Filler content with tiger scars

A feature on the work of Damien Angelica Walters that originally appeared in Black Static #54:-

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE: DAMIEN ANGELICA WALTERS

Widely published, American writer Damien Angelica Walters will be familiar to readers of Black Static from the stories that appeared in #46 and #52, and for those who wish to get better acquainted with the full range of her talents in the short form, assuming you haven’t already done so, then there’s an ideal opportunity to be taken in the form of 2015 collection SING ME YOUR SCARS (Apex Book Company pb, 200pp, $15.95). It contains twenty stories presented in three sections.

With the title ‘HERE’, the first part of the collection opens with Stoker nominated title story ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ which in some ways reminded me strongly of Clive Barker’s classic ‘The Body Politic’ though Shelley’s Frankenstein is also a very obvious influence. A mad doctor works to assemble the perfect woman by stitching together assorted body parts, but the women whose flesh he uses retain a localised kind of consciousness and form a gestalt entity to oppose their tormentor. It’s a fascinating idea and vividly realised, with Walters bringing each separate body part to compelling life and showing how they unite in a common cause, while fully exploring the possibilities of this scenario, raising questions about the nature of our humanity and those who are willing to abuse others for their own ends. The misogyny underlying it all is self-evident, with the scientist wishing to shape a woman to his desires and blaming his victims when things don’t go according to plan, seeing women as nothing more than subjects for his experiments and indifferent to any wishes, hopes, and dreams they themselves might have.

Meg, the protagonist of ‘All the Pieces We Leave Behind’, is an idealist who believes the best of people and tries to help them when she can, but here she is infected with a kind of societal fear and finds herself acting in ways that are entirely opposed to her caring nature. Underlying the main narrative is a powerful subtext about the nature of identity, of who we essentially are and how mutable that is, with a kind of despair and indifference arising in society and spreading to others. In ‘Girl, With Coin’ the young woman Olivia doesn’t experience pain and makes her living as a performance artist, cutting herself in trendy art galleries and creating tableau vivant, but at the bottom of it all is Olivia’s failed relationship with her estranged mother, the one person who she wishes to affect. While physical pain is beyond her, Olivia is prone to emotional aches, and in this her mother is the complete opposite, apparently indifferent, unaffected by anything her daughter does. The story takes a long, hard look at the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others, and how society itself contributes to the atrocity exhibition, challenging the idea that female masochism/self-sacrifice can be a form of virtue’.

Previously published in our sister magazine Interzone, ‘Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion)’ is set in a Lithuania where magic is forbidden and soldiers steal away practitioners, and while terror reigns outside in a small apartment a man grieves for his missing wife and performs illusions to charm his dying daughter. It is a beautifully written piece, one that brings home the nature of terror, of political oppression, and at the same time shows us that there is hope of a kind to be found in even the most dreadful situations, with the keenness of the emotions penetrating deep into the reader’s psyche. ‘Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods’ gives us the scenario of human beings as the playthings of alien entities, who replace their parts with clockwork and strip them of their basic humanity, but at the end there is hope again, with Naomi finding her identity and revolting against the oppressor. At least that’s what this story feels to be about, with a touch of Cthulhu and his ilk in characters Big and Little Big, but fascinating as the concept and execution were, it didn’t entirely work for me, felt a little too oblique for my liking, with too much that the reader is left to infer regarding what is actually taking place.

This section ends with a story that could have been amusing in less skilled hands, but here uses the comedic situation to more serious ends. ‘Sugar, Sin, and Nonsuch Henry’ tells of an exotic dancer called Sugarsin who is obsessed with the Tudors and at a yard sale acquires a robot built to look like Henry VIII, but it turns out that he has feelings and is attracted to her. It’s a delightful story, with some deliciously witty dialogue and a Ray Bradbury vibe going on, but along the way it deals with real concerns regarding the nature of physical and emotional attachment, asks questions about the things which are missing from our lives and how much we are prepared to do to get them.

We move on to ‘PART II: AND THE NOW’, which opens with ‘Running Empty in a Land of Decay’. The story’s unnamed protagonist is running as displacement activity, a way to avoid thinking of the zombie plague that has wiped out the rest of humanity and how she had to shoot her partner when he became infected, but you can only avoid the obvious for so long, and through the activity of running she finds the way to a kind of inner peace, in this short, elegiac narrative, a swansong of sorts for the human race, with running as a metaphor for the way we dodge those essential, life threatening questions. In ‘Scarred’ Violet remembers her past, when she caused the deaths of other people by carving their names into her flesh, and is haunted by guilt but also tempted to use this ability again when a man abuses his wife and child. The story operates on several levels, giving us the option to believe that Violet is mistaken about what happens, that she is suffering from a mental condition, but at the same time it can be taken at face value, with the question of what right she has to play judge, jury and executioner at the centre of the story, and then there is the end twist when her attempt to kill herself goes horribly wrong, with consequences that are as unexpected as they are completely logical with hindsight. The story’s central conceit enables Walters to examine matters of personal morality and responsibility.

‘The Taste of Tears in a Raindrop’ is the story of Alec, a divorced man who wants to spend more time with his daughter but is denied by his ex-wife, and the woman who comes and cries in his garden each night, the story touching on mythic themes and the ways in which we refuse to take responsibility for our mistakes, how we can only move on once we own them for what they are. We get a different perspective on the story of the Gorgon Medusa in ‘Always, They Whisper’, with Medi portrayed as a rape victim who was then held responsible for what was done to her and cursed. The story offers a detailed study of victim blaming, and ends with the triumphalism of a woman who has been pushed so far that she decides to take control of her own story instead of continuing to accept the judgements of others, with the serpent imagery used throughout and the suggestion that they give voice to Medi’s guilt adding to its psychological acuity.

