Review: Room 237 (2012)


I read The Shining as a tween in the 1970’s, in its first paperback run. Its cover was made of mylar (“shining” .. get it?), and the back blurb promised it was “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING JACK NICHOLSON” — an image I carried throughout the genuinely scary read. [Side note: I mentally cast Scatman Crothers as Halloran, all on my own, years before the film came out.] Having been well and truly haunted by Stephen King’s novel, I was perplexed and disappointed by the Kubrick film when it finally came out in 1980 (I had re-read the novel several times by then). But over the years, I realized that the Kubrick version was doing some haunting of its own, drawing me back to repeated viewings and heated discussions of its complexity.

The first paperback edition of 'The Shining'

Room 237 is an exegesis of this haunting effect, told by an assortment of obsessive fans. Their theories are alternately schizophrenic (e.g. the film is Kubrick confessing that he helped fake the moon landings) and plausible (e.g. it’s a comment on the Native American genocide). But the interpretations are never boring, even the most outlandish stretches. The stretchiest of the stretches has got to be the “run-it-backwards-and-forwards-at-the-same-time” theory, which is just a warmed-over version of the “play ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ alongside ‘The Wizard of Oz'” epiphany, well-known to stoned teenagers everywhere.

I was surprised that the ‘gold standard’ interpretation of the film, recently noted by io9, didn’t make the kavalcade of krazy theories. But don’t worry, this excellent documentary will give you plenty to chew on. If you’re like me, it will force you to overthink it all, then look in the mirror and ask “who’s the real OCD film freak? Could it be me?!?

A Stake in the Heart of the Emo Vampire

"The Strain" book jacket

Guillermo DelToro and Chuck Hogan’s novel The Strain reclaims the vampire mythos from the fangless, flowery teen romance it has become with the Twilight stories, and does so with excessive, gory relish. About time!

The Strain — the first of an epic, apocalyptic trilogy — puts a stake through the heart of the sexy vegetarian vampire made popular by Twilight, and gets us back to what was so creepy about vampires in the first place: they are the undead. They are hijacked human forms, and their hunger is not sexual — it’s the “red-in-tooth-and-claw” variety that makes nature wild, ugly and terrifying.

Many of the novel’s tropes are familiar from post-modern vampire lore: vampirism is a disease (as in Blade); ancient tribes of the undead in league with human co-conspirators (as in Underworld); high-tech vampire-hunting techniques (as in… you get the idea). It also has much in common with the sprawling scope of Stephen King’s The Stand. But the familiarity of these narrative devices do not take away from the scary fun of the book, which you’ll plow through like a bag of potato chips.

But I’ll say it again: the best thing about this book is that it sounds a death knell for the sexy vampire, who has been annoying true horror fans since the reign of Anne Rice. Strigoi!

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Review: Rocket Men

Rocket Men book jacket

I never tire of the Apollo 11 story, even in this 40th anniversary year that produced a deluge of memorial films, books and articles. It (and the birth of Sesame Street) remains a distinct childhood memory, though I was only four years old. Rocket Men is an excellent and authoritative retelling of the amazing achievement, a must-read for space freaks.

Hardcore Apollo nerds like myself will already know most of the mission details recounted in this book, but that doesn’t stop it from being a gripping page-turner — even when it dips back into history to review Operation Paperclip and the frantic poaching of Nazi scientists after the war. The story all unfolds at a gripping pace, using the official mission timeline (“T-minus”, etc) often in the voices of the engineers and astronauts that made it happen.

In fact, that’s one of the best aspects of the book: the engineers are given a more complete voice than they are usually afforded on those “History Channel” shows. Another commendable feature of Rocket Men is the respectful depth given to the portrait of Mike Collins — the affably humble Command Module pilot who is so often eclipsed by Buzz & Neil in accounts of the Great Leap.

The book ends by reminding us of our baffling abandonment of manned space-flight, though it does so in a way that inspires rather than scolds.

Perhaps with the discovery of all that water, we’ll finally go back? I hope so. The next humans on the moon are more likely to be Chinese or Indian than American, at this point. I don’t care which, I just hope they build a little campground that can be visited by mere mortals like me.

Review: The Gates


The Gates (full title: The Gates of Hell are About to Open, Mind the Gap is the first book I’ve read by Irish author John Connolly, but it won’t be my last. Connolly stirs together a mix of fantasy, science and anglo wit in an entertaining manner that puts him in league with Douglas Adams and Eoin Colfer.

The Gates has been described as a children’s book for adults, which is pretty apt. The story surrounds young Samuel Johnson (one of many allusive names Connolly gives his characters), who by chance observes his suburban neighbors in a showy ritual meant to summon Satan and his demonic minions. Samuel is an oddball, and has trouble convincing authorities of the impending doom. His only steadfast ally, at least in the beginning, is his faithful dachsund Boswell (who is one of the most warmly drawn fictional dogs I’ve ever read of, btw).

Samuel confronts several demons as he puzzles over how to stop the arrival of The Great Malevolence, which is slated to happen in a couple of days. His conversations with these bad guys — always rational and probing — make for some superbly dry and funny dialog. And Samuel actually befriends one of them: Nurd, the Scourge of the Five Deities.

He finally gets the attention of scientists at CERN, who take his apocalyptic predictions seriously — mainly because their Large Hadron Collider played a role in the whole mess. It seems an exotic particle somehow escaped the atom-smasher, ripping a hole in the universe while the physicists were distracted by a game of “Battleship.”

Zany hilarity and fast-paced action ensues as Samuel and his friends (both human and demonic) race against time to close the portal to Hell before the Big Guy arrives.

The book ends with ample room for a sequel, which I hope is coming soon. The snappy dialog and Lovecraftian descriptions of the horrible beasties would also lend themselves to a smashing feature film… get to work, Hollywood!

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