Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Woods of Blood and Words

In his essay on horror fiction, H.P. Lovecraft devotes many words to Ambrose Bierce. One of those words are to call him "uneven" but mostly Lovecraft heaps praise on Bierce. The Ambrose Bierce story included in H.P. Lovecraft Selects is "The Death of Halpin Frayser", another story which seems to bleed out from the edges of its simple premise. "Bleed" definitely being the operative word for this fascinating, gory, dreamlike tale.

The Halpin Frayser of the title is a young man from Tennessee who moves to California, a weird point of identification for me because I was born in Tennessee and moved to California as a child. Halpin moved as an adult, though, after a youth spent with a mother with whom he shared a peculiar attachment.

In these two romantic natures was manifest in a signal way that neglected phenomenon, the dominance of the sexual element in all the relations of life, strengthening, softening, and beautifying even those of consanguinity. The two were nearly inseparable, and by strangers observing their manners were not infrequently mistaken for lovers.

But the story begins with Halpin wandering in the woods of Napa, beholding terrible and strange visions of blood that culminate in a walking corpse.

It was now long after nightfall, yet the interminable forest through which he journeyed was lit with a wan glimmer having no point of diffusion, for in its mysterious lumination nothing cast a shadow. A shallow pool in the guttered depression of an old wheel rut, as from a recent rain, met his eye with a crimson gleam. He stooped and plunged his hand into it. It stained his fingers; it was blood! Blood, he then observed, was about him everywhere.

All this actually ties into a murder mystery but Bierce avoids any attempt at contriving a plot, instead intriguingly leaving us with significant points, arranged seemingly at random but with a really great sense of dreamlike significance. It's a fascinating and disturbing tale and it's impossible for the reader not to compulsively allow his or her imagination to wander through disturbing paths in scrutinising it.

Twitter Sonnet #1297

Committed sports combine to make a box.
A timer clicked to one before the twelve.
A siding shed informs as manner talks.
In deeper grapes the seedless slowly delve.
An endless row of boards create the track.
As keys became the nails to hold the dirt.
A slowly drifting car was coming back.
Completed trains again redress the hurt.
A crispy bag contained forgotten salt.
Desired space approached the drying moon.
As water pulled the thick and soupy malt.
As travel took the driver further soon.
A dirty table holds the only drink.
The hope of scones began to sink.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A Hard Mask

The premise of and creative team behind The Mandalorian, the new live action Star Wars series, seem both very safe and very risky; a story set after Return of the Jedi with familiar original trilogy aliens and atmosphere showrun by the man who effectively launched the MCU, Jon Favreau. On the other hand, it centres on an aloof character who never shows his face or gives his name and who, in the first episode, has few interactions with other characters that aren't business transactions. Mainly, the first episode works and works well but with the absence of vulnerable character moments it may not feel as though it gains quite the traction one expects from prestige television nowadays.

The show's been likened to a Spaghetti Western by critics and by members of the creative team. The Mandalorian armour was first made famous by Boba Fett in the original trilogy, a character George Lucas based on Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name in a trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone. Boba's father, Jango Fett, was named after Django, a popular character in a long series of Spaghetti Westerns before he manifested as Jamie Foxx for Quentin Tarantino. Any movie or series based on the mysterious bounty hunter would inevitably have shades of Spaghetti Western. The Mandalorian lacks the heights of weirdness and brutality that made Spaghetti Westerns so remarkable, though. There's no Franco Nero dragging a coffin through the desert or Giuliano Gemma tauntingly aiding a garrulous gang of Mexican bandits accompanied by a strange Ennio Morricone theme. Pedro Pascal successfully conveys some warmth through that helmet but he's not as eerie as Boba Fett, as amusing as Ringo, or mysterious as the Man with No Name. He may be closest to Charles Bronson's character in Once Upon a Time in the West. Unlike Boba Fett, Pascal's character, Dyn Jarren, has a clear reverence for Mandalorian culture which we can see when he has a new piece of his armour ritually forged from a lump of precious metal he collects from a client. It would be nice if this comes along with a personal code like that exhibited by western heroes.

The supporting cast is great. Werner Herzog improbably plays a man who seems like he might be a former Imperial. Nick Nolte plays a character who seems loosely based on the tavern owner from Yojimbo (a film that served as inspiration for A Fistful of Dollars). It's great casting. The presence of Carl Weathers is also a nice touch.

The first episode is directed by Dave Filoni, best known as the supervising director of Clone Wars, a show on which, coincidentally, Jon Favreau voiced a traitorous Mandalorian. Rebels, a follow-up cgi series created by Dave Filoni after Disney acquired Star Wars, demonstrated pretty decisively that whatever element made Clone Wars so great, it wasn't Dave Filoni (I suspect it was George Lucas). Filoni does an adequate job directing the first episode of The Mandalorian but he's vastly indebted to cinematographer Greig Fraser, the same cinematographer that gave Rogue One such a memorable look.

So Favreau has, in some ways, a self contradictory mission; he's made a character who can be the mystery that Boba Fett can no longer be but he needs this character to be the emotional anchor of a series. I'll certainly be watching to find out how he well he succeeds.

The Mandalorian is available on Disney+.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Chasing the Werewolf

The second of two stories called "The Were-Wolf" in H.P. Lovecraft Selects is by Clemence Housman from 1896. Housman uses the werewolf as a very natural and effective inspiration for a story about identity.

In his essay on horror fiction, from whence the collection of stories is drawn, Lovecraft wrote, "Clemence Housman, in the brief novelette “The Were-wolf”, attains a high degree of gruesome tension and achieves to some extent the atmosphere of authentic folklore." This last part is certainly true from the beginning which is the description of a community by fireside from the point of view of a child. Already the tale provides an example of a human behaving as an animal when the boy is described as preferring to crawl on all fours. But the story doesn't centre on him, instead focusing on a pair of mighty brothers--Sweyn, whose prowess in almost everything is unsurpassed, and Christian, who alone can run faster than Sweyn.

