Ann-Marie MacDonald’s ‘The Way the Crow Flies’ – A Review

IX-anne-marie-macdonald-as-the-crow-fliesAnn-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies is not a horror novel, but it certainly covered some horrific ground. Did I mention I also enjoy reading bildungsroman novels, especially ones that are fabulously written?

MacDonald’s second novel (after Fall on Your Knees) follows the life of eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy, the daughter of Jack McCarthy, a high-ranking officer at the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Centralia, Ontario, Canada in the early sixties. Newly arrived after a long stint in Germany (where Madeleine was born), the family quickly adapts to life in a new part of the world, at least for Madeleine. Everything is off to a roaring start until she experiences unexpected trouble at school in the form of her abusive teacher Mr. March, who chooses a handful of girls to remain a few minutes after school for his personal pleasure, of which Madeleine is one. Tough subject matter to address in and of itself, but the bleakness level shifts into overdrive after Claire, an American classmate whose dad is stationed at the base for reasons known only to Madeleine’s father, is raped and murdered off-base and a beloved teenage neighbor, Ricky Froelich, becomes the state’s prime suspect, an easy scapegoat when the local authorities want to close this horrendous case quickly, and do so with the help of two of Madeleine’s classmates . . . who also happen to be members of the “after-three” club.

Is that dark enough for you? No? Well then, toss in the fact that the reason Claire’s father is stationed at the base is to smuggle a Nazi war criminal into the United States to serve as an assistant to Wernher von Braun as part of America’s plan to make sure it gets to the moon before those pesky Commies do, and that Madeleine’s father is a willing participant in this scheme, and that the teenager is the adopted son of Henry Froelich, a Jewish man who happened to be a prisoner at Mittelbau-Dora and knew the Nazi scientist who Jack secretly has holed up in a nearby town, only waiting for his order to brief Claire’s father and get the Nazi packing to the US. Jack also happens to be an important witness who could potentially vindicate Ricky’s innocence, but in doing so he would have to blow open the secret mission his own government has him participating in. Wait, even more issues come steadily down the pike with each new chapter, such as the fact that Madeleine is dealing with her burgeoning homosexuality, and her beloved older brother Mike is later sent to Vietnam. And, and . . .

If this plot seems over-complicated and a little too ‘just so’ to swallow, perhaps, but it should be noted that all of its various components were born from real-life events. Madeleine’s life is in part autobiographical, and the main plot point, the murder of Claire McCarroll, is based on the case of Steven Truscott. Of course, the Nazi war criminal being smuggled into Canada, and then into the US, is also modeled on historical precedent, namely Operation Paperclip. May be all of these events converging is one of those one-in-a-million things that sometimes do happen. It’s still pushing it, though MacDonald’s writing is so natural and self-assured that nothing ever feels forced, and the characters are sufficiently well-drawn that their respective motivations are perfectly understandable. Thus, it all feels too much like destiny about mid way through, a depressing conclusion indeed. Yet, somehow, amidst this carefully constructed fatalism, just when you think you have everything worked out and know how the story will end, the final piece is dropped into place, and it’s more shocking than you could ever have  imagined.

The Way the Crow Flies, published in 2003, was a well-deserving contender for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Lambda Literary Award, though it ultimately won neither. That’s unfortunate. It’s a beautifully written novel that bounces back and forth between the two major p.o.v. characters, Madeleine and Jack, and spans around thirty years, as the adult Madeleine deals with the fallout from her own childhood abuse as well as watching a dear friend get sent up the river for crimes she knows he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, Jack’s big secret and the guilt that results from it is taking a toll on his health, which in turn is adding more stress to Madeleine’s life, and on it goes, until things finally come to a head and both Jack and Madeleine are forced to deal with their past. MacDonald perfectly captures the tone and details of life on a Canadian air force base in 1963, and weaves the various strands of her intricate and involving tale in such a way that they feel consistent and complimentary, which by all rights they shouldn’t.

That said, the novel is not without its flaws. Mr. March, the pedophile teacher, is perhaps too clichéd and one-dimensional to be perfectly believable. There’s also the matter of conflating homosexuality with being sexually abused, and though the novel goes out of its way to disassociate the two, it ultimately reinforces the stereotype by putting the central protagonist in both categories. The story would’ve been better served by not adding this additional wrinkle to an already complicated plot. And then there’s what becomes of Madeleine’s brother Mike, which does feel gratuitous. With all the stuff Madeleine goes through, it’s understandable that she’s a mess. In fact, it’s fairly startling that she isn’t more messed up than she is.

But these are fairly minor problems in the scheme of things. For the most part Madeleine McCarthy is that rarest of literary treasures, a believable child character, and a charming one at that. Part of her ability to cope comes down to the fact that she’s always been a natural comedian even as a little girl. Indeed, she will eventually choose to go into comedy as a career. In line with that aspect of her personality, one of the things that makes eight-year-old Madeleine such a lovable and well-rounded child character is her tendency to constantly mimic her favorite Warner Brothers cartoons. This is so exceedingly spot on that I wish I’d thought of it. And the story itself is a murder mystery of the most fascinating kind: one that is viewed through the eyes of a protagonist who isn’t particularly interested in solving it, while the investigating cops here are more like antiheroes, as they just want the case resolved quickly and efficiently at the expense of good police work, resulting in a clear miscarriage of justice. With respect to the guilt or innocence of Steven Truscott, the model for Ricky Froelich in the book, I’d say it’s pretty clear where Ms. MacDonald comes down. Having now read some of the details of the Truscott case myself, I’m still on the fence, though leaning in the direction of innocence.

But one thing is perfectly clear to me: MacDonald needs to keep writing. She not only manages to address issues like sexual abuse and moral panic in a sensitive and compelling way, she shines a light on one of the darker chapters of the space race and the development of the Saturn V rocket. The ghastly twist ending is just icing on the cake.

Grade: A-

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Dark Companions’ – A Review

IX-ramsey-campbell-dark-companionsMany horror fans would agree that Ramsey Campbell is the quintessential British modern master of the genre.  If not, they should give this book a try.  Dark Companions is one of the author’s earliest short story collections, but also one of his best.  Campbell uncommonly and artfully bridges the Old World Gothic-style tale with the modern horror terrain exemplified by Stephen King and later Clive Barker, and Dark Companions is a prime example of that.  These are mostly ghost stories of a sort, and the majority of them are a unique enough riff on that theme, but what really gives Campbell’s yarns their wallop is the absolutely superb writing on display here.  Even the less successful pieces in the collection are a worthy investment of one’s time for the sheer beauty of the sentences alone; but luckily, the majority of the tales in Dark Companions are brilliant.

The opening story in this collection, Mackintosh Willy, won the World Fantasy Award in 1980, and deservedly so. In it, a young boy’s crime against a homeless man is avenged from beyond the grave.  Other standouts are Down There, where an office building’s sub-basement  houses something monstrous, Out of Copyright, in which an anthologist of obscure dark stories finds his holy grail . . . an unwittingly releases an entropic evil into the world, Little Voices, where a priggish childless teacher finds herself haunted by the spirit of a puckish but desolate infant that tests her patience and her sanity, and The Companion, which finds its protagonist braving an abandoned fairground ride with unexpectedly creepy results.

But undoubtedly, the real star of this collection is The Pattern, about a haunted field whose evil is not bounded by time.  Rarely does a story truly shock me, but the ending of this one caught me right in my quivering heart, and I found myself only vacating my bed to void my bladder quite reluctantly, and then returning to it as quickly as I could.  Maybe it was because the main character was, like myself, an artist, or maybe it had to do with me being somewhat agoraphobic.  But I think it owed more to the fact that an evil which could freely violate the laws of physics (namely the impossibility of traveling back in time) seemed like it would hardly be constrained by something as paltry as being a mere piece of fiction, and that it could spring wholly into existence simply for the fact that I had opened the pages of Mr. Campbell’s book and read about it.  Beyond the tale’s scare factor, its title also has multiple levels of meaning, all the more so for its protagonist being a painter.

