Writing and Marketing

Category: Essays and Thoughts Page 1 of 3

A category for personal writing, featuring reviews of fantasy and science fiction books, films, shows and games.

Christine

I mentioned way back that I’d like to talk about some of director John Carpenter’s less discussed films. I was going to go visit Prince of Darkness but I suppos speaking to my father recently put my mind more on the automotive.

Christine is an odd film in that it’s not often considered a” top” John Carpenter film, and yet its cultural reach is extensive, with the concept of the sentient, possessive machine being pervasive in our pop culture. Partially this could be because Stephen King’s original book was also quite popular, though the book also relies more heavily on the ghost of the owner of the vehicle as an antagonist, rather than purely the vehicle itself. Carpenter’s film is a stripped-down version of the story, but I feel that it’s this version that has seeped into our cultural consciousness.

To be fair, even Carpenter seems to not regard Christine too highly, describing it as “a job”, though later admitting that it did have a place for his love. Still, it’s hard not to imagine Carpenter’s mental state as he approached the film. His arguable masterpiece of The Thing had been savaged by critics and failed at the box office, being too perfect in its deployment of bleak horror for its 1982 audience to appreciate.

This makes sense given the timing – Christine was the next film he released after his arguable masterpiece of The Thing which tragically underperformed both critically and at the box office. Compared to the Lovecraftian styles and scopes of The Thing, Christine is a fairly simple setup; a nerdy teenager gets his first car, which is malevolent and sentient. As he rebuilds the car to its full glory, it slowly changes him from sweet shyness to cold arrogance, driving off under its own ability to kill his enemies, and then any rival for his affection.

At base, Christine is much less ambitious than something like The Thing, or even some other Carpenter horror outings like The Fog or Prince of Darkness. In many ways, it is a return to something like Halloween – a dark threat within small-town America. Just like in Halloween, it handles its smaller stakes well, with memorable characters and directing. Carpenter excelled at shooting for horror even when not making strictly horror movies. The film easily shifts from suburban greenery into bleak nighttime industrial and rural landscapes where Christine herself is free to run rampant.

What really elevates the film for me, however, is the oft-overlooked performance of its lead, Keith Gordon, as Arnie Cunningham, the owner of Christine. Technically his football-playing friend Dennis is the protagonist, who has to stop Arnie and Christine and gets the girl in the end. Keith Gordon is the real star with how well he portrays Arnie’s transformation from a wallflower to a cold and manic greaser. The film has a lot of erotic undertones regarding the titular vehicle, and it’s impressive that Gordon manages to capture this relationship without making it laughable. One of the best scenes is when Arnie first observes Christine’s supernatural powers of regeneration, staring with the fascination of a teenager first seeing a woman undress. He gives an equally on-point defense of his love of the car to Dennis as they speed down a darkened highway. Carpenter is able to take what could be a silly concept at base, and turn it into a compelling dark dynamic.

Christine is a film worth checking out for the acting of Gordon alone. Throw in some great directing, a few very neat effects (especially Christine’s ability to regenerate), and some wonderful music choices and it makes a very watchable horror flick.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer

Thomas Ligotti is often described as the “best kept secret” of the horror genre, often heralded by many as the greatest living practitioner of the art. Having read Songs of a Dead Dreamer a while back, I can testify to his skill as a writer, particularly of the horror short story. What I find fascinating about him is the position he takes among “modern horror”. When one generally thinks of the genre one thinks (or thought) of authors like Stephen King, though we may be out of that “golden age” of horror. Ligotti interests me so much because, despite writing during that golden age, he feels like a direct descendent of authors like Lovecraft or Machen, with a style that can be said to be distinctly “cosmic horror”. Ligotti deals with great terrors and madness that exist under the surface of reality, a world of decay and darkness always threatening to break through.

Stephen King, as an author, works so well because he is so in tune, at any given moment, with America and what makes America tick. A book like The Stand serves as a perfect snapshot of United States as the century came to an end (impressive given that it was written in 1978, albeit with an updated complete version in 1990). The horror of King works so effectively because he first digs the hooks of reality into you. Sometimes the perfectly mundane parts of King’s writing is the most disturbing, before anything supernatural arrives – he knows exactly what lurks just behind the façade of American life.

Even when Ligotti deals with American reality it feels somehow unreal – towns feel shadowy and incomplete and cities always put on their seediest masks. Ligotti and Lovecraft have mastered the art of playing the outsider, and making the reader feel that sentiment as well. Ligotti is less interested in what might horrify a specific viewer as he is with playing with the very stuff of horror itself. His stories are as likely to feature villains as much as victims, bystanders to horror as much as by-products of it. Sometimes his works at first hew closer to reality to better emphasis the break into the darkness, while other times his tales feel like strange and stilted plays, no less disturbing for their disconnected nature. In many ways, Ligotti feels like a painter with words.

