Worldcon 75 (draft!) schedule

They keep insisting that it’s a DRAFT schedule and that it’s subject to cataclysmic upheavals at any given moment, but it gave me something of a pleasant rush to discover that a progamme for Worldcon 75 is now out.

I’ll be on two panels, which are the following:

programme

The ‘European myths’ one should be fun, while the latter is bound to be informative and somewhat cathartic (at least for me).

My own fractured European identity has provided me with plenty of subconscious fodder for fiction — the most significant of which is still forthcoming, I suspect — while my more direct use of Maltese folktales in Two is actually folded into the story in a way that obscures rather than illuminates the original work… which will be fun to reconsider, and potentially discuss with others.

With regards to ‘Coping Strategies’… I’m actually hoping to learn more from the others present, as I feel that the discussion has been somewhat exhausted in the Maltese sphere. Much like the geographical limits of the island, it tends to run in a churn of “Our audiences are small –> Translation options are limited –> As are international publishing networks –> Repeat.”

Having hovered over my co-panelist’s bios, it seems as though this year’s Worldcon is already living up to its promise to connect participants to a wide, international network of writers. Also, I must admit that sharing desk-space with the great Hal Duncan is something of a fanboy thrill.

Hope to see a lot of you there!

*

My visit to and participation in Worldcon 75 is supported by Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund

Two – Now on Amazon

My debut novel, Two, has finally made its way to Amazon (UK).

Two by Teodor Reljic. Cover by Pierre Portelli

Cover by Pierre Portelli

Published in March 2014 by Merlin Publishers, Two was a culmination of a total of three years of work, starting out as flash fiction piece for Schlock Magazine, evolving into a Nanowrimo project before finally being beaten into the shape of a parallel narrative — whose main trigger stemmed from Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, though the content could not be more dissimilar — that is part coming-of-age story, part love letter to Malta’s evocative landscapes (both urban and maritime) and part a vindication of the love of books.

I spoke about a significant three-year anniversary recently, and it seems as though 2014 was a fairly significant year for me. The subsequent years have been rather more experimental — which was a necessary and enriching step — and I hope that a lot of the non-novel projects that I have been working on (comic book, film-related and other media work) will yield some fruit pretty soon.

In the meantime, I surprised myself by starting to work on something else on the sidelines. Something which is not distant from Two in both form and spirit…

Click here to order Two 

Click here to find out more about Two

Utopia for whom? | Interview with Gregory Norman Bossert

antae

Detail from Kinzénguélé, 2003, Moukondo, Brazzaville

The new edition of the postgraduate journal Antae has come out earlier this week, and it features an interview I’ve had the pleasure of conducting with Gregory Norman Bossert — award-winning short story writer and pre-visualisation/layout artist for Industrial Light and Magic.

Though this is not the first time I’ve chatted with Greg for the purposes of an interview, this time around we had a specific — though certainly expansive — focus for our conversation, as determined by the publication’s theme this time around.

The subject was the nature of, and the possibility or impossibility of imagining what a Utopia would look like.

Going by previous interactions with Greg I’ve had in the past, I knew he would be an ideal candidate for this contribution, given his direct engagement with speculative fiction of various hues, as well as his thorough knowledge of the literary context in question.

“To propose a functional utopian reality is thus to propose the utopian person. In fact, following on my second point above, a functional utopian proposal must not just propose the existence of this utopian “for whom”, but their creation. And again, such works founder not just on the complexity of the social and psychological sciences, but on the brutal tradition of such attempts. The ties between 20th century Futurism and Fascism are an easy warning here.”

Read the full interview here

 

By all means, paint yourself into that corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please support MIBDUL on Patreon

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

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

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

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

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

Standing tall: Still from Vikings (The History Channel)

Standing tall: Still from Vikings (The History Channel)

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

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

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

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

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

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Henry Fuseli (1790)

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent by Henry Fuseli (1790)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello launch

giovanni-bonello

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

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

Click here to read more about the book 

***

Toni Erdmann | Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full review

***

Rub Al Khali by Brikkuni | Album Review

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full review

***

Unintended | Theatre Review

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full review 

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.

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

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

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

MIBDUL: latest process video from Inez Kristina

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

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

capture1

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

capture2

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

capture3

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

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

Awguri, Giovanni Bonello: Gothic pastiche for an illustrious judge

giovanni-bonello

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

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

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

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

The Bard at the Bar: Debating Shakespeare

debating-shakespere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tod_008_state-of-the-weird-2017

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

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

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

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

the-weird

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

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

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

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

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

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

hankangveg

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

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

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

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

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

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

eternal-frankenstein

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

The New Soviet Man by G.D. Falksen

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

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

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

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

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

bride-of-frankenstein-bride-screaming

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

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

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

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

Karel Roden in Frankenstein's Army (2013)

Karel Roden in Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

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

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

James Whale himself certainly knew it.

Read previous: Betty Rocksteady