerns a barrister named Edward Bellamy.  He’s contacted by an old school friend, Philip Franton.  They’d fallen out of touch after the War, but now Franton is in a spot of trouble.  It seems he was for some months host to Oscar Clinton, a fascinating fellow who Philip was quite entranced with initially.

Eventually, Clinton’s less appealing habits (impregnating chambermaids, stealing and forgery) became unbearable, and Franton broke ties with the man.  Some time later, Clinton tried to use his “friendship” with Philip as a recommendation to a club, and the wealthy man blackballed him.  Clinton was not well pleased, and sent Franton a supposedly cursed image.  Now Philip is jumping at oddly shaped shadows.

Bellamy is unable to prevent his friend’s horrible death, but perhaps he can get a little extrajudicial revenge?

Oscar Clinton is cartoonishly decadent.  To quote:

“I fancy,” said Clinton, “that you are perplexed by the obstinate humidity of my left eye.  It is caused by the rather heavy injection of heroin I took this afternoon.”

It’s probably meant to evoke the image of the notorious “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.  While Clinton only mentions sex with women, there are homoerotic undertones in his relationships with Franton and Bellamy.  His comeuppance is satisfying.

“Thus I Refute Beezly” by John Collier is titled after Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley.  “Small Simon” Carter is a friendless child who spends most of his time in the garden, playing alone.  He claims to be playing with a “Mr. Beezly” who is hard to describe, and no adult has ever seen.

Small Simon’s father, who insists on being called “Big Simon”, is a dentist with some odd ideas about parenting.  Big Simon is big on science and fact, and when Small Simon won’t admit that Beezly is imaginary, decides to punish the lad.  That’s a mistake.

This story is more often reprinted than most in this collection, and there’s analysis of it at various websites.  What struck me was that the author is being snotty about “modern” parenting methods of the sort where parents insist on children calling them by first name.  “See?  This fellow is all ‘progressive’ and such, but when logic fails, it’s back to corporal punishment just like normal folks!”

Rounding out the collection is “The Mannikin” by Robert Bloch.  A schoolteacher picks a random isolated town for vacation, only to discover that this is the hometown of his old school friend Simon Maglore.  In the time they’ve been parted, the deformity of Simon’s back has gotten a lot worse, and the superstitious locals shun him.  The basic twist is the same as “Cassius”, minus the racism.  Some Lovecraftian references in this story, too.

Most of these are good if dated stories; “Cassius” is the only one that has become outright uncomfortable to read due to its attitudes.  While it’s long out of print, the paperback edition should be relatively easy to find in finer used bookstores.

Movie Review: Spider Forest (2004)

Movie Review: Spider Forest (2004)

Kang Min (Kam Woo-Sung), a line producer for a schlocky “true paranormal” television show, finds himself in a dark forest, headed for an isolated house.  Inside, he finds blood and destruction.  He sees the repeatedly stabbed body of his boss, and then finds his lover Hwang Su-yeong (Kang Kyeong-hyeon) dying and babbling about spiders.  At this point, he detects another presence in the house, presumably the killer.

A misleading scene from "Spider Forest"
A misleading scene from “Spider Forest”

Kang Min gives chase, only to be stunned with a blow to the head.  Dazed, Kang Min finds his way into a nearby highway tunnel, where he glimpses the presumed murderer again.  Before he can act on this, Kang Min is hit by an SUV.  He awakens fourteen days later in the hospital.

His acquaintance Choi, a police officer, is called in, and when Kang Min tells him about the murders, Choi is assigned to investigate.  Kang Min reveals the events that led up to that night in the woods in fragments of memory, dream and possibly hallucination.  Some of what he remembers may not be true.

This is a low-budget psychological thriller from Korea, meant to cash in on the wave of films such as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.  As such, it’s sporadically violent and frequently bloody.  There’s also several sex scenes, and the film got an “R” rating in the United States.  It’s also mostly shot in dark and dimly-lit locations, with characters whispering their lines (thank goodness for subtitles!)

The story of the film is deliberately confusing, according to director Song Il-gong.  He started by writing a linear script that fully explained what was going on in a way that made logical sense, then cut out as much of it as possible and still have a narrative.   (There are a few deleted scenes on the DVD that fill in some of the gaps, but don’t really explain more of what’s really going on.)

Due to the darkness, whispered dialogue and jigsaw puzzle plot, this is not a movie I recommend for late night viewing.  It’s best when you’re fully alert and able to give it some concentration.  I do not recommend the film for anyone who hates jigsaw puzzle plots or mind screws.

Movie Review: Kill Devil

Movie Review: Kill Devil (2004)

A teenager wakes up on a deserted beach, sometime in autumn.  He doesn’t remember who he is or how he got there, but the blanket he was under indicates he wasn’t on that beach by accident.  He’s wearing a strange metal wristband with the name “Shougo” on it, so that’s what people call him.

Kill Devil

Shougo soon meets other amnesiac teens, some reasonably friendly, and others lethally unfriendly, especially “the scythe man.”  Shougo and the others stumble around the island looking for the reason they’re there, and someplace safe.

Then about fifteen minutes in, we’re told exactly what is happening, not in dialogue, but a straight-up voice-over.  It seems that Japanese scientists have isolated the “murder gene” that causes some people to flip out and casually kill others.  Sixteen teenagers who carry the gene were brought to this island, and had their memories wiped as part of an experiment code-named “Kill the Devil.”  (We never learn the precise goal of the experiment.)

This 2004 Japanese film is transparently following in the footsteps of Battle Royale with the young people being coerced into killing each other for the benefit/entertainment of adults.  It’s not nearly as good; the amnesia gimmick means that we learn little to nothing about any given character before they die, and most of them do.

There’s also a samurai sword duel in the middle of the movie that has nothing to do with anything else.

If you liked Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, but thought there was too much plot and character development, this might suit your needs.  The US DVD release comes with a trailer and alternate ending; don’t watch either before the main feature as the trailer spoils one of the few actual surprises, and the alternate ending won’t make sense at all (not that it does much anyway) without seeing the rest of the movie first.

In addition to R-level violence, there’s some side-on male nudity.

After this point, I will be discussing SPOILERS for Kill Devil.

SPOILERS!

It’s a bit difficult to say what the theme of the movie is, beyond “grownups suck.”  Perhaps the futility of trying to overcome your genetic destiny; or a warning against being so invested in a certain outcome of your scientific research that you rig the experiment until you get the outcome you want.

The ending of the film is a downer, with all the teenagers dead, and most of the adults getting away with their actions.  And then there’s a stinger at the end of the credits that’s foreshadowed in one line in the rest of the movie, involving a character we’ve never seen before and leaves you asking “why?”  Perhaps it was meant to be a sequel hook.

The alternate ending is just like the regular ending except that the last teen killed suddenly rises, goes into a dance routine, and then several of the other teen characters join him for a big dance number.  Then the others vanish, the last teen lies down dead, and fade to black.  (Same stinger after the credits.)  Given that several members of the cast were members of the Diamond*Dogs dance troupe, this may have been the original intended ending.

Both the ending credits and the trailer show a still of what is apparently a scene deleted in the US release in which two of the characters do a rap.    I am mildly grateful that this was not included.  The trailer also gives away the stinger.

END SPOILERS

Again, not particularly recommended, unless perhaps you are a fan of the Diamond*Dogs dance troupe, or one of the actors in the cast list.

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