Easter Gothic | BILA, Camilla, Inheritance

Easter is approaching on this once-aggressively Catholic island, which is only marginally less so nowadays, as this snap I took a couple of days back gloriously, dramatically illustrates:

gudja

Easter of course also means spring in full swing, and the twisty turny weather that it brings with it has left me feeling a bit ‘off’ on a few days here and there, where drowsiness becomes the order of the day and where you feel abandoned to the mercy of the uncontrollable climate-gods and their whims — they are in you, controlling your moods and there’s not much you can do about it. Both humbling and annoying in equal measure, but I also know it’s nowhere near the deluge that is the summer-swelter juggernaut, for which I am subconsciously preparing with no small amount of trepidation.

But come rain on shine, my penchant for the cooling moods of Gothic melodrama will remain unquelled, and it’s not just the above photo that stands as proof of this. Recently, the punk-metal band BILA (no, they’re not all that sure about their genre-configuration either — I asked) got me on board to participate in the music video for their song ‘Belliegha’, in which I was tasked to play a folk monster by the video’s director, Franco Rizzo.

The no-budget, three-day shoot ended up blossoming into a glorious display of pulpy goodness, and it was about as fun to shoot as it is to look at, I reckon. You can check out the whole thing here. For those of you on the island and keen to hear more, BILA will be performing at Rock the South on April 14.

The Belliegha’s aesthetic certainly lies on the (deliberately) crummier side of what I’ve just been talking about, but we also had a chance to once again showcase our more elegant attempt at the Mediterranean Gothic during past couple of weeks, as the National Book Council invited co-writer/director, producer Martin Bonnici and myself to speak about our short film ‘Camilla’ at the Campus Book Festival.

camilla campus book fest

Flanked by Martin Bonnici (left) and Stephanie Sant (right) at the Campus Book Festival, University of Malta, March 29, 2019. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

The event was focused on adaptation, translation and subtitling, and to this end we were thankfully joined by Dr Giselle Spiteri Miggiani from the translation department, and someone with tangible experience of subtitling for television and cinema.

Despite having premiered back in November, it feels as though ‘Camilla’s journey into the world is only just beginning. Some encouraging feedback and an overall sense of enduring satisfaction with the work as a whole — bolstered by the memory of just how smooth a project it was to put together — leaves me with a decidedly un-Gothy optimism about its future.

But true to the spirit of fertility, resurrection and renewal that also characterises this season and its many associated festivals, there’s another bun in the oven that appears to be just about ready for consumption.

inheritance

After some five-odd years of rumination, regurgitation and tinkering, the fifth draft of a horror feature I’ve been working on under the auspices of the aforementioned Martin Bonnici appears to be production-ready.

Of course any number of things can happen in the run up to finally getting this thing filmed, but I can’t help but let out an extended sigh of relief at finally finishing a draft of ‘Inheritance’ that’s about as smooth as I’d like it to be — with the required suspension of disbelief being dialed down to a minimum, the dialogue as lived-in as it’s ever been, and the narrative beats aligned to both character motivation and the story’s thematic underbelly.

I’ll have to keep mum on details for the time being, not least because a jinx at this stage of the film’s evolution would be particularly heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that the project marks the fulfilment of a vow made back in 2014, on national media. A vow to make the Maltese cinematic space just that little bit punkier and weirder.

This all feels like good juju, since summer is approaching. And carving out a pretty alcove of darkness feels like just the thing. Take it away, Banshees…

banshees

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Camilla Interview on the Times of Malta

Something really nice has happened this year. We get to make a stylish and LGBTIQ-friendly Maltese vampire film and screen it at one of the most long-standing and generously attended events of the local cultural calendar.

What I’m talking about is ‘Camilla‘, a project that just got some fresh media attention in the Times of Malta. It is also a project that blends one of the most exciting voices of Maltese literature with the legacy of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s foundational text of vampire fiction, Carmilla.

‘Camilla’ is a short story written by Clare Azzopardi and forming part of her anthology Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh — an award-winning collection released by Merlin Publishers in 2014.

