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

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

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

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

Tanzer_CREATURES_OF_WILL_AND_TEMPER_finalCreatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer (novel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mark Stafford, ladies and gentlemen

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

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

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

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winnebagoWinnebago Graveyard by Steve Niles and Alison Sampson (comics)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shark

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The Punisher (TV)

the punisher

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

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

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

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

Happy holidays to all!

INTERVIEW | MOLLY TANZER & JESSE BULLINGTON | SWORDS V CTHULHU

A couple of months ago, one of the most exciting voices in weird fiction at the moment – Molly Tanzer – kindly passed on an advance review copy of Swords v Cthulhu, a new anthology she co-edited with Jesse Bullington for Stone Skin Press. Published at the tail-end of July, the 22-story-strong collection mashes ‘swift-bladed action’ with HP Lovecraft’s cephalopod alien-cum-existential dread milieu to great effect, to the point where I was inspired to review every single story in the anthology. Now, I (virtually) sit down for a chat with Molly and Jesse about the ins and outs of the anthology, and what it was about the concept that really got them going.

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Lovecraft anthologies are a dime a dozen these days. How did you set about to make Swords v Cthulhu as fresh as possible?

Jesse Bullington: It always comes back to the authors, doesn’t it? So long as you have a wide array of interesting voices engaged with the project you can make any subject feel fresh and exciting. To that end we knew from the beginning that in addition to inviting certain authors we wanted an open reading period for submissions – some elements you know you need from the very start, but others you don’t recognize until you see them.

Molly Tanzer: I’d like to add that when it came to soliciting authors, we wanted a mix of people known for their S&S, as well as authors who write horror or fantasy, just to keep the tone different piece to piece. We also found a delightful amount in the slush, that was super-hard, just so many unique and interesting twists, that it was difficult to make calls sometimes. I was really impressed by the range and talent we acquired one way or the other for this book.

The world of genre small press can be dangerously insular: a tight-knit community where – thanks to the internet – everyone knows everybody else. How did you avoid the pitfalls of what could amount to nepotism when selecting the tales in the anthology?

MT: I wasn’t too worried about it. For one thing, we held open submissions, and took a ton from the slush; for another, we had a lot of material to choose from, so the competition was pretty fierce. We rejected friends and accepted people we’d never heard of; we also accepted friends and rejected strangers. Sure, we know a lot of the folks we accepted, but I think the individual stories’ quality speaks for itself.

JB: Yeah, and then there’s the fact that when you’re working as a pro writer and editor you make a lot of friends because you love their work. The vast majority of the friendships I’ve made in this industry have grown out of an appreciation of an individual’s writing, so if I were to never publish someone I’ve come to know personally I’d be cutting myself off from many of my favorite contemporary writers.

Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer

The predecessor to Swords v Cthulhu within the Stone Skin Press stable was Shotguns v Cthulhu. With their in-yer-face mashing together of genre-furniture with Lovecraftiana, these titles suggest pulpy fun above all: they’re great attention-grabbers. Do you think your collection in particular offers something more than just pulpy comfort reads, however?

JB: Before saying anything about our anthology I think it’s worth noting that Shotguns v Cthulhu was far from a straightforward action anthology. Editor Robin D. Laws had some fast and fun pulp yarns in there, sure, but there are plenty of brains to go with the brawn (Ekaterina Sedia’s weird wartime tale and Nick Mamatas’s kung fu headfuck immediately jump to mind, for example). So with Swords v Cthulhu Molly and I were very much trying to live up to Robin’s precedent of providing depth, variety, and style as well as action and monsters…but plenty of those, too!

MT: Pulp and comfort reads are two things that are very individual and difficult to define—like pornography, you know it when you see it. I mean, many people probably find the 1982 Conan the Barbarian pulpy, but every time I watch it I’m moved and reminded of what’s important in life. So, whether the book provides more than pulpy comfort seems like something for readers and critics to decide, more than its editors.

Is ‘swift-bladed action’ something you seek out in your own reading? Are you fans of swords-and-sorcery and the kind of historical fiction that the authors in this anthology draw from, and if so, what would you say are its main pleasures?

MT: I read a little of everything, but yes, fantasy and historical fiction make up a large part of it. I’m actually doing a series over on Pornokitsch right now, with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, where I’m reading (and she’s re-reading) the first four Gor novels. In the latest of those, there’s a war between hyper-intelligent, technologically advanced praying mantises and cloned human slaves armed swords and makeshift spears. That sounds far more awesome than what is actually happening in Priest-Kings of Gor, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, when I’m done with that, the next thing in line is Amy Stewart’s Lady Cop Makes Trouble, so yeah, I was very pleased to see our authors draw on everything from the English Civil War to far-flung planets more metal than any mind of man could comprehend.