Set in a world where singing can be used to build things, ‘Dysphonia in D Minor’ tells of the love between two women and how it came to be tainted and soured, the central conceit here quite dazzling, but the miraculous undermined by jealousy and despair. Walters poses questions of what is right and what is wrong, but she offers no easy answers, only the lingering scent of fake regrets. A woman is haunted by photographs of the man she loved and couldn’t let go when he was struck down by a fatal illness in ‘Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?’ It’s a ghost story of sorts, albeit one with a highly unusual method of delivery, but beyond that it touches on the inability to let go, to allow things that have gone on for too long to die a natural death. It’s a ghost story in which the living compel the dead. ‘Immolation: A Love Story’ does exactly what it says in the title, chronicling the unhealthy obsession a shoe shop employee with pyromaniac tendencies has for one of his female customers. There’s a thread of suppressed eroticism to the story, a passion that is too strong to be denied, and underlying that a fetishistic intensity that leads to the final reversal of fortunes at the story’s end.

In ‘PART III: AND AWAY’ we have the terrible sadness of ‘Melancholia in Bloom’ with its depiction of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s and her belief in a kind of magic that her daughter rejects. Memory is at the centre of this story, the ways in which we preserve the past, and how in losing that past we also lose something essential to who we are. The protagonist of ‘Iron and Wood, Nail and Bone’ is nailed to a cross in some sort of ritual of empowerment, coming to an awareness of her own strength through suffering. Reminiscent in some ways of Orson Scott Card’s early work, it’s a powerful word picture of a soul in torment, somebody who needs to be punished before they can accept who they really are. An archetypal female figure wanders through the pages of ‘And All the World Says Hush’, a palimpsest on which the desires of others are painted, and in this way she becomes somehow symbolic of all females, or rather of all who are given validity by the imaginings of other people.

In a land where magic is forbidden except to those who swear to serve its king and whose abilities are warped to evil ends, a young woman learns the truth that ‘They Make of You a Monster’. Again there are echoes here of Card’s early fiction, both in the fantastical setting and in the way that a good cause can only be forwarded through an act that many would regard as evil. Walters bestows a certain grace and nobility on her protagonist, but only through sullying such things can she achieve a better future for everyone. ‘Paper Thin Roses of Maybe’ has a one-dimensional reality encroaching on our own world, causing a falling out between Joshua and Maddie, who cannot wait for the flatness to reach and engulf them, instead runs to meet her fate. The central conceit here is a striking one, and with the transformation of the characters into paper you could draw comparisons with the literary situation, while underlying it all is a message about lack of faith and what that can lead to.

One of the most powerful stories, ‘Grey in the Gauge of His Storm’ presents us with the portrait of an abusive relationship, with love used as justification for both enduring and inflicting pain on others, but Walters makes it especially memorable by having her characters made out of material that unravels. A harrowing account of male violence, it’s made all the more painful through the way in which the female character consents in what is happening to her, is willing to take the blame despite her obvious innocence, hides the marks of violence from others. It’s a fantastical scenario, but at the same time one that feels all too real, a story that, like the very best of speculative fiction, uses the bizarre elements to illuminate genuine problems, and it’s a trait that is common to many of these fictions.

Finally we have ‘Like Origami in Water’, the tale of Johnny whose body is gradually disappearing and his companion who makes origami animals as he vanishes, using them to externalise the hurt they are both feeling. Again, the conceit is striking, and made even more so by the way in which it is used to tell us something of human nature, with Walters injecting a strong dose of poignancy into her story.

I loved this collection, with something striking and original to be found in every story, and insights into the human condition that dazzle with their unerring accuracy at hitting the targets the author has set for herself.

Similar qualities are to be found in PAPER TIGERS (Dark House Press pb, 284pp, $14.97), Walters second outing at novel length. It opens with the words “Please don’t look at the Monstergirl”, our introduction to one of the central themes of the book and its viewpoint character Alison. The survivor of a fire that took two fingers and one eye, left one side of her body hideously scarred and devoid of sensation, Monstergirl is how Alison characterises herself, an opinion that is predicated on how she feels other people react to her appearance. Physical beauty is only part of what she lost to the fire – she also lost her unborn child, the man who claimed to love her, and has subsequently abandoned any hope of a career in teaching. Now she lives alone, interacting only with her mother and physiotherapist, leaving the house only when she feels it is unlikely she will meet anyone on the street.

About the only thing that still engages Alison’s interest is her collection of old photograph albums, but her latest find, located in an antique shop that was open at an ungodly hour, is rather unusual. It has an inscription, only one line of which Alison can read – “A paper tiger to swallow you whole”. The pages are stuck together and Alison can’t separate them, no matter how hard she tries. The only photograph available to her is the first in the album, that of a rather impressive looking man she decides to name George. As she falls under the spell of the album, imagining a life for George, more pages are revealed, and Alison has the sensation that she is able to push her hand through the surface of the album, through into the world that it portrays in sepia tones. Research reveals that the house depicted in the pages of the album is Pennington House, built in the 1800s and burnt to the ground in an unexplained fire in 1992, and yes, the man of the house was called George. Now Alison finds herself drawn fully into Pennington House, like Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole. She is able to exist alongside George and his extended family, be part of their soirees, and in this world she is not scarred, not disfigured. Some of the “healing” carries back over into the real world, making the temptation to return to Pennington House all the stronger, even though Alison senses that George is not entirely what he seems and the house represents terrible danger for her. That danger is much greater than she suspects and ultimately will require a horrific sacrifice from this young woman who has already lost so much.

