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

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

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Postpartum by Betty Rocksteady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read previous: Michael Griffin

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #6 | Jeremiah Tolbert

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

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The Dreamers of Alamoi by Jeremiah Tolbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read previous: John Langan

Why I love NBC’s Hannibal – Part II

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC's Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC’s Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Read Part I

It’s been a while since the second season of NBC’s Hannibal has wrapped up, I know – well, ‘a while’ in today’s always-constantly-updated online world anyway – but I had neither the time nor the inclination to pen this follow-up to my initial post straight away.

First off, it’s fun to just luxuriate in an intense, contentious season finale before commenting on it; to let the swathe of online commentary wash over you and even, perhaps, share in some of it.

Of course, those who have seen it will know what I’m talking about, and I doubt there’s a lukewarm opinion on how the blood-soaked and – though the final outcome remains teasingly to be seen – tragic final reel of what was a superb season of television plays out.

You either love the tortuous downward spiral (oh, but doesn’t it look so exquisite!) Bryan Fuller has put you through or you don’t, and this season in particular, I think, urges you to take a final decision on how you feel about the overall raison d’etre of this unapologetically baroque show.

Because while the first season had as its commercially-friendly ballast a ‘monster of the week’ structure – with the Will-and-Hannibal storyline unspooling in increments in the background – Fuller and co. have clearly been given carte blanche this time around.

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Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

This is not a smoothly calculated show. It’s a show that grows and develops, contorting to fit its shape – sometimes its development is fractious and misjudged but it’s certainly moving towards something. The fact that it’s a prequel to an established book-and-film property already gives it a final end-point, but Fuller is also mining deeper into Thomas Harris’ Hannibal mythos in a way that feels both daring and appropriate.

I’ve mentioned the danger of overstretching a storyline beyond its limits in the previous post. But in taking the risk to ‘gild the lily’ of what was previously established by Harris and his cinematic forebears, Fuller actually ends up giving us something more; and yes, in this sense more is more because it builds convincingly on the beguiling psychological bind that the Hannibal stories are bound by.

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With the right tools and the right brains at the wheel, the idea of a cannibalistic serial killer not only aiding a ‘consulting detective’ – let’s acknowledge the intertexual link between Will Graham and Sherlock Holmes, please – with the crimes he’s charged with, but also seeking a bona-fide relationship with him, is rich dramatic pickings whichever way you slice it (hur, hur).

A friend of mine pointed out how Fuller’s Hannibal is more of a Freudian creation, as opposed to the ‘Jungian’ archetype we see in the Harris novels and their accompanying film adaptations.

I tend to agree, not only because NBC-Hannibal is still a slippery figure in every sense of the word, as he’s not had a chance to solidify into the kind of antagonist-consultant role he occupies in the canon narratives. (Going by a sort-of Proppian definition of his archetypal role in the source material, could we perhaps say that he’s both central antagonist AND wise old man figure? Both Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi?)

NBC-Hannibal is harder to define in those terms, but he is of course also the show’s organising principle and thematic core at the same time (note that he is not, however, the protagonist – that journey belongs to Will – even though the show is named after him).

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In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

Here’s the crux of it all: this is a show about therapy; or, at least, it’s a show that takes the raison d’etre of therapy and applies it to a dimension none of us would have dared to venture, given the choice.

This isn’t just because Hannibal Lecter himself happens to be a therapist (and a good one at that). Having therapy as a conceit – and it’s a consistent one for the show – means that the show is about the unravelling of the self, about a constant attempt to cut through the confusion and dross of everyday consciousness to arrive at some deeply embedded truth about yourself.

This is of course evident in Will’s zig-zagging psychological journey across the show’s two seasons, but in a coup of form vs content that elevates the show to what feels like a bona fide – though almost accidental – work of art, it’s also matched in both the narrative structure and cinematographic landscape of its second season.

Whereas Hannibal’s diabolical mentoring of Will came in fragmented drops in Season One – due to the rat-a-tat rhythm of the one killer per episode structure – come the second season it gets a broad sweep, largely owing to Will’s uncomfortable – and highly vulnerable – predicament.

To be concluded

Why I Love NBC’s Hannibal – Part I

Taylor Swift

Standing with perfect symmetry at the centre of the frame, pop starlet Taylor Swift here embodies divine indifference.

Framed by two other ‘stages of man’ she stands as an aspirational vortex; a totemic reminder of what most of us want but cannot have.

