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.

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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.

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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.

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Lullabies to Paralyse

I didn’t want there to be such a radio silence up here for such a long time. As October got underway, I hit upon the idea of leading up to Halloween with a fun little round-up of mini-reviews of season-appropriate stuff I’ve been reading – and to be fair, I did manage to roll out a first-and-only installment with my review of Kali Wallace’s deliciously autumnal sophomore effort, the Young-Adult-but-don’t-let-that-stop-you novel The Memory Trees.

But then, life happened, as it tends to. The freelancer cup did overrun this month, and I suppose I should be grateful for that; stress and lack of time to update one’s blog and continue pottering away at ‘passion projects’ notwithstanding. The good news is that I did manage to keep up with the reading schedule – I devoured John Langan’s The Fisherman, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, and enjoyed all of them – but apart from brief Facebook missives, that’s all there was to show for it.

(I also owe the great gents who are Neil Willamson and Nathan Carson some reviews for their juicy and memorable takes on various genres, and I promise that’s upcoming very soon). 

It could have simply been a matter of scheduling. But it could also have been down to that other thing. The thing that once again thrust Malta into the international spotlight. The thing that put a lot of the hyper-local controversies, paradoxes and scandals into far sharper relief, now.

Because the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was one of those events you can’t run away from. You can’t shake them off from your mind and get back to your things with a business-as-usual attitude. Because, unlike the many petty grievances (that nonetheless still betray something of a rotten core) which I talked about in a previous blog post, a murder hits a far more direct note than the rote examples of corruption and complacency that gnaw away at us otherwise.

I was of course not alone in reacting to the numbing effect of such an event with, well, a pervasive, deep-seated sense of numbness. And after it had all just about started to subside, then came the reactions in earnest; some knee-jerk, some more considered and others, quite wide-ranging in scope, such as the rapid-fire succession of protest and ‘civil society’ actions, most of which were well-attended enough to possibly break local records, but all of which soon became mired in the kind of controversy that is unavoidable in a country where the partisan divide is so stark as to be almost physically tangible.

But neither am I too comfortable in suggesting that Daphne’s murder made me stop thinking and reading and writing – first of all, that would simply have been false because I have continued to read and write all the while, the only difference being that it’s been happening at a far slower pace than I’d hoped it would, now that the climate has cooled down and I could have, theoretically, begun to power through some work that would make me proud and remind me there’s tons left to do, and tons to live for.

No, I will not inject this event with an unsavoury jolt of facile, narcissistic tragic romance. And much as I strongly believe that the mythological idiom is an underused device in today’s age of bitty, rolling info-nuggets which more often than not, offer stimuli disguised as truth, I don’t think that mythologising Daphne or reducing her murder into some kind of commemorative meme would help to make the best out of a terrible situation.

The effect is disorienting. Before the murder, I had my issues with Malta, but I still felt as though I had the tool to process them and make something drinkable out of what are still essentially rancid lemons. Now, that suspect juice produces only poison, and I’m not sure what to do with it.

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Of course, it all changes on a day-to-day basis. One mantra that I’m trying to maintain is one that’s similar to “Don’t let the terrorists win” – which is facile and shallow in its own way, but it can be the kind of ‘fake it till you make it’ device to get some coherence back up in your brain.

I intend to not let this lull continue, and will be back with a quick report of some of the stuff I’ve written for ‘day-job’ purposes, and some ideas I’ve had swirling around regarding books, authors, film and TV. Because what else can you do?

(Featured image: Ruth Borg in the upcoming, Malta-shot ‘Bahar Zmien’ — Of Land and Sea, directed by Peter Sant. Photo by Michael Galea)

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #12 | Nathan Carson

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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Wither on the Vine; Or Strickfaden’s Monster by Nathan Carson

One of the fun things about the kind of spirited pastiche that tends to animate anthologies like Eternal Frankenstein is that the fun can easily be had from various sources, or at the expense of literary and historical figures that can plausibly be co-opted into the overall schema of the legacy left behind by Mary Shelley’s original text.

Nathan Carson’s tale certainly makes the most of this tendency, meshing not one, but two key historical characters — of, it must be said, varying degrees of prestige — into the overall mix of a Frankenstein-inspired story.

The titular character of Kenneth Strickfaden is inspired by the real-life figure who brought unforgettable Hollywood props from some classic Hollywood movies — most famously, as it happens, the lightning-powered device that brings the Creature to life in James Whale’s groundbreaking adaptation of Shelley’s text.

Kenneth Strickfaden (1896-1984)

Kenneth Strickfaden (1896-1984)

Because his car breaks down in a desert canyon near Utah, Strickfaden finds solace in the company of the enigmatic Mr Baldwin, who offers him lodging and car repairs in exchange for his help with some left-field science experiments he is conducting in his home; Strickfaden’s admittedly amateur reputation as a quirky tinkerer preceding him thanks to a one-off appearance in the pulp magazines of sci-fi pioneer Hugo Gernsback.

What follows is a decent into weird science as pushed into weirder extremes by particularly American religious convictions, with Strickfaden discovering more than he should about what Baldwin’s been up to — specifically, how his community aims to ‘treat’ some of its ailing women — before being given the opportunity to cross paths with one of his idols: the one and only Nikola Tesla.

Tesla’s reputation as a real-life ‘mad scientist’ animated by Romantic ideals — and beaten down by the capitalist machine — renders him particularly vulnerable to appropriation by modern speculative fiction writers. But while the Tesla in Carson’s story still comes to us draped in the same legendary aura, his depiction is far less flattering — and certainly less heroic — than one has come to expect. Here, Tesla remains an eccentric genius who produces results, but he’s also as much in love with money as he is with his creations, and doesn’t seem particularly concerned with human life beyond its impact on his experiments.

