Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Black Spider, Orphan of Agony Isle, Deathwhite, and More

Things that brought me delight in July, 2022:

Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider

At its heart, Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider is a tale of Faustian bargains. Beleagued and abused peasants make a literal deal with the Devil in his guise as the "green man": he will do the impossible labor they've been assigned by their lord if they agree to give him an unbaptized infant! When they refuse to fulfill the terms of their pact with the Devil, he torments them in the form of a giant black spider who brings death and destruction in its wake. Although the novella is essentially a Christian allegory, it weaves together elements of Gothic horror, folk horror, and even some aspects of the mythical Green Man.

One thing that struck me about the writing in The Black Spider is how well Gotthelf is able to portray the simple and unspoken rules of social obligation. In the opening frame narrative, we see the godmother being plied with food she dare not refuse, even to the point of feeling overfull and sick. Similarly, the rhetorical dance attached to the giving of gifts, one side deploring the poor quality of the presents they've giving while the other exclaims that the gift-giver has gone to too much expense, rings particularly vivid and true.

The Black Spider also features some impressive moments of body horror, particularly when the titular spider grows from the face of the woman who made the initial deal with the Devil. Although a moralizing fable isn't my usual cup of tea, The Black Spider provides more than enough strangeness to make up the difference.

Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle #1 and #2

The Ravenloft Renaissance continues! The latest addition to the microgenre of "things I would not have dreamed would exist back in 1993" is a comic series focusing on a mysterious young woman with amnesia who has fallen into the hands of Doctor Mordenheim. Admittedly, I'm not usually a single-issue guy, but since it's Ravenloft I even ventured out to three comic shops in my area to find this--to no avail, as none of them had it on the new release rack. Alas, at least the internet provides.

When I first heard Orphan of Agony Isle was coming out, I was excited that it focused on Viktra Mordenheim. Of the "revamped" Darklords, I thought she got some of the the best alterations. In previous editions, the Darklord of Lamordia was Victor Mordenheim, a pretty bare Frankenstein pastiche. Her characterization in the comic is pretty much exactly how I imagined her. I also like that the comic gives a glimpse of how regular people deal with living in a land of horrors. 

Thus far, we don't get much in the way of plot or action: we have the introduction of "Miranda," a woman supposedly saved from death by Mordenheim's experiments and also the scene of a woman who dies protecting her son from a hag in Lamordia. The second issue features a nice foiled escape from Falkovnia and the introduction of a fun severed hand servant for Viktra. Of course, as the first two issues of Orphan of Agony Isle you're left wanting more. How the various stories it's telling fit together remains to be seen, but that's the work of issues the final stretch, I suppose.

Deathwhite, For a Black Tomorrow, Grave Image, and Grey Everlasting

The titles of Deathwhite's three albums accurately tell you what you're in for: For a Black TomorrowGrave Image, and Grey Everlasting alert you to the fact that these records are somber affairs. There are clean, chorus-drenched guitars throughout that wouldn't be out of place on a goth rock record, but that isn't to say that Deathwhite doesn't know when to bring the crushing pain when the time is right.

For a Black Tomorrow and Grave Image are great, but I wanted to leave a few words specifically about Grey Everlasting because I think it has the strong potential to be my "album of the year" pick when we record our Best of 2022 episode of Bad Books for Bad People. In my estimation, Grey Everlasting is the most downtrodden and desolate album in Deathwhite's discography; there's something about the vocal timbre and songwriting that feels particularly overwrought, but in the most affective way. It's extremely powerful stuff and highly recommended.

Ravenloft: Gazetteer V and Legacy of the Blood

I got ahold of the last two books to complete my 3e-era Ravenloft collection! 

Gazetteer V covers the last of the Core domains: Nova Vaasa, Tepest, the Shadow Rift, and Keening; there's useful and interesting stuff here, but you also get a sense of why the line might have been discontinued; it does feel like the well was running dry at this point. Although their were areas of the setting yet to be "fully developed," this book perhaps serves as an example of how that full development was choking off the more interesting directions Ravenloft could have gone. Again, there is material here I'll definitely make use of--but in my own idiosyncratic, transformative way.

