Oh, the humanity | Borne by Jeff VanderMeer | Book Review

One of the many ‘uses’ of fiction is its ability to zoom in on and then pick apart some aspect of our experience as self-conscious creatures thrust into a world that cares very little for our life’s trajectories – be they emotional, economical or philosophical.

From the primordial power of the earliest myths and religious narratives down to the most kitchen-sink realism, that thing we can broadly define as fictional narrative can serve to give us some form of solace – be it through simple escapism or by allowing us the focus of meditation.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne goes some way towards literalising these ‘uses of fiction’ by presenting a post-apocalyptic fable narrated with a world-weary eye by Rachel, a scavenger in this ravaged landscape who finds a piece of sentient biotech which she nicknames ‘Borne’ and begins to raise as an erstwhile child, much to the chagrin of her partner and survival companion, Wick.

borne cover

In line with VanderMeer’s most recent work, Borne does not default to stock tropes when painting its picture of the natural world, and our relationship to it. And this also counts for VanderMeer’s take on the post-apocalyptic scenario. There is no sweeping, omniscient voice explaining away How We Live Now (and as if it’s a deliberate gag, the final section of the novel riffs on that exact phrase — crucially, however, replacing ‘We’ with the more modest ‘I’). Instead, we are thrust into it from the point of view of a strange new family… stranger still, from the point of view of its troubled formation.

VanderMeer’s ecological focus was made apparent thanks to the trilogy of Southern Reach novels – all of which were released in a seasonal stagger back in 2014, and which have endeared him to a new batch of readers who may cleave more closely to the literary mainstream than the fans of his earlier, weirder work.

Running the gamut from science-fiction thriller to explorations of bureaucratic entropy and surreal fever dream punctuated by melancholy for a fading natural world, the trilogy – comprised of Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance – only pays tribute to speculative fiction tropes when it needs to, with VanderMeer employing them to tell a story of an encroaching environmental catastrophe which only brings into focus our diminished understanding, and relevance, in an ecosystem that we’re helping to destroy through a mixture of avarice and willful ignorance.

Borne picks up after the destruction is more or less complete, though as alluded to earlier, there are no explanatory prologues detailing exactly what happened, with no fingers pointed at unambiguous culprits. Instead, it finds Rachel and Wick simply surviving, and VanderMeer gets a lot of dramatic mileage from this sharpened worldview.

Courtyard of Dead Astronauts Kyla Harren

The Courtyard of Dead Astronauts (from ‘Bourne’). Art by Kayla Harren

However, it is clear that Rachel is narrating all of this to us from a retrospective standpoint. Dramatically, this does rob the story of some immediacy in an wider sense. Though the grime and graft of surviving in such a world is very much evident throughout, Rachel’s digressive and analytical lapses into what all of this means for her and her relationships – with Wick, with Borne and the rest of this unsettling, Not-So-Brave New World – signal to the reader that the novel will not be about the payoffs of suspense implied by the ‘survival narrative’ genre. But this is also what makes the book so distinctive, so sensitive.

Once again, VanderMeer swerves away from generic constraints to focus on larger themes that deserve to be digested thoroughly. As was the case with the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer once again shows he’s not interested in a cliched representations of the natural world, and avoids indulging any ‘human-splaining’ tendencies for natural phenomena in favour of depicting the environment – now rendered even stranger by the complete fallout of civilsational collapse and its toxic discontents – in granular detail which builds to a sense of true wonder.

The same could not be said for the overarching political realities that frame Rachel’s existence. We are told that the main opposing forces in this world are the ‘Company’, which asserts its dominance through the biomechanical giant bear, Mord, and his many proxies, and the ‘Magician’, who runs a resistance force that Rachel and Wick find suspect.

Seeing the map revealed so nakedly made naked, too, the thought of a growing conflict – to rule the city – and what choices! We were so lucky, after such strife, to be able to choose between a homegrown tyrant in the Magician, who strove to win by any means, and a Company-grown tyrant in Mord, who held the city in stasis, us unable to do more than react to his whims. Neither imagined as rules could long be tolerated. Yet we could not imagine what lay beyond them except, with a shudder, the specter of the Company itself rising once again from its own ashes.”

In some ways, this is an affront to the kind of laboured ‘world-building’ that’s encouraged by the conventional hegemony of speculative fiction. But it works all the better to transmit the kind of ‘mythic’ clarity mentioned earlier. By not drowning himself in the details of how both the Company and the resistance works, VanderMeer gives Rachel wider berth to expand upon the day-to-day implications of this ongoing social friction.

