Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #10 | Ben Stewart, Wendy N. Wagner

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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Two Suns over Zululand by Ben Stewart

Ordo Virtutum by Wendy N. Wagner

The terrors of Lovecraft are a flexible bunch. Because Cthulhu and his fellow eldritch pantheon have no affiliation to established religious creeds — and are more or less stand-ins for the cosmic indifference of the universe to human foibles, though that’s not all they are — they can easily be applied as the antagonistic entity of choice to stories set within any country or cultural milieu.

Wagner and Stewart’s stories in particular play on the notion of the Great Old Ones infiltrating a particular social space, and the hook and twist of the stories lies in the way in which their writers manipulate our expectations of how these micro-worlds would deal with the Cthuloid threat.

Stewart’s story plunges us straight into a reconnaissance mission embedded within the Anglo-Zulu War, and on the face of it, Stewart appears to be attempting a piece of full-blooded historical war fiction of the kind we’ve already seen earlier on in the anthology with A. Scott Glancy’s Trespassers. But the real thrust of the story is more straightforward, as our protagonist, Lwazi, is told in no uncertain terms that he must retrieve the idol of ‘H’aaztre’ — an obvious stand-in for Lovecraft’s Hastur diety — from an Englishman who has it in his possession.

If Lwazi fails in his mission — as he is told by the mentor figure Mandlenkosi — they will be powerless to stop a cataclysmic event triggered by these otherworldly dieties.

Stewart wastes no time in laying out the raison d’etre of the story, and even has Mandlenkosi plainly declare what Lwazi must do in direct speech. This evokes a similar ‘gamified’ effect as other stories in the collection, and it matches the enjoyably direct, unpretentious thrust-and-parry of the rest of the tale.

Défense de Rorke's Drift (detail) by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville

Défense de Rorke’s Drift (detail) by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville

And in a strand that once again brings to mind Glancy’s story, the threat posed by ‘H’aaztre’ and everything he’s set to unleash trumps the ‘mundane’ struggles between the Zulus and the British. Though the details of these particular monsters and how they operate are influenced by Lovecraft, it must be said that the ‘common enemy who unites us in the end’ is a familiar trope to the alien invasion genre. And more than gods, Lovecraft’s creatures are alien invaders — albeit ones that tend to inspire cult-like fervour among a select group of maddened devotees.

This fervour is the engine of Wagner’s story, which takes the striking historical personage Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) as its main inspiration: in fact, the title refers to a famous piece of music by this German Benedictine abbess — who apart from being a mystic and polymath was also a composer and writer.

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen

Wagner is clearly infatuated with Bingen, and has no qualms about casting her into what amounts to a badass superheroine role in the story. But what’s more interesting is how Wagner builds the clerical world that Bingen belongs to — suggesting its political and social structure, and Bingen’s role within it, before it is undermined by an eldritch-struck outsider.

Though Lovecraft himself was often lost inside the rabbit hole of his psyche — which was in turn hemmed-in by his oft-discussed prejudices — these writers are adding colour and specificity to the cosmic horror that lies at the core of his work.

Read previous: Caleb Wilson, Nathan Carson & Orrin Grey

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Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #9 | Bumper Edition

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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Bow Down Before the Snail King! by Caleb Wilson

The King of Lapland’s Daughter by Nathan Carson 

A Circle That Ever Returneth In by Orrin Grey

One of the fundamental elements of an anthology like this one is that all the selected writers are drawn to the subject in question by a desire to approach it from their own preferred angle; be it a more earnest evocation of the springboard-material or an adventure in fiction that seeks to subvert rather than reinforce the trappings of what is being pastiche’d.

But I think that the common element in all of the stories selected here is that the authors appear to be after having some good fun. Having read some of Molly Tanzer’s own fiction, I can attest to its infectious ability to get you hooked on whatever the author is hooked on throughout the duration of the given story — you enjoy the way she channels the literary touchstones that she clearly enjoys herself.

And the triad of stories I’ve chosen here may not be the ultimate illustration of this feeling throughout the anthology — remember that this is something of a ‘live’ review session — but they certainly appear to make no bones about simply having fun while cribbing on their favourite aesthetic choices. Whereas other stories in the collection prioritize mood and atmosphere, these three, I think, are more about the schematic enjoyment of moving narrative chess-pieces around.