Ravenloft has always had a "focus on the family"; the original Realm of Terror box set came with full page cards with family portraits on one side and family trees on the other. Legacy of the Blood does an even deeper dive into the twisted families of prominence in the setting. Though much of this material is incompatible with the new iteration of the setting, it seems like there is still plenty to plunder here as well. As a supplement, Legacy of the Blood is a really slick idea, and it's odd that it hadn't occurred to anyone to make something like this before for Ravenloft. After all, twisted families (with all their buried secrets, horrible schemes, and ancestral curses) are so very central to the Gothic's conventions.

Alexis Henderson, The Year of the Witching

"The Year of the Witching is like if The Handmaid's Tale was folk horror," is probably a terrible pitch, but the premise of Alexis Henderson's novel isn't far off that mark. Immanuel is the daughter of a woman suspected of being a witch and a father who was burned in a pyre by the puritanical society in which she lives. Due to her heritage, she fits uneasily into the patriarchal theocracy of Bethel, especially since she feels drawn to the mysteries of the forbidden Darkwood.

When a series of plagues strike Bethel, Immanuel is forced to delve into her past, her mother's witchery, and the gendered legacy of hypocrisy that sustains their culture. I appreciate that in The Year of the Witching there are no easy answers; every solution that Immanuel is offered leads to deeper, darker questions. Apparently this novel is the first in a series, and I can say that I am definitely eager to read more.

Leah, The Quest

Some bands look at their albums as a rising movement that culminates in the biggest, most epic, moment they could summon for the occasion. Leah bucks that trend by storming straight out of the gate with the title track, a ten minute, bombastic statement of purpose.

Over the course of their recorded output, the Leah project has evolved into a showcase for Leah McHenry's powerful voice; the heavy guitars, Celtic and Middle Eastern elements, and symphonic flourishes serve more as a backdrop than as equal partners. However, that doesn't stop tracks like "Abyss" or "Ghost Upon a Throne" from hitting just right; top-notch songcraft on those two delights, in particular.

Katsura Hoshino, D.Gray Man volumes 22-27

After the more light-hearted interludes in the last batch of D.Gray-Man volumes, things resume a serious, high-stakes tone. Allen is held prisoner by his own Order, and seemingly threatened with assassination at the hands of a sentient Innocence named Apocryphos. 

Following his escape, he vows to remain an Exorcist locked in battle with the Noah, but he leaves the Order behind. Joined by Kanda and Johnny, the trio find themselves stalked by both former comrades and the Millennium Earl, all the while Allen struggles to contain the "14th" that lies within him.

The emergence of the 14th Noah causes Allen Walker to delve back into the past and how he is personally tied to the tragic history between the 14th and the Millennium Earl. The last volumes here feel like the series is winding up to a conclusion, but with a manga you can never really tell. In any case, now I'm all caught up on the volumes of D.Gray-Man that have been published in English!

Jose Luis Zarate, The Route of Ice & Salt

The Route of Ice & Salt tells the tale of the crew of the Demeter, the doomed schooner that brought Dracula to England. Told from the perspective of the Demeter's captain, the first section of The Route of Ice & Salt is a private memoir detailing the captain's unquenched queer desires and his fixation upon the masculine bodies of his crew. The second section is where all hell breaks loose: the captain begins using the ship's log to record the strange predation that is eliminating his crew one by one. The third and final section of the novel records a message in the bottle left by the captain to bare both his soul and the method by which he purged the undead evil from the bodies of his now-vampiric crew.

The Route of Ice & Salt is a deeply personal and lyrical novel that explores the thematic connection between queer desire and the image of the vampire; both are regarded as unnatural, inhuman, and predatory, but in considering his desires against the Count's the captain comes to understand the point at which they diverge thematically and ethically. The Dracula Industrial Complex is rife with spinoffs that will waste your time, but The Route of Ice & Salt is so philosophically rich you're only stealing from yourself if you don't read it.

Crematory, Inglorious Darkness

With something like fifteen records under their collective belt, Crematory is a certifiable institution at this point. But they're an odd institution, one whose longevity and success I find difficult to explain. I know why their music appeals to me: there is something in their combination of Gothic, metal, and industrial that feels like sonic comfort food to me. 