I suppose historical and fantastical fiction provide pleasures both similar and different to any well-written novel or short story—that of stepping outside one’s life for a few moments to experience another. Fantasy gives us barbarians and/or dragons and/or wizards and/or whatever; historical fiction provides us fancy dresses and/or interesting archaic weapons and/or insight into our past, but to me it still comes down to getting acquainted with characters and seeing what they’ll do when stuff happens to them, no matter what sort of stuff it is.

JB: I also read a ton of fantastical and historical fiction, and for the same reasons. I’m in agreement on the source of much of their appeal, too – the only thing I’d add is that I think when we read fantasy or historical fictions we often see the conflicts as being far more dramatic but also more clear-cut than those in our own lives. Even though no sane person would want to actually solve their problems with a sword, it can certainly be an appealing daydream otherwise!

Jesse Bullington

Jesse Bullington

The 22 stories that comprise this anthology are an eclectic bunch, to be sure. But we’d be lying if we don’t say that some recurring themes, motifs and general narrative set-ups didn’t stick out: the colonial milieu in both Ben Stewart and A. Scott Glancy’s story, for example, along with the literary revisionism of Natania Barron and Carrie Vaughn. Did you engineer these commonalities yourself, when you were selecting the stories that would finally end up in the anthology? And if not, why do you think authors were drawn to these motifs in large numbers? That is, what do you think it is about the ‘Swords v Cthulhu’ brief that inspires writers to chase these particular storytelling elements?

JB: We selected individual stories based on their own merits, and of course our taste as editors. As for why certain themes and motifs appealed to the contributors, I’m sure it varied from individual to individual and I’m reluctant to speak on behalf of anyone but myself. Sorry if that sounds like a cop-out!

MT: Jesse and I spent quite a bit of time mulling over our submission guidelines because we wanted to make it obvious what we were looking for. We had a vision in mind for the book, after all! Given our mutual love of fantasy and historical fiction, we suggested those approaches (among others).

Given that you’re both writers of fiction in your own rights, what kind of creative kick does editing an anthology give you that writing fiction from scratch can’t?

MT: Well, the pleasures of curatorship, I suppose. Sure, when I write a story or a novel, I’m arranging and compiling and creating, which all overlap with editing, but it’s internal rather than external. Doing that for others was a new thrill for me – this was my first anthology – but turning a skill set over and looking at it in a new way was something I enjoyed very much.

JB: Editing someone else’s fiction is an entirely different animal than editing your own, and if it affords a special kick I suppose it’s being able to identify areas for improvement without actually having to fix them yourself!

Do you think the small press genre fiction community is in a healthy place at the moment? What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out, or trying to break into the scene in which you guys are active?

MT: This is a hard one. Everyone in publishing, whether they’re with a small press or are publishing with the Big 4, can have only a keyhole perspective, though of course the size of that keyhole is highly variable. I think that the small press scene can be a great and vibrant place full of the weirder stuff you might not see coming out elsewhere. This isn’t to say big publishers won’t take on risky books, but… you see the problem here! Publishing is huge, everyone has their own perspective, and you can’t say much without massively qualifying it.

As to writers trying to break into the scene… what I have to say isn’t going to be too different than anyone else. Value yourself and your writing. Submit to the markets you read, and furthermore, submit strategically, either top-down or best-for-you-first. Be wary of promises that seem too good to be true, and ask for advice if and when you need it, preferably from people who you know are reliable, and who have similar careers to what you want for yourself, or broad experience.

JB: Haha, yeah, I don’t know if I’m in any position to comment on the state of any community! There are a lot of great books coming out through a lot of different small presses, so that’s good, right? Beyond that I think I’ll just second Molly’s assessment.

Advice for starting writers is an easier answer: stop spending all your time reading goddamn advice about writing and just fucking write! Do it all the time! Why are you still reading this interview when you could be writing? Wriiiiiiite!

Now if only I could follow my own advice…

What’s next for you?

MT: A few things … a standalone reprint of my novella Rumbullion: An Apostrophe will be published this year (it was previously collected in my out-of-print collection Rumbullion and Other Liminial Libations), and next year will see the publication of my second anthology, a cocktails-and-flash fiction book called Mixed Up!, which I’m co-editing with Nick Mamatas. Also, either late next year or early 2018 my novel Creatures of Will and Temper will be published, which is a sort of feminist retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but with epee fencing and diabolism and sisters arguing with one another.

