Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #15 | Carlos Orsi

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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The Argonaut by Carlos Orsi

In their introduction to the anthology, Tanzer and Bulllington described Brazilian author Carlos Orsi’s contribution as ‘Errol Flynn Goes To Hell’, and it’s a tantalizingly accurate description of what goes on in this ghoulish swashbuckler of a tale.

But the real hook of the story for me was the fact that this takes place on a Maltese vessel in what we can assume is roughly the Golden Age of piracy — and given that the Order of the Knight of St John had no qualms about sponsoring corsairs during their soujourn on the island, Orsi’s choice of setting and conceit is as apt as they come.

Nevertheless, the naval politics of the 17th century and their corresponding geo-historical context only matter up to a (sword) point in this fast-moving tale, whose key qualities lie in its cinematic scope and pace. Orsi conjures up some great images, but more importantly, he makes sure that things are constantly in motion. Stylistically, this is the polar opposite of Lovecraft, whose trembling paranoia inspires gloriously knotted prose that slowly but surely unravels a terrified but richly imaginative mind.

Bill Nighy as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise

Bill Nighy as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise

One would be tempted to throw Pirates of the Caribbean as an easy reference point for this tale on an unfortunate seaman charged with rescuing the husband of a Christian virgin aboard the aformentioned Maltese ship — which is assailed by shoggoths (subordinate figures in Lovecraft’s bestiary). Davey Jones would be the obvious figure that comes to mind once the bewitched sailors turn monstrous.

But Orsi’s prose — down to its rapid-fire style — actually recalls a more significant forebear: the work of Tim Powers. After all, On Stranger Tides was not just yet another (and ultimately disappointing) installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. It was actually the book that started it all: inspiring not just the theme park ride that in turn gave way to PoC film franchise, but also that other piece of piratical pop culture lore — the Monkey Island video game series.

On-Stranger-Tides-by-Tim-Powers

And Orsi’s story, with its no-nonsense protagonist and equally no-nonsense approach to storytelling and style, channels Powers’s ability to grip the reader and keep them there. The supernatural is a by-the-by inconvenience here, but a real one nonetheless; much in the same way as Blackbeard’s meddling with the dark arts is a key obstacle for our protagonists in On Stranger Tides.

Whereas the other story in the anthology to channel pirates does so with added lyrical and surrealist gusto, Orsi’s tale provides some classic thrills.

Read previous: Natania Barron

Fleaing

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Flea market, Birgu, Malta (2013)

“The flea market ethos, like many countercultural values, paid its respects to a modernist notion of prelapsarian authenticity. In an age of plastic, authentic material value could only be located in the “real” textures of the preindustrial past, along with traces of the “real” labor that once went into fashioning clothes and objects. By sporting a while range of peasant-identified, romantic proletarian, and exotic non-Western styles, students and other initiates of the counterculture were confronting the guardians (and the workaday prisoners) of commodity culture with the symbols of a spent historical mode of production, or else one that was  “Asiatic” and thus “underdeveloped.” By doing so, they singled their complete disaffiliation from the semiotic codes of contemporary cultural power. In donning gypsy and denim, however, they were also taunting the current aspirations of those social groups for whom such clothes called up a long history of poverty, oppression and social exclusion. And in their maverick Orientalism, they romanticized other cultures by plundering their stereotypes.” – Andrew Ross

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Read previous: BODYING
Read related: Flea markets and hypogeums

Turning Malta into an airport

There is something morbidly fascinating about Coruscant - the seat of the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars movies. But do we really want something like this to overtake our 'real' world?

There is something morbidly fascinating about Coruscant – the seat of the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars movies. But do we really want something like this to overtake our ‘real’ world?

The decision to transfer the land at Zonqor Point to Sadeen further proves that Muscat’s government is intent on turning Malta into, essentially, one big airport.

The social and cultural wellbeing of local life – in all its forms – will become further and further sidelined, in the interest of turning Malta into little more than a platform, a jumping on and off point for financially powerful international players able to pump money, but little else, back into the island.

Obviously, Muscat’s aggressive neo-liberal philosophy is an easy ‘sell’ in every sense of the word.

It’s easy because capitalism is the primary motor of the world right now, and so many will either be swayed immediately, or convinced to look the other way, when there’s an immediate inrush of money to be made.

One meme that has circulated ever since the Zonqor/ODZ debacle first started raging, was the old chestnut about the environment being a ‘middle class’ concern – something that only the bourgeois presumably had the luxury to cry over when others would welcome any boost to their pockets.