Mord by Theo

Mord, woodcut by Theo Ellsworth

Then, of course, there’s Borne itself. The creature is another act of mythic distillation on VanderMeer’s part; both heartwarming and unsettling, his growth is, on the one hand, an expression of the ins-and-outs of the raising of children and on the other, our inability to fully comprehend the jolting permutations of a natural world thrown into crisis.

Is Borne a miniature – even, in certain ways, ‘cutesy’ – iteration of the Area X of the Southern Reach novels (an encroaching blot on the landscape that signals danger and absolute bafflement)?

Perhaps, but Rachel’s emotional processing of the creature she takes under her wing is rife with an understandable (but always, inevitably) reductive anthropomorphism, much to Wick’s chagrin, but in a way that creates a pleasing affect for the reader. Yes, this is VanderMeer doing his take on the ‘talking beast’ fable – from Aesop to Disney – but it’s when the more unsettling implication of what Rachel had been ignoring come to the fore that things truly get interesting.

Also because VanderMeer doesn’t skate over that other layer of the trajectory of parenthood – the realisation that the adults in your life are as broken and insecure as you are.

And indeed, when Borne temporarily exits stage left to assert his newfound independence, VanderMeer expands upon another favourite theme – the fragmented nature of human memory and identity, explored so hauntingly through the fractured figure of ‘Ghost Bird’ in the Southern Reach trilogy.

“Wick never believed he was a person, was continually being undone by that. Borne was always trying to be a person because I wanted him to be one, because he thought he was right. We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.”

By turns harsh and delicate, immediate and removed, Borne is as strange and oblique a beast as the creature of its title. Not so much of a ‘tour de force’ of genres and styles – not as much as the Southern Reach trilogy was, anyway – it feels more like a digression into similar themes, with VanderMeer using the opportunity afforded to him by the success of that trilogy – the first installment of which is being adapted into a feature film by Alex Garland – to wade into more exploratory waters.

It truly succeeds in “finding life in the broken places…”

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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

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

a-tiding-of-magpies-e-book-new-master-with-foreword

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.

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon | Table of Contents

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I tackled the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method was be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These were presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification. You can find the complete linkstorm to all of the reviews just below. Enjoy! 

eternal-frankenstein

Torso, Head, Heart by Amber Rose-Reed 

Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet by Orrin Grey

Thermidor by Siobhan Carroll

They Call Me Monster by Tiffany Scandal

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice by Damien Angelica Walters

Sewn Into Her Fingers by Autumn Christian

Orchids by the Sea by Rios De La Luz

Frankenstein Triptych by Edward Morris

The Human Alchemy by Michael Griffin

Postpartum by Betty Rocksteady

The New Soviet Man by G.D. Falksen

The Un-Bride; Or No Gods and Marxists by Anya Martin

Living by Scott R. Jones

Wither On the Vine; Or Strickfaden’s Monster by Nathan Carson

The Beautiful Thing We Will Become by Kristi DeMeester

Mary Shelley’s Body by David Tempelton

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Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #14 | David Templeton

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I tackled the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method was be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These were presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification. Now, please enjoy the final review of the series.

eternal-frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Body by David Templeton

 

And now, at the very end of Lockhart’s anthology, we get a focus on the body — the ultimate body as far as we’re concerned: that of Mary Shelley, the originator of all of the things we’ve been discussing so far, and one of the most fecund imaginations of the Romantic and/or Gothic high point of literature — an unexpected force to be reckoned with considering her young age when she composed her key work, and her compromised — some would say relentlessly tragic — private life.

David Templeton’s novella — it is in fact the longest piece in Eternal Frankenstein — makes for a fitting conclusion to this varied and comprehensive tribute to the legacy of Shelley’s most famous work, by forcing a fictionalised version of the beleaguered author to confront her many demons, seemingly as a final goodbye before parting the world for good.

In turn, the story also forces us, the readers, to come face-to-face with Frankenstein’s many themes and emotional implications; some of which weigh on the very real side of disturbing: not just in their Gothic power to enthrall and terrify by dint of grotesque detail and atmosphere, but also because of the tortured psychological place they come from, the biographical backbone of which Templeton makes it a point to unpeel, explore and embroider further to craft his novella.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

The setting is as baldly Gothic as they come, though, with Shelley’s disembodied form rising from her Bournemouth grave to settle a score initially mysterious to her. What follows is something of a rambling confessional whose shape, like the Creature Shelley constantly makes reference to in various ways, could have used some trimming and re-arrangement.

