Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018 |Literary Intersections at Fort Manoel

To say that I’m deeply honoured to have been invited to participate in the 13th edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival is something of an understatement. While I can’t claim to have attended every single edition of the event, organised by local literary NGO Inizjamed, with the help of a number of crucial satellite bodies and initiatives, I certainly have fond memories of it which go way back.

I’ve covered the festival for MaltaToday back when it was still the “day job”, and you can check out some interviews on that score here and here. As it happens, the festival had also hosted one of my favourite writers, Marina Warner, and her conversation with Prof Gloria Lauri-Lucente during the festival’s 2015 edition was sensitive and illuminating, so much so that I took to Soft Disturbances to muse about it.

It is a festival put together with care, taste and conscientiousness, bringing together as it does local and international writers while boasting an unwavering political commitment that feels particularly urgent at this point in time.

I also get the impression that meeting and hanging out with the eclectic mix of writers who form part of this year’s edition — and which hail from countries as varied as Turkey, Iraq, Iceland and beyond — will be rather fun indeed.

mmlf 2018 press conf

Press conference announcing the festival – Studio Solipsis, Rabat – July 11

This year’s edition of the festival will be taking place at Fort Manoel in Manoel Island, Gzira on August 23, 24 and 25. I am slated to present my work on the second night, and will also be participating in the following festival pre-events:

August 17 – ‘Building a Story‘ – Gozo (VENUE TBC) – 10:00 to 12:00

This presentation will use the Reljic’s recent work — both already-published and currently in progress — to explore how stories in different media can be constructed. Taking this proposition somewhat literally, Reljic will speak about how locating the right tools and devices for a given story helps to make the narrative more robust and coherent, and keeps writer’s block and other crises at bay.

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August 19 – ‘Losing my Space‘ – Malta Society of Arts, Valletta – 20:00 to 22:00

Moderator: Immanuel Mifsud
Participants: Roger West, Arjan Hut and Teodor Reljic

Nature has always been the focus of literature, a source of renewal, spiritual, pure. The relation of authors with nature has changed because our landscapes and seascapes have changed, but nature remains a source of inspiration and concern, a concern transfixed by agony. How does the lack of natural environment and open spaces translate to literature? How do we write trees and fields when trees and fields are no longer? How do we write the colour of the changing sea? Our space and light are being stolen by buildings that reach for the sky. How does literature deal with this daylight robbery? How does it document our struggle for space?

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The participating writers for this year’s edition of the festival are:

Juana Adcock (Mexico/UK) | Clare Azzopardi (Malta) | Massimo Barilla (Italy) | Asli Erdogan (Turkey) | Jean-Rémi Gandon (France) | Arjan Hut (Ljouwert, Netherlands) | Laia López Manrique (Spain) | Caldon Mercieca (Malta) | Teodor Reljić (Malta) | Philip Sciberras (Malta) | Sjón (Iceland) | Ali Thareb (Babel, Iraq)

For more information and the full programme, click here

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On The Tee-Vee | Two & Some Favourite Books | Wicc imb Wicc

It’s been a bit of a strange month; something I’ll be delving into with cautionary coyness in a subsequent blog post. So much so that I’ve missed out on both writing some proper entries over here, and even simply putting up updates on cool stuff I’ve been involved in and invited to.

And one of these actually happened on exactly the day of the premiere of our last burlesque show — the latest thing I spoke about here in some detail before the hiatus. This was an interview for the television programme Wicc Imb Wicc (‘Face to Face’), put together by the National Book Council of Malta, recorded on the very morning of the premiere of Apocalesque. (In fact, beady-eyed viewers might just spot the remnants of hastily-removed cropse-paint eyeliner post-dress rehearsal the night before).

wicc imb wiccThe interview is now up online for all of you to check out, should you be up for hearing an extract from my novel Two — read out by the show’s host, the actress Antonella Axisa — and/or hearing me be interviewed by the same Antonella about some of the key themes and plot dynamics of the book itself. That’s all before my favourite segment of the show kicks in, however: talking about some of my favourite and most energising books.

Among them are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, and Moebius’ hallucinatory classic of a graphic novel, Arzach.

Find out more about Wiċċ imb Wiċċ here, and log on to the National Book Counci’s YouTube channel to watch previous episodes.

 

Short and Bittersweet | Pick of the Novellas | Neil Williamson, Immanuel Mifsud, Jonathan Ames

I like novellas. There’s something about their in-between state which really speaks to me, and makes me feel as though I can forge a more intimate connection with them than other genres and formats on either side of the word-count spectrum.