But Malta isn’t a poor country. Those proposing some kind of stark division between the haves and have-nots, particularly on vague – read: false – ‘cultural’ grounds are misguided in every sense of the word. Malta ‘needs’ this project like it needs a bullet to its – limestone – head.

Also, saying that the previous government did exactly the same thing as some kind of excuse to make the current mistakes seem better in comparison, is also deceptive and false.

If anything, it is precisely BECAUSE the previous government operated on the same principles that the need to safeguard our environment is becoming all the more urgent.

Supporting the ‘American’ University makes you neither a champion of successful government hustling for cash, and it certainly doesn’t make you a champion of the supposedly impoverished underclass that stands to gain from this toxic land-grab.

All it makes you is a supporter of the status quo.

A status quo that would sooner have Malta as an extension of the Malta International Airport.

Paved to ‘perfection’, with artificial outlets providing transitory needs for transitory people.

Of course, right after Muscat and co. have demolished all that is unique and attractive about the Maltese islands, the supposed economic excitement this is meant to engender will gradually fade away.

But of course, who will care at that point? The locals will be dulled into submission by promises of more money, or will have moved away in disgust. And Muscat’s decisions will have insulated him from any further unpleasantness or hurt.

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I’m writing this while I eagerly await a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in a beautiful Parisian cinema. On the one hand, the impulse of looking forward to a cash-boosted blockbuster – the legacy of which is actually directly wended to the financial behemoth of the blockbuster as we know it – appears to be in direct opposition to the sentiment expressed above.

But as with all things, it’s down to how you process them individually.

Various thoughts and feelings jostle within us at any given time.

The influence of Star Wars on how I viewed storytelling will always have an influence on anything that I do. As will my indignation – and yes, sense of powerlessness – at something like the Zonqor tragedy.

I’m hoping that something productive comes out of this alchemy, very soon. And with the help of some truly inspired friends and collaborators.

Popol Vuh and Malta

‘Krautrock’ band and frequent suppliers of soundscapes for Werner Herzog movies Popol Vuh are gradually becoming my ‘return to Malta’ soundtrack.

Since I often take two or three weeks off in August to skim off at least some of the time spent under the scorching heat we’re blessed with during summer, this means I return as it’s all just receding – that inevitable twilight hum that’s perfect for moody langour.

It all started with a crazy Dingli-Rabat hike in 2013

It all started with a crazy Dingli-Rabat hike in 2013

Nothing says moody langour like ’70s prog, of course, but I do find something in Popol Vuh’s sound that is particular to a Maltese landscape still stewing in summer’s juices.

Maybe it’s all about the temptation to take shelter from the sun, and in Malta said shelter would often come in the form of limestone blocks (trees would have a very practical application here, alas). And in Malta, limestone also means history, lots of it.

The rock is cooler than you

The rock is cooler than you

Shadows and barely-comprehensible ancient history – it’s no wonder that out of all of Popol Vuh’s albums, it’s their soundtrack to Herzog’s Nosferatu that I find most apt of all.

Ghar Lapsi

Zonqor

Chernobyl Barbeque

St Thomas Bay

Rabat blog6

‘Writing is too much fun’ | Jim Crace

Jim Crace at a press conference at the University of Malta earlier this month. Crace will be Writer in Residence there until December 19

Jim Crace at a press conference at the University of Malta earlier this month. Crace will be Writer in Residence there until December 19

My interview with novelist Jim Crace was picked up by the Man Booker Prize’s website this week. The acclaimed British author is currently holding court at the University of Malta – my alma mater – where he will be stationed as Writer in Residence and erstwhile mentor to local authors until December 19.

I’m very excited to form part of the intimate gathering of Malta-based writers who’ll be receiving advice and encouragement from Crace in the coming weeks. Initial meetings have certainly been morale-boosters. For a decorated novelist with a long and illustrious career behind him, Crace is as unassuming as they come, and it’s also refreshing to see him express a genuine interest in Malta, contrary to the tokenistic praise – delivered in press-friendly soundbites – by other celebrity visitors.

