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Tales of Terror: Haunted Apartment (2005)

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

This is interesting as a made-for-television idea converted into a full-length film production. Japan had an anthology series called Tales of Terror. As an attempt to ride on the back of its popularity, the production company decided to expand one of its plots into this film. It has a fairly conventional set-up with a young girl and her alcoholic father moving into an old apartment block which turns out to be cursed. Not the most original of ideas but, in the right hands, it can be serviceable.

In one sense, it has the feel of an older style of portmanteau structure with the main plot line diverting into detailed flashbacks where key elements of the block’s history are explained. There are also two extended sections in which one family leaves the block, playing by the rules, and a second family attempts to escape the curse by going to Osaka. Other than this, the majority of the narrative is shot in the apartment block which leads to a reasonably good claustrophobic feel to the whole.

This is the kind of film that stands or falls by the quality of the cinematography in service to a coherent narrative. The director, Akio Yoshida, does his best with Masahiko Omi behind the camera on what was obviously a limited budget. But they fall into the usual trap of trying to show the malevolent spirits. The special effects makeup and limited prosthetics are embarrassingly bad. From what I could judge, we are not into CGI territory at all. So all the effort to create and build atmosphere disappears in a cloud of sad smiles when the first spirit appears. This is a real shame. The viewer’s imagination is always better than the special effects produced by a film-maker on a tight budget. Had everything been left unshown, we would have had a far superior film.

So why am I even bothering with the review? Films are really all about what we see. If this is less than impressive, the experience is wasted time. Except this does have a very good film trying desperately to get out from under the lack of funds and the poorly structured script.

The really boring version would have a cast slowly whittled down to one of two survivors. While watching, we could all play the game of guessing who will make it to the final reel. Then, in the best traditions of gore, we would either have everyone hacked to pieces by the spirit, or there would be a major battle with some magic emerging at the eleventh hour to save the day. But this film has far greater pretensions than that. Indeed, rather than seeing this as a routine film about a group of people trapped in a building by a curse, we should see it as a carefully constructed rumination on the nature of revenge. Most of the people trapped in the block have a secret. Somewhere in their pasts, there were (or are) victims. Is it not right that these victims should have the chance for a little payback?

Playing Aimi, Mei Kurokawa is a 17-year old girl still grieving for her mother, who was killed in a car accident some two years before the action starts. Her father, played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi, was formerly a top reporter, but has since taken to the bottle. Their relationship is distant. The girl reaches out to a boy of about the same age played quite touchingly by Yoshihiko Hosoda but, as is always the way in films of this kind, this is never going to blossom into anything real. Perhaps it’s sad he has to die but, through this death, the film is making a statement about the role of the innocent. Sometimes, they have to suffer. That quality of innocence is what creates real victims. If those who die are guilty of some crime, we see their deaths as retribution — as having some moral justification. But would we blame innocent victims for wanting revenge, even post mortem? Well, this can be morally complicated. Suppose the way chosen to punish the living is to torture the innocents they love. With this set-up, we move inexorably to the final reel which sees the necessary act of revenge played out to lift the curse and Aimi finally able to find some peace after two years of grief and suffering.

Now don’t mistake the thrust of this review. There are some real inconsistencies in the script as shot. But the intention is beautifully visible beneath the clichéd camera work, the clunky special effects and the robotic acting from most of the cast. With more time and money, Tales of Terror: Haunted Apartment (2005) could have been a genuinely excellent piece of horror cinema. For want of a nail. . . and so on to the end of the idiomatic chain of events leading to failure.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

October 16, 2010 3 comments

Sometimes I think it’s just as important to understand why a film fails as why it succeeds. This assumes, of course, that people are prepared to learn from their mistakes. In this case, it’s somewhat unlikely the director would ever admit to any errors of judgement. He has “Hollywood power” so need not bow his head unless his latest effort makes so little money that no-one will back another venture by him. So here I am going up against Oliver Stone — only the winner of three Oscars and numerous other awards. Fortunately, my mother christened me David, so it’s OK for me to go up against big guys.

