Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Total Skull - March, 2017

Things that brought me delight in March, 2017:


Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling
Modern takes on the vampire are nothing new; the deconstruction of the vampire as a literary trope is itself a cliche possessing its own deconstructable conventions at this point. But in the hands of a great author, the reinvention of vampire fiction is a wonderful thing. Octavia E. Butler's Fledgling is a great example of how rewriting the vampire can reinvigorate a familiar concept. Butler's vampires, in general, are no parasites; they see their relationships with the humans they feed from as symbiotic polyamory. Butler's vampiric protagonist, in particular, is not a suave, experienced, aristocratic creature of pale and tragic European aspect; instead, on the surface, she appears to be a black child of about twelve years of age. And yet, even as Butler challenges the expectations set by vampire fiction, she seeds the narrative with space for us to question whether these symbiotic, non-traditional vampires are what they believe themselves to be.

Joyce Carol Oates & Barry Moser, First Love: A Gothic Tale
Joyce Carol Oates correctly identifies the liminal space between childhood and adolescence as fraught with a Gothic tangle of developing identity, sexual awakening, and profound physical and psychological masochism. When Josie arrives in upstate New York to live with distant relatives after her mother abruptly leaves her father, she finds herself craving a human connection that will help her make sense of the adulthood that looms in her future. But this refigured familial extension doesn't work for her the way it should: her mother is a vain, selfish creature who needs men to find her own worth; her aunt is judgmental and nearly Victorian; Jared, her cousin, lures her into his own manias--authoritarian, religious, and pornographic--and this is the only salve for her feelings of abandonment...and it is a bitter one.

Mark Z. Danielewski, The Fifty Year Sword
Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is a book with many devoted admirers. I'm not one of them. I thought it was a decent enough story of the uncanny that tried to tart itself up with pretentious structural and metatextual elements into some more profound than its writing had any right to claim. I went into The Fifty Year Sword expecting little, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the tale--which is about a storyteller brought to entertain orphans at the birthday party of a woman on the verge of fifty, a woman whose party is attended by the people she's managed to hurt in those fifty years. The experimental flourishes--different colored quotation marks to signify different speakers, trust me, you can ignore them without any lose of meaning--in the book do strike me as unnecessary, but the overall effect of the story makes it easy to brush those excesses aside.

Octavia E. Butler, Kindred
I might be on a full-blown Octavia Butler kick. I read Xenogensis last year, then added Fledgling and Kindred to my reading lists for this year. I don't think I'll be stopping their, either. The year is young yet, so they're plenty of time for me to go back and read the next two books in Butler's Lillith's Brood series, and maybe take on Parable of the Sower. Anyway, Butler is as great as people in the know says she is; if I were a betting man, and I am, I'd lay down money that she is going to be one of those authors whose literary stardom is going to continue to grow posthumously. Someday she might even be a canonical American author, which wouldn't be a bad thing at all--the canon would be stronger and richer with her at the table.

H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
Lovecraft's name is now synonymous with "weird fiction," but his rising reputation as a writer was never assured; in the years immediately following his death, few people would have bet hard money on his work eventually being published as park of the Penguin Classics line. The stories collected in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories include many of his "greatest hits," such as they are; the titular story is joined by "The Outsider," "The Colour Out of Space," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," and "Herbert West--Reanimator." However, the focus on his more obviously Poe-inspired or Mythos-oriented fiction does render the collection a little too repetitive and univocal in the long run. Mixing in a wider range of Lovecraft's fiction--particularly by adding more of his Dream Cycle tales--would have been beneficial to the book as a whole.


Ripper Street, seasons 4 & 5
I'm not really a fan of police procedural, or so I thought, but it turns out that if you dress a police procedural in Victorian drag and set it in an immediately post-Ripper world--I'm all about it. The previous seasons have pitted our British detectives and their American doctor chum against a wide variety of criminality in the den of scum and villainy that is Whitechapel, but these seasons increasingly find our heroes on the outs with the law as well. How to the lawkeepers fare when on the run themselves? At times unrelentingly bleak, and sometimes a bit ponderous in its plot points, Ripper Street's final episode ended on the perfect stoic, downbeat note. It's nice to see a great show get a fitting end.