While the concept is a worthwhile one — and, again, a perfect note to end the anthology on — that does come with a real emotional pay-off in the end, Templeton’s decision to go over some of the key moments of Shelley’s life, as well as key passages of Frankenstein, will come across as a tad tiresome to those of us familiar with the scenes and passages in question.

What’s even more problematic is that Templeton doesn’t really do all that much to upend expectations, either: the obvious connection between the death of Mary’s mother while giving birth to her is made yet again, while Mary waxes lyrical about her Creature while condemning Victor Frankenstein as a coward at best, a clueless, callous bastard at worst.

But the digressive nature of it all is part of the point — this is a kind of mental Groundhog Day for our poor Mary, and if nothing else, Templeton demonstrates a key understanding of what makes Shelley’s work tick. And neither would it be fair to say that he succumbs entirely to boilerplate interpretations of the text; Victor Frankenstein’s failure is eventually revealed to be Mary’s own, in connection with the death of her first unborn child.

Ultimately, here we have a story about bodies — the bodies we encounter and the body that we inhabit, and all of the complexity that that implies once we’re forced to stop taking them for granted. This complexity falls down on Frankenstein’s Creature like a ton of bricks since he is first brought into the world, and so it serves to offset our own lives at any given moment. And, finding a suitably tortured test subject in Mary Shelley, Templeton uses the opportunity to zone in on these moments at various points in time: from bodies freshly born and vulnerable, to those sickly and decaying… and everything in between.

The body is all we have. And at some point, we were all Frankenstein’s Creature. At some point, we will BE Frankenstein’s Creature yet again. This, above all, is why Shelley’s legacy endures, and why it’s likely to help create more anthologies like Eternal Frankenstein in the years to come.

Read previous: Kristi DeMeester

Stay tuned for an interview with Ross E. Lockhart, the editor of Eternal Frankenstein!

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #13 | Kristi DeMeester

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and 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.

eternal-frankenstein

The Beautiful Thing We Will Become by Kristi DeMeester

There might be something to the niggling assumption that, Mary Shelley having penned Frankenstein when she was merely nineteen years old helps to lend the book with the urgent, neurotic charge that it the necessary flipside to the life-and-death energy that characterises youth.

The ‘outsider’ status of the creature is the biggest element in favour of that interpretation, but I would argue that there’s also something to Victor Frankenstein’s initially obsessive, but ultimately brittle commitment to his project that speaks to the young person’s unease of matching their dreams — and nightmares — to the cold slap of reality.

As we’ve already seen, Lockhart himself appears to be very sensitive to this, what with two back-to-back stories from Eternal Frankenstein capitalising on the legacy of Shelley’s original story by juxtaposing it to a high school context, with inspired results.

The strand is however also picked up by Kristi DeMeester, though her take is less about the social dynamics of the high school than it is about the harried bonds of love that develop among young friends at that delicate stage. More importantly, it’s about how just a small push into stranger territory can alter these young lives, seemingly for good.

teenage-frankenstein

Our Frankenstein’s Creature is one Katrina, and the narrator is a hanger-on best friend who grows curious about Katrina’s — initially slight — hints of bodily modification. But family history steps in to ensure this morphs into a full-on obsession: after her father abandons her mother in pursuit of a younger (and crucially, slimmer) woman, the narrator is thrown into a calorie-counting frenzy by a newly weight-conscious single mother.

This serves to give a keener edge to her attraction to Katrina, which is really an attraction towards the grisly experiments her kindly but eccentric father performs on his daughter.

DeMeester writes from the point of view of the narrator’s eerie emotional state, and as such the narrative voice isn’t judgmental, but fully immersed in a world that sees self-destruction as a form of salvation and horrific acts of bodily modification by a demented patriarchal figure as something to embrace. Needless to say, the effect is disturbing. But since we’re so close to the narrator all the way through, we achieve a strange sort of empathy with her journey.

DeMeester morphs disgust into madness and back into love, leaving us to observe the journey with nervous awe.

Read previous: Nathan Carson

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #12 | Nathan Carson

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and 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.

eternal-frankenstein

Wither on the Vine; Or Strickfaden’s Monster by Nathan Carson

One of the fun things about the kind of spirited pastiche that tends to animate anthologies like Eternal Frankenstein is that the fun can easily be had from various sources, or at the expense of literary and historical figures that can plausibly be co-opted into the overall schema of the legacy left behind by Mary Shelley’s original text.

