Two tough guys and a dreamer: books

THE XYY MAN by Kenneth Royce gets its name from a now-discredited theory that having two Y chromosomes makes men more reckless, rebellious and dangerous — as is the case with Bill “Spider” Scott, a professional cat burglar newly out of prison, struggling to stay straight and finding it difficult. Salvation comes when a high placed British official hires Spider to steal a McGuffin from the Chinese embassy in London — but after completing the job, it looks like his new employer’s going to double-cross him. Spider goes on the run but the Chinese, the CIA and the KGB all want what he now has …

The XYY aspect is just a gimmick; Spider doesn’t come across any wilder or more incorrigible than most career-criminal protagonists (he could easily be Al Mundy, the thief-turned-spy from TV’s It Takes a Thief). That said, he’s a good protagonist, plausibly tough but no superhuman. The story itself was entertaining, so I may pick up more in the series eventually.

GASLIT INSURRECTION: The Clockworks of War Book I by Jason Gilbert (who’s a friend of mine, but my review is honest) has a setting I love: it’s alt.1921 in a world where the Civil War lasted twenty years (General Sherman took a bullet in the head before he could start burning the South), ending when a slave uprising destabilized the Confederacy. However the moneyed interests that had taken over the Union covertly now covertly took over the South, crushing the revolt and keeping the CSA free as a puppet state.

Protagonist Kane is a hardboiled PI/magus investigating a series of killings in which strippers are drained of blood. Worse, the “oligarchy” that runs the country doesn’t want him sticking his nose in. And their interest might threaten Tabby, the amiably crazy but attractive woman whom Kane assures everyone he has no romantic interest in …

Urban fantasy, even in an alt.history setting, isn’t my cup of tea. But with that reservation, this was fun. The language was anachronistic in spots (“relationship” isn’t a word anyone was using for love affairs back then) but not so bad I couldn’t live with it.

I have never been a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Gaiman’s writing in general (I find him pretentious a lot of the time) but reading SANDMAN: Preludes and Nocturnes by Gaiman and multiple illustrators reminds me just how much this series impressed me when it started. In the 1920s an occult group tries to capture Death but instead gets her brother, Dream. Years later he breaks free and begins hunting for his lost talismans of power, taking him to Hell, London and into battle with the supervillain Dr. Destiny. Overall it’s impressive work, though one issue in which Destiny hitches a ride and gets into a pseudo-deep conversation, fell flat for me (partly that’s because it’s something that’s been done to death a lot since).

SUBURBAN GLAMOUR by Jamie McKelvie fell really, really flat. The story of a teenage suburban girl discovering she’s actually an adopted faerie princess just hits too many extremely stock tropes, both for urban fantasy and for fictional teenage life; it does go in a different direction than I expected, but not enough to be worth reading.

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Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock and the Doom Patrol: movies and TV

After watching Robert Altman’s disappointing Short Cuts, I put his NASHVILLE (1975) in my Netflix queue to see if despite the similarities (sprawling cast, nonlinear narrative, almost three hours long) it was, as I remembered it, a much better film.

Yep, it is. Possibly because Short Cuts is a group of separate stories tied together by connections among the characters where Nashville feels like a single story, albeit broken into multiple different subplots, many of which don’t really go anywhere. The narrative spine is a Nashville rally for a third-party politician whom we never see but whose messages (tax churches, end the electoral college) are heard throughout the film. Various other characters include country superstar Henry Gibson, womanizing musician Keith Carradine, Keenan Wynne and Shelly Duvall dealing with a woman’s death in different ways, choir director Lily Tomlin having an affair, a racist British reporter trying to interview Elliott Gould … It’s very much a slice of life, which is a tricky thing to pull off, but it works brilliantly. “Let’s consider our national anthem. Nobody knows the words. Nobody knows how to sing it.”

Silent movies were definitely not Hitchcock’s glory years — Like Easy Virtue, THE FARMER’S WIFE (1928) is another Filmed Stage Play by Hitchcock, this time a comedy one in which a widowed farmer pursues various local women in the entitled conviction he’d a fantastic catch for any o f them. Looks good — there’s a real sense of life around the crowd scenes, like the carnival in The Ring — but the story couldn’t keep my interest. “You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge!”

