Friday, March 3, 2017

Total Skull - February 2017

Books, films, tv, and music that brought me delight in February, 2017.


Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria
A Stranger in Olondria is a fantasy novel of rich, fragrant description that doesn't fall back on the cliches of exoticism to tell its tale. As in Tolkien, the protagonist is a common man, and not a hero in the traditional sense. Jevick is the son of a pepper merchant travels from his backwater place of birth to Olondria, the city he has come to know only through reading his tutor's books. And it's the power of the written word that sits at the novel's thematic heart; when Jevick finds himself haunted by the ghost of a countrywomen he met in the crossing, he free himself from her by merely giving her the proper funeral rites of their people--he must write her life to appease her. Samatar's prose is lush and her story moved me. If you are someone who feels attached to the seduction of language, the meaning behind the written word, and the purpose of storytelling, this books should be on your list.

Brian Evenson, Contagion and Other Stories
This is going to be taken as heresy by many, but: the stories in Contagion gave me what I was looking for, and didn't get, out of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Evenson specializes in tales of paranoiac religiosity, Southern Gothic-flavored fatalism, and meditations on the Word as Law. Stylistically, Evenson's prose is spare and sharp; the paired-down spikiness and blunt impact of his writing hits all the harder for not overindulging in misbegotten grandeur. Although the contexts for his stories tend to remain mysterious in the telling, that only contributes to the intensified feeling of strangeness that permeates Evenson's fiction. Some horrors were not meant to squirm into the light.

Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Tales
Putting together a collection of Poe's tales probably seems easier than it really is. Of course, you know you'll be including Poe's well known Gothic tales; "The Cask of Amontillado" is going to be in there, as will "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Pit and Pendulum," and all those stories Poe wrote about beautiful women who die. You'll probably need to include an example of Poe's detective fiction, but this edition goes the extra mile by including all three Auguste Dupin stories--even the ridiculously inanimate "The Mystery of Marie Roget." This Oxford edition rounds out the collection with some nice surprises, such as "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" and the archly bizarre "The Man Who Was Used Up," and the included notes, introduction, and other supplementary material is of the expected high caliber. If you don't own a collection of Poe's short fiction, this is a great volume to fill that gap.

Clark Ashton Smith, The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies
It's amazing that a good sampling of Smith's poetry and fiction is now widely available in a Penguin Classics volume. The selection of stories in this collection is very good; it gives a taste of stories from Smith's celebrated secondary worlds, such as Averoigne and Zothique, as well as his Mythos-adjacent work and his fiction intended for a more general "weird horror" audience. Although there is no critical consensus on what constitutes Smith's best stories--simply because there has been little serious evaluation of ouvre--The Dark Eidolon features strong examples of Smith's pulpy sword & sorcery, horror, and science fiction tales such as "The Mother of Toads," "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," and "The Double Shadow." The poetry selections are helpful for gaining a fuller understanding of Smith's artistry, but I can't help thinking that slimming-down these sections, particularly his less-successful attempts at prose poetry, would have cleared a little room in the book that could have been better purposed to feature more of his fiction.


The Love Witch
Come for the witchy 1960s Technicolor aesthetic, stay for the thematic exploration of sex vs. love, the multiform shades of feminism, archetypal man-eaters, gender roles, empowerment, and romantic fantasy vs. libidinal fantasy. The Love Witch focuses on the protagonist's use of magic to ensnare men in their own love for her, but although these spells are effective we're left questioning how much this magical domination is really to her benefit. The film could be called a satire of gendered views on love, male fragility, and emotional labor, but its approach to theme and narrative is far more insightful than that. The film is also stunningly shot; every frame feels perfectly constructed and essentially true to the overall aesthetic. The mostly obviously Hitchcock-inspired scene in the movie is an especial treat.

Get Out
The obvious pitch for Get Out is "Look Who's Coming to Dinner meets The Stepford Wives meets The Wicker Man," and honestly that's fairly accurate. Although I didn't find the film that scary--it isn't rife with jump scares, the intensity didn't ratchet-up to can-you-endure-this levels, and the gore is fairly tame--I also have the luxury of not having to be afraid of the ideas the movie explores, which is actually the point. All genre work is political, but Get Out is unabashedly a social commentary. And it's a smart social commentary all the way through. As a film Get Out is incredibly well constructed; the actors all turn in tremendous performances, the subtle menace of suburban isolation is spot-on, and the musical cues hit right where they need to. 


When James Koziah Delaney returns after his assumed death in Africa to claim his inheritance at his father's funeral, he acquires the rights to Nootka Sound--a piece of land that immediately puts him at the center of machinations involving the East Indian Company, the Crown, and the newly-minted United States. Through a combination of unbreakable will, capacity for brutality, and (possibly) some degree of supernatural affinity, Delaney navigates the treacherous, cloak-and-dagger world of politics both local and personal; even when it seems as though his schemes have been countered by one of the political leviathans pitted against him, Delaney remains one step ahead. Although the ultra-grottiness of the setting and characters sometimes veers perilously close to cartoonish (even the highest members of society look to be in need of a good scrub), and the violence is overly gleeful, I haven't enjoyed a show as much as Taboo in a long time. 


Hans Zimmer, Henning Lohner, and Martin Tillman, The Ring soundtracks
A caveat: this is a great soundtrack is you don't listen to the last four tracks, which add unneeded electronics, rockin' guitar, and cringe-worthy vocals to what is otherwise a really nice collection of dark instrumental tracks that trade on creeping dread and moments of quiet melancholy introspection.

A Dream of Poe, A Waltz for Apophenia
The triangulation of Black Sabbath riffs, stoner atmospherics, and themes drawn from exploitation horror is the shape of doom du jour, but A Dream of Poe's A Waltz for Apophenia harkens back to a time where My Dying Bride was the defining sound of funereal metal. Which is not to say that A Dream of Poe is a My Dying Bride clone; their brand of plaintive dirge has its roots in a strong tradition of heavy melancholia, but they are their own beast.

Biohazard Sound Chronicle Best Track Box
The Biohazard Sound Chronicle Best Track Box is a six-disc collection of music from the soundtracks to the series better known in the US as Resident Evil. Although some of the music on this collection isn't in the same level as the more stunning pieces created for the series, the collection does live up to its Best Track moniker; if you're looking for a compilation of the best pieces of dark ambient and nightmarish soundtrack work from Resident Evil, this is by far your best bet.