The werewolf is a woman in white fur who charms everyone but Christian. I was surprised how similar this wolf woman was to the one in Marryatt's story--another very beautiful woman in white fur.

The woman being taken as a benevolent wonder by everyone else in the community is mirrored by growing distrust in Christian on the part of his brother. If the name "Christian" makes you think the story's going in the direction of a fairly obvious Christian allegory, I'm afraid you'd be right. But before Housman gets to that point she describes a fascinating chase scene when the woman, White Fell, tests Christian's famous speed. They seem to run through snow and woods for several nights and Christian starts to get delirious;

He grew bewildered, uncertain of his own identity, doubting of his own true form. He could not be really a man, no more than that running Thing was really a woman; his real form was only hidden under embodiment of a man, but what it was he did not know. And Sweyn's real form he did not know. Sweyn lay fallen at his feet, where he had struck him down—his own brother—he: he stumbled over him, and had to overleap him and race harder because she who had kissed Sweyn leapt so fast. "Sweyn, Sweyn, O Sweyn!"

This does have the flavour of folklore though with maybe too much of an analytic edge. And with descriptions of crushed limbs and blood it's about as gruesome as Lovecraft said, too.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Marxist Moon

Once upon a time, setting foot on the moon really mattered to Americans. The technological and cultural milestone was bound up with an existential conflict with the Soviet Union. For All Mankind, the new series by Ronald D. Moore, imagines an alternate timeline where the Soviets beat the U.S. to it. I'm one episode in and so far the effect of this is mainly to illustrate the reality of a national pride, of a group of people who felt a real personal attachment to their country's system of government, economy, and way of life. It's a good show--not Battlestar Galactica great but pretty good.

So far the drama has mostly centred on the people at NASA as they struggle with their own feelings of profound failure the wake of the U.S.S.R.'s suddenly announced accomplishment. And the first Cosmonaut on the moon's pronouncement of the feat as a victory for Marxism.

Joel Kinnamen plays Edward Baldwin, a test pilot who chafes at what he sees as NASA's lack of courage coming to fruition. He lands in hot water when he says as much to a reporter in a bar.

Kinnaman gives a decent, smouldering performance but so far I've been most drawn to Colm Feore as Wernher von Braun who comes across as a surprisingly warm and insightful character when he advises a young woman working for NASA (Wrenn Schmidt) on how to be more assertive.

Ronald D. Moore has lately been occupying his time as showrunner on Outlander, a good show until all the rape got a bit repetitive. For All Mankind feels like Moore returning to his Star Trek roots. It's almost like an extended time travel episode of Deep Space Nine, and I like it.

For All Mankind is available on Apple TV.

Twitter Sonnet #1296

A post it lasts for years before it sticks.
Between the wall and pony shelter formed.
Beneath the snow a stubborn clock sill ticks.
The cold persuades the toes they've really warmed.
A segment missed includes the puzzle whole.
A timer stopped a televised repast.
The story swept within the salad bowl.
And soon the velvet coat's become surpassed.
A split delay increased the pea to pods.
Remembered soup occasioned supper calls.
The nukes await the special stripey rods.
In yellow shirts the men ascend the walls.
A milkless oat returned for toasted egg.
The arms and hands were broke to save a leg.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Getting Blood from or for a Stone

I think I've written about Stones of Blood, a Doctor Who serial from 1978, a couple times now. I love the gloomy Cornwall atmosphere mixed with some mildly absurd comedy. The Wikipedia entry for the serial quotes one reviewer as saying the first two episodes have a Hammeresque quality that the final two episodes lack, presumably because they focus more on futuristic sets, lingo, and comedy. It seems like a lot of Doctor Who serials follow that trajectory, though, starting with weird atmosphere and ending with technical explanations and solutions; The Mind Robber, to a certain extent The Horror of Fang Rock and The Web of Fear. It's nice when a serial manages to hold to the atmosphere all the way through but The Stones of Blood is still a delight.

I actually fell asleep halfway through Part I this time and slowly woke up in the middle of Part II to see the dark shape of Tom Baker with K-9 wandering across the garden of an old manor house.

The disorientation was kind of a lovely way to experience the episode and I didn't quite know what was happening when the Doctor entered a wrecked drawing room with wood panelling, littered with twisted corpses.

Another thing I love about this serial is Beatrix Lehmann as Professor Rumford, there investigating the strange standing stones at Boscombe Moor. This was to be her final television role--she passed away the following year--and she's in top form in her dialogue with Tom Baker, switching between incredulity, wit, bewilderment, and erudition.

It's also nice to see Mary Tamm again. I'm more of a Romana II fan but Tamm has a kind of serenity in her snootiness that plays off Baker really well.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Unethically Sourced Fluids

There always seems to be a catch with pleasure planets in space operas. On Farscape, it turns out to be a drug trade that involves kidnapping and "milking" party goers of precious fluids. Where's Sterling Hayden when you need him?

Season Three, Episode Thirteen: Scratch and Sniff

I'm referring to his role in Doctor Strangelove but it may have been appropriate to refer to one of the films noir he was in as this episode was, according to the wiki, originally meant to have a noir vibe by writer Lily Taylor. Unfortunately, director Tony Tilse opted for a Trainspotting pastiche that has not aged well.

After having been temporarily kicked off Moya by Pilot (Lani Tupu) for arguing too much, Crichton (Ben Browder) and D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) end up in a bar with Chiana (Gigi Edgley) and Jool (Tammy MacIntosh) tagging along. Lots of party music with brass instruments and peculiar edits set the tone of a comedic episode. But after Crichton and D'Argo get rolled by a couple of unscrupulous dames, they meet a mysterious alien named Raxil (Francesca Buller, Ben Browder's wife in yet another role) who tells them Chiana and Jool are in danger.

One of the highlights of the episode is the weird mantis alien Raxil takes the boys to see. It's another of Farscape's famous scenes of people's eyes getting messed with, this time it's tentacles that show recordings. A side effect is that it allows D'Argo to see Harvey (Wayne Pygram) when both D'Argo and Crichton are plugged into the tentacles, a moment that's kind of amusing but with no real pay off.