‘Full’ novels demand a commitment and immersion by proxy. They are to be consumed across various intervals, and the stops and starts make them more of an organising principle than something to be savoured — just like the prestige (or not-so-prestige) TV series a lot of them are ending up as these days, they need to be scheduled into your day until you finally complete them, before moving on to the next one.

And while the membrane separating short stories and novellas can be quite thin at times — a couple of thousand odd words here and there can land the tale in either one category or the other — there’s still something different in the experience of either.

Short fiction has the punch of the impressionistic moment in its favour — the sketch, the instant of revelation (or put another way, epiphany — as exemplified so often in that landmark short story collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners).

The novella, on the other hand, allows for the core ideas to unspool just enough to give them breathing room — at its best, it can be the perfect, attention-grabbing marriage between ‘thought experiment and narrative.

IMG_20180506_163237I thought a lot about this particular facility of the novella as I dug into The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2017). Set in a world where surveillance is paramount, the story focuses on Rhian Fitzgerald, a wordsmith for hire currently charged with ghost-writing the biography of Eloide Eagles, former lead singer of the subversive punk band The HitMEBritneys.

I was familiar with the Scottish writer’s short fiction prior to diving into The Memoirist, his first novella, and I found the same penchant for quirky ideas and sensitive portrayals of human beings — specifically, how they deal with situations that might feel off-kilter.

The Memoirist is also a masterwork in building up a near-future science fictional world without any recourse to crude info-dumping, all the while keeping the narrative threads working towards a fine, crystalline target.

This is also very much evident in his short fiction, and his amusing, politically sensitive story ‘Fish on Friday’, from the collection Secret Language, is one of my favourite examples of this… and a close thematic fit to The Memoirist, which offers a similarly low-key take on what would otherwise be considered technological dystopias.

While her subject — an aging punk rocker famous for her anti-surveillance stance — would slot in comfortably as the protagonist in more cookie-cutter cyber-noir stories, here Williamson has the far more laissez-faire Rhian experience that journey.

After watching a historical live performance by Eagles — in which she angrily denounces the new surveillance status quo — Rhian confesses to finding it “difficult to sympathise with her anger”.

“No one had ever been going to strip the public completely of their privacy. If anything, now, your private things were more private. There were clear lines. As long as you observed them, you were fine. So what if we all had to be on all the time these days? To pay more attention to our appearance and watch our P’s and Q’s a bit more, under the gaze of family, friends, schools, bosses, colleagues, clients […] It was all about being a better public person. A small price to pay for a safer world.”

Such a cloyingly ‘neutral’ position is a perfect vantage point through which we can be introduced to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, and Williamson deftly calibrates both the necessary exposition and our sympathies for the protagonist.

This is a character-driven slice of cyberpunk, with a clear idea at its centre and a satisfying structure that perfectly fits the novella format.

The Memoirist takes advantage of the narrative economy offered up by the novella, operating on satisfying narrative beats that hearken back to the noir genre that’s always lying nested in any cyberpunk work worth its salt. But while the slim, ‘movie-length’ page count can give us a certain satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, the ability to depart from narrative convention without taxing the readers’ attention all that much is another advantage of the novella, I find.

IMG_20180506_163200I certainly found this to be the case with Immanuel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem Tal-Missier (u Tal-Iben) (‘In the Name of the Father (and Of the Son’)). Nestled as it is somewhere between novella and memoir — with frequent and appropriately-footnoted recourse to literary theorists like Helene Cixous — Mifsud’s landmark work of contemporary Maltese literature, now translated into several languages, packs both an emotional and intellectual punch.

“On the 21st Dec 1939 I joined the British army and was enlisted in the 2nd Battalion. The King’s Own Malta Regiment, this regiment was stationed at St. Andrews barracks and we were instructed by the NCOs of different units. The first day that I spent at the barracks I was very happy, my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment and how to clean the Rifle.”

So Mifsud introduces us to the voice of his late father, soon after his death, and just as Mifsud has become a father himself. He plucks the entry verbatim from an old diary, and prompted by that same fount, Mifsud applies an impressive intellectual rigour to what is, clearly, also a richly emotional landscape.

Scholar, poet, prose writer… the amorphous format of the novella allows Mifsud to tap into all of his varied talents. Some of the passages in the book build precisely with the musical crescendo of a poem, but then Mifsud also dips into a rich found of contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to explore the implications of his father’s legacy on his own psyche.

