End of Year Favourite Things | Horror, Revisionism, Punishment and Thor(s)

As I’ve mentioned in my last post, December took it upon itself to welcome me with a nasty sucker-punch of the flu: a freelancer’s nightmare in a season when all the clients want things done in bulk so that everyone can rest up during the holidays.

But one upside of it all is being able to soak in all the stuff I would have soaked in otherwise, but with an added single-mindedness… partly owing to the fact that I could do little else and so was justified in spending days on end just reading and watching things.

So here are some recent things I’ve consumed and enjoyed during that period… though some of them were either consumed or begun before the illness hit. Either way, feel free to allow them to double-up as gift ideas. Am sure the indie creators on the list would appreciate that especially.

Tanzer_CREATURES_OF_WILL_AND_TEMPER_finalCreatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer (novel)

I was never too keen on the ‘& Zombies’ sub-genre of literature, if we can call it that. It just seems like such a one-trick-pony gimmick that to spread it out over an entire book — much less an entire unofficial series of them — just struck me as a bit redundant and silly.

Having said that, I did enjoy the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film, in large part because director Burr Steers deftly shot all of it as a Jane Austen pastiche first and foremost, with the zombies having to blend in with the established ‘heritage film’ mise-en-scene, rather than overpowering everything into pulp madness once they do show up.

Rest assured that Tanzer’s novel — a meticulously put together gender-swapped take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray — owes very little to the ‘& Zombies’ trend, save for perhaps this last element. When the supernatural element does rear its ugly head, it does so in world with firm period rules already established, and in a story about sibling angst that stands front-and-centre for the bulk of the running time.

The result is an experience that is both immersive and captivating; a Victorian pastiche and tribute to the legacy of Wilde that very much scratches those familiar itches, while also offering a fun, pulpy comeuppance in the end.

***

The-Man-Who-Laughs-CoverThe Man Who Laughs by David Hine & Mark Stafford (graphic novel)

The last thing I did before getting sick was attend Malta Comic Con 2017, and a fun time that was indeed. Meeting old friends and new under the spell of our geeky obsessions is an experience that’s tough to beat. I also spent an inordinate amount of money on comics and artwork and no, I regret nothing.

Particularly when it concerns undeniable gems such as these — a work that once again draws on a literary classic, though one certainly not as universally lauded as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

As writer David Hine writes in an afterword to this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s L’ Homme qui rit — perhaps more famous for a silent film adaptation starring Conrad Veidt which in turn inspired look of Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker — the original novel, a late-period Hugo miles away from the populist charm of a Les Miserables, is something of a convoluted, knotted beast whose socio-political digressions he’s had to cut down to ensure the story flows as well as it can.

The-Man-Who-Laughs_MEDIA_19

Mark Stafford, ladies and gentlemen

Stripped down as such, and aided by tremendous illustration work from artist Mark Stafford, the volcanic melodrama at the centre of the story — and it is a melodrama, though perhaps in the best possible sense of the word — is allowed to come to the fore, and I practically tore through the pages as my heart raced, yearning to discover the fate of poor perma-rictus-infested Gwynplaine and his fragile adoptive family.

Stafford’s work really is tremendous, though. His grasp of the grotesque idiom works to highlight both the social horror and sublime tragedy that frames the whole story, and the chalk-like colouring technique adds that something special to the feel of each page.

The assured lines and deliberate exaggerations brought to mind the work of Lynd Ward, and in any case — here’s a story that definitely shares some genetic make-up with God’s Man, dealing as it does with the venal, compromising nature of the world.

***

winnebagoWinnebago Graveyard by Steve Niles and Alison Sampson (comics)

Collecting all the single issues of the titular series, this is another gorgeous artefact I managed to pick up at Malta Comic Con, this time from its affable and keenly intelligent artist, Alison Sampson, who was kind enough to sign my copy over a chat about the comic’s intertextual DNA of ‘Satanic panic’ and folk horror.

It’s a lovely-to-the-touch, velvety volume that comes with generous backmatter expounding on the same DNA, but what’s in between isn’t half bad either.

A simple story about a family being shoved into a deeply unpleasant situation — i.e., an amusement park that dovetails into a Satanic human-sacrifice ritual — is elevated away from cliche by Sampson’s art, which flows from one panel to another — often letting rigid panel divisions hang in the process, actually — in a grimy-and-gooey symphony.