JB: I’m currently completing revisions on the concluding novel in my Crimson Empire trilogy, which has been coming out under the pen name Alex Marshall. It’s a sprawling work of dark fantasy that should be solidly in the wheelhouse of anyone who appreciated Swords v Cthulhu…I hope!

Check out Swords v Cthulhu on the Stone Skin Press site. Meanwhile, click here to read the reviews of the 22 individual stories in the collection.

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon | Introduction

When Molly Tanzer, author of fun books like Vermilion and The Pleasure Merchant, asked me to review Swords v Cthulhu, the upcoming anthology she’s put together with Jesse Bullington, I was more than happy to do so… given that the book, released in July, has been on my to-buy list more or less since it was first announced.

Apart from being an avid fan of Tanzer’s fiction, I was also charmed by Bullington’s earlier anthology, Letters to Lovecraft — also released from Stone Skin Press, who with the ‘Swords’ anthology continue playing on a motif begun with their successful 2012 release, Shotguns v Cthulhu.

 

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But because I know there’s lots of fun to be had when Tanzer and Bullington, shameless pastiche artists both, are given full reign over a project, I decided to go about my own review in the same spirit of referential collage.

So in the coming days, weeks, months — however long it takes for this project to unspool, anyway — I will be dedicating a post to each story. But apart from dedicating a couple of paragraphs to the analysis of each piece, I will also give full vent to the cultural free-association that they inspire: be it other prose, films, art or music. You may, if you wish, think of it as an exercise of ‘The Ecstasy of Influence‘.

We will begin with Michael Cisco’s chilly and precise ‘Non Omnis Moriar (Not All Of Me Will Die): A Sequel to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Very Old Folk‘. Stay tuned.

Turning Thirty to Rampant Development and Literary Nourishment

I turned 30 this May, to a welcoming committee of good friends at a terracotta-walled chillout bar – the same colour that adorns my old room at home and the same colour that will adorn my new room as I settle into the sleepy coastal town of Marsaskala with my girlfriend and Olivia, the fluffy ginger cat.

Or, at least, it will remain sleepy for the odd few months or so, until yet another ludicrous development takes over the ever-diminishing unspoilt land on the island, this time right under my (new) doorstep.

More on that later, for now here’s a few things that have kept me busy over the past month.

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Photo by Jacob Sammut

Photo by Jacob Sammut

Schlock Magazine’s May issue – The overall brief was ‘Spring’, and I think we’ve succeeded in creating an eclectic and visually sumptuous edition, if I may say so myself. Check it out and give us your feedback, if you’re so inclined. It would be appreciated either way, as we’re planning some pretty big changes in the near future any constructive crit will go a long way. Click here to check it out.

Mark Pritchett in Malta. Photo by Ray Attard

Mark Pritchett in Malta. Photo by Ray Attard

Some cool interviews – Got to chat to the great Jeremy Robert Johnson about his blistering bizarro-noir debut novel Skullcrack City (once again, for Schlock) and the day job got a bit more interesting when I scored the chance to speak to David Bowie’s former guitarist turned newspaper mogul Mark Pritchett. It made for a curious afternoon, though as ever, the more memorable insights were kept off the record.

Vemilion by Molly Tanzer. Cover by Dalton Rose, design by Osiel Gomez

Vemilion by Molly Tanzer. Cover by Dalton Rose, design by Osiel Gomez

Fun reads – Apart from the aforementioned Skullcrack City, I thoroughly enjoyed Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion – a weird western with touches of Chinese mysticism and trans-continental vampire lore. We’ll be interviewing Tanzer for Schlock Talks too, and I’ll be reviewing the book for May’s edition of Schlock’s Pop Culture Destruction. Tanzer also featured in an anthology I’ve enjoyed and chatted to my Schlock interlocutor Marco about for Schlock’s podcastLetters to Lovecraft, edited by Jesse Bullington. My dear friend Pyt also gifted me a sumptuous coffee table volume of Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands, which now sits atop of The Steampunk User’s Manual (ed. Jeff VanderMeer & Desirina Boskovich) – another birthday gift, courtesy of my sister and her boyfriend. These are the books that are imagination fuel as I type or sketch away.

Reads I’m looking forward to in the near future: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani, The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace and – perhaps above all – Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The massed effect of this reading schedule seems to point to a keener environmental awareness, and a desire to get at something obstinately ancient and ‘quiet’, as a counter-reaction to the ADD generation. And what better way to do that than through rocks?