Eight. Nine. Three. In the Japanese card game known as hana-fuda, it’s the worst hand you can get. Eight, nine, and three — ya, ku, and sa. Japanese organized crime families adopted the name “yakuza” because of this hand. Because you need to be lucky to be a yakuza. Because you’ve drawn the worst hand if you cross them. Because winning with a ya-ku-sa hand requires the utmost skill at reading an opponent. Others may claim it’s because it’s bad luck that leads to a life of crime, or because yakuza are born losers. Or because in the Edo period, when the yakuza first emerged on the scene, they might have evolved at least in part out of the tekiya and bakuto social groups.
Like many of my stories, this one starts out with a girl. Nice girl. Well, not that nice. Something of a catch. We were lying around in my apartment in some state of undress or other — not because we were in the throes of passion, but rather because it was Florida in August, and my air conditioner was broken. Such extreme heat and humidity can make one shed one’s modesty as quickly as one sheds pants or shirt. We were watching something dreadful and delightful, as we tended to do. In this case, it happened to be a low-budget exploitation film called Death Curse of Tartu. At the time, I was still young and not so wise in the ways of obscure movies as I am today, so I didn’t know anything about the movie, the director, or the robust little Florida film industry of the 1960s that produced it. But once the movie started playing on my epic 10-inch TV, something strange happened during the credits.
“That’s my step-mom!” my friend exclaimed.
In recent reviews, and as we continue to discuss movies based on the literary works of pulp horror/sci-fi author HP Lovecraft, the names Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon have popped up a lot. More specifically, the title Re-Animator keeps getting dropped into impolite conversation. The team of Gordon and Yuzna have enjoyed considerable acclaim from fans for their adaptations of Lovecraft material and for their ability to take Lovecraft’s work and make it something new without losing the essence of what made the story work in the first place. They did this in a number of ways, but probably the wisest decision they made was to confine themselves to the periphery of Lovecraft’s bibliography, selecting lesser known and all-but-forgotten stories rather than Lovecraft’s best known and most beloved. The first of the author’s story the duo chose to tackle was Herbert West, Re-Animator.
HP Lovecraft, much discussed pulp horror author and Woodrow Wilson lookalike, was either born or transferred into this world from a watery beyond in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, a traveling salesman, went insane as a complication of syphilis when young Howard Phillips was but three years old, and the elder Lovecraft was confined to a mental hospital until his death in 1898. Sickly and somewhat unstable as a lad, HP Loevcraft showed a knack for writing (poetry, mostly) despite the fact that he spent little time in school. He was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandfather, and it was his grandfather who first read old gothic horror stories to HP. His mother disapproved, fearing that the stories would upset the child, who already suffered from, among other things, night terrors. Lovecraft’s academic studies, such as they were — he dreamed of becoming a professional astronomer — were stymied by his inability to do well in higher mathematics. Upon the death of his grandfather in 1908, the Lovecrafts hit upon hard times. The family moved into a smaller home, and Lovecraft led a nearly hermetic existence, his mother being more or less the only person with whom he spent any time.
One of the many things that makes Lovecraft interesting, at least for me, is the discussion of why his writing work, if it does work for you (and despite my jokes about gambrel rooftops and fishmen, it does work for me most of the time). Everyone has their own reasons. Some can be agreed upon by the larger body of Lovecraft fans. Others are acutely personal. My example has always been my tendency to go backpacking in the wilds of New England, seeing firsthand how, even in our modern, developed world, civilization can vanish abruptly, leaving you surrounded by nothing but the night and woods. Even in those small states, the amount of land that gives way to untamed solitude is vast, and when you walk into the middle of it with nothing but boil-in-bag stroganoff and a headlamp to fend off the grip of the wilderness, it becomes a lot easier to believe Lovecraft’s tales of ancient things lurking in the mountains and foothills. You look up and realize how tiny you are. You look around an realize how vulnerable you are. Wolves, bears, and rutting moose are bad enough. I guess if I had to also deal with chattering crab monsters from space, I’d find them a lot scarier than I might have while sitting at home with a dram of Glenmorangie, reading The Whisperer in the Darkness. Because as has been pointed out to me in discussion, it’s not so much the monster as it is the isolation.
I have stared into the abyss of unspeakable madness, and in it I saw myself. I was taller, had darker hair, and was wearing a Miskatonic University sweatshirt, but other than that, the likeness was both striking and disheartening. His name was Paul, and he was the protagonist in Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I didn’t like him at first, and then at some point during the movie, I realized that I probably didn’t like him because he was the protagonist I and many of you would be — confused, irritating, panicky, awkward — rather than the protagonist we like to assume we’ll be — manly, brave, competent, and possessed of 20/20 vision. Of all the unnameable horrors that are HP Lovecraft’s stock in trade, none is perhaps more terrifying than staring into the eyes of a spastic dweeb with ill-fitting spectacles and realizing with horror that, yep, that’s me.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Some time back in the mid-1800s, I attended college. It was there that, while otherwise ensconced deep within the confines of the school of journalism (believe it or not) — where we all smelled of acrid ink, Dektol, stale coffee, and cigarettes — that I also began to refine my taste in the cinema. As part of that pursuit, on the rare days when we were allowed to leave the confines of Weimer Hall (which, if nothing else, had a lovely indoor courtyard and terrarium), I enrolled in a few film classes. Nothing too advanced that semester. An intro to film theories thing, and something about film noir with a professor who used to hop up onto his desk and do suggestive interpretive dances to the music of In a Lonely Place.
Several years ago, I got a Netflix account. I did it for a variety of reasons, though the two biggest were the fact that the selection of movies at the average video rental store was abysmal and the price of a rental at the un-average video store was outrageous. Netflix — not to sound like a commercial for the service — offered an astounding number of titles, and because one of their main distribution centers is in Queens, the turn-around time for receiving new movies was lightning fast, provided the lightning is that ball lightning or swamp gas stuff that drifts slowly from Queens to Brooklyn over the course of a day and is often mistaken for a UFO or gnome. Let it be said right now that on my list of things to do before I die is see swamp gas or ball lightning, or at least photograph a weather balloon that could be mistaken for a UFO. But that is neither here nor there.
Back in October of 2003, when I was still gainfully employed as a writer at Toyfare magazine, I was given the following assignment: using my vast and shameful knowledge of things both Transformer and GI Joe, I was to write an article, using a series of pre-determined questions and criteria, pitting the two iconic toy lines against each other in a battle for overall supremacy. Hey, it’s the sort of things we did back then as grown men and women. I can’t say I went into the article without some degree of personal bias. I had a huge GI Joe collection when I was in middle school. My Transformers collection was OK, but GI Joe is where all my time and money went — partly because there was so much more you could buy, and partly because collecting GI Joe figures was a lot easier on a lawn mowing allowance than collecting the much pricier Transformers figures. And for a kid with a big, wooded back yard, the potential play value of GI Joe was considerably more substantial — and yes, I was eleven years old; I played with my GI Joes.
There’s a story about the day Sho Kosugi first arrived in the United States in pursuit of his dream of movie stardom. As the legend goes — for surely anything related to Sho Kosugi must qualify as legend, shrouded in myth, mist, and mystery — Sho stepped off the plane at LAX and meant to board a bus bound for Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, where he intended to begin building his new life. Unfortunately, the young Kosugi could neither read nor understand very much English and so got on the wrong bus. Eventually, he found himself deposited in a rough part of town where he was promptly set upon by a trio of knife-wielding thugs. Calling upon the martial arts training he’d had while living in Japan, he quickly dispatched one of the assailants and sent the other two fleeing in terror. Somehow, a police car showed up and, after a detour down to the station, Sho finally found his way to Little Tokyo.