***

god butcherThor: The God Of Thunder (Vols. 1 & 2) by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic (comics)

More comics now, though this one only confirms that I’m as much of a lemming to the machinations of popular culture as anyone else. To wit: when Comixology announced a discount-deal on a bunch of Thor comics in the wake of the brilliant and hilarious Thor: Ragnarok, I bit like the hungriest fish of the Asgardian oceans.

I’m glad I succumbed to this obvious gimmick, though, because it gave me the chance to catch up with this gem of a story arc, which gives us three Thors for the price of one, all of them trying to stop not just their own Ragnarok but the ‘Ragnarok’ of all the gods of the known universe, as the vengeful Gorr vows to unleash genocide on every single divine creature out there.

The two storylines out of the run that I’ve read so far — ‘The God Butcher’ and ‘Godbomb’ — felt like such a perfect distillation of everything that makes superhero comics work. A grandiose, epic story of ludicrously huge stakes, sprinkled with a necessary indulgence in pulp craziness (Thor on a space-shark, anyone?) which is in turn deflated by the strategic deployment of self-deprecating humour (the sarcastic back-and-forth between the Thors is a pure delight).

Ribic’s art seals the deal though. His gods certainly look the part — they may as well have been carved out of marble — helped along by the clean, gleaming shimmer that is Dean White’s colouring work.

While I eagerly look forward to devouring the latter half of the series, this rounds off a great year in Norse-related literature for me, during which I’ve enjoyed Christine Morgan’s across-the-board excellent The Raven’s Table from Word Horde, while I’m currently devouring Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology — a book that so far displays the popular myth-maker’s slinky and pleasant way with words, if nothing else.

shark

***

The Punisher (TV)

the punisher

Another Marvel product that needs no signal-boosting for me, but which I found gripping enough through its 13-episode run, for some obvious and less-obvious reasons. Yes, updated as it is to insert a too-easy critique of the American military-industrial complex (though really, only of its “bad apples”), Frank Castle’s adventures offer an easy cathartic kick.

As the title character of another show I love dearly — far, far more dearly than The Punisher or anything else for that matter — would have it, “Doing bad things to bad people makes us feel good“.

But that wasn’t what stayed with me. What stayed with me was Frank’s very nature as a “revenant” — he’s even referred to as such by another character at one point — and how that’s hammered home by the fact that he’s made to operate from an underground lair as his true self, but that when he returns temporarily to the surface, it is as if he were alive again, but only when he wears his new disguise.

A mythic touch in a story that revels in its supposed grittiness, and a welcome one too.

Happy holidays to all!

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The kids of the demon haunted night | Starr Creek by Nathan Carson

We’re getting to see a lot of phenomena unspool over the pop culture sphere in recent years, months, even perhaps days — their frequency is a direct consequence of the kind of internet-related chatter that I wanna discuss here — partly because we’re now quick to label things as all-out phenomena, or at least consider them as such privately, even subconsciously.

We can attribute at least some of this tendency to gush about things to stratospheric profusion to the ease with which geeky enthusiasm can spread online — encouraged by the producers and promoters of the ‘art’ in question, the rudiments of Web 2.0 (are we past even that now?) are weaponised to make sacred fetishes out of even, frankly, the flimsiest of materials.

Stranger Things Eleven

Phenomenon: Millie Bobbie Brown as ‘Eleven’ in Stranger Things (2016, Duffer Brothers)

But although a lot of this may have just a temporary effect — a film, TV show, book or comic book series could arrive in an explosive flurry of online enthusiasm which turns to mere embers just a couple of days later — it’s an effect that imminently repeatable and desirable for those at the top of the food chain the Meat Factory of Story that can still — despite our aggressively materialist times — churn out big business for those who play their cards right.

And one sure-fire way of making big business in a world where semiotic signifiers are an important stepping stone to success (read: where a healthy-enough accumulation of hashtags and social media shares can actually alchemise into cold, hard cash) is to tap into a rich stash of references.

There’s a fine line between the kind of recognition and familiarity that can result in something feeling boring, repetitive and ultimately unnecessary… and the kind that evokes feelings of comfort, kinship and a desire for connection. Pull the latter off, and you’ve tapped into that strong fount of subconscious desire called nostalgia which, as anyone alive would tell you, means seriously big bucks.

