This week I’m going to review a book that I liked and a movie ditto. They’re not related, by the way. I will occasionally review a book and its movie offspring at the same time; once in a while a movie comes out first and then the book is the offspring so I’ll do it that way. It would be nice if I could do this book-and-movie thing every week, but there aren’t always enough books and movies available every week that are suitable for review; I don’t like doing “killer” reviews, even though I can do, and have done them. (And will do; I just don’t generally like them.)
What do you get when you mix Mormons (members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints), dentists and a secret alien invasion from a parallel dimension? You get Toronto writer Hugh A.D. Spencer’s novel Extreme Dentistry! It would, however, come as no surprise to you (I’m guessing) to find out that Hugh is either an active or a lapsed member of that church. I suppose a non-Mormon could have written this book, but it betrays too much inside knowledge of church activities without actually giving out any actual inside information—like what goes on inside the church at church activities—to be written by a non-member. (And here you could put a big discussion on whether LDS members call non-members “Gentiles”; according to what I can find out, they don’t. But they used to. They sometimes use the word “Gentile” in scriptural discussion. However, to save time, I’ll skip the whole thing.) I have nothing against LDS members—although in Western Canada right now there’s a big blowup about the whole polygamous sect in Bountiful, BC because a) they’ve registered a name that’s close enough to the LDS name to really tick off the main church in Salt Lake City; and b) they’re polygamists—again, I have nothing personally against LDS members. A couple of really good friends are members and have never—to the best of my knowledge and belief—tried to convert me or mine.
Anyway. If you don’t know much about the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, you’d probably be in pretty good company—I’m not trying to speak for them, but briefly, they believe that an angel named Moroni came down to one Joseph Smith in New York (state, not city) around 1820 and pointed him to some buried golden tablets that had information and instruction directly from God—and one of the tenets was polygamy (which is now very much not part of mainstream church culture); another is that the Native Americans were actually Israelites. And there were other things that didn’t quite jibe with mainstream Christianity.
So Smith founded this church in about 1840 and set out for Ohio, hoping to establish a church in Missouri, but they really upset the Missourians, whose governor sent out an extermination order; so to avoid persecution—and being exterminated, they fled to Illinois. Then sometime after 1840 Joseph Smith died and Brigham Young uprooted the whole kit and caboodle and fled with them to the wilds of Utah, specifically the Salt Lake City area; also someone named Card (yes, related to Orson Scott Card) started a settlement in Cardston, Alberta, which remains a pretty Mormon place to this day. (By the way, “Mormon” used to be a derogatory term; nowadays, though they prefer LDS, most Mormons are comfortable being called that.) Are you confused yet?
One of the basic LDS requirements is for young LDS members to go on a mission—that is, missionary work to convert the non-believers; if you’ve ever had your doorbell rung and been confronted with two earnest young men in (this has been my experience) white shirts, black ties, crewcuts and glasses and carrying copies of The Book of Mormon, you can be sure you haven’t been picked on by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Witnesses are usually older folk who get quite bewildered when you tell them—gently or firmly, as is your custom—to “scram!”
Nope, the LDS missionaries are usually late teens to twenties, and very polite. They don’t smoke, chew, swear, drink coffee or intoxicating beverages, and are, like the Blues Brothers, “on a mission from God.” I haven’t seen an LDS missionary for years—since I moved to Canada, actually—but I remember them vividly; I used to sometimes invite them (as well as the Witnesses) in for a theological discussion that included, much to their surprise, someone who had actually read a lot of their “scripture.” It’s cheap entertainment, and I hope I opened a mind or two to other possibilities. Anyway, the mission thing is an essential part of this book, getting back to the book. What, you forgot we were reviewing a book?
Anyway, this book takes place, mostly, in Eastern Canada with occasional side trips to Cardston, Alberta, Singapore and Hanover, Germany. Can I describe the plot? Okay, I’ll give it a shot: Arthur Percy is a “lapsed” Mormon. He sort of still believes in all that stuff, including God, but he doesn’t attend church, nor do his wife and two children. He is also a very unfortunate man, dentally, as he gets majorly infected and impacted—which means, basically, grown sideways—wisdom teeth, which have to be extracted without anaesthetic. Or was that the root canal? Anyway, he is very familiar with having oral surgery without anaesthetic; sometimes described as the worst pain—outside childbirth—that a human can endure.
