[WATCH] Literature in the Diaspora & Interview with Nikola Petković

The National Book Council of Malta has uploaded two events that I was happy to be involved in during the National Book Festival, which this year took place — as ever — at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta between November 7 and 11.

First, there’s the recording of ‘Literature in the Diaspora’ — a conference on the subject that I chaired and which included an eclectic selection of speakers, among them Lou Drofenik (Malta/Australia), Nikola Petković (Croatia), Vera Duarte (Cape Verde) and Philip Ò Ceallaigh (Ireland). 

It is of course a huge subject to have to tackle, a fact that becomes even more challenging once you consider your time limit and the desire to accommodate the various viewpoints on offer. But the main take-away from it all, I think, is an embrace of the inherent variety that lies in the diaspora, and a need to resist cut-and-dried ideas of what narratives about nationality should be about, and how we should respond to them.

Next, I was happy to get a chance to ‘zoom in’ on one of the speakers at the conference — the Croatian author and academic Nikola Petković, during a chat about his novel ‘How to Tie Your Shoes’ — which was significantly translated into English by the author himself.

The dynamics of self-translation were one of the many subjects we touched upon, in a conversation which I’d like to think ran as wide a thematic gamut as the prickly, bitter and wrenching ‘confessional’ novel itself, which uses a heavily autobiographical story to touch upon the patriarchy, national identity and the fallout of the Yugoslav Wars.

When you’re done with those, do check out the remaining videos from this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, uploaded on the National Book Council’s YouTube channel — an interview with special guest Naomi Klein conducted by my colleague Matthew Vella being among them.

Of course, it’s hard to deny that the highlight of the festival for me, however, was the premiere of Camilla, the short film that I co-wrote with director Stephanie Sant and adapted from the short story of the same name by Clare Azzopardi, with a dash of Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ thrown in to help the shift from page to screen and indulge our vampiric tendencies further.

Brought to sumptuous life by producer Martin Bonnici and his team at Shadeena Entertainment — a process aided in no small part by the National Book Council’s funds — it was a pleasure to finally debut the film to an enthusiastic audience on November 10, and I look forward to the next stages of its distribution. Watch this space.

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A representative sample of the team behind ‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant, centre)

 

 

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Palermo & Other Pulp

Haven’t updated here for a while (he says, as if we’re still in Livejournal-world, as if our ‘updates’ aren’t energetically diffuse and many across various platforms now), though I’ve been wanting to for quite some time.

It hasn’t happened for the usual reasons — as ever, time and energy — though a meditative pit stop over at the blog would have been just what the head-doctor ordered (if I still visited one, that is, so this is all speculation).

Hectic times require a time-out, but sometimes a time-out is not possible because hectic time leaves very little time for anything else. As the current leader of our supposedly “free” world might say, “Sad!”.

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So while my nerves are in a slightly calmer state at this point in time, as I sit back at home freshly showered and returned from a long weekend in Palermo, the mind remains scattered, and this blog post will be scattered too. In fact, I will use it in an attempt to un-scatter the mind as much as possible. It will be bitty. It will be chaotic. But it will also be, I think and hope, true. 

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Speaking of scattered, ramshackle, shambolic and words of that type — pejoratives designating ‘chaos’, as the Pedant Mind would perhaps put it — I have thoughts on the Tom Hardy-starring Venom. Though this is mostly because I’ve been paid to have them, and the result of all that can be read through here at your leisure should one be so inclined.

But beyond what I thought about this uneven and certainly messy corporate love child between Sony and Marvel, the reaction to the film also gave me feelings.

A big fuss was made on how audiences and critics were divided on this one — with the punter giving the thumbs up while the boffins gave it a thumbs down — this isn’t really the talking point that impressed me the most. Though it’s certainly interesting that the divide was so great this time around, what got to me is how critics in fact kept bringing up the issue of ‘tonal consistency’ as the main problem with a film like this.

Colour me unconvinced, because tonal consistency is the last thing I’d expect from a film like this, and if that really is a sore point for you in a film about a gloopy black alien ‘symbiote’ looking for a human host to get psycho with (on? through?) then, you know, priorities.

If anything, tonal consistency is really something we could do with far less of in mainstream cinema. The Marvel Studios film may hit the mark way more often than when they miss, but it’s hard to deny that their over-curated approach hampers style and invention.

