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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing the thrill ride | Editor and Publisher Ross E. Lockhart on Eternal Frankenstein

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Ross E. Lockhart

A hard-working and eminently likeable presence in the field of speculative fiction small press, editor and publisher Ross E. Lockhart takes a seat at the Soft Disturbances lounge to chat about Eternal Frankenstein – a 16-story tribute to Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking science fiction and Gothic horror classic – which he edited this year for Word Horde. He also delves into what makes this increasingly essential genre fiction publishing house tick, before letting us in on the Frankenstein story of his dreams…

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First off; why Frankenstein, and why now? Mary Shelley’s text has been a touchstone for quite some time, so what made you think that now is the right moment to put together an anthology like Eternal Frankenstein?

This summer was the bicentennial of ‘The Year Without a Summer’, wherein massive climate instability was caused by the 1815 eruption of Mt Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), blanketing the Northern Hemisphere in miserable weather. A young English couple – Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin – decided to escape the apocalyptic rain and constant cold (and majorly dysfunctional families) by staying with a friend in Switzerland, Lord Byron.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Percy and Mary brought along Mary’s cousin Claire, and Byron was attended by his personal physician, John Polidori. One stormy night, as the five sat indoors, reading ghost stories by firelight, Byron proposed a ghost story competition. That night, Mary had a dream that would inspire her to write Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which she would publish anonymously in 1818.

The book and its many adaptations fascinate me, and I believe the story is one of the most intricate and poignant myths of the modern era.

Beyond this anniversary, I’ve been a Frankenstein fan since I saw James Whale’s Universal films as a kid. The book and its many adaptations fascinate me, and I believe the story is one of the most intricate and poignant myths of the modern era. I also looked at things from a commercial standpoint, and I realized that (with the exception of Steve Berman’s Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists) it had been a long time since anybody had published an all-original Frankenstein-themed anthology.

As with other Word Horde anthologies I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the not-too-distant past, Eternal Frankenstein is a finely crafted piece of editorial work, with stories clearly selected to intensify certain through-lines and motifs: teenage angst, anti-communist hysteria and the reanimated automaton as a cog in the military machine, to mention just a few. How did you set about identifying these themes? And to deepen a bit further: why do you think the legacy of Shelley’s text accommodates these themes and images in particular?

Editing an anthology is a lot like building Frankenstein’s monster. You start by digging through graveyards, finding pieces, and seeing how those pieces fit together. You take chances. You invite authors whose work you enjoy, and you say “show me what you’ve got”. You tweak and you fine-tune and you experiment and arrange, and eventually a creature takes form, comes to life, and shambles out into the countryside, demanding a mate.

I work with authors who are constantly striving to produce the best possible work, and I’m willing to push those authors to do better.

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Given that Shelley’s novel continues to hold such an influential sway over our culture, was it actually easier to amass short fiction of adequate quality and variety for Eternal Frankenstein, when compared to other anthologies you’ve put together? Or did the process pan out in more or less the same way?

Eternal Frankenstein is my seventh anthology, and while these books are always challenging in their own way, and a lot of work, I’ve developed a system that keeps things on track in a more-or-less smooth way. I work with authors who are constantly striving to produce the best possible work, and I’m willing to push those authors to do better.

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Illustrated by Theodore Von Holst (Steel engraving; 993 x 71mm)

Ultimately, I want stories that are going to resonate with readers, stories readers will remember for the rest of their lives. One of the things that inspires me about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that she was trying to write a story that would be as powerful and memorable as anything written by Percy or Byron. And I think she managed, with Frankenstein, to outshine both of them.

There is an analogy I frequently use when talking about anthologies: The Thrill Ride

And on that note, do you have any iron-clad principles you adhere to when putting together Word Horde anthologies?

That it be fun. There is an analogy I frequently use when talking about anthologies: The Thrill Ride. Like the designer of a roller coaster or carnival dark ride, the anthologist is directing a reader’s experience. You carefully arrange things, the climb, the fall, the sudden turn, the loop. You seed in shocks and scares. You direct the reader’s view. But you also have to keep things moving. Always moving. Sure, readers jump in, read stories out of their intended sequence – that’s a reader’s right. But one must never forget that a book is best read from cover to cover, each story in conversation with the ones before, each setting the stage for the next story to come.

Word Horde is certainly becoming something of a standard-bearer for the genre small press. How would you say it’s evolved to this point, and what are your future ambitions for it?

