Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Dragonmede, Dishonored Tarot, Castlevania, The Ghost of Orion, A Dawn to Fear

Things that brought me delight in March, 2020:

Rona Randall,
Dragonmede was a chance find at an antique auction house. You have to roll the dice and hope for the best with Gothic romances from the 1960s and 70s, but Dragonmede was worth the gamble. This one has it all: a heroine who was raised among her mother's high class gambling den, an effete and effeminate artist, a class-conscious alcoholic evil stepmother, an aristocratic family prone to a multitude of sins, a father crippled by a stoke that prevents him from divulging crucial information, a mysteriously deadly lake and a familial curse, an aged former servant who spies on everyone via secret peepholes, paintings that disclose hidden identities, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are more reveals and circuitous connections than should be possible in a novel of this size. I was having so much fun reading Dragonmede that I finished it in a single day.

Dishonored tarot cards
This deck of tarot cards was produced as a promotional item for the first Dishonored game. I had no idea they existed until I stumbled across them on eBay. (If you didn't know about them either, rest assured that there are a bunch of them up on there if you feel compelled to pick up a deck.) The cards don't exactly follow the pattern of most tarot decks; the major arcana cards are themed around important characters in Dishonored and the suits of the minor arcana have been swapped for more appropriate in-game themes. All in all, the deck is surprisingly well done--this isn't a cheap cash-in.

Castlevania Season 3
After its triumphant second season, the third season of Castlevania had a lot to live up to. And it does! The narrative in this one follows four strands: Trevor and Sypha investigating strange happenings at a monastery, Hector "negotiating" with one of the four vampires who rule Styria, Isaac amassing an army to get revenge on Hector and Carmilla, and Alucard hosting two would-be vampire hunters from Japan that want to learn the trade...and maybe more in the bargain. The mix of dark moments (and there are some very dark moments) and comedy works really well; also apparently season three is the sexy season. Of course, there are some truly epic battle scenes.

My Dying Bride,
The Ghost of Orion
The Ghost of Orion was one of my most anticipated albums of the year, and thankfully it did not disappoint. My Dying Bride are at their best when they delicately balance two propensities for glorious excess; few bands can manage both quiet moments of melodramatic sorrow and pummeling, bombastic dirgecraft, but My Dying Bride makes the movement between the twin moods of melancholy a seamless endeavor. My Dying Bride have been justly praised for their contributions to the genre, but one thing I don't think they've received recognition for is their keen sense of grace. The Ghost of Orion feels like a medieval benediction--a breviary that promises catharsis, yet curiously out of step with the modern world. And yet, we're left with the notion that it is not the prayer for the hopeless that needs to change to suit modernity, but that it is we who have gone wrong--rendering that grace an inaccessible promise.

Cult of Luna, 
A Dawn to Fear
Cult of Luna specialize in doomy post-rock, but unlike a similar band like Neurosis their music is more cinematic than downward-crashing dirge. Unlike many groups that are often described as possessing "progressive" elements, it isn't the technical virtuosity that will stun you here--even though it is readily apparent--it's the masterful use of tension. Imagine a thick iron cable, just beginning to be dappled with rust, pulled taught to its breaking point. Now let it throb, dance, threaten to sunder while remaining straight and true, all the while a grim misery becomes transcendent when the light of a new day falls upon the surrounding quivering wreckage.

Damien Mecheri and Sylvain Romieu,
Dark Souls: Beyond the Grave
Beyond the Grave is an exploration of the history and story of the first games in the "Souls" series. It covers Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II, detailing the history of their production, summarizing their stories, and delving into the details of their soundtracks, connections to other works, etc. This is a hard book to recommend: a Soulsborne fanatic likely already knows the material inside and out, and casual fans don't need to dig this far down. The information the book presents is interesting, but likely doesn't delve deep enough into any one aspect to make it essential. The best parts, for me, were the bits about how Miyazaki was dead-set on doing the opposite of what was popular at the time in video games when he was working on Demon's Souls and how that paid-off when the game was released.

Within Temptation,
The Silent Force
With the release of The Silent Force, Within Temptation tried on yet another persona. Their first album, Enter, launched their career with a doom-inspired sound, but that was largely discarded by the Celtic-influenced Mother Earth that followed. When "Stand My Ground," the first single from The Silent Force, dropped there were murmurs of the dreaded sell-out; the song had the same sort of electronic flourishes and soaring poppy chorus that graced Evanescence's debut--which had been a huge worldwide success. However, while it's undeniable that Within Temptation were expanding their sound for a larger audience, The Silent Force is a landmark symphonic metal album. The instrumentation is thrilling, the guitars still retain the necessary heaviness, and the vocal work is superb. Yes, The Silent Force was a commercial moment, but if you don't sing along to the infectious, anthemic chorus in "Stand My Ground," are you really even alive?

Angel's Egg
Angel's Egg is a 1985 anime collaboration between artist Yoshitaka Amano and Mamoru Oshii. The animation is somewhat sparse; this isn't a hyperkinetic display of over-the-top action. The pace of the film is languid and dreamlike. The story concerns an amnesiac young girl who protects a large, mysterious egg while she scavenges for food and water through the wreckage of a past age. She encounters a laconic young man bearing a strange, cross-like object--does he wish her good or ill? Ultimately, Angel's Egg is an artful meditation on the failure of faith and the collapse of systems of belief.

Kingdom, Season 2
It occurs to me that Kingdom is telling a story similar to that of Game of Thrones, but that it greatly benefits from keeping focus on the main elements--hordes of undead threatening civilization and nobles scheming to usurp proper authority--and from not throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the mix. It is also an unbelievably tense show with some genuinely scary moments. I really hope this one comes back for a third season.

Vivian Shaw,
Strange Practice
Deep in the throes of quarantine isolation, I was not looking for anything too weighty or emotionally heavy to read. Strange Practice came to my rescue. Strange Practice is a decidedly Gothic Lite monster mash romp in which Great Helsing, her vampire pals, a researcher at the British Museum, and a former demon team up to stop the machinations of a rather Fourth Doctor-style villain: a remnant of primordial creation that has taken up residence inside a forgotten mercury arc rectifier and formed a cult of monk-cowled religious fanatics intent on feeding their master the fear it relishes. Greta Helsing is an interesting character; although it is never explained why or when her family witched from hunting the undead to doctoring them, she feels motivated by her Hippocratic oath to mind the health of an in-need, underserved populace: monsters. Will I read the other books in the series? Well, the weeks do stretch on.

Emily Carroll, 
When I Arrived at the Castle
No one does "fairy tale Gothic" comics quite like Emily Carroll. In When I Arrived at the Castle, a cat-woman comes calling at a seductive vampiress's fortress; she has murder on her mind. But can she go through with it? And what is the root of bloody enmity? As the story unravels, it becomes a complicated web of complicity, transformation, will, and predatory reversal. Although this is a short, easily-read-in-one-sitting comic, the big, intrusive images will stay with you. The crooked take on the visual language of the illustrated children's book style only heightens the perversity. Recommended to fans of Angela Carter and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu especially.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
A young artist is called to an isolated island in Brittany to paint the portrait of a woman prior to her marriage. The young woman in question has refused to sit for her portrait, so the artist contrives to pose as a lady's companion while surreptitiously studying the features of her subject. It only gets more complicated from there. Deceit turns to questions to desire, aesthetic content, and the sacrifices required by the sordid necessity of living for other people. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful film; easily the best that I've seen so far this year.