Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023).

It's been a while, yet I can still recall the first time I saw the old boy.  During the Christmas holidays way back in 1991, I remember my parents were very eager for my sister an me to take an interest in one gift in particular.  It was the first time I'd ever seen a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and I think it says a lot about my credibility as a non-gamer that I didn't even know what to make of it.  I'm not lying about not being much of a gamer, by the way.  I was a child of the 80s, yet since I was born the year George Orwell made famous, a lot of my time was spent in watching the decade unfold from the sidelines.  That means while I occasionally came within reach of video game arcades, I think I was just too young to even know what to do with or about any of them.  Besides, the few memories of have of trips to Chuck E. Cheese's can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and there are only two or three that I recall with any great clarity.  

The clearest part of all those memories is the same thing.  Those stage animatronics belting out Bruce Springsteen's cover version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  Like I said, it was a long time ago, and I was just a kid back then.  One of those 80s brats whose attention is more concerned with questions of greater importance, such as whether an animated talking mouse can relocate his family on the streets of New York.  Or whether a manchild by the name of Paul Reubens will ever get his favorite bike back.

So by the time I first set eyes on a familiar plumbing expert from Brooklyn, it was kind of an unexpected arrival.  In addition to the Super Nintendo, my parents had also bought me and my sister a copy of a cartridge game to go along with it.  I can still recall the the box art imprinted on it.  A little man in blue work overalls, a red shirt and cap, riding on a slightly clever looking cartoon lizard.  The game was called Super Mario World, and the punchline here will forever be at my expense.  You see, the joke is that rather than being ecstatic at the prospect of being perhaps one of the few kids on the block to own what was turning out to be a real paradigm shift in the history of video games, I at first thought I just couldn't be bothered.  Now that I've painted a target on my head, let me go on assure everyone here that I soon fell victim to the game's charms.  My parents kept insisting I play it, probably more out of a concern for not throwing away hard earned income, more than anything, and it wasn't long before I was soon joining my sister in the antics of the most famous gaming mascot of all time.  That was really my big breakthrough with the character, though it wasn't my first ever encounter with him.

I'd known at least something of the Mario Bros. series of games long before this.  Mostly, however, it was limited to the occasional commercial I might have caught during the golden age of 80s and 90s TV.  In fact, the first time I ever saw the old intrepid savior of damsel's in distress was on an episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood if you can believe it.  If you can't, then here's a clip to prove I'm not lying.  That was literally the first time I'd ever heard of a game called Donkey Kong, and the cast and crew of the console that would all go on to become legends in their own right.  It's also in retrospect that it was the first time I ever saw the cinema legend now known simply as Keith David, yet that's another story.  The point is there goes my initial contact with the world of Nintendo's flagship franchise.  The next time I caught up with plumber from down under, he was now joined by his younger brother Luigi.  It was as part of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show.  And right about now, most of you have the Plumber Rap stuck in your heads.  Wallow in it 80s kids!  We never knew just how good we had it.  

So, yeah, like a lot of the rest of us, I got to witness a few episodes, here and there.  Not much.  In fact, I think I've only ever caught one or two in my lifetime.  However what I did manage to see impressed me enough to the point where I was frustrated by my inability to catch the show again.  That's the real reason I never got into the whole deal more than anything else.  I could just never really locate the show's schedule times.  I think I must have had the bad luck to catch each TV incarnation of the character during the tail ends of the run on the airwaves.  Once those offerings ceased to make appearances, all of us had to wait until the coming of DVD and digital media if we ever wanted to catch a rerun.  And so it goes.  As a result, while it piqued my curiosity, I never really had the chance in my household to ever sort "get into it" like everyone else.  Which at least helps explain my initial lukewarm reception to Super Mario World turning up on my doorstep.  I mean when you're a kid, life goes by pretty fast, even if it seems like aeons, and there was a lot more back then to distract yourself with.

Still, playing that game was enough to rekindle my initial enthusiasm, for a time, at least.  After I finally beat the game, I followed it up with Mario Kart, and then I think it was Super Mario All-Stars, which is where I got re-acquainted with all the others games in the series up to that point.  The last entry in the SNES series that I ever bothered with was Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars, back in 1996.  It was a time that is remarkably distant, yet seems just like yesterday, looking back on it now.  Oh yeah, and then there was the Bob Hoskins adaptation with Dennis Hopper as Bowser in 93.  It's one of those films I can recall not minding all that much as a kid.  In my memory, it seems to share a lot of similarities with shows like The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, if that's anything.  Apparently, however, it wasn't as far as most of the fans are concerned to this day.  And I've got to admit, looking at the film now, it all just falls apart if you give the setup so much as a moments thought.  The whole thing is a classic case of a property suffering from an identity crisis.  At no point can  the film ever quite make up its mind on what it wants to be.  Based on what I've heard on the behind the scenes drama, it's an opinion shared by both the stars and directors of the movie.