It’s a cool idea to make a sequel, particularly when the original Wall Street won an Oscar and other awards. Ignoring the time delay (1987 to 2010) we can still call on Michael Douglas, even coax a cameo out of Charlie Sheen, so this project has big star-drawing power plus a title that resonates with film fans and engages current reality. Overall, this equals commercial success. I am coming to it late but, as of today, we are into a profit with around $80 million already banked around the world. Stone has delivered. Hollywood is no doubt saddened the take has not been faster, but will accept a profit in today’s recession-affected market. Except, this is a story of what might have been — of profits never realised. If only Stone had made a good film, he would have enhanced his own reputation and pleased his backers (more).

Let’s start with a few thoughts about what made the original so great. It’s a tightly focused story about a young man who, depending on your point of view, is either seduced and betrayed by the dispassionately greedy Gordon Gekko or, like the young Icarus, is undone by his own ambition as he flies too close to the sun of his own greed. What holds the narrative together is the deal to take over the airline and the relationship between real-life father and son Charlie and Martin Sheen. Indeed, it’s the accessibility of the deal and the intensity of the parental relationship on display that gave the early film its edge. As viewers, we want the son to have a chance of redemption as the reality of the Faustian deal becomes obvious.

In the sequel, Gekko is even less central to the primary narrative thrust than in the original. Here we focus on the relationship between Gekko’s daughter and a young trader played by an uninspiring Shia LaBeouf. Frankly, I never found him sufficiently hungry to be a convincing success in the predatory world of Wall Street. He’s not a hard-selling go-getter. He has principles and dreams. When motivated, he makes the right moves but, in a real fight, there’s little passion on show. When he does look for revenge, it’s always through a cowardly back door and not by direct assault. I suppose that’s why Gekko’s daughter can love this man despite the role model of her father’s obsessional behaviour, i.e. at the end of the day LaBeouf is not playing a real dealer like her father.

This nicely captures the more pervasive problem with the film which starts by intercutting a documentary-like pan across the face of buildings with Gekko’s release from jail. The mirrored glass of the office blocks are the supremely indifferent bastions of wealth, and Gekko is a fallen Titan. Note the symbolism of the painting destroyed at the end of the film. It shows the Titan Saturn eating his child. At one level, the banker shows no sense of the intrinsic worth of the painting. He is prepared to destroy it as would a petulant child. More generally, the subject matter of the painting is a metaphor for Wall Street eating one of its favoured sons to avoid more serious damage. In other words, the film is all about symbols rather than intent on telling a real story. If Stone was really investing in a strong narrative, he would set up the fall of Louis Zabel. As it stands, we are shown a very depressed man, never able to offer any kind of clear explanation of his banks’s difficulties and left with no honourable course except to throw himself under a train. Well, that’s not the way to make us care about the man and, more importantly to show us why someone like LaBeouf would have been mentored and protected by this ageing banker. Why is there nothing to show the rumours rumbling round the market, why are there no investigations into the share dealings, why does the man as victim not seem interested in defending himself? Apart from one angry word or two aimed at Bretton James, he has loser written all over him. Then Wall Street and the Feds decide not to bail out Zabel’s bank and everyone mutters darkly about the looming crisis of the collateralised mortgages. But all this is without any sense of drama. We are expected to watch and accept this view of capitalism at work. Well this may be a rerun of history but it sure ain’t riveting film-making. The only bright spark in all this is the eccentric beady eyes of Eli Wallach who is always watchable, even when asked to make silly bird noises.

Then our ethically challenged LaBeouf sets out to get revenge against Bretton James, briefly works for him, then realizes he finds the man repulsive, so quits. From this description, you can see the narrative is just drifting. There’s no real hook, no big deal we can get our teeth into and watch Wall Street at its best or worse. The only deal we are supposed to care about is funding for a blue-sky fusion project. Like that’s ever going to get massive support from a market about to go into a recession.