A recent example of the opposite approach worming its way into the mainstream is Gareth Evans’ Netflix Original feature Apostle. Sure, it’s a mess that outdoes Venom on the ‘grace and coherence’ front — feeling more like a mini-series cut down to feature length size (while remaining lumberingly sizeable all the same) and whose sudden shifts and escalations will have one believe Evans way maybe — just maybe — taking a teensy bit of a piss as he hammered out the script for his own feature.

But it’s also a delightfully bonkers ride that plays with your feeling with the same intensity it juggles genres. Anything can happen in the manic micro-climate that Evans has created, and very often it actually does.

It strikes me that ‘tonally uneven’ stories are actually the best suited format for popular narratives. Are the folk tales we told ourselves by the campfire for centuries ‘tonally consistent’, for example? (They may be formally rigid – but that’s another thing entirely.)

I want my mainstream blockbusters messy. Because anything the alternative appears to be a deliberate flattening of nuance and the random energy that seeps into a work and makes it its own.

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Hope does show up in strange places, though. Just as we were about to board the flight to Palermo, I decided to go against my usual habits and actually pick up those collated Panini UK editions Marvel appear to have designed specifically for airports.

One of these anthologised and slapped-together storied featured a Ghost Rider-Venom hybrid. Now that’s the kind of pulpy chaos that I wanna see in these things.

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Speaking of things that are best left messy, Palermo was an utter delight. One does not want to romanticise decay and deprivation too much, of course, but coming off from our own Capital of Culture year — an initiative that actually extols the opening of over 40 boutique hotels in Valletta as something positive — witnessing the crumbly decadence of Sicily’s capital city, especially during their own run at an international contemporary arts festival (Manifesta 12) was nothing short of inspiring.

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While similarities to Sicily and Italy certainly abound — though the climate is ever milder and the Arabic influence is very much felt in the architecture too, sliding into the Maltese language instead over here — my impression this weekend is that where Malta is over-curated, Palermo runs on a kind of studied neglect.

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I couldn’t imagine the Maltese artistic establishment to ever work up the nerve to display artworks in an exhibition commanding international renown with as casual and lax an approach that we found at Manifesta 12; weaving through palaces long past their hey-day, and — one assumes — walking a precarious tip-toe across health and safety regulations.

In Malta, we are perhaps a little bit too afraid to fail. But that fear clamps down any nooks and crannies of possibility that may open up.

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Back in Malta now though, and a crazy week of deadlines will hopefully give way to a long-awaited month to geeky opportunity and plenty. First out of the gate is a talk my dear friend and collaborator Stephanie Sant and myself will be giving at Malta Comic Con, concerning out short film ‘Camilla’, which you can read more about here.

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‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant) stars Irene Christ (left) and Steffi Thake, and premieres at the Malta Book Fair on November 10

But wait! The real hook here is that the event will also serve as the trailer premiere for our short! So should you be at Malta Comic Con this weekend — and you definitely should be, given that it’s the 10th anniversary edition of one of the most enthusiastically put together and consistently strong celebrations of comics and pop culture on the island — do stop by on November 3 at 15:00 to watch the trailer and hear us speak about the evolution of the project.

I will also have a table at the Con all weekend, and would very much appreciate chatting to whoever passes by (I mean it — despite my lowkey misanthropy still going strong after all these years, these things can get dull for long stretches, to the point where human interaction suddenly becomes a welcome prospect).

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More stuff! 

I will be chairing the Literature in the Diaspora conference at the Malta Book Festival on November 7 at 19:00. I will then be having a one-to-one live interview with one of the conference’s participants; the fiercely intelligent Croatian writer Nikola Petkovic, on November 8 at 17:30.

‘Camilla’ will then premiere on November 10 at the MA Grima Hall of the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. The show starts at 20:30, and also forms part of the Malta Book Festival.

And after that’s done, I jet off to Glasgow to see Slayer and a bunch of other nutcase-loud bands. But that’s a story for another day — should I survive it, and whichever shambolic shape I’ll be in at the time.

 

Updates | Camilla at Malta Comic Con & Losing [Our] Space on YouTube

My last update was about the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival (MMLF), and this one is sort of about that too. We took a quick trip up to the in-laws soon after the event ended and got something of a breather from this stuffy, overcrowded and practically air-less island. It’s a trip that usually lasts quite a bit longer and is sometimes undertaken in different countries… whatever it takes to escape the July-August swelter of Malta.

The weather is still insufferable, the tourists and AirBnB-ers still crowd us and sometimes bar us from getting a proper night’s sleep, but on the whole — I say this with figurative fingers firmly crossed — it all seems to be thinning out, with the evenings even regaling us with the odd breeze to sleep through every now and then.

