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.

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #4 | Remy Nakamura

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 Dan no Uchi Horror by Remy Nakamura

Much to the chagrin — though more likely the disinterested bemusement — of the bulk of my geeky friends growing up, I was never quite taken with anime and manga in the same way as the zeitgeist appeared to demand.

And it was further alienating by the fact that Malta, where I was based-and-raised, got a healthy dose of the stuff funnelled into the brains of unsuspecting kids through the easily accessible Italian channels.

(The legacy of this broadcasting arrangement yielded wonderful fruit in Italian cinemas earlier this year.)

I’m not entirely sure why I never felt attracted to Japanese animation — though I ‘appreciate’ some of its classics from a distance — and it’s even more baffling because the sheer variety within the stories, and their ‘outre’ style, otherwise jibes very nicely with my tastes.

But with all this in mind, a visit to an exhibition in Paris last December gave me a more immediate appreciation of the genre’s appeal — through the work of one of its precursors.

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger Utagawa by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Observing the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi up close — yes, I made sure to exit through the gift shop and buy the coffee table book along the way — made me appreciate a clear and timeless dynamism of the style. This will of course speak to my wider ignorance of the woodcut tradition — to say nothing of my inadvertent but real western bias — but apart from anime, the thick outlines and sensitivity to what squeezes the most ‘action’ out of a still image reminded me of the likes of Jack Kirby.

Remy Nakamura’s story, I think, moves with the same scintillating immediacy. Packed with high drama, higher degrees of violence and a rhapsodic prose style, it also has its tongue firmly in cheek; checking off ‘Honor’ early on as a knee-jerk cultural expectation so as to highjack any inherent melodrama and cliche.

I was hooked from the first sentence, and the family saga that’s at the core of the story was wended into the kinetic narrative, instead of being a baggy burden. There’s hacking and slashing, there’s faith and inevitability. There’s sentences like: ‘The devils stank like a battlefield in the sun’.

This is Cthulhu in oozing, living colour, and it moves like the quickest of rapids.

Read previous: L. Lark

READ: Schlock Magazine’s 5th year anniversary issue

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Schlocktopus selfie – Schlock Magazine’s December 2013 cover by Nel Pace/Widdershins

It started with a casual discussion at a now-defunct reggae bar: what if we created an online version of, say, Weird Tales?, I asked my friend Peter.

He said sure why not – a lot of our friends like to write and draw and stuff.

And so five years on, Schlock Magazine has continued to pollute the internet superhighway with an eclectic mix of prose, poetry and illustration – originating from us in Malta but, gradually, extending all over the globe.

We have since featured interviews and even fiction by authors like Jeffrey Ford and Angela Slatter, and we have names like Ken Liu, Nathan Ballingrud, Laird Barron and Karin Tidbeck lined up for the coming year.

Needless to say, I’m quite proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and grateful for all the readers and contributors we’ve received over the years.

I hope you continue reading. For now though, I hope you find it in yourself to check out our December 2013 issue, which also doubles up as our 5th year anniversary issue.

Thanks!