Thursday, August 3, 2017

Total Skull - July, 2017

Things that brought me delight in July, 2017:

Art Books

The Art of Dishonored 2
It's amazing how much meticulously design work goes into the world-building found in modern video games. The art in this book is incredibly, of course, but I find myself marveling less at the overall effect produced by the pieces presented here and more at the attention to details. The character design is especially well done; you get a sense of who these people are through their clothing, their posture, their facial expressions, etc. all without having to hear them speak or see them in motion. The mix of influences in Dishonored 2 also feels fresh; whereas the first game mostly drew on London and Edinburgh as inspirations, Dishonored 2 has a more eclectic set of references points that includes Spain, Greece, and Havana. 

Bloodborne Official Artworks
I almost feel like I'm beating a dead horse here but: Bloodborne is one of the most aesthetically exciting things I've encountered in years. The combination of Early Modern and Victorian Gothic with Fantasy Lovecraftiana is a perfect match to my sensibilities, and the art collected in this book gives you a fantastic peek into the way the game's elements fit together to make a coherent visual statement. If you need idea for horrible monsters, twisted townsfolk, accursed magic items, monstrous weapons, nefarious characters, and morbid locales, this book is now your breviary.


Lin Carter, Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria
Lin Carter's Thongor books aren't particularly well written. Beside that, they're also hidebound to the conventions of Robert E. Howard's red-blooded tales: a Not Conan steals an airship after killing his mercenary captain in a bar brawl, he fights dinosaurs, he meets a wizards who wants to forge a magic sword to fight evil, he meets (and saves) a princess who admires his iron thews, he triumphs over serpent men and their dark sorceries, etc. None of that is inventive, but then, I wonder if the narrative economy of these kind of books made them fun to write. With a character like Thongor, who is defined solely by being Totally Not Conan, you never need to really explain his backstory, his drives, his motivations, his complexities, etc. All the stuff that more ambitious authors wrestle with is a non-issue in the world of Conan Lite. So, yeah, this book wasn't earth-shaking on any level, but it was a decent way to kill an afternoon.

Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes
I don't think I have a good handle on what counts as "young adult" fiction. Red Spikes won the Horn Book Fanfare award as well as Children's Book Council of Australia's Book of the Year Award. And yet, despite the fact that the language in Red Spikes is certainly approachable, I'm not sure I would have deemed the content of this collection of Margo Lanagan's short fiction to belong to that nebulous category of "young adult." The content and themes are dark without being grim; we've got stories featuring the sex lives of monkeys, the bodies of unborn children, and the horrors of bullying, just for a start. The stories in Red Spikes all share a fairy tale-quality, particularly in the ways that they blend fantastical events with everyday desires, but that isn't to say that her fiction is fusty or moralistic. I could see Neil Gaiman fans who are willing to go further afield being especially smitten with this one.


The Beguiled
I haven't really enjoyed Sofia Coppola's films much in the past, but The Beguiled was fantastic. Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan (and a previous film version from 1971), The Beguiled's plot revolves around the staff and students of a southern girls during the Civil War rehabilitating a Union soldier they found wounded in the woods. The interplay between the soldier and the women at the school works to surgical dissect the tension found in conflicting desires. The film is beautiful to look at and absolutely packed with strong, restrained performances.

The Void
I've seen a lot of people express disappointment in The Void, but I found it enjoyable. It's not a particularly deep or emotive horror flick, but it does call back to the horror movies of my youth. And to be honest, I will take practical FX rubber suit-and-puppets monsters over your modern mumblecore horror any day of the week. To throw more fuel on the fire of disagreement, let me state this for the record: The Void is a better Lovecraft movie than anything Stuart Gordon has ever done. The Void ranks right up there with Event Horizon, In the Mouth of Madness, and Hellraiser II when it comes to the Lovecraftian tradition in film we should be deluged with.


Castlevania, Season 1
The first season of Netflix's Castlevania series was interesting, even if it wasn't what I was expecting. There aren't a lot of direct Castlevania elements present aside from characters like Trevor Belmont, Sypha, Alucard, and Dracula. I was expecting the series to feature monster-stomping inside Dracula's castle, with familiar monsters from the video game like flying medusa heads and bone-chucking skeletons. I was also surprised by how short the season was: four episodes, each less than a half hour in length. There's potential for it to get going in a second season. This batch is really just an extended "getting the party together" thing. I like what there is, but I'd also be happy to get a lot more.