Interspersed is the manoeuvering between Gekko and his daughter, mediated by LaBeouf. Poor Carey Mulligan has a thankless task in trying to make this woman even remotely believable. She was supposedly a devoted daughter until her brother committed suicide while her daddy was vacationing in jail. Then she was all bitter, blaming daddy for not being there when her bother needed him. Having shed some tears, they are reconciled. It’s not at all heart-warming. Despite Michael Douglas playing Gekko with great flair, there’s nothing he can do to rescue the leaden dialogue or the pedestrian delivery by Ms Mulligan.

In short, the film lacks any kind of unifying theme. It could have been about Gekko — despite his throat cancer, Michael Douglas is wonderful when on screen — but he’s not allowed any real chance to shine. It could have been about one key deal which is properly set up and holds our interest through the machinations of all involved. But we are only offered a pallid view of Wall Street’s collapse as the mortgage tsunami washes everyone away (except Eli Wallach whose bird noises obviously work a magic hoodoo). Playing Bretton James, the only character vaguely amounting to a villain, we find a wooden Josh Brolin, so there’s nothing there to hold our interest. Thus, running over two hours, it feels boringly without direction or point — except to make money, of course. That’s how directors work. Always give the sucker fans what you tell them they want to see.

Doomsdays by Jeffrey Thomas

October 16, 2010 2 comments

Well, I suppose it had to happen. Being on a good run with an author can sometimes pay dividends as each new book in turn proves as good as (if not better than) the last. This is not to say, of course, that a favoured author cannot fail. I have happy memories of some of John Brunner’s books which, in the best tradition of the B-movie, were so dire as to become genuinely entertaining. But my latest read from the Jeffrey Thomas stable is a little less than the previous works — for those of you keeping count, I bought four from the Dark Regions Press backlist to catch up on this author of the admirable Punktown series and have one more to go after this.

So here we are with another collection, this time called Doomsdays. In theory, according to the blurb, each one is a little apocalypse. Wow, does that ever give someone a high bar to jump over! And not a little monotonous with Earth repeatedly smashed into smithereens or perhaps that should be Higgs bosons (better known as God particles) — assuming He is doing some of the atomic smashing.

To convince us the editor knew what he was doing when applying the blurb theme to the selection of the stories, we start with the appropriately named “Out of the Blue” with the Earth covered in a blue gunk that converts everyone exposed into the usual zombie/vampire creatures. This would have benefited from a little editing to lose the third person voiceover for the opening credits, and keep the whole story small. Told from the POV of a small group inside a manufacturing facility this could have been claustrophobic and tense as they decide whether to venture outside. Since we already know what’s outside, all tension is lost.

I will then pass rapidly over three short, short stories and get to “Oroborus” which, as titles go, somewhat telegraphs the ending. I suppose it manages to create a reasonably weird subterranean world where a survivor is constantly on the run from an unseen predator called a Foeti. But without any logic for, or explanation of, the starting point, I found the whole unsatisfying. “Post #153” traps a small number of vets in a bar as ghosts from past wars visit on Halloween.

Then we get to the stand-out section of the book, starting with “Apples and Oranges” by the Thomas brothers. This is a wonderfully dark tale of a man discovering his mother’s secret affair and dealing with the consequences. The whole idea of first whittling, then animating, is a delight. More importantly, it shows the benefit of small-scale narratives. While a world overrun by forests or the dead from past wars might have some interest, you cannot improve on the growing realisation that you may have fallen into a genetic trap. Equally impressive is “Praying That You Feel Better Soon”. Told with admirable economy, there’s a real feeling of menace and a pleasing confirmation of its source. Then we are back to an apocalypse and, this time, Thomas nails the structure of the narrative and builds to the best ending paragraph in the book. It’s Lovecraftian in approach and blends the desperation of the individuals against the unravelling big picture around them. “Twenty-Five Cents” continues this bull run with a young woman trapped in a tedious job at a bank and in the role of a carer for her mother. The awfulness of her life threatens a mental disintegration and a growing interest in how her father came to die may push her over the edge. “Gasp” also cleverly exploits the uncertainty of the girl. Is her life in danger? Is her boyfriend trying to kill her? Or is he the one in danger? The fear is nicely balanced until the evidence clarifies things (a little). “Working Stiffs” is just on the right side with zombies put to work alongside ordinary working stiffs. The slowness of the living to recognise the true nature of the others on their shift is amusingly likely. Who would want to think the unthinkable.