(When I was in the US Navy in the 1960s, I went to a dentist on Treasure Island (in the San Francisco area, halfway across the Bay Bridge), then a Navy base, to have a couple of cavities filled. The dentist was a young African-American who was obviously quite new to the dental “biz,” as he couldn’t seem to find the nerves in my jaw. He injected five or six shots of Novocaine into my left mandible without in any way affecting the nerve—and in those days there was no “freezing,” either—you took your shot “like a man,” even though I swear those needles were a quarter inch in diameter and six inches long! When he was done injecting me, my whole left face was frozen—with the exception of my mandible. “Oh, well,” he said gaily, and proceeded to drill and fill two teeth anyway. I’ve never undergone childbirth, but boy! do I know what oral surgery without anaesthetic feels like! My left-side face was frozen for two days and I didn’t visit a dentist again for almost fifteen years.) This pain theme runs through the book, by the way.
So Arthur gets a new dentist, who is a practicing LDS member (hey, that’s a double pun!) and who, instead of just fixing his teeth, puts him on oddball pills for an infection; to make a longer story short, the “infection” is related to an alien invasion from, as I said, another dimension. These aliens take over the human body via infection, displacing the original inhabitant—but actually knowing, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the contents of the original mind! And they’re shape shifters, as well. Fortunately for us, The Hive (our invaders) has a set of fearsome adversaries—that’s right, Mormons, especially Mormon dentists!
The book shifts back in forth in time and space (as well as viewpoint; we see events not only from Arthur’s (“Brother Percy”) viewpoint, but also from his dentist’s (“Elder Stewart”) as well. I can’t go too far in describing it, because I will have to give away more key plot points if I do, and neither one of us wants that. The humour in this book hits just about the right note—neither forced, nor undersold. Not everything that happens to Arthur is good; there are one or two really unpleasant scenes—one, especially, that’s not for teenagers or young children and that gets referred to several times. So I guess you could say this was a humourous science-fiction invasion novel for adults.
If I have a quibble about the book, it would be an editing quibble: Hugh doesn’t seem to know the difference between “lie” and “lay,” although it might be just his protagonist, Arthur, who doesn’t—there is one place where “lie” is used correctly. Also, to make the book more accessible to a non-Canadian audience (and hey, isn’t a bigger audience what writing’s about?), he should expunge—or at least explain—Canadianisms like “garburator” and “Shreddies.” As far as I know, most Americans aren’t familiar with those terms (it’s like “macaroni and cheese,” or “mac and cheese,” which are called “KD,” or “Kraft Dinner” up here). So I would try to make sure all my terms are familiar to the larger North American audience. (My wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, asked me, “But don’t we just take Britishisms in stride when reading?” My answer was “We expect Britishisms when reading British fiction, and most are familiar to American readers; but Americans generally don’t think of Canada as a different country. For example, on an episode of Border Security—a “reality” show filmed at the Douglas Border crossing [i.e., the Peace Arch], an American, deprived of either his medical marijuana or his gun, I forget which, asked plaintively, “But aren’t you guys just part of the US?” No, dude, we’re not.) Anyway, the book is fun, so buy this book!
Jim Jarmusch has written and/or directed a few odd little movies I’ve seen, like Dead Man, with Johnny Depp; Ghost Dog, with Forest Whitaker and Broken Flowers, with Bill Murray. He’s not out-and-out weird (most of the time) like, say, Lars von Trier, but he’s definitely got his own style. Although Only Lovers Left Alive was apparently released in 2013, it just recently appeared in our local video store. (Unless I’ve seen a movie in the theatre and just have to review it, I like to support one of the few remaining video stores in all Vancouver by reviewing movies as they are available. And occasionally ones I find on the shelf there. It’s called Champlain Video, if you’re interested and in the South-East Vancouver area.) This has to be the slowest, non-action-movie vampire movie ever made. (I’m not spoiling anything by telling you it’s a vampire movie, by the way.) Almost nothing of note happens—okay, there’s one incident, but that’s in spoiler territory—in the movie; normally, I’d say this was a boring movie and you should stay away, but I really liked it!
Why? Normally I can tell you exactly why I like or dislike any given film; the closest I can come here is to say that the actors—there are only five or six in total (there are a few non-essential characters, but these are the ones that count) are superb, and the characters they play are so well delineated! “Adam” (Tom Hiddleston) and “Eve” (Tilda Swinton) are vampires; they’re married, but they live half a world apart—why? Not relevant, and it’s never explained: she lives in Tangier, he lives in Detroit. (“This is your wilderness,” she says, looking around at the darkened ruins of buildings when she flies—first class, and always departing and arriving at night via commercial airlines—to visit him.)
