The politics of fantasy and the radical power of love | Antonio Piazza on Sicilian Ghost Story

One of the best things to emerge out of my admittedly truncated run with an MA in Film Studies at my alma mater was being introduced to filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia. Not just introduced, but being put under a filmmaking wringer they helped crank up with inspiration and relish.

With the help of other equally acclaimed European masters in the field, the award-winning duo — of Salvo and latterly and spectacularly, Sicilian Ghost Story fame — helped us beat a script for a short film into shape, and eventually shepherded us through its production phase.

dramaturgy

Fabio Grassadonia (front) and Antonio Piazza (back) teaching ‘Screenwriting and the Art of Dramaturgy’ at the University of Malta (October 2015). Photo by Kenneth Scicluna

If nothing else, it made for a revealing look into the process of filmmaking. It certainly helped my writing from then onwards — their thorough, no-compromise understanding of the dynamics of story created helpful subconscious voices in my head that hammer through whenever I’m faced with a knotted plot problem or unclear character motivation.

So it was with great pleasure that I caught up with one half of that duo via Skype to talk about their compelling, harrowing and gorgeous sophomore feature, Sicilian Ghost Story, on the occasion of it finally reaching our shores on general release. Though I’d actually seen it just over a year ago when it made a ‘soft’ premiere in Malta as part of the third edition of the Valletta Film Festival, and I did not hesitate to subsequently name it the best film of that year.

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Star-crossed, never lost: Julia Jedlikowska and Gaetano Fernandez in Sicilian Ghost Story

We spoke about the film’s enthusiastic perception in the “Anglo-Saxon world” and how this denotes something of a cultural divide between that region and their native European south, about how ethical responsibility plays a big part in the duo’s representation of the mafia. But most importantly and urgently — at least, as far as I’m concerned — we discussed how misunderstood and misrepresented the fantastical mode often is in contemporary cinema and perhaps Western culture in general.

“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares… hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation.”

Check out the interview on MaltaToday by clicking here

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

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

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

Stranger Things Eleven

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

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

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

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

Stranger Things 2

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

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

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

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

Starr Creek Book Cover

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

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

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

Stranger Things demogorgon

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

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

Starr Creek Map

Starr Creek Rd, Oregon. Real place.

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

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

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

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

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Starr Creek Review Nathan Carson

Nathan Carson in the book trailer for Starr Creek

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

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

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

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

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

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.

the-weird

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.

Here’s one for the misfits | Alistair Rennie | Interview

A new book has arrived on the scene which makes short work of your social and sexual mores — no matter how liberal you believe yourself to be on this front — to say nothing of  the way it dismantles the categories and limits of what genre fiction can and should do. BLEAKWARRIOR by Alistair Rennie is a work of ‘Sword & Debauchery’ that appears to be inspired in equal parts by Conan the Barbarian, Mortal Kombat and the steroid-pumped, airbrushed work of British comic book maestro Simon Bisley, but with a healthy dose of extreme pornography placed side-by-side with postmodern literary theory. In short, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before, and as my review of it confirms it certainly discombobulated my own brain in the most satisfying way imaginable. 

Now, the man himself steps into these unhallowed halls to make some soft — or not so soft — disturbances of his own. Chief of which is the possibility of more BleakWarrior-related craziness in the future…

Alistair Rennie

Alistair Rennie

Alistair… first of all, welcome to the Soft Disturbances interview lounge. Are you sitting comfortably, and if not — why?

Not comfortably at all because you have reputation for asking difficult questions.

Okay, so… BleakWarrior appears to have emerged from a deep simmering well of adolescent rage, bile… but also an overarching enthusiasm for life (and death). It is a violent novel about sex, and a sexy novel about violence, with the permutations of that binary being stretched to the most scintillating spectrum you can imagine (or can’t, really… not until you’ve read it). Beyond the aesthetics at play here — we’ll get to those later if you don’t mind — in terms of the psychological experience of wanting and/or needing to tell this story, was this something you’ve been wanting to get off your chest in a while?