Nathan Carson’s tale certainly makes the most of this tendency, meshing not one, but two key historical characters — of, it must be said, varying degrees of prestige — into the overall mix of a Frankenstein-inspired story.

The titular character of Kenneth Strickfaden is inspired by the real-life figure who brought unforgettable Hollywood props from some classic Hollywood movies — most famously, as it happens, the lightning-powered device that brings the Creature to life in James Whale’s groundbreaking adaptation of Shelley’s text.

Kenneth Strickfaden (1896-1984)

Kenneth Strickfaden (1896-1984)

Because his car breaks down in a desert canyon near Utah, Strickfaden finds solace in the company of the enigmatic Mr Baldwin, who offers him lodging and car repairs in exchange for his help with some left-field science experiments he is conducting in his home; Strickfaden’s admittedly amateur reputation as a quirky tinkerer preceding him thanks to a one-off appearance in the pulp magazines of sci-fi pioneer Hugo Gernsback.

What follows is a decent into weird science as pushed into weirder extremes by particularly American religious convictions, with Strickfaden discovering more than he should about what Baldwin’s been up to — specifically, how his community aims to ‘treat’ some of its ailing women — before being given the opportunity to cross paths with one of his idols: the one and only Nikola Tesla.

Tesla’s reputation as a real-life ‘mad scientist’ animated by Romantic ideals — and beaten down by the capitalist machine — renders him particularly vulnerable to appropriation by modern speculative fiction writers. But while the Tesla in Carson’s story still comes to us draped in the same legendary aura, his depiction is far less flattering — and certainly less heroic — than one has come to expect. Here, Tesla remains an eccentric genius who produces results, but he’s also as much in love with money as he is with his creations, and doesn’t seem particularly concerned with human life beyond its impact on his experiments.

Bright spark: Nikola Tesla

Bright spark: Nikola Tesla

In short, he is the true Victor Frankenstein of the story — we could say that Baldwin is initially placed as something of a red herring — but because Carson tells the story in a slow-burning, old-timey tone that exudes wry irony, Tesla is presented as a blackly comic figure rather than an out-and-out villain.

It’s clear that Carson is having fun creating a situation in which Strickfaden and Tesla get to meet: it’s a kind of ‘origin story’ for Strickfaden, actually. And in fact, Baldwin’s religious community is presented as little more than an easy-to-ridicule gathering of desperate, credulous people who get what they bargained for when they meddle with the natural order.

Which is ironic, because whereas the Victor Frankenstein of Shelley’s original text was always keenly aware of the fact that his work may be an affront to God, Baldwin and his followers have convinced themselves that what they’re doing runs in exact tandem with God’s wishes. Stuck in the middle is their sly enabler — Tesla — and Strickfaden, an accidental hanger-on who ends up helping both sides.

In short, it’s a story about that peculiarly American trait of improvising with newfangled phenomena — be they scientific innovations or religious sects — and then doing your best to profit from them, or at least survive with all your limbs intact when it all goes to shit.

Read previous: Scott R. Jones

 

 

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #11 | Scott R. Jones

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and 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.

eternal-frankenstein

Living by Scott R. Jones

Since horror and fantasy are, broadly speaking, my favourite of the classic speculative fiction categories — while a wide berth is given to the Weird and any form of intermixing — my experience with literary sci-fi falls a bit on the lean side.

That said, the sci-fi favourites I do have, I cling to very dearly indeed, dipping in for regular re-reads. Mary Shelley’s Frankestein is actually one of them. The other is William Gibson’s pioneering work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. And despite the fact that both novels were written over a century apart from each other and that, apart from their central commitment to a science fictional set of ideas, situations and concepts, could not be further apart in tone, narrative rhythm and scope, I like to think of both of them as being complementary.

Shelley addresses the limits of bodily modification and reanimation, and problematises the notion of a creature created ex nihilo, but without the embracing context of family and community. The Creature in Shelley’s text grasps at the world outside of itself to give it meaning — it feeds on what we can widely describe as ‘culture’ to legitimise itself, but all the while its aberrant bodily shape snuffs out any chance of real belonging.

It is a tale of bodies and what they mean, and how we process or fail to process their realities: be it the Creature’s own failed — but understandable — attempts at making peace with its uniquely tormented predicament, or Victor Frankenstein’s refusal to take responsibility for his engineered progeny, largely on the basis of its physical appearance and its implications.

