Monte Cristo on a Gondola: Michel Zevaco – “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice”

bridge

“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.” -Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” has inspired almost two centuries of pastiches. There’s several less-than-authorized sequels, (with titles like “The Countess of Monte Cristo,” “The Return of Monte Cristo,” “The Hand of the Dead,” “The Daughter/ Son/Wife of Monte Cristo”); there’s the respectful, duly-acknowledging homages, like Jules Verne’s “Mathias Sandorf,” Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “Sleepers,” Italo Calvino’s “The Count of Montecristo,” and, heck, Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”;  there are the geographical re-settings (“An American Monte Cristo,” “An Irish Monte Cristo,” “The Prisoner of Algiers”); there’s the wilder re-imaginings, (the anime color-explosion that was “Gankutsuo,” or Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy,” or Alfred Bester’s Nebula-winning classic “The Stars My Destination”); there’s recent imitations from TV Land (both guilty-pleasures like “Revenge” and out-and-out pleasures like the currently-running “Taboo”) A truly exhaustive list would be exhausting, (and might even include my undeserving name upon it.)

Michel Zevaco’s duology “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice,” like the crowd-pleasing bat, is equally at home among mammals and birds: among rip-offs, homages, wild re-imaginings, and geographical re-settings.

Making “The Captain” look subtle in its Dumasian-ness, “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice” follows Roland Candiano, a promising young man who is about to marry his betrothed, Leonore, when his petty, jealous frenemies have him falsely accused of conspiracy and sent to walk the famous, lattice-windowed Ponte Dei Suspiri which connects the Dogi’s palace with the Prisons, (hence all the loud sighing).

After years in solitary, Roland finally escapes in an action packed scene that has him a-historically punch a hole on the Bridge of Sighs and drop from it to the Rio di Palazzo below. Up to that moment, Zevaco has merely done a “Find and Replace” job on “The Count of Montecristo,” (Roland for Edmond, Leonore for Mercedes, Venice for Marseilles, etc etc) with the difference that where Dumas is expansive, Zevaco is an abridger. Roland makes his daring escape by chapter 6; compare to chapter 20 of “Monte Cristo.”

For those who wonder why anyone would read an inferior “shot-by-shot” remake, it’s important to note that after Roland’s escape, Zevaco abandons the slavish adherence to his literary master. Instead of a slow-burning, subtle revenge plot, Roland is more interested in hacking-and-slashing, and by chapter 22 (of 100 or so), his incognito is over, he’s declared out-and-out war on his enemies, and is more or less murdering them on sight. It’s here that Zevaco, desirous of bodies for this massacre, adds a neat twist to the formula: Roland not only takes revenge against the handful of people who put him in prison, but also against anyone else foolish enough to associate with them.

RATNG: COOL!

 

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Baby Steps : Bentley Little – “The Revelation”

ABOVE: “Poetry?? I came for the murders, not the poetry!”

Reading Richard Laymon’s “Beware!” and Phony McFakename’s “The Gym” reminded me of how much I love that particular subgenre of horror in which supernatural mayhem intrudes upon the supposed normalcy of rural or suburban communities; those books also reminded me of how little I’ve read of Bentley Little’s work, an author who excels in the form. (“The Association,” in particular, has stuck with me through the years.)  Stephen King has referred to Bentley Little as “the horror poet laureate” and I know this because I’m reading it right now; it’s in the cover to “The Revelation,” Little’s breakthrough novel and a winner of the Bram Stoker award for Best First Novel.

“Poet” is way too much; there isn’t a whole lot of “poetry” in evidence here- what Bentley Little does do well is linking likeable stock characters in decently-crafted horror plots. Here, the small Arizonan town of Randall looks like it might be the setting for a forthcoming Rapturous confrontation between Good and Evil, as evidenced by all the prophetic dreams, all the exsanguinated goats, all the crudely vandalized church facades, and all the gory miscarriages in the area. In short, it’s not a good time for horror-writer Gordon Lewis and his wife Marina to learn they’re about to have a baby of their own… And things get worse when the trade-marked deranged Bible-thumping preacher jumps into the narrative to holler about lakes of Hell. But remember, kids- just because the preacher is crazy, doesn’t mean he’s WRONG.