It’s a reminder that easier times should be just about ahead, and exciting ones too. It may be the flavour of pumpkin spice latte or crunchy leaves that announces the onset of Autumn pleasures to some… I’m just grateful for a mellowing out of the general atmosphere. But coupled with the fact that yes, Halloween (and horror) is also something I enjoy indulging in quite a bit, there’s very geeky pleasures to be had during autumn on our island too.

But, first things first

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Losing My Space‘ – round-table discussion and MMLF pre-event – now on YouTube

Losing My Space Giola Cassar

Losing My Space‘. Moderated by Immanuel Mifsud (far left) and featuring Teodor Reljic and Roger West. Photo by Giola Cassar for Inizjamed

Taking place on August 19, Losing My Space was a well-attended and well-received discussion on just what writing can possibly do in the face of pervasive environmental devastation and urban/corporate overdevlopment, and in a lot of ways ushered in the Festival itself, because the ensuing discussion — undertaken by poet Roger West and myself and moderated by established Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud — reflected both the festival’s artistic sensitivity and political urgency.

But the warmth and wit of the audience is also a bit part of that experience, and I thought it was reflected with an apposite grace here. Either way, you can now see for yourself on YouTube. Be sure to also check out the Festival’s other big — bigger, even — round-table pre-event, ‘Writing Fragile‘. Kudos to Inizjamed for being so efficient with putting these recordings up — it’s a great way to ensure both outreach and posterity as well as, once again, prolonging the wonderful experience at the heart of this event.

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Creating the Maltese Gothic: ‘Camilla’ at Malta Comic Con

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Happily, one of my favourite annual appointments on the island will be just-about coinciding with Halloween this year, as the Malta Comic Con gets bumped up a month ahead of its usual December slot to take place on November 3 and 4 this year at the MFCC in Ta’ Qali.

Apart from sharing a table with my very talented sister-in-law (I’ll be the guy peddling prose books); I’ll also be delivering a talk on ‘Camilla’ with the project’s co-writer and director Stephanie Sant, on November 3 at 15:00.

This would be just a week or so shy of the short film’s official premiere at the Malta Book Festival on November 10. Find out more about the event here; and click here to learn more about the project — a work of Gothic horror that adapts a short story by one of Malta’s leading literary voices by injecting it with a bit of Sheridan Le Fanu.

 

Camilla Interview on the Times of Malta

Something really nice has happened this year. We get to make a stylish and LGBTIQ-friendly Maltese vampire film and screen it at one of the most long-standing and generously attended events of the local cultural calendar.

What I’m talking about is ‘Camilla‘, a project that just got some fresh media attention in the Times of Malta. It is also a project that blends one of the most exciting voices of Maltese literature with the legacy of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s foundational text of vampire fiction, Carmilla.

‘Camilla’ is a short story written by Clare Azzopardi and forming part of her anthology Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh — an award-winning collection released by Merlin Publishers in 2014.

It is the story of the enigmatic titular character, who has made a home in the bustling Maltese village of Naxxar — an Italian aristocrat of sorts (we suspect), spurned by a lover and left to write beautiful epitaphs for the local dead.

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Stephanie Sant (right, in case you were wondering) and myself chat to the Times of Malta about ‘Camilla’ — along with our producer Martin Bonnici. Click here to read the interview.

My good friend and collaborator Martin Bonnici first approached me about adapting a short story for the purposes of entering into an annual contest put up by the National Book Council. Co-writer Stephanie Sant came on board soon enough, along with the rest of the team at Shadeena and a number of cool collaborators. Actresses Irene Christ and Steffi Thake got on board too, and we managed to score the funds on our second try.

Filming starts in a couple of weeks’ time, and I can’t be more excited to see the outcome, while wishing Stephanie and co. the best of luck as they amble around the locations for a rapid-fire shoot under the scorching early-August sun.

Meanwhile, Stephanie, Martin and myself have been interviewed by Stephanie Fsadni over at the Times of Malta on the project, so hop on over there to get the full lowdown on how it all happened and how we’re approaching it.

‘Camilla’ is made possible with the help of the National Book Council (Malta), and is produced by Shadeena Entertainment. It will be screened on November 10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta as part of this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival

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

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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.