I’m really happy with the way that Word Horde has been received. I’m currently publishing five books a year, picking projects carefully, and getting work out there that has something to say and shakes up the complacency so common in by-the-numbers genre fiction. If you’ve enjoyed what I published in 2016, you’re going to love what’s coming in 2017. And Word Horde may be a small press but we’ve got big ideas, so stay tuned.

Still from Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965)

Still from Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965)

Finally… what would your own Frankenstein story look like?

Just off the top of my head, remember Monster Island from the Godzilla films? I’d like to tell the story of Frankenstein Island. All the various cinematic Frankenstein’s monsters – Charles Ogle, Boris Karloff, Glenn Strange, Koji Furuhata, Phil Hartman, Robert De Niro –building a civilization on a remote island. Though I’m not sure whether that society would be a utopia, dystopia, or something in between.

Check out my Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon in all its entirety for reviews of each of the stories in the collection.

Please consider donating to the Patreon for MIBDUL – Malta’s very first serialized comic!

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon | Table of Contents

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I tackled the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method was be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These were presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification. You can find the complete linkstorm to all of the reviews just below. Enjoy! 

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Torso, Head, Heart by Amber Rose-Reed 

Baron von Werewolf Presents: Frankenstein Against the Phantom Planet by Orrin Grey

Thermidor by Siobhan Carroll

They Call Me Monster by Tiffany Scandal

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice by Damien Angelica Walters

Sewn Into Her Fingers by Autumn Christian

Orchids by the Sea by Rios De La Luz

Frankenstein Triptych by Edward Morris

The Human Alchemy by Michael Griffin

Postpartum by Betty Rocksteady

The New Soviet Man by G.D. Falksen

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

Living by Scott R. Jones

Wither On the Vine; Or Strickfaden’s Monster by Nathan Carson

The Beautiful Thing We Will Become by Kristi DeMeester

Mary Shelley’s Body by David Tempelton

Please consider donating to our Patreon to help us make Malta’s first serialised comic, MIBDUL. Thanks!

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #14 | David Templeton

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I tackled the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method was be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These were presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification. Now, please enjoy the final review of the series.

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Mary Shelley’s Body by David Templeton

 

And now, at the very end of Lockhart’s anthology, we get a focus on the body — the ultimate body as far as we’re concerned: that of Mary Shelley, the originator of all of the things we’ve been discussing so far, and one of the most fecund imaginations of the Romantic and/or Gothic high point of literature — an unexpected force to be reckoned with considering her young age when she composed her key work, and her compromised — some would say relentlessly tragic — private life.

David Templeton’s novella — it is in fact the longest piece in Eternal Frankenstein — makes for a fitting conclusion to this varied and comprehensive tribute to the legacy of Shelley’s most famous work, by forcing a fictionalised version of the beleaguered author to confront her many demons, seemingly as a final goodbye before parting the world for good.

In turn, the story also forces us, the readers, to come face-to-face with Frankenstein’s many themes and emotional implications; some of which weigh on the very real side of disturbing: not just in their Gothic power to enthrall and terrify by dint of grotesque detail and atmosphere, but also because of the tortured psychological place they come from, the biographical backbone of which Templeton makes it a point to unpeel, explore and embroider further to craft his novella.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

The setting is as baldly Gothic as they come, though, with Shelley’s disembodied form rising from her Bournemouth grave to settle a score initially mysterious to her. What follows is something of a rambling confessional whose shape, like the Creature Shelley constantly makes reference to in various ways, could have used some trimming and re-arrangement.

While the concept is a worthwhile one — and, again, a perfect note to end the anthology on — that does come with a real emotional pay-off in the end, Templeton’s decision to go over some of the key moments of Shelley’s life, as well as key passages of Frankenstein, will come across as a tad tiresome to those of us familiar with the scenes and passages in question.

What’s even more problematic is that Templeton doesn’t really do all that much to upend expectations, either: the obvious connection between the death of Mary’s mother while giving birth to her is made yet again, while Mary waxes lyrical about her Creature while condemning Victor Frankenstein as a coward at best, a clueless, callous bastard at worst.

But the digressive nature of it all is part of the point — this is a kind of mental Groundhog Day for our poor Mary, and if nothing else, Templeton demonstrates a key understanding of what makes Shelley’s work tick. And neither would it be fair to say that he succumbs entirely to boilerplate interpretations of the text; Victor Frankenstein’s failure is eventually revealed to be Mary’s own, in connection with the death of her first unborn child.