What I'm also able to say with a fair degree of certainty is that it was the box-office performance of the 93 adaptation which more or less put the kibosh on any ideas of translating the video game franchise to the big screen for the next three decades.  Then, low and behold, Nintendo decides to take a chance, and hires Illumination studios to try and make a feature-length, computer animated cartoon about everyone's favorite public works brothers, and their amusing exploits.  The result is now still in theaters as of this writing, and all of it begs the question.  Is this the Mario franchise adaption fans have been waiting for?

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Ramsey Campbell's Ancient Images (1989).

I think I'll have to start out with an apology.  It's directed at not one, but two recipients.  The first is Will Errickson.  He owns the popular blog, Too Much Horror Fiction, which serves as a great resource for unearthing the all the ghastly glories from the days of Gothic fiction past.  If you're the kind of discerning reader who likes the sort of charm that's found in those old types of paperbacks with lurid art decorations featuring a colorful variety of assorted nightmares from previous decades, then Errickson is the guy you need to talk to in order to sate that particular fix.  No matter how niche you may think your taste in the old classics are, whether it be a like for names like Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, Richard Matheson, or even more obscure names like Thomas F. Monteleone and Kathe Koja, Will's blog will always be there to both assure you that you're not alone, and help re-introduce you to a lot of obscure names that sometimes don't deserve to be forgotten.  The best part is that he accomplishes all this in a crisp yet descriptive prose style that is fitting for the type of blog he runs, and the particular tomes of terror that he was able to unearth dredge up from the crypt of yesteryear.

If it sounds like I'm going out of my way here to sing the Will's praises, then the sad news is there may be a reason for that, so I figure its best get the apologies up front and let everyone know that what I'm about to say next is nothing personal.  I also mentioned above that there was just one other person to whom a bit of groveling is in order, considering the places this review is going to head as it goes along.  This other guy is just some scribbler by the name of Stephen King.  Have you heard of him?  Well, whatever the case, even if you're a complete newcomer to the Horror genre, you can take my word for it that this second person I have to apologize to is a good place to start when it comes to the real subject of this review.  It all has to do with a book called Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell.  Now if neither the name, nor the title is familiar to you, then I'm not surprised.  Nor is it anyone's fault, although that faint and distant sound of sorrow you might be hearing right now is probably Will Errickson wailing and gnashing his teeth, while tearing his hair out.  In some ways, it's just possible for me to sympathize with such a reaction.  However, the sad truth is every artist is at the mercy of the audience.  Which means all fame is a victim of memory.  Writers like King are lucky in that he's become (by his own admission) the world's most recognizable brand name in the history of the Horror genre.

For people like Ramsey Campbell, however, the luck just never really appears to have been in the cards.  If you type in his name on Google Trends, the results are not what you'd call inspiring.  The search engine's recall doesn't reach back further than the year 2004.  And the further away you get from that point, the lower Campbell's fame and reputation seem to dip.  It bottoms out around December of 2006, and he's never really broken past the 25% mark since.  That's a good marker for showing that your reputation is in danger of sinking away into the cracks of history.  The final kicker is that in the US, at least, there are just two states where anyone shows any awareness of who Campbell is, and his entire reputation is confined to both New York and California.  That's not niche.  It's barely even an afterthought.  It's also kind of the reason I decided to bring Uncle Steve along for the ride.  In addition to being the best-selling Boogeyman of all time, King has forgotten more valuable information about the Horror genre than most of us will ever be able to recall under our own efforts going forward.

His memory of the Gothic is long, and one of the shames of real life is that I don't think we've ever capitalized on that as much as we should, while there's still time.  There will come a day (say sorry as hell) when such an immediate fount of knowledge will no longer be available, at least not as far as our own current perception of things goes.  When it does, it will be like watching a valuable treasure chest of information and genre knowledge sinking under the waves for the final count.  That's one of the great losses that can happen when a Titan goes silent, and the same can even be said of Campbell as well as King.  In addition to being ink-stained-wretches, both men are fans of their own genre, and one of the good things to know is that Campbell has been considerate enough to leave his own thought on the field, and its stories recorded down for posterity.  King has managed to do some of this as well, in his 1981, book-length study, Danse Macabre.  It's in that non-fiction book, as well, that he provides readers with what has to be one of the few good introductions to who Ramsey Campbell is, and what he writes for a living.  As always, the first step in getting to know a forgotten name is to know about his context.

