Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #7 | A. Scott Glancy

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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Trespassers by A. Scott Glancy

Even in these supposedly more enlightened times, the trappings of colonial adventure never fail to seduce and enthrall. While we may acknowledge that the bedrock of what makes all the stories of white people venturing into dark lands for booty and triumph as suspect, a primordial gland in our brain will always be attracted to these narratives.

The reasons, a lot of the time, are quite obvious: leaping into the exotic and the unknown feels easier and more legitimized when you have the churning hegemonic power of an imperial/colonial machine behind you, and so these ‘thrilling yarns’ — as they end up being called with alarming regularity — come with enough requisite hand-holding to make them as comfortable as they are exciting.

The ‘have your cake and eat it too’ version of these narratives is embodied quite explicitly in the recent Oscar-baiter movie The Revenant. Once you machete your way through the long-telegraphed hype about just how hard it was to make, you’ll find an adventure story whose moral ambiguity and caked-on grime is the only sop to it existing in the 21st century.

The same — aforementioned — gland is satisfied by the rollicking and blinkered tales of H. Rider Haggard and in fact, Glancy’s contribution to the anthology begins with the words, “Rider approaching!”

Adventure time? The Revenant (2015)

Adventure time? The Revenant (2015)

What follows is the journey of an unwittingly cosmopolitan group of explorers and their misadventures across the treacherous Kunlun Mountain chain in China. An expedition that includes Brits, Russians, Germans and Indians is enough to cause its own drama — add some Lovecraftian horror into that mix and you’ve got yourself a heady melange of historical drama and eldritch inventiveness.

The ‘pygmies’ that serve as the antagonists of the piece are yet another reminder of the ‘have your cake and eat it too’ dynamic that also powers The Revenant. Because in many ways, they slot in ‘nicely’ with the various grotesques of Lovecraft’s own canon — strange races which serve as uncomfortable reminders of their author’s intrinsic discomfort with anything genetically separate from his own biological and cultural constitution.

On the other hand, however, these pygmies are presented as decidedly ‘other’ in a way that neutralizes any ideological scapegoating — or at least, just about. It’s similar to how the not-Native American cannibals of Bone Tomahawk are presented: that film being yet another Western that’s ‘revisionist’, but only to a point.

Glancy’s story shies away from neither the thrill nor the wanton violence that characterizes these stories, both in terms of the dynamic of its setting as well as its relationship to its characters. More crucially, the reader’s relationship with the characters is telling: these are men on a suspect mission that is hardly respectful of local traditions, but goddamn it, they’re facing unprecedented horrors and goddamn it, you’re stuck in there with them and you’re loving it.

As in The Revenant, the grime is not only the point — it’s also the hook. There is no moral centre to this story, just the forward propulsion into a heart of darkness that is in fact getting darker as it progresses.

Read previous: Jeremiah Tolbert

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Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #6 | Jeremiah Tolbert

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Dreamers of Alamoi by Jeremiah Tolbert

“Dante was the first to conceive of Hell as a planned space,” Dr Bedelia Du Maurier tells an assembled audience in the 10th episode of the third season of Hannibal, “an urban environment.” Before Dante, Bedelia continues, we spoke not of the gates of Hell but simply the mouth of Hell — a shapeless, devouring pit with no real modus operandi.

I feel that Lovecraft’s structuring of his own ‘Dreamlands’ plays to a similar dynamic and that certainly, the author is also to be lauded for — quite literally — mapping out what may otherwise have been vague repository of images and half-formed notions of geographical space. But I also find it a blessing that Lovecraft never quite went the Tolkien route with his world-building either, and that the Dreamlands were allowed to accumulate in the author and reader’s mind in gradual drops throughout various loosely connected stories.

The Dreamlands of HP Lovecraft by Jason Thompson (2011). Find out more about it

‘The Dreamlands of HP Lovecraft’ by Jason Thompson (2011). Find out more about it

In this way, I think Lovecraft remains true to the psychology behind why we keep chasing after these spaces. It’s a comforting notion, to be able to travel to a place where the laws and conventions that dominate our daily life have been suspended in favour of some kind of sublime bliss; even if — to go with the original, Kantian notion of the sublime — this does not mean that what we would see and experience in these places is necessarily pleasant, or even safe.