“A Naming of Puppets” had me scratching my head. Whereas some authors have been credited with inventing a genre called New Weird, this is just weird. It’s a story about animate rubbish that, in an all too human way, must fight wars to establish a pecking order. Authors struggle to create empathy for their characters. I didn’t care a fig about either the Left or the Right Baggers. I was also scratching my head when I read “The Call of the Worms” which, I suppose, is weird horror. It fails for me because I cannot understand how this commensualism could fit into any reasonable kind of evolutionary system. There seems no benefit to the human side. “The Tripod” is also an exercise in the weird where humans seem to be working alongside or for beetles (or perhaps some kind of crustacea). The way the story is told ticks all the right boxes but I was again baffled as to how and why this relationship should have come into being. Starting off “as is” a cop out. Even if it’s ultimately a foolish explanation, some explanation is better than none. “The Fork” continues this trend with what may be one person’s experience of Hell, assuming Hell is a landscape of forks rather than other people (with my apologies to Jean-Paul Satre). And just as the central image may be of a fork-making factory, so “The Green Spider” may be seeing an entirely different factory slowly coming back to life. This is more successful as individuals lose a sense of their own individuality and grow contented with a more orderly life.

“The Friend of the Children” is a short insight into the mind of a man who may be kidnapping babies and so need a woman to look after them. While “300,000 Moments of Pain” has us in a quite pleasingly uncertain factory environment. After all, when you are surrounded by the ordinariness of a manufacturing facility, what can go wrong? “Flesh Wound” is a perfect demonstration of how to write an Oroborus story — it’s also an example of really clever kung fu shit. “Elephants Weep” is a nicely judge atmosphere piece with a walk through a supposedly deserted zoo turning into a metaphor for a man uncertain of his place in human society. And we finish, appropriately enough, with a top-notch Apocalypse story with a variation on the Mirror World idea from Trek as two dimensions of opposites collide and then try to exterminate each other. When Thomas is on form, he manages to create highly believable characters who, even in the most unlikely of situations, always try to do the right thing. In this case, we might just see an real amor vincit omnia result.

Looking back through this collection, it’s good in parts. But, then your taste may be less discriminating than mine, or I may just have read some stories when my mood was a little off. Who can say. Taste is one of the great subjective unknowns. All I can say is that, when Thomas is good, he’s very good and some of the stories here are very good. Whether there are enough to justify buying the book is more difficult to say. On balance, I think it probably is.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

DoomsdaysDoomsdays by Jeffrey Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like any collection, there can be good stories and not so good. In this case, the good just about outweighs the not so good.

https://opionator.wordpress.com/2010/10/1…

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October 12, 2010 Leave a comment

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Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family

October 6, 2010 1 comment

Television drama offers an outsider the opportunity to look inside a foreign culture, particularly when the serial is long. The most revealing aspects are always those that go without comment. These are the social norms that everyone local understands. In this instance, Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family gives us 54 episodes looking at two fundamental building blocks of Korean culture. The first is the practical mechanics of courtship and marriage. The second is the class structure that divides the dynastic old respectability from the monied arrivistes. Put the two together and you have the central dynamic driving the narrative. Under what circumstances can members of the ancestral family marry “beneath” themselves. As in other Asian cultures, this is a choice between arranged marriages and marriages for love. In the Korean culture, the marriages should, wherever possible, be agreed between the families but, in principle, may be for love. However, when there is a clan and ancestral home involved, the sociopolitical rules are different to reflect the greater importance of the family’s identity.

What makes this story so fascinating is that all the adult members of the traditional family are coming from failed relationships, whether through death or divorce which is significantly less common in Korea than in Western culture. This gives us the chance to view the cultural practices at every level of the family from the great grandfather patriarch who has apparently never acted on his love for his housekeeper, through his son and the three adult grandchildren.

