Thursday, September 3, 2020

Mexican Gothic, Vision, Harrow the Ninth, The Alienist, and More

Things that brought me delight in August, 2020:

Silvia Moreno-Garcia,
Mexican Gothic
When Noemi's cousin writes a frantic letter to her family begging for aid against her husband's family, whom she claims is both poisoning her and afflicting her with ghosts, the young socialite is sent from Mexico City to an obscure mining town in the mountains to ascertain her relative's mental status and health. Noemi's fear for her cousin Catalina springs fully formed from the Gothic: she worries that Catalina's husband, the heir of an English family who owns a defunct silver mine, has married her for her money and is slowly killing her or driving her mad for his own mercenary reasons. 

The truth that Noemi uncovers is far stranger and far worse. Mexican Gothic revels in Gothic conventions; it traffics in a variety of excesses that entwine the sexual, familial, and cultic. Horrid theories of eugenics and purity of blood give a pseudo-scientific veneer to the evil lurking in the family's dilapidated manor. What impressed me most, in a novel full of impressive flourishes, was Moreno-Garcia's mastery of chapter length--they are exactly the perfect length to keep you turning the pages to find out what will happen next.

Julia Gfrorer,
Vision, vol. 4
There's a thing we say about suicide, that we probably shouldn't: "I can't believe they did that. Things were picking up. They had made plans for the future. You couldn't see this coming." But any gesture could be a warning sign. Grasping at one last fleeting pleasure, one more stolen moment, one more attempt to see if the abyss isn't, in fact, bottomless...these aren't displays of happiness or a newfound optimism, they're reassurances that the void is still there, still waiting, still inevitable. That's the idea that the last volume of Vision hits you with, like a punch to the solar plexus. How could it be otherwise?

Tamsyn Muir,
Harrow the Ninth
Some series advertise that you can jump into them at any point. The Locked Tomb series does not make that claim. If you were to jump into Harrow the Ninth without having read Gideon the Ninth first, you might be instantly slain. However, reading Gideon prior to its sequel is no guarantee that you won't be lost for a good portion of Harrow anyway. You're going to be lost; this is a complicated and sometimes difficult book. But it is ultimately a rewarding book.

The overall delivery of Harrow the Ninth feels very different from Gideon because of the switch in main characters. Gideon was just such a basic, brash dummy who was unphased by the horror show around her that it made the journey pretty breezy. Harrowhark, on the other hand, is a neurotic fucking mess, so the book feels a good deal darker because she's just not as fun to be around. Her self-loathing is palpable. She not only notices the horror show, she is the horror show. If anything, reading Harrow feels like reliving an important life lesson I had to learn years ago: all those icy-demeanor'd goth girls that I used to fall for are not actually displaying their callous superiority--they're just kinda broken and miserable. That's the Harrowhark Experience right there!

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness
The second season of The Alienist, which adapts Caleb Carr's novel Angel of Darkness, gave me everything that I was hoping to get out of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. Give me crime amid the historical grot and gilding of the late nineteenth century. Give me deeply flawed characters that I will absolutely care about despite the worst parts of themselves being hideously evident. I didn't even miss the supernatural element because the stakes were high enough to matter. One thing that is particularly noteworthy about this, and the previous season, of The Alienist: it has a way of making you edge-of-the-seat fearful about the fates of its minor characters--those poor pawns being moved about the chessboard as the protagonists solve a mystery that consumes them.

Tanith Lee,
The Blood of Roses Volume 2: Jun, Eujasia, Mechailus
I imagine that tackling Tanith's Lee The Blood of Roses in one volume, as it was originally published, must have been a truly daunting task. Although the plot, such that is, is not difficult to keep track of--and really, at best it's a fleeting and ephemeral thing--the familial, spiritual, and psychic ties between the various characters are complex and a little challenging to keep straight in your head when they are constantly in a state of revelation and flux. 

Continuing from the first volume, Anjelen, the apple of the Church's eye, continues to spin wheels within wheels of a divine arc of a scheme, but we also step back into the past to find the man who would become Anjelen. Jasia and Mechail fled the strange destiny that Anjelen had arranged for them, but here they return to undo what he has wrought and, in an unexpected move, reestablish the status quo. Tanith Lee posits an unusual notion of change not often found in fantasy fiction; no explosive moments of revolution or restoration here, just grand schemes withering on the vine due to boredom, inaction, and lack of passion. It's less he who dares wins and more he who cares wins.

