Monday 29 November 2010

two from Italy

 Black Sunday, I'm afraid did not do it for me at all. Barbara Steele is a horror icon, and both director Bava and this film are considered to be cornerstones of Italian and indeed European horror. Personally, I thought the atmosphere and character design (as far as the two villains went) was brilliant, but the story itself did nothing especially interesting or well. The opening scene with the mask of Satan is searing, but that intensity is lost in a film that meanders about, spending far too much time with the wrong characters. There was an eerie story here about a young girl growing up in an isolated castle, each day resembling the portrait of an ill-fated ancestress even more. A story about a personality that managed to survive death, shaping innocent victims into its own form until it could find the perfect vessel. But it is lost in a stock horror plot that adds nothing new to the bag of tricks pioneered by Universal in the 30s and 40s and fails to capitalise on its sporadic moments of utter brilliance.

Far more satisfying was Umberto D. which sat perfectly on that cusp between the maudlin and the cynical both of which are viewpoints that would have distorted the humane clarity of this brilliant story. I really can't bring myself to say more than that - you simply have to watch this one, if you haven't already.

Friday 26 November 2010

"What helps for me-- if help comes at all-- is to find the mustard seed of the funny at the core of the horrible and futile."

 - Philip K Dick

In that spirit, a new, futile fiction.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

favourite music of 2010, so far

I've listened to maybe a 100 of this year's releases so far and here are a few that stood out. In no particular order:

  1. Fatso Jetson: Archaic Volumes
  2. Triptykon: Eparistera Daimones
  3. Horn Of The Rhino: Weight Of Coronation
  4. Karma To Burn: Appalachian Incantation
  5. Drudkh: Handful Of Stars
  6. Hail Of Bullets: On Divine Winds
  7. Man's Gin
  8. Jeff Beck: Emotion And Commotion
  9. Ramesses: Take The Curse
  10. Firebird: Double Diamond
  11. Samsara Blues Experiment: Long Distance Trip
  12. Darkthrone: Circle The Wagons
  13. Bison BC: Dark Ages
  14. Earthride: Something Wicked
  15. Torche: Songs For Singles
  16. Eibon: Entering Darkness
  17. Sardonis
  18. Bongripper: Satan Worshipping Doom
  19. Dragonauta: Cruz Invertida
  20. La Otracina: Reality Has Got To Die
  21. Kings Of Frog Island 3
  22. Slough Feg: The Animal Spirit
  23. Agrimonia: Host Of The Winged
  24. Weapon: From The Devil's Tomb
  25. Coffinworm: When All Became None
  26. Negura Bunget: Virstele Pamintului
  27. Deathspell Omega: Paracletus
  28. Those Poor Bastards: Gospel-Haunted
  29. Melechesh: The Epigenesis
  30. Immolation: Majesty And Decay
  31. Zoroaster: Matador
  32. Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
  33. Witchery: Witchkrieg
  34. Nominon: Monumentomb


When I heard about this movie, over on the Science Fiction forums on yuku, I knew I had to seek it out and watch it, ASAP, as the corporate drones say. A Polish film, it was made in 1984, Iron Curtain still intact, Communist regime still in place, and became one of the most popular Polish films ever. How did they get away with it?

Because, despite the title and the flashes of nudity throughout this film, it isn't even a soft porn but a social and political satire in that broad, knowing but not quite cynical manner that I associate with Eastern European satire in general. In the 90s - the near future when this film was made - two men are put in suspended animation as an experiment. They are to be revived in three years. Instead, when they are finally awakened, half a century has passed. A global war involving nuclear and biological weapons has rendered the surface of the earth uninhabitable and wiped out the male species. Female survivors live in underground shelters, reproducing by what essentially amounts to a form of cloning.

When the two men are found and resurrected, they soon find that this all-female future world has no room for them, considering them 'the missing link between apes and women' their fate is either to be killed or 'naturalised' - turned into females. One of the men is a cocky, swaggering braggart, the other a clumsy, bumbling worrier. Together, they have to somehow triumph over armed and deadly female warriors and find a way to escape. Fortunately, the braggart's inept attentions have stirred long-dormant instincts in one of the female scientists...

This film is often laugh-out-loud hilarious with its digs on politics of both the sexual and official variety. Much fun is had at the expense of various forms of sexism and authoritarianism - so much so that one can't help but wonder what the censors made of it all. A hidden gem from the bad old Cold War world (already then on its last legs) and an excellent science fiction satire.

Monday 22 November 2010

I've finished Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, and I liked it quite a lot. Ostensibly a post-apocalyptic novel about cloning, it's basically a meditation on the role of individuality and our relationship with nature as defining elements of being human. Kate Wilhelm suggests that our grounding in our own sense of individualism and our feeling of kinship with nature are powerful components of humanity that we would not do well to outgrow.