Hitchcock shows good judgment in classing CHAMPAGNE (1928) as one of his worst films; the story of a madcap heiress who elopes only to learn her father’s just gone broke — what will she and her fiancé do now? I didn’t care at all. “I’ve met some lively people, invented a new cocktail and bought some snappy gowns.”

As a die-hard Doom Patrol fan, I shelled out for DC’s streaming service and binged their DOOM PATROL over the past few weeks (while there’s other stuff I wouldn’t mind catching, I’ve canceled it until DP S2 comes out in 2020). As NASCAR driver and first-class jerk Cliff Steele, Brendan Fraser wakes up from an accident to discover he’s now a brain in a robot body, living in a creepy old mansion alongside Niles (Timothy Dalton), Rita Farr (April Bowlby), Larry Trainer (Matt Bomer) and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero). Then reality-warping intelligence Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) kidnaps Niles for revenge and begins tormenting the team in countless bizarre ways, forcing them to change and adapt while making sneering metacommentary (“You’ve spent thirteen episodes whining like a C-list Breakfast Club!”).

This was absolutely fantastic. Adapting Grant Morrison’s DP gave them good material to start with and they’ve used it well. Rita’s arc, slowly going from selfish withdrawal to decent human being; Larry dealing with the energy being inside him and his own homosexuality; Guerrero giving an absolutely amazing performance as a metahuman with multiple personalities. And the show stays strong all the way to the finish. It was actually worth adding another streaming service — next year I might keep my subscription going so I can watch week to week. It’s that good. “I would sooner have sharks in my vagina than spend another minute in the same zip code as you.”

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Teeth, lack of sleep, contractors — I hit the trifecta again!

So early Saturday morning, some time between 1 am and 2, TYG shifted into bed into Trixie’s sleeping space. Trixie, rather than just move a little ways, got off the bed, ran around to my side and tapped me to move so she could jump up. I woke, settled her on the bed … and found I’d been too thoroughly awakened to get back to sleep.

Sunday morning, Trixie decided she wanted to go out. Turns out she didn’t need to go, she just wanted to explore (this happens every so often). Again, sleep denied.

Sunday evening, we dropped in on our neighbor for a puppy play date and a glass of wine. The wine apparently messed up my sleep rhythms (which I was aware might be a problem) and I got almost no sleep.

Combined, that left me with a sleep deficit I haven’t quite made up until today. My work was correspondingly … uninspired.

Then on Thursday I had a follow-up dental appointment to replace my temporary crown with a permanent one. I showed up, got my mouth numbed … then it turned out the lab had made a misaligned crown so we had to cancel. That was a waste of potentially productive time, and I’ll still have to go back for my next appointment.

That afternoon I had to spend a couple of hours dealing with a contractor for some upgrades to TYG’s bathroom (new shelf, new small mirror).

I managed to squeeze out one redraft of Bleeding Blue that doesn’t come near enough to fixing the problems (I’m scheduled to read at one of the next two writers’ group meetings, so I want it at least a little more polished). I posted about cool book covers on Atomic Junkshop. And I got a fair amount done on Sexist Myths. But by and large, I felt kind of like the guy on the cover below.

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Goals for September, plus Wisp

So I made about 49 percent of my goals for September. This is not great, though I blame it mostly on circumstances, like lingering summer making it hard to get out, being sick that couple of days late in the month and various pup and cat issues.

Plus Sexist Myths is just slower to write than I hoped. I made a lot of progress during the two weeks when I wasn’t doing any Leaf articles, but even so. And I let it spill over into time I’d marked off for fiction which is always a mistake. I’ve done that with other nonfiction projects and the added work on them doesn’t make up for the unwritten fiction. Bad me!

And once again, I think my schedule needs some micro-adjustments. I’ll detail them another time.

On the plus side, Wisp is getting increasingly friendly, though she’s still making it clear she’s her own cat — no indoor-cat life for her! Though when I accidentally shut the door with her inside a week ago, she handled it with aplomb, just sitting there and going “mew …. mew.”

