Monday, May 8, 2017

Total Skull - April, 2017

Things that bought me delight in April, 2017.


Caitlin R. Kiernan, Agents of Dreamland
Agents of Dreamland is for the Lovecraft fans who also happen to be X-Files fans. This is a short novella, but it packs a good amount of skin-crawl and mind-fuck into its few pages. Shadowy government agents investigate the aftermath of a transcendental cult that preys on the lost, but the transcendence its members are pushing toward is extra-dimensional in nature. The really eerie bits are emergent rather than explicit; although the narrative's here-and-now is awful enough, its the looming shape of things to come that truly unsettles. Comes with a minigame: can you spot all the wry allusions to Lovecraft's tales?

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer
It's interesting to look at the rise of Thomas Ligotti as the favored son of underground horror fiction from the genesis point of Songs of a Dead Dreamer, his first collection. Like Poe and Lovecraft, his obvious literary ancestors, Ligotti has a particular set of thematic anxieties that recur across his fiction. Indeed, reading the stories collected in this book one after another somewhat weakens their effect, as you begin to see where things are headed as soon as one of Ligotti's conventions rears its misshapen head in a particular story. "Ah, yes, another clown/doll/marionette gesturing at the laughable meaninglessness of the human condition in an uncaring cosmos," you'll say, to the shadows. Taken on their own merits, given the space to breath, even these early stories can be quite strong--especially when Ligotti tries out fresh territory beyond what his predecessors have already staked out. (You can see him wrestle with Lovecraft's shadow in "The Greater Festival of Masks," for example.) I defy you to read "Alice's Last Adventure" and not feel a deep, primal unease as an author is swallowed whole by that part of her creation that she cannot name.

Hideyuki Kikuchi, Vampire Hunter D
I can't believe I enjoyed reading the first "light novel" in the Vampire Hunter D series as much as I did. I saw the Vampire Hunter D anime as a teenager, of course, but it turns out that the animated version is a far more serious prospect than the source material it's based on. This book is incredibly pulpy, action-packed, childlike, and strangely girlish. (After the many times D is described as gorgeous or how Doris blushes when he is near, I was surprised to see that the author is a man regarded as "the Stephen King of Japan.") The writing is charmingly naive, and doesn't let a single plot point go unexplained for more than a few sentences. I can't tell if the original writing or the translation is to blame, but you couldn't call Vampire Hunter D's prose good or well-executed; and yet, if you want an easy read about hunting supernatural beasties in the post-apocalyptic Gothic future, this will prove very entertaining. This one comes with a minigame too: spot all the allusions to Hammer Horror and pulp fiction and you just might win a prize.

Leonora Carrington, Down Below
Part memoir and part surrealist survival story, Down Below charts Leonora Carrington's attempt to flee France after the German army invades and sends her lover, the artist Max Ernst, to a concentration camp. Carrington and her compatriots make it to Spain, but she suffers a mental breakdown after Ernst's arrest--much of the book details her flight from that painful reality and her stay in a sadistic asylum. The prose is beautiful, but the tale is harrowing; most notable, however, is the utterly unflinching way that Carrington details her madness and the horrors in the world around her that birthed it. There is a compelling argument here: is not madness the only suitable response to a world gone mad?


Black Sails, Season 4
Confession: I've always loved a good pirate tale. Which is a shame, really, as so many pirate stories end-up either being sanitized for a younger audience, cranked up with Disneyfication, or both at the same time. Black Sails took a different path; as a gritty re-imagining of the lead-up to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, over its four seasons Black Sails became a violent jeremiad lamenting a notion of freedom that the modern world has largely abandoned. At times, the show could be troubling; the rape-revenge plot of the first season was a bit off-putting, and the show never pulled punches when displaying the barbarism of pirate life. And yet, by this fourth and final season Black Sails transcended being the nautical Game of Thrones, and resolved itself as something different than just tits & peg legs. Also, the end is remarkable for being an actual end in an era where shows aren't often allowed to bow out gracefully.


Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, Harrow County: Countless Haints
Mixing folktales and modern horror, Harrow County introduces us to Emmy, a young woman discovering her connection to the supernatural world that lurks all around her in the rural community she calls home. Countless Haints gives us the folk horror version of the bildungsroman; growing up, for Emmy, means not only negotiating the new world of adulthood, but also reconciling that new world with old world superstitions and magic. For Emmy, adulthood means becoming a woman and also becoming a witch both beloved and feared. Since this is only the first collected volume of Harrow County, I've got more to look forward to. Dark, rich stuff.

Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, Injection vol. 2
I read the first volume of Injection back in January, and liked it quite a bit. The second volume is even better than the first; in this arc, the rogue artificial intelligence called the Injection is using folklore and magical belief to manipulate people with the death of loved ones, cannibalism, and the quest for the philosopher's stone. This volume focuses on Vivek Headland, a detective in the Holmesian mold, but with a bit more worldliness to him and a bit more bite where it counts. As an aside, while the premise of Injection is admittedly strange, I'm perplexed as to why many comic fans find the plots in this series to be difficult to navigate. The comic does obfuscate things a bit in its early pages because it is presenting a mystery--but when the pieces come together, it seems rather clear to me how it all fits together.

Enki Bilal, The Nikopol Trilogy
The Nikopol Trilogy (made up of The Carnival of Immortals, The Woman Trap, and Cold Equator) is a weird science fiction series that centers on a man accidentally returned to earth from his orbital cryogenic suspension prison who finds himself embroiled in the political machinations of a France now under fascist rule and an Egyptian god who wants revenge against the power-hungry members of his pantheon. Add to that already heady mix: mind-bending drugs, noir-style murder mysteries and femme fatales, copious Baudelaire quotations, and...chess boxing. No, really, this is the comic that inspired the real-world sport of...chess boxing.

Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo, George Perez, Batman: A Death in the Family
Another confession: I'm not much of a superhero fan at all. Nevertheless, there are a number of Batman comics I enjoy--not because of the titular character, but because some of the comics he stars in are the occasion for some really strange four-color madness. Take A Death in the Family, for example; it's fascinating how anxieties about terrorism and Middle East become more and more reality-based as this series proceeds: the rogue's gallery of villainy usually found in Batman comics gives way to the villainy ascribed to real people--Ayatollah Khomeini makes an appearance here! DC's fictional locales give way to a threat lodged against a real US city--it isn't Metropolis or Gotham that is endangered, it's New York City. Couple that with the supreme cynicism of having a 900 number that people could call to determine whether Robin lived or died, and yeah, I'm hooked.

Frank Miller and Kalus Janson, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
As with The Nikopol Trilogy, there is a strange prescience to the vision of the future presented in The Dark Knight Returns. Was the idea of active Nazi-idolizing gangs a way of marking social collapse that seemed outlandish and extreme when this comic was originally published? Now it just seems...very "welcome to 2017." Same with the governmental refusal to accept accountability and responsibility, but maybe that's more a case of the more things change the more they stay the same. Anyway, yeah, the comic: ultimately it isn't a tale of good vs. evil, but rather a visual narrative of what happens when different ideologies that define themselves as good prove to be mutually exclusive and fundamentally incompatible. The gritty reboot starts here.


Cultes des Ghoules, Henbane
Kate, my partner in podcast crime, turned me on to Cultes des Ghoules' Coven--a complex, sprawling, and challenging record that is altogether excellent. After enjoying Coven, I decided to dig deeper in Cultes des Ghoules' catalog and discovered that Henbane is also excellent. Unlike Coven, Henbane is a pretty direct affair. The overall sound is a blasting grind of metal with touches of punk thrash. There is something about the calculated precision of Henbane's blackened brutality that is especially pleasing--I suspect it's due, at least in part, to the album going out of its way not to be pleasing. There is a certain contrariness, a poisonousness, that is refreshing--such is the taste of nightshade. Recommended track: "Vintage Black Magic."