The genetic holocaust that overtakes her near-future world is not particularly deeply explored or explained as it is in books like Brunner's The Sheep Look Up where the nature of the apocalypse itself is a large part of the theme of the story, and while the consequences of cloning form a large part of the plot machinery, the real emphasis here is not on a rigorous thought-exploration of the pros and cons and possible results of cloning, either. Instead, Wilhelm charts the gradual dilution of human nature into a sort of insectile collectivism through repeated cloning from the same limited gene bank and the resilient resurgence of the undiluted human spirit. Wilhelm's story states that it is better to forgo all the benefits of years of progress and technology and revert to a primitive form of life if it means preserving the diverse range of personalities and the instinctual elements of human nature.

It also touches on the importance of creativity, storytelling and myth-making to humanity, with the first truly human beings in several generations turning to artistic self-expression and the telling of just-so tales.

All this is framed in a narrative that, even if it is low on tech-talk and action, conveys a vivid sense of character and place. A very satisfying reading experience all in all, even if I'm just a little uncomfortable with the bucolic patriarchy established in the end - which is probably a reflection of how comfortable I am with the trappings of our decadent world civilization. Where the novel fell short for me is that none of the underlying points of the story were new, and probably weren't even at the time - paeans to individuality are not rare in American SF and the virtues of feral humanity as opposed to synthetic clones were explored in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Saturday 20 November 2010

two lights

I wrote this for a short-short story competition in 2006. Didn't win anything. It'll fill a nice half-page in that posthumous collection.

'The lights help you to aim. When you eat the root and recite the chant, your vision will blur – this is temporary. Do not worry. Find the glowing lights, and align yourself in between and a little above them. Take a deep breath, and run towards this point as fast as you can, leaping up just as you come abreast of the table.'

'What's in the picture?'

'The painting itself is unimportant. A bucolic landscape in pre-industrial Europe, a close up of fungal growths on a dead bison – it makes no difference. For this moment, the canvas is a membrane, and one that you may penetrate.'

'What's on the other side?'

'A dying world circled with debris-rings, dwarfed by an immense red star, an archaic space where warring celestial factions loom ominous over a cowed populace, a gleaming, automated future where steel servitors nurture a fleshy elite, or a world just a sideways-step askew from our own – who knows? Others have seen these places, and more. You must tell us what you see, for we cannot tell you what you will see.'

'The chant is silly. What kind of mumbo-jumbo is that?'

'If it helps you focus, you can even chant the words to 'Louie Louie'. Our aesthetic sense is not that fragile.'

'What if I don't want to come back?'

'Oh, we'll get to you. An assailant in the park, a person from Porlock, a woman in a velvet mask – we'll get to you.'


'So, are you ready?'

Sunday 14 November 2010

let the chainsaws roar
the cry of the prayer-leader
ululates in discord
calling the faithless to feast
on these fallen idols
to strip the limbs and the hide
tattoo the flesh and expose the bones
trampled then to dust
beneath the feet
of the apes
scaling the towers

to this canopy of synthetic light
that blinds the night and hides the stars
and replaces dreams

ETA: Also see:

what I've been reading lately: Moorcock and Manchu

I've long though of the Corum books as the least among Michael Moorcock's works; indeed, they don't match the verve of the End Of Time sequence, the madcap invention of the Cornelius quartet or the elegiac weirdness of the Elric tales at their best. But Moorcock at his closest approach to by-the-numbers epic fantasy is still head and shoulders above the average fantasy hack.

The Corum books begin with the end of an age that was nobler and more beautiful than ours; they follow the sole survivor of this world, Prince Corum Jhaelen Irsei in his attempts to mitigate the damage somehow and re-assert the balance between Law and Chaos by defeating the three Sword Rulers and helping the forces of Law regain some control. For the seasoned Moorcock reader, this immediately signals that Corum is another manifestation of the Eternal Champion and gives the story added resonance in the context of the ongoing struggle between law and chaos in Moorcock's Multiverse.

But even on the level of the first-time reader, what makes these books stand out from contemporaneous hack work by the likes of Brooks or Eddings is the complexity (not mere ambiguity) of Moorcock's moral context, his knack for vivid atmosphere and description, his ability to conjure up an entire culture in a few breathless sentences packed with descriptive lists and most of all, the utter weirdness he can conjure up. His fantasy owes more to the Weird Tales stable of writers than to Tolkien, but he goes one better than Robert E Howard at least in the depth of characterisation and, dare I say it, mastery of plot.

