August 2003IF ANY: see bottom of this page for recent raves and pans if any

The Vampire Slayers' Field Guide to the Undead

By Shane MacDougall
Strider Nolan Publishing
October 30, 2003
672 pages $24.95

I, for one, never realized that there were so many different kinds of vampires in the world. But here we have an exhaustively researched tome that takes the reader through a nation by nation tour through history, examining and discussing the various sorts of bloodsuckers (and other fiendish critters) native to various countries in various historical eras. Not only does MacDougall describe the nasties, he tells you how to kill them. Not for nothing is this called a "Field Guide."

Another thing I hadn't realized is how much our understanding of vampires has been shaped by the popular culture, particularly the movies, in the past few decades. We all "know" that vampires can't abide mirrors, are driven away by the Cross, and can only be killed by a stake through the heart. Well, as Firesign Theatre said a while back, "Everything you know is wrong." Genuine vampires, as Shane MacDougall points out in this never-less-than-readable compendium, are just as likely to be in church on Sunday as you are - and I'm not talking nighttime services, either.

What's even more interesting is that the world's blood-drinkers themselves are even more interesting - and far more varied in type - than you'd suppose if all you know about vampires comes from the Goth chick down the street with her black lipstick and big silver cross, or your weekly does of Buffy or a few late-night views of Bela Lugosi in his cape.

What, for example, are we to make of the creature called the Empusa, written about by Aristophanes in The Frogs? These things were blood drinking demons serving Hecate. They allegedly had one leg of brass and one like that of a donkey. Even weirder is the Draugr, a nearly invulnerable vampire inhabiting the body of a dead Viking. And talk about gross -- the Ma Cà Rông of Vietnamese legend is seen only as a floating head and entrails. Ewwwww.

What comes out of this book is that the concept of powerful, near-immortal beings of one sort or another, returning from the grave to drink the blood of or otherwise prey on the living, has been around for a hell of a long time. Which is an interesting thought. Something about this dark, arresting concept retains validity even after century upon century.

Shane MacDougall's book is both meticulously researched and energetically written. Simply put, it's a gold mine of ideas for writers of supernatural fiction. I suspect it will become an essential tool for every working horror/fantasy author. It's also an entertaining tour of how other cultures view the undead, and probably belongs on your shelf with your Joseph Campbell books and your copy of The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology.

So: a toast to Shane MacDougall and this delightful book. But no merlot for me; I never drink… wine….

Recent Raves & Pans

Polar Star

A novel by Martin Cruz Smith
Wikipedia Info
Random House 1989, 386 pages.

Smith made a big splash with his novel Gorky Park. This is a direct sequel. Arkady Renko, the laconic lead character, has been hounded out of his post as criminal investigator and has sought refuge as a worker aboard the Polar Star, a Soviet fishing vessel, one of the huge factory ships that trawl the frigid waters between Alaska and Siberia. Ostensibly on "psychiatric rehabilitation," Renko's every move is shadowed by Party apparatchiks who are aware of his past.

Unexpectedly, Renko is given a chance to regain his freedom. The body of a female crewmember is dredged up in one of the Polar Star's fishing nets. Clearly she was not meant to be found. Renko, being the only person aboard with investigative experience, is assigned by the captain to discover what happened to her. As Renko soon begins to learn, there are sinister sub-cultures aboard the Polar Star who do not want the truth made known. But there are also those who pop up to help him at key moments. No one aboard is quite what he or she seems to be.

The book contains any number of outstanding, menacing scenes, any one of which an author would be proud to have contrived. The drowned crewmember's autopsy, for example, conducted by the diffident ship's doctor, has a truly horrifying Alien-like denouncement. Smith manages some very interesting motif-balancing, as well, utilizing fire in at least one nail-biting scene, and ice in several others. I can't think of a writer who has made me feel cold quite as well as Smith does here, unless it is Stephen King in some of his short stories or H.P. Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness.

I liked Gorky Park very much, but I think Polar Star is a better book. Renko displays flashes of very dark humor from time to time, and Smith's writing is extraordinarily vivid and compelling. You wouldn't think that a rusty, stinking factory ship could serve as a good background to a murder mystery but, like her crew, the Polar Star is not quite what she seems. In the end, the ship is almost as much of a character as any one of the humans.

Highly recommended for mystery fans, and frankly, for anyone who appreciates good writing and interesting characterization. This is how it's done, folks.

Samurai Jack

Animated series on the Cartoon Network
Created by Gennady Tartakovsky
Mon-Thurs at 10 p.m. EST;
New episode each Saturday.
Wikipedia Info

Wow! Where has this been all my life?! My son turned me on to Samauri Jack a short time ago, and I am hooked!. This is the best TV cartoon I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of 'em. Not only is it animated wonderfully well - being reminiscent of the old UPA cartoons, but with some really excellent rendering techniques that wouldn't be out of place in a big-screen cartoon - SJ is very well written and designed.

The back story, simplified: Long ago in ancient Japan, the evil sorcerer Aku was well on his way to establishing dominion over the defenseless populace. Just as things seem darkest, a brave samauri appears to battle Aku. The warrior is about to win when Aku opens a portal in time and flings the samauri thousands of years into a future where Aku enjoys complete power over every living thing. Adopting the name Jack, the warrior now seeks to free the future from Aku's grasp by finding another time portal so that he can return to his past and vanquish Aku once and for all.

There's more to it; for example, Jack's father was the first to battle Aku, who was trapped in an old tree trunk until he was freed by the strange light of a lunar eclipse. But all that is gravy.

The future that Jack now inhabits is our future, as well, seemingly pretty far ahead. Jack wanders the land, rather like someone out of a Gene Wolfe novel. Along the way he meets any number of strange creatures and people - some help him, some hinder him. Jack can't tell if someone who is "now" a friend may be an enemy in the future, or vice-versa.

There's plenty of fighting action, but there's plenty of humor too (for example, the old Hanna-Barbera character Quick Draw McGraw shows up in one episode)—and no shortage of heart-wrenching sequences, such as the one in which Jack wanders into his home village, now reduced to ruins, and remembers his privileged childhood as a prince of the land - including the day he first met a real Samurai warrior, before Aku came back to life.

I'm telling you, this is the goods. If you like animation and good story-telling, you just can't do better than Samurai Jack.

Less Than Good: Spy Kids 3D: Game Over

…takes the prize this time. This is less a movie than it is an assault on the senses. I liked the first Spy Kids flick a lot, and the second one was good, too. But this one requires that you have seen the first two, because characters are introduced with no explanation whatsoever, as if they are known to the audience. They probably are, but I found this rather annoying. Sure, the 3D effects are fun, but I found myself feeling a little ill from having to keep the red and blue glasses on for long periods of time. And, although this is probably less the movie's fault than that of the theatre, the damn sound was so loud that it gave me a headache.

Good for kids, I guess, but nowhere near as much fun as the first film in the franchise.

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