In short, he feels like a sadly forgotten branch of horror where many of the tropes set down by Lovecraft continued on. This is not to say that I dislike Stephen King – indeed, he was a formative author for me, and hopefully I can take the time to write about him here. Ligotti is more a fascinating “what could have been” in the horror genre, with the exception that we are lucky enough to have his work to read, which I highly encourage.

The Martian Chronicles

I’ve written before on the Barsoom cycle, and its influence on me. Mars has always held such a fascination for people, being the closest of our planetary neighbours. As our understanding of our solar system increases, our dreams of Mars become increasingly prosaic – less swords and princesses, and more dreams of survival and colonization.

One of the best books about Martian colonization, and one that stands at the intersection of all our Martian dreams would have the be the The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. The Chronicles themselves come in a deceptive humble package – a small collection of short stories and vignettes about humanity’s repeated attempt to explore Mars, followed by a final successful colonization. The Chronicles are thusly a “fix-up” in the manner of many other collections at the time, such as I, Robot.

While hypothetically a story about all of humanity colonizing Mars, the collection is really a story about America – which is appropriate, seeing as there are very few authors who had an understanding of America on such a deep practical and lyrical level as Bradbury. The stories begin with the failures of the first expeditions, which meet tragically gruesome fates due to native Martians. Once Earth diseases have eradicated the original Martians, the colonization of Mars gets into full swing – in this interpretation Mars is inhospitable, but still liveable. The world that the Americans build on Mars feels very reminiscent of the industrial and population boom of the 50s that was just starting, contrasting with the quiet remains of the old, delicate Martian cities.

Indeed, the Martians and their works are shown to be easily destroyed throughout the book, having a fragile quality to them. This suits the book’s meditations on the destructive side of humanity, from the physical aspects of nuclear war and rampant industrial to the more intangible but no less devastating effects of racism and anti-intellectualism. The book ranges over a wide array of topics, and yet keeps Mars feeling like a consistent place throughout, beginning to end. The stories within really feel timeless- reading them in 2020 it feels like the stories could have been written at any point past the 50s, with a lovely retro-science fiction sheen all over. Funny, sad and whimsical and equal measure, this collection remains unmatched to this day.

VALIS

Sadly, the used bookstores are all closed in Toronto, so my supply of literature is running a little thin. I still had, however, some science fiction books still laying around that I hadn’t touched yet, one of which was VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.

As a big fan of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and, especially, Ubik, I was interested in reading a book that has some notoriety attached to it. VALIS was one of the last works that Dick wrote, after a period where he had an intense religious experience – similar to his other later work, A Scanner Darkly. VALIS is therefore much less of a traditional science fiction novel, being more of an autobiographical account of a man attempting to reconcile his religious experience with extra-terrestrial and gnostic theories.

The book is interesting in that it attempts to somewhat cloak the autobiographical elements by introducing the main character as “Horselover Fat”, though it admits from early on that this is a thinly veiled pseudonym for Dick himself. (Clever linguists will be able to use Greek and German word origins to translate the term). Telling his story in the third person does not serve as a shock reveal, but rather to give the work a sense of disassociation. It’s impossible to tell how much Dick really believed what was in VALIS, but a good deal of it does match up with things that he claimed occoured to him during his religious experience – being struck with unearthly pink light and receiving information that was hypothetically impossible for him to understand. Dick’s later life was marked by a good deal of trauma, including marital issues and a suicide attempt, both of which are touched upon in the novel.

Despite this being more autobiography, or at least autobiographical expression, VALIS does share many similarities with Dick’s other work, touching on themes of the fragile nature of reality, identity and paranoia. No writer I have encountered has mastered the art of paranoia as Philip K. Dick did, with parts of Electric Sheep and Ubik reaching levels of anxiety not to be found in the most frightening of horror fiction when the questions of reality begin to be truly questioned.

Philip K. Dick was also deft at weaving warm humanity in with this cold paranoia, and VALIS may be most interesting as a work where the humanity and vulnerability on display was closest to his own. The actual plot of VALIS is fairly short and sweet, but it is the raw exploration of hurt that makes it so fascinating, even before it begins to leap into religion and science fiction.

Returned

Just a friendly message to say that I’m back from the holidays and hopefully can write some more content for here. I would have liked to have written a more substantial message, with perhaps some encouragement for the New Year, but it appears like this one is off to a dismal, if not unexpected, start.