Ultimately, here we have a story about bodies — the bodies we encounter and the body that we inhabit, and all of the complexity that that implies once we’re forced to stop taking them for granted. This complexity falls down on Frankenstein’s Creature like a ton of bricks since he is first brought into the world, and so it serves to offset our own lives at any given moment. And, finding a suitably tortured test subject in Mary Shelley, Templeton uses the opportunity to zone in on these moments at various points in time: from bodies freshly born and vulnerable, to those sickly and decaying… and everything in between.

The body is all we have. And at some point, we were all Frankenstein’s Creature. At some point, we will BE Frankenstein’s Creature yet again. This, above all, is why Shelley’s legacy endures, and why it’s likely to help create more anthologies like Eternal Frankenstein in the years to come.

Read previous: Kristi DeMeester

Stay tuned for an interview with Ross E. Lockhart, the editor of Eternal Frankenstein!

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #13 | Kristi DeMeester

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

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The Beautiful Thing We Will Become by Kristi DeMeester

There might be something to the niggling assumption that, Mary Shelley having penned Frankenstein when she was merely nineteen years old helps to lend the book with the urgent, neurotic charge that it the necessary flipside to the life-and-death energy that characterises youth.

The ‘outsider’ status of the creature is the biggest element in favour of that interpretation, but I would argue that there’s also something to Victor Frankenstein’s initially obsessive, but ultimately brittle commitment to his project that speaks to the young person’s unease of matching their dreams — and nightmares — to the cold slap of reality.

As we’ve already seen, Lockhart himself appears to be very sensitive to this, what with two back-to-back stories from Eternal Frankenstein capitalising on the legacy of Shelley’s original story by juxtaposing it to a high school context, with inspired results.

The strand is however also picked up by Kristi DeMeester, though her take is less about the social dynamics of the high school than it is about the harried bonds of love that develop among young friends at that delicate stage. More importantly, it’s about how just a small push into stranger territory can alter these young lives, seemingly for good.

teenage-frankenstein

Our Frankenstein’s Creature is one Katrina, and the narrator is a hanger-on best friend who grows curious about Katrina’s — initially slight — hints of bodily modification. But family history steps in to ensure this morphs into a full-on obsession: after her father abandons her mother in pursuit of a younger (and crucially, slimmer) woman, the narrator is thrown into a calorie-counting frenzy by a newly weight-conscious single mother.

This serves to give a keener edge to her attraction to Katrina, which is really an attraction towards the grisly experiments her kindly but eccentric father performs on his daughter.

DeMeester writes from the point of view of the narrator’s eerie emotional state, and as such the narrative voice isn’t judgmental, but fully immersed in a world that sees self-destruction as a form of salvation and horrific acts of bodily modification by a demented patriarchal figure as something to embrace. Needless to say, the effect is disturbing. But since we’re so close to the narrator all the way through, we achieve a strange sort of empathy with her journey.

DeMeester morphs disgust into madness and back into love, leaving us to observe the journey with nervous awe.

Read previous: Nathan Carson

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #12 | Nathan Carson

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

eternal-frankenstein

Wither on the Vine; Or Strickfaden’s Monster by Nathan Carson

One of the fun things about the kind of spirited pastiche that tends to animate anthologies like Eternal Frankenstein is that the fun can easily be had from various sources, or at the expense of literary and historical figures that can plausibly be co-opted into the overall schema of the legacy left behind by Mary Shelley’s original text.

Nathan Carson’s tale certainly makes the most of this tendency, meshing not one, but two key historical characters — of, it must be said, varying degrees of prestige — into the overall mix of a Frankenstein-inspired story.

The titular character of Kenneth Strickfaden is inspired by the real-life figure who brought unforgettable Hollywood props from some classic Hollywood movies — most famously, as it happens, the lightning-powered device that brings the Creature to life in James Whale’s groundbreaking adaptation of Shelley’s text.

Kenneth Strickfaden (1896-1984)

Kenneth Strickfaden (1896-1984)

Because his car breaks down in a desert canyon near Utah, Strickfaden finds solace in the company of the enigmatic Mr Baldwin, who offers him lodging and car repairs in exchange for his help with some left-field science experiments he is conducting in his home; Strickfaden’s admittedly amateur reputation as a quirky tinkerer preceding him thanks to a one-off appearance in the pulp magazines of sci-fi pioneer Hugo Gernsback.