It’s a profound and utterly honest work that bears revisiting, and fortunately, the novella format makes repeat readings an all the more palatable experience.

IMG_20180506_163054But the final novella I’m going to look into is so ringed with bleakness that repeat readings may not exactly be the thing you end up craving as you put it down… however, that’s not to say that Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here doesn’t encourage you to keep those pages turning… thus ensuring that you’ll likely have it done and dusted in roughly the same amount of time it’ll take you to finish its superlative film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay.

Mining a furrow of contemporary noir so dark you’d be forgiven in assuming that Ames was really just arranging the genre’s grisly puzzle pieces to get a rise from the readership (a pinprick-accuracy that is reflected in the book’s sparse style), the book finds former FBI agent and Marine, Joe, take on a case that leads him into a spiraling underworld of corruption and sexual depravity.

Though Ames certainly does get mileage out of Joe’s effectiveness at meting out calculated violence, this isn’t a book that’s dripping in machismo — which, again, gave Ramsay an excellent entry point from which to construct a tonally rich though no less harrowing thriller — but rather, in a legacy of fatherhood that’s far more toxic than anything we see explored in Mifsud’s volume.

Left to care for his sickly mother, Joe is in turn hollowed out by years of abuse at the hands of his father. His attempts to find redemption leave him stuck on a loop; he rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, but this rarely salves any of the pain left by his father — pain inflicted even by implements such as hammers. And in what becomes a clear-as-crystal illustration of the cyclical nature of abuse, hammers end up being Joe’s favourite tool of the trade because, “He was his father’s son after all.”

“Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone. It held some universal place of terror in the human mind. The unexpected sight of it raised in Joe’s hand would always momentarily paralyze his enemies, and those few seconds of paralysis were usually all he needed.”

Made up of perfectly pruned sentences that move the narrative along as if it were a film just unfolding in front of you, the adaptation feels like something of a foregone conclusion. But leaving that aside for a minute, Ames’ slim-and-grim story made me crave for more of this stuff. Because dark as it is, being able to slip into such a world in the full knowledge that the story will never drag, that its moments of violence and revelation will soon peak to a crescendo without the risk of getting lost along the way… these are the things that make me thankful for novellas.

The everyday dissolving boundaries | Order vs Chaos | Elena Ferrante

Making some kind of order out of chaos is one of the main things we all do, whether that consists in writing a journal entry like this one, working on a novel or even, simply, by making sure the dishes and laundry are being seen to, or that the kids are sent off the school and that everything is okay with your friends and relations, as you send them that missive by phone, email or WhatsApp – a missive that’s been a long time coming but which, now that you’ve sent it, you feel has lifted a weight – however tangential – off your back.

But whatever order you manage to create always ends up being temporary; it’s a order that needs to be worked on like a gym routine, otherwise you risk stagnating or – worse – devolving into a somehow ‘lesser’ state of being (a conflicting metaphor given the weight-loss-laden image of the gym routine, I know).

Having finally arrived at the fourth and concluding volume of Elena Ferrante’s incredible ‘Neapolitan Novels’, I’m getting the creeping sense that this observation above – the idea that we’re always dogged by a ‘lack’ that needs to be filled, by an order that needs to be imposed – is one of those rare facts of life that transcends race, gender, nationality or social class. Sure, the details of it may vary – organising your life with a view to simply having a better ‘work life balance’ vs organising your life in a way as to ensure your family is safe from the grip of a dictatorial militia are two entirely different things – but I’m increasingly warming to the idea that being framed, compromised and belittled by the forces of chaos is one of the more consistent elements of the Great Human Tragedy.

In the final novel of Ferrante’s much-celebrated quartet – one that I’m only just halfway through at the moment so please, no spoilers – we finally get a full explanation of Lila’s theory of “dissolving boundaries”; hinted at several times across the scope of the novels, with a superlative grace and tact by this expert writer, who works through the tangled nerve centres of life to pluck out key details in a way that appears to conform to the inherent randomness of the life-flow, though of course it’s anything but.

“She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogenous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that — it was absolutely not like that — and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped”

The torrential confession, the sudden and thorough explanation of a psychological bugbear that had been hanging on to Lila — since birth, apparently — arrives right after a literal earthquake that strands her and Elena — our narrator and Lila’s life-long best friend — in a car, as they wait for the chaos to subside enough so that they can at least get home, check on their loved ones.