Peaky Blinders, Seasons 1-3
I shotgunned all three seasons of Peaky Blinders over about four days. Peaky Blinders charts the rise (and occasional fall) of the eponymous gang of Birmingham criminals. It's brash, violent, and has a way of making you care about characters who are undeniably scoundrels. Now that I've seen it all, there is an 85% I walk into a place of business and declare it closed BY ORDERS OF THE PEAKY FOOKIN' BLINDERS. Okay, so it gets the blood going, but after watching I've also been struck by how the show portrays criminality as an extension of race. Almost all the criminals (both high and low) are depicted as non-English others corrupting the heart of Empire: we've got Gypsies, the Irish, Italians, Jews, Russians, etc. each exerting their pernicious influence. You could read the duplicitous government as a kind of established English gang, I suppose, but it really is striking how crime is largely depicted as an externalized import...particularly as this airs in the Brexit age.


Ricinn, Lian
This month's listening experience has been all about chasing down the various projects that Laure Le Prunenec, a French vocalist I am absolutely over the moon about. Ricinn is the purest dose of the Prunenec experience you can get; her voice is the decimating focal point of Lian. Overall, the record reminds me a bit of some of Dead Can Dance's earlier works, but the overall style and technique of Le Prunenec's vocals are far more on the operatic side, and the arrangements feel baroque, neo-classical and surprisingly monastic. You can listen to the entire album legally here and download it for whatever price you like.

Corpo-Mente, self-titled
Continuing my Laure-centric musical journey, my next discovery was Corpo-Mente's self-titled album. On this record, Laure Le Prunenec's vocals share space with a more varied set of compositions. There is still a prominent neo-classical bombast on this release, but those sounds are bolstered by electronic passages, elements of French folk music, and moments of sublime, crushing heaviness. Fans of Therion's Les Fleurs du Mal should find a lot to appreciate in Corpo-Mente. You can listen to the entire album legally here and download it for whatever price you like.

Oxxo Xoox, Namidae and Reveurt
And now we go out into the hellish stratosphere on our Laure Le Prunenec journey. Oxxo Xoox resists labeling; just to take a stab at it, I'd say their sound is avant-garde baroque doom--which, of course, means absolutely nothing in practice. Both Namidae and Reveurt are surprisingly listens; although the sounds they trade in aren't utterly alien, the way they are combined is unpredictable, and sometimes intentionally jarring. This isn't a car crash of various styles or cacophony; it's intensely musical, and operating off of its own idiosyncratic mapping. Laure Le Prunenec's vocals are farther from the spotlight on both of Oxxo Xoox's albums, but they still add an undeniably brightness where they appear. Fans of Igorrr need to listen to this. You can listen to Namidae legally here and download it for whatever price you like.


Jeff Lee, Demon Cults & Secret Societies
There are people who complain about cult-centric villainy in Wizards of the Coast's 5e adventures, but I'm not one of them. In my view, you can't have enough evil or destructive religious fanatics cluttering up the space. Demon Cults & Secret Societies caters to that view; it contains a number of cults, and details their aims, their important members, and their unique magic. The book could either kick off a new campaign or jump start one that has grown stale. Also note that while none of the cults presented in the book are edgelord stuff, some of them are a little more "mature" than WotC more friendly offerings.


Julia Gfrorer and Sean T. Collins (eds.), Mirror Mirror II
Mirror Mirror II is a the second volume in a yearly series of anthology comics. The previous volume focused, according to Sam Alden, on "identity and interiority"; this collection focuses on the emotional and physical grotesque. Gretchen Alice Felker-Martin's introduction to the book makes a case for its contents as "horror," but as interesting as the preface is the material that follows is so tonally varied, and digs in at so many different angles and depths of penetration, that "horror" only really scratches the surface. Like most anthologies, not everything here will hit you hard, but the ratio of comics that stuck with me vs. comics that I easily forgot after reading is really good.