They have a sound that takes me back to my goth club days. I don't want to put this too derogatively, but it was a time when you didn't always hear the most artistic music--you just wanted groove and darkness, two things that Crematory has in excess. On Inglorious Darkness, as with many of their albums, Crematory verges on fishtailing into utter cheese, but they manage to just about keep things on the rails. You have to lean into what sounds like the singer going "Bwahahahaha" on the title track, for example.

Ultimately, Inglorious Darkness scratches an itch adjacent to the one left unfulfilled by Rammstein's latest offering. If you need something in your life that's dark, stompy, and fun, give Inglorious Darkness a listen. Clove cigarettes optional, but highly recommended.

Let Me In

I've always assumed that Let Me In exists solely because Americans are adverse to watching films with subtitles. Why else would you choose to watch Let Me In when the brilliant Let the Right One In is already available?

If you haven't seen either, they both tell a refreshed story about vampirism; this time, the blood-drinking fiend is a twelve year old child who befriends a misfit kid--someone who is bullied at school and neglected at home. 

Thinking about it further after I watched Let Me In, I suppose that although it's lamentable that some people won't budge from their popcorn comfort zones, the movie does at least let you share a really excellent cinematic experience with family members who would otherwise be put off by the "foreign" Let the Right One In.

When the dust settles, I still prefer Let the Right One In, but Let Me In is still a credible film in its own right. It's beautifully filmed and the leads all turn in strong performances. There are even a few noteworthy differences that make watching Let Me In worthwhile even if you've seen the original; Let Me In is more viscerally violent, the narrative is slightly complicated by a nonlinear structure, and there's an added scene that is pretty effective. Hell, let them all in, I say.

Dark Shadows (Innovation comic)

Innovation's short-lived Dark Shadows comic was a tie-in for the equally short-lived revival series that aired in the 90s. The comic's run covered three different arcs, each with its own team. All three use a painted comic style, though to differing effect. The first series is perhaps a bit too close to "realistic," which sometimes wanders inadvertently into the grotesque. Things pick up in the second arc, but it's the third arc's unique, creepy look that I found most visually appealing.

Narratively, all three arcs venture into wilder territory than the show was likely to explore. The first arc concerns Barnabas and Julia taking a trip to a town overrun by inbred mutants and their hellfire preacher leader. The second involves an encounter with the Greek gorgons, who just happen to live next door to the Collins family. The third, which sadly only got one issue before the comic was canceled, seemed to be telling a tale about ghostly children. Angelique hovers in the background in all three arcs, but sadly she never got a story in which to shine.

The thing I love about Dark Shadows ephemera is that it all carries on in unheralded tangents. In that regard, Innovation's Dark Shadows comics punch well above their weight.


Although I started reading the Claymore manga as a stopgap replacement for Berserk, by the end of the series it had become one of my favorites purely on its own merits. When I noticed that Hulu had the Claymore anime available, I made time to work through it in July.

The anime is actually a very faithful adaptation of the manga. The pitfall that adaptations can run into is avoided here: there are no moments that really rub up uncomfortably against how I imagined the manga "moving" in my head. Sure, there are a few moments where the physicality of the fight scenes makes more visual sense on paper than it does in motion, but there are no real missteps here. The picture is sometimes a hair too dark, and it's a shame the anime ended before reaching the conclusion that the manga did, but this was pretty fun. I think fans of the manga will get the most out of it, but it's a decent choice for a little animated entertainment.

Eric Powell, The Goon: Bunch of Old Crap Omnibus Volume 2

I really shouldn't have waited so long to re-read Eric Powell's The Goon comics because these things are nothing but piles of two-fisted fun. One thing I particularly like about reading them in the omnibus format is that the collections compile comics with very different styles. 

As much as I liked the Goonified riff on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge takes the beating we've all wanted to see him get, the real gem of this omnibus is Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker, which was originally published as a stand-alone graphic novel. Delving into Goon's tragic past, Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker alternates between detailing Goon's memories of his greatest pain and the present events that echo them. The use of color here is especially impressive; the past is rendered in sepia tones, while the present lives on in muted colors. They're clearly different, but the palettes aren't so far afield that you can't sense the deep connection between them. And the pages of the Goon looking at his distorting face in the mirror after experiencing heartbreak? Unimpeachable visual storytelling.