I could go without mentioning the novel’s big selling point, and its big spoiler; but I won’t. In fact, don’t consider it a spoiler, consider it a trigger warning, because it’s the decisive factor that will determine whether you should dig into “The Revelation” or stay far, far away:

How do you like the idea of an army of demonic killer fetuses?

RATING: COOL! and/or GROSS!

P.S.: “The Revelation” may not make a lot of sense on the final sum,  but it does a lot of other things right, and one of them is the vivid picture it paints of  the Mogollon Rim, the escarpment that provides a solid horizon for a lot of Arizona. The Hopi artist Dan Namingha is referenced in the novel; Namingha’s wonderful paintings, (particularly his geometrical suggestions of mesas) are a fine model for Bentley Little’s moments of geographical contemplation – the closest Little gets to “poetry.”

ABOVE: Hopi and Glory

Welcome to the Beast House : Richard Laymon – “The Cellar”

ABOVE: Conceived in the wild terror of nightmare!

“The Cellar,” the first in a series of “Beast House” novels, is a competent 1980 debut for Richard Laymon, the late cultish splatter-punk writer whose style made him more Koontz than King. (This would be ancient Dean Koontz, full of licentiousness and horror, and not modern Koontz, full of Labradors and homilies.)

“The Cellar” is built around two main plotlines. One follows the “realistic” horror of an abused woman running away with her daughter from a vengeful ex-husband; the second is pure fantasy, about an unlikely tourist attraction called the Beast House – the dwelling of a mysterious monster straight out of some R-rated Scooby Doo episode. Neither plot line makes any sense, and nothing psychologically convincing happens at any point, but Laymon dares to go some dark places. The ending of “The Cellar” is more or less unpredictable in its bleakness – or is it randomness? The author earned his fandom by being unapologetic about delivering cheap gory thrills in tight, efficient packages. Only the illiterate would consider this “literature,” but it is at least a quick read, which is a sort of literary value. Today’s bloated novels could learn much.

ABOVE: Sure, complimentary Stephen King blurb! Except that King trashes Laymon and “The Cellar” in “Danse Macabre” if I recollect correctly.

Less worthy of emulation are the extremes ( sextremes?) of bizarre titillation dutifully sprinkled throughout “The Cellar.” The looser standards of the late ’70s, early 80s, (a funner, pre-AIDS era) lead to some descriptive ridiculousness in Laymon’s part: there is no female character in the story, (be she 6 or 86, be she romantic heroine or briefly-glimpsed cashier), whose breasts don’t fall under inspection within two lines of her initial introduction. Look. I am a hot-blooded heterosexual male. I enjoy boobies. But I can also tell the difference between healthy sexual interests and a creep at work, and Laymon falls big on the creep line.

It kinda feels like: “Grandma Moses steps out of the house, letting the cheerful morning sun warm her face as well as her pendulous, once-magnificent mammary organs. On the street outside, Mrs. Miller walks her Pomeranian, a job she performs twice daily while rarely wearing bras. The Pomeranian is of the female variety, and has six large nipples which would be quite enticing  if they were placed on a woman. Suddenly a little girl named Marjorie runs into Mrs. Miller and the dog, and although Marjorie is 9 and does not really have breasts at this moment in the narrative, one day she’ll be 18, so think about THAT. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson the mailman waves at Grandma Moses, and although Mr. Johnson also lacks breasts at this moment in the narrative, what if he gains a lot of weight in the next few chapters, huh? You could totally close your eyes and grab a handful and it would feel alright.”

It’s kinda icky, to put it mildly.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH for hard-core gore fans, EEEWWW for the otherwise inclined.