I suppose I’ve always had a rebellious, renegade instinct that’s been with me since the day I was born – not so much as a consequence of adolescence but because of what I am. It’s something that defines me and will remain with me indefinitely – through childhood, adolescence and beyond. There’ll always be an element of rage in anything I write. But it’s mostly a force for good – energy-bringing and inspiring.

BleakWarrior partly comes from this, yes, but it also sprang, quite suddenly, out of an idea I had for writing a graphic novel. But I didn’t know any artists who could draw a full length graphic novel, so I decided to create a graphic novel using words rather than images. Part of the extreme nature of the sex and violence in BleakWarrior is a sort of literal transcription of the kind of visceral imagery you see in graphic novels.

Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie

And then I also decided to be super ambitious. I looked at my favourite examples of fantasy – Conan the Barbarian, the Elric stories, and I thought, “What can I do to follow up on those examples? How can I push this in a new direction? How can I create a character who takes things in a new direction from Elric, in the same way that Elric took things in a new direction from Conan?” Conan is quite a forlorn, lonely figure in many ways. Elric is utterly tragedian and tortured. So, I thought, “how can I create someone who’s more tragic and forlorn than they are?”

It was quite a pompous approach, but aiming high can be a good way of reaching higher.

It’s also true that a lot of the rage in BleakWarrior actually comes from what was happening at the time I started writing it – the second invasion of Iraq, the most pointless stupid war you could possibly imagine in the modern day and age. The way our governments ignored our protests, our sorrow, our pleading with them, our more vigorous demands – it was infuriating, excruciating, too much to bear.

BleakWarrior is a very misanthropic novel. This is one of the main reasons why.

And underlying all of this is something perhaps more in line with stretching back to adolescence and beyond – my abiding fascination with extremes, taking things to their furthest limits. This is more of a Romantic notion that has always appealed to me – since I was a child, I think.

‘Overindulgence’ and ‘pretentiousness’ are two of the bluntest and most commonly distributed weapons for the populace to lob at authors, and artists of every variety. BleakWarrior appears to be poised as the perfect nightmare scenario for those who would lob said weapons: being a ‘clever’ piece of genre pastiche written in a style that only an alien entity with a skewed sense of proportion would call ‘minimalist’. Did this cultural tendency ever creep up on you as you were writing, and how did you react to its gaze? And generally speaking, what do you think about the tendency to extol the minimalist and outwardly modest as more ‘worthy’?

I think I was always aware of the risk that you take when you overstep the boundaries of measured writing, subtle writing, curated writing that exercises restraint and fine-tuning.

But it was the only way to do it because the stylistic excesses are part of the whole dynamic of taking things to an extreme – where the language itself becomes a physical embodiment of the thematic content of the novel.

The style has to reflect the subject matter in order to create a uniform effectiveness, I believe, which is to ensure that the work reaches its maximum potential, as well as to underline those thematic intentions. I opted for excess, for overindulgence, in the same way that we opt for overindulgence during festive occasions. Drunken revels, fireworks, crazy dancing, festival rites, cosplay – there’s a time and place for all of them – and the principle is as true in fiction as it is in real life.

Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta

Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta

Is it pretentious? Well, all fiction is pretentious in the sense that it pretends to be true. But I think if you remain true to an idea, to the vision of what you’re trying to create, then you’re doing it all with an honesty and sincerity that is the very opposite of pretentious. So I think, if you stick to the truth of the idea, then you’re likely to steer clear of accusations of pretentious overindulgence, because most readers will sense that sincerity, even if they don’t necessarily like what it’s offering them.

I also think that the idea that stylistic flamboyance, hyperbole, exaggeration are somehow equal to pretentiousness is a misunderstanding of their effectiveness as modes of expression in fiction. They are highly suitable, if not necessary, for certain types of storytelling. Fantasy and horror often benefit enormously from such a lack of restraint.

And, as for the question of applying greater value to a particular kind of writing, this is tremendously wrong-headed and can only serve to nullify the variety of writing that makes it both interesting and wonderful. To apply such values can only serve to impede any efforts towards originality that in writing – or any creative process for that matter – are necessary in order for it to thrive.