The plot is a bit reminiscent of The Big Sleep, which was also the basis for The Big Lebowski, but the choice to go a comedy route here just deflates the tension with nothing especially funny to replace it. It's a shame because the previous episode by Lily Taylor, "A Clockwork Nebari", is so good and she didn't get another chance to write for the show after this.

. . .

Farscape is available now on Amazon Prime.

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here (episodes are in the order intended by the show's creators rather than the broadcast order):

Season One:

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.
Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis
Episode 4: Throne for a Loss
Episode 5: Back and Back and Back to the Future
Episode 6: Thank God It's Friday Again
Episode 7: PK Tech Girl
Episode 8: That Old Black Magic
Episode 9: DNA Mad Scientist
Episode 10: They've Got a Secret
Episode 11: Till the Blood Runs Clear
Episode 12: Rhapsody in Blue
Episode 13: The Flax
Episode 14: Jeremiah Crichton
Episode 15: Durka Returns
Episode 16: A Human Reaction
Episode 17: Through the Looking Glass
Episode 18: A Bug's Life
Episode 19: Nerve
Episode 20: The Hidden Memory
Episode 21: Bone to be Wild
Episode 22: Family Ties

Season Two:

Episode 1: Mind the Baby
Episode 2: Vitas Mortis
Episode 3: Taking the Stone
Episode 4: Crackers Don't Matter
Episode 5: Picture If You Will
Episode 6: The Way We Weren't
Episode 7: Home on the Remains
Episode 8: Dream a Little Dream
Episode 9: Out of Their Minds
Episode 10: My Three Crichtons
Episode 11: Look at the Princess, Part I: A Kiss is But a Kiss
Episode 12: Look at the Princess, Part II: I Do, I Think
Episode 13: Look at the Princess, Part III: The Maltese Crichton
Episode 14: Beware of Dog
Episode 15: Won't Get Fooled Again
Episode 16: The Locket
Episode 17: The Ugly Truth
Episode 18: A Clockwork Nebari
Episode 19: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part I: A Not So Simple Plan
Episode 20: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part II: With Friends Like These . . .
Episode 21: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part III: Plan B
Episode 22: Die Me, Dichotomy

Season Three:

Episode 1: Season of Death
Episode 2: Suns and Lovers
Episode 3: Self-Inflicted Wounds, Part I: Would'a, Could'a, Should'a
Episode 4: Self-Inflicted Wounds, Part II: Wait for the Wheel
Episode 5: . . . Different Destinations
Episode 6: Eat Me
Episode 7: Thanks for Sharing
Episode 8: Green Eyed Monster
Episode 9: Losing Time
Episode 10: Relativity
Episode 11: Incubator
Episode 12: Meltdown

Friday, November 08, 2019

Ghostly Conveyance

Despite the Halloween season being over, I've kept up reading H.P. Lovecraft Selects, a collection of stories drawn from Lovecraft's famous essay on supernatural horror. To-day I read Rudyard Kipling's "The Phantom 'Rickshaw". Lovecraft describes Kipling as approaching greatness despite "omnipresent mannerisms". These may be the pervasive bits of local colour Kipling is famous for and it is a great and subtle addition to the story of a man seeing his dead lover stalking him in a 'rickshaw. That one element of strangeness is made the more striking for the abundant evidence of the author's casual familiarity with the reality of the place.

This piece of window dressing even comes to the fore as the story's narrator tries to use it as a tool to keep himself sane;

Two or three times I found myself saying to myself almost aloud: “I’m Jack Pansay on leave at Simla—at Simla! Everyday, ordinary Simla. I mustn’t forget that—I mustn’t forget that.” Then I would try to recollect some of the gossip I had heard at the Club: the prices of So-and-So’s horses—anything, in fact, that related to the workaday Anglo-Indian world I knew so well. I even repeated the multiplication-table rapidly to myself, to make quite sure that I was not taking leave of my senses.

As for the story itself, the poetic justice of a man undone by the ghost of a woman he so cruelly spurned isn't as satisfying as it is horrific. There's a surface of a basic, functioning morality--man does wrong, man gets punished--but the strangeness of it against the authenticity of the location emphasises a dreamlike quality in the proceedings. She may indeed be a manifestation of the narrator's conscious or self-loathing. It's an effective story at any rate.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Gradual Exits

Listening to a Lord of the Rings audiobook is a really good thing to while spending a long week moving out of an apartment. I've been doing a lot of driving lately and for the most part it's been while listening to how Frodo makes up his mind to give up his home and go on a dangerous journey. Those whose exposure to Lord of the Rings is entirely through the movies might not realise just how much time transpires between Bilbo's sudden departure and Frodo actually leaving the Shire. Peter Jackson did a lot of condensing for the sake of cinematic tension but I love the more gradual process in the book.

Frodo has to sell his house, Bag End, to a branch of the Baggins family he and Bilbo have never gotten along with. Many of Bilbo and Frodo's belongings end up at Merry's home where the four hobbits enjoy one of several final meals before heading out. Conventional wisdom might say this is a terrible way to begin an adventure novel but for me it has two virtues; it emphasises the sense of danger in what comes later, by contrast, and it celebrates the joy of staying in one place with a bunch of stuff even as it a portrait of that state of being passing away. Or maybe because of it. It's very mono no aware. Even after the cheering meal at Farmer Maggot's, the cheering meal and bath at Merry's, the cheering meal at Tom Bombadil's, and the cheering meal at the Prancing Pony (with various minor terrors in between), there's this lovely moment of foreboding and regret as Frodo stands on Weathertop with Aragorn;

They stood for a while silent on the hill-top, near its southward edge. In that lonely place Frodo for the first time fully realized his homelessness and danger. He wished bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire. He stared down at the hateful Road, leading back westward - to his home.

. . .

