365 days, 365 short stories – 1/21/18-1/27/18

All-Star Action Heroes #1

I continue to be behind in my 365 challenge, but I’m closing the gap.

I have no recollection of acquiring the anthology Glimpses: The Best Short Stories of Rick Hautala. I learned that I had it while going through my purchased Kindle items and putting short fiction into a collection so that I could easily find short stories for this challenge. It was probably free and I probably got it because the author’s last name is Finnish, and I grew up in an area with a heavy Finnish population. Maybe he was from my neck of the woods? (He wasn’t.)

So knowing nothing about the book nor the author but looking for a change of pace, I read “Schoolhouse,” the first story in collection.

I did not know what I was getting into. Wow. Outside of world-renowned classics, this is the best story I’ve read so far in this young year’s short story challenge. Intense, scary stuff. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this book.

I’ve been on one of my semi-regular Destroyer kicks, so I read two Destroyer short stories–“The Day Remo Died” by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, and “Terminal Philosophy” by Will Murray and Murphy (though likely really just Murray).

“The Day Remo Died” is a great story for Destroyer fans. It originally appeared in The Assassin’s Handbook (AKA Inside Sinanju) and recounts Remo’s origin from Chiun’s perspective. It’s free for Kindle.

“Terminal Philosophy” is a very short and pretty lame Destroyer short story that appeared in All-Star Action Heroes #1, an annual from Starlog publications. I doubt it made any new Destroyer fans. At least the accompanying artwork is cool.

Continuing on Robert E. Howard’s horror stories, I read “The Touch of Death” and “Out of the Deep.”

“The Touch of Death” is a bit Poe-like. “Out of the Deep” is a tale of Faring Town, a seaside locale where strange things happen. Howard set three stories and a poem there–it might be fun if someone else used the setting. This one involves a sort-of sea vampire. Both are solid pieces of Weird Tales-style horror fiction.

I also read “Hoverjack” by Nik Morton as Platen Syder, from Parade magazine, 2/6/1971. A quick and exciting, if juvenile, tale of Cold War espionage. Just the kind of thing I need more of as I try to get caught up on my short story challenge!


Movie review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


I have to admit that I was dragged to this one. The preview gave me the impression that it was in the One Righteous Woman on a Crusade genre with an extra scoop of hatred of religion, and I just had no interest in that.

Fortunately, I wrong. There is a woman, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), and she is on a crusade, although your perception of how righteous it is will likely change as the film progresses.

“Raped While Dying”

“And Still No Arrests?”

“How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

Those are the messages Mildred places on the three billboards, seven months after her daughter’s murder. They set tongues in the small town of Ebbing a-waggin’. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a popular fellow, and it’s an open secret that he’s dying of cancer.

The film wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. The act of placing the billboards triggers a series of events that is often less about an unsolved murder than it is about life’s strange twists and turns. What looks on paper (and in the trailers) like a joyless affair is actually infused with a lot of dark comedy and even some joyful moments.

I wouldn’t have gone in with such trepidation had I realized that the film was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who previously did In Bruges. I haven’t seen In Bruges, but I know what it’s about and it has been highly recommended to me by people who are similarly unlikely to be interested in what I thought this movie was.

And let me in turn highly recommend Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to you. Great performances all around, and a good script that trips over itself a few times but manages to sell you on most of it anyway.

Four stars


Movie review: Hostiles


Hostiles is a Western in the “The Old West is dying” sub-genre. The frontier is represented by the main character, Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale), and Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi). Chief Yellow Hawk has been imprisoned for seven years and is now riddled with cancer. For political reasons related to the rising tide of public discomfort with the treatment of the Indians, Joe is ordered to escort the chief and his family to the chief’s ancestral lands in the Valley of the Bears in Montana. Joe at first refuses, because the chief had viciously killed some of Joe’s friends in warfare, but Joe’s colonel holds something over the captain’s head–that Joe, who is about to retire, will be court-martialed and likely lose his pension if he disobeys the order.

Good soldier Joe dutifully sets off, and quickly runs into Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose husband and children have just been slaughtered by a savage band of Comanches. Later joining them on this dangerous journey, and adding some menace to it, is Sgt. Charles Wills (Ben Foster), an axe-murderer who is being sent back to his fort to be hanged.

Hostiles is an art-house film that would have benefited from an attempt to make it a little more commercial. It is meditative in the extreme, which is appropriate for the material, but this leads to it at times being glacially paced, which sometimes caused this audience member to quit meditating on its themes and drift away into my own thoughts. Extending the (realistically) very quick and brutal action scenes and cutting back on the shots of scenery would have kept me more engaged with no harm done to the filmmakers’ intent.

Despite this, Hostiles ends up being a powerful film that will linger with the viewer after the final reel has ended. Writer and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) resolutely refuses to make his characters one-dimensional and the moral quandaries reflected upon simple. The performances are terrific all around, but Christian Bale is especially superb–his ability to convey a world of emotion with a single look or expression is astonishing.

And, yes, although there is too much of it, that scenery is gorgeous. If Hostiles is of interest to you and playing in your area, try to see it on the big screen where it belongs.



365 days, 365 short stories – 1/14/18-1/20/18


This is the week I finally fell behind in my goal of reading 365 short stories this year. I shouldn’t have too much trouble catching up.

This week was all my continuing exploration of Robert E. Howard’s horror stories.

I started with “The Shining Pyramid” by Arthur Machen, a classic tale about supernatural nocturnal happenings in the English countryside. From there it was to REH’s “The Little People,” which uses the Machen story as a springboard. (“It’s all true!!!“)

“Rattle of Bones” is a Solomon Kane tale, with a nice twist.