I’ve mentioned Dungeons and Dragons in relation to the anthology before, but I think that reference comes to full fruition in at least two of the stories under discussion here. The clearest one in this case would be Orrin Grey’s A Circle That Ever Returneth In: a choose-your-own-adventure story, and so the closest we’re likely to get to an actual role-playing game in the anthology.

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Attempting this format in a short fiction piece is something of a bold move on Grey’s part, to say nothing of how what was previously a novelty — and very much got traction based on that fact alone — has now become entirely antiquated thanks to the internet. But Grey clearly doesn’t care about being relevant, at least not with this story.

The reader is given a choice as to whether to pursue a Sell-Sword, a Cut-Purse or a Doll Mage for this adventure, which gets going on a familiar trope: the party gathered at an inn and activated into action by the promise of exotic treasure.

Only this time, the treasure is ‘The Shining Trapezohedron’ from Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark, and the adventure’s trajectory is less optimistic (or even certain) than most. Actually, I’ve always found it quite curious how Lovecraft’s fiction has turned out be pretty amenable to gamification — not just by dint of literary experiments like this one, but also, and perhaps more notably, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying games. In a similar way that films based on Lovecraft’s stories have to changed quite a bit to fit into accepted screenwriting story beats, so I imagine these games have to mangle the otherwise terminally linear and largely twist-free forays into existential darkness that buttress most of Lovecraft’s fiction.

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But again — Grey’s aim is to have fun and to transfer that fun to the reader, but not without being at least nominally faithful to the spirit of Lovecraft’s work. And what clinches the appeal of the piece is that there’s something intrinsically funny about juxtaposing the plucky choose-your-own-adventure genre against the pessimistic core of Lovecraft.

Caleb Wilson’s Bow Down Before the Snail King! on the other hand, takes a more subtle tack to the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ set up. The treasure hunt is once again the inciting incident of choice, and Wilson’s characters are almost deliberately flattened into types, all the better for the author to indulge in a breezily experimental take on storytelling structure.

The way Wilson approaches the landscape in particular reminded me of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Largely due to the meta-fictional tone of the piece, it is almost as if the characters themselves are receiving prompts about their surroundings from a ‘higher power’, rather than the atmosphere being carefully curated for the reader’s immersive experience. In this otherwise richly zany story, this uncanny effect is what stands out the most.

On the other hand, Nathan Carson’s The King of Lapland’s Daughter takes a far more earnest approach to the task at hand. Though the title appears to cue in Lord Dunsany’s wistful fantasy classic, the overall thrust of this particular piece in far more aggressive in tone. Tanzer herself has referred to the story as “metal-as-fuck” in a promotional Facebook post, and this is certainly borne out in the storytelling beats. Once again taking a Nordic vibe as its primary inspiration, the story leads us to cheer on its tough-as-nails protagonists as they face eldritch horrors.

Manowar would be proud

Manowar would be proud

Their morale-boosting battle cries, towards which Carson builds to maximum effect, are the true climaxes of the story. But though different to them in tone and intention, what Carson’s story shares with Wilson and Grey’s contribution is the total surrender to pastiche.

A reminder of what a fun playground these anthologies can be.

Read previous: John Hornor Jacobs

 

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 #6 | Jeremiah Tolbert

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 Dreamers of Alamoi by Jeremiah Tolbert

“Dante was the first to conceive of Hell as a planned space,” Dr Bedelia Du Maurier tells an assembled audience in the 10th episode of the third season of Hannibal, “an urban environment.” Before Dante, Bedelia continues, we spoke not of the gates of Hell but simply the mouth of Hell — a shapeless, devouring pit with no real modus operandi.

I feel that Lovecraft’s structuring of his own ‘Dreamlands’ plays to a similar dynamic and that certainly, the author is also to be lauded for — quite literally — mapping out what may otherwise have been vague repository of images and half-formed notions of geographical space. But I also find it a blessing that Lovecraft never quite went the Tolkien route with his world-building either, and that the Dreamlands were allowed to accumulate in the author and reader’s mind in gradual drops throughout various loosely connected stories.

The Dreamlands of HP Lovecraft by Jason Thompson (2011). Find out more about it

‘The Dreamlands of HP Lovecraft’ by Jason Thompson (2011). Find out more about it

In this way, I think Lovecraft remains true to the psychology behind why we keep chasing after these spaces. It’s a comforting notion, to be able to travel to a place where the laws and conventions that dominate our daily life have been suspended in favour of some kind of sublime bliss; even if — to go with the original, Kantian notion of the sublime — this does not mean that what we would see and experience in these places is necessarily pleasant, or even safe.