In a strange way, there’s a certain opacity to the novel too… the characters are alien (and alienating) figures with no real names, and plenty of emphasis is laid on the philosophical underpinnings of the characters and their world, with physical description being intense when it does appear, but it scarcely does. Were you ever worried that the novel won’t be ‘immersive’ enough for the reader?

There are one or two people I very much esteem who told me (in critiques of the first chapter) that they found it hard to relate to the story because the main characters weren’t human. I can understand where they’re coming from, because a part of our reading experience often depends on forming bonds with characters – or some of them – and from getting a sense of identification with them.

In this case, though, the criticism (which is entirely valid) doesn’t bother me, even while I take it on board as something to bear in mind for future work.

Elric of Melnibone by Robert Gould

Elric of Melnibone by Robert Gould

The reason is this: BleakWarrior is a book about outcasts, weirdos, misfits, creatures of the underworld, of the peripheries, which is also written *for* outcasts and weirdos, for people who don’t fit in, who’ve never felt comfortable with the social and political systems they’re forced to belong to as a matter of course – not through choice, but through the inevitable prevalence of the mainstream, its abysmal soap operas, its dire commercial music scenes, its hideous game shows, sterility of purpose and political idiocies, its obsession with drabness, the self-righteousness of its mediocre tastes, and the incessant glorification of its ludicrously unimaginative worldview.

BleakWarrior is a misanthropic indulgence which scorns humans for their useless inability to make life interesting.

Another question in relation to you vs the reader binary… The novel’s uniqueness makes it almost impossible to describe without lapsing into deadening cliches of the “It’s like XYZ on acid” variety. But there’s such a performative (bardic?) thrill to some of the most extreme set-pieces that it’s almost impossible not to imagine you thrilling to an audience reaction to them. So my question is, despite the novel’s extreme nature, did you in fact write it with the prospective readers in mind?

I’m always going to be a coming from a position of subversive intent, so I’m always writing for people from a cross-section of the real or imagined tribes I belong or aspire to – the Goths and punks and metalheads, the renegades, upstarts, malcontents, the nature freaks and eco warriors, the children of the underground, the activists, non-conformists and subcultural minorities of all shades.

I have to ask: where do we go from here? Is a BleakWarrior franchise in the offing? (My gods… it would be like the Bizarro World equivalent of Game of Thrones, wouldn’t it?) Or do you want to shift gears to something to completely different?

I’ll certainly be writing more BleakWarrior and have already got a substantial amount written for what I’m very imaginatively calling BleakWarrior 2. And I’ll keep trying to put it out there.

I’ve been very fortunate, I think, because I hit upon an idea that has a lot of potential for going in all sorts of directions, and one that fills me with enthusiasm. It can be very difficult to conceive of ideas that encourage you to keep going with them, without hitting a blank wall or losing heart. So, in this case, there’s always something to add, always possibilities for expansion, always openings for new paths to take. You can imagine that having a simple rule of taking things to extremes and imposing very little restraints on anything gives you a lot of scope for having fun.

But a franchise?! The seas would have to run dry before that happened. I do have a dream that someday someone will make an animated film or series out of BleakWarrior. In fact, it would be true to say that this idea has always offered a blueprint for me to follow when writing the story. It’s part of this idea of creating a graphic novel (or anime, in this case) that is created in words rather than images. It’s an abiding principle that’s been there from the start.

On a final note, and to channel an influence very close to the essence of BleakWarrior… Alistair, what is best in life?

Red squirrels. And osprey chicks are very cuddly and vitally important for our aquatic ecosystems. But I also like being with friends; mountains, sea and sky; fleeting encounters with the Sublime; wine, *insert gender of your choice* and song; and the character of Ravenswood from Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor.

That’s not what you were expecting, was it?

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Do check in at BleakWarrior’s official website, which also features a free accompanying soundtrack to the book. Alistair Rennie’s freshly launched blog Dreadful Nights deserves a generous chunk of your time too, packed as it is with great cultural and political insights, along with a short, sharp essay on the Sword & Sorcery genres that is already appearing in various foreign-language publications. And in case you’re not already convinced that this inspired shot of crazy should make its way into your home library, do give my own review a whirl.

