Unhappy with Pop Culture? Make Your Own | Ghost in the Shell & Fanboy Pandering

GHOST IN THE SHELL

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

This essay contains spoilers for Ghost in the Shell (2017). For my spoiler-free review of the film, click here

One thing that struck me in the aftermath of the live action version of Ghost in the Shell — controversially starring Scarlett Johnasson, formulaically directed by Rupert Sanders though undeniably beautiful to look at — is just how dearly some people cling onto their beloved pop culture properties, especially when a Hollywood adaptation comes around as does its thing with them, as it is wont to do.

Of course, this isn’t at all something new.

Neither is it something that I don’t myself recognise.

I’ve been guilty of it in the past, and I understand the strange cocktail that washes over a fanboy’s consciousness when these stories they’ve committed to, these stories that have carved an intimate wedge in our hearts and minds, are suddenly plucked out of their designated cubbyholes and thrust up on the big screen for all to see.

You feel as if your ownership of them is no longer a certain thing. In other words, you feel stripped of a privilege that was previously unassailable.

You feel like you should be the one telling people what this thing is really like, what it should really look and feel like, and how whatever adaptation has appeared on the scene is cheating people out of the ‘authentic’ experience of the original artifact in question.

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johansson and Pilou Asbaek in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

But in the recent past, this was no longer all that much of a ‘thing’. Canny studios have realised that pissing off fanboys robs them of a crucial revenue stream, and so fidelity became the new thing.

Ironically, Robert Rodríguez’s Sin City could arguably be the finest example of a direct and entirely faithful comic-to-film adaptation, but the system in which it was made could be broadly described as ‘pulp arthouse’.

But with the likes of Marvel simply up and deciding to set up their own filmmaking arm, fanboys could finally breathe a sigh of relief and revel in the knowledge that their beloved properties will be projected onto the world stage more or less unchanged.

They were finally able to tell their peers, “Look, that is the thing I’ve been obsessing over for so long. Isn’t great?”, instead of mumbling some irritate thing about how this is all horrible and skewed and why are you enjoying it?

So in a way, Sanders’ take on Ghost in the Shell felt like a refreshing jolt of nostalgia for a time when nerd butthurt was an automatic reaction to whatever adaptation of a beloved property came out in Hollywood at any given time.

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

The insides of a cybernetic geisha head in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

It was all salted by a juicily political polemic too — the whitewashing accusations that are awkward because, you know, she’s a robot but then they’re also justified cos, you know, Hollywood so White — so that it suddenly felt like we were on contested terrain once again: this wasn’t just a motion comic/live action cartoon for fanboys to lap up, it was an adaptation through-and-through, and thus open to criticism from all sides.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attemps to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal

In a cinematic landscape so aggressively framed by well-oiled franchises holding fanboys close to their hearts, even something otherwise equally a part of the blockbuster machine like Ghost in the Shell begins to feel like something of an outlier.

And ironically enough, its attempts to have the cake an eat it too — even if we assume the most cynical interpretation to be correct, that all of this would be in aid of raking in as large and diverse an audience as possible — only bolster its status as something of a more vibrant collage than its ultimately more successful counterparts.

Whereas a studio like Marvel has a militarily imposed editorial line it cleaves to, because it’s guaranteed success so far, Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell attempted to play with other tools to ensure both fidelity to the source material and a wide-enough audience appeal.

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Juliette Binoche in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

As if to compensate for casting Johnasson in the lead role, the rest of the cast is actually a pretty diverse international mix. ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano is wonderful as the mentor figure Daisuke Aramaki — and gets to speak Japanese throughout — while Johnasson’s closest friend and ally Batou is played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, with the rest of the main cast rounded off by Juliette Binoche (France) and Peter Ferdinando (UK).

Also, the script allows for a notable mirror-image diversion from the standard Campbellian trope that most high-concept blockbusters of Ghost in the Shell’s ilk operate under.

Effectively, [Ghost in the Shell 2017] flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole

In this East-meets-West collage, it’s somewhat expected for Sanders and co. to take a more ‘American’ tack to the philosophy that underlies the entire Ghost in the Shell enterprise, and go to great lengths to humanise Johnasson’s Motoko in an attempt to give the audience a fully-rounded emotional arc for the character; as contrasted with the more nuanced approach to the cybernetic subject that we might find in the Japanese source material.

So, as things turn out, Johansson’s Major/Motoko discovers her human roots and sets out to reclaim them fully; rediscovering ‘her’ biological mother and embracing that her memories as genuine — which were previously suppressed by the Corporation that kept her as an agent in their employ.

Effectively, this flips Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero questing from an Ordinary World to a Special World to then take a boon back with them and help society as a whole.

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Instead, Motoko’s trajectory is more akin to a journey FROM the Special World (as a cybernetically enhanced agent operating in a highly rarefied dystopian-cyberpunk universe) BACK TO the Ordinary World (when she discovers what really happened to her ‘organic’ self and rushes back to the warm embrace of what’s left of her human family).

As the film’s coda reveals however, this about-face does not mean Motoko will quit being an agent. What the ending suggests — apart from a lead-in to a sequel that is unlikely to happen given the film’s dismal box office showing — is that Motoko will continue to ply her skills with, presumably, a renewed peace of mind and a wider understanding of the world around her.

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Scarlett Johnasson and Anamaria Marinca in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

She is no longer a cog in the Corporation’s machine, so the Hero’s Boon she in fact brings back — and which she’s aided in giving full bloom to by Daisuke — is the ability to do her job freed from the agendas of the agency — to actually do her work for the ‘greater good’ instead of doing dangerous work in service of the Corporation’s bottom line.

Certainly, this is a small enough innovation on the concept. It’s a modest and tacked-on twist that ultimately, didn’t pay off enough at the box office, for whatever reason.

But it does point towards a realm of possibility that opens up once you give slavish fidelity the boot.

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Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), dir. Rupert Sanders

Pop culture artifacts like superheroes and even properties like Ghost in the Shell enjoy a mythic status in our consciousness which sometimes even spans generations.

