Things that brought me delight in September, 2021:
Castlevania: The Art of the Animated Series
I absolutely loved Netflix's cartoon adaptation of the Castlevania video games, so it's probably not too surprising that I also loved this artbook as well. It does what you expect it to: it provides a showcase for character designs and settings, with brief notes on each. One thing I found particularly interesting was how an earlier draft of the designs for Trevor and Sypha featured the characters in a much more youthful, quasi-Disney style. They made the correct choice to ditch that and go with the designs that came later! I also learned of a few Easter eggs I didn't notice while watching the series.
Brimstone & Treacle
Brimstone & Treacle is a film adaptation of a teleplay that was originally created as part of the BBC's Play for Today series, but remained unaired for years due to its content and nihilistic sentiments. The film is about a young man who worms his way into a troubled household: the daughter is a mentally incapacitated invalid, the mother worn down by the caregiving her daughter requires and her husband's lack of faith, and the husband haunted by his guilt over his daughter's condition.
There's something going on in this film about the meaninglessness of language. The father works as a writer of hymns and religious verses for the bereaved, but he rejects the idea of a loving, caring god. The young man who infiltrates their household uses empty words to get what he wants; he invents a past relationship with the daughter to gain entry into the home, and once inside uses empty rhetoric to get his hooks into the family. And what he does once inside is just absolutely bleak and astounding. It's amazing that Sting saw this role and said, "Yes, I would like to play this character." Brimstone & Treacle is easily one of the most unsettling things I've seen in recent memory.
Hooded Menace, The Tritonus Bell
As I mentioned last month, I was really looking forward to The Tritonus Bell, the latest album from Hooded Menace, and now that it has arrived I am not at all disappointed. The crypt-worshipping sound of Hooded Menace is still present, but The Tritonus Bell does a slight swerve by throwing an unexpected King Diamond influence into the mix. This is absolutely poised to be the perfect album for Halloween.
Robin Redbreast is great, creeping folk horror tale from the program Play for Today. A middle-aged woman from London goes to stay at the rural cottage she bought with the partner she just broke up with. The rural folk conspire to get her to stay for their own purposes, which includes pairing her off with a much younger, virile man. The details are what seals this one as unique. In her first encounter with the young man, he's nearly naked, in the forest, practicing...karate! When she invites him to dinner at the cottage, he can't shut up about the history of the Waffen SS. It is a god-damn crime that I never see people talking about this one!
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas
At least fifteen years had passed since I last read J.S. Le Fanu's Uncle Silas. One thing Le Fanu is particularly good at in this novel is giving us a narrator and protagonist who is self-assured in her own judgment, but also allowing the audience to see her as flighty, ignorant, neurotic, and honestly a bit hormonal. But despite her flaws, it's easy enough to sympathize with her plight: offered up as a gambit to purge her uncle's blackened name of scandal, she finds herself living in an isolated, delipidated house, surrounded by sinister servants and fearsome family members who do not have her best interests in mind.
Yana Toboso, Black Butler vol. 1-5
I picked up a bunch of beat-up Black Butler tankobon years ago and have finally gotten around to reading them. Black Butler's tone is generally light, with the bumbling servants of a wealthy British household in awe of how competent the butler is, but it's punctuated with violence when Sebastian is called upon to wreck faces. The butler is, of course, a demon that the child head of household has made a pact with so that he might be avenged against his family's enemies.
It's crazy how one arc will be about solving the Jack the Ripper murders, complete with contemplating whether it is worthwhile to let an innocent die so that the fiend can be dealt with, and the next is about a curry cooking competition. Despite the whiplash transitions between comedic chapters and violent confrontations with the underworld, Black Butler is a very libidinal work. The butler's competency is itself a kind of fantasy--the all-skilled servant who caters to the every whim of his master. And yet, there's also a layer here of seduction and manipulation. Though a servant, the butler arranges circumstances that often invert the power dynamic; he finds a need to dress his master as a young woman and dance with him at a ball, for example. Add to that the obvious question of age, tutelage, pacts, and the notion of submission, and there's a potent tangle brewing.
Sigh, Imaginary Sonicscape, Gallows Gallery, Heir to Despair
Sigh was one of the first black metal bands I got into. Of course, they didn't stay a pure black metal band for very long, as Imaginary Sonicscape attests. There is a little of everything on this album, from thrash metal to psychedelic textures. There are even a few moments that feel like they should be the soundtrack to a giallo film. Perhaps this is a place where prog fans and black metal purists can meet on common ground.