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #16 | E. Catherine Tobler

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Living, Vengeant Stars by E. Catherine Tobler

‘The Thing That Should Not Be’ is a very Lovecraftian concept — and a Metallica song with that title was actually inspired by Lovecraft’s own story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. And in plenty of ways that aren’t obviously linked to the Lovecraftian milieu, a lot of the stories in Tanzer and Bullington’s collection defy expectation.

Orrin Grey’s A Circle That Ever Returneth In, for example, attempts a Choose Your Own Adventure conceit in a short story format, while Natania Barron and Carrie Vaughn‘s contributions re-jig literary touchstones with a Lovecraftian touch that is both delightful and surprising.

And Tobler’s story is perhaps the most defiant of all, in that it doesn’t simply test the bounds of the short story framework, but also the expected thematic scope of Lovecraft’s legacy. She does this by going for a story in the epic fantasy mode, and it’s quite something to see it unravel. Elspeth is given a mission from the ‘dark man’, and it is presented to us as such:

Had killing the invisible horror of S’tya-Yg’Nalle not been enough? Never en ough, the dark man said, and Elspeth understood the enormity of what he wanted of them; saw in the far distance the colossal, tentacled beast slumbering beneath green waters, bound to the prison stones with chains as thick as tree trunks. This was the goal.

This mission appears to Elspeth in a dream, and we all know that dreams — and their corresponding Dreamlands — carry a lot of weight in Lovecraft’s universe. On this count, Tobler falls in line with her predecessor, but the more mundane mission of rescuing Elspeth’s sister from the “horrors of Lowenhold Prison” is what further animates the narrative, as our protagonist is joined by a ‘party’ whose set-up is immediately recognizable to those familiar with the fantasy genre.

Moria by Alan Lee

Moria by Alan Lee

But whereas other stories in the collection have taken advantage of the gamification of fantasy, Tobler goes for something more classically immersive. But beyond Tobler’s inspired hand with descriptive details — a skill that comes to full fruition at the story’s well executed climax — Tobler also endows her protagonist with a philosophical mindset. After Tobler’s closely-focused third-person narration informs us that the party was established in the most generic and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ way possible — the ‘dark man’s proposal in a tavern — she allows Elspeth some space to ponder the wider implications of their mission:

Each [of the party] was something to behold, possessing battle techniques Elspeth had not encountered prior to this adventure. She longed to know each woman better, but this was absurd. If they were all to die, what was the point? Perhaps, she decided, that was the point — to know their ways before they were lost to the world. To preserve and keep what they knew, to see some part of them carried into the inscrutable future.

A gripping and atmospheric story that teases and the wider potential of such a genre mash-up.

Read previous: Carlos Orsi

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.

Swords_v_Cthulhu_DRAFT_COVER_350

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

Getting it Ass-Backwards: ‘Booty’ and the Genre-Mainstream binary at LonCon

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez's single 'Booty'.

Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azaela in the promotional video for Lopez’s single ‘Booty’.

Considering Iggy Azelea and Jennifer Lopez’s collaborative single ‘Booty’ as a pop single – complete with an accompanying promo video that is arguably more of an ‘event’ than the song itself – is, I think, a fundamental category error.

Taking the aesthetics of both the song lyrics and the video (dir. Hype Williams) into consideration, it becomes clear that what we have here is less to do with music and more to do with pornography.

This isn’t a moral statement, it’s purely a matter of taxonomy, for what it’s worth. When the morally enraged tend to point their guns at supposedly decadent pop culture artifacts, there’s often just enough ambiguity in the equation for them to come across as uptight fuddy-duddies to their opponents.

But it is difficult to make a claim for ambiguity when a song calls itself ‘Booty’ – thereby making it clear that its priorities are purely limited to amplifying the erotic appeal of the bodily feature in question. Though it could also be seen as a collaborative attempt to dethrone Nicky Minaj from booty-pop dominance, the Azelea/J-Lo duet is also something of no-brainer considering both singers have put their backsides as the forefront of their brand.