The laws of intellectual property of course bars us with tinkering with them liberally — though the very nature of the internet runs counter to this idea, but that’s a discussion for another time — but licensed adaptations should at least be allowed a take on them that brings in something fresh.

We could make the mechanical vs organic metaphor here once again: with Marvel Studios and the like producing functional and successful but ultimately uniform fare while those filmmakers allowed to do something different are making wonderful work out of the unpredictable organic matter of Story.

But what it also brings to mind is, if you want something done differently, you should just up and do it yourself.

Unlike the dazzling but oppressive cybernetic interface that gives Ghost in the Shell its dystopian kick, the internet provides those willing enough to go the extra mile at least some leeway to producing their own stuff based on the things they love.

And if what you love is genre fiction, there’s plenty to play with there that will not, in fact, get you in copyright-related trouble…  

 

April Update | Censorship, Near Future SF & Campus Book Fest

April got underway to a head-start as I finished up my soujourn at the Kinemastik Film Club by screening the both beloved and reviled cult classic The Fifth Element to what seemed to be a pretty nostalgic and misty-eyed audiences.

The film was certainly a lot of fun, but it also felt a bit patchier than a lot of us remembered; with a jokey mess of a plot and visuals that were — yes — stunning in parts but hardly had enough ‘wow’ set-piece moments to justify the cult status Besson’s space opera still enjoys (as bolstered by both the Moebius inspired settings and Jean Paul-Gaultier costumes).

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Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997), dir. Luc Besson

It was still somewhat heartening to see all that taking place on the big screen at the British Legion in Valletta, as I’m pottering away on my own piece of decidedly ambitious but also — one hopes, as a check on said ambition — silly and satirical slice of sci-fi. But soon after that, I was invited to participate to a project that teased at the more sober qualities of that same genre…

Archived Futures Harvest: Near-future SF writing in Rabat (sort of…)

Last week was in fact a pretty hectic one for this exact reason, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rewarding. While details remain under wraps until the first week of May when the exhibition is set to open, what I can in fact tell you is that my friend Glen Calleja of Studio Solipsis invited me to do some writing for him at his Rabat studio, and that it was a great — if rather exhausting — time.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

The extended exercise took its cue from a workshop organised some months back, and focused on a collective imaginary of the future. The content I was creating channeled paranoia about surveillance and smart technology, and took the form of fabricated (not ‘fake’!) news articles, surveys and the interpretation of surreal prose texts — or are they coded messages by underground movements?

Even apart from the coolness of working in Rabat and Glen’s zen-like demeanour and keen intelligence — and, of course, the project’s own rich potential, which runs on the intriguing paradox of mixing futuristic speculations with the instruments of the archive — gave me ample opportunity to flex some storytelling muscles.

I’ve always been one to work to limits, but being told to write something creatively based on a fabricated news report, or culled from — also fabricated — surveys and coded messages, gave me a special kind of frisson. I will definitely be applying some of these devices to my own writing in the future.

The Archived Futures Harvest exhibition launches on May 5 and runs for two months

Talking in public: Campus Book Fest, ACM Lab

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

As it happens, Glen Calleja was a stall-mate of my dad’s at the Campus Book Festival which ran at the beginning of the month — book-binding is one of his many skills — and it was after he heard me speak at the event that he proposed we collaborate on the Archived Futures project.

The talk — which took place on the bright and sunny morning of April 4 — went reasonably well, I felt. The original idea was to do something about MIBDUL together with Inez, but she happened to be in London for a workshop at the time. So instead of a visually-enhanced guide of how we’re slowly putting the comic together, I decided to speak about how my first novel kicked my ass into submission and taught me that structure is a very important thing indeed — and not, as I had foolishly assumed, the provenance of those who lack verve and imagination.

Some audience interaction proved that I was not alone in these concerns, and it’s always nice to find real-life correlatives to conversations you would normally have online — which lend a disturbing patina of anonymity even to your closest friends.

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and intellectual property lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

More recently, I was asked to participate to the latest edition of the ‘ACM Lab’, which are public talks organised by Arts Council Malta on various issues germane to Maltese culture. This time around it was all about censorship and/or censorship, with lawyer Dr Jeanine Rizzo breaking down the new laws pertaining to freedom of expression, which led to a debate with theatre-maker Adrian Buckle — who bore the brunt of the law as it previously stood — and Mario Azzopardi of the Film Classification board.

The discussion was polite enough, with all of us agreeing that transparency is key in age classification — citing the BBFC as an admirable benchmark — but that when it came to theatrical productions in particular — whose producers are now free to self-classify in Malta — an element of risk always remained.

ACM’s head of strategy Toni Attard asked me whether I think Malta’s artists were ready to take full advantage of the newly relaxed laws, and whether evidence of this can be found on the ground. As ever, I believe that the ‘slow’ approach is necessary to all of this; we should keep our eyes peeled on what’s happening, but also be patient enough to wait until enough evidence has accumulated before making our final analysis.

And in our spare time…

Beyond all that, it appears that science fiction is something of a running thread this month. I’m taking steps towards making a trip to WorldCon 75 at Helsinki possible right now — read: assessing the financial viability of it all — which has motivated me to pick up a couple of Hugo shorlistees.

too like lightning

I’ve started with Ada Palmer’s ambitious and, let’s be frank, pretty fucking dazzling Too Like Lightning, which I can only describe as far-future SF written by a member of the Enlightenment literati from the 18th century. I’m only about a quarter of the way through and I’m not sure I’m quite getting all the nuances of the labyrinthine world that Palmer — a 35-year-old professor of history from the University of Chicago — plunges us into, but I’m also hooked.

Easier on the intellect but no less engaging is The Expanse, which I’ve finally gotten to after stalling for a few months and following a slew of recommendations. It certainly doesn’t disappoint: the world-building (!) is tight, controlled and crisp, the characters are richly but clearly drawn and the political intrigue is on the right side of soap opera.

