Wednesday 25 September 2019

It Chapter Two | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Blockbuster horror soars when it clowns around, stumbles when it gets serious

Any horror aficionado worth his salt will scoff at a horror film that shows adults holding hands and chanting or, even worse, partaking in a group hug… unless, of course, those things are meant to be humorous. Unfortunately, both handholding and a group hug appear in It Chapter Two (directed by Andy Muschietti), and it’s this reviewer’s opinion that neither of them is meant to be funny. These two more glaring horror faux pas encapsulate the key shortcoming of the film: sacrificing silliness, the film’s strength, for touchy-feely posturing.

Twenty-seven years have passed since Pennywise the Dancing Clown (aka It) wreaked havoc on a group of friends in Stephen King’s fictitious town of Derry, Maine. Now they’ve gone their separate ways and become successful adults. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one who has remained in Derry, convinces the others to return and defeat Pennywise – they did, after all, make a blood pact when they were kids.

On the positive side, It Chapter Two retains and intensifies one of the first film’s greatest assets: creepy, yet funny manifestations of Pennywise. This time around, the viewer gets treated to a large statue that comes to life, a crazed fiend that makes fun of one character’s sappy poem, a bodiless pair of legs, and much more.

Alas, the film takes a nosedive when the friends revisit a setting from the first film in a climactic scene that goes on for far too long. There is a shift from playfulness to melodrama. A voice-over offers a message about friendship. First, these “friends” haven’t seen each other in 27 years, so how close can they be? Second, this is a film about a supernatural clown. Let’s not get too deep.

The film’s saving grace is Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). The monster has a complete lack of compassion for characters who are discriminated against or bullied. As in the first film, the best scene involves Pennywise manipulating an unsuspecting child. This time, it’s underneath the bleachers at a baseball game. However, It Chapter Two eventually squanders Skarsgård’s acting talents by heaping special effects upon the clown.

I didn’t go to see It Chapter Two to get some grand gesture about friendship among a group of “losers”; I went to see Pennywise’s antics. I got a healthy dose of the latter, but the former got shoved down my throat.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Read Douglas’s review of It.

Thursday 12 September 2019

Carnival Row, Season 1 | review by Rafe McGregor

Detection on Different Levels?

In his latest book, Allegory and Ideology (2019), Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson describes the patristic allegory as a system composed of four levels. The idea is that there is a single story that operates at four levels of meaning simultaneously. The first level is the literal, which in the Scriptures referred to an historical event and in the case with which I am concerned here is the steampunk world represented in Carnival Row. The second, secret, level is the hidden meaning concealed within the literal level, requiring either a mystical revelation or imaginative deciphering (or, in Carnival Rows case, perhaps a little more enciphering). The third, moral, level is concerned with individual salvation or existential experience and the fourth, anagogical, level with the Last Judgement or the future of humanity as a whole. Taking the philosophical rather than religious route we have the literal, secret, moral, and collective meanings of an allegory. At the literal level, Carnival Row is a narrative about the consequences of the battle for Tirnanoc (from the Gaelic Tír na nÓg), the land of the Fae, fought between two human powers, the covetous Burgue and the genocidal Pact. As the war progresses, the Fae begin fleeing to the Burgue for safety and the stream of refugees increases when the Burgue are defeated and withdraw from Tirnanoc. When the series opens, many of citizens of the Burgue, spanning all social strata, are displeased by the influx of “Critch”, a derisive term used to describe all Fae regardless of their species, and pursue some combination of making their lives as miserable as possible, proposing anti-immigration legislation, and using all available means to keep them offshore. In the age of Trump’s wall and Johnson’s Brexit it is very easy – perhaps a little too easy, as the didacticism is sometimes rather heavy-handed – to read the second level of meaning as being about the Coalition Forces invasion of Iraq, the subsequent destabilisation of the Middle East, and the consequent Syrian refugee crisis. The parallels between London or New York and the Burgue on the one hand and Islamic State and the Pact on the other are almost exact. The question I am interested in is not whether the secret meaning of the allegory is too obvious, but whether the simplistic similarities preclude it from reaching the moral and collective levels of meaning.

