Thursday, February 2, 2017

Total Skull - January 2017

A collection of things that brought me delight in January, 2017.


Stephen Hunt, The Court of the Air
The Court of the Air is sprawling Dickensian fantasy that takes a tour through an off-kilter Greatest Hits of British History. We've got an orphan girl with a strange gift, a boy with a secret history, ne'er-do-wells, sentient automatons, insect-gods who want to unleash horrors upon the earth, fey superheroes, dirigibles and subway tubes and hot air balloons, secret agents and scientist-adventurers, and that's just scratching the surface. There are a few too many plot strands in the overall narrative, and perhaps a few too many attempts to throw every genre into the mix, but the overall enthusiasm of the book won me over in the end. It definitely reads like an early effort from a talented author, so I plan on reading more to see where he goes from here with his inspirations.

Michael McDowell, Toplin
Toplin is one of those novels that aims to give you a good, hard look into the mind of a madman, which would be unremarkable in itself if it didn't also resolve itself in a disturbingly off-kilter world. All is not well with the protagonist of the book; a chance meeting with a waitress--whom he perceives as physically and morally monstrous--leaves him with the impression that it is his duty to exterminate her. What could be just another novel about a killer with a deranged mind becomes something more given that the world around him is as unraveled and degenerate as his mental state. The dread of Toplin is not in the main character's actions, but rather in watching each scene he finds himself in--often as a bystander--as it devolves into urban grotesquery. 

Gahan Wilson, Gahan Wilson's Out There
Gahan Wilson's Out There is a compilation of the comics that the illustrator did for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The vast majority of his cartoons are of a macabre, darkly-humorous bent; this is the stuff that never fails to put a smile on my face. The collection is rounded out by a handful of Wilson's short fiction and a number of book reviews that he authored for the magazine. Most of the fiction is short, but amusingly grotesque. The longest piece in the collection, "The Power of the Mandarin," is actually quite remarkable--Wilson certainly deserves more of a reputation for his creative writing. The zippy reviews collected in Gahan Wilson's Out There tend to be, unsurprisingly, focused on classic Gothic tales, Robert Aickman, Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft, Oliver Onions, Algernon Blackwood, and others of that style. You can certainly see how Wilson's enthusiasm for weird fiction fuels his artwork in his chatty, but exuberant reviews. If you're a fan of Gahan Wilson, this book is absolutely a must-have.


A Series of Unfortunate Events
I was skeptical but cautiously optimistic when I heard that Netflix was producing an adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. On one hand, the book series is deceptively simple, which means the finer nuances were in danger of being lost in the transition to the small screen. On the other, we've already had a dire-looking film adaptation foisted on us (which I haven't seen because I am allergic to Jim Carrey), and history tends to repeat itself. Luckily, optimism wins out this time because Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events is delightful. The overall aesthetic is cribbed from Tim Burton's most successful periods, the child actors do a splendid job, and Neil Patrick Harris appropriately chews the scenery as Count Olaf. The secret society angle is played up earlier in the tv series than in the books, but a really fun red herring is added to the plot that will be an especial treat for already-extant Snicket converts.


Abel Korzeniowski, Penny Dreadful Seasons 2 and 3 Soundtrack
The reason why I love Penny Dreadful is that it was the sum of very strong parts; the writing was excellent, the cast unusually strong, the production and design excelled at the Victorian-Gothic aesthetic, and the soundtrack by Abel Korzeniowski evokes all the heightened, overflowing emotions necessary for the series' uncanny twists and turns. The soundtrack to the first season has been in heavy rotation for me since its arrival; the soundtracks to the second and third seasons have proven to be just as strong. Lush orchestration, ratcheting tension, mournful strings--bury me in this music.

Isa, Echo
"Russian black metal with church bells," reads the Cliff Notes. There is a Romantic spirit to this album; this is the sound of Wordsworth or John Clare idealizing the toil and joys of life in the countryside or the fervor and faith of the Russian people captured by Pushkin and his brethren. And faith is a strong component of this album. Although black metal is a curious form to wed to expressions that recall Eastern Orthodox ideals, on Echo the two combine, collude, and become diffuse as a hybridized, syncretic mysticism. Wisdom is hidden in the collision.


Injection, vol. 1
A group of talented specialists is brought together by a shadowy government agency to figure out how to keep the progress of human achievement from hitting a plateau. Their solution is to create an artificial intelligence that will keep the world interesting, thus spurring innovation. But, in this case, "interesting" means that the artificial intelligence makes the world more thrilling by making murderous folklore real and active in the world. Which is, of course, a problem that the selfsame group of talented specialists must now combat.