The primary focus is on the relationship between the granddaughter played by Yoon Jung Hee and the son of a predatory family, played by Park Shi Hoo following on from his success in Iljimae, intent on buying out the business interests of the ancestral family. She is a diffident and quiet academic who went through a marriage ceremony. But before the marriage could be consummated, the couple were involved in a car accident in which she was injured and her husband was killed. There is an immediate problem in that one of her young students has a crush on her and, in the best traditions of not-quite stalkers, this man is prepared to “fight” for her hand. The parvenu has been trained by his father to use every conceivable strategy, legal or not, to win corporate battles. This is not the ideal basis upon which to build but, in the metaphorical sense, she is the beauty to tame the beast. Over time, she awakens a conscience in the man who comes to see that, sometimes, there are more important things in life than money. To a one-track-minded son of a nouveau-riche family, this is a revelation that does not come easy. What makes it all the more difficult for him is that, if he chooses the light over the dark, this means betraying his family. He was told to acquire the company for its status and valuable assets. How can he switch to protect the interests of the company and the family that owns it? As an aside, the section of the plot dealing with the government’s investigation of the young man’s business strategies is particularly revealing in the balance struck between the national interest and cultural expectations of respect for a successful businessman.

Then comes the revelation for an outsider like me. Having opted for love with his eyes open, our “hero” runs into opposition to the proposed marriage from his mother. His father, played by Yun Kyu Jin as a soft-hearted bully, would accept marriage into the clan for the enhancement of his status. But his mother, played with frenetic energy by Seo Kwon Soon, considers her prospective daughter-in-law jinxed. Because her first husband died on the night of their wedding, she believes the girl will always be bad luck. Her opposition is implacable. What added to my fascination was the acceptance of this as extreme but not unusual. Given the families must agree the marriage, both sides back away from each other, respecting the other’s point of view. Even when there are negotiations, everything falters when it comes to the list of wedding gifts she demands as a condition of agreeing the marriage.

There are also interesting ructions as the son marries a colleague of equal age and comparable status because she is pregnant with his child, while his two sons both wish to marry significantly beneath themselves, one to a police officer, the other to an office cleaner. As is the way in many cultures, wives must move into the households of their husband’s. The traditional family must therefore “accept” these socially inferior girls and train them in the traditional way of life. Equally, our quiet academic would have to move in with the harridan mother-in-law, a daunting prospect even if consent to the marriage were to be given.

The final element is that, at a relatively late point in the narrative, an unfortunate revelation emerges that would potentially destroy the credibility of the ancestral family’s implicit claim to a perfect lineage. The person who makes the discovery believes this is his meal ticket for life. All blackmailers bring their own sensibilities to the bargaining table. They could not stand similar facts disclosed about them. They assume the same reaction from their intended victims.

In the better tradition of a cultural anthropologist, I have learned much about the household routines of modern families, one traditional, the other newly rich. It is both reassuring and depressing that cultures survive. For those born into those rituals of life, everything is perfectly normal. For an outsider, we see that patriarchy still dominates as women are allocated their roles and style of dress about the house. Perhaps significantly for the future, there are signs the women may be growing slightly more assertive, but these isolated shifts in “power” are treated as amusing departures from the norm — the exceptions that prove the rule (for now).

By way of closing, mention must be made of Park Joon Mok who, at eight years old, showed maturity and presence as the great grandson, while Shin Goo is magnificent as Ha Man Gi, the great grandfather whose hard-earned wisdom sees the family through the crises. While there are inevitably times when the story spreads into different relationships or business situations, and everything slows down, this remains one of the more interesting of the contemporary dramas. Family’s Honor aka Glory of the Family is worth seeing through to the end for a relatively unsentimental view of love and marriage.

You can download the theme song here.