Gallows Gallery is a strange one, even in Sigh's diverse discography. It's also the album that long-term fans are most likely to revile. I've heard it called Sigh's "power metal" album, but I don't find that to be an accurate summation. I can kinda-sorta see the association, as there are many major key moments on the record and "Messiahplan" answers the charge, but I think Gallows Gallery takes on another life entirely if we view it as presaging the arrival of Ghost.
Heir to Despair starts of with lurching prog metal that wouldn't be out of place backing a Cirque du Soleil performance, but the album isn't going to let you stretch out and relax; hot on the heels of the opening track comes a feral take on Slayer. Which is, I suppose, the point of Sigh: you never know what will happen next.
Too many people to note, Wonder Woman and the Justice League Dark: The Witching Hour, Justice League Dark vol. 2-4
The Witching Hour picks up where the Justice League Dark: The Last Age of Magic leaves off: Hecate is manipulating her "children," which includes Wonder Woman, to take control of the multiverse's magic and change it into something detrimental to the cosmos as we know it. The comic has some strong panels and good ideas, but like many attempts to weld superheroes and esotericism together, it relies far too much on a big info dump about "the nature of magic" to find resolution.
Justice League Dark vol. 2: Lords of Order doesn't fare quite so well; the problem is in the villainy: the Lords of Order are just too goofy to be compelling. It's also starting to feel like the only solution on offer in this series is "a dark, magically empowered Wonder Woman." So far we've had two versions Wonder Woman Dark, and that seems like a card you get to play once. The only thing that saves this volume is the inclusion of the annual, which is a pretty decent horror story about the tragic guardian of the Green that replaces Swamp Thing.
So, Circe is in this arc. (And comically the lettering calls her Circle at one point.) Her whole deal seems to be wiping out the "magical world" in the DC Universe. But the more the magic characters talk, the more I'm like "Circe has a point." The Odyssey all over again. Though, I'm not sure why Circe is dressed like a member of the Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Vol. 3: The Witching War at least has some decent body horror in it. I don't buy that Wonder Woman sleeps in a t-shirt, however. Things get wrapped up in Vol. 4: A Costly Trick of Magic in what I can only call "Gaimanesque Minor," which is never my favorite resolution tactic. Also, the superhero genre's aversion to loss is writ large--a beloved character is killed off, only to reappear mere pages later!
Spawn of Possession, Cabinet, Noctamnulant, Incurso
September felt like the right month to listen to tech death. For those unfamiliar with the subgenre, technical death metal is a fusion of death metal's brutality with classical levels of technical skill. For my money, if you want to check out tech death, Spawn of Possession is the best place to start. While every album of their too-brief three record discography is top-shelf stuff, Incurso in particular is a masterpiece. I still can't believe how intense and skillful "Apparition" is.
The Stone Tape
The Stone Tape is another film I've been meaning to lay eyes on for years, but it never occurred to me to check Youtube for it. The Stone Tape has the feel of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who: there is a particular combination of science fiction and horror from this era that has never been adequately replicated.
In The Stone Tape, a group of scientists have taken over a manor house with an ancient foundation, establishing a laboratory to discover a new storage medium so that Britain's technology sector can rival that of the Japanese. What they find is that the ancient stones of the edifice may be a recording device of sorts that has absorbed the ghosts, or at least the traumas, of the past.
Archspire, The Lucid Collective and Relentless Mutation
Continuing this month's foray into technical death metal, I've been listening to a lot of Archspire in preparation for their new album dropping at the end of October. The pitfall of tech death is that the technical aspect can potentially overwhelm the brutality. It's a fine line, and Archspire treads it well. Also, absolutely noteworthy vocals: they function more like a percussive element in the music, freeing up the bass to weave between rhythm and melodic textures.
Steven Rhodes, My Little Occult Book Club: A Creepy Collection
My Little Occult Book Club is a collection of the retro 70s-style spooky art of Steven Rhodes, presented under the guise of a mail order catalog of fictitious occult tomes meant for children. I've always admired these images whenever I've seen them plastered across t-shirts for sale at the mall, so it's nice to have them all collected in one place. The book's conceit works too; My Little Occult Book Club successfully joins Scarfolk and Welcome to Nightvale in the pantheon of hauntological kindergoth.