Twitter Sonnet #1295

Absorbing lanes constrict to river realms.
A valley drew the kingdom lines in rock.
A web of roads creates the stymied elms.
An inky page completes the paper lock.
Effective clamps restore the batt'ry spoon.
Electric forks afford the crispy bite.
A blender weds the oven very soon.
The younger saucers watch throughout the night.
In iris clouds remembered lamps recede.
A gentle ticking minds a crossing eye.
Beneath the canvas, muddy shoes proceed.
A thousand grains converge to make the pie.
Contrasting suns combined to make a lamp.
Compelling stars submerged in ether damp.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Moving Pictures

I don't remember if I ever posted this. It's a big, about three and a half feet wide, colour pencil illustration of my characters Boschen and Nesuko I did in high school at one point, in 1995 or '96. I used to love using colour pencil on black paper. For those familiar with the comic, The Adventures of Boschen and Nesuko, which I began around nine years later, obviously the characters went through some pretty extensive design changes. I grew out of liking guns and grew to prefer swords and Nesuko's preferences adjusted accordingly. I also developed a dislike for denim.

I'm in the process of moving out of my apartment and into a room at my sister and brother-in-law's place, which is why I've been going through artwork I haven't gone through in years. I'm having to get rid of a lot of things. I still have a lot to do in between my morning and night jobs so I might have even less time for blog posts over the next few days. Hopefully I'll have more time for sleep.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Varied Inhabitants

A special Sirenia Digest came out a few days ago, one containing a new story, "Refugees", about Caitlin R. Kiernan's albino monster hunter, Dancy Flammarion. Though this popular character has appeared in prose and comics now for over fifteen years, it's unusual to see her in the Sirenia Digest, and in a full story, too, not a vignette. And it's a particularly good one.

Told in non-linear first person, "Refugees" gracefully weaves in and out of dream logic. Dancy encountering an ogre or an undead bird is solid and fascinating fantasy but shifts from a vision of herself flying with big, black wings and witnessing a party of monsters dancing to "The Ballad of Casey Jones" on a freight train contain the kind of crossed wires of rational thinking typically characteristic of dream logic. Much as the appeal of Alice in Alice in Wonderland is the character's unfailing but idiosyncratic sensibility, Dancy, as ever, ploughs ahead despite her fear and her own evident contradictions.

The final section of the story, taking place in a decrepit house inhabited by the titular "Refugees" could be seen as an ode to one of Caitlin's favourite books, The House of Leaves, and also as a fascinating commentary on the underlying psychology of American cultural history. Instead of simply the ideal of the huddled masses welcomed to American shores, the house Dancy ends up in encompasses a menagerie of dreams and ways of interpreting the world and the hostess represents not a theoretical future but the pre-Civil War south. The subtle link drawn between the house's inhabitants serves as a fascinating commentary on the history of cultural suffering and how it's often interpreted, or not interpreted.

And it's wonderfully atmospheric for those wish to go no farther than the surface of something which may or may not have been intended to be symbolic. A really nice story.

Monday, November 04, 2019

That Old Emily Dickinson Glamour

Emily Dickinson was famously reclusive, eccentric, and a bit odd. But Apple+'s new series, Dickinson, imagines what it would have been like if Dickinson came off like a well adjusted, charismatic pop singer. Hailee Steinfeld plays a vivacious, brazenly rebellious version of Dickinson for those who want their great, 19th century poets to be a little more like Kim Possible. A series with period costume but modern diction, the show's energetic and many of the actors are cute but comparisons drawn between and now and the 19th century in terms of social and political issues are ham fisted and annoying. The bigger issue is the problem inherent in trying to turn the life of Emily Dickinson into Saved by the Bell. I'm only judging from one episode but so far it's pretty dispiriting.

A part of me does think, maybe this is good. Maybe this is a way to get young people interested in literature or even, god forbid, anything older than fifteen years. But it's not just the past that's obscured and distorted with something like this. The problems a socially awkward person faces go beyond the saturated colours of music video vamping. A young woman who does not like to leave her room is not likely to engage in the kind of lively banter with every hot guy and girl in the neighbourhood in the manner Steinfeld's version demonstrates.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Is this the girl who responded to her mother with an abrupt, "Bullshit!" at the beginning of the first episode?

Well, so maybe it's not for me, maybe it's not for anyone who one would think would best like a series about Emily Dickinson. But maybe a resulting line of fashion accessories and memes, as a slantwise promotion, would be a net good? I guess I may as well hope so.

Twitter Sonnet #1294

Behind the face moustaches grew awry.
The deepest spine could dine at early dawn.
The organ tube at last could just comply.
A suite of games obscures the grassy lawn.
Assorted salads seem to sock the face.
A lettuce slap imputes the greenest palm.
In tumble stairs the weeds descend a place.
The night remains in shards of scattered calm.
A cheeseless day rewards the tumbled foal.
Barrettes encumber carts in fact'ry steel.
As sculpted soap the golems carry coal.
Condensed bananas hide a fruitless meal.
A tally took of ceiling leaves was fruit.
The flower shrinks to make a tiny suit.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Interminable Progress of the Doctor

Whenever you're slogging through some seemingly hopeless, endless task, just remember the time on Doctor Who when the Doctor was stuck in a castle for billions of years. I found myself in the mood for the Twelfth Doctor episode "Heaven Sent" last night, an episode with an impressive, almost entirely solo performance from Peter Capaldi as he tries to work out the nature of his strange, shifting castle prison.

Following the death of Clara in the previous episode, the Doctor finds himself forced to deal with that loss while also dealing with his strange, solitary predicament. It's an appropriate story for grief with the two-fold sense of isolation in the absence of a loved one and the absence of anyone who can truly appreciate the depth of feeling in the loss.

Much of the performance, of course, is monologue, though in some of it the Doctor pretends to be talking to Clara in his mind. He remarks on how no-one remembers their birth or their death, a comment, like many other comments he makes throughout the episode, that will take on another significance when the mystery of the place is revealed.