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

In the end, both characters are disappointed by the fact that their physical reality doesn’t match up with the abstract dreams they have: Victor’s Creature doesn’t conform to the aesthetic decorum he may have wished to achieve with his experiment — which further cements the fact that his work is an affront to God — while the Creature’s admirable self-taught attempts at becoming intellectually and emotionally sensitive are ultimately rendered moot by the limits of its body.

The innovation of Neuromancer, on the other hand, was to circumvent the body altogether in favour of an exploration of the cybernetic singularity which has since become rote not only in fiction, but in daily life too (you’re reading this online, aren’t you?). The open hostility that some of Gibson’s characters espouse for ‘meat’ (i.e., traditional biological bodily structures) are a testament to this, and seem to suggest that Frankenstein got the ball rolling, but that the future imagined in Gibson’s model is in some ways the logical conclusion of Victor Frankenstein’s experiment.

To wit, the trick to circumvent mortality is not through some messy and pathetic attempt at stitching together dead body parts and reanimating them… the trick is to embrace the possibility of downloading and replicating your consciousness in a virtual realm that edges closer and closer to our ‘real’ one.

In his contribution to Lockhart’s anthology, Scott R. Jones happily meshes together both of these key strands in sci-fi, but in a way that they don’t, in fact, cancel each other out. In the snow-capped setting that recalls both — of course — the bookending sections of Shelley’s novel, as well as pop culture artefacts like John Carpenter’s The Thing in its depiction of rugged outliers gazing suspiciously ahead at a mysterious and dangerous mission, Scott injects his version of the Creature with both anger and agency.

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

The story itself is largely composed of a monologue delivered by the same stand-in for the Creature; a military experiment gone awry and who is now on a vindictive mission to find and execute its creator, Aldo Tusk of ‘Eidolon’ — a corporation or military body of some kind which has apparently OK’d Tusk’s mission to stitch together a super-soldier.

As the ‘asset’ beings its narrative, we learn that it’s made up of various body parts made to fight in unison, and the voice of the monologue is laced with a sarcastic bitterness that the Romantically pained Creature from Shelley’s original novel would never have managed. Later on, Jones adds another twist of black humour by suggesting that the Creature’s programming includes orgasmic delight at an enemy kill. This guarantees that the story has the edge and attitude normally associated with cyberpunk, but more importantly, it also means that the Creature here is a fighter, and not a subject of pity as in Shelley’s text.

It's alive? The 'birth' scene from Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987)

It’s alive? The ‘birth’ scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987)

And in fact, it’s through cyberpunk ‘means’ that the hint of complete emancipation appears to suggest itself. While the beginnings of the asset’s career as a patchwork soldier are as abject as ever — they even recall Robocop‘s forced resurrection as a hybrid fighting for someone else’s agenda — the gleeful bite as she/it reveals just the programming has been circumvented is a joy to read.

A spirited and inspired mash-up of key strands of the sci-fi genre (at least from my admittedly limited POV) with a highly satisfying revenge kick to round things off.

Read previous: Martin, Falksen

 

 

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #10 | Martin, Falksen

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and 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.

eternal-frankenstein

The Un-Bride; or No Gods and Marxists by Anya Martin

The New Soviet Man by G.D. Falksen

You’ll forgive the slowing down in pace between the last installment of the read-a-thon and this entry; I shifted country for a few weeks and had a bit of a break in between, only to return to the island homestead to the news of America’s surprising election result.

As luck would have it — or whatever variant of luck, chance or coincidence you want to call this, given the circumstances — there is not one, but two stories in Lockhart’s anthology that riff on the history and mores of what is supposedly the polar opposite of the current US president-elect’s ideological barometer: Socialism.

However, this being an American anthology dominated by the work of American writers itching for ways to respond to Mary Shelley’s text in a way that also scratches various pop culture itches, it’s hardly surprising to discover that the stories in question don’t seek to delve into the intricacies of Socialist and Communist ideology for penetrating insights.

For the most part, both Anya Martin and G.D. Falken’s contributions to Eternal Frankenstein play on American perception of the ‘Red Scare’, attacking this perennial barnacle of US popular culture from different angles.