Their effort is also significantly different in degree to Destiny Child’s now-classic ‘Bootylicious’. Where Azelea/J-Lo repeatedly and aggressively thrust their sculpted backsides to the camera in an attempt to entrance us with their particular anatomical prowess, Beyonce and co. go anthemic: the song understandably became a rallying call for amply-bottomed women to celebrate their bodies. While DC don’t of course deny the intrinsic erotic value of her subject, ‘Bootylicious’ emphasizes a feel-good factor, calling on listeners to cultivate confidence in their bodies.

But as they participate in what is essentially a Booty Dream Team, Azelea/J-Lo, like good capitalists, collaborate purely to maximize their own assets (!), and empowerment for the big bootied masses is clearly not on their agenda (‘Prepare Audience For Maximum Impact’, an opening scroll teases in the song’s promo video).

It’s Booty Degree Zero, and can therefore be seen as nothing more than pornography – a fetishisation of the flesh bolstered by pinprick-precise brand management that has the advantage of a far larger budget than other productions we would be less ambivalent about filing under ‘Porn’.

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The issue of taxonomy appears to be a consistent bugbear in some of my most frequented cultural circles: namely, the field of literature, particularly the strands of what can broadly be termed genre fiction when offset against what – again, with a disappointing short-hand – can be termed ‘mainstream’ literature.

It was a distinction – one with any number of attendant polemics – that appeared once again as a consistent theme during my visit to LonCon (or WorldCon) – a predominantly science-fiction based convention that took place in London in mid-August.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Must not forget to get down on Friday.

Amid a rich variety of panels – it would have been physically impossible to attend enough of them to get a representative sample – I was disappointed to find that a victim mentality still reigns supreme among certain elements of the science fiction and fantasy community.

I think this reduces our – ultimately quite human and universal – need to clarify and classify into its least productive mode.

While a discussion entitled ‘When is a fantasy not a fantasy’ did yield to some cogent and perceptive observations about the ways we tend to process fantastical works of fiction, it all unfortunately returned to a rather depressing cul-de-sac: that what we’re discussing here remains the purview of dedicated fans, whose passion the ‘mainstream’ world will never understand.

This, despite the fact that “Death to binaries!” ended up being an impromptu slogan of the panel, which included among its ranks Catherynne M. Valente, Jonathan Strahan, Paul Kincaid, Graham Sleight and Greer Gilman (it was moderated by Miriam Weinberg).

'The Wasp Factory' at the LonCon Dealer's Room - an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

‘The Wasp Factory’ at the LonCon Dealer’s Room – an installation in honour of Iain Banks.

Valente, a writer whom I greatly admire for her effusive baroque sensibility and her inspired weaving of myths and folktales into contemporary and often erotically charged narratives, disappointed me by assuming a boringly predictable stance towards ‘the mainstream’.

Though it was buttressed by an interesting central point – that people who aren’t all that familiar with fantasy literature are actually more comfortable with reading ‘straight’ fantasy than any slipstream variation that mixes various narrative registers – Valente dismissively waved away “Booker Prize books or whatever” as if they’re a homogenous, over-privileged bunch that deserve our derision by default.

The old chestnut that mainstream writers use “genre ingredients” with less rigour than genre writers, often levelled at the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, was trotted out once again, with Valente observing that this amounts to “playing with a shiny new toy without reading the instruction manual”. These writers use genre elements as “just a manner, a flash of colour”, favouring emotional impact at the cost of cogent, convincing world-building.

But I would argue that these writers are to be commended for accomplishing their narrative goals without having to worry about finicky world-building details. A writer is, among other things, an illusionist: they are supposed to convince you to plunge into the world they’ve created, and they shouldn’t be “shamed” if they succeed in doing so in a way that you don’t like.

This isn’t to say that categories of literature shouldn’t exist. Beyond commercial considerations – i.e., in which section of the bookshelves you’re expected to stuff certain books in, and how you want to ‘target’ your marketing – I still maintain that it’s useful to discuss how boundaries reflect on our reading experience and expectations.

It’s a factor that the above-mentioned panel did in fact grapple with, which makes the overall notes of victimization all the more deflating.

Paul Kincaid rightly complained that “fantasy is the wooliest word in the English language” – an apt opening salvo for a discussion which then sought to edge out some particulars about this all-embracing genre, or more specifically, our perceptions of it.

