October 30, 2008


The Nightmare Factory, Volume 2. Based on stories by Thomas Ligotti. Fox Atomic/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Doonesbury.com’s The War in Quotes. Edited by David Stanford. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Wounded Warriors: Those for Whom the War Never Ends. By Mike Sager. Da Capo. $16.95.

     Thomas Ligotti is a modern horror master with some of the old-fashioned sensitivity that makes the works of writers from Poe to Dunsany so effective. Yes, he trades in brutality and explicitness in ways that were simply not done a century or more ago; but the primary ingredients of his tales are psychological ones, and that is what makes his stories effective. Ligotti has done some thinking about horror writing and seems clearly to have read Lovecraft’s masterly Supernatural Horror in Literature. For in Ligotti’s introduction to “Gas Station Carnivals,” the first story in the second graphic-novel collection of his tales, the author explains that “in supernatural horror stories…the characters contending with what seems to be the work of magic will deny until the very last moment that anything magical is going on. …But readers of these stories are rarely, if ever, on the side of these characters.” Just so – certainly in Ligotti’s case. His protagonists are weird, unpleasant, perhaps deranged, certainly outside the bounds of even a very generous definition of “normal.” And that gives the writers compressing these tales and the artists illustrating them a great deal of latitude in portraying the people in them. Joe Harris distills both “Gas Station Carnivals” and “The Clown Puppet” quite effectively; Stuart Moore is somewhat less adept as writer of “The Chymist” and “The Sect of the Idiot,” relying more on shock and less on creeping tension. Buyers of this book, though, will likely be more interested in the effectiveness of the illustrations – which varies. Vasilis Lobos uses weird, somewhat overdone tilted-camera angles throughout “Gas Station Carnivals,” a story in which versions of reality get mixed up and none of them may be “real.” Bill Sienkiewicz draws the scary and ambiguous “The Clown Puppet” as if the story is seen through a Vaseline-smeared lens, a technique that highlights both the unreality and the oddity of the tale. For “The Chymist,” in which a bar pickup is part of a deranged experiment, Toby Cypress’ art and Rico Renzi’s coloring are rather obvious and over-the-top – but so is the story, which is not one of Ligotti’s best. For “The Sect of the Idiot,” a vaguely Lovecraftian tale that tries rather too hard to be ominous, Nick Stakal’s art and Lee Loughridge’s coloring provide angularity and starkness, if never really a sense of menace. All these adaptations are worthy enough, but none of them is really as effective as Ligotti at his best can be without pictures.

     There are no illustrations in Doonesbury.com’s The War in Quotes, but many readers will find it scarier than anything shown – or written – in the Ligotti graphic novel. It is no more or less than a collection of quotations about the war in Iraq – remarks by President Bush and his father, the former president; by Vice President Dick Cheney; and by a variety of high administration officials. It is a “gotcha” book, but also the chronicle of a set of policies gone horribly wrong. A timeline appears along the bottom of the pages, with quotations making up all the text – eight separate “Time is running out” remarks from officials speaking during January 2003, for example. There are quite a few “Bushisms” – presidential malapropisms spoken by a man who often has difficulty expressing his thoughts clearly: “You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.” But Bush bashers, of whom there are many, have plenty of this sort of ammunition already, much of it collected by Garry Trudeau in his Doonesbury comic strip. More telling are the contradictory comments by people who do know how to say what they mean – for example, a general saying in 2003 that several hundred thousand soldiers are needed in Iraq, three days before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls that number “far off the mark.” The book mainly condemns Republicans – who, after all, launched and pursued the war – but it is interesting to read quotations from now-stalwart Democratic war opponents: Senator Edward Kennedy saying in 2003 that “we have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction,” for example, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi commenting in 2002 that Hussein “certainly has chemical and biological weapons. There’s no question about that.” This thin book will change no minds about the war in Iraq and does not seem designed to do so – it is mostly a chronicle of confusion, of wrong choices by people whom one would have wished to be more intelligent and aware with foresight than some of them have turned out to be with hindsight. If there is a real-world nightmare factory, for many American soldiers it is Iraq. These quotations show how the factory was built.

     And here are its products, in the first of 11 magazine articles that collectively make up Mike Sager’s Wounded Warriors: Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Wounded Warrior Barracks, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Trained and dedicated Marines, they were severely injured in combat and now have to cope with limbs and brains that just don’t work properly. And then there are the Vietnam vets who stayed in Thailand when their war ended, “a bunch of guys over here who think they just might have found a better way.” Sager profiles these people with sensitivity but sometimes with a hint of patronizing. His book includes not only military warriors but also a 13-year-old boy from a bad part of Philadelphia who sells cocaine but says he is not involved in pit-bull abuse; Al Sharpton, provocateur and would-be political heavyweight; Kobe Bryant, “misunderstood” basketball star who quotes Latin phrases; a 650-pound man living in a world where fat is frowned upon – with his 120-pound wife; and more. The mixture of celebrity and ordinary-people journalism is a bit unsettling, again and again leaving the impression that the real subject of all these stories is Sager himself, in a “look what I’m doing now!” mode. This is truest of the final piece, “Hunting Marlon Brando,” which almost chokes on the frequency of the pronoun “I.” Sager himself is not much of a warrior; his book is best when it looks at non-celebrity, non-rich fighters being forced to cope, day after day, with the realities of living with broken bodies in a world they hoped to remake but that instead remade them.

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