A few of these pieces left me with more questions than answers, but they were no less scary for that.  The Puppets, for example, is undeniably about a haunted Punch and Judy show (which are pretty creepy to begin with, it must be said), but the question I had at the end is, was Mr. Ince, the proprietor and operator of the show, the poltergeist behind the scenes or simply another puppet?  And perhaps that was the point.  That kind of thing is hard for veteran horror writers to pull off, much less one only about a third of the way into his career as Campbell was when he penned this.  Another such story was The Show Goes On, which had a vague and claustrophobic ending that somehow works despite the confusion.  Campbell even manages to inject some dark humor here and there, such as in Heading Home, where the title, it is gradually revealed, is quite literal.  And in Baby, an old alcoholic is relentlessly followed by the baby carriage once used by the bag lady he murdered.

Out of the twenty-one stories in Dark Companions, there were really only two that I didn’t care for, both near the back of the volume.  The big revelation at the end of Conversion, as well as the second person point-of-view (an unusual choice), felt a little too gimmicky.  And The Chimney, after a pretty solid set-up, doesn’t quite deliver on the menacing possibilities of its premise.  Even these were enjoyable enough though, and as always, Campbell’s dazzling way with words makes each story a gem to read.  These two just didn’t quite have the sparkle of the others.  But for my money, two semi-duds out of twenty-one stories makes this collection a real treasure chest for fans of British horror stories in general and Ramsey Campbell fans in particular.  If you can find it, this collection is not to be missed!

Grade: A 

‘Cutting Edge’ – A Review

IX-cutting-edgeIn the late eighties and early nineties, horror anthologies were being released (or re-released, as the case may be) right and left, and having only recently discovered my love of the genre, I picked up several of them.  One of my acquisitions of this period was Cutting Edge, edited by Dennis Etchison, who went on a few years after this was published to become president of the Horror Writers Association.  Well, I have decided to re-read these anthologies—at least the ones I’ve kept—and review them for the blog, beginning with this one.

As is customary with these anthologies, Etchison offers an introduction, wherein he laments the sorry state of the genre during the seventies and early eighties.  But horror fiction was definitely beginning to mature by this period, and volumes such as this one are the proof.  Specialty markets like Cemetery Dance were still largely on the horizon, but the new wave of horror had arrived, ushered in by the advent of splatterpunk and by the phenomenal success of Stephen King, who would drop his atom bomb of a novel It the same year that Cutting Edge was published: 1986.

This book is broken into four loosely-connected sections: Bringing It All Back Home, They’re Coming for You, Walking the Headlights and Dying All the Time.  The first section opens with Peter Straub’s Blue Rose, the first piece in what would ultimately become an intricately connected universe spanning several novels, novellas and short stories, anchored by the Blue Rose Trilogy of novels—Koko, Mystery and The Throat.  One of the themes that runs through the Blue Rose stuff is child abuse, and that is true in this story as well, though here it’s about the assorted cruelties siblings can inflict on each other when left with little parental guidance.  Harry Beevers is a nine-year-old child who enjoys tormenting his younger brother, but it’s clear that it’s cyclical, as Harry’s older brother abuses him, and  on up the line.  When Harry discovers a book on hypnotic suggestion and finds his little brother to be the perfect guinea pig, his experiments become more and more sinister and send him on a path that will culminate in the vile acts he commits during the Vietnam War, well-documented in the novel Koko.  This is unquestionably one of the best pieces in the anthology, and a great choice to set the tone for the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, the other two stories under this heading, Joe Haldeman’s The Monster and Karl Edward Wagner’s Lacunae, are among the weakest entries in Cutting EdgeThe Monster is another comment on the atrocities of Vietnam wherein the author plays with the concept of split personality, and it not only doesn’t work as horror but feels dated and borderline racist, while Wagner’s Lacunae offers an interesting premise but ultimately fails to deliver on it.

They’re Coming for You begins with W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Pale Trembling Youth, a punk ghost story that’s moderately better than the two stories preceding it, though it could’ve done with some fleshing out.  Marc Laidlaw’s Muzak for Torso Murders steps it up a couple of notches with a darkly funny tale of a serial killer outdone by dear old mom.  Roberta Lannes’s Goodbye, Dark Love is one of those stories where the twist at the end inspires you to read it again with the new knowledge in mind (like how you search for all the clues with a second viewing of The Sixth Sense) though the subject matter may put some readers off from another reading.  Definitely one of the more disturbing stories, and quite graphic, but all-in-all a solid entry.  Charles L. Grant’s Out There is a quietly metaphorical tale of body horror, while Steve Rasnic Tem gives us one the book’s best offerings in Little Cruelties, in which the narrator notes how the city inflicts its little cruelties on him . . . with a heavy dose of irony.  In George Clayton Johnson’s beautifully written piece The Man with the Hoe, the narrator justifies his brutality against the neighborhood cats by meditating on Charles Markham’s titular poem.  They’re Coming for You is rounded out by Les Daniels’ story of the same name, another piece of black humor in which a man who fears vengeance from the spirits of his murdered wife and her lover gets something far worse instead.

The opening piece of the third section (Walking the Headlights) is Richard Christian Matheson’s Vampire, and it can be classified as either a poem or a story, though in the end it has little to recommend it beyond that novelty.  At least it’s brief; I’m not sure I could’ve taken more than a couple of pages of it.  Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Lapses is also structurally innovative—not to the extent of Matheson’s piece, but it’s far more successful with what it does.  Yarbro explores the terror of memory lapses that grow ever more pronounced, drawing them out to their inevitable conclusion.  William F. Nolan’s The Final Stone is a modern-incarnation-of-Jack-the-Ripper story that starts off with a good dose of humor but quickly veers off into standard territory.

Irrelativity by Nicholas Royle (whose work I’ve never encountered outside of this collection) is the winner here for sheer suspense, as it follows a teen boy who trails after his girlfriend into her creepy old school building one night in the hopes of losing his virginity and encounters something quite disturbing there.  But it’s the next piece, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hands, that wound up being my favorite story in the book.  A man decides to take refuge from the rain in an unassuming city church one day, but things immediately take a turn for the surreal, and it only gets weirder . . . and darker . . . from there.  This is how you handle religious-themed horror,  folks.  Campbell is a true master of the genre, arguably the best living horror author produced by Britain, and that’s saying a lot.  This story is one of his masterpieces.  He makes this stuff look effortless.  I recently picked up a collection of Campbell’s short stories called Dark Companions, which just got bumped to the front of my reading pile thanks to this story.

The Bell, Ray Russell’s take on ye olde pact-with-the-devil tale, is modest and mostly forgettable, while Lost Souls gives us an all-too-short episode in the ongoing saga of Clive Barker’s supernatural detective Harry D’Amour.  It feels pleasantly anti-Hollywood and down-to-earth, or as down-to-earth as a story about a demon-hunting detective can be.  I really wish the author would give us more Harry D’Amour stories like this one; this awesome character is criminally underused.

The last section of the book, Dying All the Time, like the first section, consists of only three stories, of which Robert Bloch’s Reaper is the best of the three.  Bloch manages to capture just the right balance of humor and horror in this tragicomic parable of an old man who strikes a deal with the Grim Reaper to postpone his own demise with predictably horrible results; the twist at the end is note-perfect.  However, Edward Bryant’s The Transfer—about a woman with an unusual power (I think)—has an alluring premise but ultimately was confusing and unsatisfying.  Which brings me to the final story, Whitley Strieber’s Pain.  Strieber claims this was the last thing he wrote before he became aware of his repressed memories of alien encounters.  Okay.  Starting off like the darker side of your uncle’s wacko conspiracy theories (the Vril Society gets a shout-out), it then shifts 180 degrees and becomes a lesson in just how relative pleasure and pain can be, as a beautiful young woman who may or may not be an incarnation of Death introduces the protagonist to an experiment that teaches him to see his dreary life in a whole new light.  It’s a surprisingly emotional story that, against all odds, somehow succeeds in landing its message.