It is the story of the enigmatic titular character, who has made a home in the bustling Maltese village of Naxxar — an Italian aristocrat of sorts (we suspect), spurned by a lover and left to write beautiful epitaphs for the local dead.

Capture

Stephanie Sant (right, in case you were wondering) and myself chat to the Times of Malta about ‘Camilla’ — along with our producer Martin Bonnici. Click here to read the interview.

My good friend and collaborator Martin Bonnici first approached me about adapting a short story for the purposes of entering into an annual contest put up by the National Book Council. Co-writer Stephanie Sant came on board soon enough, along with the rest of the team at Shadeena and a number of cool collaborators. Actresses Irene Christ and Steffi Thake got on board too, and we managed to score the funds on our second try.

Filming starts in a couple of weeks’ time, and I can’t be more excited to see the outcome, while wishing Stephanie and co. the best of luck as they amble around the locations for a rapid-fire shoot under the scorching early-August sun.

Meanwhile, Stephanie, Martin and myself have been interviewed by Stephanie Fsadni over at the Times of Malta on the project, so hop on over there to get the full lowdown on how it all happened and how we’re approaching it.

‘Camilla’ is made possible with the help of the National Book Council (Malta), and is produced by Shadeena Entertainment. It will be screened on November 10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta as part of this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies | Short Fiction as Angry Pop Anthem

Still another warm Italian night, still not quite recovered from that woozy post-Worldcon feeling, but I had to jot down a few words about Brooke Bolander’s Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies; the Hugo-nominated short story which this year lost to Amal El-Mohtar’s beautiful Seasons of Glass and Iron but which remains a highly recommended — and recommendable — reference point for me.

It’s a story that’s better experienced than explained, so any analysis on my part will just be enthusiastic gloss. But I will say that the one thing that strikes me about it — and, crucially, keeps me returning to the story for sloppy seconds, thirds, fourths, etc — is that it actually feels like a pop song.

A really, really good one. (More Grimes than Britney.)

I’m a child of Barthes so I don’t want to get into whether this was intentional or not, but the feeling it transmits is the same. There is an instant emotional hook — the rape of a celestial being — which then proceeds in literal ‘beats’ (the bullet-pointed, inexorable march of delicious revenge) and then offers up the ultimate, redemptive kicker: in the many times that I’ve re-read it, the appearance of the title line in the story has resulted in joyful tears.

Above all, this is a sign of well-constructed fiction, and the self-consciously bite-sized nature of Bolader’s story only makes it all the more amenable to the pop song metaphor.

That’s certainly how I will experience it, over and over again.

Fluke or not, I’m happy we have it out there in the world. Do give it a whirl

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #14 | David Templeton

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been 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 tackled the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method was be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These were presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification. Now, please enjoy the final review of the series.

eternal-frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Body by David Templeton

 

And now, at the very end of Lockhart’s anthology, we get a focus on the body — the ultimate body as far as we’re concerned: that of Mary Shelley, the originator of all of the things we’ve been discussing so far, and one of the most fecund imaginations of the Romantic and/or Gothic high point of literature — an unexpected force to be reckoned with considering her young age when she composed her key work, and her compromised — some would say relentlessly tragic — private life.

David Templeton’s novella — it is in fact the longest piece in Eternal Frankenstein — makes for a fitting conclusion to this varied and comprehensive tribute to the legacy of Shelley’s most famous work, by forcing a fictionalised version of the beleaguered author to confront her many demons, seemingly as a final goodbye before parting the world for good.

In turn, the story also forces us, the readers, to come face-to-face with Frankenstein’s many themes and emotional implications; some of which weigh on the very real side of disturbing: not just in their Gothic power to enthrall and terrify by dint of grotesque detail and atmosphere, but also because of the tortured psychological place they come from, the biographical backbone of which Templeton makes it a point to unpeel, explore and embroider further to craft his novella.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

The setting is as baldly Gothic as they come, though, with Shelley’s disembodied form rising from her Bournemouth grave to settle a score initially mysterious to her. What follows is something of a rambling confessional whose shape, like the Creature Shelley constantly makes reference to in various ways, could have used some trimming and re-arrangement.