While Jonathan Strahan pointed out that certain books are “demonstrably” works of fantasy – the kind of books you wouldn’t hesitate to slide into the Fantasy shelf in bookstores – and that cover illustrations can in fact powerfully calibrate our expectations of the text, almost to the point where the text is altered completely (there goes branding again), this strand of thinking also accommodated a richer part of the discussion: that it is ultimately only the reader who can define a genre.

This is where art triumphs over pornography, I think.

Pornography is not narrative. Pornography is not interested in stories. It is uni-directional: Set phasers to ‘Arouse’. Storytelling allows for ambiguity, but the best stories take advantage of established boundaries – even when they aggressively run counter to them – to maximize the effects of stories.

LonCon/BarCon - alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

LonCon/BarCon – alcoholic lubrication aplenty.

To obsess over a perceived, looming bogeyman called ‘The Mainstream’ is to miss the wood for the trees. Let’s focus our attentions instead on what the literary traditions we want to work in have left us. If it was anything, LonCon was a celebration of the kind of communal fellow-feeling that creating distinctions in the first place can create. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that these distinctions can exist to give us a starting point: to add texture to our work and our discussions.

Otherwise we risk of them turning into something they turn into all too often: marks of segregation and exclusion.

The Weird Down Under: KJ Bishop and Anna Tambour

Don’t know if it’s down to coincidence or something deeper (never visited the region + not an anthropologist) but I’m really happy to have discovered two great works of weird and wonderful fiction from Australia that I’m enjoying more or less concurrently.

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That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote by KJ BishopOne was less accidental than the other though. I had enjoyed KJ Bishop’s debut novel The Etched City immensely, so upon discovering that she had self-published a collection of short stories and poems, I was sold from the word go. So far it definitely doesn’t disappoint.

The collection is what I’d like to call ‘unaggressively strange’ – Bishop’s ease with language and her appreciation of the Decadent idiom gives the tone of the work an unapologetically ‘decorative’ quality that couches her zany imagination into something consistently enjoyable.

The overall feel of ‘That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote‘ is that of a cabinet of strange delights… due in no small part to it being a self-published work and so free from any overbearing commercial strictures.

Testament to its freewheeling, ramshackle variety are the poems accompanying the stories – surreal feasts of language, placed like addenda at the end of the book but in truth – and in spirit – reflecting the joyfully insane feel of the rest of the book.

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Though commenting on a book before you’re even done may seem silly or even crass, I can’t help but enthuse about Anna Tambour’s Crandolin.

Crandolin by Anna Tambour

Speaking about the art of criticism, Oscar Wilde said that, just like you don’t need to consume an entire bottle of wine to determine whether it’s any good or not, so a critic should be allowed to pass judgment on a work of art without having to have experienced it in its entirety.

Of course the statement is just a witticism to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt, but Tambour writes with such frenzied confidence (yes, a paradox worthy of Wilde) that her narrative voice alone is enough to convince me that she’ll carry her vision through to its end.

Using the titular magical device as a MacGuffin to pull a strange array of characters together (think Aladdin’s lamp, but if its gifts were less materialistic and more sensorial) Tambour lets her tale cumulatively paint a vivid picture. There’s no laborious world-building here: the reader is shoved straight into the detail, and save for a final destination involving the Crandolin serving as the figurative dangling carrot, we’re never sure where this is all headed.

Which is where Tambour’s grasp of language can really come out to play. Rhythmic, jokey and always at the ready with a wry (and not cringeworthy) pun, it works in perfect tandem with the craziness of the story so far.

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I’ve been trained to nitpick – both academically and professionally. Which is why it feels good to gush sometimes.

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READ MORE: Schlock Magazine interview with another favourite Aussie fantasy scribbler, Angela Slatter

LISTEN: Podcasts of the Year

Over the past couple of weeks, I was reminded of just how important it is to remain humble and nice no matter what.