What follows is a decent into weird science as pushed into weirder extremes by particularly American religious convictions, with Strickfaden discovering more than he should about what Baldwin’s been up to — specifically, how his community aims to ‘treat’ some of its ailing women — before being given the opportunity to cross paths with one of his idols: the one and only Nikola Tesla.

Tesla’s reputation as a real-life ‘mad scientist’ animated by Romantic ideals — and beaten down by the capitalist machine — renders him particularly vulnerable to appropriation by modern speculative fiction writers. But while the Tesla in Carson’s story still comes to us draped in the same legendary aura, his depiction is far less flattering — and certainly less heroic — than one has come to expect. Here, Tesla remains an eccentric genius who produces results, but he’s also as much in love with money as he is with his creations, and doesn’t seem particularly concerned with human life beyond its impact on his experiments.

Bright spark: Nikola Tesla

Bright spark: Nikola Tesla

In short, he is the true Victor Frankenstein of the story — we could say that Baldwin is initially placed as something of a red herring — but because Carson tells the story in a slow-burning, old-timey tone that exudes wry irony, Tesla is presented as a blackly comic figure rather than an out-and-out villain.

It’s clear that Carson is having fun creating a situation in which Strickfaden and Tesla get to meet: it’s a kind of ‘origin story’ for Strickfaden, actually. And in fact, Baldwin’s religious community is presented as little more than an easy-to-ridicule gathering of desperate, credulous people who get what they bargained for when they meddle with the natural order.

Which is ironic, because whereas the Victor Frankenstein of Shelley’s original text was always keenly aware of the fact that his work may be an affront to God, Baldwin and his followers have convinced themselves that what they’re doing runs in exact tandem with God’s wishes. Stuck in the middle is their sly enabler — Tesla — and Strickfaden, an accidental hanger-on who ends up helping both sides.

In short, it’s a story about that peculiarly American trait of improvising with newfangled phenomena — be they scientific innovations or religious sects — and then doing your best to profit from them, or at least survive with all your limbs intact when it all goes to shit.

Read previous: Scott R. Jones

 

 

Feel this: Sense8 and the power of pulp

Sense8 is probably most exciting show in the Netflix stable: flawed as it may be, it combines pulp with thematic ambition and gives the Wachowski sisters’ career a revitalising jolt.

The Netflix series Sense8 is not a perfect show. First of all, its ambitious — and doggedly international — scope exposes it to some infelicitous short-cuts. Perhaps the least problematic of these is a recourse to wooden, melodramatic dialogue. Of course, there’s little time for nuance when you have to cut to characters spanning various continents in any given episode, and when these same characters have to project their qualms and dramas as quickly and forcefully as possible before their allotted time is up.

With respect to one particular mini-universe in this ensemble of eight — that of the Mexican B-movie and telenovela hunk Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) — this has the unintentionally amusing effect of blurring the lines between the deliberately corny dialogue Lito spouts on his day job (which we’re clearly meant to laugh at) and the dialogue of the show proper, which is quite often just as cringe-worthy in its earnestness.

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Make believe: Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre)

But what’s more problematic is the show’s unquestioning approach to national stereotypes; again, something we can almost justify as a necessity due to time constrains but only up to a point, especially in light of the fact that a ‘right-on’ message of interconnectedness and empathy also appears to be the raison d’etre of the show.

And so Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the German sensate, reminds us that his folk are not as prudish about nudity as the rest of the world, the Icelandic Riley (Tuppence Middleton), not only has a fey look and predilection towards music (here’s to Bjork and Sigur Ros!), but also has a ‘hex’ hanging over her head — tapping into the Nordic ‘forest elf’ stereotype.

Worlds apart: Doona Bae and Aml Ameen

Worlds apart: Doona Bae and Aml Ameen

Meanwhile, the South Korean big business heiress Sun (Doona Bae) is an expert in martial arts, while the Nigerian van driver Capheus (Aml Ameen) has to remain plucky and resourceful in the wake of his mother’s AIDS diagnosis and the country’s incorrigible drive towards corruption and violent crime. And the Mumbai-based chemist Kala (Tina Desai) is inevitably rent apart between tradition and modernity, as her devout Hindu beliefs clash with the familial pedigree of (the undeniably charming and decent) man she’s about to marry, but whom she doesn’t love.