Okay, at heart this is a haunted house story, one of the oldest of genre tropes, and as far as that goes Walters hits it out of the ball park. The way in which Alison digs into the past of the building, the steps by which she discovers the grim history of Pennington House, none of which require any great of stretch on the part of the reader to confer credibility, are a master class in how to set up such scenarios. Similarly the things which Alison witnesses within the walls of Pennington House, the morbid and minatory atmosphere of the place, the slightly off kilter tone of the social gatherings, the fear of the children who hide in its secret places, all combine magnificently to create a compelling and believable atmosphere, a setting every bit as credible as Hill House or The Overlook Hotel. Ultimately it is the understated nature of what Alison experiences that works so well. There are no jump moments as such, no torrents of blood or white sheeted figures clanking chains. Instead all we have are odd smells, voices heard at a distance, things seen out of the corner of the eye or not all, a gradually mounting series of suggestions, none of them conclusive in themselves, but which powerfully and effectively combine to convey that there is something horribly wrong with this building.

One of the most striking aspects of this setup is the family gathered round George, the way in which at first they present an idyllic façade to the world, a setting in which Alison might feel at home, that she belongs, safe from the judgements of her own reality. But then as we, along with Alison, peer closer the cracks become apparent, the ways in which each of them is one of the weak and the wounded. George himself is a kind of psychic vampire, feeding on the pain and suffering of others, and in the figure of Alison he sees a veritable buffet to be consumed. Walters has another neat trick up her sleeve with the way in which she uses the photograph album as gateway drug to this other world. Alison doesn’t walk into the light; she falls forward into the Kodachrome. And, in parenthesis, the implication seems to be that photographs are in some manner interlinked with ghosts given the way in which they capture moments of the past, are snapshots of frozen time, often of things and people that have passed on. Anyone looking at an ancient photo album can say with conviction, “I see dead people”.

While it works splendidly as a haunted house story, what makes Paper Tigers even more special is Walters’ depiction of Alison and her Monstergirl persona. Although the back cover text gives a lot away, within the context of the narrative we only gradually discover how much she has lost to the fire. The physical disfigurement is out there from the start, and slowly we learn of her unborn child and the way in which her lover abandoned her after the blaze and its consequences. It seems churlish to say so, but although she deserves our sympathy in some ways Alison is not always a sympathetic character, which is entirely understandable given what has happened to her. Alison imagines herself as a victim, as somebody who will be laughed at and shunned by other people, and her actions are often dictated by that expectation, even though it is justified far less than she believes. The more acceptable template would be to make her a heroic figure, bravely soldiering on and fighting against the odds, not a Monstergirl but a poster girl for survivors of tragedy. Walters has the wisdom to avoid that easy option, and instead give us a real person, a woman who is all too human, warts and all, who can both cope with her problems and at times plunge into the pit of despair. Alison’s inner demons are given voice as what she calls the Muses of Disfigurement, with the emotions that dominate her life summed up as Yellow, Red, and Purple. And yet for all her suffering and surrender, Alison ultimately proves capable not just of redemption but of heroism, of sacrificing herself to save others, confronting the thing that she fears the most.

The ending to the book is so unexpected and harrowing that it nearly breaks your heart. But while it might not be the ending we were all hoping for, the bleak and uncomforting resolution that Walters gives us is the right ending, and kudos to her for having the courage to write that ending instead of something more palatable for the reader. This is a superb haunted house story, and at the same time it is so much more than that, has so much more to offer in showing us how people cope with their problems, the ways in which they rise above the obstacles that confront them. I loved Paper Tigers, and I am eager to see what this promising young writer can come up with next.

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Trailer Trash – Personal Shopper & Get Out

Two trailers today, as both are released on the 17th and I can’t choose between them – obviously Get Out is going to be more worthy, but nobody is making any noise about Personal Shopper which looks intriguing.

Beauty and the Beast I’m going to ignore.

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Diesel Powered

I’m not sure if it’s the deep voice and that lazy drawl he has, or the bald head, but I quite like Vin Diesel, and have recently popcorn munched my way through a few of his films.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

This film was the launch pad for one of Hollywood’s most popular franchises. Vin plays LA street racer Dominic Torreto, who the police suspect of being behind a gang in high performance cars who pillage trucks carrying tech goods and other stuff of value. Paul Walker as undercover cop O’Conner is sent to infiltrate the street racing scene and win Dominic’s trust. Unfortunately he does rather too good a job of this, becoming involved in races and fights with rival gangs, and falling in love with Dominic’s sister. When push comes to shove he wonders if he will be able to betray the man he has come to like and respect. This is all very simple, by the numbers fare, with larger than life characters and a ‘the car is the star’ mentality. We are introduced to Dominic as a violent and ruthless thug, but naturally there is a lot more to him than that – he is loyal to his friends, has a code of honour, is brave and good at what he does, and besides, the guys he robs have plenty to spare. O’Conner’s attraction to him and the budding bromance that follows makes perfect sense, though you also know that it is all fated to end in tears. The trick is in seeing who drives away from this and how it’s made to happen (you never doubt that it will happen – the subsequent seven or more movies are a big clue). Add to that some high octane car races and hair raising automotive stunts, and it’s all good, fun to watch but nothing that’s going to prove memorable.