With Lovecraft the concept gets a keener edge of poignancy, I think, because for all the implied eldritch horror of the Dreamlands, it feels as if he’d rather go there than face the realities of the modern world — a tic in his character that also speaks to the oft-discussed and deeply problematic ideological underpinnings of a lot of his work (to say nothing of how his public proclamations to this effect continue to be something of a blot on his reputation). It’s form of ‘negative escapism’, I think — not the idyll of Tolkien’s Shire, but an alienating and alluring space populated by strange, mushrooming presences, and whose geographical confines expand and contract to the whims of an ‘idiot god’.

Jeremiah Tolbert’s story develops on this motif in Lovecraft’s work — a motif that Lovecraft himself likely cribbed from his perennial source of inspiration, Lord Dunsany (who was, in turn, also an influence on Tolkien).

Tolbert gets the notes of desire and fascination right and, indeed, establishes an urban environment that despite its otherworldly nature still insists on carving out a concrete space, with the very architecture serving as an ominous, jarring construct — an element certainly in line with Lovecraft’s own stories in this vein.

“At first, he thought it only another hallucination that the two towers seemed to bend toward one another at their peak, but the vision did not waver. Realization arrived late: these were not two towers, but instead the opposing sides of an arch. Closer now, he could make out the ropes and pulleys lifting an enormous keystone into the heavens. It inched upwards as he watched.

“The dreaming construct would soon be complete. What would happen then was a great mystery, but not one Garen was eager to solve.”

Garen, our erstwhile protagonist, explores the contours of the Dreamlands with the hungry and often thwarted desire of a junkie. Strait-laced as Lovecraft may have been, he wouldn’t have been inclined to confront this aspect of his stories head-on. But it’s an evident element of the desire (with a capital D?) we have for these spaces… just as its erotic counterpoint is never too far behind, either.

‘Fantasy’ is a broad term — something we often forget, conditioned as we are to view literary genres in strict categories — and ‘dreams’ are even more vast in their potential.

But though Lovecraft and Tolkien may have stopped short of exploring the more R-rated elements of this universal trait, Tolbert — like Catherynne Valente and Clive Barker before him — isn’t shy of teasing the limits between reverie and obsession.

Read previous: John Langan

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #5 | John Langan

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Savage Angela in: The Beast in its Tunnels by John Langan

Langan’s story opens the collection, and in some ways it’s a no-brainer because it appears to have the swashbuckling swords-and-sorcery spirit of the works of Fritz Leiber (who comes highly recommended in Tanzer and Bullington’s backmatter).

But as befits my own introduction to Langan’s rich and satisfying short fiction his contribution here plays with the expected references to the beat of his own drum, getting mileage both from the immersive, ‘innocent’ elements of the genre while simultaneously playing a postmodern game with them.

Our protagonist, Angela, needs to slay a beast and she sets about doing so with the help of her talking sword — the significantly monikered Deus Ex Machina. With an archetypal-as-can be premise, it’s becomes clear from early on that Langan is more concerned with exploring just why the swords-and-sorcery genre continues to interest us, instead of simply replicating its tropes.

Like other stories in the collection, there’s a whiff of the coming-of-age narrative to Langan’s tale too, with Angela being a novice who’s only just learning to make the best use of her powerful weapon. A prevalent meme, to be sure.

Arya Stark and Syrio Forel -- Game of Thrones, Season 1

Arya Stark and Syrio Forel — Game of Thrones, Season 1

But more importantly, the schematic set-up of the story — coupled with the fact that it’s all baldly archetypal: the monster serving the role of Minotaur — reminded me of how ‘mapped out’ fantasy narratives often are.

This is why Dungeons & Dragons is such an important touchstone for both fans and practitioners of the genre. In a similar way to writers who are conscious of the formal and historical make-up of fantastic literature in all its forms — here I’m thinking of the likes of Italo Calvino — Langan reminds us that the rules exist for a reason.

One reason being that we will always rationalise what we don’t understand, and that the mechanics of slaying/solving the monsters that emerge from the abyss of uncertainty will always make for compelling reading. Because we are hungry for answers, even those we know will never be forthcoming.

Read previous: Remy Nakamura

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #4 | Remy Nakamura

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Dan no Uchi Horror by Remy Nakamura

Much to the chagrin — though more likely the disinterested bemusement — of the bulk of my geeky friends growing up, I was never quite taken with anime and manga in the same way as the zeitgeist appeared to demand.