The man to the left, jeans tattered, with the beaten-down expression familiar to so many ‘supporting characters’ in paintings by any number of the old masters, is on his way out: he has tried to scale heights but never managed to reach them, and it is clear that this dawns on him with fresh immediacy every waking day now – now, that he’s realised just how few of those days he has left.

To the right is his younger counterpart, his clothes clean-pressed and chosen with sensitivity to colour-coordination, the shades completing a look of sharp impersonality.

And in the middle stands the figure of Taylor Swift: even when disembodied away from the stage, from red carpet events and curated photo shoots, immaculately – because casually – beautiful, her pose strikingly Christ-like but free of any suffering.

Her weary gaze at the paparazzo; she’s so young and already so jaded by the mechanisms of the world – her world, not ours.

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It’s easy to wrench deities and archetypes out of pop culture representatives, partly because they pitch themselves that way. In some sense they can’t help but do this: see how Taylor Swift, simply by standing in front of a gardening shop, lends an aura of something other than what meets the eye.

The thrill of recognition is of course at the heart of what makes celebrity culture tick: bumping into celebrities, even spotting them on the street, becomes a story worth retelling to friends and family; a memory to be cherished, even in this day and age, where the ubiquitous torrent of images of the same celebrities should be enough to make us entirely jaded.

But the thrill of recognising someone who is supposedly ‘important’ – or at least, special enough for us to separate them above ourselves, and even our peers – remains a key instinct, and it’s not just limited to ‘real’ people (though the layers of simulacra through which celebrities are often transmitted to us do complicate this substantially, I’ll admit).

One such example – of a modern talismanic presence in fiction, I mean – is the figure of Hannibal Lecter. Originally a character in the bestselling Thomas Harris crime-horror trilogy of novels (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal), he has of course been elevated to the status of pop culture royalty thanks to his cinematic outing via Anthony Hopkins.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991)

This was of course a career-defining performance, but it’s worth noting that the constituent elements making up Hannibal Lecter aren’t to be sniffed at. I wish I had a keener, more intuitive grasp of which literary factors, exactly, contributed directly to his creation. Perhaps it’ll serve as a research strand for another day, when I’m in a more industrious mood. Suffice to say that, whoever or whatever may have inspired Harris to breathe life into his archly horrific – and horrifyingly charming – figure, the fact remains that he has comfortably eclipsed them for quite some time, emerging as a trademark fictional character in his own right.

Hannibal Lecter is often citied as one of the great villains in the history of recent narrative. It’s not too hard to see why. He is an intriguing juxtaposition of opposites. Like most outré characters in fiction – the kind of characters whose composition in and of itself is exciting, beyond how they serve the story: think of Dickens – he is fascinating even in isolation. A respected psychiatrist who is also a cannibal. A highly cultivated – ‘cultured’, if you will – self-made man (there is something of an American projection of ‘European’ culture here) who is also in touch – and indulgent of – the most barbaric human impulses.

And now that he has made the jump into television – a medium undergoing its own steady renaissance – his domination has continued apace.

Man of wealth and taste: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

Man of wealth and taste: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter

I am a proud evangelist for Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, produced and aired by NBC, in which the eminently watchable, razor-sharp-cheekboned Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen takes on the titular role.

Though its first season was a workable enough affair – relying on the basic thrill of recognition of seeing Hannibal Lecter again to spruce up what was essentially an FBI murder-mystery procedural of the Criminal Minds/CSI ilk – come the second season the series reaches full bloom, allowing the ominous relationship between Hannibal and his ‘charge’ – in this case, a younger version of Red Dragon’s Will Graham – to be exploited for its “fucked-up” potential to the fullest.

Becoming: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

Becoming: Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

“Fucked-up” isn’t a cue for cheap titillation here. Being a prequel series to the trilogy we’re used to, the show by necessity has to ‘stretch’ Harris’ central conceit to fill up more story-time. Ordinarily, this would not augur well: stretching anything beyond its organic narrative confines usually results in stories that remain – to broadly apply the term – ‘unnecessary’; a limp extension of its mother-narrative, a decorative but hollow appendage.

No, “fucked-up” here extends the central taboo at the core of Harris’ stories – receiving useful investigative advice from a cannibalistic murderer, “fighting evil with evil” – to a mythic state.

Wrenched free from the three-act structure of novels and films, NBC’s Hannibal exploits the thrill of recognition to drive these characters to their logical narrative conclusion: away from mere innovative kinks, curios of the crime fiction genre, away from the exigencies of the ‘thriller’ plot structure, and further into the realm of the archetype… the realm of myth.

To be continued.