It’s a moment in which what was previously repressed can no longer be held in, when even the vulnerability of the previously controlled Lila comes pouring out. The true kicker comes just after the above passage, however, as Lila describes how this very tendency — a kind of Imp of the Perverse that dominates her worldview — has never really allowed her to experience moments of calm or beauty for a long enough time.

Because of the merciless gaze she’s burdened with, she cannot help but unmask all appearances for the venality and ugliness that lies within.

We could, of course, reduce all this to the trauma of growing up in impoverished post-war Naples; where fascists and Camorrists jostle for supremacy amid their working class environs, and where someone with Lila’s non-conformist streak had to cultivate a steely facade in order to not only survive, but to thrive (in contrast to Elena, who survived by keeping her head down and thrived by moving elsewhere).

We could reduce it even further by resorting to armchair psychoanalysis; by assuming that Lila suffers from some degree of anxiety disorder or other.

But neither of these interpretations feel sufficient. Though the messy accumulation of life’s details — the four volumes can, in effect, be looked at as a single tome representing the kaleidoscope of a full life — as contrasted with the imposing, steely moor of Lila’s existence and perceptions, we see the conflict between Order and Chaos play out in unique force.

When we lie awake at night worried about health, taxes (money in general), our widening ambitions and the thinning out of time, we are all thrust in the same morass that Lila is wading through (apparently, every single day, every single moment).

The world has it that we need to get up, get dressed, go to work, tend to our house and expand as necessary. But more often than not, it feels as though the natural state of ‘the world’ is one that favours chaos, and that if we were to truly ‘relax’, the darkened pit is the only thing that would welcome us.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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.

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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…

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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.

Late Summer Update | National Book Prize & Encore

A couple of updates while I hack away at yet more deadlines while trying to squeeze in creative work, as per this, earlier, mini-essay on the travails of cramming in too much work out of necessity, but against the interests of what we can very loosely call ‘the soul’.

While the summer continues its sweaty churn without wanting to give us any respite — though thankfully, our sojourn in Helsinki seems to have spared us the worst of it — a couple of happy developments have snuck their way into the pigeon-hole of life, much like the rare but welcome evening breeze that sometimes visits us during these meterologically trying times.

Here they are.

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello is up for the National Book Prize!

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For all its deadline-based hardship, this past year has also come with a number of fun commissions. Perhaps chief of them was being asked to contribute to Awguri, Giovanni Bonello — a festschrift in honour of Judge Giovanni Bonello turning eighty, and which was made up of a collection of historical fiction inspired by Bonello’s own forays into micro-history.

It was a sandbox I got lucky with, as my corner turned out to be a delightfully sordid and sensational one. Caterina Vitale was my subject — an ‘industrial prostitute’ who took over her husband’s pharmaceutical business soon after his death, and who is said to have used her erotic advances as a way to extract handy information from well-placed Knights of the Order of St John.

So of course, I went to town with it and turned it into a vampire story. ‘Bellicam machinam vulgo petart appellatam’ — not the snappiest of titles, I must admit — was great fun to write, especially since the subject matter gave me license to employ a highfalutin’ literary style that apes the Gothic tradition in more ways than one.

Complemented by sharp-and-pretty illustrations from Marisa Attard, the bilingual collection is a solid representation of where Maltese writing is right now. The eclectic roll-call of writers, summoned to respond to intriguing prompts, also suggests that more of such anthologies may be a good way forward for the local publishing scene.

I think we just may have a shot at this prize.

Editing Encore Magazine!

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Another exciting development is the news that, as of its 11th issue, I will be serving as editor for Encore Magazine — a quarterly publication dealing with arts and culture on the Maltese Islands.

While having served as the Culture Editor for MaltaToday for some years now — a post that I will continue to occupy week-in, week-out, I hasted to add — I also look forward to building on what Encore’s previous editor — my dear friend Veronica Stivala — established with the previous ten issues of the beautifully designed and put together magazine.

One of the main things I’m looking forward to with this particular project is being able to get out of the weekly grind when planning and writing articles. I’ve already been contributing to Encore for a few months now, and already the one-month deadline to pen a piece which, partly by dint of its quarterly publishing schedule, does not require one to be limited by micro-topical happenings, was something of a relief.

Coupled with always maintaining an international perspective on things — while always using the Maltese scene as a starting point — I hope we can continue to give the local cultural scene a good dose of ‘slow journalism’.

Because acceleration is the last thing we need right now.

 

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.

