Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 9: Come Take Us All

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Larry Blamire is best known as the writer/director/star of the cult film The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, an affectionate spoof of movies like The Creeping Terror, Attack of the Crab Monsters, and basically any film from the 1950s that was filmed in Bronson Canyon. Though Lost Skeleton attracted a number of fans, myself included, it also met with a fair amount of derision (one guy, who ran a now abandoned film blog, complained, condescendingly, that camp only works -- and is only camp -- if it's unintentional. Elsewhere on the site, he places Austin Powers on his list of best films from 1997. If there's a lesson here, other than that maybe this whole blogging idea is a bad one, I haven't figured it out), in some cases viewing Blamire's film as a sneering mockery of the films it's sending up. There is a contingent of cinephiles out there who reject all forms -- or all forms that don't make them laugh, anyway -- of jesting at the expense of incompetent films from the 50s and 60s, and to a certain extent I can understand that. It's very easy to feel superior to Ed Wood when you feel no personal drive to stick your neck out and make your own damn movie, for example. But at the same time, if you're not going to watch Bride of the Monster in order to laugh at it, you're not going to watch Bride of the Monster at all.
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So I'm a fan of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, but even if I wasn't I don't know how you could watch the film and not believe that Blamire not only knows whereof he spoofs, but in order to do so he'd have to be pretty fond of his subject. You don't watch that many cheap horror and science fiction movies because you hate them so much. Further evidence that Blamire is a fan -- and even an unironic one -- of this stuff comes in the form of Tales of the Callamo Mountains, a collection of thirteen Western/horror stories, a genre hybrid I wrote a little bit about last year. Though I'm a fan of this particular hybrid, and other hybrids, one area of concern I've had is that such fiction often is burdened with a crippling self-consciousness. The writers are so busy "playing" with these genre combinations that any possibility of the reader becoming immersed is lost.
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Well, Blamire has solved that particular problem by simply not being self-conscious about what he's doing. In his preface, he talks about being a long-time fan of Western horror, and citing a surprising list of classic TV shows, like Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel and Cimarron Strip, that have all dabbled in it (and I've seen not a single episode that Blamire talks about here, but I'm anxious to see them all, particularly the Have Gun Will Travel episode called "Sweet Lady of the Moon" and the Cheyenne episode called "Satonka"). These references are striking because Blamire's fiction itself feels like a throwback to that era, which I mean in the best possible way -- there's something very Robert Bloch-ish about these stories. His brand of horror is quiet and insinuating, dread-laden rather than explicitly violent. The Western elements feel authentic, with no sense ever of an overplayed "You Are Reading About the Old West -- Let Me Instruct You" sensibility.
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I've read several stories from Tales of the Callamo Mountains since picking it up earlier this year, but for today I read "The Trouble at Poysadine" and "On Tuesday I'll Be in China". One thing that impresses me about Blamire's take on Western horror is that he's able to find quite a bit of variety within it -- the story "Winchester Repeater" would have been very comfortable as an episode of The Twilight Zone, and "An Unexpected Stop" is all mood and creepy uncertainty -- and these two stories illustrate that point quite well. "The Trouble at Poysadine", for example, is structured as a murder mystery. An unofficial US Marshal (he does the odd job, now and again) named Buster Helgruder is sent to the mining town of Poysadine (should have been "Poseidon", but the town founder couldn't spell), located in the Callamo Mountains, because no ore has shipped from them in a month, and the mining company wanted an answer. So off Buster goes, and, upon arrival, he finds Poysadine to be a virtual ghost town. Not quite, though, because there are still about a dozen residents, including Miss Melanie, who lives in the big white mansion overlooking the town, in which she used to live with her recently departed husband Captain Brewster, town founder and mine boss. Brewster was killed, having fallen, or been pushed, or been thrown, down a hole deep inside the mine. Many citizens of Poysadine have died recently, all violently -- most who haven't been killed have fled. This dozen or so is all that remains, and Buster has a hard time figuring out what's keeping them there.