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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 #8 | Michael Griffin

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 Human Alchemy by Michael Griffin

We rarely speak of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as being about the angst related to artistic creation, and instead grasp at more solid metaphors. Understandably enough, received wisdom has it that this is first and foremost a parable warning against scientific hubris on the thematic level, and emotionally, it resonates with us thanks to the undeniable pathos we feel towards the creature: rejected by a father who only half wanted him, with no reference points in a world that wants nothing to do with him.

So I was glad to see that Michael Griffin’s creepy but complex tale of a successful pair of surgeons — with otherwise also picks up on the ‘standard’ intertextual cues stemming from Shelley’s original text — also pitches its Frankenstenian couple, Reysa and Magnus Berg, as frustrated creatives looking to satisfy their unconventional cravings in a world that has yet to — ethically as well as aesthetically — catch up with their tastes and ambitions.

In the case of Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s initial revulsion at the Creature he’s made could find a direct corollary in the way most young writers — or artists of any stripe — would view their juvenilia. “I expected to create something at least as beautiful as the work of the forebears in the field that I admire,” they think to themselves as they grimace at that first draft, or that hesitantly completed painting, “what the fuck is this shit?!”. And in it goes into the proverbial fire.

Pedro Almodovar's own take on Frankenstenian surgeons: The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodovar’s own take on Frankenstenian surgeons: The Skin I Live In (2011)

But Reysa and Magnus are not young: Aurye is, and though their wine-soaked gathering at the rich couple’s mountaintop castle may suggest all the trappings of a cliche seduction into a three-way, this mundane idea is dispensed with fairly quickly. In fact, the couple reject all mundane ideas suggested or imposed by society, a dogma whose limits are tested by this increasingly disconcerting, but equally sensitive and intelligent, contribution to the anthology.

And the way Griffin manages to walk this tightrope is, in fact, by couching the couple’s past history and future dreams in the most precise, and even reasonable, discourse. As one example, let’s get back to the artistic creativity metaphor. Midway through the story, the couple start explaining — always to Aurye, as their increasingly eager acolyte — the challenges posed by their unconventional lifestyle.

In the meantime, the story’s unsettling vortex intensifies, and Griffin actually piles all of the cosmetic details you’d expect from a Frankenstein story

Without spoiling anything, the way Reysa describes it sounds exactly like the kind of set-up a freelancing couple of any profession would face; with partners alternately sacrificing time and comfort while the other aims for their dream job, or at least helping to create a mutually beneficial situation for both based on their relevant skills.

In the meantime, the story’s unsettling vortex intensifies, and Griffin actually piles all of the cosmetic details you’d expect from a Frankenstein story: the Gothic castle, the operating table, the thunder… and a monster. But on their own, these details are now blunt: Frankenstein’s Creature is indeed eternal, yes, but the moralistic discourse about scientific ambition needs fine-tuning and updating if it is to sustain its chilling menace into the modern day.

And this is precisely what Griffin does with his two surgeons. But arguably, he completes this effect with the help of the young Aurye most of all, whose role in the drama flouts expectations in more ways than one.

An urbane and superbly structured little chiller that is intellectually engaging more than it is viscerally scary, but that is all the more rewarding for it.

Read previous: Edward Morris

 

Do it for yourself | T.E. Grau | Interview

Horror writer T.E. Grau is slowly but surely carving a niche for himself as one of the most eclectic and artful practitioners of the genre in the American scene, as is borne out by his critically acclaimed debut collection The Nameless Dark — which we reviewed right here just a couple of days ago. Now the man himself steps into the Soft Disturbances interview lounge to give an expansive, generous and impassioned overview of what inspired him so far, and what we can expect from his upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore… 

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW BOX

T.E. Grau

When did you first realise that you wanted to start writing fiction, and did you act on this impulse immediately?

From as far back as I can remember, I had an interest in writing, and starting in my early teens, I fostered a nebulous, long-range plan for engaging in the serious authorship of fiction at some unspecified date. But instead of hunkering down and just doing that, I spent decades dancing around the edge of the well, writing everything else but fiction, including music journalism, review work, two different humor columns, tech writing, ghost writing, and dozens of intensely mediocre screenplays.

I think what held me back was I thought I needed to write a novel to be an author, and I didn’t have any ideas for a novel that were worth a damn, other than some bullshit pseudo-Hunter Thompson tale about an American drifting to China to document the last vestige of the American Dream on the opposite end of the world. It would have been awful.