Here is what the Man Booker people had to say about all this:

Jim Crace, twice a Man Booker shortlistee, has been talking in Malta, where he is currently writer in residence at the university of Malta, about why he reversed his decision not to write another novel, and he credits, in part, the Man Booker itself. ‘I honestly wasn’t expecting to get shortlisted for the Man Booker again,’ he said about his 2013 shortlisting for Harvest. ‘Really, I thought that I was coming to the tail end of my career and just writing books for myself, essentially … but then along comes Harvest … and my career just bounced back again. Suddenly, what was gradually quieting down was even noisier than it ever was.’ This is good news for his legion of admirers. It is good to know that the prize can, while it can’t cure flu or the ageing process, nevertheless can have such a curative effect. Crace admitted another motivation too: ‘Ultimately the real reason why I returned to writing was simple: it’s just too much fun not to do it.’

Click here to read the full piece

Click here to read my interview with Jim Crace

Bits of October | The Favourite Season

Eye of the storm: M'Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

Eye of the storm: M’Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

The heat has finally decided to recede but the weather is still nice – October is equivalent to spring in Malta but it comes with Halloween attached, therefore it wins.

Traditionally associated with decay, the season has actually borne some fruit for me already, so it’s just a matter of maintaining a productive momentum now.

Some moments to boast about, because that’s how the web-generation rolls.

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Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

The New Weird anthology of short fiction and essays (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer) may not be the absolute best and/or influential book I’ve ever read, but it’s had a strong enough impact on my post-adolescence creative life to warrant at least its own custom dust jacket.

The anthology introduced me to M. John Harrison – ‘The Luck in the Head’ is proof that genre-inflected surrealism could really be a thing, with atmosphere to boot – and it made me sit up and pay attention to Clive Barker, as ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ showed me that far from being superficial trafficker in splatter, Barker is interested in tapping into the primoridal (at a stretch, ‘pagan’) strain of horror fiction. It has even led to friendship, as Alistair Rennie’s blistering, shocking and hilarious ‘The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines’ (the only original story in the anthology) made me seek out the author online, and a couple of years later I found myself sitting on the sofa of his plush Edinburgh pad showing him a video recording of a round-robin reading my friends and I performed of the story (in funny voices).

Its carnivalesque meld of genre elements and literary fiction made me feel like kindred spirits were around: that I could consolidate my since-childhood love of genre fiction with a newfound love of carefully constructed language and intertextual lit games. This spark was an extra kick in the butt to kick-start one of my enduring (collaborative) passion projects, Schlock Magazine, and the addendum essays gave a necessary backbone to my MA dissertation on the New Weird.

I knew my friend Sarah Micallef – aka The Secret Rose – would be able to meet this challenge, and then some.

Click here to get the full lowdown on how she put this baby together.

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Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Speaking of Schlock, this month we’re resurrecting from our summer-slumber (blame the aforementioned heat) just in time for – again – Halloween, and I’m quite happy with what’s in store.

Already up is our interview with prolific writer and editor of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories Mark Morris, along with a profile of Spectral publisher Simon Marshall-Jones.

I like the unsentimental approach Morris has towards fiction writing; an inevitable survival tool, perhaps, considering he’s written tie-in material for properties like Doctor Who, Spartacus and the Dead Island video game.

Here’s my favourite extended quote from the interview:

“I accepted the ‘Dead Island’ commission – an 80,000 word novel in four weeks, based on nothing more substantial than 15 pages of gaming notes. I panicked and sweated over that one for an hour or two after accepting it, and then knuckled down and within half a day produced a novel plan and writing schedule, which I stuck to rigidly. That then gave me the confidence to write a Spartacus novel, which again was an 80,000 words in four weeks job. I’d never seen the TV series and knew nothing about the ancient Roman Empire, but I said yes and just got on with it.”

In the weeks ahead we’ll also be featuring analyses on Penny Dreadful, along with an excellent essay on the ‘splatpunk’ horror sub-genre that delightfully skates a fine line between academic rigour and fannish enthusiasm.

Click here to read our full interview with Mark Morris.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

It has also been a good season for reading so far. I’ve finished Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves last night; having zipped through it in little over a week (a busy work week, I hasten to add). Though I think it’s ultimately not as hard-hitting and profound as it could have been (strong ideas are suggested but never allowed to fully take root), it remains an endearing and touching read. Fowler is clearly an effortless storyteller; there’s a fine balance of heart and mind all throughout, and the back-and-forth narrative is effervescent and rich.

On an entirely different tangent, Jeff VanderMeer’s conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy was both obliquely satisfying and inspiring. To some readers’ frustration, Acceptance deliberately refuses to wrap up every single mystery at the heart of Area X. But I found its oblique approach to be its most powerful quality.

Acceptance

In fact, ‘oblique’ is what is best about both the VanderMeer and the Fowler book. Among other things, memory is Fowler’s theme, and the fragmented hopping back and forth of her narrator Rosemary is what lends the book both its charming conversational rhythm and uncanny poignancy.