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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…”

Chatting is the thing | Worldcon 75

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Being overwhelmed is part and parcel of going to any convention. I would argue that it’s actually baked into the experience from the word go — the idea that you shove yourself into a large space — usually one with inordinately high ceilings — to experience specialised events and ‘network’ incessantly is not a recipe for being chill, exactly.

Worldcon 75, having taken place at the Messukeskus in Helsinki from August 9 to 13, was certainly one such experience for me, and judging by the exhaustion of many other science fiction, fantasy (etc.) writers and fans who I came into contact with over this intensive batch of days, I wasn’t the only one.

But neither would I say that it was all draining, or particularly difficult to grasp.

Part of this is down to just how much better a time I had at the Worldcon this year than I did back in 2014 — the so-called ‘Loncon’ in the — you guessed it — still-not-blighted by Brexit UK capital. Perhaps the event itself is not entirely to blame for my awkwardness (and I had my good friend Alistair Rennie guiding me through the worst of it anyway) but learning the ropes and pacing yourself is what the convention should be all about.

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Day One!

There’s also the fact that Helsinki seems to have attracted a batch of people whom I knew online but hadn’t yet had the pleasure to meet ‘IRL’ — largely thanks to the fact that I had lured them to participate in Schlock Magazine in some capacity, which now being more than ably run by my little sister. There was an especially nice symmetry to the fact that the lovely trio of Gregory Norman BossertKali Wallace and John Chu served as both a welcoming and a farewell committee for myself and my new bride (who was bemused by the whole affair but, I’m sure, enjoyed the company and is bound to have taken some lovely (film) photos of our various gatherings).

In what was to become another through-line for the trip, that trio are alumni of the celebrated Clarion workshops — just like two other friends I was lucky enough to chat with on more than one occasion during the Con; Haralambi Markov and Karin Tidbeck. The latter, whose novel Amatka you should definitely check out and who was among the many people kind enough to write me a recommendation letter as I applied for — and won! — the Malta Arts Council grant that allowed me to come to the Con in the first place, openly recommended that Clarion should be the next step forward for me.

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We shall see what the future holds in this regard… actually, let me rephrase that: I will have to see just how I can manage to rustle up the necessary funds to attend the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, since its benefits were made empirically evident for me throughout the Con.

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On a panel about European Myths and History (ambitious, much?)

Standing — or as was more often the case, sitting — shoulder to shoulder with the Clarionites for the best part of a week could easily have made me feel out of place, were it not for the fact that they were, for the most part, really nice and accommodating every step of the way. Perhaps the knee-jerk clubiness of Maltese culture is what leads me to assume that everyone ends up that way. When in fact, it’s certainly not the case; and going to events like this Con is a clear reminder that pretentiousness and ‘attitude’ of any kind is never helpful if you want to get ahead in any creative industry — be it based on writing or otherwise.

Indeed, I will remain forever humbled by some of the writers I’ve met and who, despite their success guaranteeing them a certain degree of autonomy, still found enough time to speak to me one-on-one and offer their professional advice in a candid and expansive manner. Part of that, I think, is borne out of a desire to ‘pay it forward’ after your own creative trajectory has been so tough (even if the rewards came, in the end).

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Sith Happens

It could be a dispiriting fact to remember, but I also find it inspiring. It’s a reminder this word-wrangling business isn’t just a ghostly pursuit, but a field whose steps you can climb.

***

There’s a lot more that could be said about the Con; or at least, a lot more that I could say from my perspective of it, which — owing to the overwhelming-by-proxy nature of the thing I detailed above — would necessarily be subjective to a fault. Starting with my own discomfort with certain performances of ‘fandom’ — hence my unsurprising focus on the dynamics between writers — and ending with my own perceptions of Helsinki itself — a beautiful, calming place that will hopefully get its own separate blog post — but I’d much rather leave things as they are: an airy but fresh perception typed out during a balmy Mediterranean night (so different to the cutting freshness of its bright, Finnish counterparts).

Because the fruit of the many conversations that happened at Worldcon 75 — and, should it not be obvious enough by now, the conversations are what I valued the most out of the entire experience — will be made evident later. When I actually have the time and energy to write out the ideas sparked off by these chats, and to follow up on the networking possibilities that they suggest.

Let this be a promise, to myself above all.

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Thanks to Gregory Norman Bossert, Karin Tidbeck, Jeff VanderMeer, T.E. Grau, Jon Courtney Grimwood, KJ Bishop, Chris Gruppetta and the organising team behind Worldcon 75 for helping me get to the con. My visit to and participation in Worldcon 75 was supported by Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund.