End of Year Favourite Things | Horror, Revisionism, Punishment and Thor(s)

As I’ve mentioned in my last post, December took it upon itself to welcome me with a nasty sucker-punch of the flu: a freelancer’s nightmare in a season when all the clients want things done in bulk so that everyone can rest up during the holidays.

But one upside of it all is being able to soak in all the stuff I would have soaked in otherwise, but with an added single-mindedness… partly owing to the fact that I could do little else and so was justified in spending days on end just reading and watching things.

So here are some recent things I’ve consumed and enjoyed during that period… though some of them were either consumed or begun before the illness hit. Either way, feel free to allow them to double-up as gift ideas. Am sure the indie creators on the list would appreciate that especially.

Tanzer_CREATURES_OF_WILL_AND_TEMPER_finalCreatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer (novel)

I was never too keen on the ‘& Zombies’ sub-genre of literature, if we can call it that. It just seems like such a one-trick-pony gimmick that to spread it out over an entire book — much less an entire unofficial series of them — just struck me as a bit redundant and silly.

Having said that, I did enjoy the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film, in large part because director Burr Steers deftly shot all of it as a Jane Austen pastiche first and foremost, with the zombies having to blend in with the established ‘heritage film’ mise-en-scene, rather than overpowering everything into pulp madness once they do show up.

Rest assured that Tanzer’s novel — a meticulously put together gender-swapped take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray — owes very little to the ‘& Zombies’ trend, save for perhaps this last element. When the supernatural element does rear its ugly head, it does so in world with firm period rules already established, and in a story about sibling angst that stands front-and-centre for the bulk of the running time.

The result is an experience that is both immersive and captivating; a Victorian pastiche and tribute to the legacy of Wilde that very much scratches those familiar itches, while also offering a fun, pulpy comeuppance in the end.

***

The-Man-Who-Laughs-CoverThe Man Who Laughs by David Hine & Mark Stafford (graphic novel)

The last thing I did before getting sick was attend Malta Comic Con 2017, and a fun time that was indeed. Meeting old friends and new under the spell of our geeky obsessions is an experience that’s tough to beat. I also spent an inordinate amount of money on comics and artwork and no, I regret nothing.

Particularly when it concerns undeniable gems such as these — a work that once again draws on a literary classic, though one certainly not as universally lauded as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

As writer David Hine writes in an afterword to this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s L’ Homme qui rit — perhaps more famous for a silent film adaptation starring Conrad Veidt which in turn inspired look of Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker — the original novel, a late-period Hugo miles away from the populist charm of a Les Miserables, is something of a convoluted, knotted beast whose socio-political digressions he’s had to cut down to ensure the story flows as well as it can.

The-Man-Who-Laughs_MEDIA_19

Mark Stafford, ladies and gentlemen

Stripped down as such, and aided by tremendous illustration work from artist Mark Stafford, the volcanic melodrama at the centre of the story — and it is a melodrama, though perhaps in the best possible sense of the word — is allowed to come to the fore, and I practically tore through the pages as my heart raced, yearning to discover the fate of poor perma-rictus-infested Gwynplaine and his fragile adoptive family.

Stafford’s work really is tremendous, though. His grasp of the grotesque idiom works to highlight both the social horror and sublime tragedy that frames the whole story, and the chalk-like colouring technique adds that something special to the feel of each page.

The assured lines and deliberate exaggerations brought to mind the work of Lynd Ward, and in any case — here’s a story that definitely shares some genetic make-up with God’s Man, dealing as it does with the venal, compromising nature of the world.

***

winnebagoWinnebago Graveyard by Steve Niles and Alison Sampson (comics)

Collecting all the single issues of the titular series, this is another gorgeous artefact I managed to pick up at Malta Comic Con, this time from its affable and keenly intelligent artist, Alison Sampson, who was kind enough to sign my copy over a chat about the comic’s intertextual DNA of ‘Satanic panic’ and folk horror.

It’s a lovely-to-the-touch, velvety volume that comes with generous backmatter expounding on the same DNA, but what’s in between isn’t half bad either.

A simple story about a family being shoved into a deeply unpleasant situation — i.e., an amusement park that dovetails into a Satanic human-sacrifice ritual — is elevated away from cliche by Sampson’s art, which flows from one panel to another — often letting rigid panel divisions hang in the process, actually — in a grimy-and-gooey symphony.

***

god butcherThor: The God Of Thunder (Vols. 1 & 2) by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic (comics)

More comics now, though this one only confirms that I’m as much of a lemming to the machinations of popular culture as anyone else. To wit: when Comixology announced a discount-deal on a bunch of Thor comics in the wake of the brilliant and hilarious Thor: Ragnarok, I bit like the hungriest fish of the Asgardian oceans.

I’m glad I succumbed to this obvious gimmick, though, because it gave me the chance to catch up with this gem of a story arc, which gives us three Thors for the price of one, all of them trying to stop not just their own Ragnarok but the ‘Ragnarok’ of all the gods of the known universe, as the vengeful Gorr vows to unleash genocide on every single divine creature out there.

The two storylines out of the run that I’ve read so far — ‘The God Butcher’ and ‘Godbomb’ — felt like such a perfect distillation of everything that makes superhero comics work. A grandiose, epic story of ludicrously huge stakes, sprinkled with a necessary indulgence in pulp craziness (Thor on a space-shark, anyone?) which is in turn deflated by the strategic deployment of self-deprecating humour (the sarcastic back-and-forth between the Thors is a pure delight).

Ribic’s art seals the deal though. His gods certainly look the part — they may as well have been carved out of marble — helped along by the clean, gleaming shimmer that is Dean White’s colouring work.

While I eagerly look forward to devouring the latter half of the series, this rounds off a great year in Norse-related literature for me, during which I’ve enjoyed Christine Morgan’s across-the-board excellent The Raven’s Table from Word Horde, while I’m currently devouring Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology — a book that so far displays the popular myth-maker’s slinky and pleasant way with words, if nothing else.

shark

***

The Punisher (TV)

the punisher

Another Marvel product that needs no signal-boosting for me, but which I found gripping enough through its 13-episode run, for some obvious and less-obvious reasons. Yes, updated as it is to insert a too-easy critique of the American military-industrial complex (though really, only of its “bad apples”), Frank Castle’s adventures offer an easy cathartic kick.

As the title character of another show I love dearly — far, far more dearly than The Punisher or anything else for that matter — would have it, “Doing bad things to bad people makes us feel good“.

But that wasn’t what stayed with me. What stayed with me was Frank’s very nature as a “revenant” — he’s even referred to as such by another character at one point — and how that’s hammered home by the fact that he’s made to operate from an underground lair as his true self, but that when he returns temporarily to the surface, it is as if he were alive again, but only when he wears his new disguise.

A mythic touch in a story that revels in its supposed grittiness, and a welcome one too.

Happy holidays to all!

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

ross-e-lockhart

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…

eternal-frankenstein

 

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!

Painting a beautiful ruin | The Nameless Dark by T.E. Grau | Book Review

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW

T.E. Grau’s debut collection The Nameless Dark is a powder keg of imagination and potential. While the rag-tag gathering of stories sometimes slides too frequently into the unhallowed and by now well-trod annals of contemporary Lovecraftiana – a testament to it being made up of various magazine and anthology contributions over the years – the writer’s voice has a rich, fresh appeal.

Mining a vein opened by the likes of Clive Barker and more recently stretched further by the pained and earthy tales of Nathan Ballingrud – who introduces Grau’s collection, confirming that he’s a writer with a baton to pass – Grau regales readers with stories that have clear horror hooks but that don’t skimp on atmosphere or psychological exposition.

And as with the abovementioned precursors and influences, a keen handling of dread is another key wrinkle in the work, making for an unsettling but immersive experience.

One of my own favourite stories from the collection would have to be ‘Return of the Prodigy’, which I had originally encountered in the Cthulhu Ftaghn! anthology from Word Horde.

Detailing a late honeymoon in a Pacific island gone wrong, the story makes full use of its exotic setting to both seduce and unsettle the reader, while also letting in yet another trademark of the author’s work: a satirical streak; the targets in this case being the dull and bigoted American middle class. The undeniable pleasure of schadenfreude looms over the story – you know these unpleasant protagonists are in for an unpleasant time, which adds a giddy excitement to the terror.

Neither is our protagonist in ‘The Screamer’ all that sympathetic and relateable – a corporate cog with very little love for his fellow man and woman beyond what he can get from them, Boyd gains a strange kind of dignity in his doomed trajectory as he follows the titular ‘scream’ that appears to infect his workplace with a siren-like call.

The regression into a submerged world of horror bubbling right under the urban sprawl is a common theme for Grau and his fellow peddlers of modern horror, and an atavistic charge – an escape from the mundane into a world of destructive bliss – is taken to its logical conclusion here.

More traditional thrills are to be found in ‘Beer and Worms’ – a brief but hard-hitting chiller consisting of nothing more except for a conversation between two friends out fishing, which by the end takes a truly sinister turn without our characters having to lift a finger to influence this very sudden and very real shift in the mood.

It’s a testament to Grau’s ability to wring horror out of any situation, which is made all the more seductive and poignant by his command of the language.

In fact, Grau’s emphatically non-minimalist style holds him in good stead throughout, and on this point he’s very much in line with Ballingrud’s approach to the genre. It’s not so much about ‘sweetening the pill’ of the horror with beautiful language. If anything, it’s rather the opposite: the language immerses you into the tale, and Grau is also careful to add texture and nuance to his characters – making the hammer fall all the harder when it does.

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW BOX

T.E. Grau

But the writing is also, quite simply, a pleasure to savour, and notable passages can be picked more or less at random throughout the collection. Here’s one example from ‘White Feather’ – sins of the father horror on the high seas that takes its sweet time to establish a rich historical narrative before kicking into pulpy gear:

‘Chilton held the glass to his nose, working through the alcohol and molasses down to the subtle perfume of Newtown Pippins before they were picked, smashed, and ordered to rot. Back when they first emerged as springtime buds from a lifeless branch, so full of promise. This was the aroma of his home, of a particular wind and soil that knew him from birth and yet held no judgement. He wished he were a boy again, before his father lost his leg and his mother her will, before the responsibilities of adult life solidified a legacy that was as permanent as history written by the bloody victorious. Before his last raid on Nova Scotia’.

Sometimes it does dip dangerously into style-over-substance territory, as happens with the undeniably fun but largely cosmetic ‘The Truffle Pig’ – another story written for a Word Horde anthology, this time from Tales of Jack the Ripper – which envisages the world’s first serial killer as a member of a long-standing cadre of murderers who work in what they believe to be a noble tradition.

While the language and mood is certainly on point as ever, there’s not much to the story beyond this high-concept twist. A similar problem plagues ‘Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox’, in which Grau very convincingly transports us back to the golden years of the Beat Generation milieu, only to end his psychedelic journey with a Lovecraftian add-on that fans of the weird fiction genre (and the looming behemoth that is Lovecraft) will have experienced all too frequently.

But that’s not to say that riffing on Lovecraft automatically means reverting to formula, nor that Grau isn’t capable of adding something fresh to the mix.

Clear evidence of this can be found in the strongest entry in the collection, ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’. A tour de force in every sense of the word, the story does appear to have a coveted octopus at its centre, though the resemblance to Cthulhu is kept to a minimum, and Grau waits until the end to deploy it to full effect.

Instead, the bulk of the narrative concentrates on the journey of a young boy burdened with a stereotypically shitty home life, who nonetheless remains hopeful that his pursuit of the octopus in question will bring happiness… if not transcendence. The glorious kicker of Grau’s tale is that it’s largely told with a corresponding sense of wide-eyed wonder shared by Alden, our protagonist.

It’s a modern picaresque story with a Dickensian dynamic at its core, and as the beleaguered but resilient young man winds his way through vibrant, filthy streets and suspect alleyways – climaxing in a visit to an abandoned zoo – Grau paints a vivid, memorable tapestry.

The Nameless Dark is a rich and varied collection that taps into the best strands of contemporary horror fiction.

The Stars Are In The Gutter | Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie | Book Review

First, some music

It’s a wonderful bonus that Alistair Rennie‘s debut novel BleakWarrior has its own soundtrack, composed by the author himself, which you should definitely check out and listen to while you leaf through his gloriously crafted sledgehammer of a book. But for the purposes of this review, I propose the following piece of music to set the tone. I trust it will soon become clear why this selection was made.

New Weird or weird-weird?

There is an argument to be made for Alistair Rennie’s work slotting in rather neatly into the improvised sub-genre labelled ‘The New Weird’. After all his short story, ‘The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines’ was the only original entry in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The New Weird (2008), where it was presented as a sort of laboratory experiment of what’s to come — if anything is to come at all — for the genre under discussion, celebration and dissection.

Well, reams could perhaps be written about the ins-and-outs of the New Weird itself (for my part, I wrote something of a middling MA dissertation on the subject) but thankfully, Rennie went ahead and developed the germ of what lay in the original short story into a head-bangingly bizarre novel, BleakWarrior, released earlier this year from Blood Bound Books.

Weaving in yet another short story pertaining to the same (secondary) world, which was also published under Ann Vandermeer’s watch during her all-too-brief and unceremoniously interrupted spearheading of Weird Tales, Rennie’s novel does boast a general thrust towards weirdness — but whether said weirdness can be pinned to the aesthetics of any particular genre is another thing entirely.

Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie (Blood Bound Books, 2016). Cover illustration by Maxwell John Hudetz

BleakWarrior may resemble a superhero name — and he may have the abilities that vaguely match some superheroes — but the protagonist who wields it in Rennie’s novel has no alter ego. Neither do his erstwhile colleagues who populate the rather high-strung planet Rennie has concocted. In fact they boast names like Automanic, Gutter and The Light That Never Shines.

And their main mission in life is to obliterate each other with no rhyme or reason. Who needs alter egos, who needs a private life and relaxation time when endowed with such a single-minded mission? (That’s for the ‘Linear’ beings, not the ‘Meta-Warriors’ we’re concerned with right here.)

I’ll get to the main plot motor in a moment, but I’d like to dwell on this for second, because it’s important. 

What Rennie captures so well is the hedonistic and atavistic thrill of having just such a brutal sense of purpose in life. The knife’s edge walk between creation and destruction — more to the point, between sex and violence — is what Rennie appears to be insatiably obsessed with. The inexorable churn of brutality that these characters engage in feels both inevitable and — operating within the hellish logic that Rennie sets up — strangely beautiful.

In lesser hands this would have felt like an adolescent indulgence: an exercise in attention-grabbing antics to an audience of lobotomised gore-hounds and their scandalised elders.

But then, the kicker.

You see, BleakWarrior suddenly grows tired of killing people without knowing the reason why. So begins his quest; which will of course be punctuated by blood and thunder — and blood and guts — while also being placed in direct parallel to that of The Sisters of No Mercy (their name a hint at yet another aesthetic fetish that Rennie very much gives vent to in the novel’s make-up): two expert warriors slashing and fucking their way through an organ-retrieving mission in the hopes of revitalising their dearly-departed ‘Middle Sister’.

This allows Rennie to have the cake and eat it too — an often-frustrated adolescent indulgence now given full vent. By placing a philosophical conundrum at the very centre of this monstrous clusterfuck, Rennie asks you to pay attention, all the while bending your mind with the very nature of this juxtaposition. Rennie has written eloquently on what makes the Sword & Sorcery genre so special, and  BleakWarrior’s amoral world of violent supermen and women out for nothing but more violence certainly evokes that genre to some degree.

But the kicker kicks it all into crazy town. Since this is a book better experienced than explained, here’s a few extracts to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Whorefrost’s cock is long and thin with a remarkably bulbous head that makes it look like a bauble on the end of a stick. His testicles are disproportionately large and, like the rest of his body, hairless. More to the point, his egg-sac is teeming with semen that has an unusual potency: it is deadly cold and, to this extent, biologically devastating.

Humidity hung to the Fetid Mountains like a lubricant. The slopes were thick with an organic welter of sprawling variations of fecundity and decay. There was an aura of prototypical distinction between emergent species that took the principle of diversification to extremes that hardly seemed worth the bother.

…But what was most alluring in the appeal of the girl whose name they didn’t know was the potency of her vaginal juices that spilled over the lips of The Sisters of No Mercy with a sublime and syrupy thickness that seemed to fill their brains with infusions of erotic wonder. The taste had a weighty tang that produced an effect of mild invigoration mixed with a prolonged sense of internal melting, like being absorbed by the outer shades of a celestial aurora.

Notice how the perfectly sculpted — and it must be said, somewhat arch and archaic — prose serves as a jolting cymbal crash when combined with the XXX-rated stuff under consideration? Of course, it’s also funny, which feature Rennie exploits to full effect.

Yeah. This shit will fuck you up.

Hail, Dionysus

BleakWarrior is literature to the Nth degree. It’s a work by someone who is hopelessly infatuated with the ‘lower’ genres but whose love and enthusiasm for them is filtered through a mature intelligence and a respect for and knowledge of the art of fiction. The obvious clue of the ‘Meta’-Warriors gives that detached postmodern element to all the craziness.

In fact, this is a novel that gets its animating friction from the simple fact that it’s at constant war with itself. It’s a novel chock-a-block with one sensationalist set piece after another — a Jacobean display of torture porn Grand Guignol that will serve as a benchmark for prose brutality for years to come — but that’s delivered through a strong narratorial voice with no interest in simply remaining in the gutter (with the Gutter). Instead Rennie wrings the experience for all that it’s worth, making sure to play with ideas as well as bodies.

But gods damn it, what will remain etched in your brain is the images. The voice will only help you take them seriously as part of an interesting new project in genre writing. One that will hopefully spawn a plethora of imitators — to say nothing of more, more, more from Rennie himself, hopefully — which will grow over the literary terrain like rancid but glorious fungus.

For BleakWarrior is a a child of Dionysus filtered through the voice of Apollo… until you realise that it’s not Apollo at all, but a trickster god the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

In short…

This shit will fuck you up.