VanderMeer, on the other hand, enhances his genre-collage by coming at everything sideways and leaving plenty of leftover gaps for the reader. Gaps which, thanks to his left-field manipulation of genre details, create a creepy – in the literal sense of ‘creeping’ – effect over the proceedings.

I will be talking about the Southern Reach Trilogy with my good friend Marco Attard, for an upcoming edition of his Pop Culture Destruction ‘Destructcast’.

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The Southern Reach Trilogy is also about our mistreatment of the natural world and its enduring power despite all of this, so I was glad to experience some of nature’s wrath first-hand during a picnic-cum-hike at one of Malta’s few remaining spots of unblemished ‘nature’.

Far from being a damper on our outing, a sudden storm lent a welcome atmosphere to our adventure. We found shelter and watched the rain and lightning, and the mud-caked trip back ensured we experienced something of an adventure too.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to usher autumn in (see image above).

Housing

Birzebbugia, Malta, 2010

Birzebbugia, Malta, 2010

“I was taken with the thought that these were dream homes, literally: here was space from which history had been expunged, and an optical illusion of history set up in its place. The real houses were elsewhere on earth. Was this what one built when one lived with a sense of being precariously positioned in space and time? I imagined them all to be sleeping an enchanted sleep that would go on through the years, until they were embedded in a thick enough buildup of time to wake without vanishing into the air” – KJ Bishop

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Read previous: HOMING

Rapping

Dizzee Rascal performs at the Isle of MTV 2014 concert at the Granaries, Floriana, Malta. Photo by Ray Attard/Mediatoday

Dizzee Rascal performs at the Isle of MTV 2014 concert at the Granaries, Floriana, Malta. Photo by Ray Attard/Mediatoday

“I’m attracted to the idea that trickster narratives appear where mythic thought seeks to mediate oppositions. Just as Raven eating carrion stands between herbivore and carnivore (or, in my own earlier version, just as Raven stealing bait stands between predator and prey), so there is a category of mythic narrative, a category of art, that occupies the field between polarities and by that articulates them, simultaneously marking and bridging their differences. It is the tale in which Coyote tries to retrieve his wife from the land of the dead but creates death as we know it, Coyote does go to the underworld and so overcomes the barrier between life and death, but at the same time his impulses overcome him and the barrier remains.” – Lewis Hyde

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Covering the annual Isle of MTV festival is one of the great, regular Calvaries of my existence as a journalist. Or rather, the pre-show press conference itself: you couldn’t pay me enough to attend the free-of-charge crush of sweaty (largely foreign) teenage bodies – the Granaries in Floriana rearing to crack under their weight – and all the while, the otherwise proud St Publius Church gazes on.

Being filed into the pool area of a five-star hotel: the international press primped, young and eager, at the ready with tabloid-friendly questions to fire off; the local media hot, bothered and blase, tired of hearing just how “beautiful, historical” Malta is, how “friendly” its locals are, and, apparently, how awesome the fish is.

But East London rapper Dizzee Rascal was something of a refreshing presence in this year’s otherwise stale and repetitive churn of pre-prepared, mealy-mouthed sound-bites.

Asked (by the chipper, elfin-faced and Irish-inflected MTV VJ Laura Whitmore) about what he thinks of the Isle of MTV image as a production, he replied: “Well MTV’s got the money, innit?”

Asked (just like his Isle of MTV colleagues were) about how he’ll handle the oppressive heat on stage, he replied: “I mean it’s only a 20-minute set, really, we’ll be okay.”

Asked (by an equally chipper local radio journalist) whether performing at Glastonbury was the highlight of his career so far, he replied: “I don’t know… I actually think the proudest moment of my career so far is being able to buy my mum a house.”

Cue applause.

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Read previous: MONSTERING

The Butler on the Heath | Joseph Marcell

 

Joseph Marcell as King Lear and Rawiri Paratene as Gloucester. Photo by Ellie Kurrtz

Joseph Marcell as King Lear and Rawiri Paratene as Gloucester. Photo by Ellie Kurrtz

So I got to interview Joseph Marcell, aka Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, for the paper a couple of week’s ago.

The phone interview was arranged in light of his forthcoming visit to Malta, where he will be playing the title role in The Globe Theatre’s touring production of King Lear.