She forgave me. And as you can see, she’s down with letting me pet her belly.

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Yes, and …

While I wasn’t a fan of the Kamandi Challenge round-robin limited series, one or two of the text page discussions stuck with me. Most notably Greg Pak discussing the old improv phrase, “yes, and.”


The point of the phrase is that in improv, you don’t reject whatever weirdness the other performers throw at you, you accept it, then build on it. Say yes, then add “and …” That forces you to go up, instead of down. My Mum made a similar point about theater (she was an awesome community theater director): if one actor’s going so big they overshadow the rest of the cast, you don’t want to damp them down, you want everyone else to go up and match them.

I think that’s good advice for writing too. Don’t just stop at “well, that’s a good idea.” Where does it lead us? What does it lead us to? What could it lead to?

For an example, there’s the Chip and Dales Rescue Rangers episode, A Case of Stage Blight. Sewernose de Bergerac is an alligator who lives in the sewers under an opera house. Growing up there after his owner flushed him down a toilet, he’s fascinated by show biz and dreams of performing on stage. The Rescue Rangers run up against him when he kidnaps the lead in the current production to take his place.

Which is weird, in a good way. But they don’t stop there. Sewernose also has two hand puppets, Euripedes and Voltaire, who alternate between giving him pep talks and critiquing his performance. It takes a wild idea and makes it several times wilder.

As does the H. Rider Haggard/Andrew Lang The World’s Desire. We start with Odysseus hunting Helen of Troy in Egypt, then the authors pile on a reincarnate love triangle and the Ten Plagues of Egypt taking place in the background. It creates a truly wild result.

Or Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run, which just piles weirdness on weirdness.

Of course, improv is a lot more forgiving if “yes and” leads us to the wrong place than readers will be. But unlike improv, we can go back and rewrite when that happens. So what’s to lose?

#SFWApro. Image by Jack Kirby (top), covers by Vincent diFate (middle) and Mike Sekowsky. All rights remain with current holders.

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I went back in the house and came out again: the Vertigo House of Mystery

Talking about DC’s House of Mystery is complicated because there have been so many versions. It started as a horror anthology —

Then became a superhero book.

Then got its most famous incarnation, an anthology book hosted by the House’s caretaker, Cain (later established as an avatar of the Cain).

The version I’m dealing with today is the Vertigo series from 2008-11 (written by Lilah Sturges and multiple others) which combined Cain, an anthology element and a main story arc. In the first issue, a woman named Fig Keele — architect, former kid detective — stumbles into the House of Mystery.

Some people come in, drink at the bar (the House now has a bar-room) and leave. Fig is one of those who can’t leave, try as she might. She’s stuck there along with sorcerers, a pirate, handsome bartender Harry and a Byronic poet (no Cain), working in the bar and hunting for an escape. As the price of a drink is a story, each issue includes one, keeping the anthology aspect going alongside the main plot. Meanwhile, various mysterious groups and people are trying to figure out where in the multiverse the House is currently located.

To further complicate things, Fig has a much stranger past than she lets on, possibly tied to the House. Her father shows up with an agenda of his own. Cain eventually finds the House and isn’t pleased with the renovations.

This period is the one I think of when I think of the series and it’s the part of the run I liked best (though the stories told at the bar often left me unimpressed). Later on? Not so much. There’s a long stretch where the House winds up located in a Goblin market, with the cast embroiled in goblin politics and local wars. The setting didn’t interest me as much. Neither did the annoying Lotus Blossom, a new character who plays a large role in the final arc. I found her just insufferable.

And rereading, I found the background mythology, involving entities known as the Conception and Fig’s own secret gifts, less than inspiring (this may reflect that this time I knew it didn’t really pay off). I honest-to-god have no idea how it all fits together or makes sense or if it does. Which wouldn’t have mattered if they’d kept up the quirkiness of the early issues, but I don’t think they did.

Fig too became more annoying on rereading. She’s got cause for being pissed off, but at times she’d get so mopey and whiny I didn’t have sympathy for her.

