Up All Night With Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s)

sleeper(s)  smaller versionThe publicity materials for Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s) (Crystal Lake Publishing; 184 pgs.; $9.99) compares this short novel to work by John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, two highly-regarded authors of classic UK-based disaster fiction.  And the allusions don’t stop there — Kane name-checks both Wyndham and Kneale in the text, and events take place in the village of Middletown, which certainly seems to be a play on Wyndham’s Midwich (from The Midwich Cuckoos).

All of this tends to raise one’s expectations a bit — it did for me, at least — and although Sleeper(s) is certainly lean and fast-paced, it ultimately feels a little too formulaic for me to pronounce it to be up to the standards of Messrs. Kneale and Wyndham.  Following the Prologue, the story begins with an ominous first line:

“The disorder presented itself as a mild form of fatigue at first.”

From fatigue, the fast-spreading illness quickly escalates to a sort of sudden-onset narcolepsy, to put it mildly. Before you can say “sweet dreams,” the entire town of Middletown has fallen into apparent comas. The town is quickly quarantined and Dr. Andrew Strauss, a brilliant scientist, is called in by the government to lead the investigation into the affliction.  Strauss is an eccentric character who, it turns out, has been dreaming for years of a specific woman, who’s suddenly telling him (in his dreams) that “it’s time…come quickly!”  The good doctor is quickly convinced that the woman of his dreams awaits him somewhere among the sleepers. Strauss is accompanied by his assistant, Bridget Clarke, who has an obsession of her own — namely Strauss himself.

Attempting to direct Strauss is a cadre of American and British military brass, with UK Major Radford acting as the strung-too-tight wildcard, although his fellow high-ranking officers General Fitzpatrick and Colonel Huxley (the latter being leader of the U.S. forces) are no day at the beach, either.

But all is not as it seems with the dozing villagers of Middletown.  When the expedition team ventures into the land of Nod, they discover that the sleepers, who are now covered with a cobwebby substance, are capable of waking. But when they awake, they show no signs of the individuals they were previously, instead moving like mindless meat puppets controlled by a hive mind.

That sense of a “by-the-numbers” approach that I mentioned earlier applies at times to both plot and character development, as virtually every event is designed to drive the plot forward, with little to no time for subplots, red herrings or the like; and several of the characters seeming rather flimsy and stereotyped — like the aforementioned Major Radford, whose general theatrics and love of war seem over-the-top, and British soldier Timms, whose hatred of the U.S. in general, and one American soldier in particular, likewise feels forced.

Sleeper(s) features wonderful cover art by Ben Baldwin and a nicely-crafted Introduction by David Moody, who closes with this:

“Read Sleeper(s), then ask yourself, do I have as much control over my life as I think I do? Are you really your own master, or are you just a pawn.”

Personally, I’ve read other work by Kane that I’ve enjoyed more than Sleeper(s), but if you’re a fan of fast-paced disaster fiction, this novel may well be a good choice for you. It’s not a winner in the way of Wyndham, but you could call it a near-miss kneeling at the altar of Kneale.


European Nightmares — A Close-up on Foreign Fright Flicks

european-nightmares-horror-cinema-in-europe-since-1945-patricia-allmer-paperback-cover-artFor a detailed and insightful look at the highlights of horror movies on the European Continent (and a bit beyond), one need look no further than European Nightmares: Horror Cinema in Europe Since 1945 (Wallflower, 276 pages, $26) edited by Patricia Allmer, Emily Brick, and David Huxley.  This is not a broad reference work, but rather a targeted collection of 26 essays with a strongly academic slant and a focus on individual films rather than broad movements; within that narrowly-defined context, it’s an admirable piece of work.

The contents are organized in seven sections — “Reception and Perception of European Horror Cinemas,” and six country- or region-specific sections, focusing on Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Northern Europe, and Eastern Europe — with each section featuring an Introduction and between two and four essays.  As the book’s promotional material states, the essays “employ a variety of current critical methods of analysis, ranging from psychoanalysis and Deleuzean film theory to reception theory and historical analysis.”  The first few examples of critical methods can certainly be found in these pages, but I didn’t find nearly enough historical analysis for my liking.

In fact, my biggest complaint with European Nightmares is what I’ll call the lack of breadth of coverage, meaning that many articles — notable examples include “Subjectivity Unleashed: Haute Tension” and “Taxidermia: A Taster for Hungarian Horror” — are so tightly focused that they offer little if anything in the way of a bigger-picture view of trends or development in European horror, or even country-specific horror.  Far more interesting (to me, at least) are the essays that are wider-ranging in coverage  — from “Alejandro Amenabar and Contemporary Spanish Horror,” which covers the Spanish director’s progression through three short films and five feature films (still too narrow in focus for my money, but better than other essays here), to (a prime example) “A Gaze From Hell: Eastern European Horror Cinema Revisited.”  The latter article touches upon films from several countries — with a focus on the former Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Russia — and from across several decades.  I would loved to have seen more coverage of this type, but European Nightmares instead prides itself on in-depth coverage of a relatively small number of films.

Without even looking at the authors’ backgrounds, one can easily discern that this is a book written by academics and primarily for academics. More than a few sentences are extremely… labyrinthine.  But while the arguments may rarely be concise, they are at least usually insightful.  For example, try this explosion of syllables, from Matthis Hurt’s essay on the film Haute Tension:

With the loss of religious faith, traditional values and philosophical reassurance in the modern age, one can also sense a  growing threat of destabilisation of both the conditions of individual human lives and social order in general… The realisation that objectivity is more often than not a mere social or cultural construction and that subjective perception and subjective convictions shape and dominate our sense of reality has made the world a more ambiguous place and our lives, our personal agendas and our self-perception a more unsettling endeavour.

That’s…more than a mouthful.  Still, despite my complaints, this is nonetheless a worthwhile book for scholars and instructors, even if its appeal is unlikely to extend beyond that audience.  With the exception of a few Asia-targeted titles, there have been relatively few books focusing on horror films outside of the U.S.  As such, European Nightmares is a welcome addition to that particular shelf.