Stranger Things 2

Who you gonna call? Nos-tal-gia! (Stranger Things 2, 2017, Duffer Brothers)

One phenomenon to tap into that same fount is the Duffer Brothers’ television series Stranger Things, first appearing on the Netflix streaming service last summer and definitively declaring itself as a bricolage of 1980s nostalgia for all of us to shamelessly enjoy. And enjoy it we did, en masse and with reckless abandon, even aided and abetted (for the most part) by an enthusiastic critical mass of professional reviewers that helped to validate our love for a show that pushes just the right nostalgia-buttons.

So brazen is its soup of references and Easter eggs — though the Duffers also make sure to craft a catchy-enough story and direct their child actors to perfection, to ensure that it does not just, in fact, become some detached postmodern experiment — that the show could almost be described in tones of pure ritual.

***

In the two seasons of it we’ve had so far, the running time has constantly dredged up one association after another, each of which — for those of a Certain Generation, at least — has recalled at least one touchstone from the movies of Steven Spielberg or the books-made-into-movies by Stephen King and an entire raft-load of others (though I would argue that, for all its busy panoply of references, ET and The Body/Stand by Me give us the strongest and most consistent associative threads here).

Starr Creek Book Cover

Yeah, we’ll be getting to this in a second. Promise.

With everything calibrated to create a perfect snap of recall in our minds, it becomes nothing short of a huge-scale communal exercise of shared mental experience across the hashtagosphere.

The show, whose seasons arrive to us in bulk — all the better to be binge-watched, all together — is a manifestation of Pure Archetype; but archetypes that are recent-enough to strike a real emotional chord, while also being just distant enough to feel as if they’re emanating from a subconscious place of buried, chthonic connections. (To wit: the 1980s is not Ancient Greece, even if Stranger Things’s Demogorgon evokes associations old-enough to pertain to the latter.)

Stranger Things demogorgon

This is certainly one layer of the ‘kids in ’80s getting into world-saving antics’ that a recent short novel emphatically does not partake in, even if it may embody the Stranger Things vibe in other aspects of its make-up.

I’m talking here about Starr Creek by Nathan Carson, a fun book written before Stranger Things was first aired, but which is also set in a rural American milieu during the 80s — specifically, a small town in Oregon in 1986 — and which also pits a band of kids against a supernatural threat that has chosen to make its nesting ground in their otherwise unremarkable suburban backyard.

Starr Creek Map

Starr Creek Rd, Oregon. Real place.

But unlike the fictional town of Hawkins in Stranger Things — which fittingly joins a tradition also espoused by Stephen King himself with the fake ‘Derry’ in Maine — the eponymous road of Carson’s Starr Creek is a real place, around which Carson himself grew up.

And while the main trio of kids that make up Carson’s cast of characters — Kira, Allen and Bron — share the same predilection for Dungeons and Dragons as their Stranger Things counterparts, they’re not exactly the eminently plucky and largely squeaky-clean lite-weirdos of the Duffer Brothers. These kids trip on LSD to enhance their D&D games, though when they start chasing around extra-dimensional entities in the woods, that enhancement gains an edge of sublime horror.

And the trio soon comes head to head with another couple of outsiders looking for kicks — in this case, a shameless though understandable quest for nudie magazines — but who end up poking a particularly dangerous avatar of said extra-dimensional creatures, in a way that may just threaten the very fabric of existence if the kids don’t band together to do something about it.

That synopsis makes Carson’s book feel no different than just the kind of phenomena I was describing earlier but as ever, the devil is in the details. Drawing on lived-in experience rather than a desire to exploit the collective unconscious by cherry picking, and stringing together, nostalgic genre touchstones, Carson draws on convention to create a fun framing narrative, while stuffing the rest with memorable, hard-won texture.

***

Starr Creek Review Nathan Carson

Nathan Carson in the book trailer for Starr Creek

The character of ‘Puppy’ who pushes us into the dark corners of this narrative from the word go quickly forces us to watch him eat dog food for money, and the kids’ interactions and overarching milieu is described with affection, yes, but never the kind of mawkish sentimentality that often threatens to tip Stranger Things over into something less than its potential demands. And the pop culture references that do feature in Carson’s book are made in-story, not meta-textually to score audience-engagement points… the kids lament the suddenly and unfairly jacked-up prices of comic books (75c!), they enthuse about The Last Starfighter and listen to Metallica…

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

And when it comes to the crunch, the Elder Ones are invoked in earnest. While the Duffer Brothers paid lip service to the legacy of controversial Weird Fiction behemoth HP Lovecraft by claiming that the super-demogorgon features in the second season of the show is inspired by the author’s infamous reason-shattering tentacular beasts, Carson’s more sanguine approach throughout ensures that the nihilistic core of Lovecraft’s work is also paid tribute to… for better or worse.

