Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #12 | Jonathan L. Howard

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

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Without Within by Jonathan L. Howard

One of the great joys of the anthology under discussion is that Tanzer and Bullington appeared to have transferred their shameless enjoyment of literary pastiche to their contributors, so that most of the 22 tales crackle with the lively literary fetishes being fulfilled.

This has resulted in some funny, pulpy entries that will go down a treat with readers endowed with corresponding interests. Howard’s story, however, is remarkable and enjoyable for taking something of an opposite tack.

Being a story of Lovecraftian happenings in a suspicious tunnel inspected by a military regiment during the English Civil War, the itch that this would have scratched for me would be something like Ben Wheatley’s mad masterpiece A Field in England — set in the same era and featuring what appear to be drug-addled protagonists trapped in the titular field by some mysterious, cthonic force.

A Field in England (dir. Ben Wheatley, 2013)

A Field in England (dir. Ben Wheatley, 2013)

Instead, Howard’s tone is sober and disciplined, which ultimately results in a fine work of weird fiction whose strangeness is embedded, and eventually serves to undermine, the sober, stiff-upper-lip attitude embodied by our main character, Major Bell.

What starts off as little more than a logistical headache for Bell — who has to repair a broken wall while his men mutter about a mysterious ‘tunnel’ nearby — turns out to be a descent into a nightmare world occupied by ancient and seemingly unstoppable horrors.

So far, so Lovecraft — and the excavation aspect of the story reminded me of the Lovecraft original The Rats in the Walls in particular. The overall structure of the tale doesn’t venture too far off from the Lovecraft schema of Curious Discovery –> Madness, but Howard’s sensitive and haunting prose style lends its own weave to the cosmic horror tradition.

“It was manlike, but whether it had ever been a man he sorely doubted. It was more in the nature of a device in the form of a man, as though some ancient corpse had been the pencil sketch and the final shape the inking of an artist who had never seen a man and allowed new fancies into the design.”

See what I mean?

Read previous: Andrew S. Fuller, M.K. Sauer

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #8 | John Hornor Jacobs

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

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The Children of Yig by John Hornor Jacobs

Jacobs’s story isn’t the only entry in the collection to channel Norse mythology and/or vikings, and this isn’t exactly surprising. As evidenced by the hit History channel TV show — entitled, simply, Vikings — that historical period continues to gain pop culture traction.

There is something irresistible about the power and freedom implied in the figure of vikings. Or, at least, our perception of them. And although history is a porous thing and we will never get our facts one hundred percent straight, venerating what was essentially a raping-and-pillaging band of marauders is suspect, at best.

But we do it anyway, because the engines of desire — with apologies to Lydia Llewellyn — operate on an amoral setting, and what we find appealing we’ll continue to find appealing despite any curveballs thrown our way by conventional ethics. The Vikings show is the clearest case in point imaginable: a show populated by impossibly beautiful people in impeccable costumes and which liberally mixes historical fact and myth so as to better tease at our magnetic attraction to all that’s related to the ‘viking’ brand.

And just like Game of Thrones appears to suggest a connection between Norse heritage and Lovecraft through the House Greyjoy cephalopod sigil, so John Hornor Jacobs taps into both of those things to deliver a merciless story of two forces of destruction colliding over the bodies of their myriad, hapless victims.

Tourism Ireland hops on the House Greyjoy wagon

Tourism Ireland hops on the House Greyjoy wagon

The most striking and admirable thing about Hornor’s story, however, is that it doesn’t in fact play into the all too common romanticization of Viking culture. Instead, he presents the marauders for what they are — merciless killers who will do anything in the name of loot and waste no time with sentimentality.

Clive Standen as Rollo and Travis Fimmel as Ragnar in The History Channel series Vikings

Clive Standen as Rollo and Travis Fimmel as Ragnar in The History Channel series Vikings

Something of a coming-of-age story for the young Grislae, ‘The Children of Yig’ does not, however, care too much about making you feel any sympathy towards the raiding protagonists. The plight of their victims — often impoverished villagers who are, in turn, often women and children — is rendered in harrowing detail, and the indifference of their aggressors is a stark slap in the face.

In this world, it’s only the Great Old Ones that can offer significant — and, once again, equally amoral — resistance.

A rich story that courses with blood and dread.

Read previous: A. Scott Glancy

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

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

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Trespassers by A. Scott Glancy

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

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

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

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

Adventure time? The Revenant (2015)

Adventure time? The Revenant (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

Read previous: Jeremiah Tolbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Brock/Venom by Todd McFarlane

Eddie Brock/Venom by Todd McFarlane

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

Read previous: Carrie Vaughn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it reminds me of

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

Eagle of the Ninth

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

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

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

Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko in Centurion (2010)

Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko in Centurion (2010)

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

Wishing you a better, stranger future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Witch

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

Valhalla Rising – Theme – Peter & Peter Kyed

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

Burn the Witch – Queens of the Stone Age

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

From the day job: Bats vs Supes and Norse sagas now

Signal to nothing: Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Signal to nothing: Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I had a couple of fun articles out in last Sunday’s edition of MaltaToday.