Eve lives, as said, in Tangier—in an apartment in an older building, surrounded nearly floor to ceiling with books; and where she gets her hunger/thirst assuaged via donations from Marlowe (John Hurt). Marlowe looks old and walks with the assistance of a crutch; we’re never told the precise ages of these people, although at one point—it might have been on the supplemental material—we learn that Eve was a member of a pre-Roman Celtic tribe; and we know that Adam has been a contemporary of Schubert and Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley—Marlowe is the original Christopher (“Kit”) Marlowe, who wrote—according to him—Shakespeare’s plays, and he looks it. Eve looks older than Adam, but according to the internal chronology, is probably the oldest of them all. And in this case, casting the brilliant Tilda Swinton is a masterstroke: she is not only ageless-looking, she has that nearly androgynous face that means she can be any age and any gender. (For an example of her androgyny, look to the film version of Constantine, a very underrated movie—some people hated it because it’s not true to the comic from which it was taken—but as a ding an sich it’s fantastic; not only the acting, but the special effects—which all serve the movie—are terrific. Even Shia Leboeuf, whom I don’t care for as an actor, is good in that movie. Tilda plays the archangel Michael, a key role which she carries off as only she can. But as usual, I digress.)
Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, whom most of us know as Loki—and a terrific role it was—in the Marvel movies, lives in Detroit. The only other thing I remember seeing Hiddleston in was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where he played F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he has done a lot of TV work—especially the Wallander series. Adam buys his blood from some kind of hospital researcher, played by Jeffrey Wright—another terribly underrated actor—there’s a small bit of humour here, when Adam (dressed as a doctor) shows his nameplate as “Dr. Faust” and Wright’s nameplate says “Dr. Watson.”
Adam is a musician, an underground cult figure; he has basically only one contact with the human world, and that is Ian, played very well by Anton Yelchin—and in direct contrast to his “Chekov” role in the Abrams reboot of Star Trek, which is completely cartoony. Although Adam is a recluse, only leaving his house to commune with Detroit’s ruins (“This used to be the Packard plant,” he tells Eve, looking at a giant, windowless concrete building, “the largest automobile manufacturer in the United States.”), he appears to have a never-ending supply of cash—as evidenced by the thick wads he gives Dr. Watson and Ian. Maybe he made some investments a few centuries ago? He buys antique guitars “A 1908 Gibson!”, record players, amps, mixing boards—even his TV is a CRT type. But he’s perennially depressed, and one night he gives Ian a big slab of cash to have him find someone to make a single wooden bullet. It must be a very hard wood, he tells Ian, like lignum vitae or ironwood. We can guess what he means to do with it. (I’ll let you find out whether he does or not.)
The vampires in this movie are not your really strong vampires, your flying or shape-changing vampires, although they can—as shown by one or two scenes—move exceptionally quickly and they don’t show up in mirrors (though you don’t find that out without watching the extras). They drink blood from cordial glasses—and it appears that drinking a cordial glass full of blood gives them something like a dope high combined with a sexual thrill. They can enter a house unbidden—unlike Dracula—but it’s considered bad luck in vampire circles. They also call non-vampire humans “zombies.” What the zombies are doing to the environment (“They’ve not only poisoned their water, they’ve poisoned their blood!”) is one of the causes of the aforementioned depression. Because of that, after a Skype session with Adam, Eve takes a night flight from Tangier to Paris, then another one to Detroit to be with Adam.
If it weren’t for the visit of Eve’s impulsive “younger” sister, Ava (played with abandon by Mia Wasikowska), absolutely nothing would probably happen in this movie. The supposedly “wonderful” music Adam creates sounds to me like some of the endless droning “psychedelic” music we used to listen to when high in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the late 1960s. Totally boring to the non-high, in my opinion—but then, music is such a personal thing. In my mind, the two best pieces of music in this movie are the piece by Wanda Jackson (I think it’s called “Funnel of Love”) and the piece by Yasmine Hamdan, which I think is called “Hal.” There’s also the beginning of a song by Charlie Feathers, called “Can’t Hardly Stand It,” but you don’t get to hear the whole thing. There’s also a piece by the White Hills which was, I thought, quite interesting. But on the whole, the music is, like the movie itself, somewhere between slow and static.
Don’t get me wrong; I really liked this movie in spite of the slow pacing, and for all the reasons stated above. In addition, there’s a lot of humour—at one point, for example, Adam is driving Eve around Detroit to show her the sights, and he takes her to Jack White’s house—where he (White) grew up, eschewing the Motown Museum. (“I’m a Stax [Stax records] kinda girl myself,” Eve says.) There’s also a reason these vampires wear sunglasses at night: they have odd eyes that can appear reddish or orange-yellow (at least that’s what I saw) with a big black ring around the cornea. There’s a tiny funny bit with Ian and sunglasses late in the movie, by the way. If you want an action film, you’ll probably hate this. I would be interested in discussing this via email or Facebook with any of you who’ve seen it, however.
Please comment on this week’s column/blog entry. As I said, I’d like to hear your opinions and/or discuss the above movie or Hugh’s book. My email is stevefah at hotmail dot com, by the way. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!