Overall, this collection was not as strong as I remembered.  Funny how one can experience the same stories very differently twenty-five years later.  I did recall the Campbell story being one of the better ones in the book, and that turned out to be the standout here.  Straub’s story too had an impact on me when I read it as a teen; indeed, it was this piece, along with the novel Ghost Story, that made me a lifelong fan of this author, and it’s easily my second favorite story in Cutting Age, followed by Nicholas Royle’s Irrelativity, for me the scariest story of the bunch if not necessarily the most disturbing.  Beyond that, there are about six or seven really good stories, most of which can probably be found in better anthologies or collections.  Several of them can also be found online now.  Etchison’s intro is interesting but not particularly enlightening, and it comes off a little whiny.  Unless you’re a completist, I would pass over this in favor of better anthologies of the same era, like Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces or David G. Hartwell’s The Color of Evil, as well as the collected works of the authors themselves.

Grade: C+     

Anne Rice’s ‘The Witching Hour’ – A Review

IX-anne-rice-witching-hourAnne Rice—she of the famous Vampire Chronicles—had only recently returned to her beloved New Orleans when she began writing The Witching Hour, which is, among other things, a love letter to the Big Easy. Her descriptions of the city are gem-like in their clarity and beauty, as is much of Rice’s writing here. Perhaps more than anything else she’s written in this particular setting, The Witching Hour perfectly captures the tone of the city itself, with its languid pace and its positively baroque level of detail. Whatever you think of her, one thing you can always count on Anne Rice for is sumptuous writing.

Yet sumptuous writing alone cannot sustain a story, especially one of this length. So, is the story itself any good? We shall see. The first book of Rice’s second epic series (and it is epic, covering around three hundred years of European and American history) follows the long line of the Mayfairs, a family of witches who trace their origins back to Renaissance-era Scotland and a witch named Deborah, the first to summon the dark spirit Lasher, who subsequently haunts and torments each of Deborah’s descendants in turn. But what does Lasher ultimately want from the Mayfairs? That mystery is the heart of the novel’s plot, and it becomes clearer and clearer as the legend of the Mayfair witches unfolds, much of it told in epistolary form as collected by the Talamasca, a sort of early supernatural investigation team that watches and keeps tabs on the Mayfairs but tries not to directly interfere. Despite their best attempts to keep their distance, however, the Talamasca becomes fatefully intertwined with the family as one of their agents becomes sire of an important branch of the Mayfair clan.

All of this is framed by the story of the present-day Mayfairs, particularly Rowan Mayfair, a young doctor who was whisked away from New Orleans as an infant and taken to California for initially unclear reasons, so she has never really known her family. Into Rowan’s life comes Michael Curry, an architect with his own ties to New Orleans who nearly drowns and is rescued by Rowan. As the two become lovers, Rowan seems fated to return to the city of her birth, where she will finally confront the dark mysteries of the Mayfair clan and her own nebulous past once and for all.

At nearly one thousand pages (in the Knopf hardback), it is a massive tome, and with a large part of it being essentially exposition, some readers are going to be put off by the saggy middle of the novel. Personally, I found the history of the Mayfairs to be fascinating, and I almost wish each of the legacy Mayfairs, or at least the more interesting ones, had gotten their own book. Especially those who lived in the early to middle part of the twentieth century. To be sure, there are a lot of family members covered here—indeed, the book would’ve benefited from some sort of timeline chart or family tree to refer back to. Perhaps future runs of the novel will remedy that. As for the Mayfairs whose lives are presented in The Witching Hour, each one feels more decadent than the last. There’s enough drama and suspense in the Mayfair histories for three soap operas: wealth, murder, incest, madness, kidnapping, incest, violence, dark secrets, incest . . . it’s all here.

Did I mention there was incest? Yeah, there’s a lot of that. The thing is, there’s a pretty important reason for it, and it rarely feels gratuitous or exploitative the way it can in the works of, say, V.C. Andrews. But if incest bothers you, consider yourself forewarned. Despite their almost cliched level of gentility and charm, a goodly number of the Mayfair witches are not nice people. What? Bad witches? Whodathunkit? Of course, the aptly-named Lasher is often the driving force behind their wickedness. The Witching Hour is Southern Gothic writ large, and it mostly works. Still, it all unfolds at a pace many fans of more traditional horror fiction will find tedious at the very least, if not outright plodding. But the family is colorful and eccentric enough to be engaging even without the more horrific elements, which really don’t pop up until near the very end of the book. But when they do . . . hoo boy. As someone who grew up in a traditional Southern clan, with a grandmother who canned her own fruits and veggies, there’s one freaky revelation that felt so spot on that it was a pretty solid icicle to the heart of this reader.

Bottom line: This is quintessential Anne Rice. People either tend to love or hate her style. Some may feel it is precious and overwrought. For me, as an admirer of elegant, poetic writing, I could probably read a set of VCR instructions penned by her from cover to cover and be perfectly convinced by the end of it that I had read something amazing. That said, when you dispassionately separate Rice’s writing ability from her storytelling, you may realize that the latter doesn’t always live up to the former. Here, it comes close but falls a wee bit short. There’s a lot of information stuffed into the exposition, and it can be difficult to keep all of these Mayfair women separate in one’s mind. Moreover, given her resolve throughout the majority of the novel, Rowan’s sudden turn near the end feels more than a little forced. Finally, without giving anything away, let me just say that the ending is likely to drive some readers absolutely bonkers. But if you’re willing to follow Rice on this long and often torpid journey, you may be rewarded with some dazzling sights, sounds and smells along the way, and even a well-honed fright or two.

Grade: B

My Dream Cast – ‘Endymion’ & ‘The Rise of Endymion’

Well, I did one of these things for Hyperion, the first book in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, back in May. I haven’t done much on this blog as of late, but this has been brewing for a while. I’m going to bypass The Fall of Hyperion, the second book in the series, as it would basically have exactly the same cast as the first film, only slightly older. I suppose I could’ve included the second book with the first one, the way I’m doing with the third and fourth books here, but I didn’t, so . . .


Raul Endymion (Zachary Quinto)

Zachary Quinto; 'Raul Endymion' by saltytowel
Zachary Quinto; ‘Raul Endymion’ by saltytowel

So basically, Raul Endymion is your standard old-fashioned, two-fisted, smartass action hero–a little bit Han Solo, a little bit Snake Plissken. Quinto may seem like an odd choice for this role, but with his Italian and Irish heritage, you know he’s got some tough guy in him to spare. Raul is not just some brawler either; he’s smart, resourceful, quick on his feet. Can Quinto pull that off? You bet! This guy is Spock in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise after all. Sure, Quinto hasn’t really had a chance to show off his action chops quite yet, so this would be the perfect vehicle for him to do that. And besides, just look at that big hunk of man-meat. Holy Mother of God, he was born for this role.

DeviantArt: saltytowel

Aenea [age 12] (Kylie Rogers)

Kylie Rogers; 'Aenea' by John Picacio
Kylie Rogers; Aenea as portrayed by John Picacio

When we first meet Aenea in Endymion, she’s a feisty, sensitive, precocious 12-year-old girl. It’s a role that would require a child actress with some depth and real talent, and I think Ms. Rogers has what it takes. She really impressed me last spring as Minx Lawrence in the first season of The Whispers, particularly the season finale episode. I would love to see more of her work, and I think she’d be a knockout as young Aenea. Of course, as with any role for a child, she is bound to outgrow it soon, so in a year or two my answer is subject to change.

John Picacio

A. Bettik (Chris Hemsworth)

Chris Hemsworth; Blue Man Group photo
Chris Hemsworth; Blue Man Group photo

Some fans might balk at having Chris Hemsworth shave off his lovely golden locks and paint himself blue, but not me. I would love to see the MCU’s Thor take on the role of A. Bettik, Raul and Aenea’s faithful android companion. A. Bettik is super-strong, super-loyal and built to last, so basically he’s a balder, bluer Thor, right? Okay, not really, but I still think Hemsworth would be fantastic in the role.

Father-Captain Federico de Soya (Javier Bardem)

Javier Bardem; De Soya from 'Endymion Characters' by saltytowel
Javier Bardem; De Soya from ‘Endymion Characters’ by saltytowel

As the primary antagonist and one of the most complex characters in Endymion, Father-Captain Federico de Soya needs to be portrayed by someone with the ability to project all kinds of emotional complexity, a villain that one both fears and respects. As such, I can hardly think of a better person for the role than Javier Bardem, who was absolutely chilling as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, for which he won several awards, including an Oscar. Like Chiguhr, de Soya is unceasing in his pursuit, seemingly unflappable and incredibly thorough. But unlike Chigurh, he is a man of conscience, which ultimately changes the course of his destiny. Added bonus: Bardem is from Spain, and de Soya is of Spanish descent, hailing from a backwater desert planet called Madrededios. So the accent would totally work with this character!

Cardinal Lourdusamy (Simon Fisher-Becker)

Simon Fisher-Becker
Simon Fisher-Becker

Cardinal Simon Augustino Lourdusamy is a very powerful man in the Catholic church of Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, second only to Pope Julius IV (later Urban XVI) in official rank. He’s a shrewd and conniving fellow who plots to replace the reigning pope, and Simmons describes him a very, very large man. Initially I pictured James Earl Jones in the role, but I don’t think Jones has nearly enough bulk. John Goodman was my second choice, but I already cast him as Baron Harkonnen in my Dune film, and I don’t want to always rely on Goodman to play an overweight villain. Thus, I arrived at Fisher-Becker, who is best known for portraying another blue-skinned bald man (sci-fi is full of them), Dorium Maldovar in Doctor Who, as well as the Fat Friar in the first Harry Potter film.

Pope Julius IV / Urban XVI (David Tennant)

David Tennant; 'Urban XVI' by Pavel Postovoit
David Tennant; ‘Urban XVI’ by Pavel Postovoit

And speaking of Doctor Who alumni, we already established back in the Hyperion dream cast post that the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant, would be ideal for Father Hoyt, the weaselly priest who went on the Shrike Pilgrimage with the others in the first book. Since Hoyt eventually becomes the pope in this universe, we have to stick to our guns here. But seriously, who wouldn’t want to see David Tennant play an evil, half-mad pope? I mean, come on, that would be amazing.

Sergeant Gregorius (Terry Crews)

Terry Crews; "Hyperion Cantos - Soldier" by NamelessPL
Terry Crews; “Hyperion Cantos – Soldier” by NamelessPL

There are three elite soldiers who accompany Father-Captain de Soya in his pursuit of Aenea and friends across the galaxy, and arguably the most badass of them is Sgt. Gregorius, who originates from a warrior culture where everyone starts out with seven “weakness names” and one “strength name” and only survivors of a series of seven deadly trials get to slowly strip away their weakness names. Only after they’ve survived all the trials are they left a single name: their strength name. Yeah. So, Gregorius (and that’s it, folks) not only made it through all of that, he moved up the ranks of the Pax to become a sergeant in the Swiss Guard, the crème de la crème of an already elite class of warriors. So who do you get to play such a massively awesome specimen of humanity? Why, none other than Terry Crews, of course! Who else?

Corporal Bassin Kee & Lancer Rettig (Steven Yeun & Kiowa Gordon)

Steven Yeun; Kiowa Gordon
Steven Yeun; Kiowa Gordon

I’m giving you a two-fer here. In addition to Sergeant Gregorius, two other highly trained soldiers, both of them members of the Swiss Guard, accompany Father-Captain de Soya as he flies across the galaxy trying to catch up with Aenea. They are Corporal Bassin Kee and Lancer Rettig. Kee is described as a small man of Asian descent, while Rettig is, if I recall correctly, a taller man of Native American origin (though the surname is actually Germanic, as it turns out–yes, I looked it up). My choices are Steven Yeun, who is of course familiar to all of Nerddom as Glenn from The Walking Dead, and as it so happens, his schedule has recently become clear. (Thanks for killing him off, TWD!) Gordon is probably most recognizable as one of the werewolves in The Twilight Saga films, though for my money, he did his best work in the more grounded thriller An Act of War.

Rhadamanth Nemes (Deepika Padukone)

Deepika Padukone; "Rhadamanth Nemes"
Deepika Padukone; “Rhadamanth Nemes”

So, as badass as Francisco de Soya and his crew are, the real threat to Aenea is this TechnoCore-created monster in the guise of an Indian woman. She’s basically the Terminator, only she can stop and start time at will. She even temporarily put the Shrike out of commission! Yeah. To portray her, we can’t just have any ol’ Indian actress. No, we need Deepika Padukone, who is a Bollywood phenomenon in her own country. Although mostly known for comedies and romantic films, I have no doubt Padukone could not only pull off this role as the TechnoCore’s deadliest creation, she could be epic.

Father Glaucus (Michael Caine)

Michael Caine
Michael Caine

Father Glaucus is a blind, independent priest who Aenea, Raul and A. Bettik encounter on the frozen world of Sol Draconi Septem (which is one of the most harrowing parts of the book, incidentally). He resisted accepting the cruciform and as a result of this heresy and his admiration for Teilhard de Chardin, he is exiled to the inhospitable, high-gravity, ice-covered hell that is Sol Draconi Septem. It proves to be an important meeting for Aenea, as she learns about de Chardin’s teachings, and her own philosophy ultimately grows out of these teachings. I would love to see Sir Michael Caine, who was absolutely amazing as Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, take on the part of this stubborn but kindly old priest.

Consul’s Ship (Jim Parsons)

Jim Parsons; "Retro Rocketship" by MDK Graphics
Jim Parsons; “Retro Rocketship” by MDK Graphics

It’s a sleek spaceship designed to look like the classic rocketships of ’50s and ’60s cinema and pulp magazine covers, it’s expensive as hell, and by the time of Endymion, there are no others like it in existence. It’s the Consul’s  ship, which Raul and co. use to escape the Pax. It also has a unique semi-sentient AI (since the Catholic church has officially banned all true AIs from Pax space) running its on-board computers and regulating the ship. Although the ship doesn’t make the whole journey through the book, part of its AI does in the form of a com bracelet worn by Raul. Simmons describes the male voice of the computer as pleasant but a little prissy, and I couldn’t help imagining Sheldon Cooper as the AI’s voice, which would no doubt please Sheldon immensely. So naturally, Jim Parsons has to be the voice of the ship in any film version I okay.

MDK Graphics

The Rise of Endymion

Aenea [age 16] (Elle Fanning)

Elle Fanning
Elle Fanning

Who do you get to play the preternaturally intelligent, charismatic and super-talented teenage girl we encounter in the early part of The Rise of Endymion? I can think of no better choice than Miss Elle Fanning, who has blown me away as a child actress in such roles as Phoebe Lichten in Phoebe in Wonderland, Alice Dainard in Super 8, and Winnie Portley-Rind in The Boxtrolls. Though she is only in the book briefly, the 16-year-old Aenea is tormented as she struggles with the first pangs of love and the agony of sending Raul away on what for her (thanks to time dilation) will be a years-long mission to retrieve the ship from the primitive world they left it on. You need a top-caliber teen actress to pull this off, and Elle fits the bill. Besides, she has a long history of playing the younger version of characters her sister plays. I think you can see where this is going . . .

Aenea [age 21] (Dakota Fanning)

Dakota Fanning;
Dakota Fanning; “The Rise of Endymion” by John Picacio

I’m not even going to try to be impartial here. Dakota has been one of my favorite young actresses for forever, having first won my heart in her role as Allie in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi miniseries Taken. There has always been something eerily precocious and poised about Dakota, even when she was a young whippersnapper just starting out. I know I often say that such-and-such an actor was born for a role, but um . . . Dakota was born for this role. Aenea is not simply a genius; she’s something more than human, as her father was a John Keats cybrid who introduced her to the AI Beyond when she was still in her mother’s womb. Dakota has the acting chops for this part in spades, but more than that, she has a gravitas that few young actors, male or female, have at her young age. This will be important, since she has a romantic relationship with the middle-aged Raul, and we don’t want it to seem creepy or exploitative. She has to be convincing as someone wise beyond her years, and since Dakota already has that quality . . .

Cardinal Mustafa (John Turturro)

John Turturro
John Turturro

Cardinal John Domenico Mustafa is the Grand Inquisitor of the Holy Office, and that means he tortures people for  a living. But he also plays a key role in investigating some strange goings-on on the planet Mars, formerly the home base and training ground for FORCE, the Hegemony-era military. He is a cruel and devious man, but not a stupid one. Who can play this part with the nuance it so desperately needs? Why, John Turturro! Let’s just say it up front: over the last decade or so, Turturro has been stuck with a lot of crap roles, which is unfortunate because this is the guy who played Heinz Zabantino in Five Corners, Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink in the film of the same name. He deserves better. I really want to see him channel his inner sadist! Who’s with me?

Kenzo Isozaki (George Takei)

George Takei
George Takei

Chairman Kenzo Isozaki is the CEO of the Pax Mercantilus, the official trade wing of the new Catholic empire. He’s a shrewd man with larger aspirations, but he isn’t nearly as corrupt as those in the Vatican. He will eventually be a key player in filling the void left by the collapse of the Pax, but throughout the last book he mostly gets in over his head with the TechnoCore, in the process revealing the true depth of the  danger humanity faces from the AI collective. I like the idea of having sci-fi veterans performing in major sci-fi films, and as they go, George Takei is one of my faves. It’s okay to be Takei, and it’s better than okay to have him in the Hyperion Cantos!

Lhomo Dondrub (Jackie Chan)

Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan

Lhomo Dondrub is not a major character, but the few places where he does show up in the book he’s easily the most awesome person in the room (and that includes when Raul and Aenea are around). Tien Shan is a mountain world where the ground level is covered with a toxic fog and the mountains are steep and ragged, so survival at those high altitudes requires some finesse. Dondrub is a hang glider pilot and all-around acrobat with some mad skills, yo. And who could knock that one out of the park? You know who. There’s no question that the only guy to play Lhomo Dondrub is Jackie Chan. It’s not even a contest.

‘I Shudder at Your Touch’ – A Review

IX-i-shudder-at-your-touchI picked this hardcover anthology up at my local Goodwill store for a song, and what a fantastic bargain!  The twenty-two stories in editor Michele Slung’s compendium are, as the cover suggests, thematically linked by the broad concepts of sex and horror, which so often go hand-in-hand anyway.  As she points out in the book’s preface, pretty much every horror story is ultimately about sex in one sense or another, and I think she’s spot on there.  But in the case of these tales, the relationship between the two is made mostly overt.

Generally these anthologies tend to be full of contemporary work, but Slung draws from every era of horror and suspense fiction from the late Victorian on, a rich well indeed, and with casting such a wide temporal net, she could easily have filled a hundred such volumes with quality fiction.  What a job it must’ve been to boil her choices down to a little over twenty stories (though ultimately there was a sequel, I believe).  But nearly every piece here is a gratifying read.

The earliest story in the collection, R. Murray Gilchrist’s The Basilisk, is not so much horror as dark Symbolist myth, so drenched in the poetic language of the era that it feels more like a somber dream than a cohesive story, but it works nonetheless.  A more traditional piece from roughly the same era is Robert Hichens’ How Love Came to Professor Guildea, wherein a dispassionate man of science finds himself the object of a lascivious spirit’s attentions.  The most disturbing story for me was Christopher Fowler’s The Master Builder, which reads like Peter Straub at his best and takes the concept of stalking to a whole new level.  Robert Aickman, one of my favorite short story authors, can always be relied on to creep me the hell out, and his contribution, The Swords, is certainly no exception.  Another highlight, Hugh B. Cave’s Ladies in Waiting, starts out as a haunted house tale but becomes something far worse by the end.

Some pieces (Michael Blumlein’s Keeping House especially) are morbidly melancholy. Others, like Thomas M. Disch’s Death and the Single Girl, are humorously cynical.  A few are uncomfortably erotic (T.L. Parkinson’s The Tiger Returns to the Mountain; Harriet Zinnes’s Wings; Carolyn Banks’s Salon Satin).  The rest of the collection is sandwiched between stories by two of horror fiction’s living legends, Stephen King and Clive Barker.  Of the two, it is Barker’s story, Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament, that I most enjoyed.  Longtime fans of Barker will almost certainly have read this already in his Books of Blood, as I did, but I was quite young when I first read it and remember it being one of my least favorite stories of his.  With time I have come to appreciate its true horror, seeing it essentially as the story of a female supervillain with the ability to manipulate human flesh with her mind, a power she utilizes in some creatively awful ways.  King’s story too is about a woman with psychic powers, though hers is the more traditional (less interesting) power of telepathy; it’s still a wonderfully entertaining story though, accessible and funny.

Not every piece is wildly successful though.  Valerie Martin’s Sea Lovers, her dark answer to the Little Mermaid, doesn’t quite feel fleshed out, May Sinclair’s The Villa Désiréé feels as dated as it is, and Ruth Rendell’s A  Glowing Future feels like a rejected Robert Bloch story.  Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Conqueror Worm divides its loyalties between humor and horror but ultimately achieves neither, and Angela Carter’s Master, while conceptually intriguing, offers us a cliched and unnuanced antagonist.  Still, none of the stories are outright awful, and all but a couple are at least decent enough that you won’t feel like you’ve completely wasted your time.  A solid majority of these stories are real gems.  All in all, a dynamite anthology that any horror aficionado should be pleased with.

Grade: B+

According to Steven Seagal, Mass Shootings Are Engineered… LOLWUT?

There are few things as vile to me as writing off genuine tragedies as either hoaxes or false flag operations.  The Neo-Nazis did it with the Holocaust, and now third-rate actor, martial artist and general loudmouth Steven Seagal is doing it with the mass shooting epidemic in the U.S.  Not only is this incredibly insensitive to the victims and their families, it is clearly an insidious attempt to justify the American gun problem to themselves.  This is nothing new.  I was quite horrified when some of my right-wing family members were circulating the idea that the Sandy Hook shooting was in fact staged by the government.  When the evidence against this position mounted, they finally accepted that it was a real shooting.  But now the conspiracy theory is that someone in the U.S. government is engineering these shootings, which is just as fucked up.

First off, what diabolical individual or group could consistently engineer such things so perfectly and for so long without anyone ever coming forward?  Can you imagine the insane level of logistical expertise it would require not only to pull this off again and again, but also to silence everyone involved?  It displays a mind-boggling degree of ignorance to imagine that such a massive ongoing conspiracy could become anything but a huge boondoggle in a very short period of time.  Seriously, what planet do you live on, conspiracy nuts?  No, you know what’s really happening?  The evidence disagrees with your contention that the American gun culture isn’t massively fucked up, that’s what.  And you need these conspiracies to make yourselves feel better, because the truth is, if it wasn’t for the shit-ton of guns, including assault weapons, that have flooded the country thanks to Wayne LaPierre and the NRA scaring the hell out of gun owners, many of these shootings would never have happened.  They are actively making the situation worse.

But let’s say for a minute that Seagal is right and the government is somehow convincing all these people to go on rampages.  First, let’s remember that most mass shootings are actually familial murder-suicides, meaning a parent—usually a father—kills their entire family and then themselves.  So, if Americans really are that vulnerable to psychological manipulation that they can be regularly manipulated into killing their own little children, isn’t that evidence that maybe we really aren’t responsible enough as a people to own guns?  I mean, currently I am only in favor of some reasonable gun restrictions, but perhaps in light of this new knowledge that Americans are particularly susceptible to engineered murder sprees, maybe it would be better to ban guns entirely.

Listen, the gun crowd has been saying for awhile that it isn’t a gun problem but rather a mental illness problem.  Maybe they’re right.  In light of the fact that the rest of Western civilization (which has mostly either banned guns or heavily restricted them—imagine that) doesn’t seem to have an epidemic of violent crazy people, which should be consistent throughout all nations whether guns are easily obtainable or not, it seems that America has more than its fair share of psychos, some of whom can be apparently turned into killing machines at the drop of a hat.  Well, that’s what Seagal seems to be saying, and God knows he’s an expert on this stuff, right?  Right?

So, um . . . yeah.  If you really want to earn back whatever credibility you once had, gun lovers, you should maybe start by not being insensitive pricks about the tragedy of gun violence that is sweeping our nation.  No one programmed Chris Harper-Mercer to walk into a university classroom and gun down a bunch of students.  The guy was angry and unbalanced because he couldn’t get a date and wanted to punish society for it.  That’s it.  That is what happens when machismo culture meets America’s gun obsession and the film industry’s glorification of violence, which Seagal himself has contributed to with his crappy movies.  There is no government conspiracy, just a bunch of people who have been duped by a political group into believing that Obama is coming to take all their guns away, a group that has contributed to the problem by making it easier and easier for any halfwit or psycho with a grudge to stockpile weapons that were originally intended for military use.  If you really believe this is the government’s doing, then you are clearly part of the problem.

Dan Simmons’ ‘The Rise of Endymion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-rise-of-endymionAt last we arrive at the final book in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos.  To be honest, I finished reading The Rise of Endymion in preparation for this review a while ago.  I’ve just been hesitant to review it because . . . well, let’s just say it’s easily the most depressing book in the series.  And yet, it is the most hopeful as well.  That seems like a contradiction, I know, and it is, but there are few writers quite like Simmons when it comes to weaving these contradictions into a story that is somehow satisfying when everything in your gut tells you it shouldn’t be.

The novel begins four years after the events that transpired at the end of Endymion, when Father Captain de Soya turned against his orders to capture the then 12-year-old Aenea and instead saved her and her companions Raul Endymion and the android A. Bettik from certain death at the hands of the Technocore-engineered soldier Radhamanth Nemes, who is a kind of female Terminator, only (like the Shrike) she can stop time.  Basically, she is an unbeatable killing machine, but de Soya managed to stop her, giving Aenea and her friends time to farcast to Old Earth, which had somehow been transported to an entirely different galaxy, assuring their protection from the Core and the Pax both for as long as they wish to remain there.

Now 16 years old, Aenea has begin to fulfill her destiny as the prophet of a new belief system, one that can potentially undo both the Church and the Core.  As prophets go, Aenea is somewhere between Jesus (which Simmons goes out of his way to compare her to in several obvious ways, including a communion process where her disciples literally drink droplets of her blood), Buddha (self-denial, and Aenea eventually winds up on an Asian-dominant world called Tien’ Shan, where even the boy Dalai Lama looks at the young woman as his teacher) and Charles Darwin.  Meanwhile, our hero Raul, who again serves as narrator of the book, is sent off alone on another series of world-hopping adventures in order to retrieve the Consul’s ship, which they abandoned early on in Endymion.  But inevitably they will come together again, and here they will hatch a plan to confront the devil in his own lair.

For the most part Aenea’s reluctant messiah shtick works, though there are a couple of times where it feels like Simmons is beating a dead horse.  There are a few other sour notes in the book, such as the ludicrous degree of evil displayed by the high-ranking members of the Church, including the weak-minded Pope Urban XVI.  There’s even a none too subtle comparison of the Pax to the Nazis early in the story.  But this is space opera, and I tend to give a pass to things like this, because these characters exist on a scale almost unimaginable to us, so they almost have to be larger-than-life and twice as evil, or twice as good as the case may be.  Of course, in demonizing the Catholic Church, Simmons is certainly playing with fire, though he makes it clear that the Church, like every entity that has endured through the ages, will go through phases.  This just happens to be one of Catholicism’s darker periods.

There’s also a lovely sense of the two sets of books, the Hyperion set and the Endymion set, being mirror images of each other.  Not just in the titles but in the way the larger plot unfolds in them.  Both Hyperion and Endymion deal with a lot of traveling in pursuit of vaguely defined goals.  Likewise, if you know what happened at the end of The Fall of Hyperion, you may have some inkling as to what will occur at the end of The Rise of Endymion.  To be sure, it was spelled out pretty clearly throughout the book.  It somehow felt both necessary and gratuitous at the same time, which is far more frustrating than if it had been merely one or the other.  But Dan Simmons is far too clever a writer to give you exactly what you want.  This is a book—and a series—that was meant to be debated.  That we aren’t much debating it is unfortunate, because it has much to offer those interested in the future of religion and philosophy.  Even though it is the weakest book in the series, it is also the most important.  To be fair, very few series end perfectly.  The Lord of the Rings is the only one I can even think of at the moment that did, and even that is debatable.

Moreover, this is yet another love letter (if a bittersweet one) Dan Simmons has penned to literature itself.  Who else but Simmons could concoct a lesson in English and American lit masquerading as an exciting outer space adventure?  Perhaps there have been other examples, but none are quite as memorable as The Hyperion Cantos.  The last book in the series has its own interesting lessons.  I probably learned more about Catholicism and the Vatican from The Rise of Endymion than I have from any other single source.  And, as per usual, Simmons’ fantastic world-building skill is on full display.  But it is the lessons of the One Who Teaches that resonate most profoundly here.  The mystical focus of the book may turn off a lot of hard SF fans, but for me it feels like the flip side of the same coin.  In the end the entire Hyperion Cantos, with its overall plot spanning hundreds of years, its large cast of characters, the different structure of each book and Aenea’s messiah parallel, begins to feel something like that most widely read piece of literature of all: the Bible.  If so, then The Rise of Endymion is obviously its Gospels.

Grade: A 

The 20 Most Awesome National Flag Designs

The United States of America has a lot of great qualities, but unfortunately our flag design isn’t one of them.  Stars and stripes weren’t exactly original even when the American flag was first conceived, but now they’re a dime a dozen on national banners.  And let’s face it, squares and rectangles are hardly thrilling as design elements go.  Add to that fairly dark colors and a bunch of bland white stars lined up in perfect rows, and it all adds up to one of the most staid and boring flag designs going.  So what are the best flag designs then?  Well, here are my choices for the twenty most awesome national flag designs on the planet.  They’re more colorful, more dynamic, and overall just more interesting than most of the flags out there.  Click on the images to see larger versions and examine the details.  Meanwhile, I think it’s time we had a national conversation about a possible re-design for Old Glory.

#20 – Guyana

Flag - GuyanaGuyana is probably best known in America as the place where the Jim Jones cult mass murder-suicide happened, which is unfortunate.  It’s generally considered part of the Atlantic conglomerate known as the Caribbean, and as such it is the largest Caribbean nation by area and the only one which isn’t an island.  But what most interests me is its flag design, which is colorful and looks more like something out of Star Trek than a national flag, making for a futuristic-looking design that will withstand the test of time.  As with most flags, the colors are significant: the green is for agriculture and the rain forests that cover a significant part of the country; the red is for vigor and zeal; the gold is for the nation’s rich mineral deposits; the white is for rivers and other bodies of water; and the black is for the endurance of Guyana’s people.  The flag’s central design is often called the Golden Arrowhead, an arrow being a dynamic symbol in itself.  The flag was designed by Whitney Smith, a professional vexillologist, which accounts for the strength of its design.

#19 – Moldova

Flag - MoldovaMoldova is a tiny Eastern European country wedged between Romania and Ukraine.  It may be the poorest country in Europe, but it has one of the continent’s richest flag designs.  It starts with the three primary colors as vertical stripes, which aren’t terribly interesting in themselves, but then, smack dab in the middle of the flag is the country’s coat-of-arms which has an auroch‘s head in the center of it.  In case you aren’t aware, the auroch is extinct.  Now, most countries would shy away from putting an extinct animal on their flag, but not the Moldovans.  Why?  Because they are just that damn cool.  Another awesome thing about this flag is that on the obverse side of it, the crest is actually reversed, so when you see the flag in bright light, its central emblem won’t leave a weird silhouette bleeding through from the other side—it all perfectly matches up.  If all that weren’t enough, Moldova actually has a variant war-time flag which is even more bad-ass, with the eagle carrying both a sword and a mace.  A mace!

#18 – Papua New Guinea

Flag - Papau New GuineaPapua New Guinea is an island nation just north of Australia, part of the Melanesian island chain.  It’s flag includes the colors red, gold, white and black, which always seem to look good together, and bears representations of both the Southern Cross constellation (which is also present on Australia’s flag) and an alien-looking critter called a raggiana bird-of-paradise.  The coolest thing about the flag, though, is that it was designed by a 15-year-old girl as part of a nationwide contest.  Of course, she really just incorporated elements that were already around and rearranged them, but hey, she did it artfully.  It’s a fairly simple design as far as they go, but its elements are well-balanced, and that bird is weird and exotic enough to really draw the eye to it.

#17 – Sri Lanka

Flag - Sri LankaOur first Asian nation on the list is Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, a large island to the south of India and the place where bad-ass female singer/rapper M.I.A. (who is of Sri Lankan heritage) was raised.  The most prominent thing on the flag is, of course, that particularly Asian lion, which is just fantastic.  It represents the Sinhalese, the main ethnic group of the country, and it’s holding a traditional Sri Lankan sword called a kastane.  But the most striking thing to me about the flag is the unusual color palette.  The maroon element with the lion on it also stands for the Sinhalese.  In addition to the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka also has two other major ethnic groups, the Ceylonian Moors and the Tamils, symbolized by the green and orange elements respectively.  In the corners of the maroon section of the flag are four golden bo (fig) leaves .  Everything is surrounded by a golden border, which represents the nation’s major religion, Buddhism.  Even more awesome is the Sri Lankan military flag; it has all of these elements and the national coat-of-arms, which is, in my estimation, one of the coolest crest designs ever.

#16 – Macau

Flag - MacauThe flag for Macau—an autonomous region under Chinese dominion—is the essence of simplicity, but its strength is anchored by its one major element: a white lotus flower above a bridge and rippling water with an arc of five golden stars over the whole thing.  The five stars are taken right from the national flag of the People’s Republic of China, but the other elements are original to this design.  The bridge here, although highly stylized, is meant to be the Governor Nobre de Carvalho Bridge, one of two major bridges that connects the Macau Peninsula to the Taipa/Cotai/Coloane island complex.    And the lotus is a rich Asian symbol with many layers of meaning.  What I love about this flag is that it looks more like a logo for some hip modern company than a flag design.  It’s a spectacularly beautiful image that really embodies the essence of contemporary China.

#15 – Portugal

Flag - PortugalPortugal is the westernmost nation of Europe, a narrow slab of land carved out at the end of the Iberian Peninsula, which is mostly occupied by France and Spain (though the tiny micro-state of Andorra is in there too, caught like a pea between the big fluffy mattresses of Spain and France).  I digress.  The Portuguese flag is our focus here, and what a doozy.  Sure, most bi-color flags divide their two colors right in half, but not Portugal’s flag.  It artfully keeps the division off-center, with the heavier dark green giving over more space to the lighter, more vivid crimson.  What really makes the design pop, though, is its use of an armillary sphere or astrolabe, that lovely representation of celestial spheres popularized during the Renaissance era.  Does any other national flag have one of those?  I don’t think so!  This is just plain classy of Portugal and indicates a devotion to the sciences.  Then, over the top of that, they throw in a sweet coat-of-arms with yellow castles and shields that look like dominoes.  So cool.

#14 – Uganda

Flag - UgandaAnd now we move on to another continent.  Here is Africa’s first entry on our list, and it’s for the little nation of Uganda.  Originally a British colony, it became an independent state in 1962, and with it came this new flag design, which is just gorgeous.  The colors refer to the people of Uganda (black), the sun, source of life in the nation (yellow), and the blood of all Ugandans which unites them as a people (red).  These same colorful stripes are on the German flag, and they look lovely there too, but the Ugandan flag doubles them up, making it twice as nice.  Then, in colors that coordinate with the stripes, is a grey crowned crane, an attractive bird that you’ve probably seen at the zoo.  And look at that thing: it has a mohawk!  How boss is that?!

#13 – Holy See (Vatican City)

Flag - Holy See (Vatican City)First off, let me preface this by stating that I am not, nor have I ever been, Catholic.  This flag was chosen purely on aesthetic grounds.  As flags go, it’s a weird one right off the bat because it’s perfectly square.  The flag is divided into two equal halves, one gold (or) and one white or silver (argent).  The silver half then bears the Vatican City coat-of-arms, which is positively loaded down with meaning.  First off, there’s the papal tiara, basically the pope’s crown (actually three crowns in one), because he is meant to be higher even than kings, who stand only for worldly power.  Then, there are the crossed keys of Saint Peter, who, as you may be aware, is supposed to be in charge of the gates of Heaven.  One key is gold and one silver, complimenting the colors of the two bands of the flag.  Even the arrangement of the keys has meaning.  If your interested in the metric ton of symbolism found here, you can read more about it in the Wikipedia page on the coat-of-arms of the Holy See.  Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to it.  I just happen to enjoy the artistry and elegance of the design.

#12 – Mexico

Flag - MexicoSo, the US flag is kind of lame, and Canada’s flag isn’t very exciting either, but all is not lost for the North American continent.  Mexico to the rescue!  The base of the flag is your standard vertical tri-color: green, white and red.  But this is salvaged by an absolutely stylin’ central motif—Mexico’s coat-of-arms.  It bears an eagle tearing into a rattlesnake (“Don’t tread on me!” screamed the snake . . . right before the eagle swooped in and snapped its scrawny little neck.  I keed, I keed!)  Anyway, this has a double meaning: to the original Aztec inhabitants, the image is based on the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) as drawn from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer and other sources, in which the bad-ass god Huitzilopochtli (symbolized by the eagle) brought favor to the island of Tenochtitlan (the prickly pear cactus he sits on).  Initially the snake was associated with another god—Quetzalcoatl—who represented the Aztec priesthood and wisdom in general, among other things.  Later, in accordance with European traditions, the serpent came to be reinterpreted as a symbol of absolute evil; likewise, the eagle was re-framed as an icon of good.  Hence, the eagle devouring the rattlesnake represents good triumphing over evil.  It’s all very complicated, but one thing is certain: it’s a stunningly attractive design.

#11 – Kiribati

Flag - KiribatiKiribati is a nation composed of a sparse group of tiny atolls and islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  The collective land area of the whole thing is a little over 310 square miles (or about 800 square kilometers), but they are spread out over a space of three-and-a-half million square kilometers.  That’s a lot of space between those islands!  The total population of Kiribati is somewhere around 104,000 people.  For a place that virtually no one but the people who live there ever thinks about, it has one of the loveliest flag designs around.  The wavy ocean, the rising sun, the golden frigatebird . . . it all adds up to a really nice design.  It is based on the Kiribati coat-of-arms designed by Sir Arthur Grimble in 1932.  The three wavy white lines represent the three main island groups (the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands) that comprise the nation, and the seventeen sun rays represent the sixteen Gilbert Islands and the coral island Banaba.  Finally, the frigatebird, to quote Wikipedia, “symbolises command of the sea, power, freedom and Kiribati cultural dance patterns.”

#10 – Marshall Islands

Flag - Marshall IslandsThe Marshall Islands are another island nation in the Pacific Ocean, just northwest of the Gilbert Islands, in fact.  In the flag, the diagonal band stands in for the equator; the white star, then, symbolized the Marshall Islands in relation to the equator.  The significance of the orange and white portions of the band is in recognizing the layout of the islands, which run roughly in two parallel chains, the Ratak (“Sunrise”) Chain and the Ralik (“Sunset”) Chain, so named because the sun rises on the Ratak side of the islands and sets on the Ralik side.  The two colors also stand for peace and courage.  The star has 24 points in all, representing the number of electoral districts in the nation, while its four longest points symbolize its four major cultural centers.  As with the Macau flag, there is just something inherently modern about this design, providing its strongest appeal.

#9 – Montenegro

Flag - MontenegroConversely, the flag of the European nation of Montenegro looks rather antique, despite being one of the newer flag designs on this list.  Nevertheless, it works—it’s a regal and classy design that incorporates all of its canonical elements perfectly.  First, its too main colors, red and gold, have always worked well together, especially for heraldic designs, which, as with many of these flags, this one incorporates.  Montenegro as a distinct entity began as a Prince-Bishropic, meaning it was ruled by a Christian bishop, and as such its flag was much simpler: just a red field surrounded by a white border and bearing a white Greek-style cross in its center.  Later it became a principality, which is when the double-headed eagle carrying the scepter and orb and with a crown above it came into the picture.  It did have a shield on its chest, but at that point the lion emblem sat beneath the entire crest rather than inside the eagle’s shield.  The flag then went through several other incarnations minus the crest altogether before this final design was adopted in 2004.