At the tail end of 2009, while I was writing one of those intensely mediocre screenplays – which just happened to be for a horror film for which I was brought in to “add in some Lovecraftian elements,” as I had read and greatly enjoyed HPL’s work back in college – my wife Ivy changed the course of my creative life forever. She’d read some of my scripts, and enjoyed some of the exposition (overly long as it was), but also saw that the medium wasn’t a good match on either end.

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Finally, as I was complaining about yet another round of ridiculous producers’ notes and re-writes on a script that probably wasn’t going to get made anyway, she said, “Why don’t you just stop with this screenwriting and write fiction?” That was it. No one had ever asked me that question before. Not in the 11 years I’d written scripts, nor the decade before while I’d written everything else, futzing around for local arts magazines and live music journals. The simplicity of her question – which hit my ears as a statement – was astounding. That I could just walk away from a medium into which I’d invested over a decade of my creative life but also grown to loathe, and finally pursue something that I’d always dreamed of doing. I “quit” screenwriting that very day, and Hollywood somehow plodded onward without me.

While reading and researching Lovecraft’s work for the script I’d just been working on, I’d discovered that there was such a thing as “Lovecraftian fiction,” stories written as pastiche, inspired by, and/or set in the universe created by H.P. Lovecraft. I had no idea this was a thing. But poking around a bit more, I found out that there were anthologies looking for short stories of Lovecraftian fiction, and that an editor (and RPG icon) by the name of Kevin Ross was looking for stories for his antho Dead But Dreaming 2, to be published by Miskatonic River Press (Tom Lynch’s outfit).

I think I’m a better writer because my journey to prose took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles

I saw that as my shot to break in. I didn’t need to write a novel to be a prose writer. I could write a short story, and ease my way into the fiction game. Find out if I have a knack for it, and then see what happens. I started writing ‘Transmission’, then started writing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ almost simultaneously. I pitched both to Kevin, and he vibed better with ‘Transmission’, so I finished the story and sent it to him, and he accepted it. My first completed, and purchased, piece of fiction. I held back ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ for five years, and first published it in The Nameless Dark: A Collection, even though it was initially written in early 2010.

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW

So, my journey to prose was a long time coming, but I think I’m a better writer because it took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles, and mainly due to the constant rejection one faces as a screenwriter. In film (not television), the writers are on the very bottom rung, and receive no deference and very little respect for their integral contribution to the content-making process.

That was important for me to experience, if only to get over myself and realize my fingers don’t weave gold with every keystroke. Ivy working with me as my editor was the other important factor, allowing me to finally understand that the fine tuning is just as or more important than the initial burst of creativity. That not every sentence (or paragraph or page) is precious and sacred. Defensive writers aren’t great writers. Confident writers kill their babies, because they’ll always make more. She taught me that, and I owe her everything because of it.

Why is horror such an appealing genre for you, both as a reader and writer?

I think you’re either born a person who digs the darkness or you’re not. And I don’t necessarily mean people who play Halloween dress-up every day, favor goth fashion, live as wanna-be vampires, practice Satanism, or something similar.

That’s cool and all, if that floats your boat, but what I’m talking about is someone who has a genuine interest, fondness, and deep affection for things that reflect a melancholy, a gloom, a doom, a general decay and reflection of mortality or pessimism. Things that are just a bit askew from the norm. The incomprehensible or the unexplainable. Liminal places of abandonment and decay. Rain clouds and fog. Desolate fields. Ruined buildings and oddly constructed houses. The vastness of outer space. Magnolias draped in Spanish moss. Mausoleums. Subterranean places. Attics. Abandoned barns and industrial sites. Vast stretches of trees. Cheap carnivals. Ancient caves at the bottom of the sea. The beautifully grotesque and the (Big G) Gothic.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

These are the essential salts, the foundation elements, of horror and fantastical fiction. It either appeals to a person or it doesn’t. You can’t force it, you can’t fake it (although some do try).

And while I’m a generally upbeat and affable person, my mind and curiosity and sense of wonder call out to those things, and when I encounter them, while most would be saddened or creeped-out or uncomfortable, they make me happy and content.

I feel at home. That’s what draws me to horror literature, and to those who can capture this sense of gloomy atmospherics, dread, and impending doom in the stories they write. There’s nothing quite like that. It’s a true power.

There are many definitions of the ‘weird fiction’ genre (which you’re also associated with). What’s yours?