xXx (2002)

Vin plays extreme sports star Xander Cage, a rebel who has issues with authority. This makes him just the right man for NSA bigwig Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson in training to play Nick Fury), who subjects Cage to a couple of trials by fire, before recruiting him to infiltrate terror group Anarchy 99. Sent to Prague, Cage wins the confidence of 99’s leader Yorgi, who plans to unleash a biological weapon on the Czech capital. With betrayals, double crosses, and an unlooked for romantic angle to complicate matters, it’s up to Cage to stop Anarchy 99. I remember at the time of its release this film was billed as raising the stakes for James Bond and his ilk. Certainly it’s top heavy with stunts, Cage strutting his stuff in vehicles and on snowboards and just about every other extreme sport variation they could think of, all of which is as preposterous as it is fun, with plenty of gob smacking moments. What differentiates the movie from its peers though, is Cage’s surly manner, an attitude that can be summarised as ‘like it or lump it, I got no time for your shit’. A suave agent from the Bond mould, this guy ain’t. He has the skills to justify the bad attitude though, and once you get past the initial marking territory piss, it turns out that Cage is a lot more likable than he might appear at first blush. In fact virtue wise he could almost be a clone of Dominic Torreto, which is probably why they recruited Vin to play the guy. It’s all a little bit silly and absurd, a Boy’s Own adventure for guys who never grew up, but as that’s most of us it worked rather well. I was entertained, and that was all the movie promised, so we’re good.

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

Vin plays Kaulder, an immortal witch hunter working for an agency called the Axe and Cross which maintains a truce between witches and humankind; Kaulder’s role is to execute witches who cross the line. But the latest witch menace is proving more than a match for Kaulder, having placed his ‘handler’ in a coma, and now he plans to revive Kaulder’s greatest enemy, the Witch Queen who killed his family and to whom his immortality is linked. Can Kaulder prevent her unleashing a plague that will destroy mankind? There’s not a lot to be said about this. The film has some interesting ideas, such as the Axe and Cross and the immortality twist, but none of the characters seem anything more than ciphers, with underwhelming villains who seem to lack anything in the way of motivation beyond ‘I am evil’ and heroes who seem to be doing nothing more than going through the motions (even Vin’s heart isn’t in it, with the feel that he’s just giving a performance rather than actually living the role), while most of the action consists of light shows and sfx. Overall I just found it dull, though not to the point that I would never watch it again. I’ll need time to forget the first watch though, but sadly I don’t think that will take very long (it’s fading already).

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (2017)

When a device is stolen that can cause satellites to crash to the ground, in effect turning them into weapons, and the first victim is his old handler Gibbons, Xander Cage comes out of hiding and enlists with the NSA to help find those responsible. Nothing is quite what it seems though, as Cage and the guys he has recruited to his team clash with another team of former xXx agents, and over and above that there is treachery in high places. With names like Talon and Hawk, and the special abilities the xXx agents have, I think a case could be made for regarding this as a super hero movie, an impression reinforced by the presence of Gibbons using a Fury subplot from one of the Captain America films. Stripped to basics it all has a familiar feel to it, with the good guys becoming the bad guys, and the real good guys given outlaw status and forced to operate outside the law. And yet the end result is something that feels fresh, making it the best of these Vin Diesel movies thanks to the wholly irreverent approach taken with the material. There’s a pounding rock soundtrack, while the characters are larger than life, with gripping dialogue and memorable character traits. Vin is as feisty and acerbic as before in his Cage role, and the other members of the cast, none of them name players apart from Jackson, Toni Collette as an NSA power broker, and Ice Cube reprising his role as Darius Stone from the previous xXx film (which I haven’t seen, but now want to) give sterling support. It’s all fast paced and action packed, with lots of explosions and firefights and wirework, an almost music video sensibility underlying much of what’s up there on the screen (a vibe conveyed perfectly by the trailer), and even if intellectually I know that it’s all a load of bull crap, on a visceral level I found it thoroughly enjoyable and most definitely want to see it again when the DVD finally arrives in Poundland, at which I’ll probably wonder what the hell I saw in it all, but that’s a story for another day.

Anyone else have a favourite Vin Diesel film?

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Filler content with Hippocampus – Part 3

Following on from last Thursday’s post, here is the third and final part of a feature on Hippocampus Press that originally appeared in Black Static #54:-

HIPPOCAMPUS PRESS (continued)

Common themes run through the twelve tales in Cody Goodfellow’s RAPTURES OF THE DEEP AND OTHER LOVECRAFTIAN TALES (Hippocampus Press pb, 303pp, $20) – the camaraderie of military men and women, the concept of sacrifice for some greater good, the idea of hidden knowledge. Along with Hughes, Goodfellow has the most distinctive prose style of these writers, and a penchant for violent, vivid imagery. In his introduction Goodfellow talks of his debt with regard to H. P. Lovecraft, and goes on to state his aim “to stare wide-eyed into the forbidden and find terrible beauty”. But while HPL is obviously the presiding spirit of this enterprise, Goodfellow is indisputably his own man. He has the talent, vision, and ambition to take things to the next level.