#8 – Uruguay

Flag - UruguayIn case you can’t tell, I’m quite fond of flags with suns on them.  Such is the case with the South American country of Uruguay, whose sun is doubly cool because it has a face on it.  It’s called the Sun of May (similar to the heraldic sun in splendor), and its based on the original Argentinian real coin.  Uruguay is divided into nine departments or regions, each represented by one of the white and blue horizontal stripes.  The flag’s canton (the square portion in the upper left-hand corner) has the Sun of May, symbolizing the birth of the new nation of Uruguay in 1828, though the current flag wasn’t adopted until two years later.  I suppose one could argue that the flag’s basic design isn’t that far removed from the American flag.  Sure, but the American is just so impersonal compared to this one, with its glorious anthropomorphized sun.  Maybe the Uruguayans take it for granted, but to me its a far more enticing thing to look at than a bunch of regimented stars and stripes.

#7 – Serbia

Flag - SerbiaHere’s that double-capita eagle rearing its, er . . . heads again.  Like Montenegro, Serbia is another Eastern European country, and the two-headed eagle has a long and rich history in that region, dating back to the Byzantine empire.  Unsurprisingly, the crest part of the flag is based on the country’s coat-of-arms.  I love how elaborate the crown is here, with its jewels and pearls.  The crest also utilizes a couple of fleur-de-lis, one of the most iconic, elegant and heterogeneous symbols ever devised, as well as a tetragrammatic cross with four stylized ‘C’s, which likewise traces back to Byzantium.  The letters are not Latin ‘C’s but rather Cyrillic ‘C’s, in which case they are more akin to the Latin ‘S’, which explains their use in the Serbian cross, as they derive from the popular Serbian motto Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava (Only Unity Saves the Serbs).  That’s a lot of meaning packed into that flag.  Design-wise, I love that the crest is off-center, which generally makes for a stronger design.

#6 – Vanuatu

Flag - VanuatuYet another nation composed of islands in the Pacific (this is the last of them, I promise), Vanuatu has one of the most unusual and striking banners in the flag pantheon, mainly because of its strange Y-shaped field configuration.  First, let’s cover the color symbolism though.  The black element of course represents the country’s people, the Ni-Vanuatu, who are dark-skinned but, like many Melanesians, often have curly, naturally light blond hair, a beautiful combination.  Melanesian children are particularly adorable.  Anyway, back to the flag.  The green represents the fulsome, fertile nature of the islands, while the red stands for the blood of both the people and the wild boar, a major traditional food source of Ni-Vanuatu.  The emblem inside the black triangle consists of a curled wild boar tusk (a sign of prosperity amongst the islanders) and two crossed fern leaves, a symbol of peace.  The yellow sideways ‘Y’ is actually a Christian symbol here, representing the spread of the gospel across the islands.

#5 – Bhutan

Flag - BhutanThe little Asian nation of Bhutan is wedged between China (to the north) and India (to the south).  Its flag consists of three major elements, but the meanings behind them are complex.  The orange triangle represents the spiritual side of Bhutan, namely its Buddhist heritage.  The yellow triangle, meanwhile, represents the worldly side of things, mainly the civil life of its people, as well as the ephemeral nature of worldly authority and society.  But easily the most commanding part of the standard of Bhutan is the dragon.  I mean, it’s a dang dragon, the coolest of all mythical animals!  And this is not just any dragon.  It’s actually Druk, the Bhutanese thunder dragon.  In fact, this dragon is so important to the nation’s heritage that its people actually refer to their own country as Druk.  It originates from a particular Buddhistic line called Drukpa.  The dragon straddles the two halves of the flag, indicating the importance of attending to both civil/state and spiritual matters; it also symbolizes the bond between the nation’s leader(s) and its people.  Druk’s color is white, epitomizing the purity of the proper Buddhist  mind, and it clutches a gemstone in each of its claws, which stands for the wealth of the country.  But really the Bhutan flag’s awesomeness can be summed up in one word: dragon!

#4 – Kazakhstan

Flag - KazakhstanWhen most people in the Anglosphere think of Kazakhstan—if they think of it all—they probably think of the satirical film Borat and its title character, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.  But when I think of it, I first picture this wonderfully handsome flag.  The elements are few but drenched in meaning.  The blue field is first and foremost a color associated with Turkic religious traditions, but it also signifies the sky and water.  The sun, as is often the case in iconography, is the source of all life, but also a representation of the nation’s abundance and fortune.  The bird is a steppe eagle, and it personifies strength, freedom and progress.  There were two things that particularly drew me to this design.  The first is the way the shadow beneath the eagle blends into the background—it’s a very nice use of shading and negative space, unusual for flag imagery. The second was the ornamental band on the hoist end of the flag, which is a traditional pattern called koshkar-muiz (“horns of the ram”).  It’s a sublime design; the Kazakhs can be very proud of their flag!

#3 – Swaziland

Flag - SwazilandOur second entry from Africa takes the #3 spot on our list.  Swaziland is a very small nation (there seems to be a lot of those on this list—well, never let it be said that I don’t stand up for the little guy!) situated near the bottom of the African continent, at the eastern end of South Africa.  The entire symbolism of the flag rests on its traditions of warfare.  Not that I’m fond of war, mind you, but I am setting aside my opinions about that and focusing on the aesthetics of the design.  Even so, some of the symbolism is worth examining, the almond-shaped shield especially, as the black and white aspects of it represent the fact that whites and blacks peacefully live side-by-side in Swaziland.  The shield and two spears demonstrate the strength of Swaziland to stand against its enemies, an important thing to project to outsiders in war-torn Africa, for, though she be but little, she is fierce!  The third staff is a Swazi fighting stick adorned with bird feathers.

#2 – Turkmenistan

Flag - TurkmenistanOh, my!  This captivating flag of the Islamic nation of Turkmenistan is the most elaborate flag in the world, with its intricate carpet guls inside the red band, and these guls are not random.  They are the tribal guls of the five major tribes of the region: the Teke, Yomut, Saryq, Choudur and Arsary.  The red band also includes a wreath at the bottom, a symbol of the nation’s official status as a permanently neutral entity in all international disputes.  Green and red are historically important colors for the Turkmen.  The crescent moon is a common symbol associated with Islam, but it is also a talisman of good omen and a hopeful future.  The stars are for the five provinces of Turkmenistan: Ahal, Balkan, Lebap, Mary and Dashhowuz.  And hey, do you consider those two-headed eagles to have too few heads?  Never fear.  The Turkmen have you covered—their presidential flag has an eagle with five of them!

#1 – Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Flag - Saint Pierre and MiquelonAnd now we arrive at #1, and it is flat out amazing.  It is a truism in modern design that less is more.  Well, forget that bunk.  I mean, just look at this thing.  It has it all: lions, ermine tails, crosses and, taking center stage, a classic old ship sailing on the ocean.  Before  we delve into the meaning of all this stuff, though, let’s talk a bit about where and what this place is.  Saint Pierre and Miquelon—which should more properly be called Saint Pierre and Miquelon-Langlade, but its name is already a mouthful so I totally get why Langlade isn’t included in the official title—is an archipelago just off the southern coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland.  At one time parts of Canada and what is now the Mid-Eastern and Southern US was largely under French control.  That is long gone, of course, but there remains one French territory (or rather, territorial collectivity) in this part of the world, and that is Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which basically operates as an independent state.  It’s people, of which there were around 6,000 as of 2015, are predominantly French-speaking Catholics who come from three major ethnic strains: Basques, Bretons and Normans, hence the three very different squares on the hoist end of the flag.  Each of those sections, which are based on the flags and/or coat-of-arms of their respective peoples, has its own symbolism that I could easily devote another whole article to, but I won’t.  It you’re interested, you can read about each of them here, here and here.  But the most awesome part of this flag is the ship, which is a representation of the carrack the Grande Hermine, on which French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed.  Cartier discovered the area that became Saint Pierre and Miquelon on his second voyage to the New World.  This splendid banner is said to have been designed by André Paturel, a local business owner.  Give the man a prize!  Because I seriously doubt anyone is ever going to top this.