And it was further alienating by the fact that Malta, where I was based-and-raised, got a healthy dose of the stuff funnelled into the brains of unsuspecting kids through the easily accessible Italian channels.

(The legacy of this broadcasting arrangement yielded wonderful fruit in Italian cinemas earlier this year.)

I’m not entirely sure why I never felt attracted to Japanese animation — though I ‘appreciate’ some of its classics from a distance — and it’s even more baffling because the sheer variety within the stories, and their ‘outre’ style, otherwise jibes very nicely with my tastes.

But with all this in mind, a visit to an exhibition in Paris last December gave me a more immediate appreciation of the genre’s appeal — through the work of one of its precursors.

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger Utagawa by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Observing the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi up close — yes, I made sure to exit through the gift shop and buy the coffee table book along the way — made me appreciate a clear and timeless dynamism of the style. This will of course speak to my wider ignorance of the woodcut tradition — to say nothing of my inadvertent but real western bias — but apart from anime, the thick outlines and sensitivity to what squeezes the most ‘action’ out of a still image reminded me of the likes of Jack Kirby.

Remy Nakamura’s story, I think, moves with the same scintillating immediacy. Packed with high drama, higher degrees of violence and a rhapsodic prose style, it also has its tongue firmly in cheek; checking off ‘Honor’ early on as a knee-jerk cultural expectation so as to highjack any inherent melodrama and cliche.

I was hooked from the first sentence, and the family saga that’s at the core of the story was wended into the kinetic narrative, instead of being a baggy burden. There’s hacking and slashing, there’s faith and inevitability. There’s sentences like: ‘The devils stank like a battlefield in the sun’.

This is Cthulhu in oozing, living colour, and it moves like the quickest of rapids.

Read previous: L. Lark

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #3 | L. Lark

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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St Baboloki’s Hymn for Lost Girls by L. Lark

One of those words we’re not allowed to use for fear of sounding pretentious or whatever is, apparently, ‘fecund’. I can see the logic in effectively banning the word — it’s a fancy way of saying ‘growth’ and outside of the context of the discussion of population demographics, it can come across as a tad too highfalutin for most.

(Just check out how ‘James Joyce’ is framed saying ‘fecund in its nuttiness for laughs, in this clip.)

But fecund is the first word that came to mind as I was reading St Baboloki’s Hymn for Lost Girls by L. Lark.

“Young monkeys watch from low branches, cheeks stuffed with fruit” is an image from its first paragraph, and it could easily reflect the tone of the entire piece – exotic but not ornamental, and evocative of the growth and appetite of the natural world come spring time.

With this coming-of-age story embedded in a secondary world in which nature is a source of both truth and terror, Lark manages to paint a vivid picture of a world in constant — and sometimes dangerous — flux, building to a confrontation between Nalendi, who “grows too quickly for her skin”, and the titular St Baboloki: a deity in Lark’s ramshackle invented religion, and a figure that Nalendi is warned not to take too lightly.

Hieronymus Bosch was the first association to spark in my head: the teeming world constantly at the risk of altering itself in ways that may not be to your benefit or expectation isn’t only a decorous and inspired way to approach the coming-of-age trope. It’s also a reminder that we’re ultimately the mercy of the natural cycle and whatever it decides to churn out.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (1503-1515) (Detail)

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (1503-1515) (Detail)

But, the appearance of Baboloki itself brought to mind more immediate pop culture precursors — namely, its shifting skin, made up of a hive-mind mosaic of flies. Sure, Constantine (2005) is not the most beloved example ever, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this particular scene — for the monster, if nothing else.

Beyond just flies though, the image is very satisfying for me because it presents the body as a liquid, pliable shape that can change at a moment’s notice. Coupled with a long-standing love and admiration for Ovid’s Metamorphoses and what I deem to be its most cogent modern response — the ‘body horror’ films of David Cronenberg — I was happy to find that in Lark’s story, this thread runs wide and deep.

But I think that my first encounter with such an entity was far less grandiose than all that. Mr Todd McFarlane, take a bow.

Eddie Brock/Venom by Todd McFarlane

Eddie Brock/Venom by Todd McFarlane

It’s a shame that the cinematic adaptations of Venom haven’t exactly been all that fecund after all.