All of which makes the series sound much worse than it I think it is, the unfortunate consequence of listing fault after fault. Certainly I enjoyed it on first run, despite the flaws — I don’t know that “it wasn’t as much fun to reread” is really a fatal flaw.

But it’s all out in TPB if you want to find out for yourself.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by J. Winslow Mortimer, Jim Mooney, Nick Cardy and Sam Weber, all rights remain with current holders. Bonus cover by Cardy below, because he’s awesome (rights remain with current holder).


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Undead sexist cliches: “Women never do anything for political reasons”

If I remember correctly, I ran across that phrase in Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus. Rosen’s point (or whoever, if I’m misremembering) was that in movies, men fight for ideal (or power), women fight for men, or for ideals if men share them.

In Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, Errol Flynn’s Robin opens Maid Marian’s (Olivia de Haviland) eyes to the injustice King John and Guy of Gisborne are wreaking on the Saxons. She’s inspired, but it’s in large part by her love for Robin. In Casablanca, Victor Lazlo’s the idealist, Rick’s an idealist who needs to regain his ideals, Ilsa takes her cue from the men. She goes off to support Victor’s fight against the Axis because Rick told her it was the right thing to do.

In more recent times we have the Helen Slater Supergirl film, wherein her clash with Faye Dunaway comes off less about Faye Dunaway’s plans for world conquest and more about which of them gets to cuddle with hunky Hart Bochner. Or Paycheck, in which Ben Affleck is out to stop Aaron Eckhart’s evil plans, Uma Thurman is out to love Affleck. She’s willing to fight, but only because she’s supporting her man.

Heather Greene’s Bell, Book and Camera makes the same point about witches. Male film witches are out for power (e.g., Julian Sands in Warlock); female witches’ endgame is love (Bell, Book and Candle or I Married a Witch for example).

And as writer Shannon Thompson says, female villains are often defined by wanting the same guy as the protagonist: “When girls get antagonistic roles at all, it is usually as the dreaded other woman. She’s the soulless, vicious, popular harpy you love to hate, prepackaged in the designer clothes you’ve always wanted (but you’d never admit it), and she is on her way to steal your man.”  Of course, a lot of villains are out to get the girl, but it’s never just about the girl. Conrad Veidt in Thief of Baghdad is in love with the same princess as the hero, but he’s about getting power, too. Ditto Guy of Gisborne in the Flynn Robin Hood.

Or consider DC in the Silver Age, when Supergirl and Wonder Woman got saddles with lots of romance-comics tropes in the hopes of bringing in more female readers. Sure, Supergirl saves the world but what good is that if you don’t have a date?

I do think things have improved since Popcorn Venus came out 50 years or so ago. We have more women soldiers, more women PIs and cops, more female superheroes, and I see more of them whose motives do not revolve around the man in their lives, if there even is one. Even back in the 1940s, we had Wonder Woman, and C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry. The CW’s Supergirl fights for truth, justice and the American way, not for a boyfriend, even though romance plays a role in the series.

This is a good thing.

#SFWApro. Supergirl cover by Bob Oksner, rights to all images remain with current holders.

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Impeachment and other political links

Judging by the people opposed to it, impeachment must be the right path:

Court evangelical Tony Perkins was keen on impeaching the Christian, church-going Obama. But now that he has an ally in the White House? Impeachment would damage our system. More accurately, it might remove a president who’s willing to go along with the religious right’s concept of religious freedom. I’m quite sure if faith-based refugee groups objected to Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, Perkins wouldn’t be on their side.

David Brooks is very, very worried impeachment will empower Trump and enrage his base. As noted at the link, Trump’s base is in a constant state of rage — if impeachment makes them angrier, that doesn’t translate into more votes for Trump.

Frank Bruni worries impeachment will divide the country. Because we’re so unified now.

And John Yoo, the Bush-era White House attorney who claimed the president can violate any laws he wants (except when he’s a Democrat) unsurprisingly thinks impeaching Trump is bad.

But even if the Senate voted to impeach Trump, that wouldn’t solve the white supremacist problem.

Right-wing wackaloon Rod Dreher explains the coming election is like when David Duke ran for Louisiana governor: voting for Trump is like voting against Duke, even though Duke is a Trump backer.