Sure, Fifth Element it ain’t. But I’m looking forward to burning through the rest of it.

March Update | Space, Cinema Pulp 2017 & Comics Galore!

The tail-end of March has been somewhat hellish for me; with freelance work suddenly clustering together to make sure that I’m sweating my way through my dreams just as a trip to Rome approaches.

Now that I am in Rome and things have calmed down somewhat, I thought I’d put together a digest of the stuff that I’ve been up to, and some stuff I’m looking forward to.

Kinemastik Film Club: Gonzo Space Pulp Takeover in Valletta

buckaroo banzai

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

As of March 15 I’ve had the pleasure of curating the Kinemastik Film Club — Malta’s main source of arthouse cinema, run by the great Slavko Vukanovic and a team of trusty international collaborators — and given both MIBDUL and the upcoming release of Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I thought I’d choose films that fit that particular bill.

barbarella

Barbarella (1968)

Kicking off with Barbarella — which the audience laughed heartily with — and continuing on with Mario Bava’s corny but atmospheric Planet of the Vampires — which the audience laughed heartily at — this Wednesday (March 29) we continue our gonzo journey with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. It’s a film that’s both weird and strangely life-affirming, and I’m sure the reaction of all those present will be a lot more varied than it was for the previous two movies. But I do expect some baffled smiles throughout.

John Wick: Chapter 2, Logan, Kong: Skull Island and The Welcome Return of Pulp Cinema

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

But things have also been good on the mainstream cinema front; and I’ve been happy to review some tentpole releases — for a change — which left me feeling like my time and money wasn’t entirely wasted while watching them, while also somewhat restoring my faith in the idea that Hollywood can actually exist to simply entertain us, and not just be a financial placeholder for studios to make money off stale franchises.

The body-count heavy action sequel and pin-sharp pastiche John Wick: Chapter 2 remains king of that particular crop so far, with an oddly intricate internal mythology lending a full-bodied, Campbellian twist to its ludicrous but fun, and bordering on sheer supernatural fantasy, universe of assassins operating under a strictly — and bureaucratically — imposed moral code.

Ramping up the violence and overall pizzazz that has made the original something of a dark horse among contemporary trash cinema, the sequel is a balletic tour-de-force of hyper-violence that refines its pastiche so perfectly it’s hard to believe a human being, and not a machine, has put it together. And for once, that can stand as high praise.

logan

Logan (2017)

Logan, on the other hand, was made all the better for being more human than its other superhero counterparts. Gone is the upbeat flash of Marvel cinema and the dark gloss and machismo of DC’s attempts at the same — this is a swansong for grizzled hero that leaks blood, sweat and tears in every frame.

It’s still a sort-of ‘Greatest Hits’ collection of some of the finest of dystopian work out there — it’s essentially a superhero flick with filtered through Children of Men and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and No Country for Old Men — but all of this is woven into the proceedings with a strange kind of grace, which is helped along by a couple of great, earnest performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart in particular.

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Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Less human than either but certainly less nihilistic than both, Kong: Skull Island is a low-key triumph of actually-good CGI and devil-may-care pulp storytelling. Set pieces like a gas-mask-clad Tom Hiddleston katana-ing his way through subterranean evil lizards and the titular Grand Ape smashing military helicopters into each other to the tune of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid are not to be sniffed at, and while notably lacking in any character development that convinces, here’s a film that finally lets us have some fun, and saves the potential franchise-building for the post-credits sequence.

COMICS! Enforcers and Vampire Hunters and Once Again, MIBDUL

doctor strange

Doctor Strange: new ongoing series written by Jason Aaron with art by Chris Bachalo

I’ve also had some pulpy fun with comics lately, devouring the Jason Aaron/Chris Bachalo (and others) run on Doctor Strange to the point where I’m fully caught up with the series, and looking forward for the next issue to drop. Which makes my current monthly comics stack look something like: Doctor AphraGreen ValleyThe WildstormInjection (gotta have that Warren Ellis fix) and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

I have a feeling that comics are doing okay as far as a steady drip of quality titles is concerned.

enforcer

Enforcer: Tough Luck #1 — written by Brian Funk with art by Artyom Trakhanov

There have also been a couple of fun first issues I’ve had the pleasure of delving into. The first one is a little bit special, given that I got it as a proud Kickstarter patron. Enforcer: Tough Luck #1 plunges us into a world that’s part film noir, part Lovecraft and part Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, only it’s all far more grizzled and far less forgiving. The art runs the gamut from great to slightly patchy, with a rough cross-hatching style that sometimes feels dynamic and cool but at other times is the wrong side of messy. But writer Brian Funk (yes, really) has created a fun world that I look forward to spending some time in.

anno dracula

On the other hand, I’ve already experienced the world of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels, and enjoyed it so much that picking up Anno Dracula #1 — the new comic book adaptation of the same book series penned by Newman himself, illustrated by Paul McCaffrey and published by Titan Comics — was something on a no-brainer. Newman’s witty and reference-happy trudge through vampire lore is very much in evidence, while McCaffrey’s thick outlines really accentuate the Gothic pastiche feel of the entire endeavour (as if to say: ‘we know we’re propping up the old as the new, and we want to go all out’).

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I was alerted to the fact that the Anno Dracula novels were getting their own comic book adaptation courtesy of Chris Thompson, who was also kind enough to interview Inez and myself during last year’s edition of Malta Comic Con, and who also participated in a discussion on superhero cinema and whether or no it’s ‘ruining’ comics — chaired by Gorg Mallia and which also included my print media counterpart Ramona Depares, and myself — during that same edition of the Con.

If you can get over the annoying phone static that dogs his interview with Inez and myself — and which starts roughly around the 1:04:00 mark — you’ll get to hear us talk about the genesis of MIBDUL and what keeps us going. You’ll also get to hear a Maltese bus actually showing up at its stop. Which is a true rarity, I can assure you.

Meanwhile, April should be off to a fun start as I get to give a talk about my struggles and euphorias with storytelling at the Campus Book Festival — that’s happening on April 4 at 11:00. Hope to see you Malta-based peeps there!

