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

 

 

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Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #7 | Edward Morris

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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Frankenstein Triptych by Edward Morris

One of the great things about intertexuality is that it is the literary-cultural equivalent of friends bonding over shared memories; only instead of real-world happenings you’re bonding over books, music, visual art or films.

Of course, an anthology like Eternal Frankenstein practically runs on this impulse: intertextuality is its engine, and in this case it’s a particularly well-oiled one because the authors comprising it have — as far as I can tell this deep into the read-a-thon — taken on the challenge posed by Lockhart’s anthology with a canny understanding that simple pastiche (perhaps one of the ‘lower’ forms of intertextuality in practice) will not be tolerated.

But there’s fun to be had in pastiche too, and this is not lost on Edward Morris, who deliberately presents three science fictional micro-tales as his contribution to the anthology. But the pastiches here are not direct piggybacks on Shelley’s original novel, and instead take an inspired swerve into varied, forking directions.

And in the case of the first segment of this mini-anthology, ‘Dolly’, we’re not really talking about pastiche at all so much a formally interesting take on the Artificial Intelligence sub-genre. In a thread that will continue throughout Morris’ entire piece, we’re thrown into a close-third-person focus giving us a window into an unconventional perspective; in fact, it’s not even that of a ‘person’ — a particularly sophisticated doll experiencing the pangs of an existential crisis in the first instance, a mecha-warrior of sorts (we think) in the second segment, GRUNT.

Unreal cities: Morris dedicates the final segment of his piece to HR Giger

Unreal cities: Morris dedicates the final segment of his piece to HR Giger

The link to Frankenstein is tangential in one sense, but very much on-point in another. In his maddened collage — which I imagine to have been a blast to write, really — Morris taps into Shelley’s essential idea of imagining what a Creature not conceived through natural means would think about, and even feel, as it tries to make sense of the world it’s been thrust into.

GRUNT is particularly inspired on this front, and the random perceptions evidenced by this poor military cog — as he/she/it witnesses the eradication of its comrades — appear confusing but in fact accumulate to paint a vivid piece that resembles poetry more than prose. It brought to mind the powerful and unique pen of Joe Pulver and, lo and behold, as the segment concludes I see that Morris in fact dedicates it to Pulver, among others.

The final segment, ‘Wir Atomkinder’ slots into more conventional formal shape but, being the confessional of a Nazi Mad Scientist that’s dedicated to the memory of HR Giger, ‘more conventional’ in this case certainly does not translate into ‘more mundane’.

Stitching together his flash fiction narratives, Morris reminds us that there’s more to the legacy of Frankenstein than scientific hubris and the dour reminder of humanity’s indifference. It’s also a story of creation — for better or for worse — and the confused by animating force on which it runs.

Read previous: Rios de la Luz

 

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.

Ecstasy of influence: Bowie via Manson

Marilyn Manson - Mechanical Animals (1998)

I first got to know about Elmore Leonard through Quentin Tarantino – on that note, Tarantino introduced me to a whole raft of pop culture curios – and I started digging into Norse mythology after Marvel Comics planted a seed in my brain thanks to their version of Thor.

Lovecraft swam into my purview during my teenage years – though I would delve into his stories much later, again – motivated by this initial, delayed spur – through the likes of Metallica and Cradle of Filth, and Lord Dunsany I read after finding out that actually, both Lovecraft and my former literary hero JRR Tolkien were influenced by him.

One of the joys of delving into the DNA of your favourite creative people is finding out, once you crack that shell, what lies beneath. Everyone is influenced by someone else, and this hall of mirrors is what arguably characterises our relentlessly postmodern age. (Should that be post-post-postmodern? I’m not an English undergrad anymore, which frankly means I’m past caring.)

In the case of the late David Bowie, it was Marilyn Manson who did it for me – specifically, the Marilyn Manson of the androgynous Mechanical Animals era.

Now of course, I had known who Bowie was long before my friend Herman loaned me a bootleg tape of the said Manson album (come to that, I of course knew who Manson was before that talismanic tape too). Family lore has it that my aunt and father went out to buy the latest Bowie LP to reach Serbia during a respite from the hospital as my mother was getting ready to give birth to me, even – and I’m sure that same record was spun in my presence after I eventually popped out into the world on that fateful May day in 1985.

But I think I first started to gain an understanding of what Bowie was “about” thanks to Manson’s very deliberate and openly acknowledged cribbing from Bowie during that comparatively brief chapter in “the God of Fuck’s” career.

I wouldn’t really be able to talk about the technical make-up of the songs in Mechanical Animals, so I doubt that I’d be able to construct much of a formal argument in favour of why these songs ‘worked’ on me the way they did.

But neither was it a case of being transfixed by the superficial aspects of Manson’s project, dazzling and sort-of* subversive as they may have been in the pop-culture mainstream at the time. And I say this at the risk of discounting just how mind-blowing it was to me to watch Manson’s performance of The Beautiful People – taken from Antichrist Superstar, the album previous to Mechanical Animals – at the MTV Video Music Awards back in 1997 (I was twelve). It still gives me a thrill of sadistic pleasure to remember the cut-aways to the likes of Sean Combs apparently scandalized by Manson’s bare-bottomed, fascist-attired attack on MTV glamour culture. The hypocrisy of someone like Combs taking apparent offense at Manson still strikes me as telling, in a “gotcha” kind of way.

But Mechanical Animals was certainly a ‘softer’ beast, and its immersive qualities are what seduced me. Beyond the obvious, catchy charms of The Dope Show and I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me), songs like The Last Day on Earth and my personal favourite, Coma White, transported me somewhere alien but strangely calming.

The electronic wash that characterises the album still gives me a sense of something cold but meditative, and it’s all helped along by the androgynous surrogate – ‘Omega’ – that Manson created for the purpose of the album. As I would later learn, creating an artistic persona, particularly an androgynous one of this kind, was cribbed from Bowie, who admittedly trumps Manson on this front – not only because he ‘got their first’ but also because he had a far clearer vision about when to adopt these personalities and when to drop them**.

But at the time, it introduced me to the concept of, well, the concept album. Not only that, but the concept album as propped up by an invented personality the performer deliberately took on. In short, the idea of music as storytelling, which has resonated with me ever since.

It’s this echo of Bowie that I’ve carried with me ever since. Of course I’ve listened to Bowie since that time too, though not, I must admit, with the kind of visceral fan-like fervour the teenage me bestowed upon Marilyn Manson.

That’s another thing about influences. You can be introduced to artists askance. Simply put, it wouldn’t have made much sense to me to force myself to listen to Bowie at the time. I was into hard rock and heavy metal, and Manson was a more palatable jumping point into the Bowie milieu for me at that point. This is, of course, the problem with recommending essential works to people with the kind of evangelical zeal we reserve for the very best. We tend to forget that everyone’s on their own journey, and telling them that you HAVE to read/watch/listen to this at that point in their life makes little sense.

If you’re meant to reach it, you’ll reach it. In the meantime you can follow the breadcrumbs you recognise.

*I think I opted for ‘sort-of’ partly because I know Bowie did all this before

**Manson’s dithering post-Holywood career is a testament to this… compare it to how Bowie, despite some flailing years of his own, remained so much in control that he even recorded a final album as a farewell