Carnival Row takes its name from a street in the Burgue that is the centre of what has become a Fae inner city, populated by faeries, fauns, centaurs, trolls, kobolds, and other refugees from Tirnanoc. There are two main plots, each of which follows the two protagonists, and two subplots involving the governance and elite society of the Burgue respectively. The protagonists are Vignette Stonemoss (played by Cara Delevingne), a faerie refugee, and Inspector Rycroft Philostrate (played by Orlando Bloom), a detective who is investigating a serial killer that preys exclusively on Fae. The two were lovers in Tirnanoc during the war and their respective tales intersect, diverge, and intertwine as the narrative progresses. Vignette made her living in Tirnanoc by selling the Fae into indentured labour, a practice that is now recognised as a form of modern slavery, but was employed by many colonial powers up until the early twentieth century. When she fears falling victim to Pact atrocities, she sells herself in order to pay for her passage to the Burgue and is placed in the home of idly wealthy siblings Ezra and Imogen Spurnrose (played by Andrew Gower and Tamzin Merchant) as a lady’s maid. When Vignette is sexually assaulted by Spurnrose, she escapes to Carnival Row. Faced with only two options for survival, sex work or crime, she joins the Black Raven, a Fae organised crime group. Vignette’s decision is to at least some extent a moral one – as the head of the Black Raven confirms by stating, ‘The law of this city does not protect us’ – but it nonetheless pits her against her police officer ex-lover.

Philo is the only police officer in the Burgue that cares about the serial slaying of the Fae. He narrows the field of suspects down to sailors, on the basis that the crimes have coincided with the return of navy vessels to the docks, and quickly finds a suspect. After an exciting chase across the rooftops of the city, the sailor warns Philo of the coming of ‘some dark god’ before jumping to his death. Shortly after, another Fae is murdered, her torso ripped open by a giant creature that emerges from the sewers, and Philo is set on his second and much more complex case. It is quickly revealed that Philo’s idiosyncratic concern for the welfare of the Fae is due to his own ancestry: he is a half-blood faerie who had his wings cut off at birth before being abandoned at an orphanage. This is one of the aspects of the series where the didacticism becomes somewhat strained, with the only police officer who cares about the Fae only caring about them because he is himself half Fae. Seriously flawed though our own world is, there are plenty of people on the right side of inequality in metropolises like London, Los Angeles, Rio de Janiero, and Johannesburg that take a moral interest in those on the wrong side.

The two subplots concern two Burgue families, the Breakspears and the Spurnroses. Absalom Breakspear (played by Jared Harris) is Chancellor of the Republic of the Burgue and the political storyline is initiated when his son is kidnapped while visiting a Fae brothel in Carnival Row. Unbeknownst to Breakspear, the crime has been committed by his wife, Piety (played by Indira Varma), for reasons that are unclear. She subsequently manipulates Breakspear into detaining and torturing the Leader of the Opposition without charge and then both murders and frames the suspect herself. Meanwhile, despite their desirable address and the many trappings of opulence they enjoy, the Spurnroses are in dire financial straits. Imogen, whose existence revolves around climbing the social ladder and finding a husband with the right mix of social, economic, and cultural capital, is initially disgusted when a faun moves into their square, one of the most exclusive enclaves in the city. She soon realises that she can take advantage of the combination of Agreus Astrayon’s (played by David Gyasi) extreme wealth and the speciesism he faces from the Burgue’s elite, however, proposing to sponsor his admittance to that elite in exchange for an investment in her brother’s failing business enterprises. In the world of Carnival Row, just like our own, money can buy respectability and social acceptance, even if one has horns on one’s head and hooves instead of feet.

I have mentioned an example of the way in which Carnival Row both achieves and fails to achieve meaning at the moral level and there are several more examples of the former, which I shall not mention so as to avoid spoilers. In fact, the first three allegorical levels are tied together rather neatly by means of a succession of plot twists in the second half of the season. My main interest is in the fourth, collective, level and whether the series so far has anything to say about the future of humanity. In In the Dust of This Planet (2011), the first volume in his Horror of Philosophy Trilogy, Eugene Thacker proposes three ways of conceiving of meaning and value. His inquiry follows the tradition of Immanuel Kant, who distinguished between the noumenal world (objective reality) and the phenomenal world (subjective experience of objective reality). In Kant’s philosophy, human beings could never gain access to the noumenal and were restricted to negotiating it indirectly, through the phenomenal. For Thacker, whose concern is with meaning rather than existence, the world-for-us is ‘the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to, the world that we relate to or feeling alienated from, the world that we are at once a part of and that is also separate from the human’.  The world-for-us does not exhaust meaning on the planet, however, and we become aware of the world-in-itself when that planet ‘resists, or ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us’, most dramatically and dangerously in the occurrence of natural disasters. In other words, when faced with events such as natural disasters, human beings realise that there is a very strong sense in which this world is not for-us at all. The third and most significant conception of meaning and value is the world-without-us. The world-without-us is an attempt to conceptualise the coexistence of the world-for-us and the world-in-itself without either accepting that there is an insurmountable Kantian barrier between the two or immediately collapsing the latter into the former when we, for example, grasp natural disasters from the perspective of humanity. In Thacker’s terms, ‘the world-without-us is the subtraction of the human from the world’.  In my understanding of Thacker, the world-without-us is a world in which there is meaning and value in spite of the absence (actually subtraction) of human meaning and human values. Thacker’s aim in his Trilogy is to extrapolate and explain the world-without-us and his central thesis is that supernatural horror and science fiction succeed in this aim where philosophy has failed.