For those of you who are fans of Park Shi Hoo, there’s a fan site at http://parksihoo4u.com/

 

Personal Preference aka Personal Taste (Korean drama)

October 5, 2010 1 comment

This is yet another example of a wonderful set-up completely thrown away. Let’s start with a little background. After the success of Boys Over Flowers, the South Korean broadcast network went into a huddle. In Lee Min Ho, they had a star. What they now needed was a new program that would reinforce his reputation and carry everyone on to yet greater heights of profitability. So, as is always the case, they hunted around for suitable material. Someone lighted on the novel Personal Preference by Lee Sae In and, with screenwriter Park Hye Kyung at the helm, a 16-episode serial was born.

The first three episodes are a triumph, managing to capture two very different Western traditions with unexpected accuracy (not, of course, that they were attempting to do this — as a Korean drama, they were producing something Korean). The first of these is farce. Done well, this is a complete form of entertainment representing an irresistible combination of tragedy and comedy, swinging wildly from one situation to the next until we arrive at a delicious conclusion. So when we first meet Park Kae In, played by Son Ye Jin, she is a broad caricature of female insecurity. While potentially talented as a designer, she lives in the shadow of her distinguished father and never feels she can deliver anything to satisfy his (or anyone else’s) taste. For most of the time, she hides away in her father’s house, living on the money stashed away by the family. When out, she affects a very eccentric style of dress, rarely caring what impression she creates. As to the commercial world, she has little experience in trying to match her design aesthetics to market expectations and is not a success.

At the beginning of the serial, she has made an effort to produce furniture but, because of her complete inability to recognise danger, finds herself the victim of her business partner who raises money by a mortgage on her father’s home and then loses it all. Worse, she is in a relationship with a extravagantly smarmy architect and believes he is about to propose marriage. Unfortunately, he is actually trying to dump her. He has fallen for the woman who is a tenant in Park Kae In’s house but, whenever he tries to tell Park Kae In, he loses his nerve. This communication failure brings them all to the day of the real marriage ceremony and, of course, the innocent Park Kae In goes along to the impressive Registrar’s offices, and discovers the terrible truth. Distraught, she is hurried away from the ceremony and put in a quiet side room. Unfortunately, this is a central control room equipped with a public address system. So her discussion of betrayal is accidentally broadcast throughout the building with the wording sufficiently ambiguous that all the couples intending to marry believe her words apply to them. When the dust settles, no one gets married and Park Kei In is likely to lose her father’s house.

The second theme comes from English restoration comedy which was, by any standards, wonderfully bawdy as a reaction against the surrounding Puritanism. One of the best-loved stock characters was the predatory rake, out to bed as many women as possible. To avoid suspicion by husbands, some rakes pretended to be gay. Thus, if unlucky enough to be caught in a situation that would normally be considered compromising, all suspicion would naturally be diverted. The plays would then chart the slow disintegration of the deception and its consequences.

Lee Min Ho is cast as Jeon Jin Ho, a talented architect in competition with our smarmy two-timer for high-profile jobs. By a series of coincidences that continue the potentially farcical nature of the series, he is caught in a situation that might suggest he is gay. At first this is irrelevant. But, when he enters the race to win the next big contract to design an extension to a major museum, he discovers the need to copy the architectural style of Park Kei In’s father. To do so, he needs access to the house. Unknown to him, this is highly convenient because Park Kei In needs a replacement tenant to help pay off this unexpected mortgage. At first, she is completely against the idea of a man as tenant but, when told Jeon Jin Ho is gay, this removes all barriers. Not unnaturally, Jeon Jin Ho is delighted to gain access to the house but shocked to discover that he is thought gay. It gets worse when the drunken Park Kei In broadcasts her mistaken belief to all-comers at a local bar/restaurant where, by the inevitable coincidences on which farce depends, the man responsible for commissioning the museum contract happens to be dining.

Except everything dies after this wonderful start. What could have continued as a frothy, fast-moving farce develops into a wooden romantic drama with endless bickering between the different couples both principal and secondary. Although it does get slightly more interesting again when the missing father reappears, the overall pacing is leaden and the ending cannot come quickly enough. This is not, I hasten to say, the fault of Lee Min Ho or Son Ye Jin. They do their best. I think the network executives lost their nerve. Instead of building on the growing misunderstandings about Jeon Jin Ho’s sexuality, he is to do the “natural” thing for stars like Lee Min Ho, namely fall in love with Park Kei In. Perhaps the same spirit of Elizabethan Puritanism still inhibits Korea. It cannot be good for Lee Min Ho’s image to play the role of someone actually gay or even someone pretending to be gay. He must behave as straight throughout and get the girl. Only then will his fans be happy. So, after the first three episodes, this is only for you if you want a traditional Korean drama with a cute boy falling in love with slightly wacky girl and finding fulfillment both architectural and romantic.