Penda's Fen isn't quite the folk horror that its reputation would have you believe. Instead, the film is about a sixth form student struggling with his homosexuality, the sentiments of nationalistic authoritarianism rubbing up against revelations about his origins, and Britain's pagan roots. Which is a pretty strong cocktail, all things considered. Absolutely astounding that this appeared on television in the 70s. While there are touches of something you could call "folk horror" here, Penda's Fen is certainly worth viewing for its other merits.
Seven Spires, Gods of Debauchery
It's tough to talk about Gods of Debauchery without implying that Seven Spires has an identity crisis. In truth, they just cover a startling amount of sonic territory. The basic recipe is symphonic metal, but there are touches of much lighter pop metal that play off against moments of extreme metal. In lesser hands this would feel schizophrenic, but with Seven Spires it's just evidence that they're too good at myriad of styles.
Flames of Freedom
I tend not to think of myself as a fan of chonky rpg books, but Flames of Freedom is one massive chonking tome. Premise wise, Flames of Freedom is an update of the Colonial Gothic rpg, a game that explores the supernatural possibilities of the American Revolution. System wise, the game is powered by Zweihander. The match between the two goes a great deal toward fixing the issues I had with Colonial Gothic, even though I quite enjoyed that game. I always found the system in Colonial Gothic to be a little counter-intuitive, but Zweihander is a good fit for the era and themes. In terms of presentation, Colonial Gothic always suffered from a lack of original art--something that Flames of Freedoms has in droves. I haven't delved as far into this yet as I would have liked, it is, as I noted earlier, quite a chonker, but I think this is the ideal game to play through an idea I've had for quite some time: a tale of Warhammer's Old World colonizing the setting's New World analog.
Hereticus is the last novel in Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn trilogy; it shows the titular Imperial Inquisitor at his lowest point--an old enemy has resurfaced, the network of allies and compatriots he's spent decades building has been destroyed practically overnight, and he has found himself tempted to toy with the eldritch might of Chaos in pursuit of a route toward "the greater good." Hereticus has some surprisingly wrenching turns to it, as well as some twists that are telegraphed a little too hard, but overall it is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy. It's easy to see why these novels are the gold standard of 40k fiction, and among the best of tie-in game fiction overall.
Wrath & Glory
One thing that held true after reading each of Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn novels is that they made me want to run an rpg about the exploits of an inquisitor's retinue. I played a little Dark Heresy when that was out, but I never found it satisfying; the characters felt a little too much like chumps for what I had in mind. Wrath & Glory might be a better fit. I'm still wrapping my head around the rules, but it looks like a better alternative for a high action 40k game. Although it isn't specifically focused on agents of the Inquisition, it looks like most of the elements I'd want and need are in here. Character creation does look like a bit of a bear, though.
Brand New Cherry Flavor
I've written a bit before about the "Hollywood Gothic"--a nascent subgenre dealing with the hollow spectacle used to promote and maintain the equally fascicle American Dream; Brand New Cherry Flavor very much feels like a prime example of the Hollywood Gothic's conventions in action. A young filmmaker arrives in Hollywood, beckoned by the promise of getting to direct her first film, but she's almost immediately betrayed by a struggling producer for the most fragile of reasons. Of course, no one's hands are ever clean beneath the glitz and glamor; our young would-be director has left some broken bodies in her wake as she climbs upward as well.
Lisa, our protagonist, turns to a witch and her promised ability to lay a curse on the producer who steals her movie out from under her. What follows is a surreal mix of vengeful spirits, puking up kittens, inept hitmen, body-swapping, and more. I enjoyed Brand New Cherry Flavor, but it's definitely not a limited series that will appeal to everyone; you'll need a taste for the surreal and a willingness to forgo easy answers to make it through this one. Rosa Salazar, who plays the lead, is just tremendous throughout.
Malignant is an incredibly dumb, but surprisingly fun horror movie. I had heard about how it was indebted to the giallo tradition (I can see the influence, but to be honest I think that connection is fairly slight, so much so that if you go into it wanting a giallo hit, you're going to be disappointed), yet I was not expecting it to be so influenced by wuxia wire-work. Raquel Benedict called Malignant a "perfect beautiful idiot himbo of a movie," and that is so absolutely spot on that there's really nothing else that needs to be said about it.