To Kill a Famous Reclusive Author : Stephen King – “Finders Keepers”

ABOVE: Bookers Weepers

“Finders Keepers” is second in Stephen King’s new genre-shifting trilogy, after “Mr. Mercedes,” and it’s another very successful action thriller even if you can see King straining to keep up with publishing trends. (Is a YA supernatural romance far behind? Or does “Carrie” already sort of cover that territory?) I mentioned the first novel had a certain “Michael Connelly” smell to it, and here King backs me up: retired detective Bill Hodges even refers to Connelly as “his kind of writer.”

“Finders Keepers” is foremost a thriller about literature; it’s not coincidental that it was released at about the same time as Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” It opens in 1978. John Rothstein is a reclusive author responsible for a beloved classic of American literature, the “Jimmy Gold” trilogy (think John Updike’s “Rabbit” books.) Rothstein is Updike, Salinger, Harper Lee and Philip Roth all at once, but that doesn’t save him from being murdered by Morris Bellamy, a literary fanatic dying to get his hands on Rothstein’s unreleased notebooks, where Jimmy Gold’s adventures reputedly continue.

Predictably things go bad for Bellamy, who gets caught and lands in prison for thirty-six years to more or less re-enact “The Shawshank Redemption” minus the redemption part. Upon his release, Bellamy aims straight for the golden notebooks he’s secreted away in a trunk. Problem: the notebooks have already been unearthed by a young boy, Pete Saubers, the son of one of the victims of “Mr. Mercedes” – and as much of a Rothstein fanatic as Bellamy. Cue cat and mouse game, leading to a heart-pounding final scene. It’s not an ORIGINAL scene, mind you: it owes a huge cinematic debt to “Night of the Hunter,” not to mention D. W. Griffith’s cross-cutting techniques. But it’s a scene that WORKS.

ABOVE: Seriously, this might as well be a still from the movie version of “Finders Keepers”

King usually gets slammed for not knowing how to end his horror novels, for summoning supernatural forces that he can’t quite confront satisfactorily. These two thrillers have side-swiped the issue with excellent climaxes. The flaws in the book lie elsewhere. Watching Bellamy and Pete in their collision course is far more interesting than anything going on with boring “hero” Bill Hodges and his side-kicks: crazy-lady Holly and Jerome “Tyrone Feelgood.” I’m glad SOMEONE obviously told King to cut it out with the “Tyrone” shtick, but we still get stuck with moments like this:

“Tyrone Feelgood Delight makes a mercifully brief guest appearance. ‘Dis here black boy goan tote dat barge an’ lift dat bale, Massa Hodges!’”

UGH. Not “brief” enough, let me assure you.

For those who feel King isn’t entirely in his element with  procedural business, there are good news: King hasn’t entirely gone Benedict Arnold on the horror field, and “Finders Keepers” ends with an implicit promise to takes us back into chiller territory for the trilogy’s finale.

RATING: COOL! Part 3, please!

Monster Mash : Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan, David Lapham -“The Strain”

“They have always been here.

VAMPIRES.

In secret and in darkness.

WAITING.

Now their time has come.

In one week, Manhattan will be gone.

In one month, the country.

In two months- THE WORLD.”

(But really, will “the world” be gone? Or will its population simply be altered?)

David Lapham’s on-going adaptation of the Guillermo Del Toro / Chuck Hogan trilogy “The Strain” is a fitting, faithful souvenir of the books, (and honestly,  a better choice for the time-conscious reader, since there isn’t a lot of “literary value” to the novels in the first place.) Del Toro’s “vampire/zombie/contagion” novels are utterly familiar, with the auteur openly acknowledging a debt to Stephen King’s “The Stand” and “Salem’s Lot” – and also everything else from Bram Stoker to George A. Romero to “28 Days Later.” It’s not surprising material, is what I’m saying, and its one innovation is the way the vampires attack with their stingy tongues. Lapham has done better job elsewhere, as well – not that there’s anything terribly wrong with “The Strain,” but it’s more competent than inspired.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH