Happy Halloween!

Yes, folks, it’s my favorite holiday again–the one where everything gets spooky!  And in honor of this most diabolical of holidays, here’s some badass Bernie Wrightson art featuring the walking head horror from the John Carpenter film The Thing.  Enjoy!  Mwah ha ha ha . . .

Bernie Wrightson - The Thing
Bernie Wrightson – The Thing

And also, here’s your Halloween song, possibly the creepiest song in creation.  Let’s just say, Annabelle has nothing on the doll in Christine.  Nothing at all.

Tarnation – Christine

Song/Video of the Day (10-21-14)

Communist Daughter – Ghosts

So, I clearly missed a few days of posting the Song of the Day.  Sorry about that, but I had a lot going on at the time.  Anyway, I’m back on track, at least until the next mini-crisis or whatever.  Today’s selection is from Communist Daughter and is simply titled Ghosts.  I had not seen the music video for the song until today, and now I’m sharing it.

Communist Daughter – Ghosts (Youtube)

Song of the Day (10-15-14)

Floater – Ghost in the Making

I missed the Song of the Day post yesterday, but now I’m back on track.  Continuing with our theme of songs about ghosts and hauntings this month, here’s one from one of my favorite bands, Floater, who reside in Portland, Oregon.  It’s a shame this band isn’t bigger than they are; they’re just a good solid hard rock band, though more intelligent and interesting than most, I think.  This song isn’t really about ghosts in the traditional sense; thematically it has much in common with Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd, particularly Have a Cigar.  Enjoy!

Floater – Ghost in the Making (YouTube)

Song of the Day (10-13-14)

Ulver – Can You Travel in the Dark Alone

This comes from Ulver’s fantastic album Childhood’s End, the cover of which features one of Nick Ut’s photographs of little Kim Phuc running through the streets after being burned with napalm in Vietnam, a perfect symbol of lost innocence if ever there was one.  The cover image is posted below; it also features some amazing design work.  Can You Travel in the Dark Alone is song written and originally performed by the band Gandalf; it’s not the creepiest song on the album–that would Bracelets of Fingers (which I’ve already mentioned and linked to in this post)–but it’s possibly a close second.  In fact, the entire album is a covers album of obscure early psychedelic rock, and I love it!

Ulver – Can You Travel in the Dark Alone (YouTube)

Ulver - Childhood's End (cover)
Ulver – Childhood’s End (cover)

Song of the Day (10-12-14)

Brothertiger – A House of Many Ghosts

I’m starting something new, posting a song and/or music video of the day.  Note that I may not always post a Song of the Day, but most days I likely will, at least for awhile.  Anyway, I am extremely eclectic when it comes to music, so you never know what you might get.  I’m keeping it seasonal the rest of this month and posting creepy songs.  And here’s a good one to kick things off with:

Brothertiger – A House of Many Ghosts (Youtube)

Corporations and Politicians, Get Over Yourselves

There are many flaws with the conservative political philosophy, and authors David Armitage and Jo Guldi shed light on one of the big ones in their book The History Manifesto.  You’d think that history-informed planning and policy-making would be a major part of the conservative agenda, and at one time it may have been.  But then Reagan happened, and the “greed is good” era, which paved the way for the Neocons to move in and undo Glass-Steagall.  Anyway, The History Manifesto points out a major problem with losing focus on the importance of historical precedent in determining policy: when we stop thinking about the big picture in social philosophy, we fall prey to thinking in terms of the problems of the day, which are mostly concerned with economic upturns and downturns.  And all that concentration on economics tends to make people’s ethics shift from social justice to money.  Our government has now become money-oriented rather than people-oriented.  And what are the consequences of this shift?

In the old days the purchasing power of money was much higher, and so it was less of a day-to-day concern, freeing people’s time up for other things.  This is not to say that the era was some economic ideal; of course it wasn’t.  But there was a time when a person working a single minimum wage job could support an entire modest-sized family on his or her income.  That is no longer the case.  There was also a time when corporations paid their fair share in taxes, but that too is no longer the case.  Corporations in America have, on average, never been more profitable than they are today; and yet, their tax payments have sunk to pre-WWI (that’s World War One) rates.  Corporate tax rates were at their highest during the 1950s and early 1960s, which also coincides with our greatest period of prosperity since the enactment of viable corporate taxation in 1909.  You do the math.

These are just some of the manifestations of a political culture that has become obsessed with putting profits over people.  The conservatives in power like to bitch about the lazy poor, citing too-high unemployment rates to argue that so-called “entitlement” programs have damaged the economy by allowing the poor to mooch off the government while the rich do all the work to keep everything afloat.  But all it takes is a little context to understand why unemployment rates remain high: if employers aren’t willing to pay people living wages, why should they expect the poor to be champing at the bit to work for them?  Personally, I think the poor should refuse en masse to work for piss-poor wages.  They should grind the service and retail industries to a halt until they get a $15 or $20 minimum wage.  But they’re afraid to do that.  Fear is the oil the powerful use to grease the wheels of industry.  They keep us divided and preoccupied with terrorism and other abstract horrors while they amass monstrous fortunes that will mostly rot in banks, barely a fraction of it ever used.

So, the burden to stimulate the economy is not on the rich, since they horde more wealth than they will ever spend, keeping it dormant rather than active.  No, that burden lies with the lower classes, who have no choice but to spend whatever they make.  By and large, it is the poor, therefore, who keep the economy rolling and buoyant.   The rich and powerful disdain us, and yet they couldn’t have gotten where they are (nor could they stay there) without us.  They have the nerve to call us leeches and freeloaders even while they torque the system to squeeze every last bit of dignity and self-sufficiency from us, and force us to keep carrying them on our backs.

The rich point out that in the global economy America is falling behind because other countries aren’t putting all those stifling regulations on businesses . . . like, you know, paying people decent wages, making sure they have a safe environment to work in, providing health care for them and all that jazz.  So, yeah, our politicians and corporate leaders want to turn America into a Third World country so they can become mega-billionaires instead of just mega-millionaires.  They gripe about us abusing the system when they themselves have arranged the system to serve their interests, not ours.  Sorry, corporate America, but you are NOT oppressed.  Try again.  Take your focus off serving money and put it back onto serving the people, and maybe you’ll get back the respect you squandered years ago.  Maybe.

How History Forgot Its Role in Public Debate

China Miéville’s ‘Perdido Street Station’ – A Review (and an Illustration)

I read The Scar several years before tackling Perdido Street Station, and although I enjoyed it immensely, I always felt I was missing something essential about the series by starting with the second volume.  Not that it’s necessary to read the books in order, but clearly it helps.  When I finally got around to the first volume in the trilogy, I realized almost immediately upon beginning it why I should’ve read them in order: because, no matter how far they get away from it geographically, the heart of these books has always been the port city of New Crobuzon, a kind of magically-poisoned Victorian London.  In Perdido Street Station this great city is front and center, and it’s an unrivaled destination in the history of fantastic literary metropolises.

In New Crobuzon life is hell even before the monsters which serve as the central antagonists arrive there.  Unlike with most fantasy series, magic (or thaumaturgy as it’s called here) is not something awe-inducing and esoteric but rather just another natural resource to be exploited by the greedy and powerful, and it’s uses (and misuses) lead to new complex and horrific social problems.  Magic is often used hand-in-hand with the crude Industrial Age technology of New Crobuzon, creating weird physical/metaphysical amalgamations.  For example, a part of the continent was once devastated by a kind of thaumaturgic atomic bomb, leaving the land mutated in unthinkable ways that leak into both planes of existence.  And that’s just a minor background detail to this story, which deals with a plague of giant multidimensional moths accidentally set loose in the city that feed on the thoughts and dreams of sentient beings.  Okay, plague is a bit of an exaggeration: there are only five of them, but that’s enough to bring the city to its knees.  Trust me, these things are very bad news.

The central character of Perdido Street Station is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an aging, overweight scientist.  Isaac is approached early on by a garuda, a birdlike humanoid whose wings have been severed from his back by his tribe as a punishment for the vague crime of ‘choice-theft’, which turns out to be much worse than it sounds, incidentally.  Every character of consequence in the story is broken or misshaped somehow, or will be by story’s end, and this keys into one of the book’s major themes: metastatis, upheaval, that point at which someone or something is in a state of in-betweenness or incompleteness.  All of the major species of Bas-Lag are viewed through this filter of transitionality, including humans (khepri–the beetle-headed species Isaac’s girlfriend Lin belongs to–see humans as half-khepri, half-ape).  Then there are the Remades, people who have been magically augmented with animal or machine parts or the parts of other sentient species.  The psychivorous slake-moths and the Weavers, the latter a race of gigantic, intelligent but insane spiders, reside in multiple levels of reality and are constantly moving in and out of them.  And, of course, New Crobuzon is a city consistently caught up in crisis.

Isaac’s life’s work is even about channeling something called crisis energy, which places Perdido Street Station in the realm of metafiction similar to the way The NeverEnding Story does, though not quite as overtly.  For crisis energy is really the power of impossibility, the life juice of fantasy fiction itself, and by figuring out a way to tap into it (as he eventallly does), Isaac is consciously engaging in the task of reinvigorating the very genre to which he is relegated.

Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence has spontaneously manifested in a scrapyard in the city, a gangster who has become the ultimate Remade haunts New Crobuzon’s underworld, and the monstrous slake-moths terrorize the entire city’s dreams.  None of these horrors would be half as effective, though, if not for New Crobuzon’s devious and incompetent government officials, reminding us that even in the realms of fantasy the corruption, apathy and cruelty of government is inescapable, and that’s what grounds Miéville’s work and keeps it from becoming too alien.  Despite their exoticness, the characters still deal with real-world problems on top of the strange and magical ones that arise.

The book was originally released in 2000–a transitional year, I might add–and it was nothing short of groundbreaking.  I reread it just recently; fourteen years later it still feels fresh and innovative, though my impressions of it are more nuanced now.  While the sheer number of ideas stuffed into the book threaten to push it into overkill territory, somehow Miéville manages to make all of it work as a kind of salmagundi of the fantastic.  And like all great works of urban fantasy, Perdido Street Station takes the reader on a grand tour of its city, including the titular station itself, but the setting rarely becomes obtrusive.  And when it does, the cleverness behind it renders all such breaches forgivable.  In fact, even at those points when the book doesn’t manage to make suspension of disbelief effortless (and there are a few of them), the cognitive estrangement that arises can be treated as a guideline of what is possible within the fantasy genre.  In that sense it should be regarded as required reading by anyone who wishes to write fantasy fiction, especially dark fantasy.  But really anyone who is interested in the literature of the fantastic must read this novel.  I promise you won’t regret it.

Grade: A+

And just for the hell of it, here’s my take on the slake-moths.  This is actually my second version of the moths, as the first had some deviations from the way the creatures were described in the book.  I liked this one better in the end.  It’s a bird’s-eye view of the moth with the smoke-laden skies of the city provided as a vague backdrop.  The wings of the moths are described as multidimensional and ever-changing, and the moths use them as a tool to mesmerize their victims.  This was all rendered in Photoshop.

When Monsters Are Born: ‘Carrie’, ‘Firestarter’ & ‘Silent Hill’

birthofevilbanner

The birth of evil is always a tragedy, and the most heartbreaking tragedy of all is when the most innocent become the most monstrous.  It’s tragic because we know, even when we don’t witness it firsthand, that the path that led there was one of horrendous pain.  That is the case in three fantastic horror stories, two of which began as novels and one as a video game but have all since been made into films.  I speak, of course, of the Stephen King works Carrie and Firestarter, and the original Silent Hill film, all of which feature young girls who have become corrupted by the physical and mental tortures and unthinkable betrayals that they are subjected to.

I have discussed before that I think Stephen King’s early work is his strongest both horror-wise and writing-wise.  One reason I think this is so is that there’s a kind of desperation that undergirds those early novels, and this probably arose from being a still struggling author raising a young family.  Once he became the most popular writer in the known universe, the desperation pretty much fizzled out.  Nothing wrong with that–it’s probably the best trajectory the King of Horror could’ve taken, but it also means the nature of his work was bound to change.  It certainly did, sometimes for the better (his imagination was able to fully blossom, and thus it ultimately gave fruit to what I consider to be his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series) and sometimes for the worse.  In addition to losing touch with that desperation that made his early work so compelling, he exchanged the raw, elemental power that drove it for a more complex and convoluted spiritual world, the dark side of which is ruled by a being with nearly as much invented mythology as the devil himself, and the light side of which has an Eternal Champion to give both Moorcock’s creation and Jesus Christ a run for their money, and that ain’t a bad legacy for any writer.  Not.  At.  All.

But with Carrie, King captured lightning in a bottle, and it’s easy to understand why it was this novel that broke him into the published author camp.  Talk about desperation!  It’s practically stitched into the very being of Carrie White, a weird, awkward, repressed adolescent girl who is an innocent in nearly every respect.  Having only recently entered puberty (quite late), she is horrified to learn that her body naturally bleeds, and this ignorance leads to the infamous scene in the girl’s locker room where she is taunted and tormented by the other girls in her class.  The interesting thing about Carrie is that it contains no otherworldly beings, no ghosts or haunted houses, no murderous psychopaths.  None of the usual antagonists or tropes of your standard horror fiction are to be found here.  Yes, there is a supernatural element in the form of Carrie’s powers, but they aren’t external to Carrie.  And there are the kids and Carrie’s mother whose cruelty pushes her over the edge, but they are nothing out of the ordinary.

So, the horror of Carrie isn’t something alien which invades the girl’s tranquil and otherwise normal world.  No, the real horror of the story is that we have been given a front row seat to the birth of evil in its most terrible incarnation.  We are, in effect, watching the character we have come to empathize with the most transform before our very eyes into the monster.  Carrie White has nothing but good intentions and the purest heart in the beginning, but by the end of the story, under the weight of the final degradation she is forced to endure, she has become a cyclone of violence and hatred who murders her classmates and finally her own mother, acts for which she can never be redeemed.  And she isn’t.  Instead, she dies from the stab wounds inflicted on her by her mother, or alternately, in the Brian Di Palma film, from a combination of the stab wound and suicide (by psychically destroying her house with her still inside of it).  However, King does offer a note of hope in the novel in the form of another little girl whose mother sees her daughter’s abilities as a gift rather than a curse from God.  Incidentally, there is no such hope offered in the Di Palma film, which fits the bleakness trend of late seventies cinema to a T.

But Stephen King wasn’t finished with this theme, for he would go on to pen Firestarter a few years later, a novel which in some ways takes the concept even farther than Carrie did.  (Douglas Clegg, whose Goat Dance I reviewed recently, also owes a little something to Firestarter with his novel Dark of the Eye–more on that when I give it a proper review of its own.)  The focal character, Charlie McGee, a little girl with pyrokinetic abilities, is even more of an innocent than Carrie White.  Here, however, there are external malignant forces at work in the form of the Shop and especially the hit man John Rainbird.  But these evils are not where Firestarter‘s ultimate horror lies.  Once again, what is most horrific about the story isn’t the evil which already exists but the evil that emerges from Charlie herself, and again the path that led there is one of suffering.  The ultimate irony of the story is one similar to that inherent in the relationship between Carrie and her mother: Margaret White sees in her daughter an abomination, and through her maltreatment of Carrie, contributes to making the girl into exactly that.  Likewise, the secret government agency that fears Charlie is the very agency which eventually turns her into something to be feared.

It is a difficult scene to get through when Charlie, dealing with the death of her father and learning of her betrayal at the hands of Rainbird and the Shop, turns her power up to ten and destroys everyone and everything in her path.  But King again supplies a tincture of hope here, because Charlie is perhaps still young enough to recover from her murderous turn and live a normal life, and there may be redemption in exposing the Shop’s atrocities to the world, as Charlie ultimately does.  But because Charlie has become cynical of the media, she only trusts one publication to get the story straight.  She will never again be fully innocent; she has become corrupted by her experience, wizened to the ways of the world.

There are several contenders for the inheritor of King’s birth of evil motif, but perhaps none is as powerful–or as dark–as Silent Hill.  I can’t speak much for the game because I have never played it, and I’m also aware that it differs significantly from the film.  It is the film which most interests me anyway, because it more than any other fully embraces the concept of the good girl gone monstrous.  Alessa Gillespie was once a normal little girl who was ostracized by other children for being born out of wedlock, became a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the school janitor who targeted her because she was isolated and disliked, and then, as with Carrie and Charlie, suffered a final degradation which corrupted her, blackened her soul, and hers is by far the worst: she is burned alive and survives.  In the process her soul divides into two parts, Dark Alessa and Sharon.  Sharon is of course adopted by the movie’s heroine, Rose, but winds up back in the town, drawn in by Dark Alessa, who needs a worthy vessel in order to be able to enter the only place in Silent Hill that is forbidden to her in her dark form: a church sanctuary.  It is Rose who winds up becoming the vessel, however, and when Alessa finally is able to show up in the sanctuary both in body and spirit, she too, as with King’s young girls, succumbs to a mass slaughter of those who tormented her in a scene that would give Clive Barker’s Cenobites pause, or maybe send them running in terror.  And again, as with Carrie and Firestarter, it’s also a terribly sad scene because it makes explicit how much the girl was twisted and corrupted by her experiences. You shed tears watching the darkly beautiful scene unfold, for you know that, while you are horrified by the slaughter, you are also disturbingly satisfied by it on some level.  These people got what they deserved, no?

You see, we as the reader/viewer, have followed the trajectories of these characters from young innocents to raging, hateful monsters (albeit somewhat obliquely in Alessa’s case), and we have grown with them.  Charlie’s monstrosity may be temporary, and that’s some consolation.  Carrie dies, so she no longer poses a threat to anyone.  Ah, but Alessa . . . she becomes queen of her own little dark corner of hell.  The good part of her, Sharon, exists but is still trapped in Silent Hill (along with Rose) by film’s end.  And we are right there with them, left to contemplate how we have arrived at this point, how we have come to identity with the monster.  Mourning the fact that we too, somewhere along the way, have lost our innocence.  We too have loosed evil at some point in our lives, and once it’s out there in the world, wreaking havoc, there is no way to take it back.  In fact, one of the functions of horror fiction is to remind us of that.  So be good to your fellow man, folks, lest you give birth to monsters.