While the likes of Stranger Things will continue to massage us into pleasant nostalgic oblivion — appreciating the more horror-tinged second season despite the mis-step that was Episode Seven, I’m certainly looking forward to Season 3 — Carson’s slim, weird and vicious little novella offers a more ‘genuine’ take on the same sub-genre (come on, this kind of thing has surely solidified into a sub-genre by now).

A howl of partly-autobiographical mad fun by a doom metal drummer (Carson is a member of Witch Mountain), Starr Creek takes one glance at the archetypal melting pot before going on to its own thing… grabbing you by the collar and stringing you along the eponymous road on a demon-haunted night.

Halloween Reads | The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

“A memory was a thing with no shape, no mass, but indescribable weight. Words spoken in cold winter air, secrets shared, a sprint, a chase, a favor, these things had their own gravity, distorting everything around them like the heaviest star, shaping time and space even when the heart remained hidden.” – Kali Wallace

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These lines open the fourteenth chapter of Kali Wallace’s second novel, The Memory Trees, and they perfectly encapsulate the melancholy but deeply immersive nature of the author’s follow-up to Shallow Graves. Both novels are squarely targeted the ‘Young Adult’ crowd, but, happily, what the successor shares with its predecessor is also an appealing way of crafting characters who are sympathetic and beleaguered but never annoying, and whose ‘young adult’ parameters don’t stop its author from delving into some perennial themes.

The sixteen-year-old Sorrow Lovegood decides to take a trip back to her estranged mother’s rural home in Vermont from Miami, where she’s living with her dad and where, crucially, she is undergoing therapy — in large part due to the tragic (and still mysterious) death of her sister, Patience, eight years prior.

Hoping to find some much-needed emotional closure — and, even, to address some disquieting gaps in her memory pertaining to her sister’s untimely demise — Sorrow’s trip to Vermont ends up tumbling her into a fresh barrel of anxieties. While the (now mute) grandmother appears determined to serve as something of a gentle guiding hand throughout, her mother, Verity, only appears to have grown more neurotic as the years went by. A neurosis that manifests itself most potently whenever the subject of the dreaded Abramses is brought up.

For as we learn early on in this narrative in which the distant past is interlaced with the present, the feud between the Abramses and the Lovegoods stretches deep. And Sorrow’s family legacy is known to have something peculiarly ‘witchy’ about it…

kali wallace

Kali Wallace

The great thing, possibly the greatest thing, about The Memory Trees is that it remains a sensitive coming-of-age story despite the complex, time-hopping weave it’s dropped into. Even if we were to strip off the peculiarities of Sorrow’s situation — though why would we do that? — Wallace’s story would remain a valid exploration of growing up with both a tragedy and a secret hanging over your head, all the while trying to make heads or tails out of everything as your supposed adult superiors are of zero help.

A consistent characteristic of Sorrow’s relationship with her mother is the girl’s fear of saying the wrong thing, her aching need to walk on eggshells as she speaks to her. Apart from helping to form an image of Verity as a nerve-wracking Gothic matron in our minds, this quirk in their relationship is easy to relate to, and as Sorrow struggles to negotiate this psychological minefield, we’re with her all the way.

She even characterizes it as such at one point.

“Verity would ask her about the festival, and Sorrow would have to decide how to answer. She didn’t want to lie. She didn’t want to tell the truth. She hated the feeling that every possible thing she could say to her mother was a potential land mine, and she was navigating a path so narrow she could barely keep her balance.”

But the setting is also a character in and of itself, and Wallace certainly gets plenty of mileage out of it all being set on one farm, with the action and stakes calibrated on a long-drawn out ‘showdown’ between the two families: a showdown that is, perhaps, currently dormant, but which is rearing to bubble back up to the surface at the slightest provocation.

This palpable dread is masterfully turned into a creepy, autumnal vibe throughout the novel, which not only keeps the pages turning, but allows for moments of real beauty, too. Anyone with even a slight predilection for whatever we’re celebrating during Halloween will find something to love in Wallace’s evocations of the landscape; the valleys groaning with horror and promise, the huge, gnarly trees acting as ominous edges to the scene.

Because this is, after all, a book about memory. And memory has plenty of room for both trauma and nostalgia.

This review was based on an uncorrected proof of The Memory Trees, which is out on October 10.

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…”

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

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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