Featured photo: Finding freelance bliss at Rome’s Caffe’ Letterario

By all means, paint yourself into that corner

‘Don’t paint yourself into a corner’ doesn’t make for great writing advice.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, painting oneself into a corner and then struggling to get out of it is often what keeps the piece from sliding into complacency.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it. It also means that to get out of that corner will require you to execute a seemingly impossible feat of mental dexterity.

And don’t lucky escapes feature in countless of our favourite stories from antiquity to now?

Of course, one never aims to paint oneself into a corner. Corners are not fun places to be, generally. After all, they are a staple of stereotypical classroom punishment for a reason.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it

But the work of writing is fluid and conducive to change. And sometimes, that change is a matter of necessity, not choice. But maybe, that change — maddening and plan-shattering as it may be at the start — could turn out to be the spark that you needed to get your story going in the first place.

It could be that the corner was inevitable. That you thought you were heading out into a green valley of plenty but that in reality, you were stuck in a one-bedroom apartment and bumping your head in the corner of the room made you realise the reality of your predicament and now, how will you solve it?

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece. You can believe that inspiration will see you through, but ultimately all flashes of inspiration are just that: flashes. And you can map out your story based on the most rigorously researched schema this side of Joseph Campbell or Robert McKee, but rely too much on the mold and the creases will begin to show.

Some of the scariest and most satisfying moments in my own writing process for MIBDUL came when I realised I’ve locked down some narrative choices early on that will severely limit me later.

But once the initial panic wore off, possibilities cropped up. And the best thing about these new possibilities — which I won’t reveal for spoilery reasons, obviously — is that they did not crop up out of thin air, as new images and ideas rearing for a stillbirth and countless rehashing before being beaten into story-appropriate shape. They were reactions to already-existing plot points and character arcs, and so they came into a world with a shape and texture ready to receive them.

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece

Instead of a domestic corner that you’re ‘painting’ yourself into, perhaps another variant of the metaphor would be more useful.

I prefer to think of it as the corner of a boxing ring. A place to regroup after being beaten down, and from where you can plan a fresh attack based on knowledge you’ve just gleaned about an opponent whose strength you may have underestimated…

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Varieties of Viking | The Raven’s Table by Christine Morgan

the-ravens-table-by-christine-morgan-pub-by-word-horde-cover

Though the Norse side of the equation hasn’t penetrated the Western cultural imaginary as thoroughly as the Ancient Greek and Roman equivalents, it’s safe to say that Vikings and the tales they carry with them retain a firm grasp on our collective consciousness.

You don’t have to venture very far to spot how appealing both historical narratives of Vikings and associated Norse mythology remains to this day. Just this month, Neil Gaiman — arguably the most popular and celebrated fantasy writer of our time — released his own take on some key stories from that domain, and the History Channel TV show Vikings appears to be trotting along rather nicely into a new season thanks to healthy ratings and online buzz.

But against this backdrop of an audience ever-hungry for more stories of the hardy men and women of the North, and the fantastical stories that sustain their sanguine worldview, a new player arrives on the scene of offer a shade of the weird and the majestic to that already rich weave. Released in the coming days from the ever-dependable American indie publisher Word Horde, Christine Morgan’s The Raven’s Table presents 18 examples of ‘Viking Stories’.

Standing tall: Still from Vikings (The History Channel)

Standing tall: Still from Vikings (The History Channel)

Given Word Horde’s standing as an exemplary publisher of off-the-beaten track genre fiction, one would expect Morgan’s collection to take a ‘genre’ tack to the history of the Northmen — and true to form, Morgan’s stories certainly take a liberal approach to both history and the parameters of reality, with all the stories featuring at least some element of the supernatural. Happily, however, this broadens out beyond a predictable association with the Sword ‘n Sorcery genre — the logical, obvious generic frame for Viking stories — to encompass a rich array of styles and storytelling modes.

But beyond the make-up of the individual stories in and of themselves, a feature that remains a running thread throughout is Morgan’s deft grasp of pacing and tension; ensuring that readers turn the pages while always being at the ready with a surprise. This is complemented by Word Horde’s consistently clever editorial approach, and once again the stories are grouped together in a way that complements their tone and approach.

In fact, The Raven’s Table opens with a grisly flourish, as the inaugural tale, ‘The Barrow-Maid’ spins a lurid yarn of treachery and vengeful resurrection that uses some fundamentals of the viking lifestyle — or rather, death-style — to give way to a zombie story with a hugely satisfying catharsis.

But beyond the make-up of the individual stories in and of themselves, a feature that remains a running thread throughout is Morgan’s deft grasp of pacing and tension

This is perhaps the story that most clearly recalls Morgan’s association to the Bizarro genre-cum-movement; with its freewheeling embrace of the violent and the grotesque. While it certainly makes for a great opener and a hugely satisfying story  in its own right, it made this reader happy to discover that it wasn’t really there to set the tone for the rest of the collection, which gives way to more varied — and even gentle — stories in this otherwise unforgiving milieu.

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Henry Fuseli (1790)

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Henry Fuseli (1790)

Along with tales of battles and their aftermath, there are stories of metamorphosis that clearly draw on a rich mythic and folktale tradition; whose sense of pacing and dramatic irony Morgan manipulates into the viking world with great effect. Among these is the heartbreaking ‘The Mottled Bear’ which, once again, comes with a hard-earned catharsis that will make the reader whoop with vindictive joy through their tears.

But there is also ‘To Fetter the Fenris Wolf’, whose metamorphosis comes late in the story to give full bloom to the theme of marginalized women in a patriarchal society. That story also deals with the power of storytelling itself, and is one among many examples in the collection of Morgan using the poetic idiom of key Norse texts such as the Elder Edda to insert stories-within-stories in which the characters reiterate the key folk narratives of their time.