However, there’s two American characters — the ‘one per country’ quota doesn’t apply to them, it seems — and while Will  (Brian J. Smith) doesn’t stray too far from an ingrained blue collar cop going the extra mile trope, Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender hacktivist who clearly gave space to the show’s co-creators — the Wachowski sisters — to explore themes dear to them.

Damsel (temporarily) in distress: Jamie Clayton as Nomi

Damsel (temporarily) in distress: Jamie Clayton as Nomi

Taken together, Will and Nomi represent a wide-enough spectrum of American society, at least when compared to the show’s otherwise piecemeal approach to depicting the social context of their globe-scattered cast. Will is the son of a cop in his twilight years, with a clearly working class pedigree which he’s chosen to carry through, while Nomi — formerly ‘Michael’ — comes from an upper middle class stock whose comforts, conventions and trappings she has had no choice but to abandon in pursuit of her own happiness.

But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to accuse the Wachowski sisters and their co-writer on the show, the veteran J. Michael Straczynski, of chauvinism. For flawed as it may be in parts, the length of its reach can only be admired, and its fitting together of disparate characters and emotional journeys shows off a masterful exploitation of the serialised storytelling idiom.

The Matrix has you, but it’s not what you think

For better or for worse, The Matrix trilogy remains the hallmark of the Wachowskis’ career. The Keanu Reeves-starring cyberpunk pastiche was one of those ‘once in a generation’ things: a pair of barely-tested filmmakers were given the chance to realise an ambitious (that word will keep popping up) project in a move that paid off handsomely, and in the Wachowskis’ case even resulted in the birth of a franchise.

That the Matrix sequels proved to be bloated and ultimately unsatisfying affairs has now become common knowledge, but the core of the Matrix lay in the Wachowskis’ successful harvesting of cyberpunk literature and culture in a way that renders it palatable to a new generation which — crucially — had  just begun to experience the phenomenon that the genre itself prophesised: the Internet.

Will love tear us apart? Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton

Will love tear us apart? Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton

Fast-forward to 2015, and Sense8 refines that commentary further, by telepathically linking its global cast through a shared hallucination-cum-memory and forcing them to empathise in mind, body and soul with their fellow sensates. For us digital natives, the constant communication among the global cast does not feel at all alien: it’s no different than toggling from one browser tab to another (or better still, one chat window to another). To reinforce the point, Nomi’s partner Amanita (Freema Agyeman) actually describes the process as being like Facetime, only without any devices to facilitate it.

But the body wins

However, just like The Matrix showed us that what happens in the eponymous virtual reality has a real stake in the physical world, so Sense8 takes our for-granted approach to global communication that one step further by allowing its characters to physically inhabit and influence the world of other senseates. While this allows for other shortcuts and convenient ‘here comes the cavalry’ moments (more on that below), the Wachowskis are also clearly invested in exploring the power and impact of physicality for its own sake.

Nowhere is this made clearer than the infamous orgy scene from Episode 6, ‘Demons’. It was of course much talked-about on release for obvious reasons, and certainly makes for titillating television even on its superficial merits. But I would like to suggest that the decision to ‘bond’ the characters in this way is far from a random choice.

Sure, in a lot of ways it ticks some necessary promotional and narrative boxes — it gives the show a spike in viral visibility, and helps bring the disparate narratives together for a brief but memorable sequence — but the crescendo that it builds and the framing choices the Wachowskis employ in presenting it suggest that with this scene, the show is after more than just Game of Thrones-style clickbait-headline-grabbing.

Zoning in on the characters already engaged in some form of physical activity — the bulk of it being sex, of course, but Will gets in on the action simply by dint of spending some time at the gym, while the oft-nude Wolfgang ‘hosts’ the entire party at a sauna — the scene ramps up the passion not by focusing on pornographic money shots and a linear drive towards orgasm. Instead, it makes it a point to concentrate on the pleasure of all involved, and the Wachowskis are careful to give an identity and purpose to each of the participants.

To bring the point home that this is about the body first and foremost, and not about sex in particular, poor Will has to keep a straight face while lifting weights at the gym when he suddenly finds himself driven to orgasm by his newfound telekinetic brother-and-sisterhood.

Conflicted: Tina Desai

Conflicted: Tina Desai

And the fact that not all the sensates participate in the scene is further evidence that this is not just a cheap attempt to get a rise out of the audience. Because at that point in the story, Riley, Sun and Kala aren’t in the right emotional place to partake in a joyous orgy.

The virginal Kala — crucially, she waves off sex ed advice from a fussy aunt by invoking the wisdom of “the Internet” — is fending off both an unwanted marriage and a sudden attraction to fellow sensate Wolfgang, so that participating in the orgy in which he’s present would make little sense in her arc. Sun, while certainly no stranger to physicality owing to her — subsequently quite handy — combat skills, is biding her time with monk-like patience after making a heartbreaking sacrifice for the sake of her corrupt brother.

Emotional centre: Tuppence Middleton

Emotional centre: Tuppence Middleton

But while Riley’s harried state of mind — the narcotics-happy DJ has fallen on the wrong end of a drug deal gone wrong — also excludes her from the seratonin-spiking get-together, this doesn’t mean that the character, calibrated masterfully as the show’s emotional centre by a tender, raw and vivid performance from Middleton, has no claim on physicality.

But rather than sexual congress, it is childbirth that marks the most significant blot on her emotional journey, and another attention-grabbing scene depicting a live birth confirms the Wachowskis’ commitment to depicting how the physical nature of life will always trump arbitrary, remote connection.

In way, it’s almost a direct affront to a strong and consistent strand in one of the Wachowskis’ key influences for the Matrix trilogy: William Gibson’s landmark work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. In Gibson’s 1984 novel, hackers — or digital ‘cowboys’ — often derisively refer to our bodies as being simply “meat”. With Sense8, the Wachowskis appear to be determined to reinstate the value of what goes on inside our meat-containers while still operating in a genre that taps into the cyberpunk modus operandi.

Binge-watching towards empathy

But there’s another way in which the mechanism of Sense8 works to put the Wachowskis’ humanist message forward… though in this case, it’s probably Straczynski who can take the bulk of the credit for putting his vast experience of serialized writing into play.

In a way that’s both counter-intuitive and shrewd, the creative team behind Sense8 tapped into the pop culture reservoir originally opened up by Marvel Comics’ X-Men and their various multi-media iterations, by uniting a group of ‘special’ individuals under the tutelage of two sage renegades — Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah) and Jonas Malicki (Naveen Andrews) — partly as a warning shot that their ‘kind’ is in danger, and being pursued by an errant member of their erstwhile species, ‘Whispers’ (Terrence Mann).

But for the bulk of the series, this isn’t the main motor of the narrative; it’s more like a ghostly nudge that turns into a bona fide push as the first season accelerates towards its climax. What hooks us instead are the individual narratives of the various characters, and when they interlace it feels like an added bonus.

The Great Joiner: Daryl Hannah

The Great Joiner: Daryl Hannah

An ancillary — but certainly not trivial — side-effect of this structural choice is that it places all of the various questions on an almost equal emotional footing; so that a romantic discord between Lito and his beloved Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) is placed side-by-side with the comparatively much harsher realities Capheus has to contend with.

Intentional or not, this has the wonderful effect of reminding us that, while the characters day-to-day situations and national, cultural and economic context vary greatly, we can come to understand their emotional priorities and respect them accordingly.

In a world where discourse is dominated by the — sometimes blinkered — drive to “out” who is more privileged than whom, and where empathy is limited to either dry facts or sensationalised sob stories, Sense8 reminds us that the way to understand someone is to first understand that, just like you, they have a day-to-day life in which they reckon with things wonderful and mundane, life-altering and life-threatening, at nearly every turn.

Say hello to my little friend: Max Riemelt

Say hello to my little friend: Max Riemelt

And while the Wachowskis have left details about the sensates‘ overall purpose and mission tantalizingly open to interpretation (read: ripe for exploration in subsequent seasons of the show), perhaps one thing we can assume about the reason why they exist, is simply to remind us that it is in fact possible to tap into something resembling a common wellspring of humanity… but that taking the importance of the flesh into account — as life-giving, pleasurable, deadly and prone to death and termination as it may be — is crucial to this process.

Just like you can’t hashtag your way into social justice — as recent developments all over the world have shown — so you can’t truly appreciate the value of other human beings without doing your damnedest to quite literally walk a mile in their shoes. Or, you know, temporarily possess their body to vanquish evil henchmen thanks to the martial arts skills you happen to have, and they don’t.