At Malta Comic Con 2013, I met some truly great and highly accomplished international comic book creators, and as luck (and the efforts of the great Kenneth Scicluna) would have it, I also scored the opportunity to interview Joshua Oppenheimer, the award-winning documentary director of The Act of Killing – arguably the most important film of our generation (with Mr Oppenheimer’s kind permission, I will be reproducing our conversation in full on this blog very soon).

Both of these encounters flew in the face of certain notions we tend to hold about successful and/or famous people: that they’ll look down on anyone not in their position, or that they’re brusque and difficult.

These artists were both on top of their game and very, very polite and accommodating people to boot: which made me chuckle privately to myself as I thought of the pompous figures I’ve met in my time who hadn’t accomplished half as much but still felt the need to peacock about (and having grown up in Malta, the ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome is very pervasive).

One of the people I met at the Comic Con was Chris Thompson, the man behind the Pop Culture Hound podcast – a mainstay of discussion on all things comic book related. And because he’s such a nice guy, I’ll open this haphazard list of great podcasts I’ve listened to over the past year (so far) with one of his offerings.

1. Pop Culture Hound Ep. 66: Alan Moore and Lance Parkin

Magic Words

With the help of the Prince Charles Cinema in London, Chris Thompson’s Pop Culture Hound podcast delivers this conversation between comic book luminary and literary magus Alan Moore and his biographer Lance Parkin for all those who couldn’t be present for it on the night.

It’s worth a listen for anyone interested in Alan Moore’s work (obviously) but also for those who care about art and the future of humanity beyond our immediate physical and financial concerns. If that sounds a bit lofty well, it’s because it is. Moore was never one to pull his punches and neither was he ever cagey about embracing ideas that may veer away from the norm (and, perhaps, dangerously into ‘loony’ territory).

This recent conversation is a heartening reminder that the Moore we know and love is very much alive and kicking and that, despite his general grumpiness about the contemporary cultural climate of the world, he always has something magical – the word is not incidental – to offer up to his listeners that will refresh their outlook and inspire them.

2. The History of Byzantium Ep. 15: Justinian

Justinian I

I came to this one a little late and frankly, I’m a bit miffed – I had been hunting around for a podcast on this very subject for quite a while. It’s a period I’m interested in particularly because it concerns the development of my country of origin – Serbia – while following on from another podcast I used to listen to with relish – Mike Duncan’s excellent The History of Rome.

Host Robin Pierson openly acknowledges that this podcast follows on the heels of The History of Rome both in form and in content – delivering a comprehensive sweep of the period in 20-30 minute chunks.

I haven’t reached all that far into this podcast just yet, but I’m enjoying it very much so far. I’ve chosen the episode dedicated to Emperor Justinian because, as Pierson says, his is a life packed with incident, and is I think in many ways representative of the kind of conflicts that characterised the Byzantine age.

3. Lightspeed Magazine Podcast: A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain by Karin Tidbeck

Jagannath

One of the reasons I really got into podcasts was because they offered the possibility to enjoy short fiction while ‘on the go’, and in a way that preserves some of that time honoured by sadly fading format of oral storytelling.

Lightspeed Magazine – offering a selection of science fiction and fantasy fiction compiled by master editor John Joseph Adams – is a great venue for varied, colourful work, and Tidbeck’s story is a fine example of how genre fiction can be made to do some great things if the writer in question is a brave, playful and emotionally honest one. I keep coming back to this poignant story about a theatre troupe performing to seemingly nobody, especially because it’s so sensitively narrated by Kelley Catey in its podcast version.

4. VICE Podcast: Interview with Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives

The Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) is one of my favourite directors.

His most recent film, Only God Forgives, suffered something of a drubbing at the hands of the critics (and, from what I can tell, a bemused shrug on the part of the general moviegoing audience), but to me it only reaffirmed his alchemical mix of lush visuals, unflinching brutality and his masterful employment of archetypal figures.

So it’s hardly surprising that I enjoyed listening to this expansive interview, which apart from picking apart the engine behind Only God Forgives, draws parallels to some of his previous films – particularly Valhalla Rising, a Viking-era thriller starring Mads Mikkelsen which is reminiscent of both Werner Herzog’s work and Apocalypse now – a cocktail I can’t resist.

And how about you? Any good podcasts you’ve heard recently?