Along with tales of battles and their aftermath, there are stories of metamorphosis that clearly draw on a rich mythic and folktale tradition

Some of these poetic interludes are stand-alone entries — ‘At Ragnarok, The Goddesses’, ‘The Shield Wall’, ‘As We Drown and Die’ — but more often they are framed by a wider story, as in ‘The Vulgarity of Giants’, where an imprisoned band of vikings recall the story of Thor vs the giant Geirrod in a desperate attempt to boost their morale.

Horror also features heavily in the anthology, which is hardly surprising given Word Horde’s predilection for contemporary weird fiction in general and — as it happens — Lovecraftian fiction in particular, with Morgan channeling the sometimes controversial but enduringly popular pioneer of cosmic horror in not one, but two stories.

My favourite from this bunch has got to be ‘With Honey Dripping’, a gloriously perverse depiction of a pagan ritual to ‘Ia Sib-Njurath’ that is far more sexually explicit than anything Lovecraft would have dared to imagine, with Morgan thankfully going all-out to depict a shocking ritual that achieves a kind of grotesque, orgiastic splendour by dint of being entirely unfettered.

Popular imaginary: Jamie Alexander as Lady Sif in Thor: The Dark World (2011)

Popular imaginary: Jamie Alexander as Lady Sif in Thor: The Dark World (2013)

On the other hand, ‘Aerkheim’s Horror’ gives a viking spin to the Lovecraftian fear of miscegenation — particularly the ‘fish men’ of ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ — with Morgan evoking a sharp sense of dread as the oblivious viking crew washes up on a seemingly arid island whose ancient inhabitants will not leave without a sanity-shattering fight.

There is more traditional horror too, with the vampire-tinged ‘Sven Bloodhair’ and the folksy siren tale ‘Njord’s Daughter’. Also noteworthy is ‘Nails of the Dead’, narrated in a voice that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud and whose central image — a ship made entirely out of human nails — will certainly stick in the mind.

All of which is to say that The Raven’s Table may not be the revisionist viking story anthology you’re perhaps looking for — though male : female representation is pretty solid, it remains limned by the political realities of the period it depicts, and by a general desire to spin gripping yarns evoking traditional narratives — and neither is it a flinty, historically accurate portrayal of viking life as it was lived.

But Morgan’s collection certainly is a gripping read through-and-through. It takes all the things we find appealing about vikings and their world — the propensity towards righteous violence, a kind of vaunted machismo as a way of life and a mythic world that’s both weird and epic — and distributes them evenly across a tonally rich and inspired set of stories.

Morgan certainly taps into the raw nerve of the ‘viking imaginary’, but not in a way that feels mercenary. Rather, this is a labour of love about a period and a people we all seem to find very easy to love, despite their violent, rough edges.

The Raven’s Table is out from Word Horde on February 28

February Updates #3 | Awguri, Giovanni Bonello; Toni Erdmann; Brikkuni & Unintended

Yep, I had said February was a wonderfully busy month for me, and it’s proven to be so right until the end.

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello launch

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First off the ground is the most recent — the launch of Awguri, Giovanni Bonello at Palazzo Pereira in Valletta, which I’ve spoken about earlier and which was commemorated at a very posh — but otherwise very pleasant — party organised by Merlin Publishers and the other ‘conspirators’ involved in this festschrift for Judge Giovanni Bonello, who turned 80 last year and who apart from a distinguished legal career, penned his own micro-histories which Merlin cherry-picked through and passed on to ten selected authors.

Judge Bonello was nice enough to say — in a moving speech at the event — that we lent an extra dimension to his otherwise “two-dimensional” figures; but all I’ll say is that I certainly had great fun with my story ‘Bellicam machinam vulgo petart appelatum’, which allowed me to meld the history of an already-sensational character — Caterina Vitale — with Gothic pastiche. Being encouraged to channel the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula into something of my own certainly felt like opening a fount that was dying to be opened; as was being able to indulge in an ornate, baroque literary style (whose convoluted sentences proved to be something of a challenge to read out loud during the launch party, however!)

Click here to read more about the book 

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Toni Erdmann | Film Review

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play a distant-but-constricting father-daughter pair in Maren Ade’s critically acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller play a distant-but-constricting father-daughter pair in Maren Ade’s critically acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann

“Growing tired of their distant relationship following yet another whirlwind visit from his go-getting daughter, Winifred decides to pay a surprise visit to [his daughter] Ines in Bucharest. When his plan for enforced bonding fails, Winifred changes tack – and persona – by adopting a wig and fake teeth and introducing himself as ‘Toni Erdmann’ to Ines’ friends and colleagues… while a horrified Ines looks on as her father threatens to compromise her professional and social standing.

“While this sounds superficially amusing and perhaps even creepy, what in fact develops is a touching study in second chances. For Winifred, this is something of a last-ditch effort to make up for any mistakes he may have made while raising Ines – his bumbling nature throughout suggests there may have been many – while Ines is suddenly given a chance to inject some humanity in her ambition-driven, corporate existence.

“Ade’s deceptively loose directorial style leaves plenty of room for the excellent performances by Simonischek and Hüller to shine through, building the film at a humane pace that ensures its emotional peaks feel entirely earned, and not forced into place by a script aiming for formulaic pressure points.”

Click here to read the full review

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Rub Al Khali by Brikkuni | Album Review

Brikkuni debuting songs from Rub Al Khali during a concert at the Manoel Theatre in October 2015 (Photo: Chris Vella)

Brikkuni debuting songs from Rub Al Khali during a concert at the Manoel Theatre in October 2015 (Photo: Chris Vella)

“Because [Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella’s] expressions of anger and disillusionment, harsh and inflected with dark humour as they sometimes are, always come from a place of earnest emotion. Vella’s not one for protective irony or tongue-in-cheek games: his political, social and critical observations are always made plain for all to see – something that holds true for both his oft-legendary Facebook posts and the content of Brikkuni’s songs in and of themselves.

“And with Rub Al Khali he has taken his earnest approach into what is arguably the most vulnerable place imaginable. Brikkuni’s third album is a concept album, of sorts. A concept album about the dissolution of a ten-year relationship. Yeah.”