Sanders vs. Warren is more complicated than the very left wing portrays it. And so is the debate over Universal Basic Income, which Jacobin compares to husbands giving housewives an allowance back in the 1950s.

Inaccurate credit reports. Reluctance to fix problems. Insecure privacy. No wonder Bernie Sanders wants to nationalize credit reporting.

The right wing is much better than the left at political propaganda.

Dallas police officer Amber Guyger walked into a black man’s apartment and shot him dead, which she claims was because she thought he was a burglar in her own apartment. The trial is in progress.

Tony Perkins, a virulently anti-gay bigot, is probably also happy a judge in Michigan says religious groups that work for the state as adoption agencies can discriminate against gays.

I knew specfic author Dan Simmons was virulently anti-Muslim, but he’s also a climate-change denier (and jerk).

Confederate monuments are not about preserving history, they’re about manipulating it.

Tennessee Republican Kerry Roberts suggests the best way to get rid of liberalism is to get rid of college.

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From the Stone Age to mystic Russia to the future: books and graphic novels

PALEOFANTASY: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live by Marlene Zuk looks at the widespread assumption that we haven’t evolved since the Stone Age, which I’ve of course encountered in reading about how modern gender differences are imposed on us by our caveman ancestors. Zuk’s book reminds me the theory takes in a great deal more.

By paleo-logic, we’ll be happiest and healthiest if we live like our ancestors: eat Stone Age food, exercise the same way (would they have been runners or merely walkers and weight lifters?), create environments compatible with the way we’re hardwired and, of course, submit to our genetically ordained gender roles. As Zuk shows in detail, however, there’s no reason for seizing on the Paleolithic era as our genetic turning point: some of our genes go back way, way earlier, and yes, as evolutionary psychologist David Butler has written, we haven’t stopped evolving. Our ability to digest dairy as adults (not a universal human trait, of course) may be as little as 7,000 years old. Nor, Zuk adds, does it look like modern science is really protecting us from evolution (she points out this is a very First World middle and upper-class view of survival). Very good.

KOSCHEI THE DEATHLESS by Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck is one of the best Hellboy-verse stories I’ve read in a while. The backstory of Koshchei, who battled Hellboy in Darkness Calls,  has a genuine folklore feel to it: the magic is frequently nonlinear and illogical (to protect his magic from Baba Yaga, Koshchei spits it up into a rag, then feeds the rag to a horse. Which then explodes) but it feels right — creepy, eerie and not at all like science. A grim story (when Koshchei talks of going down a dark path, Hellboy points out he’d already been on one) but well worth reading (and added, of course, to my Chronology).

As I mentioned earlier this week, James H. Schmitz’s THE WITCHES OF KARRES by James H. Schmitz is a delightful romp. Protagonist Pausert frees three underage girls from slavery only to discover Maleen, Goth and the Leewit are all powerful psis. Accompanied by Goth (he drops the other girls back on Karres) he attempts to start a new life as a trader, but everyone from an alien computer to scheming governments to a space pirate wants to pry the secrets of Karres’ space-warp drive from his mind. Given everything at the end is in place for more adventures, I’m surprised Schmitz never did a sequel, though other hands have tackled the job.

SUPERGIRL: Girl of No Tomorrow by Steve Orlando an various artists continues Orlando’s uninspired run on the Maid of Might’s series. Here the future villain the Emerald Empress tries to destroy Supergirl by recreating the Silver Age villain team the Fatal Five (it’s such a random collection of villains Orlando might have drawn them out of a hat); complicating the battle is that Supergirl’s powers have been boosted to the point she’s as much a threat to Capital City as the bad guys. The only bright spot was the Annual, in which Supergirl meets her cousin, plus the Superman of China plus a New 52 version of Wonder Woman’s former mentor I Ching (but the name doesn’t work any better now). It was fun, but can’t redeem the whole thing (like turning Cat Grant into a her0-hating J. Jonah Jameson knockoff)

The first volume of REDLANDS by Jordie Bellaire and Vanesa Del Rey fell flat for me. Set in a Florida town run by witches, it’s more a grim dark crime thriller as even the witches’ influences doesn’t make the locals any less misogynist. Sexist enough that I got tired of reading about it. I also find it annoying that the creators tie this in to Salem (as Heather Greene says, Salem is a standard marker for validating witch stories) — there were no witches at Salem, just 19 innocent women and one man hung for witchcraft they didn’t commit.