While the concept is a worthwhile one — and, again, a perfect note to end the anthology on — that does come with a real emotional pay-off in the end, Templeton’s decision to go over some of the key moments of Shelley’s life, as well as key passages of Frankenstein, will come across as a tad tiresome to those of us familiar with the scenes and passages in question.

What’s even more problematic is that Templeton doesn’t really do all that much to upend expectations, either: the obvious connection between the death of Mary’s mother while giving birth to her is made yet again, while Mary waxes lyrical about her Creature while condemning Victor Frankenstein as a coward at best, a clueless, callous bastard at worst.

But the digressive nature of it all is part of the point — this is a kind of mental Groundhog Day for our poor Mary, and if nothing else, Templeton demonstrates a key understanding of what makes Shelley’s work tick. And neither would it be fair to say that he succumbs entirely to boilerplate interpretations of the text; Victor Frankenstein’s failure is eventually revealed to be Mary’s own, in connection with the death of her first unborn child.

Ultimately, here we have a story about bodies — the bodies we encounter and the body that we inhabit, and all of the complexity that that implies once we’re forced to stop taking them for granted. This complexity falls down on Frankenstein’s Creature like a ton of bricks since he is first brought into the world, and so it serves to offset our own lives at any given moment. And, finding a suitably tortured test subject in Mary Shelley, Templeton uses the opportunity to zone in on these moments at various points in time: from bodies freshly born and vulnerable, to those sickly and decaying… and everything in between.

The body is all we have. And at some point, we were all Frankenstein’s Creature. At some point, we will BE Frankenstein’s Creature yet again. This, above all, is why Shelley’s legacy endures, and why it’s likely to help create more anthologies like Eternal Frankenstein in the years to come.

Read previous: Kristi DeMeester

Stay tuned for an interview with Ross E. Lockhart, the editor of Eternal Frankenstein!

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #8 | Michael Griffin

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.

eternal-frankenstein

The Human Alchemy by Michael Griffin

We rarely speak of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as being about the angst related to artistic creation, and instead grasp at more solid metaphors. Understandably enough, received wisdom has it that this is first and foremost a parable warning against scientific hubris on the thematic level, and emotionally, it resonates with us thanks to the undeniable pathos we feel towards the creature: rejected by a father who only half wanted him, with no reference points in a world that wants nothing to do with him.

So I was glad to see that Michael Griffin’s creepy but complex tale of a successful pair of surgeons — with otherwise also picks up on the ‘standard’ intertextual cues stemming from Shelley’s original text — also pitches its Frankenstenian couple, Reysa and Magnus Berg, as frustrated creatives looking to satisfy their unconventional cravings in a world that has yet to — ethically as well as aesthetically — catch up with their tastes and ambitions.

In the case of Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein’s initial revulsion at the Creature he’s made could find a direct corollary in the way most young writers — or artists of any stripe — would view their juvenilia. “I expected to create something at least as beautiful as the work of the forebears in the field that I admire,” they think to themselves as they grimace at that first draft, or that hesitantly completed painting, “what the fuck is this shit?!”. And in it goes into the proverbial fire.

Pedro Almodovar's own take on Frankenstenian surgeons: The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodovar’s own take on Frankenstenian surgeons: The Skin I Live In (2011)

But Reysa and Magnus are not young: Aurye is, and though their wine-soaked gathering at the rich couple’s mountaintop castle may suggest all the trappings of a cliche seduction into a three-way, this mundane idea is dispensed with fairly quickly. In fact, the couple reject all mundane ideas suggested or imposed by society, a dogma whose limits are tested by this increasingly disconcerting, but equally sensitive and intelligent, contribution to the anthology.