Click here to read the full review

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Unintended | Theatre Review

Close shave… too close: Mariele Zammit and Stephen Mintoff. (Photo: by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi)

Close shave… too close: Mariele Zammit and Stephen Mintoff. (Photo: by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi)

“But ironically, for all the hard-ons it seeks to inspire in our beleaguered protagonist, the second half of the play is remarkably limp as far as narrative drive is concerned. After poor Jamie is drugged and drugged over and over again and seduced into having aggressive – though it must be said, not entirely unsatisfying – sex with Diana, the play abandons its previously established vein of cheeky black humour and simmering tension in favour of a terminal descent into tired ‘torture porn’ territory.

“That Buckle is a fan of the in-yer-face theatre genre will surprise absolutely nobody – at least, not those who have followed the trajectory of Unifaun Theatre with even a fleeting sideways glance over its admirable run – and let’s face it, we all knew Unintended was heading towards a gory climax of some kind. But the problem is neither that the violence and degradation on display are ‘too much’, and neither, really, that this was a predictable move for the debut play by Unifaun’s founder and producer. The issue is one of simple story structure.”

Click here to read the full review 

February Updates #2 | iBOy, RIMA, You Are What You Buy & the latest in Mibdul (again)

Some updates from my ‘day job’ desk-adventures. Happy to report that February is turning out to be quite the productive and creatively satisfying month. Click here to read the previous update. 

Questioning consumption | You Are What You Buy

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It was interesting to hear what Kristina Borg had to say about her project You Are What You Buy, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to assessing the implications of shopping at the supermarket.

“One of the principal themes of this project is consumption – what and how we consume. This does not solely refer to food consumption; one can also consume movies, literature and more. However, in order to reach and engage with a wider audience I felt it was necessary to work in, with and around a place of consumption that is more universal and common for all. Let’s face it, whether it’s done weekly or monthly, whether we like it or not, the supermarket remains one of the places we visit the most because […] it caters for our concerns about sustenance and comfort.”

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Kristina Borg

“An interdisciplinary approach definitely brings together different perspectives and different experiences and […] it could be a way forward for the local art scene to show and prove its relevance to one’s wellbeing. I think it is useless to complain that the arts and culture are not given their due importance if as artists we are not ready to open up to dialogue, exchange and distance ourselves from the luxury that one might associate with the arts. Talking about experience instead of a product might be what the local art scene needs. 

Click here to read the full interview

Fixing the moment | Mohamed Keita and Mario Badagliacca 

The migrants living at the Belgrade Waterfront are using the beams of abandoned tracks (or tires or rubbish) against the temperatures below zero degrees and to produce hot water. Photo by Mario Badagliacca

The migrants living at the Belgrade Waterfront are using the beams of abandoned tracks (or tires or rubbish) against the temperatures below zero degrees and to produce hot water. Photo by Mario Badagliacca

Ahead of their participation at the RIMA Photography Workshops, I got a chance to delve into the dynamics of migration — particularly the problematic way in which migratory flows are portrayed through mainstream political discourse and the media — with Sicilian photographer Mario Badagliacca, who tapped into his experience of documenting the realities of migration — most recently in my own native Belgrade — as well as Ivorian photographer Mohamed Keita, who took a self-taught route to photography after traversing Africa to reach Italy.

The power of photography is to fix the moment. Psychologically speaking, there’s a difference between perceiving a ‘fixed’ image and a ‘moving’ image (as in a video, for example). The ‘fixed’ image constrains us to reflect on it in a different way. In my case, I want the images to serve as a spur for further questions – to be curious about the stories I’m telling. I don’t want to give answers, but raise more questions. – Mario Badagliacca

Photography by Mohamed Keita

Photography by Mohamed Keita

Click here to read the full interview

Film Review | iBoy — Netflix takes the info wars to the gritty streets

Screams of the city: Tom (Bill Milner) finds himself plugged into London’s mobile network after being attacked by thugs in this formulaic but serviceable offering from Netflix

Screams of the city: Tom (Bill Milner) finds himself plugged into London’s mobile network after being attacked by thugs in this formulaic but serviceable offering from Netflix

I had fun watching the ‘Netflix Original’ iBoy — not a groundbreaking movie by any means, but certainly a fun way to spend an evening in the company of Young Adult urban sci-fi that slots into formula with a satisfying click.

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Love interest: Maisie Williams

“iBoy is yet another example of British cinema being able to strip down genre stories to their essentials and deliver up a product that, while hardly brimming with originality, still manages to create a satisfying piece of escapist entertainment. From Get Carter (1971) down to Kingsman (2014), the Brits sometimes manage to upend their Stateside counterparts by just cutting to the chase of what works without the need to inflate their budgets with unnecessary star power and special effects, while also toning down on any sentimentality and drama at script stage.”

Click here to read the full review

Patreon essay | MIBDUL & ‘that uncomfortable swerve’

MIBDUL & that uncomfortable swerve

Not exactly a ‘day job’ entry — though I wish it were — this month’s Patreon essay for our MIBDUL crowdfunding platform was all about me panicking over not having enough space to write out the story as I was planning it, and needing to make some drastic changes to accommodate this new reality.

“The thing about the detailed outlining of issues – and the rough thumbnailing of the pages in particular – is that, unlike the planning stage [in my journal], I approach them largely by instinct. This is the time when you have to feel your story in your gut, because you need to put yourself in the position of the reader, who will be feeling out the story in direct beats instead of painstakingly – and digressively – planned out notebook excursions. (To say nothing, of course, of the fact that the story needs to look good on the page – that the artwork needs the necessary room to breathe).”

Please consider donating to our Patreon page to access this essay and more

Frenzied box of stories | A Tiding of Magpies by Pete Sutton

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Getting a glimpse on an author’s evolution is always an intriguing prospect. Particularly when this happens through the lens of a short story collection, where variety is almost a necessary part of the experience, allowing you to see how the author manipulates various themes and points of view — all in the space of one compact volume.