Dark Sarah,
The best, well, possibly only, cinematic metal band is back with a new album entitled Grim. Grim is not aptly named; there is darkness to the record, but it is darkness very much of the Tim Burton carnivalesque fairy tale variety. The Gothic metal elements are here, the sympphonic elements are here--there's some sort of epic, over-arching story in play, something something through the looking glass darkly, I'm sure! I was too busy nodding my head along to the songs to piece it all together, admittedly. 

Dark Shadows: The Complete Original Series Volume One
This first collection of Dark Shadows comics, originally published by Golden Key in the late 60s and into the 70s, are a real hoot, but they could have easily been titled Barnabas Takes a Kicking instead. Each issue features a self-contained, multi-part story in which Barnabas encounters a supernatural force out to ruin his life. Sometimes that force is the ghost of a young sea diver, but it could be an immortal werewolf, a mummy, or the specter of a Native American man who is posing as the Collins's gardener. In most cases, the real villain is Angelique, of course. You've got to at least give some grudging respect to Angelique for her tenacity. She has what would be called "follow-through" in the modern corporate era--a model employee if I've ever seen one. Anyway, come for the Gothic tomfoolery in comics form, stay for the absolutely insane panels of Barnabas running like a cartoon cop.

Errementari is an interesting Basque-language fantasy film about a seemingly deranged blacksmith who has been keeping a devil confined within the ruins of his fortified forge. The film mixes dark fantasy, fairy tale, a tiny bit of Viy-style horror, and a smidgen of slapstick comedy. (That sound effect whenever the wife slaps her husband!) The film's overall aesthetic reminds me a lot of the dark fantasy movies that enthralled me in my younger years; I especially appreciate the use of practical effects. Also, how often do you get to see the classic red devil with horns and a pointy tail wielding a pitchfork? We need to bring that back, culturally speaking.

Leigh Bardugo,
Shadow and Bone
In Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone, an orphaned mapmaker in the king's army finds herself suddenly thrust into the world of power and prestige when it is discovered that she is a mythical sun summoner--someone with the supernatural ability to generate and control sunlight. Sunlight, in the world of Bardugo's novel, is a potent weapon against the Shadow Fold, a man-made cataclysm of darkness that hides warped monsters and splits the kingdom in two. Also, it's a weapon that the Darkling, the head of the mage-like caste that seems to hold the real power in the land, desperately wants to control, putting our heroine in dire straights from both assassins sent by the enemies of her country and from within the ranks of those who would be her country's savior. There's a Netflix adaptation of this series coming at some point; I'll definitely continue on and try to finish the novels off before that drops.

Since Tenebrous Kate made such a strong case for Freud in our half-year check-in episode on Bad Books for Bad People, I had no choice but to seek it out and see what was what. Although the premise of young Sigmund Freud teaming up with a Hungarian spiritualist with the unlikely name Fleur Salome to solve crimes in late nineteenth-century Vienna has the potential to be groan-worthy, the show is actually very enjoyable if you love the flavor of fin de siecle crime mixed with decadence and Gothic supernaturalism. There's a lot to love in Freud's mix: gruesome murders, mensur fencing, seances, strange cults, hypnotism, and showers of blood that would make the House of Hammer envious. 

Joseph Delaney,
Aberrations: The Witch's Warning
As the second book in the Aberrations series, Joseph Delaney's The Witch's Warning functions a lot like The Empire Strikes back. This book is a series of set-backs and losses for the main characters as they fight against the advancing darkness known as the Shole. Their main base of operations is lost, dreadful casualties are inflicted on the defenders of the daylight world, and they are forced to abandoned dear allies to encroaching, corrupting evil. Also like The Empire Strikes back, this novel leaves many threads dangling--what comes of heeding the titular witch's warning, what is the nature of their foe, can the queen of the bog be trusted, will the White Woman be making a return appearance? Yeah, on that last one...we definitely haven't seen the last of her.