Converge & Chelsea Wolfe, Bloodmoon I

Back in the day when I listened to a lot of hardcore, Converge were one of my favorites. They were always a little darker, a bit more unhinged, and more drawn to the occult and the experimental. Of the Gothic chanteuses battling for nocturnal supremacy, Chelsea Wolfe has emerged victorious--at least in my eyes. Given their pedigrees, this collaboration had a lot to live up to.

And it does. Rather than merge their styles into a standard template for their combined songcraft, both parties weave in and out of the songs, each leaving wounds and scars. The track "Viscera of Men" is a great example: it begins as a punky burst of frantic violence from Converge, then it becomes a doomy dirge; Chelsea Wolfe arrives like a demoness summoned from the lower circles, then the track evolves into what feels like a cult's profane liturgy. By the end, these different elements mix into a crescendo. No two tracks on Bloodmoon I are similar, much to me continued delight.

The Heart, She Holler

I have no idea how The Heart, She Holler escaped my notice until July of 2022. Nominally about a political heir to control of an isolated Southern hick town, who has been kept in cave until his father's death, and his conflict with his sexually monstrous sister and his psychically empowered sister, The Heart, She Holler is a dark, surreal mixture of horror and comedy. The comedy, and the horror, are often wickedly inappropriate. Tonally, The Heart, She Holler is like if Twin Peaks or Lars von Trier's Kingdom Hospital would be like if they were Southern-fried comedies.

The last episode of the series is really something. Dueling TVs deliver a presidential speech by Jimmy Carter while strange things happen to the remaining townsfolk of the holler. Utterly unlike the rest of the series, the finale muses on the political vision we once had of a better America and the sad fallout we've inherited instead. Absolutely unnerving way to close things out, yet how could it have gone any other way?

Ava Inferi, Burdens and Blood of Bacchus

Sometimes you only get into a band after they have become sadly defunct. Such is the case with Ava Inferi; I took a chance on two of their records on a clearance sale, and what a serendipitous find they turned out to be!

Ava Inferi play a fusion of Gothic metal and doom, not too far afield from modern My Dying Bride, albeit often at a mid-tempo. The guitars crunch long, but there are also beautiful, shimmering passages as well. The vocals are the highlight for me, as they address a minor grievance I have with the genre of female fronted Gothic metal bands: with the predominance of the symphonic metal style of vocals, the genre doesn't have much variety or versatility. Ava Inferi challenges the trend by utilizing vocal styles that wouldn't be misplaced on a Projekt record. I absolutely love the pairing of those vocal techniques with this kind of metal, and I wish more bands went for something farther afield like this.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread follows the relationship between a brilliant couturier and the latest in what can be assumed to be a long string of women plucked from obscurity and thrust into a largely ornamental role in his life. 

The film progresses slowly, letting you digest its ideas about what it might be like to live with a narcissistic "genius" and how many narcissists might actually be conscious of how difficult they are--yet perhaps they may be unable to curb their own behavior without unconventional outside intervention.

Phantom Thread is beautifully filmed and exquisitely acted, but I have to confess that I thought the film was unraveling its plot in a slightly disappointing way for the first half of its runtime. However, there is a "quiet twist" right at the end that wrapped the whole thing up in a really interesting and provoking way.

Kuolemanlaakso, Kuusumu

Kuolemanlaakso--not exactly a name to conjure with. Kuusumu is my first foray into the band's discography; I gather they have a rather spotty track record, with a heavy death doom origin and a less well-received period of gothy hard rock, but I like what I hear on Kuusumu.

The band has perhaps reverted to their death-doom origins, but elements of gothic metal remain to add a more emotive strain of melancholy to the proceedings. The guitar work is crushing in places and elegiac in others. I'm quite impressed with the varied vocal textures used on Kuusumu, which range from blackened rasps, clean passages, spoken word sections, and guttural death metal growls. Love the heavy Peaceville Three vibes on "Surun Sinfonia."