The rudiments of story win, too

Of course, there’s another reason why the conceit of interconnected body-hopping humans is handy for Straczynski and the Wachowskis. To wit, it’s a clever way of legitimising deus ex machina. They don’t always get away with it: there will be points when you’ll ask yourself why a sensate manages to interfere in certain instances, and not others.

But on the whole, it works in tandem with viewer expectations and makes for great moments of catharsis. This is particularly evident in the climactic episode, where the story slots into the kind of ‘chase’ sequence that you expect from X-Men-style narratives of marginalized super-powered beings fleeing from, the confronting, those persecuting them.

Inciting incident: Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews

Inciting incident: Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews

In a lot of ways, Sense8 works despite its niggles because it meshes form and content in a way that other shows don’t. The very idea of the sensates suddenly forced to come together and reckon with each of their individual life stories, and feed on each others’ abilities, works perfectly with the serialised television format, where multiple character arcs are not only possible, but actively encouraged.

It’s also clearly in line with the Wachowskis’ own ambitions, which have often resulted in stillborn feature film productions, but are finally given space to flourish in a 12-episode format.

Sense8 is a heady, febrile tumble that does suffer a few bumps and scratches on its breakneck descent. But it’s also a positive flip-side to the Wachowskis’ narrative sincerity and ambition; where their cinematic output has all too often revealed how such an approach can backfire. How a second season fares is still up in the air, of course, but the fact that its course remains touch-and-go already makes it a more exciting prospect than your usual TV fare.

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Please consider donating to the Patreon page for MIBDUL — the comic book series I’m currently working on with the artist Inez Kristina. 

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #11 | Scott R. Jones

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

eternal-frankenstein

Living by Scott R. Jones

Since horror and fantasy are, broadly speaking, my favourite of the classic speculative fiction categories — while a wide berth is given to the Weird and any form of intermixing — my experience with literary sci-fi falls a bit on the lean side.

That said, the sci-fi favourites I do have, I cling to very dearly indeed, dipping in for regular re-reads. Mary Shelley’s Frankestein is actually one of them. The other is William Gibson’s pioneering work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. And despite the fact that both novels were written over a century apart from each other and that, apart from their central commitment to a science fictional set of ideas, situations and concepts, could not be further apart in tone, narrative rhythm and scope, I like to think of both of them as being complementary.

Shelley addresses the limits of bodily modification and reanimation, and problematises the notion of a creature created ex nihilo, but without the embracing context of family and community. The Creature in Shelley’s text grasps at the world outside of itself to give it meaning — it feeds on what we can widely describe as ‘culture’ to legitimise itself, but all the while its aberrant bodily shape snuffs out any chance of real belonging.

It is a tale of bodies and what they mean, and how we process or fail to process their realities: be it the Creature’s own failed — but understandable — attempts at making peace with its uniquely tormented predicament, or Victor Frankenstein’s refusal to take responsibility for his engineered progeny, largely on the basis of its physical appearance and its implications.

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

In the end, both characters are disappointed by the fact that their physical reality doesn’t match up with the abstract dreams they have: Victor’s Creature doesn’t conform to the aesthetic decorum he may have wished to achieve with his experiment — which further cements the fact that his work is an affront to God — while the Creature’s admirable self-taught attempts at becoming intellectually and emotionally sensitive are ultimately rendered moot by the limits of its body.

The innovation of Neuromancer, on the other hand, was to circumvent the body altogether in favour of an exploration of the cybernetic singularity which has since become rote not only in fiction, but in daily life too (you’re reading this online, aren’t you?). The open hostility that some of Gibson’s characters espouse for ‘meat’ (i.e., traditional biological bodily structures) are a testament to this, and seem to suggest that Frankenstein got the ball rolling, but that the future imagined in Gibson’s model is in some ways the logical conclusion of Victor Frankenstein’s experiment.

To wit, the trick to circumvent mortality is not through some messy and pathetic attempt at stitching together dead body parts and reanimating them… the trick is to embrace the possibility of downloading and replicating your consciousness in a virtual realm that edges closer and closer to our ‘real’ one.

In his contribution to Lockhart’s anthology, Scott R. Jones happily meshes together both of these key strands in sci-fi, but in a way that they don’t, in fact, cancel each other out. In the snow-capped setting that recalls both — of course — the bookending sections of Shelley’s novel, as well as pop culture artefacts like John Carpenter’s The Thing in its depiction of rugged outliers gazing suspiciously ahead at a mysterious and dangerous mission, Scott injects his version of the Creature with both anger and agency.