With Lovecraft the concept gets a keener edge of poignancy, I think, because for all the implied eldritch horror of the Dreamlands, it feels as if he’d rather go there than face the realities of the modern world — a tic in his character that also speaks to the oft-discussed and deeply problematic ideological underpinnings of a lot of his work (to say nothing of how his public proclamations to this effect continue to be something of a blot on his reputation). It’s form of ‘negative escapism’, I think — not the idyll of Tolkien’s Shire, but an alienating and alluring space populated by strange, mushrooming presences, and whose geographical confines expand and contract to the whims of an ‘idiot god’.

Jeremiah Tolbert’s story develops on this motif in Lovecraft’s work — a motif that Lovecraft himself likely cribbed from his perennial source of inspiration, Lord Dunsany (who was, in turn, also an influence on Tolkien).

Tolbert gets the notes of desire and fascination right and, indeed, establishes an urban environment that despite its otherworldly nature still insists on carving out a concrete space, with the very architecture serving as an ominous, jarring construct — an element certainly in line with Lovecraft’s own stories in this vein.

“At first, he thought it only another hallucination that the two towers seemed to bend toward one another at their peak, but the vision did not waver. Realization arrived late: these were not two towers, but instead the opposing sides of an arch. Closer now, he could make out the ropes and pulleys lifting an enormous keystone into the heavens. It inched upwards as he watched.

“The dreaming construct would soon be complete. What would happen then was a great mystery, but not one Garen was eager to solve.”

Garen, our erstwhile protagonist, explores the contours of the Dreamlands with the hungry and often thwarted desire of a junkie. Strait-laced as Lovecraft may have been, he wouldn’t have been inclined to confront this aspect of his stories head-on. But it’s an evident element of the desire (with a capital D?) we have for these spaces… just as its erotic counterpoint is never too far behind, either.

‘Fantasy’ is a broad term — something we often forget, conditioned as we are to view literary genres in strict categories — and ‘dreams’ are even more vast in their potential.

But though Lovecraft and Tolkien may have stopped short of exploring the more R-rated elements of this universal trait, Tolbert — like Catherynne Valente and Clive Barker before him — isn’t shy of teasing the limits between reverie and obsession.

Read previous: John Langan

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #5 | John Langan

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 Savage Angela in: The Beast in its Tunnels by John Langan

Langan’s story opens the collection, and in some ways it’s a no-brainer because it appears to have the swashbuckling swords-and-sorcery spirit of the works of Fritz Leiber (who comes highly recommended in Tanzer and Bullington’s backmatter).

But as befits my own introduction to Langan’s rich and satisfying short fiction his contribution here plays with the expected references to the beat of his own drum, getting mileage both from the immersive, ‘innocent’ elements of the genre while simultaneously playing a postmodern game with them.

Our protagonist, Angela, needs to slay a beast and she sets about doing so with the help of her talking sword — the significantly monikered Deus Ex Machina. With an archetypal-as-can be premise, it’s becomes clear from early on that Langan is more concerned with exploring just why the swords-and-sorcery genre continues to interest us, instead of simply replicating its tropes.

Like other stories in the collection, there’s a whiff of the coming-of-age narrative to Langan’s tale too, with Angela being a novice who’s only just learning to make the best use of her powerful weapon. A prevalent meme, to be sure.

Arya Stark and Syrio Forel -- Game of Thrones, Season 1

Arya Stark and Syrio Forel — Game of Thrones, Season 1

But more importantly, the schematic set-up of the story — coupled with the fact that it’s all baldly archetypal: the monster serving the role of Minotaur — reminded me of how ‘mapped out’ fantasy narratives often are.

This is why Dungeons & Dragons is such an important touchstone for both fans and practitioners of the genre. In a similar way to writers who are conscious of the formal and historical make-up of fantastic literature in all its forms — here I’m thinking of the likes of Italo Calvino — Langan reminds us that the rules exist for a reason.

One reason being that we will always rationalise what we don’t understand, and that the mechanics of slaying/solving the monsters that emerge from the abyss of uncertainty will always make for compelling reading. Because we are hungry for answers, even those we know will never be forthcoming.