The debut collection by Bristol-based writer Pete Sutton, A Tiding of Magpies, is something of an extreme example of this exercise in action, being a collection of just-about themed stories jumbled together, of varying length and varying genre category.

Although the overall arrangement of the stories — the book is published by Kensington Gore — may come across as a tad messy and haphazard as the reader weaves his way through the byways of Sutton’s frenzied imagination, there’s a raw and direct way to Sutton’s storytelling that will always command the reader’s attention.

Opening with a supernatural chiller about a pair of brothers — one of whom appears to be harbouring a malevolent form of telekinesis — with ‘Roadkill’, Sutton establishes himself as a writer capable of both getting at emotional pressure-points straight away to hook the reader in, while operating with a clear and unpretentious style on sentence-level that ensures you’re sucked in without having to look back.

Working through the collection, I’ve often found myself in that rare but wonderful position — the best possible, I think, for a reader — where the lines just rolled their way over my eyes while my brain was busy making pictures.

Sutton’s capability and flexibility as a writer can never really be doubted as you sort through this frenzied box of stories

The downside of this mode of effortless writing — at least, in Sutton’s case — is that it can sometimes feel a tad too abrupt. Some of the stories in A Tiding of Magpies more or less fit into the ‘flash fiction’ mode, with a few of them being effective evocations of a particular mood or idea — ‘Dismantling’ and ‘Not Alone’ are excellent chillers that take full advantage of the constricted form — but the likes of ‘The Cat’s Got It’ feel like little more than doodles thrown into the collection for the hell of it.

Nevertheless, Sutton’s capability and flexibility as a writer can never really be doubted as you sort through this frenzied box of stories. There’s wacky humour (‘An Unexpected Return’), far-future sci-fi (‘The Soft Spiral of a Collapsing Orbit’), experimental mood pieces (‘Sailing Beneath the City’), metafictional escapades (‘Five for Silver’; ‘Christmas Steps’) along with a plethora of horror and plain (or not so plain) weirdness spun in a generous and freewheeling collection.

The final story in the collection, ‘Latitude’ stakes a very particular claim that is bound to reverberate in the reader’s mind’s eye — being something of an exercise is psychogeography for its author’s beloved Bristol, a mid-life crisis tale as well as a story of encroaching horror whose cockroach-infested undertones brought to mind Nathan Ballingrud’s The Visible Filth.

Though rough around the edges as an overall editorial product — perhaps a bit of pruning and re-arranging could have made the collection feel more powerful and cohesive — A Tiding of Magpies certainly announces Pete Sutton as a writer of talent and variety, and I certainly look forward to reading more from him… in whichever genre future work of his slots under. If any at all, that is.

February Updates: Shakespeare, historical fiction & the latest in MIBDUL

It’s not February yet but it will be soon enough, and in these times of uncertainty and stress I figured it wouldn’t be so bad to start listing (and celebrating) some of things I’m excited about for the near future.

First up, though — something from the very recent past. 

MIBDUL: latest process video from Inez Kristina

Done for our $10+ Patrons, I’m really loving this fully narrated process video from Inez, detailing how she goes about structuring a page in general, and page 10 of MIBDUL’s first issue in particular.

Of course it would be thrilling for me to see my words come to life as pictures at any stage, but seeing the page at such an early, raw stage has its own particular pleasures. For one thing, it’s good to see that, raw as the sketches are at this stage, Inez has a firm grip of both the geography of the spaces and the overall mood of the characters.

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This certainly goes a long way to put me at ease as the writer of MIBDUL — knowing that the script will be rendered in a way that is both faithful and impressive in its own right — but it’s also heartening to discover that Inez understands the vibe of MIBDUL in a very intimate way. Successful communication is the key to all collaboration, and I think we’re riding a good wave here.

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It’s also interesting to hear Inez speak about how her approach to the pages has changed of late; namely that instead of painstakingly rendering each page one by one, she’s decided to start sketching out several pages all at once, so as to get a better sense of how the storytelling should flow without getting bogged down by details and drained by the process too early.

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Funnily enough, it mirrors my own turn with the writing of late: for similar reasons — to speed up the process in a way that matches the flow of the story — I’ve decided to go ‘Marvel method’ on the latter half of scriptwriting process; partly because dialogue is the most challenging part of it all for me, and partly because I think seeing the page laid out by Inez will inspire me to write dialogue that is both succinct and relevant to the flow of the story.

Please consider following our Patreon journey — it would mean a lot to us. Really. 

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello: Gothic pastiche for an illustrious judge

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Like MIBDUL, my contribution to the bi-lingual historical fiction volume Awguri, Giovanni Bonello — to be launched at some point in February in honour of the same judge’s 80th birthday — is yet another collaboration with Merlin Publishers, who have been a pleasure to work with ever since they oversaw the publication of my debut novel, TWO.

To say that this was a fun commission would be a massive understatement. Basically, the judge being honoured by this volume — the poshest birthday present imaginable, am I right? — was also something of an historian, and the personages he wrote about were ‘assigned’ to each of us writers to spin a fictional yarn out of. And I will forever be grateful to Merlin’s head honcho Chris Gruppetta for giving me what is possibly the most sensational and salacious character of the lot: Caterina Vitale, a Renaissance-era “industrial prostitute”, torturer of slaves and — paradoxically — beloved patron of the Carmelite Order.

Of course, I went to town with this one. High on the then still-ongoing Penny Dreadful — and hammering out the short story to the haunting and dulcet tones of that show’s soundtrack by the inimitable Abel Korzeniowski — I liberally crafted something that is both a pastiche of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, all set against the backdrop of a Malta fresh from the Great Siege.

I’m looking forward to getting my mitts on this gorgeous-looking book — designed by Pierre Portelli with illustrations by Marisa Gatt — if only because I look forward to checking out how my fellow TOC-mates tackled the raw material of Bonello’s historical output.

The Bard at the Bar: Debating Shakespeare

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On February 8 at 19:00, I will be moderating a panel discussion on whether the works of William Shakespeare are relevant to the Maltese theatre scene — and Malta at large — and if so, how to make them feel more accessible and vital to the widest possible audiences.