Opening story ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ reminded me very much of Nathan Ballingrud’s story ‘Skullpocket’, which is a very fine thing indeed, but here infused with the sensibility of HPL’s ‘Herbert West Reanimator’. Medical students venture into a graveyard in search of a cadaver to practice their art on, but one of them is looking for a different kind of knowledge, a quest that takes them down into the realm of the ghouls. Goodfellow writes with wit and sensitivity, capturing both the horror of the situation, the idea that what is proposed is essentially wrong no matter how noble the intention, but at the same time he opens our eyes to the wonders of the ghoul realm, the magnificence of the civilisation they have built for themselves. He adds a cosmic dimension to these most squalid of monsters. A Nazi U-Boat in peril surrenders to the battleship ‘Konig Feurio’, whose crew claim to have been at sea since 1916, but the Nazis soon realise not all is well aboard the vessel, which has been taken over by the monstrous Lorelei. Goodfellow excels in bringing his characters to life, the Nazis with their competing agendas and the others, both human and aquatic who have a mission of their own, conveying a sense of wonder even when dealing with the cramped confines of these seagoing vessels, and in the tale’s codicil he deftly ties everything into HPL’s mythos and world history.

Gangsters double cross each other in ‘To Skin a Corpse’, a story that takes on board necromancy, cannibalism, and alchemy, with enough zest and invention to carry it through all these absurdities and more, and some dialogue that reads like parody but at the same time makes you want to laugh out loud. ‘In the Shadow of Swords’ features a UN team searching for the fabled WOMD in Iraq and stumbling across something far, far worse, the story building gradually, deftly tying in to our paranoia with regard to security operatives, showing move and counter move, and then pushing the whole thing up to a new level with the revelation of what is really going on and the international community’s complicity.

‘Garden of the Gods’ sees an American soldier in Peru become embroiled in a three way fight between an Old One, a shoggoth, and a man from the future, at the same time having to deal with the treachery of his superiors. The story opens with the tragic and disturbing deaths of the other parachutists in Purcell’s unit and continues gradually cranking up the odds until we have the final revelation of what is taking place, the whole undercut with the possibly vain hope that man will always find a way through, no matter how perilous the situation might become. In ‘Grinding Rock’ we confront the concept of sacrificing to the land to avert a bigger disaster, in this case an earthquake that will destroy California. For Vowles the big question is if he is prepared to shed innocent blood to stop the next quake that comes along, his dilemma dramatized in a story that asks hard questions of us all, addressing themes of the greater good. The true horror lies not in what is done, but in contemplation of what may be required from the protagonist in future.

Remote viewers discover the Old Ones on the floor of the ocean in title story ‘Rapture of the Deep’ and there is the danger that, having been detected by these creatures, mankind will become a pawn in their plans. It is a gripping story, one that pulses with energy and repressed violence, and at its core the idea of how unimportant mankind truly is from a cosmic perspective. ‘Inside Uncle Sid’ is the tale of a hoarder, who fills his house with rubbish and itinerant wanderers, the story assuming a much darker hue as Sid’s transformation begins. Told from the perspective of niece Dana, the story has a quintessential strangeness and feeling of disquiet, as she tries to make sense of what her beloved relative is doing with his life.

We’re back in Iraq for ‘Archons’, the tale of a private security organisation that is a front for a secret cult tracing its lineage back to the Templars, and dealing with an inhuman race of snake creatures. Again, it’s a fascinating and multi-layered narrative, filled with images of violence and asking questions about what it means to be human, what we are prepared to sacrifice in exchange for something more. And the fact that the protagonist isn’t especially likeable when we first get to know him, only adds emotional resonance to what happens eventually. ‘Broken Sleep’ is, to my mind, the weakest of what’s on offer, the story of Tre who is the subject of an experiment to exploit lucid dreaming, but the series of visions that he undergoes were a little too hallucinatory and confusing for me to get a grip on what was really going on, the story fizzling out eventually.

In ‘Cahokia’ a group of space marines disturb an alien force, and in doing so they bring into question the history of mankind and our relationship with the natural world. Goodfellow makes it credible with a wealth of incidental detail and army speak, and gives us intriguing and empathic characters, all of which is just window dressing for his greater concerns, the question of what humanity is doing to itself, what we have lost in turning our back on nature and embracing technology. Think of the story, if you must, as a tip of the hat to Von Daniken and Gaian ideology. The final story is the one that plays out on the most cosmic scale, taking us through vast oceans of space and time. ‘Swinging’ is the name for the ability to pass from one body to another, taught to the story’s protagonist by Lorna, a woman he meets in a mental hospital. They share the ability with others, found a church that transforms into a doomsday cult, and all the while the big plan is to emulate the Great Race of Yith and save mankind from extinction by swinging through time into other bodies, future inhabitants of our world. The ideas are fascinating, incorporating into the text so many of our present day fads and fancies, while the alien nature of the story’s final scenes, the sense of endless repetition and hopelessness, are brought to compelling life on the page. And yet underlying all this is a very human story, a love story of sorts, even if it plays out on a greater scale than any before it. It is the story that most closely resembles the work of HPL at his most ambitious, the blue sky thinking of stories like ‘The Shadow Out of Time’, but written with a modern sensibility and modern concerns – Goodfellow’s characters do not fear the outsiders, but wish to emulate them. It’s a splendid end to a splendid collection.

Finally we have John Shirley’s LOVECRAFT ALIVE! (Hippocampus Press pb, 253pp, $20) which, as the title would suggest and the subtitle confirms, is ‘A Collection of Lovecraftian Stories’. After a preface in which Shirley explains his feelings about Lovecraft and gives details of some of the stories’ origins and influences, we get into things proper with ‘When Death Wakes Me to Myself’. Psychiatrist Fyodor Cheski acquires a young patient with memory problems and a penchant for breaking into his house, but as the story progresses along with the good doctor we come to realise that Roman C. Boxer has been possessed by the spirit of HPL. This is one of those type of stories where the reader is more clued in than the character, but that doesn’t spoil the fun as we learn details of Lovecraft’s past as filtered through the sensibilities of Boxer, plus the touches of minatory detail by which Cheski becomes aware of the threat to him personally, before the delightful final reversal of fortune, which comes with a subtext concerning the need to act on one’s feelings before it is too late.

The protagonist of ‘Those Who Come to Dagon’ is stranded at sea and taken aboard a vessel whose crew have fallen under the spell of an African cultist, but though the others are sacrificed to Dagon for Caleb Ward there is the chance of transformation and immortality, but at what cost to his soul. Shirley writes well of the sea, and while what happens to Ward is undoubtedly monstrous there is no denying that the white men bring this on themselves through the practice of slavery and worse. Dagon offers the chance of freedom to those who will worship him, and such is the alternative that for slaves the metamorphosis is appealing. Written in the form of a letter to Thomas De Quincey by the poet Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Cosmic Mariner’ chronicles that worthy’s encounter with the numinous, courtesy of an Arab sorcerer and his strange optical instruments that offer a different view of reality. Beautifully written and with a wealth of incidental detail, it is a strange and minatory tale, one that captures much of the feel of Coleridge’s poetry, the sense of wonder mingling with menace. ‘The Witness in Darkness’ tells the story of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ from the viewpoint of one of the alien race who were vivisected by their human discoverers, and ends with a grim warning to leave their city alone for fear of the shoggoths. It’s an intriguing piece, one that succeeds in casting the monstrous in entirely different terms to those we expect, and all the more powerful for this unique approach.

Sid Drexel is on the pull in ‘How Deep the Taste of Love’ and can’t believe his good fortune when the gorgeous Sindra seems to offer the fulfilment of all his wildest dreams, but of course she isn’t quite what she seems to be in this erotically charged and ultimately repellent story. Erotic horror usually strikes me as a contradiction in terms, but here Shirley manages to pull it off magnificently (pun intended), with echoes of Philip Jose Farmer’s Image of the Beast in the text. After the death/suspected murder of her mother, Deede and her family move to LA and the high tech Skytown complex where they end up ‘Buried in the Sky’. Not everything is kosher in the building, with something very nasty lurking in a cavern beneath the structure’s foundations. This story reads rather like Ballard’s High Rise meets HPL, with hints gradually mounting until we, along with the characters, cannot deny the terrible truth that is staring us in the face, though for all of that there is a sense of wonder too, as we realise that the monster exists in a nexus between many worlds, and that element of the plot elevates it above the merely horrific, though I’ll admit that I did find the precocious kids slightly annoying at moments, albeit good to see Deede get revenge for her mother’s death at the end.

With climate change accelerated and global flooding a fact of life, the denizens of Innsmouth and their descendants come into their own in ‘Windows Underwater’, and one outcast finds a place where he belongs. Again, as with several of these stories, the monstrous is anything but repellent, with human beings adapting and finding their lives enriched as a result. In ‘At Home with Azathoth’ a computer hacker seeking revenge for the suicide of his gay brother, uses an internet portal to lure the bully he holds responsible into a deadly trap, but underlying the surface text is a message about the need for catharsis and to let go of the guilt and grudges of the past. Set in the near future, humanity faces extinction at the hands of the Elder Race and our only hope is ‘The Holy Grace of Cthulhu’. It has about it the feel of filler, but the episodes of combat are well realised on the page and the end twist, with Cthulhu’s insatiable need for sacrifice, should bring a shudder to most readers.

Finally we have ‘Broken on the Wheel of Time’, the one original piece of fiction and a story based in part on HPL’s ‘The Shadow Out of Time’. In 1878 naturalist Glyneth Berling is married to the sombre and misogynistic Benjamin, who has forged an alliance with a Yithian faction and travels through time to further their plans to take control of the US. While Ben resides in the present day body of a Thomas Peaslee, he takes over Ben’s body in 1878 and joins forces with Glyneth in an attempt to foil Ben’s plans, the two falling in love along the way. It’s an interesting story, and never less than readable, though I would argue that by giving them such a lowly objective the Yithians are diminished. What isn’t reduced is the splendour of the cosmic backdrop, with the characters adrift on the winds of time and experiencing almost hallucinogenic chronological trips, and also the way in which minds from different centuries can so readily find common ground and cause. The story offers a compelling and thoroughly entertaining end to a strong collection, one that is never less than entertaining and thought provoking even if it fails to break any new ground.

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2017 – Graphic Miscellany #1

If all goes according to plan for the next few weeks Sunday is graphic miscellany day, as we catch up on the graphic novels and other illustrated stuff that I’ve been reading recently.

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Dancing Men

Written by Murray Shaw & M. J. Cosson, illustrated by Sophie Rohrbach

Well actually, as any adequately educated person will tell you, it’s written by Arthur Conan Doyle; those people listed above simply adapted the story to the graphic medium. I’d recently been watching some episodes of the Jeremy Brett TV series, and was so excited at discovering Sherlock Holmes material in the graphic section of the library that I immediately checked it out without noticing that it was aimed at a young audience, part of an ongoing series aimed at getting children into Holmes, with various clues that help them to solve the puzzle before he does. I’ve no idea if it works, but as somebody who is definitely not part of the target audience I found it all rather unappealing, with the stories watered down and artwork that is more caricature than cartoon; in particular the expressions on Holmes’ face, mostly of surprise, don’t at all conform to the idea of the character I have in my head. Fifteen minutes of my life that I won’t get back again.