From what I'm able to tell, Campbell is one of those writers who owe their entire career to being in the right place at the right time.  He wound up as one of the many handfuls of genre practitioners whose efforts received a strong shot in the arm once the Horror field began to experience its real renaissance during the 70s and 80s.  This is something Errickson is able to discuss in greater detail with his overview history, Paperbacks From Hell.  The basic gist, however, is that for whatever reason, starting somewhere in the early 60s, the spectral world of ghouls, ghosts, and everything that goes bump in the night experienced a new surge of popularity that, for a time, allowed the genre to build its reputation up in the public conscious, one strength at a time.  It's nadir was reached between the Carter and Reagan administrations, before finally beginning to dwindle into the kind of set pattern it now finds itself in, somewhere in the middle of the 90s.  Campbell's career in this publishing boom period marks him out as a somewhat interesting specimen of the format.  Much like King, Ramsey is a boomer who got bit the fright bug as a young lad in Liverpool, and his enthusiasm for the dark soon found more or less the same outlet, in first the writing, and later the eventual publication of his name in magazines and books.

It's the sort of familiar career trajectory that Campbell shares in common with King.  The basic plot beats of this artistic development might almost be capable of graphing like the notes of a well worn, yet still useful symphony.  What's somewhat remarkable in Campbell's case is the timing and speed of his arrival on the scene.  The British author's own self-admitted big step "into the abyss of full-time writing" came in 1973 (14)".  His years of published apprenticeship began as far back as 1961, at a time when the zeitgeist of Horror was being funneled through the likes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, and Dan Curtis's Dark Shadows.  Campbell started out as something of a Lovecraft acolyte, even getting a job under the wing of Arkham House editor August Derleth.  As the Psychedelic era transitioned to the Disco Age, Campbell began to refine his efforts into the current voice he still has today.  This the part at which King's own study of the writer is able to help put flesh on the skeleton of the bare facts.  In chapter 9 of Danse Macabre King provide his readers with some very helpful bits of information.

King starts out by noting that Campbell is (or was, once upon a time) "part of a whole new generation of British fantasy writers who seem to be revitalizing the genre by cross-fertilization much as British poets helped to revitalize American poetry during the early sixties.  Besides Campbell...there is Robert Aickman (who could hardly be called a young Turk - but since such books as Cold Hand in Mine have brought him to a wider audience, it seems fair enough to classify him as part of the British new wave), Nick Sharman, Thomas Tessier, an American living in London, who has recently published a novel called The Nightwalker, perhaps the finest werewolf novel of the last twenty years, and a score of others.

"As Paul Theroux - another expatriate American living in London - has pointed out, there is something uniquely British about the tale of horror (perhaps particularly those which deal with the archetype of the Ghost).  Theroux, who has written his own low-key horror tale, The Black House, favors the mannered but grisly tales of M.R. James, and they do seem to summarize everything that is best in the classic British Horror story.  Ramsey Campbell and Jame Herbert are both modernists, and while this family is really too small to avoid a certain resemblance even in cousins twice removed, it seems to me that both of these men, who are worlds apart in terms of style, point of view, and method of attack, are doing things that are exciting and worthy of attention (376)".  Let me just pause right here to offer a brief, yet important after-the-fact observation, one that just goes to prove the adage about how hindsight is pretty much everything.  With the passage of years, it has now become possible to gain a clearer picture of what was going on in the field of British Fantasy during the years King was talking about.  Those words of his were written down between 1979-80, and as he was getting all this ready for publication, there were a lot of other artistic developments going on in the background of King's prose that tell a greater story.

It turns out that "whole new generation of British fantasy writers" who were busy "revitalizing the genre" back then has now been expanded to include a list of writers and artists who have now become greater household names than the one's King starts us out with.  This would include the likes of Alan Moore, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Dave Mckean.  At least these are the authors and creators who have gone on to achieve a worldwide level of fame as a part of that British Fantasy Boom that King talks about.  It's a crucial piece of information that serves to repurpose the context of the Danse Macabre scene setting given above.  With the clearer picture that we have now about how the artistic history shaped out, it becomes obvious that King's initial musings about British Fantasy are in fact one of the first notices ever given to the explosion in all the major Fantastic genres that would soon be inaugurated by Moore and Gaiman in the coming years.  King was therefore in the somewhat lucky position of being able to notice that at least something important was going on in the UK at the time, even if the picture was still not as clear as it later became.  The final irony here is that when we talk of people like Gaiman and Mckean, they're ususally lumped together with King.