Secret Circles by F. Paul Wilson

Well, here we are with the second installment of the young adult series involving the soon-to-be Repairman Jack. Continuing on from Secret Histories, we are once again pitched in with Jack and Weezy growing up in Johnson on the fringes of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. In production terms, Gauntlet Press has produced one of its better pieces of jacket art, neatly capturing the antiquity of the pyramid. It’s interesting to compare this to the jacket design produced by TOR which is completely underwhelming. The repetition of the word “secret” in the titles continues the theme of the secret history of the world which underpins the entire series. But this reference to circles is somewhat pedantic. Let’s take the idea of the narrative arc. As you know, arcs are parts of a circle. To highlight the “obvious” notion that plots develop cause and effect which may have some degree of circularity is uninspiring, to put it mildly. Even a young reader might find it redundant to have all this explained at the end of the book.

I confess to finding the first outing in this Jack Junior version somewhat tedious as, regrettably, I find most modern young adult fiction indigestible. But this is a major improvement. We are caught up in the disappearance and probable kidnapping of a five-year old. It’s not Jack’s fault Cody Bockman goes missing, but he feels guilty in not having seen the boy home when he had the chance. This leaves us in the situation of knowing Jack will be at work in trying to get the boy back.

Why, then, is this “young adult” book more readable? Several factors are at work. The first is a less patronising approach. Despite the explanation of circularity referred to above, F. Paul Wilson has managed not to follow the more usual tendency of authors in dumbing down the plot and the language used. Although the vocabulary is slightly less demanding, it’s definitely pitched at “older” readers. More importantly, the adults are acting with a more appropriate level of intelligence (or lack of it). In part, this is forced because of Jack’s emerging interest in fixing things. Once Jack is exposed to the reality of marital abuse, we are into complex human emotions. Fortunately, Wilson keeps everything reasonably realistic as Jack wrestles with his conscience when “wiser” heads advise him not to interfere. Later thinking about whether he did the right thing strikes the right tone for adults, young and old. For younger readers it’s an engaging teaching vehicle. For the completists among us, it represents the first real attempt on Jack’s part to rationalise his value system. In the first book, there was too much left unsaid. Wilson has begun to take this origins project more seriously and the results are better.

The next factor is a more dense set of references from and to the Adversary Cycle and the Repairman series. Part of the appeal of any origins series is the opportunity to put all the building blocks in place for what we know is to come. By definition, this is an elaborate game. As readers, we can watch the author tick all the boxes while all the characters are going through the pages, oblivious to the significance of the events unfolding around them. So now we see the emerging relationship between Jack and Drexler more clearly and, thanks to Bloodline, we can understand why Cody’s kidnapper would not want to hurt Jack. The Traveling Circus pitches its tents. It’s good to see Walter Erskine back in action after The Touch, and is this an underground village along the lines we first saw in The Keep? The idea of a buried city is always interesting. In this case, we avoid the necropolis cliché and focus on how this might be connected to the pyramid. For those who like a little additional information, the creature is a q’qr, a survivor from the First Age. That said, the idea the pyramid would not have been found by more outsiders is a bit convenient. With the government overflying the area in helicopters, you would expect someone to have seen it, particularly if they were so interested in the first site discovered in Secret Histories. Experienced investigators would have widened the area of search. And then Jack can quickly pick out a fifteen-foot high pyramid on an aerial photo. . . Yeah, well, he’s good like that.

Despite my minor carping, this is a genuinely more interesting effort from Wilson with everything set up nicely for the third installment — Secret Vengeance. It’s worth having a look at.

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
Bloodline
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

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