A story about living with grief becomes a story about living with living as the Doctor discovers just how difficult his task is. The fact that it doesn't drive him mad is surely a testament to his fortitude. He claims at the end of the episode to remember all the time he spent in the prison in spite of a key point in the plot being that he constantly has to perform the same investigation over and over, make the same confessions over and over, because he doesn't remember. I wonder if the memories all came back in an instant at the end, which must have been like a cannonball to the head, or if he just discovered a part of his brain where they'd been accumulating.

I like the idea of the Doctor having to expend the energy of a past self to create a new self who is very like the old self, and I like that undergoing this process seems to cause a subtle, accumulating strain. In the modern conversation about the past needing to die to make room for a future, it's nice to see a story that shows, whether that's really necessary or not, the exchange is painful and comes with profound, incalculable loss. At one point the Doctor wonders why he can't just rest, just lose this once. I can hardly blame him for feeling that way which makes his success all the more admirable.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Attractive Suns

Farscape takes its young, living gunship straight towards a sun in an episode that dwells on physical compulsion and death. Talyn's deadly trajectory occurs while gases released aboard the ship stimulate appetites and while Stark encounters a strange, beautiful alien.

Season Three, Episode Twelve: Meltdown

Stark (Paul Goddard) is the most central character in this episode and it uses to good effect his ability to help dead spirits cross over to the afterlife. The episode also advances another character trait, one introduced earlier in the season--his loneliness.

He's the kind of guy who tends to become utterly devoted to the woman he likes, in this case Sierjna (Susan Lyons), a woman who suddenly materialises in the corridor with Stark when Talyn is in dangerous proximity to a star. His devotion to her comes partly from the fact that she's dead and doesn't realise it. As a Stykera, his power and his function is to help ferry dead souls to their destination so his protective feelings for her are bound up with his lifelong duty.

Meanwhile, on the bridge, Crichton (Ben Browder), Aeryn (Claudia Black), and Crais (Lani Tupu) encounter a being with a less friendly appearance--a guy who looks like a lava demon named Mu-Quillus (Mark Mitchell).

Another real triumph from the makeup department. He presents a story about how he's an innocent bystander of a "siren" phenomenon in the nearby stars that draws in and kills Leviathons. No-one trusts him, especially not Crais, whose been made extra murderous by a fog that the damaged Talyn is leaking from his conduits. The same fog has given Rygel (Jonathan Hardy) a dangerously insatiable hunger and has made Crichton and Aeryn extremely horny, a state neither of them seem to mind so much if it weren't distracting them from handling the current crisis.

This nicely develops the season arc about Crichton and Aeryn's relationship but the real centre of the episode is Stark. It's a good science fiction show that so successful blends different conceptual threads for its stories and this mysterious set-up with ethereal beings around a sun lends itself to a fascinating use of Stark's character.

. . .

Farscape is available now on Amazon Prime.

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here (episodes are in the order intended by the show's creators rather than the broadcast order):

Season One:

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.
Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis
Episode 4: Throne for a Loss
Episode 5: Back and Back and Back to the Future
Episode 6: Thank God It's Friday Again
Episode 7: PK Tech Girl
Episode 8: That Old Black Magic
Episode 9: DNA Mad Scientist
Episode 10: They've Got a Secret
Episode 11: Till the Blood Runs Clear
Episode 12: Rhapsody in Blue
Episode 13: The Flax
Episode 14: Jeremiah Crichton
Episode 15: Durka Returns
Episode 16: A Human Reaction
Episode 17: Through the Looking Glass
Episode 18: A Bug's Life
Episode 19: Nerve
Episode 20: The Hidden Memory
Episode 21: Bone to be Wild
Episode 22: Family Ties

Season Two:

Episode 1: Mind the Baby
Episode 2: Vitas Mortis
Episode 3: Taking the Stone
Episode 4: Crackers Don't Matter
Episode 5: Picture If You Will
Episode 6: The Way We Weren't
Episode 7: Home on the Remains
Episode 8: Dream a Little Dream
Episode 9: Out of Their Minds
Episode 10: My Three Crichtons
Episode 11: Look at the Princess, Part I: A Kiss is But a Kiss
Episode 12: Look at the Princess, Part II: I Do, I Think
Episode 13: Look at the Princess, Part III: The Maltese Crichton
Episode 14: Beware of Dog
Episode 15: Won't Get Fooled Again
Episode 16: The Locket
Episode 17: The Ugly Truth
Episode 18: A Clockwork Nebari
Episode 19: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part I: A Not So Simple Plan
Episode 20: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part II: With Friends Like These . . .
Episode 21: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part III: Plan B
Episode 22: Die Me, Dichotomy

Season Three:

Episode 1: Season of Death
Episode 2: Suns and Lovers
Episode 3: Self-Inflicted Wounds, Part I: Would'a, Could'a, Should'a
Episode 4: Self-Inflicted Wounds, Part II: Wait for the Wheel
Episode 5: . . . Different Destinations
Episode 6: Eat Me
Episode 7: Thanks for Sharing
Episode 8: Green Eyed Monster
Episode 9: Losing Time
Episode 10: Relativity
Episode 11: Incubator

Friday, November 01, 2019

The Neighbourhood Devil

Over the past five or six years, I've been nursing along at a deliberately slow pace W.B. Yeats' Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. An 1888 collection of tales and poems by various authors, I have a 1986 edition with the original illustrations. The book is divided into sections for different creatures and characters in Irish folklore--like ghosts, giants, witches, and various kinds of fairies. Leading up to Halloween, I read the section on the Devil. This section consists of just four stories.

The first is a very short story from Lady Wilde (mother of Oscar) called "The Demon Cat" about a cat who turns out to be the Devil. This is determined by the fact that the cat is always stealing fish from an old woman;

"Away, out of this, you wicked beast," she cried, giving it a blow with the tongs that would have broken its back, only it was a devil; "out of this; no fish shall you have to-day."

