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

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

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

Stranger Things Eleven

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

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

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

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

Stranger Things 2

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

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

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

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

Starr Creek Book Cover

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

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

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

Stranger Things demogorgon

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

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

Starr Creek Map

Starr Creek Rd, Oregon. Real place.

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

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

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

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

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Starr Creek Review Nathan Carson

Nathan Carson in the book trailer for Starr Creek

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

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

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

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

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

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Coming Home | The battles to be fought

We’re finally packing for our trip back down to Malta, which will cap off a hugely eventful summer that was stressful and ecstatic in equal measure, for reasons that should be more or less obvious to anyone who has graciously inhabited the orbit of Virginia and myself during this heady time.

Though many of my new friends and family — yes, that includes V. and my in-laws — will view Malta through their own subjective lens, the place remains a home for me.

A home, with some complications.

I grew up there, but I was not born there. There’s an “arm’s length” quality to both my own perceptions of Malta and also, perhaps, how its other, “more native” inhabitants — including those closest and dearest to me — view my positioning as a latter-day Maltese citizen.

It’s a place that’s defined by waves of foreigners. It’s a place defined by its ability to serve, to coddle, to indulge fantasies. These fantasies could be fey and harmless — the dreams of spending time on a sun-kissed, sea-rimmed and historically layered island are an appeal in and of themselves — and also quite literally concrete.

 

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It’s the latter that’s dirtying my impressions of the island like a splotch of expanding ink as I think about heading back after a month’s absence. And it’s come to a point when resisting the concertisation of the island by developers needs to become part and parcel of one’s daily routine if any change to the malignant status quo is going to occur. And even if such resistance leads to nothing in the long run, I still want to put myself out there in whatever way I can — as luck would have it, a mix of absurdism and stoicism has become my MO since my late teens, so I can just about stomach the thought of my actions leading to nothing much in the long game as long as I feel their conviction in the short term.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

Because for better or worse, I am marked by this island, and being of a nostalgic disposition anyway, I feel the wedges of these marks press all the deeper once we’re abroad. It’s not an exaggeration to say that thinking about the streets of Valletta and Rabat, about my routine walks along the Sliema coastline, and even far less idyllic walks around this overdeveloped rock, are images that drop like lead in my heart and mind — that remind me of just how indelible my connection to this island is.

I’ve spent this summer around Rome and Helsinki — two cities whose beauty is far more varied, expansive, even more efficient if such an adjective is appropriate — but neither of them have the cruel power Malta has over me (at least, not yet). The environs of Rome are becoming like a second home to me — a ‘new family’ connection that I’m grateful for — and the rugged beauty of the city-proper and the (often verdant) variety of the surrounding parts are like a tonic to me, after the scrunched, yellow and small — and shrinking — stretch of Malta.

And in some ways, Helsinki, with its geometric lines, its traffic-free streets and its efficient public transport system felt almost like a parody of all that I thirst for in Malta: so refreshing was it to be in a place where you’re not gutted by heat and humidity, and where public spaces were just that. (V., in fact, describes it as utterly science-fictional).

But Malta is where the significant experiences of my life happened, and this is something that cannot be replicated even in the places that would otherwise fit far more comfortably with my ‘lifestyle’. Perhaps it was growing up in Malta as an immigrant that made me appreciate its contours even more — and I’ve detailed some of the psychological ins and outs of what having/not having a Maltese passport really means in an article last year — so that I’ve never taken my connection to Malta for granted.

Chernobyl Barbeque

And ironically, it’s the ability to travel more that has cemented this connection, not dampened it. Perhaps carelessly, when I was actually growing up in Malta I’d assumed that I would move away eventually. Applying the same crass-economic logic that many of those who actually settle into Malta operate under — the relative low cost of living, good climate, tax breaks, etc — I’d instinctively assumed that living in Malta would mean selling myself short, and that the real opportunities lay elsewhere.

In other words, I was letting the specifics of the island slip by in favour of abstract notions of what constitutes happiness: a larger place where you’re more likely to meet like-minded people and secure jobs and other opportunities that would not have been possible in Malta.

But as the years went by, and as life events continued to teach me to appreciate the granularity of life over any broad brush strokes, I began to cherish the specifics of Malta. I began to appreciate how all those streets I’ve walked up and down are actually inside of me, in a way that I couldn’t possibly say about any other country I’ve visited (even my native Serbia… but that’s a whole other blog post right there).

Now, I want to head back home to our flat in Marsaskala, release the cat from her carrier bag and take in the sea view. Maybe even go out for an ice-cream by the promenade (it won’t be as good as the one in Rome, but…). Now, I actually appreciate the memory of walking down from the utterly nondescript suburb of San Gwann to what is now my father’s apartment in Sliema after a long shift at the paper. Now, those dingy, potholed streets — which morph from industrial estate to government housing to beautiful 18th century follies in the blink of an eye — are no longer bitter images of fatigue and routine. They’re memories of a real life’s trajectory — valuable because, not despite of the fact that they’re routine.

The rock is cooler than you

The rock is cooler than you

Now, I look forward to visiting my father at the same Sliema apartment, sipping his trademark Turkish coffee (the one true family tradition whose baton I’ve grasped firmly with both hands) and chatting. To the noise of construction outside, no doubt. But also to the healthy bustle of the various photographers and other helpers that populate (and animate) his studio.