One of them is a review of that obscure indie film that’s garnering obscene amounts of critical attention, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The other was actually satisfying to research and execute: an interview with Icelandic poet and fiction writer Gerður Kristný, who will be visiting our shores on the occasion of the Campus Book Festival, taking place at the alma mater this midweek.

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The fight of the century? Hardly. Loving Batfleck’s chunky digs though.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was, to my eyes, clumsy and misguidedly grandiloquent as its chunky title would suggest. And while there’s no love lost between me and Zack Snyder – much to his pained consternation, I’m sure – I didn’t go into the film as a hater, and wanted to enjoy it as, at least, the kind of omnishambles mess of the Jupiter Ascending ilk.

Alas, the film was a plethora of missed opportunities for fun and games because it was clearly all about setting up a future franchise to compete with Marvel’s already far-advanced “shared universe”, and while the film got a lot of flack for being joyless due to Snyder’s continued efforts to ape Christopher Nolan’s billions-raking reinvention of Batman, I think the real reason it felt bereft of the adrenaline jolt of pulpy fun was that it wasn’t in fact allowed to be pulp because it needed to do double-duty in setting up DC’s response to the Marvel behemoth, asap.

Gerður Kristný • Photo by Þórdís Ágústsdóttir

Gerður Kristný • Photo by Þórdís Ágústsdóttir

Gerður Kristný told me quite a few interesting things, but perhaps the most striking are the following:

“The original meaning of the word stupid (‘heimskur’) in Icelandic refers to the one that is always at home (‘heim’). People believed it would bring wisdom to leave your island and travel. We still believe so.”

“Coming from a country not many people know gives you opportunity to reinvent yourself, make up stories about yourself and your country.”

There was also some stuff about the Icelandic landscape and the island’s much vaunted literary culture – and what I loved is that no bubbles were burst in my conception of what looks to be a truly magical place, which I hope I’ll get to visit some day soon.

Bodying

 

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Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesinger in Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale)

“The only woman’s body I had studied, with ever-increasing apprehension, was the lame body of my mother, and I had felt pressed, threatened by that image, and still feared that it would suddenly impose itself on mine. That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them. Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children who clung to their skirts and wanted to be picked up. And, good God, they were ten, at most twenty years older than me. Yet they appeared to have lost those feminine qualities that were so important to us girls and that we accentuated with clothes, with makeup. They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia? Would Fernando leap from her delicate face, would her elegant walk become Rino’s, legs wide, arms pushed out by his chest? And would my body, too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body, but my father’s? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighborhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire, Anaximander and my father, Folgore and Don Achille, valences and the ponds, aorists, Hesiod, and the insolent vulgar language of the Solaras, as, over the millenniums, had happened to the chaotic, debased city itself?” – Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein) 

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Read previous: WARING

Loneliness relief: collaboration & writing

Having slogged three years to write a debut novel – that’s really a novella – I’m finding myself more and more drawn to collaboration as a default mode of planning for and engaging in future projects.

It’s partly to do with wanting a fresh start – Two was revelatory and educational to write, but also a fearful trudge with no apparent end in sight (personal matters which coloured the narrative itself, and others that didn’t, further cast a shadow on the experience).

But it’s also simply down to that alchemy of opportunity and the desire to experiment with different forms. As is the same with most of my generational colleagues – I suppose – experiencing fiction was always a multi-media experience for me: what with cartoons, comics, video games, cinema and literature usually existing side-by-side, and even more so now that ‘media convergence’ is such a blatant aspect of everyday life that even the term itself sounds redundant.

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A comic book project of mine is currently on the rocks, but some TV/film based stuff might just take off. Either way, the process of creation for each of these things was markedly different to what I experienced with the novel.

Brewing largely in my head throughout its three-year conception period, Two was as obstinate and unwieldy a draft of novel that you can imagine – perhaps more true than ever in this case, with a parallel narrative structure defining its contours.

The new projects, on the other hand, are being put together in an atmosphere of constant dialogue – quite literally,  plot points and character beats are drafted in conversation (with a whiteboard and marker never too far behind).

I’m finding it to be a great way of busting out of the warrens of endless possibility on the one hand, crippling self-doubt on the other, which tend to characterise the pitfalls of writing prose fiction from scratch. Collaboration both gets you out of your own head to enjoy some fresh air, and forces you to ‘make your case’ to another person at every turn.

Discovering the joys of structure mechanisms for storytelling is also something of a revolution for me. Again, like most people I know – or know of – I was initially sceptical of applying any form of overt structure to any piece of fiction I write a priori. For the usual reasons, of course: takes the fun out of it, ruins spontaneity, etc. Breaking out of that prejudice and exploring these options is proving to be far more liberating that I’d previously thought. But that’s something I’d like to talk about further in a future blog.

Here’s hoping that you’ll also hear more about the aforementioned projects here soon. Meanwhile, click here for all you need to know about Two, including where to order it from.