All the stories have a clear moral, particularly "The Countess Kathleen O'Shea" from an unknown author. But the best story is also the last and the longest, "The Three Wishes" by W. Carleton. Like many of the best stories in the book, it roams with a bracing freedom from one topic to another. Its anti-hero is a lazy rogue named Billy Dawson. Carleton uses a conversational tone in his narrative, unrestrained in a peculiarly Irish form of rapid irony;

Billy, to do him justice, improved the fortune he got: every day advanced him farther into dishonesty and poverty, until, at the long run, he was acknowledged on all hands to be the completest swindler and the poorest vagabond in the whole parish.

The story begins like one moralistic tale and then shifts gears and turns into another, the consistent theme being that Billy just never learns. The tone helps make the shifts in direction even funnier as when Billy's equally disreputable wife gets involved in his verbal sparring with the Devil.

[Billy] was one morning industriously engaged in a quarrel with his wife, who, with a three-legged stool in her hand, appeared to mistake his head for his own anvil; he, in the meantime, paid his addresses to her with his leather apron, when who steps in to jog his memory about the little agreement that was between them, but old Nick. The wife, it seems, in spite of all her exertions to the contrary, was getting the worst of it; and Sir Nicholas, willing to appear a gentleman of great gallantry, thought he could not do less than take up the lady's quarrel, particularly as Bill had laid her in a sleeping posture. Now Satan thought this too bad; and as he felt himself under many obligations to the sex, he determined to defend one of them on the present occasion; so as Judy rose, he turned upon the husband, and floored him by a clever facer.

"You unmanly villain," said he, "is this the way you treat your wife? 'Pon honour, Bill, I'll chastise you on the spot. I could not stand by, a spectator of such ungentlemanly conduct without giving up all claim to gallant——" Whack! the word was divided in his mouth by the blow of a churn-staff from Judy, who no sooner saw Bill struck, than she nailed Satan, who "fell" once more.

"What, you villain! that's for striking my husband like a murderer behind his back," said Judy, and she suited the action to the word, "that's for interfering between man and wife. Would you murder the poor man before my face? eh? If he bates me, you shabby dog you, who has a better right? I'm sure it's nothing out of your pocket. Must you have your finger in every pie?"

As you can tell, most of these narrative shifts involve taking the story to new depths of wrongness, mostly involving the limitless depths of Billy's shameless depravity. It's not from the Devil he gets his three wishes but from a hidden saint for whom Billy actually does a good deed only to exasperate the saint by totally forgetting to wish for anything that might keep himself, his wife, and his children fed. It's an impressive highwire act of foolishness.

Twitter Sonnet #1293

Across the icy night a station waits.
A crimson jelly glow infects the frost.
A blinking light illumes the broken gates.
Collected ghosts assess the worldly cost.
The glowing bar bespoke the demon nut.
A candy gift requites the threat of trick.
Collected masks combine in darkened hut.
About the visions phantom flames'll lick.
The pumpkins sink again beneath the lids.
The sleepy ghost resumed its sleeping grace.
A bucket filled with watches stumped the kids.
But truest treat is extra time and place.
A steady troop of sleepy blades ascend.
On aging grass recumbent thoughts descend.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Unbustable Film

Happy Halloween, everyone. I haven't had as much time this month for horror movies as I usually do but this morning I found myself watching Ghostbusters during breakfast, by which I mean the original 1984 film. I wonder if anyone rewatches the reboot. Why has every attempt to follow up on the original film been unsuccessful? It seems a question worth asking considering yet another attempt has just finished shooting. Directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original film's director, Ivan Reitman, and a successful filmmaker in his own right, the new film looks to be avoiding the controversy of backtracking on the all female reboot by making a family the central focus, a mother and her kids.

I hope it's a good movie but I suspect it'll miss the mark once again. If it's a good movie, it'll be a very different kind of good movie than the original film. Ghostbusters has always been a fantasy but a story where children are the heroes is a fundamentally different kind of fantasy. In such stories, children typically need to act more like adults or the world around them has to make allowances for them being children or the story has to be something in between. Central to the success of the original film, that every subsequent film has missed, is the credible feeling of the world of adults. The first half moves at such a fast pace with some kind of rough spots--like the transition in the beginning from the theme song over the title to Venkman administering his ESP test. It gives the film a natural feel, quick and dirty, miraculous given its budget. The idea of such an unprecedented film getting made to-day seems impossible. The pace and roughness gives the film an incidentally personal quality--one senses the characters talk about taxes and mortgages and New York dialect as much because these things were intimately familiar to the filmmakers as for any other reason. And they're adult issues--they're the problems of people trying to navigate life in the city without a roadmap or a safety net.

A few weeks ago, I was watching a video by a YouTuber named Lindsay Ellis (whose videos on the Hobbit movies are really good) who points to a fundamentally 80s capitalist message in the film. It's true, it's a story about a bunch of guys who start a new business and become wildly successful. Of course, when I was a child, I didn't think of it that way. I just remember thinking how great it was these funny guys beat the scary ghosts and demons. But if that's all a kid sees, why didn't kids like the 2016 film as much? Well, there are a whole lot of other reasons. But I think you could say that the kids respond better when the filmmakers feel personally connected to the story, even if the kids don't understand why.

A strictly economic reading of Ghostbusters is a mistake, in any case, as narrow applications of critical theory usually are. Any good work of art is too much of an interplay of details, too much of a tapestry for a single thread to be pulled out alone. More generally, I think it's a movie about faith. I was stuck on the line from the Ghostbusters's commercial--"We're ready to believe you." I can imagine that really being comforting for someone who just saw a demon in their refrigerator like Dana Barrett did. The team of guys would certainly know all about that after having been kicked out of the university because the administration doesn't believe in them. One of the reasons Bill Murray's performance works so well is that it reads as a kind of masochism coexisting with hope. That scene where he almost sings talking to Ray about how they're going to get the money--he sounds encouraging but also like he's laughing at himself slightly and at poor Ray. It's actually kind of a beautiful leap of faith moment because you can see that it's not a blind leap. Venkman is no fanatic.