Dark Reign – The Hood

Written by Jeff Parker, illustrated by Kyle Hotz

This volume collects together the first five issues of the titular comic, with a bit of bonus material to tell the story of crime lord Parker Robbins, The Hood (encountered previously in Daredevil – Ultimate Collection, though in that context he was a lot more down to earth). He wheels and deals, organising an army of super powered henchmen to rule the streets of New York., along the way dealing with superhero attackers and treachery in his own ranks. The Hood owes his power to a cloak that channels the might of the Dread Dormammu, but while it makes him pretty much invincible the cloak also threatens to eclipse his personality and turn him into a pawn of Dormammu, so that is something else he has to fight against. As with assorted heroes from the Marvel stable, the Hood’s biggest problems arise courtesy of his private life, with complications caused by a pregnant girlfriend, an institutionalised mother, and an addict cousin on the staff of his criminal empire. If it’s hard to be a saint in the city, then the role of sinner isn’t an easy ride either. It’s a gripping story full of swings and roundabouts, and compellingly illustrated, albeit I thought on occasion Hotz made people look rather pinched, with hour glass figures, attenuated heads and limbs that seemed to owe more to Lovecraftian geometry than artistic perspective. Exciting as the superhero/villain shenanigans all was, the real appeal of the story lay in the human/non-super side of things, with the writer showing us that even criminal masterminds have their family problems. Stealing isn’t an issue for Parker Robbins, but getting his girlfriend to share the spoils without letting her know how they were obtained is a definite downer. Stuff like this made for a much more interesting story, one with a human dimension.

Justice Society of America – Black Adam and Isis

Written by Geoff Johns & Jerry Ordway, illustrated by Dale Eaglesham & Bob Wiacek

Actually, Ordway did some of the artwork too. Back in the day, my very favourite issues of the Justice League of America comic were the annual crossovers with the Justice Society (DC’s Golden Age heroes, conveniently relocated to a parallel Earth the name of which eludes me at the moment). The main story here is concerned with the super powered Black Adam and his resurrected beloved Isis, who has come back from the dead changed and leads her lover down the paths of evil, all of which has something to do with machinations within the Shazam family, near as I could make out. There are other tales that take on the politics of the League itself, with divisions and new recruits, the old guard giving way to the next generation of heroes. It’s splendid stuff, even if I did find the Adam and Isis plotline all a bit confusing thanks to a plethora of plot twists (who is doing what to whom and why – that kind of confusing). The real appeal for me lies in the nature of the JSA heroes, their unique identities and powers that make them a lot more intriguing and engaging than their more familiar JLA counterparts. Who can resist the allure of heroes like Dr. Midnight, Wildcat, and the Spectre, to name just three in an awesome ensemble cast. These guys seem a lot darker than the bright stars of the JLA, more attuned to the shadows, and that makes them my kind of guys and gals. The artwork, full bodied and vibrant, brings such qualities to life on the page, making this book a visual treat (something not conveyed by the lacklustre cover illustration). I loved it, for the look rather more than the story I guess.

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Song for a Saturday – Oh Well

From the Peter Green glory days.

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Horror High – Class of 2016

Some of the horror films from last year that I finally got round to watching:-

Lights Out (2016)

Rebecca returns to the family home to rescue her young brother Martin from the clutches of mother Sophie, who has all sorts of alcohol and mental health issues. The authorities insist that the boy must stay with his mother though, which is when the trouble really starts, because attached to Sophie is a malevolent entity, the spirit of Diana, a woman with photosensitive skin who befriended Sophie when they were in an institution together. And Diana is hostile to anyone who is likely to come between her and Sophie, which puts Rebecca and Martin’s lives in deadly danger. The twist is that Diana can only come out when the lights are off. There are some interesting characters here, with the actors all doing credit to their roles. And in the ‘lights out’ gimmick and the figure of Diana, a long nailed maenad who will tear you to shreds, there is a borderline original monster, one who can carry the weight of horror fans’ expectations. All in all this is an assured little film, one that knows what it is doing and does it well, bringing enough new material to the table to satisfy the most jaded appetite, but at the same time it is not a striking film, not one that you are going to remember or seek out the DVD so that you can watch it again whenever you wish. It was fun and I had a good time with it, and I’ll probably catch the sequel which is in the works, the first one having done fine box office, but it won’t appear on any ‘Best Of’ lists, even if I was the sort of person to compile ‘Best Of’ lists (actually I am, but it’s a secret vice).

The Witch (2016)