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

The story itself is largely composed of a monologue delivered by the same stand-in for the Creature; a military experiment gone awry and who is now on a vindictive mission to find and execute its creator, Aldo Tusk of ‘Eidolon’ — a corporation or military body of some kind which has apparently OK’d Tusk’s mission to stitch together a super-soldier.

As the ‘asset’ beings its narrative, we learn that it’s made up of various body parts made to fight in unison, and the voice of the monologue is laced with a sarcastic bitterness that the Romantically pained Creature from Shelley’s original novel would never have managed. Later on, Jones adds another twist of black humour by suggesting that the Creature’s programming includes orgasmic delight at an enemy kill. This guarantees that the story has the edge and attitude normally associated with cyberpunk, but more importantly, it also means that the Creature here is a fighter, and not a subject of pity as in Shelley’s text.

It's alive? The 'birth' scene from Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987)

It’s alive? The ‘birth’ scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987)

And in fact, it’s through cyberpunk ‘means’ that the hint of complete emancipation appears to suggest itself. While the beginnings of the asset’s career as a patchwork soldier are as abject as ever — they even recall Robocop‘s forced resurrection as a hybrid fighting for someone else’s agenda — the gleeful bite as she/it reveals just the programming has been circumvented is a joy to read.

A spirited and inspired mash-up of key strands of the sci-fi genre (at least from my admittedly limited POV) with a highly satisfying revenge kick to round things off.

Read previous: Martin, Falksen

 

 

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

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

eternal-frankenstein

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

The New Soviet Man by G.D. Falksen

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

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

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

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

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

bride-of-frankenstein-bride-screaming

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

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

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

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

Karel Roden in Frankenstein's Army (2013)

Karel Roden in Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

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

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

James Whale himself certainly knew it.

Read previous: Betty Rocksteady

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #9 | Betty Rocksteady

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

eternal-frankenstein

Postpartum by Betty Rocksteady

And so, Ross E. Lockhart impresses me with his sharp editorial skills once again. Just last review, I was speaking about how we in fact don’t speak about Frankenstein as a book about artistic creation all that often, spurred on by what seemed to be a subtle treatment of that very same strand in Michael Griffin’s novelette ‘The Human Alchemy’.

But turn the pages over to the next story on the TOC — Betty Rocksteady’s ‘Postpartum’ — and bang! there it is. Nothing subtle about  it: Rocksteady decides to not only place that metaphor at the front and centre, but to make it the main motivating engine of her contribution to Lockhart’s anthology.

However, the title also suggests a more pained and universal fact of human life, and one that will also remind us of another key element in the fabric of Mary Shelley’s original text. Rocksteady’s protagonist is a reluctant teenage mother who has lost her sweetheart soon after their baby — the poor, unfairly derided Timmy — is born, and her first-person narration does very little to endear us to her plight beyond the fundamental misery, and recent tragedy, that underlies her existence.

Still from Hannibal, 'Trou Normand' (Season 1, Episode 9)

Still from Hannibal, ‘Trou Normand’ (Season 1, Episode 9)

Rocksteady uses this to create suspense — the central artistic creation could easily be something out of NBC’s Hannibal — but the idea of a mother rejecting her child of course also recalls Victor Frankenstein’s heart-breaking (and instant) rejection of his own Creature.

But where Victor Frankenstein is all neurotic self-justification in his own version of events — really, it reaches Humbert Humbert like proportions at times — Rocksteady’s teenage narrator has no such qualms, coming across as bratty at best and downright spiteful at worst. This only increases the aforementioned suspense, because in that mental state, our otherwise powerless (psychically and economically) protagonist gains an unsettling degree of amoral freedom.

Rocksteady’s story is at its most affecting when the emotional satisfaction of creating art is being detailed: the only real relief that our narrator gets, and one that his sanctioned by her doting mother, who knows full well that art is her only real method of release. The trouble is that the raw matter used in the act of creation preclude the essential beauty of the idea, much like Victor Frankenstein’s ambitions to create life ex nihilo lose their luster when confronted with the groaning hodge-podge Creature springing into life and demanding to be recognised and loved.

A taboo-prodding tale with a shocking ending that’s fully earned.

Read previous: Michael Griffin