#SFWApro. Covers by Mike Mignola (t) and Kurt Miller, all rights to them and the poster image remain with current holders.

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My week to howl: movies viewed

Ever since I caught Piranha, I’ve been meaning to catch director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles’ subsequent team-up, THE HOWLING (1981). I would have done it sooner but my DVD proved unwatchable so I had to order a Blu-Ray replacement.

Much as I remembered, it has the same running gag of making pop culture references to the monster (clips of The Wolf Man on TV) though some of them are more punning here (someone reading a Tom Wolfe book, for instance). The film opens with reporter Karen (Dee Wallace Stone) going to a meet with serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo — at that time known a serious stage actor). In the moments between meeting him and the cops killing him, she sees something that traumatizes her so much she can’t even remember it. Psychiatrist Patrick Macnee convinces her to recuperate with her husband (Christopher Stone, her then husband — a fact she omitted when recommending him to Dante for the role) at Macnee’s back-to-nature therapy retreat, the Colony. Everyone besides the aggressively sexual Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks) seems so nice and normal, just the place for Karen to get herself back to normality right?

It’s not at all obvious it’s a werewolf film at first (I can’t remember if I knew going in or not). When it finally comes, they’re memorable: rather than simply a man in heavy monster makeup, they’re towering brutes eight feet tall with hulking, massive jaws that can obviously rip you limb from limb. I think they’ve defined the movie werewolf look ever since, as well as the idea of werewolves in packs rather than isolated predators. The pre-CGI transformation on camera is impressive and was groundbreaking at the time — I don’t know if it would have the same impact on anyone seeing it for the first time now. But the film itself is really well done, with a solid cast that also includes Slim Pickens, John Carradine, Dick Miller as an occult bookstore owner (as Bell, Book and Camera says of such characters, he provides the same supernatural advice an old crone in the hills would have given 40 years earlier) and Forrest J. Ackerman and Roger Corman in cameos.  The Blu-Ray is packed with special features about the making of the film, if you’re interested (I was). “Take it, bright boy — don’t you know anything?”

As the special features cited HOWLING IV: The Original Nightmare (1988) as the most faithful adaptation of Gary Brandner’s source novel, I rewatched it, even knowing that in a reverse of the Star Trek films, the even numbered Howlings suck. And yep, the story of best-selling Romy Windsor recovering from her stress-induced breakdown (we writers are prone to those, you see) in a quiet rural town, only to be haunted by visions of a ghostly nun and the sound of wolves in the distance is a complete failure: dull, with mediocre acting and uninteresting werewolves visually. From the online synopses of the novel, it’s not even that faithful. “She was screaming about the sound of bells — and the howling.”

I also watched HOWLING VI: The Freaks (1991) under the impression I hadn’t seen it before, but I believe I have (the only thing I remember is the final battle). A drifter in a Southern town makes the mistake of not tracking the lunar calender; after he turns wolf, a traveling carnie owner captures him as a sideshow exhibit. Which isn’t entirely bad news for the protagonist, as the carnie is a monstrous fiend (no explanation exactly what, though it looks like some sort of demon) who killed his family and cursed him with lycanthropy. Now for the reckoning! Like a number of other horror franchises, it’s not really tied to the earlier films, just a werewolf film borrowing the branding.

Howling VI suffers fatally from its low budget. As you can see above, the werewolf looks like a hairy guy with weird eye makeup; the freaks in the sideshow are likewise too mundane for a supernatural owner. A decent budget might have helped … but probably not enough to make it good. “I know the truth when I see it — what we saw was not God’s creation?”

While HOWLING VII seems impossible to find (operating at the lowest of low budgets, it recycled footage from the previous films to save cash), I should have the eighth film arriving from Netflix soon.

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