Read previous: Carrie Vaughn

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #2 | Carrie Vaughn

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Lady of Shalott by Carrie Vaughn

For obvious reasons, this particular story folds in very nicely with my approach to Tanzer and Bullington’s anthology, what with it singnaling a literary antecedent in its very title.

The Lady of Shalott was always something of a frustrating poem to me, for the reasons those of you familiar with it might imagine; namely, Lancelot’s shockingly dismissive final glance at the titular — and cursed — protagonist:

She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy gave her grace,

The Lady of Shalott

But like a lot of Tennyson’s work, the poem holds an irresistible charm, and I don’t think it’s accidental that genre writers and genre fans in particular continue to latch onto his brand of grandiose aestheticism.

Inflected as it is with the same Victorian mores and neuroses that continue to foment shows like Penny Dreadful, the finely sculpted drama of a lot of his work speaks to an archetypal space that – being Victorian and not, say, from Ancient Greece – also feels strangely close to our own world in its anxiety about ‘modernity’ and its desire to find pure, cloistered spaces where precious and beautiful things can flourish.

"I Am Half-Sick of Shadows", Said The Lady of Shalott by John Willam Waterhouse

“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows”, Said The Lady of Shalott by John Willam Waterhouse

Well, what Vaughn does is lift a giant, eldritch and bloody middle finger to all of that, and in ways that are entirely justified — and also, it must be said, all the more entertaining for it — she makes us feel ashamed for indulging in the kind of unreconstructed misogyny and jingoism that unfortunately forms the backbone of a lot of the work of the Victorian era.

But first, she immerses us into the world of the doomed Lady of Shalott with a thorough care for the artificial universe she is encased in. Her enclosure is her curse, but there is a great dignity in her work too. She weaves her loom with the kind of dedication that any self-respecting artist would apply to their life’s work. This is a silent, private dignity that the vainglorious Lancelots of this world cannot begin to understand.

As Vaughn moves to deliver the story to its conclusion, we dread the activation of the curse, but we also know it to be inevitable. Only… this time around, it won’t be just the Lady of Shalott that pays the price for Lancelot’s pursuit of spoils and glory.

In a Lovecraftian universe, that’s about as comforting as things get.

Read previous: Michael Cisco

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #1 | Michael Cisco

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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‘Non Omnis Moriar (Not All Of Me Will Die): A Sequel to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Very Old Folk’ by Michael Cisco

What makes Michael Cisco an interesting writer is his insane imagination. I’ve yet to encounter a contemporary author who can construct stranger props and plots, and who commits to the weirdness of his worlds with such febrile intensity.

But what makes him a great writer is his ability to do this while maintaining a clinically precise literary style. The end result often ends up being deliciously jarring, as the strange events and characters that populate his stories and novels are delivered to us in the most sober language possible. Imagine if your best friend sidles up to you at a cafe one day, vomits a goblin baby into your glass, and when you look up to him with a shocked expression on your face, he or she darts back with, “So?”

Alas, it’s the latter that’s more in evidence with this particular story, which continues where H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Very Old Folk’ left off to present us with something in the vein of the ‘lost Roman legion’ sub-genre.

But given the expected and obvious connection to Lovecraft – a writer Cisco has plenty of time for, even as a literary critic – as well as Cisco’s own vaunted position in the field of weird fiction, the strangeness, comparatively minimal as it may be, is both strong and lingering.

Starting off with an evocative description of a missing body – without any gore, Cisco immediately creates unease through the corpse’s absence – the story proceeds by pitting our stolid and otherwise entirely rational protagonists into an increasingly strange landscape. With supreme confidence, Cisco ensures that it’s the final sentences of the story that deliver their Lovecraftian punch.

What it reminds me of

The ‘lost legion’ genre is of course the obvious signpost here, though I’m not sure how exactly Lovecraft and Cisco’s own boys tally historically with perennial legends such as the Spanish Ninth Legion.

Eagle of the Ninth

Channing Tatum and Denis O’Hare in The Eagle (2011)

It’s somewhat unfortunate that my most recent memory of these films is marred by the Channing Tatum-starring The Eagle: a yawn-inducing attempt at capturing the broad appeal of something like Gladiator that fell straight on its face.