Harrow, Fragments of a Fallen Star
Folk-bolstered ritualistic, arboreal black metal is Harrow's purview. Fragments of a Fallen Star conjures a lot of space--song passages recall cold, bleak Nordic vistas, while others invoke the deep of the primordial woods, medieval battlefields, and psychedelic trips through the astral plane. And yet, the end result of this cosmic journey never feels self-conscious, inauthentically-arranged, or smirkingly postmodern. Fragments of a Fallen Star manages to be both fluid and ominous. Why don't more people know about this band? Recommended track: "Fragments of a Fallen Star."

Oathbreaker, Rheia
Oathbreaker's Rheia got a lot of buzz the year it was released, appearing on several Best Of lists, but I have to admit that I slept on it. Don't make the same mistake; let this be the soundtrack for when a dolorous night turns to rage and then back again. Rampaging black metal passages evolve into more sorrowful excursions--the crushing breakdowns, complex drumming, and discordant riffs evidence a bit of post-hardcore influence that should seem out of place, but doesn't. Recommended track: "Being Able to Feel Nothing."


The Huntsman: Winter's War
Let's get this out of the way: I watched a lot of junk over spring break because I just wanted to be entertained, and I have a strange soft-spot for glossy modern fantasy movies that reinterpret fairy tales and folklore in really generic ways. A further confession: I thought that the previous Snow White and the Huntsman was a really fun movie. The Hunstman: Winter's War doesn't quite hit the shameful spot like its predecessor did--it feels lower budget in terms of both script and effects--but you could still do worse for an afternoon's entertainment. In this one the huntsman, his violent ex-girlfriend, and a bunch of comic relief dwarves go on an adventure to stop a snow queen from using the evil magic mirror. Spoiler alert: the climax involves fighting, CGI magic, and scenery chewing.

Jez Gordon made the bold statement that Blade is the best movie in Marvel's stable of adaptations. It's feels more like a comic book than the modern capes movies do. The characterization, action scenes, and especially the climatic resolution of the movie all feel like they were ripped straight from four-color panels. And honestly that's a lot more fun that sitting through a superhero movie that takes itself so seriously that it needs an hour of exposition and is shot through the grim-urban filter. Blade is also a ridiculously 90s-feeling film; I mean, come on, that rave scene! If you don't have nostalgia for that particularly 90s style of film-making, this might actually be a detrimental aspect of the movie for you. Also noteworthy is the diversity of the cast; I saw Blade in the theater when it was released and the number of people of color in the cast didn't seem like a talking point, but, now in an era where representation is increasingly siloed, Blade somehow feels like it solved that problem and we've been backsliding ever since.

Underworld: Blood Wars
This one felt like a mistake, but what else can you do on Easter when you're just waiting for someone to give you some carrot cake? In actuality, this was another fun, but dumb, watch. Sure, the plot feels very convenient in places, yet if you go into it with the mindset that just wants to see some vampires flip around while fighting werewolves armed with machine guns--this is a movie that will entertain you. Even though this is the fifth (how is that possible?) movie in the Underworld franchise, don't feel like you need to watch the previous movies; the plot doesn't really require you to pay attention to what's happening. Also, someone check to make sure that Kate Beckinsale isn't really a vampire--she doesn't seem to be aging.


Welcome to Night Vale, All Hail
Over spring break I also got to go see the Welcome to Night Vale production All Hail. To be honest, I think Night Vale is a bit hit or miss, and I wasn't sure how well the podcast would translate to a live event. It actually worked pretty well; there was too much audience participation for me--although given the younger age of the typical fan in attendance I can see why they went that route--but overall it was an enjoyable experience. It helped that this production was all about my favorite part of Night Vale, the Glow Cloud.


Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
This oversized art book collects pictures from throughout Elvira's career, charting the origins and evolution of the character from local horror movie hostess to Halloween pin-up par excellence. It's chock full of great images, and the brief bits of text in which Cassandra Peterson talks about her history as Elvira are fascinating. Tell people that you're "reading it for the articles," if you must.