This is why I don’t want the specifics of Malta to be washed out by an overdevelopment drive. This is why I want us to be able to breathe in the little of the island that’s still left. Developers will always speak of doing their utmost to strike a ‘balance’ — as if this is already a concession, an act of charity on their part. But what they don’t understand is that things have been thrown off balance already, for a very long time. Building ‘sustainably’ is no longer possible. The island is too small, and too much of it has been eaten up.

It is with an always-complex cocktail of emotions swirling in my head that I will land back in Malta tonight; to the air that I’ve described as “milkshake thick” in TWO. What I know for certain is that I will make a concerted effort to meet the people I love more often than I have over the past few months. And that, hopefully, they will all join me in the fight to preserve what’s left… in whatever way each of us deems fit.

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Ecstasy of influence: Bowie via Manson

Marilyn Manson - Mechanical Animals (1998)

I first got to know about Elmore Leonard through Quentin Tarantino – on that note, Tarantino introduced me to a whole raft of pop culture curios – and I started digging into Norse mythology after Marvel Comics planted a seed in my brain thanks to their version of Thor.

Lovecraft swam into my purview during my teenage years – though I would delve into his stories much later, again – motivated by this initial, delayed spur – through the likes of Metallica and Cradle of Filth, and Lord Dunsany I read after finding out that actually, both Lovecraft and my former literary hero JRR Tolkien were influenced by him.

One of the joys of delving into the DNA of your favourite creative people is finding out, once you crack that shell, what lies beneath. Everyone is influenced by someone else, and this hall of mirrors is what arguably characterises our relentlessly postmodern age. (Should that be post-post-postmodern? I’m not an English undergrad anymore, which frankly means I’m past caring.)

In the case of the late David Bowie, it was Marilyn Manson who did it for me – specifically, the Marilyn Manson of the androgynous Mechanical Animals era.

Now of course, I had known who Bowie was long before my friend Herman loaned me a bootleg tape of the said Manson album (come to that, I of course knew who Manson was before that talismanic tape too). Family lore has it that my aunt and father went out to buy the latest Bowie LP to reach Serbia during a respite from the hospital as my mother was getting ready to give birth to me, even – and I’m sure that same record was spun in my presence after I eventually popped out into the world on that fateful May day in 1985.

But I think I first started to gain an understanding of what Bowie was “about” thanks to Manson’s very deliberate and openly acknowledged cribbing from Bowie during that comparatively brief chapter in “the God of Fuck’s” career.

I wouldn’t really be able to talk about the technical make-up of the songs in Mechanical Animals, so I doubt that I’d be able to construct much of a formal argument in favour of why these songs ‘worked’ on me the way they did.

But neither was it a case of being transfixed by the superficial aspects of Manson’s project, dazzling and sort-of* subversive as they may have been in the pop-culture mainstream at the time. And I say this at the risk of discounting just how mind-blowing it was to me to watch Manson’s performance of The Beautiful People – taken from Antichrist Superstar, the album previous to Mechanical Animals – at the MTV Video Music Awards back in 1997 (I was twelve). It still gives me a thrill of sadistic pleasure to remember the cut-aways to the likes of Sean Combs apparently scandalized by Manson’s bare-bottomed, fascist-attired attack on MTV glamour culture. The hypocrisy of someone like Combs taking apparent offense at Manson still strikes me as telling, in a “gotcha” kind of way.

But Mechanical Animals was certainly a ‘softer’ beast, and its immersive qualities are what seduced me. Beyond the obvious, catchy charms of The Dope Show and I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me), songs like The Last Day on Earth and my personal favourite, Coma White, transported me somewhere alien but strangely calming.

The electronic wash that characterises the album still gives me a sense of something cold but meditative, and it’s all helped along by the androgynous surrogate – ‘Omega’ – that Manson created for the purpose of the album. As I would later learn, creating an artistic persona, particularly an androgynous one of this kind, was cribbed from Bowie, who admittedly trumps Manson on this front – not only because he ‘got their first’ but also because he had a far clearer vision about when to adopt these personalities and when to drop them**.

But at the time, it introduced me to the concept of, well, the concept album. Not only that, but the concept album as propped up by an invented personality the performer deliberately took on. In short, the idea of music as storytelling, which has resonated with me ever since.

It’s this echo of Bowie that I’ve carried with me ever since. Of course I’ve listened to Bowie since that time too, though not, I must admit, with the kind of visceral fan-like fervour the teenage me bestowed upon Marilyn Manson.

That’s another thing about influences. You can be introduced to artists askance. Simply put, it wouldn’t have made much sense to me to force myself to listen to Bowie at the time. I was into hard rock and heavy metal, and Manson was a more palatable jumping point into the Bowie milieu for me at that point. This is, of course, the problem with recommending essential works to people with the kind of evangelical zeal we reserve for the very best. We tend to forget that everyone’s on their own journey, and telling them that you HAVE to read/watch/listen to this at that point in their life makes little sense.

If you’re meant to reach it, you’ll reach it. In the meantime you can follow the breadcrumbs you recognise.

*I think I opted for ‘sort-of’ partly because I know Bowie did all this before

**Manson’s dithering post-Holywood career is a testament to this… compare it to how Bowie, despite some flailing years of his own, remained so much in control that he even recorded a final album as a farewell