Bright spark: Nikola Tesla

Bright spark: Nikola Tesla

In short, he is the true Victor Frankenstein of the story — we could say that Baldwin is initially placed as something of a red herring — but because Carson tells the story in a slow-burning, old-timey tone that exudes wry irony, Tesla is presented as a blackly comic figure rather than an out-and-out villain.

It’s clear that Carson is having fun creating a situation in which Strickfaden and Tesla get to meet: it’s a kind of ‘origin story’ for Strickfaden, actually. And in fact, Baldwin’s religious community is presented as little more than an easy-to-ridicule gathering of desperate, credulous people who get what they bargained for when they meddle with the natural order.

Which is ironic, because whereas the Victor Frankenstein of Shelley’s original text was always keenly aware of the fact that his work may be an affront to God, Baldwin and his followers have convinced themselves that what they’re doing runs in exact tandem with God’s wishes. Stuck in the middle is their sly enabler — Tesla — and Strickfaden, an accidental hanger-on who ends up helping both sides.

In short, it’s a story about that peculiarly American trait of improvising with newfangled phenomena — be they scientific innovations or religious sects — and then doing your best to profit from them, or at least survive with all your limbs intact when it all goes to shit.

Read previous: Scott R. Jones

 

 

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #9 | Bumper Edition

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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Bow Down Before the Snail King! by Caleb Wilson

The King of Lapland’s Daughter by Nathan Carson 

A Circle That Ever Returneth In by Orrin Grey

One of the fundamental elements of an anthology like this one is that all the selected writers are drawn to the subject in question by a desire to approach it from their own preferred angle; be it a more earnest evocation of the springboard-material or an adventure in fiction that seeks to subvert rather than reinforce the trappings of what is being pastiche’d.

But I think that the common element in all of the stories selected here is that the authors appear to be after having some good fun. Having read some of Molly Tanzer’s own fiction, I can attest to its infectious ability to get you hooked on whatever the author is hooked on throughout the duration of the given story — you enjoy the way she channels the literary touchstones that she clearly enjoys herself.

And the triad of stories I’ve chosen here may not be the ultimate illustration of this feeling throughout the anthology — remember that this is something of a ‘live’ review session — but they certainly appear to make no bones about simply having fun while cribbing on their favourite aesthetic choices. Whereas other stories in the collection prioritize mood and atmosphere, these three, I think, are more about the schematic enjoyment of moving narrative chess-pieces around.

I’ve mentioned Dungeons and Dragons in relation to the anthology before, but I think that reference comes to full fruition in at least two of the stories under discussion here. The clearest one in this case would be Orrin Grey’s A Circle That Ever Returneth In: a choose-your-own-adventure story, and so the closest we’re likely to get to an actual role-playing game in the anthology.

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Attempting this format in a short fiction piece is something of a bold move on Grey’s part, to say nothing of how what was previously a novelty — and very much got traction based on that fact alone — has now become entirely antiquated thanks to the internet. But Grey clearly doesn’t care about being relevant, at least not with this story.

The reader is given a choice as to whether to pursue a Sell-Sword, a Cut-Purse or a Doll Mage for this adventure, which gets going on a familiar trope: the party gathered at an inn and activated into action by the promise of exotic treasure.

Only this time, the treasure is ‘The Shining Trapezohedron’ from Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark, and the adventure’s trajectory is less optimistic (or even certain) than most. Actually, I’ve always found it quite curious how Lovecraft’s fiction has turned out be pretty amenable to gamification — not just by dint of literary experiments like this one, but also, and perhaps more notably, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying games. In a similar way that films based on Lovecraft’s stories have to changed quite a bit to fit into accepted screenwriting story beats, so I imagine these games have to mangle the otherwise terminally linear and largely twist-free forays into existential darkness that buttress most of Lovecraft’s fiction.

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But again — Grey’s aim is to have fun and to transfer that fun to the reader, but not without being at least nominally faithful to the spirit of Lovecraft’s work. And what clinches the appeal of the piece is that there’s something intrinsically funny about juxtaposing the plucky choose-your-own-adventure genre against the pessimistic core of Lovecraft.

Caleb Wilson’s Bow Down Before the Snail King! on the other hand, takes a more subtle tack to the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ set up. The treasure hunt is once again the inciting incident of choice, and Wilson’s characters are almost deliberately flattened into types, all the better for the author to indulge in a breezily experimental take on storytelling structure.

The way Wilson approaches the landscape in particular reminded me of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Largely due to the meta-fictional tone of the piece, it is almost as if the characters themselves are receiving prompts about their surroundings from a ‘higher power’, rather than the atmosphere being carefully curated for the reader’s immersive experience. In this otherwise richly zany story, this uncanny effect is what stands out the most.

On the other hand, Nathan Carson’s The King of Lapland’s Daughter takes a far more earnest approach to the task at hand. Though the title appears to cue in Lord Dunsany’s wistful fantasy classic, the overall thrust of this particular piece in far more aggressive in tone. Tanzer herself has referred to the story as “metal-as-fuck” in a promotional Facebook post, and this is certainly borne out in the storytelling beats. Once again taking a Nordic vibe as its primary inspiration, the story leads us to cheer on its tough-as-nails protagonists as they face eldritch horrors.

Manowar would be proud

Manowar would be proud

Their morale-boosting battle cries, towards which Carson builds to maximum effect, are the true climaxes of the story. But though different to them in tone and intention, what Carson’s story shares with Wilson and Grey’s contribution is the total surrender to pastiche.

A reminder of what a fun playground these anthologies can be.

Read previous: John Hornor Jacobs