It's hard to imagine the new film supporting an emotional subtext like that. But I guess I'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Communicating Sexual Problems with Cat Symbols

You have to keep an eye on sexuality or it'll turn into a leopard and kill you. 1957's Cat Girl is essentially a British remake of the 1942 American film Cat People but, while the original film is about dangerous repression, Cat Girl is more about the dangers of no repression. The 1942 film is superior for its subtlety and for not being married to a specific interpretation but Cat Girl has some terrific mood and a sweet performance by Barbara Shelley in the lead. Certainly, too, its warning against the idea of throwing aside sexual restraint is a worthy message.

Leonora (Shelley) travels with her husband, Richard (Jack May), to an old country estate she's about to inherit. It turns out she's also going to inherit a curse giving her a strange connexion to large carnivorous felines.

Her uncle, Edmund (Ernest Milton), takes her into a room where she was forbidden to play as a child. In there, he introduces her to the leopard he keeps caged. The dialogue in this scene is very difficult not to interpret a certain way:

EDMUND: "Touch it, Leonora. Let it know the the feel of your hand. It will be the servant of your mind and the strength of your body. Touch it!"

LEONORA: "No! I can't! I won't!"

EDMUND: "Touch it!"

Leonora pets the leopard's head gently.

EDMUND: "Do you not feel as it feels? Lithe and savage?"

Edmund is impressed by her ability to control the animal already but he warns her the family line needs to die out here. He tells her not to have any children or they're liable to become killing machines.

When we were introduced to Leonora earlier in a diner with her husband and their friend, Cathy (Patricia Webster), Leonora had seemed a bit of a wet blanket in her conservative attire, irritated by her husband's urging her to relax. Cathy is shown, by contrast, happily dancing for the men assembled. Where Simone Simon in Cat People had to deal with physical frustration as her husband was busy having chaste meet-ups with his female co-worker, Barbara Shelley has to deal with her husband's not so subtle, constant lust for a promiscuous bobby-soxer.

For some reason, when they arrive at the mansion, Edmund insists Barbara occupy a single room, alone. It's clear later why, because of his secret motives, but it's a little surprising no-one wonders why Leonora and her husband can't share a bed that clearly has room for two.

Also surprising is Leonora's choice to sleep naked, the first real sign that there are hidden sexual depths in this woman.

Murders occur much earlier in this film than in Cat People and the latter half of the film involves a psychiatrist, Dr. Marlowe (Robert Ayres), trying to convince Leonora she's not turning into a cat and killing people. Ayres' performance is so gruff and kind of mean it's almost funny. It seems impossible this guy doesn't see how lousy his bedside manner is. I couldn't blame Leonora for feeling frustrated with him--less understandable is the fact that she wants to fuck him. The subtext seems to be that, having had the normal psycho-sexual barriers destroyed by her uncle, Leonora wants to express her passions sexually or murderously. Shelley gives such a good performance that you feel really bad for her predicament. A final sequence where she stalks Dr. Marlowe's wife (Kay Callard) is clearly meant to be a splashier version of Cat People's famous walking chase scene and is less effective because Leonora has become a simplistic villain at that point. But I don't think the film's entirely wrong in its comment on sexual confusion. Cat People centres on a woman who wants to express her sexuality only with one man and can't understand his lack of sensitivity to her ideas of loyalty. Cat Girl is much more about the legacy of abuse and manages to distinguish itself from Cat People pretty well that way.

Cat Girl is available on Amazon Prime.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Things the River May Conceal

Sometimes less really is more. This is demonstrated by the juxtaposition of two stories in H.P. Lovecraft Selects, the collection of stories drawn from Lovecraft's famous essay on supernatural horror. "The Waters of Death" by Erckmann-Chatrian and "On the River" by Guy de Maupassant are both stories about death in water but while the former involves numerous corpses and eventually a giant spider and pyrotechnics, the latter story involves little more than one man's almost inexplicably troubled night alone, stuck in his boat on the Seine.

Often horror fiction achieves effect by crafting a train of thought. Like the suggestion planted by the discussion of terrible things at the beginning of "What Was It?" or the protagonist's feelings of isolation and displacement in Carnival of Souls. Many good horror writers have realised the dread of the anticipated horror is more effective than the completely random appearance of a new horror. Still, leading up to the appearance of a giant spider crab with the characters in "Waters of Death" talking about how much they're afraid of spider crabs may have been a bit too on the nose. In that essay on horror, Lovecraft has only this to say about that particular story:

“The Owl’s Ear” and “The Waters of Death” are full of engulfing darkness and mystery, the latter embodying the familiar overgrown-spider theme so frequently employed by weird fictionists.

He has a lot more to say about Guy de Maupassant and he has a pretty persuasive idea of precisely what makes "On the River" so eerie and good:

The horror-tales of the powerful and cynical Guy de Maupassant, written as his final madness gradually overtook him, present individualities of their own; being rather the morbid outpourings of a realistic mind in a pathological state than the healthy imaginative products of a vision naturally disposed toward phantasy and sensitive to the normal illusions of the unseen. Nevertheless they are of the keenest interest and poignancy; suggesting with marvellous force the imminence of nameless terrors, and the relentless dogging of an ill-starred individual by hideous and menacing representatives of the outer blackness.

Maupassant suffered from the effects of syphillis towards the end of his life and this seems to explain more than anything else how he could conceive of such an idea as "On the River". It's a story in which really very little happens--a man takes his boat out on the river, decides to relax in one peaceful spot, drops anchor, and then is forced to remain in the spot a while after his anchor gets stuck.

The fog which, two hours before, had floated on the water, had gradually cleared off and massed on the banks, leaving the river absolutely clear; while it formed on either bank an uninterrupted wall six or seven metres high, which shone in the moonlight with the dazzling brilliance of snow. One saw nothing but the river gleaming with light between these two white mountains; and high above my head sailed the great full moon, in the midst of a bluish, milky sky.