Now here is something rather remarkable. Filmed in muted colours, and set in the America of the Puritans, it tells of a family who go off into the woods to live on their own terms, after a religious falling out with the settlement where they were previously. But there is a witch in the woods (or is there?). Eking out a subsistence level living, the condition of the family deteriorates further after the baby Samuel is abducted by the witch. Both their faith and their trust in each other is severely tested, with the apportioning of blame and a growing feeling of helplessness, that the Lord has deserted them, though patriarch William is too stubborn to return to the Puritan settlement, despite the worsening mental health of his wife. Further complicating matters are accusations of witchcraft, flung at each other by the children in the family, accusations that the adults treat with a deadly seriousness. The stage is set for the hallucinatory final chapter. Except we don’t know if anything is hallucinatory or if what takes place is real, and that ambiguity is part of the strength of director and writer Robert Eggers’ film. Billed as a ‘New-England folktale’, the film incorporates into the script the text of actual testimonies from witchcraft trials and related documents, adding a feel of authenticity, and soliciting our ability to believe in a world where the numinous is never far away, where the supernatural and threat of damnation was very real for its denizens. Alongside this is a story about family relationships, about the toll of superstition, and how isolation can undermine the human psyche. The muted palette that Eggers uses, with dull browns and greens dominating, adds further to the bleakness and feelings of hopelessness that the landscape inspires. It is a location to crush the soul. You can see both why these people might fear witches, and why pledging allegiance to the Devil might eventually be something that would appeal. The cast are all excellent, especially Anya Taylor-Joy as young Thomasina, the one who bears the brunt of temptation and is almost driven into witchcraft by the actions of her family. The real star of the show though has to be the goat Black Philip, possibly the most sinister animal to ever appear on the screen. This is a film that I will be watching again, the first horror film I’ve seen in recent years that might actually be in contention for classic status. And yes, I know it was made in 2015, but it didn’t get a general release in the UK until 2016 and that is what we’re going on.

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Another case from the files of paranormal investigators and exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren, with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprising their roles from the first film. This time around the couple travel to London, against the better judgement of Lorraine who has had a vision of Ed being killed, to the Hodgson house in Enfield, where a mother and her children are being terrorised by the malevolent spirit of an old man. The Warrens have been asked to consider the veracity of what is taking place, and there is evidence that one of the Hodgson children is responsible for the phenomena taking place, but in fact something far more sinister and deadly is hiding in the woodwork. Director James Wan knows his stuff and, if it lacks some of the freshness and effective chills of the first movie, this has an intriguing story, with solid performances from all the cast and plenty of the jump moments that are Wan’s main scare tactic. Ed and Lorraine seem a little too lovey dovey and holier than thou for my liking, but I can see how these characteristics are right for the people they are meant to be. Based on the story of the Enfield poltergeist from 1977 (it was in all the papers, mostly as an expose as far as I can recall) this is a crowd pleaser of a horror movie, one that has no ambitions other than to entertain and raise a few doubts in our minds as to the reality of the supernatural. As far as that goes it works tolerably well, but with little in the way of emotional engagement for the viewer, who never has the feeling that this was anything more than a movie, with the characters almost symbols or the embodiment of certain attitudes (faith, innocence, etc.). The best way I can categorise it, is as the poor man’s Poltergeist. I enjoyed it, but won’t be in a hurry to watch it again.

The Boy (2016)

Arriving to work as a nanny for the Heelshires, staying in their isolated house and caring for eight year old Brahms while the elderly couple go off on a trip, American Greta gets a big surprise – Brahms is a porcelain doll. Left to her own devices, Greta decides to chill out, ignoring the list of activities the Heelshires have left for her to follow, such as dressing and feeding Brahms, putting him to bed and playing music for him. Before long the doll starts to act out, vanishing and reappearing, locking her in the attic; Greta becomes convinced that the doll is possessed by the spirit of the original Brahms, who died in a fire twenty five years previously (she has delivery man Malcolm to thank for this information). With the arrival of abusive ex-boyfriend Cole the horrific truth is revealed in a fight to the finish finale. I really rather liked this film. There’s a lovely sense of atmosphere building, as Greta (a wide-eyed Lauren Cohan) comes to terms with her unique and slightly disturbing situation, gradually realising that it is even weirder than she suspected. The ever smiling Brahms, the perfect model of a little gentleman, is sinister in a way that his more successful ‘sister’ Annabelle could only hope for. But all of this is only misdirection, with the shock revelations of the third act turning everything that has gone before on its head. I can’t say more, for fear of plot spoilers, but this was a very different kind of horror film from the type it initially presented itself as, and the twist elevated the movie out of the average, by the numbers spectral jaunt into something a little bit special. Not a classic, but rewarding and, mostly, original. I liked it a lot.

Blair Witch (2016)

A sequel that ignores the events of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, instead serving up what almost amounts to a remake with a bigger budget of the original film. Some Burkittsville locals discover another tape in the woods which is the stimulus for James and his three besties to go off in search of sister Heather who disappeared in those same woods nearly twenty years ago, begging the question of how old would James have been at the time. The two locals invite themselves along, and before you can say Blair Witch three times they are all lost and blaming each other, with sylvan artwork appearing overnight. Things swiftly escalate with perpetual night, crashing sounds off in the woods, and everybody running in circles, before those who have survived this far find the ruined house in the woods, which is when the shit really hits the fan. For a moment there, with all that crashing sound and trees falling, I thought they were going to give us a Wendigo tale, but alas no, they stuck with the tried and tested formula behind the franchise, which was a big mistake in my opinion.I suspect I would have been a lot more impressed with this if the original film didn’t exist, but as it doesn’t do much more than replay the whole thing, with bigger effects, as with the end game in the house, and a bigger budget (these guys have a drone along for the ride). And things seem to go to hell pretty quickly, with little time to build atmosphere and the necessary sense of dread anticipation, while the characters all seem two-dimensional, with nobody who has the presence of Heather Donahue from the first film, and the novelty of shaky cam has worn off. Whatever its faults, Shadows tried to bring something new to the table, but this film is just more of the same. I enjoyed it, but not to the extent that I felt my time couldn’t have been better spent. It was a pass the time sort of movie, something you could never have said about the two previous outings. Perhaps one day they’ll do a crossover with The Witch – now that might be interesting.

So what 2016 releases scared the shit out of the rest of you?

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