I will admit to feeling star-struck by the opportunity. I will also admit to succumbing to a slight bout of panic when the phone number I was instructed to call appeared to be non-existent. But once that logistical hiccup was ironed out, Mr Marcell instantly put my nerves at ease, doing good to the memory of Geoffrey with his effortlessly cordial demeanour.

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“From where I’m standing… I think what people responded to [in Geoffrey] was the fact that he’s an employee who doesn’t hesitate to criticise his employers. He’s not a bore: he pushes the boundaries and risks things all the time.”

“Upon my return to the UK, I didn’t have white lilies in my dressing room, a personal assistant and Voss water from Norway – I had to deal with that kind of stuff (laughs)! But seriously, it was difficult in some ways because the Hollywood thing is that you have people who do things for you – in the theatre, on the other hand, you do things for yourself.”

“To be honest, that is the sort of thing you think when you’re in your 20s – that King Lear is the role you ought to be playing later on in your career. But then when you get there you realise there’s so much more to it than that.”

Click here for the full interview

Got the Itch | Under the Skin

 

Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson is dropped into Glasgow dressed as any other woman and ready to be picked up by the nearest gentlemen. Jonathan Glazer, the director, follows her with a string of hidden cameras, and turns the street into a theatre. A fiction about desire, the object of wonder, and that pale extraordinary woman with red lips who just happens to take a fancy to the passer by.

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Good news: my adoptive country will be getting to see the Scarlett Johansson-starring, Jonathan Glazer-directed Under the Skin from this Friday onwards, by which time it would hopefully have not hit the pirate networks and will entice a generous-enough audience to St James Cavalier in Valletta, where it will be showing for a total of six screenings from mid-June to early July.

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Glazer’s film – based on the book of the same name by Michael Faber, whose prose has previously been adapted into BBC’s rather good ‘R-rated Dickens’ mini-series The Crimson Petal and the White (2011) – has intrigued me for quite some time, not least because of its seemingly arch approach to genre: it seems to have elements of both sci-fi and horror, but the overall arc of it appears to suggest something ultimately undefinable and definitely eerie.

It also appears as though the team behind the film – and this includes the star herself – appear to be keen to strip the glamour off Scarlett Johansson’s persona.

This interests me because a) it appears to play against the way stars are constructed these days, which is only a metonym for how we consume and internalize them; and b) it’s a reminder that Johansson wasn’t always a sex goddess (remember Ghost World?) and that her on-screen transformation into one was, I think, signaled quite clearly with that opening shot of Lost in Translation. Does it mean it can be unmade just as easily now?

By making her play an alien who preys on men, will Jonathan Glazer succeed in letting her career and aesthetic direction develop into something more substantial?

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Either way, Glazer will always have the benefit of being a curio, of being someone who operates from at least one remove from the standard Hollywood system; even, perhaps, beyond the indie film festival carousel.

His music video CV is thicker than his feature-filmography, which suggests that he can’t be bothered with the grind of narrative cinema and its corresponding industry, only approaching a project if it really interests him through and through.

There’s always risk involved here (music video directors-turned-feature film directors run the gamut from dazzling to dire), but this makes them an interesting phenomenon either way.

Personally I found his debut Sexy Beast (2004) to be a style-over-substance kind of experience. Save Ben Kingsley’s blistering turn as a deranged gangster who pays (an ultimately unwelcome) visit to his former colleagues’ idyllic island getaway, the film could easily have been directed by Guy Ritchie – the Brit-gangster tropes are very much in place (with iconic tough guy Ray Winstone leading the show, they can’t help but be) and the narrative is thin.

Birth (2004), on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish entirely. The premise grabs you: Nicole Kidman’s husband comes back to life in the body of a 10-year-old boy just as she’s about to get remarried.

But instead of being blunt or exploitative, it’s a delicate experience; the music and the affluent and snow-capped New York surroundings making the whole thing feel like a fairy tale. And here fairy tale does not mean Disney cartoon with a happy ending tacked on; it means the simple but ominous build-up of otherworldly doom that suffuses the story as each element of it clicks inevitably into place.

Different as they are, what both Sexy Beast and Birth share is the theme of an intruder disrupting our protagonists’ comfort. You could say that Glazer enjoys existing – or, at least, of telling stories – in this zone of discomfort.

In terms of Glazer’s archetypes, so far we’ve had Nemesis (Sexy Beast), a Ghost (Birth) and now we have an Alien (Under the Skin).

The latter promises to be the most foreign, the most unsettling. Let’s hope it lives up to its title. Because we’re all masochists at heart, aren’t we?

Click here to book your tickets.