I get uncomfortable with the various labels going around for what I like to call “dark fiction,” as I think people spend too much time trying to create then box-up subgenres of fiction for discussion or marketing purposes, or just for “team-ism,” which is rarely productive or positive. But I do like the term “weird fiction,” as it nods to the late 19th and early 20th century authors, including all of those amazing pulp writers, who added so much to fantastical fiction.

Weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death

Weird fiction to me is work of writing that introduces the unexplained – and usually unexplainable – into our rational world. It can – and often is – laced with the scientific, the religious, the historic, and the cosmic, taking real world facts and beliefs and twisting them just a bit, then setting them back on the shelf to distract our eye, as something just doesn’t seem right about them anymore. It’s peeling back a common facade and finding something unexpected and unknown underneath. It’s the odd, the uncanny. The bizarre.

Also, and this is just a personal opinion, but weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death. Weird fiction can be quite subtle, but no less impactful in terms of unsettling a reader.

Would you agree that Clive Barker and Nathan Ballingrud are among the most powerful influences on the stories collected in your debut collection, The Nameless Dark? If so, why?

Clive Barker certainly isn’t an influence, as I had never read any Barker until the stories for The Nameless Dark were either finished and published in other places, or already plotted out. I didn’t read Baker during his heyday in the 80s, as I was still geeking out over high fantasy and sword & sorcery. The closest I came to horror was Conan books.

Nathan’s work isn’t so much an influence either (as, similar to Barker, most of my stories for my collection were already either finished or plotted when I read his work for the first time in North American Lake Monsters), but his writing was and is very important to me in terms of what the genre of dark/horror/weird fiction is capable of in this new century.

No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud

So, in many ways, he’s not an influence so much as an inspiration, as the fearless exploration of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and generally horrible behavior that lies at the heart of many of his stories hit me like discovering a new color. I was floored when I read his collection. Still am. No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud. He’s also a genuinely scary writer, meaning he writes things that scare or disturb me. I rarely experience that reaction when reading anyone’s work.

north-american-lake-monsters

Barker is great (particularly his shorter work, like ‘In the Hills, the Cities’), and his Hellraiser universe is a horror staple (co-opted by Hollywood), but in many ways, I think Ballingrud is a superior writer to Barker, although I understand it’s difficult to compare based on time periods and conventions of the respective eras.

Long term, and deep down into my marrow, I’m probably more influenced by Hunter S. Thompson, Vonnegut, and Beatnik writers than anyone in horror fiction, although Lovecraft certainly influenced several stories expressly written for Lovecraftian anthologies, some of which ended up in The Nameless Dark.

The figure of Lovecraft looms over many of the stories too. Does the fact that there are plenty of Lovecraftian ‘markets’ open at any given time play a part in that? Or have you always been attracted to the core of Lovecraft’s work?

I covered a bit of this above, as Lovecraftian fiction was my entry into prose writing, and horror writing in particular. Regardless of how I feel about him personally, his work got me into writing fiction, which literally changed my creative life, and I’m grateful that he drew from and coalesced many of his influences (Bierce, Poe, Dunsany, Chambers, etc.) into the multiverse and mythos he created.

Cthulhu in R'lyeh by jeinu

Cthulhu in R’lyeh by jeinu

What originally drew me into his work was his sense of cold cosmicism, and a universe that is far more vast and malevolent and uninterested in our existence than our puny, needy human intellect can comprehend. There is no devil, no angels, no bearded man pulling the strings. There are no strings. Just endless voids, with the occasional Outer God and Great Old One brushing against our reality just long enough to influence primal cultures, establish secretive and murderous cults, and burst minds by their very existence. I loved this. It was very dark and menacing, very secret history and cryptozoological.

Growing up in a staunch, Evangelical Christian home, the stuff I was fed in church always chaffed at the back of my lizard brain. Stumbling across Lovecraft’s outlook on the universe was a revelation, and a breath of fresh, clean, pessimistic air. I was hooked instantly.

My most recent, current, and upcoming work doesn’t and won’t contain nearly the level of Lovecraftian influence, but his work will always feature somewhere in my writing, especially in my Salt Creek stories, a novel for which I’m slowly putting together.

A satirical edge is also present in a number of the stories, mainly focused on certain aspects of American culture that seem to irk you. Were there axes you needed to grind before you set out writing some of these stories? 

Before writing fiction, I wrote comedy for years, in various mediums with varying levels of success. I’ve been doing it much longer than writing dark fiction, so humor or satire is going to naturally bleed into my writing where appropriate (and maybe where it’s not).