That seems to be because of how their efforts shaped the history of the modern literary arts.  Peter Straub seems to have been aware of this, which is way in a later book of lit. crit. essays, he refers to people like Moore, King, Gaiman and himself as belonging to an informal group of clique of writers known as the New Wave Fabulists.  It's a moniker that still seems to be the best fit for a collection of disparate artists who nonetheless managed to come together and find ways of turning the mundane world around them into marvelous dream vistas of both terror and wonder in equal measure.  On the British front, guys like Al and Neil were accomplishing these feats with the publication of titles like Watchmen and The Sandman respectively.  Getting back to King's description in the Danse study, however, what becomes even more clear is that he initially saw Ramsey Campbell as very much belonging to, or forming a very crucial part of this then up and coming literary cadre of artists.

In terms of the writer's own efforts in all of this artistic ferment, King has the following to say. "Campbell, a Liverpudlian ("You talk just like one of the Beatles," a woman marvels to a writer from Liverpool in Campbell's new novel, The Parasite) writes a cool, almost icy prose line, and his perspective on his native Liverpool is always a trifle offbeat, a trifle unsettling.  In a Campbell novel or story, one seem to view the world through the thin and shifting perceptual haze of an LSD trip that is just ending...or just beginning.  The polish of his writing and his mannered turns of phrase and image make him seem something like the genre's Joyce Carol Oates (and like Oates, he is prolific, turning out good short stories, novels, and essays at an amazing clip), and there is also something Oatesian in the way his characters view the world - as when one is journeying on mild LSD, there is something chilly and faintly schizophrenic in the way his characters see things...and in the things they see.  These are the perceptions of (one of Campbell's other main characters from a different book from the one we're looking at here, today, sic) as she shops in a Liverpool department store in The Parasite:

"A group of toddlers watched her pass, their eyes painted into their sockets.  On the ground floor, red and pink and yellow hands on stalks reached for her from the glove counter.  Blind mauve faces craned on necks as long as arms; wigs roosted on their heads...The bald man was still staring at her.  His head, which looked perched on top of a bookcase, shone like plastic beneath the fluorescent lights.  His eyes were bright, flat, expressionless as glass; she though of a display head stripped of its wig.  When a fat pink tongue squeezed out between his lips, it was as if a plastic head had come to life.

"Good stuff.  But strange; so uniquely Campbell that it might as well be trademarked...Campbell has been turning out his own patented brand of short horror tale for some years now (like Bradbury and Robert Bloch, Arkham House published Ramsey Campbell's first book, The Inhabitant of the Lake, which was a Lovecraft clone).  Several collections of his stories are available, the best of them probably being The Height of the Scream.  A story you will not find in that book, unfortunately, is "The Companion," in which a lonely man who tours "funfairs" on his holidays encounters a horror beyond any ability to describe while riding a Ghost Train into its tunnel.  "The Companion" may be the best horror tale to be written in English in the last thirty years; it is surely one of the half dozen or so which will still be in print and commonly read a hundred years from now.  Campbell is literate in a field which has attracted too many comic-book intellects, cool in a field where too many writers - myself included - tend toward panting melodrama, fluid in a field where many of the best practitioners often fall prey to cant and stupid "rules" of fantasy composition.  

"But not al good short-story writers in this field are able to make the jump to the novel (Poe tried with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and made a conditional success of the job; Lovecraft failed ambitiously twice, with The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the rather more interesting At the Mountains of Madness, whose plot is remarkably Pym-like).  Campbell made the jump almost effortlessly, with a novel as good as its title was off-putting: The Doll Who Ate His Mother (376-78)".  We'll have to stop there if we want to stay on course.  However the point of all that preamble was to give readers an idea of how I first heard of the author King talks about.  As you might have been able to tell, it turns out the guy who wrote The Shining is also one hell of a better salesman than maybe even he realizes.  King's mini-essay into Campbell and his work did enough of a good job at detailing a writer that I'd never really heard of, except at second hand, that he accomplished the one feat all artists hope to succeed at.  He got me interested in the work of another latter day Gothic novelist.  My curiosity was gotten at enough, anyway, so that Campbell became a name I promised myself I would look into at some future date, and apparently that time is now.  All of which preamble leads us to the main subject.