Book Reviews by Cherie Priest

Roger Corman: Metaphysics On a Shoestring

Roger Corman made his Hollywood debut in 1955, and he's enjoyed a career as a one-man B-movie mill ever since. As a director, he's been responsible for dozens of low-budget flicks; and as a producer, executive producer, writer, or actor, he's had his hand in several hundred others. Roger Corman: Metaphysics On a Shoestring is a compendium that addresses some of these films, annotating the works of Roger's directorial canon with photographs, fond reminiscing, and commentary from the man himself.

Corman used to brag that he'd never lost a dime making movies, and upon taking a good look at his productions, this isn't hard to believe. On the one hand, they couldn't possibly have earned much money; but on the other, they couldn't have cost more than California pocket change to produce.

So when this director needed to make movies in bulk, on a deadline, and without any real capital, he turned to genre films. In short, he discovered a handful of formulas and he stuck to them—turning out spaghetti westerns, teen tragedies, wiseguy dramas, femme fatale scorchers, and of course his infamous science fiction flicks. At best, these films were cheesy Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and speculative post-apocalyptic tales; at worst, they were trashy exploitation reels.

The titles alone tell you pretty much all you need to know. On the high end, you've got Not of This Earth, War of the Satellites, and half a dozen Poe stories. On the low end, there's She Gods of Shark Reef, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Naked Paradise, Teenage Caveman . . . need I go on? Well, all right. Just one more. One of these days I simply must get my hands on a copy of The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. I think my husband will...

Ghostwalk

Much ink is spilled and time is wasted arguing over how best to categorize novels. Genre titles reach out with scaly tentacles and swipe triumphantly at mainstream respectability, but respectable mainstream books often cringe away from science fiction or horror designations—lest they be relegated to the black-jacketed ghetto in the back of Barnes & Noble. But to whoever made the decision to push Rebecca Stott's Ghostwalk as a mainstream literary tale I can only say, “Nuts to you.” This is a science fiction mystery with a splash of horror and a thick undercurrent of fantasy. It's a pity that the crowd most likely to appreciate this book will probably hear the least about it.

Like any good mystery, Ghostwalk begins with a murder. Elizabeth Vogelsang, renowned Cambridge historian, is found drowned in the river behind her home, and in her hand she clutches a 300-year-old glass prism. Her son, Cameron, seeks the help of his ex-lover, Lydia, who attempts to parse the notes and fragments of Elizabeth's unfinished masterwork.

But if you insist on boiling the story down to one hippie academic completing her dead mentor's biography of Newton, then you do it a real disservice.

Despite its compact and elegant appearance, Ghostwalk is an astonishingly dense and dark piece of fiction that defies such a tidy synopsis. This tale asks difficult questions about the whisper-thin boundaries between magic and science; it demands that the reader form uncomfortable conclusions about the cycles of history—and how directly those old patterns intersect and interact with the modern world. This is not a book about dry post-graduate drama. It's a story about the vengeful ghosts of wizards and madmen, and how far the limits of their power may extend....

Grey

Michael Rivers is the sole heir and golden child of a huge corporation—one of a handful of high-tech companies that essentially rule the world, sitting at the top of a socio-economic food chain that stratifies and divides the entire planet. These corporate families live lives of privilege, ease, and unfathomable wealth; but they pay with their privacy, their safety, and their souls.

After an assassin makes an attempt on Michael's life at a very public, corporately sponsored date with the daughter of another high-powered family, Michael is forced to examine his assumptions about the world he inhabits, the friends he's chosen, and the decisions he seems more or less predestined to make.

Armstrong sets up Grey with a bang—with a flashy few chapters that establish a society fueled by advertising, novelty, and self-indulgence. In short, it's a place that elaborately constructs and enables a superficiality so pervasive that generations of people have been born and raised within it, hardly suspecting that there might be more to life than the latest, shiniest, brightest, fastest, most expensive doo-dad available now! only in the finest stores.

But people will seek out meaning, and they'll find it wherever they can—even it if lurks between the pages of a massive, glossy magazine, the production of which is shrouded in intrigue. Pure H offers thoughtful readers a way to connect with one another in a world where true connection appears elusive, even impossible.

And it's partly Pure H that bonds Michael and Nora together. Though their introduction is a professionally orchestrated and highly publicized affair, the relationship blossoms as they discover a mutual love for the enigmatic magazine they both adore.

Alas for the poor young...

The Keeper

Bedford, Maine is undergoing an economic and social slide towards ghost-town status, following the closure of its primary industry—a paper mill. All Bedford residents who are able (or so inclined) relocate to greener pastures in a steady trickle; while those who remain languish unhappily in this backwater town, which happens to be haunted, cursed, and otherwise damned eight ways from Sunday.

Functioning as the anthropomorphic personification of the town's misery, there is Susan. Susan walks the streets—in a literal and sometimes metaphoric sense—spreading blight and misery in her wake. People fear and loathe her for a variety of reasons apart from the standard village need for an outcast figure, not least of all because she's got a knack for inspiring town-wide apocalyptic nightmares.

But when Susan dies under sudden and suspicious circumstances no one is particularly relieved. In fact, the all-encompassing visions of horror get worse, and the townspeople who didn't leave become trapped in place by a violent storm. Whatever strange horror has been waiting beneath Bedford spies a chance to emerge. Havoc, prepare to be wreaked.

On the surface, The Keeper looks like standard formula-horror fare. You've got a New England town with a dirty secret or two, a loathsome harbinger of doom, a series of spooky events, widespread night terrors, and a lot of small-town gossip that carries with it the seeds of the truth—and no good can come of it. But there's more going on here, and the overall effect is ultimately rich, weird, and more successful than I expected it to be.

At first, I was a little put off by the Cast of Thousands introduced in the first third of the book. The characterization is so deft that it's almost dry, and the roll...

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