The Art of Blasphemous
I've never seen a game with as specific an aesthetic as Blasphemous, so it's fantastic to have an art book that chronicles its development. Blasphemous's signature style is a bloody take on Spanish Catholicism; piety, sorrow, and sacrifice are linked to bodies broken and degraded by penitence. The reproduction of pixel art, concept art, and inspirational pieces is exquisite. One thing I really appreciate is how meticulously the book documents its inspirations, displaying a deep knowledge of and appreciation for the great Spanish painters who came before.
The Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy
The box art makes The Eternal look an excursion into that curious 90s subgenre of horror that can only be called "slutty Gothic," but that's just a ruse to get you to watch this shakily plotted, ambitiously arty flick about a pair of alcoholics faced with a druid priestess bog mummy who just happens to look like one of the protagonists. The film doesn't make much sense, and I can't in good faith qualify it as a "good" movie, but The Eternal has something interesting to it that I can't quite put my finger on. Is the movie an ill-fated entry in the folk horror canon that can't quite pull off a 90s version of that 70s witchy vibe? Hard to say. Fun to see the great Jared Harris as a younger man, in any case.
Powerwolf, Call of the Wild, The Sacrament of Sin, Blessed & Possessed, Preachers of the Night
I'm not really much of a power metal guy, but there's just something about the insanity of Powerwolf that does it for me. Is the gimmick that they are a group of werewolf inquisitors or something? Eh, who cares; their music is ridiculously over the top and fun.
Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Hallie Rubenhold's The Five is essentially a biography of the five canonical victims of the Victorian serial killer known only as Jack the Ripper. The book's project is essentially recuperative; it aims to gives us a view of these women as not just prostitutes--and, indeed, it argues that most of them weren't prostitutes--to humanize them and give them more dignity than a reduction to a serial killer's targets allows for. Rubenhold's aim is laudable, but while I understand the urge to rehabilitate their names, it really shouldn't matter if they were prostitutes or not. Either way, they were women who didn't deserve to die in the streets. Indeed, though Rubehold stresses the point of their common humanity, her book sometimes lapses into an uncomfortable moral judgment of women involved in sex work; for example, at one point Rubenhold imagines a household of prostitutes as "soul-dead," which rubs uncomfortably against the feminist purpose of the book.
The main issue with The Five is that it is as guilty as the conventional "Ripperology" accounts that it contests: the historical record is so scant and incomplete that it is forced to rely on conjecture and, at best, an educated guess to make its case. There are many instances of phrases such as "It must have been the case that," "It seems likely that," and "One imagines that their reaction was one of" all of which are signal phrases that alert the reader that the events being described are not actually documented. If a fault of traditional Ripperology is that it fills in the gaps with the story its proponents want to be true, I think we must also conclude that Rubenhold engages with a similar level of projection.
This issue is especially true when The Five considers the life of Mary Jane Kelly, a woman we know almost nothing about. Because of the mystery surrounding her origins and much of her adult life, her tale is filled in with the possibility that she was a victim of Victorian sex trafficking. While this is possible, the way it is presented feels fantastical. Tellingly, much of this section of the book is enlivened by ideas from My Secret Life, a supposed memoir of a man deeply involved in the sexual demimonde. However, since My Secret Life is an anonymous publication offered as pornography and nothing in its contents can be corroborated or verified, it really shouldn't be allowed to stand as part of the historical record--it is likely at least a fictionalization of events, if not an outright creative invention.
Of course, that is not to say that the ideas advanced in The Five are without merit. The homelessness of most of the victims needs to be front and center to understand why these women were vulnerable. Whether they were killed while sleeping rough on the streets of the East End or not, the housing instability that shaped their lives put them in danger. Also, it's interesting how few accounts really follow through on one common thread that unites all five victims: they were alcoholics. That strikes me as particularly relevant since a shared addiction defines another way in which they were vulnerable and all too human.
Carnifex, Graveside Confessions, Slow Death, Die Without Hope
Deathcore is one of the least respected branches on the heavy metal family tree, but I have to say that I've come to appreciate Carnifex. It's not all brutality all the time in the Carnifex camp; there are enough black metal elements (tremolo passages, dark orchestral flourishes) that keep things interesting. But when they bite down, they bite down.
The Wild Beyond the Witchlight: A Feywild Adventure
It's going to take me a while to digest how everything in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight hangs together into a coherent whole, but for now here's some of the highlights thus far: the other half of Ravenloft's Carnival (which I predicted, thank you very much), lots of new creatures who look like friends, an awesome new hag coven, the return of all those characters from the 1980s D&D toy line (that gum you like is going to come back in style), two new backgrounds, and two new races.