“The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux” is an excellent supernatural boxing story, the best story I’ve read in The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard so far. The stories are chronological, which is great for people observing Howard’s evolution but lousy for the uninitiated who may give up before realizing that it takes Howard awhile to develop. This is from 1929, he has noticeably improved, and I am starting to get some classic REH.

The film Ring brought you a haunted VHS tape. Perhaps it was inspired by “Casonetto’s Last Song,” which brings you a haunted record. Short and atmospheric.

This week–get caught up, and continue with the REH but get a little more variety in there.

Movie review: I, Tonya


I, Tonya is a usually skillfully done and well acted telling of the story of Tonya Harding, the Olympic skater forever infamous for her involvement in a conspiracy to take out one of her competitors, Nancy Kerrigan.

For those of you not old enough to remember, this story enraptured the country, probably the world, as it unfolded. Here was a real-life conspiracy with high stakes unfolding in news broadcasts and tabloids every night, and it was hard not to be drawn into this true crime tale even if you had no interest in skating or the Olympics or if, in my case, you had never heard of Tonya Harding or Nancy Kerrigan prior to a hired goon attempting to kneecap Nancy and get her to hauntingly scream “Why?” in pain on camera for all to see.

The film plays the story as a dark comedy with some harrowing moments of drama–there’s no question Harding had a tough upbringing. She is depicted (by Margot Robbie) as someone desperate for love and acclaim, with two massive and related flaws–a rebellious streak which causes her to reject the council of those wiser and more knowledgeable than her, and an inability to take responsibility. “It’s not my fault,” or “It wasn’t my fault” is her frequent refrain.

While making clear that its narrators are unreliable, I, Tonya seems to come down on Harding’s side regarding the facts of the matter. She took a plea deal for hindering the prosecution of the other parties involved (something the movie confusingly doesn’t make clear, leaving viewers wondering what exactly her sentence was for), and the film has it that that’s probably all she’s guilty of. And maybe it is.

I, Tonya is so skillfully constructed for the most part that its few slip-ups stand out. The aforementioned courtroom confusion, a bizarre scene where the camera’s obsessive focus on a Ronald Reagan poster (who wasn’t even in office at the time) takes the viewer completely out of the movie, and a dumb throwaway line where we’re supposed to think that Olympic-skater Tonya thinks of having a living room as living in the lap of luxury. These minor things will probably stop the film from getting an Oscar nomination for best editing in a few weeks.

But, all in all, a really good film. Younger viewers may assume that the filmmakers have amped up the absurdity of the whole situation, and of course they have. But only by a little–it really was incredibly absurd. I, Tonya captures that absurdity beautifully.

Four stars

Movie review: The Shape of Water


An amphibious humanoid resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon is brought to a government lab during the height of the Cold War. Cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) forms a relationship with the creature and takes action when she learns of plans to vivisect him.

There is a scene in The Shape of Water that demonstrates much of what’s wrong with the film; I can’t write “everything that’s wrong” because there’s a lot more wrong, but much of what’s wrong.

Giles (Richard Jenkins), the friend and eventual accomplice of Elisa is in a neighborhood pie shop that he frequents. He gets into a conversation with the young man behind the counter, Pie Guy (that’s what he’s called in the credits, played by Morgan Kelly) and decides that this is the opportune moment to make a fairly aggressive homosexual play for Mr. Guy. Pie Guy is very uncomfortable with this and rejects the advance, as one might expect a young, straight guy to do in 1958.

The audience, while having sympathy with a lonely older man who is an outcast from society due to his homosexuality, might also have some sympathy for a young man thrust into a very awkward situation. And We Cannot Have That. It needs to be known the Pie Guy’s flustered rejection is because he is pure evil, so at this precise moment, a black couple walks in and Pie Guy rudely lets them know that they have no place sitting in the empty diner and kicks them out. And Giles, of course.

It is important to the film’s theme to establish Giles’ homosexuality and some of the societal rejection that comes with it. But why does poor Pie Guy, who has seemed like a very pleasant young man up until this point, have to be Pure Evil in order to establish these things?

This is a film that, while posing as uplifting, hates humanity. With the exception of a couple of bit characters needed to advance the plot, every character not involved in the plot to extract gill-man is either evil or extraordinarily blasé about the evil around them. (The bit characters might be evil as well, we just don’t get to know them.) The Cold War is nothing more than a dick-measuring between two evil governments. Men don’t care when their wives are being verbally abused, humiliated, and threatened right in front of them. The pleasant man behind the counter at your neighborhood diner is coiled hate just waiting to spring.

The most evil of them all is Michael Strickland (Michael Shannon), the tired cliché of an evil general. General Strickland is not allowed the slightest smidgen of humanity. He isn’t misguided, mistaken, or imperfect. In fact he is perfect! Perfect evil. That critics are praising a film with such a stereotypical one-dimensional antagonist should let future film-makers know that all you have to do to fool these dullards is dress your film up to make it look pretty and pander to the critics’ ideology.

Also, the movie is as utterly predictable. By maybe twenty minutes in, the only major plot point that viewers may not be able to guess in this formulaic movie is the very end, and even that can be guessed if some not-terribly-subtle foreshadowing is paid attention to.

Three things elevate this film to the whopping two-star level: The performances are fine, with even poor Michael Shannon doing the best with what he has to work with; the pacing at least keeps things moving; and the art direction is beautiful. None of that is enough to make the film worth seeing, but if you do see it, you’ll at least have those things to distract you.