But more felicitous associations aren’t too far behind, as the pulpy and unambitious Centurion – from the dependable Neil Marshall and starring the as-yet untested Michael Fassbender – plays on the same theme with far more violent aplomb.

Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko in Centurion (2010)

Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko in Centurion (2010)

And a particular scene – I won’t give more away – actually brought to mind one of my favourite films of all time, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising: the sublime terror of surrendering to an ‘alien’ people in this final scene.

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon | Introduction

When Molly Tanzer, author of fun books like Vermilion and The Pleasure Merchant, asked me to review Swords v Cthulhu, the upcoming anthology she’s put together with Jesse Bullington, I was more than happy to do so… given that the book, released in July, has been on my to-buy list more or less since it was first announced.

Apart from being an avid fan of Tanzer’s fiction, I was also charmed by Bullington’s earlier anthology, Letters to Lovecraft — also released from Stone Skin Press, who with the ‘Swords’ anthology continue playing on a motif begun with their successful 2012 release, Shotguns v Cthulhu.

 

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But because I know there’s lots of fun to be had when Tanzer and Bullington, shameless pastiche artists both, are given full reign over a project, I decided to go about my own review in the same spirit of referential collage.

So in the coming days, weeks, months — however long it takes for this project to unspool, anyway — I will be dedicating a post to each story. But apart from dedicating a couple of paragraphs to the analysis of each piece, I will also give full vent to the cultural free-association that they inspire: be it other prose, films, art or music. You may, if you wish, think of it as an exercise of ‘The Ecstasy of Influence‘.

We will begin with Michael Cisco’s chilly and precise ‘Non Omnis Moriar (Not All Of Me Will Die): A Sequel to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Very Old Folk‘. Stay tuned.

Wishing you a better, stranger future

Schlock Magazine, Utopia Issue (June 2016), Cover (detail) – Daniela Attard

Schlock Magazine, Utopia Issue (June 2016), Cover (detail) – Daniela Attard

Schlock Magazine has finally emerged out of – only slightly self-imposed – hibernation with a special issue on the theme of ‘Utopia’, guest-edited by my good friend, the anthropologist Elise Billiard.

In a lot of ways, and particularly in the way that its entire thrust is based on a healthier attempt to look at the future, the issue lays the groundwork for how I’d like to see the magazine develop too.

Check out Schlock Magazine’s Utopia Issue (June 2016)

It’s been through many permutations over the years, and I refuse to see this as anything but a good thing. More than anything else, our ability to change according to whim (though mainly circumstance) is the most honest way to leverage our ‘amateur’ status with all the possibilities offered by online publication methods for lo-fi operations such as us.

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Speaking of imaginary structures given added life through creative impetus and irony, the Romanian film Hotel Dallas has proven to be my favourite from the selection at the second edition of the Valletta Film Festival so far.

A mockumentary built on a quirky historical factoid – Ceausescu allowed Dallas as the only American broadcast on Romanian TV for the express purpose of showing how decadent and corrupt American society was – its weaving together of musical, surrealist road trip and an overarching quest narrative never felt forced, pretentious or weird-for-weird’s-sake.

The reason for this is simple: the film’s inherent – sometimes cartoony – strangeness is implicit in the topsy-turvy political situation it seeks to dissect. But it’s the dissection of a trickster, not a surgeon.

 

Witch

‘Witch’ by Goblin, composed for Dario Argento’s giallo classic Suspiria (1977) appears to have a compelling series of tributes – deliberate, direct or otherwise – in more recent songs. But I am not a music critic is this is all based on intuition.

Valhalla Rising – Theme – Peter & Peter Kyed

The occult connection is something of a given in this, one of my favourite films of all time, but Peter & Peter Kyed’s main theme to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising carries over the same ominous percussion as Goblin’s incantatory trip. Bonus link: Refn is a dedicated giallo fan who will be putting his money where his mouth is.

Burn the Witch – Queens of the Stone Age

Certainly a more upbeat experience than either of the above, but the breathy-screamy sample at the beginning marks a clear link to its goblinoid predecessor. Radiohead’s recent namesake track channels The Wicker Man instead – shoving us into northern climes far from Argento’s Italy but closer to Refn’s own sublime and brutal hills. Bonus link: Both Valhalla Rising and The Wicker Man were shot in Scotland.