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As I say, "The Trouble at Poysadine" is structured as a mystery, but that doesn't mean it's not a horror story. Buster suspects pretty much everybody he meets as being capable of murder, and further suspects there's more to that mine than just iron ore. But he experiences more than just professional suspicion:
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Buster woke like a shot. Something he'd always been able to do. The shotgun was already in hand. But he didn't know what woke him.
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He looked for the window of his room, a rectangle of moonlight, and listened for any sounds above the wind.
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It was a whimper, faint and distant...
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Poysadine was a solid black mass. If something stirred in those shadows he didn't see it. He tried listening but the gale now sounded like a church choir in the grip of madness...Buster knew emerging into that [moonlight] made him a childishly easy target. But that miserable whimper repeated and left him no choice.
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It's that whimper that clues Buster, and the reader, into the idea that the solution to Poysadine's troubles might be found to be something other than a run-of-the-mill murderer, someone grubbing for secret gold, which is underlying motivation Buster clings to as his guide. The solution Blamire actually has in store manages to be briefly disappointing, until it's dwelled on for a few minutes. Then the chill creeps in.
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Changing direction rapidly, next up we have "On Tuesday I'll Be in China", which finds Blamire exploring, with surprising success, the realm of surrealism in horror. In fact, what we have in this story is a Western/surrealism/horror/Steampunk hybrid that is quite unlike anything I've read, at least in a while. It's a hard story to talk about, because it really doesn't seem to belong in a collection of horror stories, until you get to the last couple of pages. Therefore, in order to really discuss it in depth as a horror story, I would be forced to ruin the effect (though not the twist -- the story isn't that easy), which is not something I'm eager to do. But basically what goes on is this: a young farmhand named Enoch is out in the field one day when he sees an airship gliding overhead. This happens a couple more times before he's able to find where it lands, and greet the pilot. The pilot, who never gives his name, seems perfectly happy to have Enoch around, whenever he happens to be flying through this area, and Enoch is not only incredibly impressed with this mind-boggling new mode of transportation, but also eager to pump himself up to everyone on the farm with his story. Except that nobody believes him, because why should they? Enoch's inability to prove his story begins to obsess him, until one day he's able to beg a souvenir off the airship pilot, one he can show to everyone and confirm his story. The pilot agrees, and gives Enoch a fresh biscuit.
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I know, I realize that, but this is a horror story, one of a very specific -- and, compared to the rest of Tales of the Callamo Mountains, somewhat modern in its execution -- sort. It is also, as you may have guessed, deeply strange, and for me, hard to shake.
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In his preface, Blamire talks about this clutch of stories coming about almost by accident -- he was asked to write one, for an anthology that never materialized, and found himself compelled to write more in the same general line -- and to my knowledge he's published no other prose fiction. Perhaps the classic pulp nature of these stories is a hindrance, because if there's one thing I've learned as a reader of fiction and watcher of movies, is that everyone professes to love the old stuff, but nobody wants anyone to do that old stuff ever again. If that's the reason Blamire hasn't published anything else, that's a damn shame. If the reason is that he's more focused on films, then it's still a damn shame, but one I can live with.

3 comments:

John said...

Book sounds pretty neat, for what seems to be one of those self-published deals (a product of the apparently much-loathed "lulu.com"). Even that cover isn't enough to kill off my interest entirely.

This book sounds like the kind of thing I'd love to pick up as a cheap vintage dimestore paperback. Now, though, you'll only find it, if at all, in an overpriced limited edition with cover artwork by an anonymous 4th grader who won the "Paint This Story" competition in art class. Or, of course, an ebook. Ah, progress.

bill r. said...

The cover is by Blamire, and if the website for his long-gestating Steampunk movie is any indicating, he's a very good artist.

Dana Fredsti said...

Love Lost Skeleton of Cadavera (and enjoyed the sequel, even though it wasn't quite up to the original)... and I love horror/Westerns (ever read Demon Dance by T. CHris Martindale?). so I think I'll be looking this book up!

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