I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture

I’ve never thought of my satirical viewpoints as grinding axes, per se, but I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture, and humanity itself. Hyper-religiosity, racism, misogyny, stinginess, greed, bad parenting, predation, xenophobia, and just general shittiness to others gather at the top of a very long list of grievances against my species.

Okay on second though, I’m grinding several axes. I’d guess dozens of axes are being ground at any one given time, depending on how many stories I’m working on at the same time.

Could you tell us something about your upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore? How would you say it builds on your previous work?

I always have a hard time summing up the novella without giving anything away, but here goes a weaksauce attempt: It’s a story about teenage obsession, conformity, parenting, class, and illness providing a backdrop for a somewhat jaundiced, slightly different take on the contemporary vampire tale.

I’m not sure how or if it does build on my previous work, although it is set from the POV of a teenage girl and follows her around in the world. In this way, it reminds me a bit of ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’, as it includes a bit of geographical wandering, which set the plot framework of ‘Tubby’.

they-dont-come-home-anymore-by-t-e-grau

I see it as something I’ve never done before (and probably won’t do again), marking my first and probably last vampire tale. Also, it’s my longest piece to date, which shows some building on my previous work.

And the cover – featuring artwork by Candice Tripp and cover design by Ives Hovanessian – is an absolutely stunner. I count myself incredibly fortunate to feature such a cover as the calling card for the novella. Candice is doing the artwork for my second collection, and we have another project in the works, as well. Crossing my fingers that I’ll be working with her for many years to come.

And finally… what advice would you give to writers keen to break into the weird fiction and/or horror scenes in particular?

First of all, write what you want to write. Truly. Honestly. Dig down deep, cast your gaze out as far as you can, and get it all out. Question everything, follow all leads. Don’t worry about genre or market or anything out of your control. Until you get paid for it as an employee with a parking pass, bathroom key, and benefits, don’t think of yourself as a “commercial writer.” Think of yourself as a writer, period, which means you write for you.

There are very few money-making fiction genres, and weird and horror fiction aren’t it

Make yourself happy and creatively satisfied, because if you’re writing weird fiction for money, a) you’ll fail in reaching your goal, because no one really makes any money, and b) your writing will come off as lackluster and passionless, which will make you even less money and lead to more failure. Don’t do that to yourself.

There are very few money-making fiction genres (and maybe one – romance/erotica, and I suppose whatever “literary fiction” is), and weird and horror fiction aren’t it. So, if you choose to write down here, crouched low in the shadows with the rest of us ghouls, do it for the right reasons. Do it for the love of the shade, the decay, the destitute and the forgotten. Do it to celebrate the beauty of the dark.

Then, get to work, and look for open markets. I’d hazard that with self publishing, online publications, and a recent proliferation of ‘zines and anthologies and fiction journals devoted to weird, horror, and dark fiction, it’s easier to place ones work these days than probably ever before in the history of written language. The markets are there. Write your best stuff and send it out.

And, in the end, if no one will publish you, publish yourself. Get your book on a shelf – YOUR shelf – and on Amazon, in indie bookstores and libraries, and build your legacy, if only for you and your loved ones. Gatekeepers are helpful, but they are not absolute. If you have the talent, the desire, and if you work your ass off, no one can hold you back from becoming a writer of whatever fiction you want to write, written however you want to write it. Very few of us are professionals, but a lot of us are writers. And there’s room for more.

Check out my own review of The Nameless Dark right here, and stay updated with all things Grau by visiting ‘The Cosmicomicon’

Read previous interview: Alistair Rennie

Featured image: ‘Swallowed by the Ocean’s Tide’ by Ola Larsson 

Gotham Nights | Top Three Batman Adaptations

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox's Batman prequel series Gotham

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham

The Fox network’s Batman prequel series Gotham looks to be a solid but unremarkable bit of hokum, if this week’s pilot is anything to go by. An otherwise competent-enough police procedural, it relies far too heavily on Caped Crusader brand recognition, hoping that none-too-subtle “a-ha!” moments revealing an early version of Batman’s rouges gallery will be enough to make us sit up and pay attention for longer than a couple of episodes.