GAOTek Virtual Summits

In lieu of a regular post, I just wanted to take the time to highlight a really cool even, operated by a company I am working for. GaoTek is a company that works with ICT, RFID and IoT technology devices – all part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In January, GaoTek is going to be running a series of virtual summits to keep the tech industry connected even in the midst of the pandemic. There are already a lot of really interesting and experienced speakers lined up, so I encourage you to check out the link below to learn more.

https://gaotek.com/events/

 

Swords Against!

I recently talked about a fantasy series I finished, Malazan, which is well noted for its usage of “dynamic duos”, having characters appear frequently in pairs who bring out the most interesting in each other. This heavily reminded me of a sadly often forgotten part of the formation of fantasy – the author Fritz Leiber.

Fritz Leiber is one of my all-time favourite authors, who ranged across fantasy, science fiction and horror in his writing, and his most famous creations are certainly Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a pair of warriors who engage in sword and sorcery type adventures across the world of Nehwon, particularly in and around the great city of Lankhmar. Leiber began writing the stories as early as the late 1930s, but only began organizing the short stories into collections in the 60s and 70s. The concept behind the characters was to create more “human” variations on the archetypical pulp heroes, such as Conan and Tarzan. Fafhrd is a gigantic northern barbarian with a straightforward view on life, while the Gray Mouser is a sly and more cynical thief.

While we might take these kinds of “odd couple” pairings for granted in modern fantasy, at the time, this must have been quite revolutionary. The difference is that with two different characters, there is ample chance for them to discuss and reflect upon the strange occurrences and peoples they encounter. This is where Leiber’s writing can really shine, because the man was a true wit. Where Conan and Tarzan may have been taciturn, Fafhrd and Mouser often pass the time with hilarious conversation, when not getting into adventures that deftly mix horror, exoticism, comedy and action. The two are often sent on absurd and dangerous missions by their wizardly patrons, Ninguable and Sheelba, who have a bickering relationship with their chosen heroes that also reminded my greatly of Malazan – Ninguable in particular always makes me think of the character of Shadowthrone.

While not having the impact of Conan, the pair have left an indelible mark on the fantasy genre, as seen by the many games and comics (including a fantastic rendition by Mike Mignola) based on them and their world, and the countless nods and references in other fantasy works. Indeed, Leiber seems a favourite among fantasy authors, and its not hard to see why given the charm with which he writes.

Of course, Leiber went far beyond sword and sorcery, writing some of my favourite science fiction stories, and perhaps the greatest urban fantasy story ever written, “Our Lady of Darkness”.  Just focusing on his sword and sorcery (a genre he helped name) accomplishments would be selling him short. I might return in the future to give some of his other works more love. Still, if you love old fashioned fantasy adventure and witty dialogue, there’s none better.

Inland Empire

I recently watched David Lynch’s Inland Empire, which had been sitting on my list for quite some time. When looking into Lynch’s work I’m always assured that the next film for me to watch is “the really incomprehensible one”, or where his surrealist style finally “goes to far”. As with the rest of his works, that was far from my experience with Inland Empire, which I very much enjoyed. One could view Inland Empire as the last of an “LA Trilogy”, also including Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, which is among my absolute favourite films. All of these films feature neo-noir elements, denial or distortion dof reality, some aspect of filmmaking within the story, and the city of LA itself. Inland Empire is unique in a few ways. Most immediately noticeable is that the entire film is shot on handheld digital, giving it a deliberately low budget feel that adds to the surrealistic tone – one feels like they are watching uncomfortable home movies or obscure pornography. Much of the film is also set in Poland, adding a very different visual style to much of the backdrops.

Like many of Lynch’s later works, the film does not have a linear plot, but in general, it is about an actress who takes a role in a “cursed film”, interweaving abuses both old and new. Lynch is perhaps my favourite director because he, more than anyone else, understands that film is a visual medium, and every frame could be used as a strange and surrealist painting. This is what always frustrates me about discussions regarding Lynch, with many complaining that without a cohesive narrative there can be no plot to tell, or those who claim to love his work but assert that it “doesn’t need to make sense.”

Just because Lynch relies much more on the visual (and auditory, for that matter) parts of filmmaking does not automatically mean that he is not a storyteller. One can get a clear sense of story from a single image, and series of images. Why I love Lynch so much is he understands that as visuals are much more open to interpretation, it gives free reign to the filmmaker to start speaking in their own unique languages.

But, in the end, I have to unfortunately agree with the rest of the discussion and admit that LA trilogy films are much a matter of taste. If you love Lynch and haven’t seen it, don’t be scared off – Inland Empire is engrossing to follow along its twisting path. I just want to voice my appreciation here for a filmmaker who is so willing to offer something that very few others are.