Julia Gfrorer, Black Light
Julia Gfrorer's comics spring unbidden at the crossroads between modern despair and unsanitized horrors of old European fairy tales. Her art is pained, but often ultimately arrives in a place of rapture--but rapture is a kind of pain too. Pain, and its ecstatic truths, is the binding thread between the four stories in this book. The stories aren't additive in a narrative sense--but thematically they resonate when read back to back. The pain here emerges from that crossroads; modern we may be, but the things that wound us are primordial--they come from a place that is older than we can remember.

Neil Gaiman and Shane Oakley, Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire
Underneath the intentionally over-heated narrative of Forbidden Brides is a satirical consideration of genre fiction contra capital-L Literature, the nature of escapism, and the burden of authorship. I love the art in the book; it perfectly captures the look of the 60s and 70s horror comics that I adore. Of course, I also love the book's playful take on Gothic tropes--the ghoulishness is grinning, the emotions runeth over, the candelabra flickers in the drear, and I couldn't be happier about that.


King Woman, Created in the Image of Suffering
Your going to hear that King Woman is doom metal + shoegaze, which is good enough shorthand for Created in the Image of Suffering, but I think it sells the overall experience of the album short. Yes, there are glacial, heavy riffs; yes, the vocals are dreamy and droning. But the real magic in the album are the moments of longing--those moments mix the sacred and the profane in a profound and challenging way that subverts both the genres that King Woman are said to straddle.


Visions of War: The Art of Wayne Reynolds
Confession: I think the Pathfinder Iconics that Wayne Reynolds created are pretty dope. It turns out, after working through this collection of his fantasy art, that I like quite a bit of what he does. This book includes his work for World of Warcraft, Magic: The Gathering, D&D, Reaper miniatures, Pathfinder, etc., so basically he's done work for all the major players. And rightfully so; there's a lot of inspiration to be found in his illustrations.

The Art of Blizzard Entertainment
I must be on a mainstream fantasy art kick. I'm not even really a fan of Blizzard's games or their preferred aesthetic (outside of the Diablo franchise, which I love), but when I found this massive book on the cheap in the clearance section of a bookstore it seemed like a reasonable lark. Much of the art in it still isn't my favorite style, but there were some surprises here for me. Brom's contributions are, as always, amazing, and many of the backdrop and setting design pieces are wonderfully evocative. It was also really interesting to watch Blizzard's house style change from its rough beginnings to the polished, recognizable aesthetic that defines the brand. Even if the art wasn't all to my taste, charting the evolution of it was fascinating.


Get Out
Honestly, I don't even really want to talk to you about Get Out until you've seen it, so go see it and then get back to me. I will say that aesthetically, tonally, and thematically it is the complete package. I saw it twice in the theater, which is unheard of for me, and not only did my level of being impressed not diminish, I noticed great little details I'd missed in my first viewing. Outstanding on just about every level.


Book of Lairs
Kobold Press's Book of Lairs is a simple enough concept: it's a collection of short, site-based adventures for 5e D&D that can be run with very little preparation. The adventures themselves are not mind-blowingly original, but that's the point; each is to-the-point and grounded in basic fantasy tropes because that makes them easy to use. And ease of use is what is important here. I've been using the adventures in Book of Lairs as the basis for many of the adventures I've been running on G+. Of course, I'm twisting them around and giving them a dose of my own precious snowflake setting nonsense, but the lairs presented in the book have held up nicely to my abuse and (more importantly) have been a blast to play. Caveat emptor: the book does assume you have Kobold Press's Tome of Beasts, as this is something of a companion piece to that book.