If Thacker is right and such a world exists, the crucial question is if and how the world-for-us and world-without-us can coexist without one system of meaning and value eradicating the other. Early into the twenty-first century it seems unsurprising that we have such difficulty conceiving of the world-without-us, so competent have we become at destroying the world-in-itself. We find the world-for-us at its most conspicuous and most arrogant in the city, where the natural environment has been replaced rather than adapted by the human population and where ecology has been reconfigured to sustain human life alone. In Carnival Row, Philo assumes the role of an occult detective attempting to solve a mystery set in the metropolis of the Burgue and the combination of protagonist and setting provides an opportunity to chart the relation between the world-for-us and the world-without-us. Despite his faerie blood, Philo appears as human and serves as an agent of social control, preserving the metropolitan world-for-us in all its biological, cultural, and economic complexity. The detective, both a symbol and an implement of human values, is pitted against an antagonist that is neither human nor Fae, but some dark god, an apparently unfathomable and inconceivable creature that dwells and kills in the city, where everything – alive or lifeless – is supposed to serve only human ends. Significantly, the creature’s lair is in the sewers, the foundation upon which the city is built, in the same way that the world-without-us underpins – and sometimes undermines – the world-for-us. As the story of an occult detective solving a series of murders in a metropolis, Carnival Row stages the world-without-us, setting up a narrative framework firmly grounded in the world-for-us – the detective as an agent of social control seeking to restore the anthropocentric status quo the murders have disrupted – and then using that framework to investigate a nature that refuses to be tamed and resists conception in human terms. The creature, called a Darkasher, is disclosed as having a closer connection to humanity than initially suspected and the potential for exploring the world-without-us is to some extent sacrificed for less problematic meaning-making at the fourth and final allegorical level. Notwithstanding, the pitting of the two worlds of meaning and value represented by the detective and the Darkasher respectively gestures towards some kind of mutual recognition between the world-for-us and the world-without-us. My hope is that the tension created by this pairing will be developed in more detail season 2, although as the occult detective mystery is solved by Philo season 1 this may well not be the case. Given that season 2 was commissioned prior to the release of season 1, Legendary Television and Amazon Studios must both be congratulated for bringing that season to a conclusive (and compelling) end in the final episode. *****  

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Ready or Not | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Think you’ve heard the worst wedding night catastrophe? Think again. 

Ready or Not, with its cozy mansion and eccentric characters, brings to mind the comedy/mystery Clue (1985). However, this time it’s comedy/horror, and directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett dispose of the mystery, escalate the intensity, and align the viewer with one character: young bride Grace (Samara Weaving), who’s brought into the fold of the wealthy Le Domas dynasty or, as one member prefers to call it, “dominion”. The family has built its fortune in games: playing cards, board games, and eventually, the ownership of sports franchises.

Still in her wedding dress, Grace gets thrust into a game of hide-and-seek – she’s the one who’s hiding – on the family estate. The stakes are high: if the Le Domases find Grace, they kill her. Husband Alex (Mark O’Brien) wants to help his new wife; alas, he has seven family members and a butler intent on finding her.

The film takes a bit long to get to the game. However, once it does, it’s a riveting experience, due in large part to Weaving’s performance. The heroine fights back, but still convincingly conveys the terror, shock and pain she undergoes as the sick game unfolds. She’s not too dainty to drop an f-bomb or throw a punch, nor does she entirely shed her womanhood to become Rambo in a dress (despite the movie poster that shows her clutching a rifle and wearing a bullet sash). Listen for Weaving’s animalistic scream – it almost sounds like a goat bleating – when things reach a boiling point.