Martin refines her angle of attack even further, placing us in the shoes of none other than Elsa Lanchester — the English-born American actress who brought none other than the Bride of Frankenstein to life in the iconic 1935 James Whale film. It’s also a story that contains the line, “Those crazy communists had saved the brain of the daughter of Karl Marx!”, which tells you all you need to know about where Martin is going with this.

bride-of-frankenstein-bride-screaming

Scream Queen: Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

An inspired piece of tongue-in-cheek pulp, the story juggles unlikely romance and less-likely forays into body-reanimation as enabled by Soviet double-agents. What distinguishes it in narrative clip and stylistic approach is Elsa’s distinctive voice. She’s a coquettish but intelligent guide that takes the story’s many spirited twists in stride, giving us a female protagonist in a man’s world who can more than handle herself — she does it while maintaining her wit and poise too (though it must be said, she’d hardly a match for her own — rather formidable — mother in that regard.

G.D. Falksen — also known as the guy whose picture you find when you Google ‘Steampunk’ — takes a flintier approach. The frankly assembled third-person story has our Frankenstein figure trying his damnedest to manufacture the titular New Soviet Man away from the watchful eyes of Stalin and while ensconced in the bowels of a freezing Kazakh steppe.

Our entry point into this world is Captain Sergeyev; an uncompromising apparatchik if there ever was one, and one whose well-being we’re emotionally primed not to care about too much, dour little customer that he is. Which is good, because while Falksen metes out what could be considered something  of a predictable denouement for him,  it’s falls on the rather pleasurable side when it does arrive.

Karel Roden in Frankenstein's Army (2013)

Karel Roden in Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

A central moment in the story — in which the Doctor suggests that going from Fascist to Communist fanatic is more or less as easy a flicking a switch, for him — reminded me of a similar quote in the otherwise gleefully pulpy Frankenstein’s Army (2013); which takes the more traditional route of having Frankenstein as Mengele (rather than a renegade Communist weird scientist).

If nothing else, both Martin and Falksen prove that war and its fallout is ripe pickings for Frankenstein stories, with many corpses vulnerable for desecration by the equally numerous ideological nut-jobs ready to tinker with them… while the still-living attempt their Creature’s shamble back into normal life with varying degrees of success.

James Whale himself certainly knew it.

Read previous: Betty Rocksteady

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #9 | Betty Rocksteady

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and 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.

eternal-frankenstein

Postpartum by Betty Rocksteady

And so, Ross E. Lockhart impresses me with his sharp editorial skills once again. Just last review, I was speaking about how we in fact don’t speak about Frankenstein as a book about artistic creation all that often, spurred on by what seemed to be a subtle treatment of that very same strand in Michael Griffin’s novelette ‘The Human Alchemy’.

But turn the pages over to the next story on the TOC — Betty Rocksteady’s ‘Postpartum’ — and bang! there it is. Nothing subtle about  it: Rocksteady decides to not only place that metaphor at the front and centre, but to make it the main motivating engine of her contribution to Lockhart’s anthology.

However, the title also suggests a more pained and universal fact of human life, and one that will also remind us of another key element in the fabric of Mary Shelley’s original text. Rocksteady’s protagonist is a reluctant teenage mother who has lost her sweetheart soon after their baby — the poor, unfairly derided Timmy — is born, and her first-person narration does very little to endear us to her plight beyond the fundamental misery, and recent tragedy, that underlies her existence.

Still from Hannibal, 'Trou Normand' (Season 1, Episode 9)

Still from Hannibal, ‘Trou Normand’ (Season 1, Episode 9)

Rocksteady uses this to create suspense — the central artistic creation could easily be something out of NBC’s Hannibal — but the idea of a mother rejecting her child of course also recalls Victor Frankenstein’s heart-breaking (and instant) rejection of his own Creature.

But where Victor Frankenstein is all neurotic self-justification in his own version of events — really, it reaches Humbert Humbert like proportions at times — Rocksteady’s teenage narrator has no such qualms, coming across as bratty at best and downright spiteful at worst. This only increases the aforementioned suspense, because in that mental state, our otherwise powerless (psychically and economically) protagonist gains an unsettling degree of amoral freedom.

Rocksteady’s story is at its most affecting when the emotional satisfaction of creating art is being detailed: the only real relief that our narrator gets, and one that his sanctioned by her doting mother, who knows full well that art is her only real method of release. The trouble is that the raw matter used in the act of creation preclude the essential beauty of the idea, much like Victor Frankenstein’s ambitions to create life ex nihilo lose their luster when confronted with the groaning hodge-podge Creature springing into life and demanding to be recognised and loved.

A taboo-prodding tale with a shocking ending that’s fully earned.

Read previous: Michael Griffin