Still, its inaugural episode made me look back at some of my favourite Batman stories in non-comic book media. I’ve narrowed it down to a top three – a top three of features I don’t mind re-visiting on occasion.*

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

There are only a handful of films I’ve watched in my life time that were bona-fide ‘events’ at the cinema. Not even a handful… off the top of my head I can think of two, maybe three films, tops, that weren’t just successful genre blockbusters but long-awaited, almost social events by dint of their pre-screening buzz and subsequent pop culture impact.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was the first. Despite the fact that it disappointed me even though I was an easy-to-please kid at the time, George Lucas’ return to the sci-fi/fantasy world that made him a Hollywood pioneer felt like some kind of watershed moment: never mind its intrinsic worth as a film – it was a monumental gesture on Lucas’ part that bridged two generations of fandom, right at the cusp of the internet revolution, which lent fuel to the fire of its many detractors.

Following closely on its trail was a far less controversial film – though its sequels proved to be a fast-tracked mirror image to the disappointment caused by the Star Wars prequels ­– which I won’t hesitate to call a modern masterpiece: The Matrix; a cyberpunk collage which wore its homages proudly on its sleeve but which was also animated by a pioneering energy.

The Dark Knight was the third and final one that comes to mind – the only example I can think of from past adolescence.

There are several reasons why Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2006) struck a chord with me (along with many, many others worldwide). Its escalating tempo perfectly mirrors the chaotic, all-pervasive nature of a terrorist attack (relentlessly topical for all of us post-9/11), with Nolan perfectly balancing blockbuster friendly action with what is now referred to a ‘grimdark’ approach to superheroics. But instead of coming across as too sombre for its own good, Nolan’s seriousness is both gripping and infectious. He commits to the material in a way that doesn’t feel preposterous or disproportionate, in a way that’s been justifiably compared to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

But it’s unsurprisingly Heath Ledger’s performance as the film’s key antagonist, The Joker, that keeps me returning to the film. Over and above the tragic romance of Heath Ledger being reported dead soon after the shoot wrapped, there’s something magnetic about his performance that makes it a joyous thing to experience.

Yes, it’s disturbing and dark – like his director, Ledger grabs the role by the collar and doesn’t let go, diving head-first into the nihilistic psychosis of his character. But despite being the orchestrator of the film’s panic and chaos, he’s above all fun to watch, a spirited grotesque in the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow who is enjoyable to experience even in isolation, as his introduction to the parliament of Gotham mobsters amply displays (and rewards in repeat viewings).

2) Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series – as transmitted (and dubbed) on Italian TV – was one of the defining cartoons of my childhood. Apart from bolstering my love of Batman lore, it also imbued in me a love of film noir and Art Deco.

It gives us a Batman origin story beyond the my-parents-were-murdered sequence, as well as an uncharacteristic and finely fleshed out romance. There’s no bimbotic Vicki Vales here; in Andrea Beaumont Bruce Wayne gets a mirror image of his traumatic obsession. Also packing in a great Joker story, the feature-length ‘Phantasm’ exquisitely built on the foundations set by the animated series.

Playing into Batman’s noir appeal while remaining kid-friendly, it also maintains a certain decorum absent from subsequent – and concurrent – movie adaptations. It certainly has none of the camp excesses of the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films, and neither is it particularly close in tone to the comparatively toned down Tim Burton opening salvos.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a flair for the theatrical ­– just wrap your ears around Shirley Walker’s theme tune for a rousing introduction to this inspiring labour of love.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Nolan gets all the accolades and Schumacher gets all the hate, but it’s Tim Burton’s second (and final) sequel to his soujourn in Gotham that stays with me to this day – to the point that I re-watch it every Christmas (the period in which the film is set, all the better to amplify its Gothic excess).

It is the only Batman film in the franchise that takes on the core absurdity of the DC Comics character and runs with it.

But it doesn’t run with it in the same way that Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher ran with it; turning it into a camp carnival of steel bat-nipples and shiny gadgets and architecture. In pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against the double-menace of feral jewel thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (the never-sexier Michelle Pfeiffer) and the orphaned freak-cum-underground mobster Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (the never-uglier Danny De Vito), Burton showed that he understood the inner workings of Batman and his rogues’ gallery.

It’s about watching mad people in costumes tearing each other apart (which is as far as you can get from the moralistic, dead-serious drama-thrillers of the latter-day Christopher Nolan trilogy).

The snowy pall of Christmas time over Gotham city only reinforces the stylistically-heightened panorama: a truly Gothic sight if there ever was one, and a more than apt rehearsal for that other Burton-sponsored classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

*This, incidentally, remains the ultimate litmus test for me when it comes to deciding what is a ‘favourite’ – particularly in this day and age when daisy-chain social media gimmicks keep requesting us to make a favourite list of this or that. If you truly love something, you’ll keep coming back.