Read previous: Remy Nakamura

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #4 | Remy Nakamura

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 Dan no Uchi Horror by Remy Nakamura

Much to the chagrin — though more likely the disinterested bemusement — of the bulk of my geeky friends growing up, I was never quite taken with anime and manga in the same way as the zeitgeist appeared to demand.

And it was further alienating by the fact that Malta, where I was based-and-raised, got a healthy dose of the stuff funnelled into the brains of unsuspecting kids through the easily accessible Italian channels.

(The legacy of this broadcasting arrangement yielded wonderful fruit in Italian cinemas earlier this year.)

I’m not entirely sure why I never felt attracted to Japanese animation — though I ‘appreciate’ some of its classics from a distance — and it’s even more baffling because the sheer variety within the stories, and their ‘outre’ style, otherwise jibes very nicely with my tastes.

But with all this in mind, a visit to an exhibition in Paris last December gave me a more immediate appreciation of the genre’s appeal — through the work of one of its precursors.

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger Utagawa by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Observing the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi up close — yes, I made sure to exit through the gift shop and buy the coffee table book along the way — made me appreciate a clear and timeless dynamism of the style. This will of course speak to my wider ignorance of the woodcut tradition — to say nothing of my inadvertent but real western bias — but apart from anime, the thick outlines and sensitivity to what squeezes the most ‘action’ out of a still image reminded me of the likes of Jack Kirby.

Remy Nakamura’s story, I think, moves with the same scintillating immediacy. Packed with high drama, higher degrees of violence and a rhapsodic prose style, it also has its tongue firmly in cheek; checking off ‘Honor’ early on as a knee-jerk cultural expectation so as to highjack any inherent melodrama and cliche.

I was hooked from the first sentence, and the family saga that’s at the core of the story was wended into the kinetic narrative, instead of being a baggy burden. There’s hacking and slashing, there’s faith and inevitability. There’s sentences like: ‘The devils stank like a battlefield in the sun’.

This is Cthulhu in oozing, living colour, and it moves like the quickest of rapids.

Read previous: L. Lark

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 #2 | Carrie Vaughn

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 Lady of Shalott by Carrie Vaughn

For obvious reasons, this particular story folds in very nicely with my approach to Tanzer and Bullington’s anthology, what with it singnaling a literary antecedent in its very title.

The Lady of Shalott was always something of a frustrating poem to me, for the reasons those of you familiar with it might imagine; namely, Lancelot’s shockingly dismissive final glance at the titular — and cursed — protagonist:

She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy gave her grace,

The Lady of Shalott

But like a lot of Tennyson’s work, the poem holds an irresistible charm, and I don’t think it’s accidental that genre writers and genre fans in particular continue to latch onto his brand of grandiose aestheticism.

Inflected as it is with the same Victorian mores and neuroses that continue to foment shows like Penny Dreadful, the finely sculpted drama of a lot of his work speaks to an archetypal space that – being Victorian and not, say, from Ancient Greece – also feels strangely close to our own world in its anxiety about ‘modernity’ and its desire to find pure, cloistered spaces where precious and beautiful things can flourish.

"I Am Half-Sick of Shadows", Said The Lady of Shalott by John Willam Waterhouse

“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows”, Said The Lady of Shalott by John Willam Waterhouse

Well, what Vaughn does is lift a giant, eldritch and bloody middle finger to all of that, and in ways that are entirely justified — and also, it must be said, all the more entertaining for it — she makes us feel ashamed for indulging in the kind of unreconstructed misogyny and jingoism that unfortunately forms the backbone of a lot of the work of the Victorian era.

But first, she immerses us into the world of the doomed Lady of Shalott with a thorough care for the artificial universe she is encased in. Her enclosure is her curse, but there is a great dignity in her work too. She weaves her loom with the kind of dedication that any self-respecting artist would apply to their life’s work. This is a silent, private dignity that the vainglorious Lancelots of this world cannot begin to understand.

As Vaughn moves to deliver the story to its conclusion, we dread the activation of the curse, but we also know it to be inevitable. Only… this time around, it won’t be just the Lady of Shalott that pays the price for Lancelot’s pursuit of spoils and glory.

In a Lovecraftian universe, that’s about as comforting as things get.

Read previous: Michael Cisco

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.