The brainchild of actor, director and journalist Philip Leone-Ganado of WhatsTheirNames Theatre, the debate will, significantly, take place at The Pub in Archbishop Street, Valletta, aka the place where Oliver Reed keeled over and died after consuming an obscene amount of alcohol while on a break from filming Gladiator back in 1999.

More recently, the venue has accommodated the very first edition of ‘Shakespeare at the Pub’ — a production of the Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Ganado himself last year — and another one is in the offing for 2017.

Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub, Valletta (WhatsTheirNames Theatre, March 2016). Photo by Jacob Sammut

Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub, Valletta (WhatsTheirNames Theatre, March 2016). Photo by Jacob Sammut

The lively, unpretentious and game production certainly felt to me like a step in the right direction as far as making Shakespeare more vibrant and relevant was concerned, so I think the Pub is as good a place as any to keep that inspired momentum going with a good discussion.

And it should certainly make for a satisfying debate, given that apart from Ganado himself, the panel will be composed by James Corby (Head of Department of English at the University of Malta and hence offering some academic weight to the proceedings), Polly March (director of the upcoming MADC Shakespeare summer production — the ritualised and established intake of Shakespeare for the island) and Sean Buhagiar, head of the newly-established Teatru Malta and someone deeply concerned with nudging the local theatrical scene out of its usual comfort zones.

So do come along to hear us talk. And feel free to shout your questions and comments over a pint, or ten. Just don’t crank it up to Oliver Reed levels, please.

Re-encountering the Weird: The Outer Dark & the continuing relevance of Weird Fiction

By now those interested in the literary form in question will have at least heard about the landmark episode of The Outer Dark podcast that came out not too long ago, where host and writer Scott Nicolay gathers together some highly significant players in the realm of weird fiction for a bumper-size — that is, two hour — discussion about what the ‘weird’ is and where it’s headed.

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For me, the conversation nudged a series of ideas and associations that I’ve allowed to become dormant for quite some time. Fact is — discovering weird fiction was an important landmark for me in many ways, but I’ve felt it wane from hungry obsession to doggedly pursued intellectual interest and now down to a fading interest of late, but the podcast in particular yielded some answers as to why that may have been the case.

Weird Fiction was the spur that led me to set up Schlock Magazine: a collective group exercise in creative writing for like-minded scribblers here in Malta that then blossomed into something of a bona-fide (though always ‘4dLuv’) online publication, and whose reins I’ve now handed over to my dear sister.

Around the same time, however, I also wrote my Master’s dissertation on ‘the New Weird’; by then already at least somewhat boxed away and shorn of any real new-ness, enabling me to study it as a bracing exercise in literary experimentation, if not an enduring literary tradition or even sub-genre in its own right.

Slippery and just about impossible to define — the brilliant and imposing tome that is Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘The Weird’ anthology attests to that with girth and panache — the Weird is also, necessarily, alienating.

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And for the longest time, its deliberate alienation also signaled for me an invitation to fully embrace the uncanny and disturbing sides of our perception. It made the Weird a thing of endless, edgy possibility. Where other genres would skate towards tradition — or its degraded cousin, convention — the Weird would flourish in its unique fungus-growth of strangeness. And where the field of mainstream literature — so my reasoning went — would often spin compelling narratives in fine language, they would still not descend so deep into the rabbit hole of strangeness that the very best exemplars of the weird reveled in.

Of course, sweeping assumptions like these are largely borne out of laziness, which is why they don’t yield any critical rewards in the long run. But apart from the inaccuracy of such statements, the supposed undercurrent of the Weird — its commitment to evoke a sense of alienation in the reader without offering up any narrative explanation or even, really, any sense of catharsis — ceased to be engaging for me after a while.

Thing is, we’ve all been left bummed out, nervous and scrambling for answers these past couple of years and months. It’s safe to say that the world’s an uncertain place wherever you are right now, and even though an argument could be made for that always having been the case (again, depending where you are), we can all agree that we’ve reached something resembling Consensus Panic at this point, for reasons that I barely need to specify.

Coupled with my own natural tendency towards anxiety — which I tend to treat with a healthy and regular dose of Marcus Aurelius and journaling — it felt as though the Weird was becoming an indulgence too far. To wit: why would I want to actively pursue fiction whose primary and perhaps only priority is to jolt you out of any remaining peace of mind you may still be in possession of?

Partly because I wanted to give my own writing a keener sense of structure — in response to some very valid criticism I received for my debut novel, and because I’ve made it a point to try and craft MIBDUL to a more or less ‘classic’ framework — I’ve caught myself edging away from the Weird as I try to learn the rules first before breaking them, as it were.

But listening to the Outer Dark podcast reminded me not just of the variety that’s intrinsic to the weird — Han Kang’s blistering award-winner The Vegetarian was discussed as a truly Weird candidate, for one thing — but also that its main aim is not to disorient, but to cohere.

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Responding to some of Nicolay’s prompts, Ann VanderMeer in particular seized upon a characterisation of the Weird that I’ve often neglected, but that I now feel should have been a point of focus all along. Namely, that the Weird stems from a primordial desire to confront the Unknown.

And it’s not just limited to the verbiage and racism of someone like HP Lovecraft, or the less politically problematic but no less arch work of someone like Algernon Blackwood. It is found in Kafka, it is found in Calvino and it is found in any number of international literary traditions who don’t shy away from letting the true strangeness at the core of human life run amok.

The Weird is many things, yes. And one of these things happens to be the ability to look at the unknown in the face and to acknowledge it as such. Not to deny it, or to repurpose it within a more rationalised framework. But to let it sit just as it is, and bleed its beautiful spool into the work.

There might be a sense of fear or at least trepidation in leaping into that kind of aesthetic program. But as this great edition of the Outer Dark reminds us, it’s one filled with as much strange fruit as it is with disquieting vistas into the black hole of the indifferent universe.