Endless Space 2

I’ve never had too much skill at the more complicated sort of strategy games. I’ve not had much luck with Paradox games, for examples. However, I’ve been having far too much of my time sucked up by Endless Space 2, so I figure I should give it a positive review.

Space-based 4X Games (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) are one of the oldest genres of video game out there, or rather a subgenre that has a very well-defined formula. One would think that 4X games would have figured out all possible permutations of this approach, but they remain popular and ever evolving.

I’d tried Stellaris but found it a bit much and a little unintuitive. Endless Space 2 has a lot of options, don’t get me wrong. However, it’s presented in such an intuitive manner that I was able to figure out half of it on my own. The other half I quickly learned through trial and error. The UI is very clear, which helps you understand why you made the mistakes you did.

Presentation is a theme with the game, which boasts truly gorgeous artwork, graphics and music. Often the difference between one game and the next is just the polish, and Endless Space 2 sparkles and shines in all aspects. The only blotch I can see is a notoriously bad outsourced DLC, but that’s easily simply skipped.

The game features a variety of colourful and interesting spacefaring Empires to choose from, each with very unique visual motifs and playstyles. And that’s not even getting started on all the more minor races you run into. I won’t spoil them all as part of the fun is discovering all the love and attention that went into every corner of the game.

If you like science fiction, strategy and lovely art, I’d highly recommend it.

Dr. Who: Inferno

I while back I wrote up some reviews of the science fiction serials of Nigel Kneale – some wonderful relics of a bygone age. I do feel that it would be amiss to talk about the age of British science fiction serials without bringing up the franchise that reigned supreme over the grenre and format – Dr. Who.

Dr. Who is a British institution and global phenomenon, and I’m not going to try to do a summation of the franchise or talk about it as a whole. There are a lot of great videos and essays you can find on the topic. Instead I’m going to look at just one Dr. Who serial, Inferno. The reason for this is that it has often been compared to Kneale’s style of work, and is generally considered one of the best of its era. So, the question is, looking back – does it hold up?

I’ve watched some of early Dr. Who and I must say that while I have to applaud their imaginativeness, many of the early serials suffer from their format rather than benefit from it. Rarely does it occour that every moment in a multi-episode serial is used well, and the plots often suffer from recursion or stalling in order to fill out their run time. You get the feeling that often the writers were struggling to make their deadlines and fill the time, which I suppose is part of the charm. Inferno is so impressive, however, because it manages to keep its engagement over seven episodes.

The general idea is that the titular Doctor (the third incarnation of the character, played by John Pertwee), is performing experiments while sharing the power of a drilling project in England (in Dr. Who, all the most major scientific projects in the world naturally are located in England). The project in question is headed by the maniacally obsessive Professor Stahlman and seeks to pierce the Earth’s crust. There is a general sense of foreboding about the project, exacerbated when scientists exposed to some of the liquid dredged up by the drill start to turn into violent, heat loving mutants.  The Doctor’s experiments end up sending him “sideways” in time, visiting the same drill site in a dystopian alternate Britain.

The sequence in the dictatorial Britain forms a sort of “story within a story”, and is the reason Inferno works so well where other long serials falter – just as we might be losing interest in the “our world” plot, we get a new set of stakes to care about, as the Doctor must avoid being sent to the firing squad by less scrupulous versions of the cast from his Britain. The interior story also allows the serial to become shockingly grim, with not everyone escaping the fiery cataclysm that occours when the drill project is complete. The serial can have its apocalyptic bad ending, but the Doctor then gets to return to his own timeline and take another crack at stopping the disaster. The dark mood seems very much inspired by Kneale type serials, and with its rampaging mutants and flowing lava, it’s a great take on Armageddon.

The cast is all great, and I must give kudos to Pertwee as the Doctor. The Third Doctor is in somewhat of a unique situation in that the metaplot of the show has him stuck on Earth, instead of freely roaming the cosmos. Pertwee is excellent at playing the Doctor like a tense, cadged animal – he knows he’s smarter than everyone else on Earth, but for once, he can’t just leave.

Indeed, the serial is shocking prescient and captured some of the exact feeling of hopelessness and frustration that you might experience talking to a climate change denier. A blind focus on “results” and personal achievement leads to the destruction of one world. Even if his Britain isn’t a 1984 style dictatorship, the Doctor must struggle against much of the same sorts of stubborn insanity to save the day. The Third Doctor, who is a man of science and rationality, with the trappings of a genteel Victorian dandy, is the perfect foil to the forces of thuggery and irrationality. I give Inferno a solid recommendation if you enjoy 1970’s era sci-fi.

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