There's nothing especially sinister in this or in the sounds of frogs perceived by the narrator. Though I would think having to spend the night stuck in a boat like that, with no shelter, certainly might be uncomfortable. When the hint of supernatural finally does come, it's so subtle that it's almost merely a tease. The story ends so abruptly on that note that the reader is compelled to second guess the assumption of supernatural. Maybe the river at night is terror enough, though the idea that throughout the ordeal something more lurked beyond the edges of perception does enhance the story considerably, in my opinion.

Twitter Sonnet #1292

Entire courts of ghastly runts arrive.
A purple bat asserts the right to rule.
No worser gang could twisted hand contrive.
A cleaner cleaver's never half so cruel.
A walking clock discovers hands and feet.
The velvet curtains clasp a hiding man.
Between the walls a spirit hid the meat.
Behind the house a creature swiftly ran.
Adrift between the rivers, floods arise.
A shaking storm disrupts the poison bog.
Exquisite hands decay in life's reprise.
As yellow eyes observe along the log.
An anchor caught where giant spiders lurk.
A goblin pair retreat beneath the murk.

Monday, October 28, 2019

A Good Question

We all have a certain set of ideas about how ghosts, and ghost stories, are supposed to behave, whether it's quiet apparitions or restless and angry souls. Fitz James O'Brien's 1859 short story, "What Was It? A Mystery", is effective in how it seems perfectly ordinary and yet absolutely weird. One of the stories collected in H.P. Lovecraft Selects, stories drawn from Lovecraft's essay on horror fiction, it presents what can at best be called a haunting yet really defies any so easy definition.

A boarder at a purportedly haunted house describes being attacked one night in bed by an invisible entity. The being tries to strangle him until the narrator overpowers it and eventually ties it up with the help of a friend and fellow boarder. Can you do that with a ghost? Not traditionally.

The title of the story certainly reflects accurately the naturally compulsive response to the tale. What was it? There aren't many clues, for the reader or the characters. This, oddly enough, adds an aura of authenticity to the tale--how many strange things in life do have explanations? The story was published the same year as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and I wonder if that's just a coincidence. The description of the entity, once the protagonist has used a plaster of Paris to create a mould, sounds like something between an ape and a man.

It was shaped like a man,—distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man. It was small, not over four feet and some inches in height, and its limbs revealed a muscular development that was unparalleled. Its face surpassed in hideousness anything I had ever seen. Gustave Doré, or Callot, or Tony Johannot, never conceived anything so horrible. There is a face in one of the latter’s illustrations to “Un Voyage où il vous plaira,” which somewhat approaches the countenance of this creature, but does not equal it. It was the physiognomy of what I should have fancied a ghoul to be. It looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.

Maybe it's meant to be a ghost of a human ancestor?

Another possible clue as to the creature's nature is the context. Before the encounter, the protagonist takes opium with a friend and, instead of one of their normal, blissful sessions with the drug, the two find themselves speculating on what might be the most horrible thing one might encounter. Was the creature somehow conjured by this? If not, why does the author spend so much time relating the conversation? The story is marvellously successful at provoking questions. The strangely anti-climactic end to the tale only seems to make it more intriguing.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Nothing is Futile with Gold

Who would've thought the Cybermen's big weakness would be gold? Gerry Davis, that's who. He wrote the 1975 Doctor Who serial Revenge of the Cybermen, the final serial of Tom Baker's first season. It's canon but I guess I can't blame future episodes for not frequently referencing this flaw in Cyberman tech. As I said last week, I tend not to like Genesis of the Daleks as much as most people, and I think my fondness for Revenge of the Cybermen is almost as strange.

It's true, as the first appearance of the Cybermen since the Second Doctor era, it's a bit of a letdown. These new Cybermen are a bit more emotive, especially when it comes to the Cyberleader played by Christopher Robbie, well known as a presenter and announcer. His take on the character is of the typical, teeth gnashing, fist shaking, pulp serial villain variety and, along with the slightly silly vulnerability to gold, does a lot to undermine the sense of threat projected by the eerily quiet, inexorable silver figures in The Invasion and The Moon Base.

There's also the not entirely organic reuse of the sets from The Ark in Space. Set thousands of years before that serial, Revenge of the Cybermen finds the the station was once simply a "beacon", a sort of space traffic coordination and research depot. You'd think it would've changed a lot more over a thousand years.

But, again, I like this serial. Mainly for the Vogans, the civilisation living on a previously undiscovered moon of Jupiter. It's so rare for aliens in this era to actually look like aliens and after the cheap looking Genesis of the Daleks it's nice to see that all of the members of this species are outfitted with makeup and facial prosthetics.

They have an aesthetic, too, that goes along with their ample gold supply. Of course all their interior decorating is built around gold, too, and it gives a definite sense of the culture.

Like Ark in Space, Revenge of the Cybermen features references to politics, in this case the Vogans are split between unmistakeable liberal and conservative factions with the liberal leader being the villain.

Vorus (David Collings), the liberal leader, is in charge and a bit of a tyrant. Like a left-wing dictator, he talks about "liberating the people" even as he imprisons suspicious characters like Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) on no evidence. He's also intent on expanding the Vogan presence in the galaxy and derides his opponent's isolationism, mocking him for wanting the Vogans to remain underground. The caves where the serial was shot are pretty impressive, though, and lend the serial some great atmosphere while further contributing to the sense of the place as an alien world.

The conservative leader is the kinder and gentler old man, Tyrum (Kevin Stoney), who frees Sarah and Harry and is actually willing to listen to them. Of course, the failings of one leader and the virtues of the other could as easily be swapped and Davis doesn't make any real substantive argument for the superiority of conservative philosophy. But the characters work well enough.

Tom Baker is particularly good in the serial, too. His bug eyes when Sarah says it's good to see him and he enigmatically asks, "It is?!" is one of many examples of how Baker could so effectively use his physical features and subtly creative line deliveries to great effect.