And the way Griffin manages to walk this tightrope is, in fact, by couching the couple’s past history and future dreams in the most precise, and even reasonable, discourse. As one example, let’s get back to the artistic creativity metaphor. Midway through the story, the couple start explaining — always to Aurye, as their increasingly eager acolyte — the challenges posed by their unconventional lifestyle.

In the meantime, the story’s unsettling vortex intensifies, and Griffin actually piles all of the cosmetic details you’d expect from a Frankenstein story

Without spoiling anything, the way Reysa describes it sounds exactly like the kind of set-up a freelancing couple of any profession would face; with partners alternately sacrificing time and comfort while the other aims for their dream job, or at least helping to create a mutually beneficial situation for both based on their relevant skills.

In the meantime, the story’s unsettling vortex intensifies, and Griffin actually piles all of the cosmetic details you’d expect from a Frankenstein story: the Gothic castle, the operating table, the thunder… and a monster. But on their own, these details are now blunt: Frankenstein’s Creature is indeed eternal, yes, but the moralistic discourse about scientific ambition needs fine-tuning and updating if it is to sustain its chilling menace into the modern day.

And this is precisely what Griffin does with his two surgeons. But arguably, he completes this effect with the help of the young Aurye most of all, whose role in the drama flouts expectations in more ways than one.

An urbane and superbly structured little chiller that is intellectually engaging more than it is viscerally scary, but that is all the more rewarding for it.

Read previous: Edward Morris

 

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.

eternal-frankenstein

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

 

Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #5 | Autumn Christian

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.

eternal-frankenstein

Sewn Into Her Fingers by Autumn Christian

We’ve commented on Victor Frankenstein’s neurotic bent before; how his lack of any emotional control and steadfast denial to confront his creation and its after-effects is what propels the drama of Mary Shelley’s original novel towards its tragic conclusion.

With her contribution to Eternal Frankenstein, Autumn Christian side-steps this crucial element of Frankenstein’s character to create a story that’s by turns chilling and deeply affecting.

Told from the perspective of her Victor Frankenstein stand-in, Christian’s story is a clinical tale of a deepening obsession whose (clinical) form matches its (clinical) subject.

The story’s opening lines have him frankly confess to breathing life into the creature — a female, this time — out of pure boredom: as an extension of his day-job skill set and to be able to work on something beyond office hours. This could have been played for (dark) laughs but is instead ‘played’ for nothing at all, as we soon realise that such a flippant approach towards life is what informs our protagonist’s MO.

Bros before bots: Ex Machina

Bros before bots: Ex Machina

Siobhan Carroll’s story gave us Victor Frankenstein as the Marquis De Sade; doing away with the original Frankenstein’s skewed moral panic and putting sheer sadism in its place. Here the re-imagining is more muted but no less powerful for it. Christian’s protagonist isn’t a sadist, but he’s certainly missing a couple of empathy cogs. At least at the beginning of the story, what we see is the logic of the abuser being laid out to us with no frills and in no uncertain terms.

But then, something strange and wonderful happens. In another direct contrast to Shelley’s body-snatching, body-collaging man of science, our protagonist learns to embrace the creature. In a strange way — but again, also in a way that swerves away from the obvious trajectory of doomed and/or abusive scientists — the narrator’s thought process reminded me of the tiptoeing around the AI creation that we see in Ex Machina — one of my favourite movies of the past couple of years.

Unpeeling the truth: Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina (2015)

Unpeeling the truth: Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina (2015)

Like Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) in that very 21st century take on the nub of Shelley’s text, the protagonist of Christian’s story takes time to consider the various aspects and potential of what he’s just created. But whereas Ex Machina’s Ava (Alicia Vikander) reveals herself to be something of a femme fatale by the end, Christian’s creature demands to be treated as an equal.

The protagonist’s hedged acceptance of this demand is what pushes the story into truly original territory. And, helped along by the clear-eyed, clinical style — after all, a logical choice when a scientist is telling the tale — the story makes for a disturbing but satisfying arc.

An unsettling tale that’s also strangely uplifting.

Read previous: Walters, Scandal

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