In short, I'm finding myself pleasantly surprised with the Corum books and am now 2/3 of the way through The Queen Of The Swords the second installment of the first Corum trilogy.

I've just finished The Mystery Of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the first of Sax Rohmer's Fu-Manchu thrillers. A lot of contemporary commentators emphasise the racism of these books, hinging as they do on the 'yellow peril'. For myself, I have to say that the racist elements that occasionally creep in hardly interfere with my enjoyment of these thrillingly paced and often very eerie thrillers. Rohmer had a great sense of atmosphere and tension and the weird elements, always amenable to reasonable explanations place these books somewhere on the peripheries of both horror and SF apart from being classic thrillers, I think. I've acquired the whole set of Fu-Manchu omnibus editions released by A&B in the 90s and look forward to revisiting this classic adventure series.

Tuesday 9 November 2010


I'm not the biggest fan of Penguin's policy of frequently reissuing chunks of their catalogue in new jackets or formats. There are entire blogs that seem to exist largely to croon lovingly over every new reissue, and I will admit that Penguin's redesigns tend to be aesthetically pleasing more often than not (there are exceptions - I still don't like the new look Modern Classics with their blurry snapshots and oversized sans-serif titles), but it's frustrating to have, for example, an un-uniform set of Nabokovs or Penguin's excellent set of Joshi-edited Lovecraft collections just because the titles in question were issued in both Black Classics and Modern Classics editions, subjected to the new Modern Classics redesign or simply put out in a special edition with new covers, and all in the space of about a decade, so that all the different editions may still be bought first-hand. Its things like this that have converted me to one of those quasi-Philistines who no longer judge a book by its cover (once thought of as a mark of wisdom, I believe).

On the other hand I can't really complain if it is that luxury edition of Pride And Prejudice or Lolita's eleventy-hundredth new cover which help to push sales and make it possible to include lesser-known treasures in the catalogue. Books like JL Carr's luminous 'A Month In The Country', or G. Nagarajan's bleak and brilliant 'Tomorrow Is One More day'. Or the book at hand, Leonora Carrington's 'The Hearing Trumpet'.

Leonora Carrington's own life is something of a marvel - an English heiress who ran away to join the Surrealists, was rescued from a Spanish sanitarium by her nanny, who arrived by submarine, a writer and artist in her own right who now lives out a remarkably extended old age in Mexico City.

As for her novel, it's every bit as original and astounding as her life seems to have been. It's hard to pin down its charm to any one factor - the sideways wit that propels memorable bon mots as wise and unexpected in their own way as the paradoxes of Wilde, the boundless, unconventional imagination that takes us from a sinister home for elderly women to Grail-chasing intrigue in the 18th century to the next Ice Age and beyond - the narrative voice, that of an incredibly ancient, somewhat doddering but definitely alert and irreverent old woman (one wonders if Carrington was anticipating her own older self) or the somewhat breathtaking vision of personal and global transformation that underpins the whole work.

This novel was a study in the unexpected for me - from the gradual opening-out of scales that takes us from an admittedly unusual old woman's senescent musings to the end of the world as we know it as well as for the unexpected delight of finding something so funny, wise, smart, weird and magnificent by someone I'd never heard of before. I'm far more resigned to putting up with Penguin's next novelty edition of Dickens if it helps ensure that I continue making finds like this elsewhere on their list.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Now this, perhaps, could be called the anti-Twilight. A romantic vampire movie in which monsters remain monsters and vampires are not romanticised. A young man encounters a mysterious young woman and tells her, quite accurately, that she is not like any other girl he has ever met. A fairly new vampire, she is one of a pack who roam the back roads of the southern USA, finding victims to slake their blood thirst in a variety of creative and nasty ways. A pack of killers, and now it seems that young Caleb, bitten and turning, has to join them - or be killed.

Despite a couple of plot holes, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. The 80s aren't really my favourite decade for horror (although they're a lot better than the 90s) but this film shows off the slick 80s look at its best and marshals an excellent ensemble cast together to deliver a story that brings us to the very verge of vampiric cool without falling off.

Because vampires are monsters, parasites who kill to live, and this movie never lets us forget it, even as the vampires go about their dirty deeds in a series of scenes of escalating violence that culminates in a massacre in a highway diner that shows off both the deadly style that the vampires exude as skilled, enthusiastic killers and the terrible, senseless brutality of what it is that they do.

Best of all, the movie plays out a happy ending to its love story, one that does not require the monstrous to be somehow vindicated or diluted, quite to the contrary. This is a horror story that does not have difficulty in telling apart the horrific and the human, and for that alone it is worth viewing, despite a few flaws.