Much of the film’s beauty lies in its contrasts: wood-panelled walls, candelabras and dumbwaiters merge with crazed screams, corpses and big weapons. No candlesticks and lead pipes here… Instead, it’s axes, crossbows and shotguns.

Some family members are tepid about the game, while others embrace it with a murderous glee. Among Grace’s pursuers are high-strung, drug-abusing sister-in-law Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and her disinterested husband Fitch Bradley (Kristian Bruun), sarcastic brother-in-law Daniel (Adam Brody) and his gold-digging wife (lightheartedly named) Charity (Elyse Levesque), and exuberant father-in-law Tony (Henry Czerny) and his hard-to-read wife Becky (Andie MacDowell). The two standouts are battle axe-wielding Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni), whose heavy black eyeshadow and jerky movements give her a demonic presence, and Stevens (John Ralston), a butler with a passion for Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Also notable is MacDowell’s performance as matron Becky Le Domas – her dramatically tilting eyebrows convey a mock sympathy.

If there is one theme that permeates Ready or Not it is loyalty… between parents and children, between siblings, and between spouses. The only bond that’s certain is the one between filmmaker and viewer.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Interview Questions: Tim Major

In the first of what we hope will be a regular feature, Stephen Theaker asks Tim Major a few questions.

What do you use for note-taking in preparation for new writing – paper, apps, or is it all in your head till you begin? If you use notebooks, do you have a favourite brand?

I’m not at all particular. My current notebook is a cheap lime green one that came in a multipack, but is usually used for notes at lectures or conferences rather than writing ideas. I tend to jot things in the Notes app of my phone, which is frustrating and impractical, but I’m more likely to actually note down the idea if the means to do so are always on my person. I rarely need much of a description to be able to retain an idea until the next time I’m at my desk.

In terms of more detailed preparation, I work entirely onscreen. I write copious notes in Word documents, as well as transcriptions of imagined conversations with myself whenever plot obstacles arise, if my wife is too busy to engage in that sort of conversation.

Where do you do your writing?

On my computer, at my desk in the attic of my house. It’s where I conduct my day job (I’m a freelance editor) so I can switch freely between work and writing. There’s a very thick soundproofed door at the bottom of the attic stairs so it’s nice and calm up here. I work on a laptop hooked up to a monitor with an extended desktop, and my laptop screen is a more or less permanently a display for Spotify.

What type of desk do you use when writing, and what type of chair?

Cheap Ikea desk, but it’s stable; swivel chair I got for free from my brother-in-law, but it’s comfy.

What do you write on, or with? What software or apps do you use?

I use Scrivener for anything longer than a short story. I’m evangelical about the software, despite the fact that I use barely any of its functionality. The ability to see a folder-structure overview of scenes of a my novel on the left-hand side of the screen is enormously important to me, so that I’m always clear of the context of the scene I’m working on, at any time. I’ve become more and more of a planner when I’m preparing novels, creating long synopses, so I rarely need to reorder scenes and I usually know where I’m going. But knowing where I am is just as important.

What time of day do you usually write, and how often do you write, and for how long? Do you write year-round, or does it tend to be in spells?

As I say, the hours allocated to my writing and my day job tend to be fluid. Also, my wife and I share the childcare of our two young children, so my desk time is rarely more than half of each week day. But when I’m in the midst of a novel I like to prioritise writing, usually managing an hour and a half just after doing the nursery drop-off. I usually write between 1000 and 1500 words an hour, so drafts tend to accumulate fairly quickly and satisfyingly. I write all year around, though this year is my first parental experience of school summer holidays, and I can tell you that my productivity has taken a big hit.

Who are your inspirations? Whose writing career would you like to have?

There are a lot of writers I love, of course. I came to SF as an eleven-year-old via John Wyndham and H.G. Wells, and their novels echo throughout all my work, I suspect. I love the playfulness of Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino and the precision of John Updike. I think Patricia Highsmith’s character work is outstanding and I adore Shirley Jackson’s unsettling tone. This is a terrible admission, but until seven or eight years ago, I rarely read modern novels. I do now, of course, and if I had ambitions of simulating a writer’s career it would be somebody working currently, as it’d be fruitless to yearn for an entirely different industry and readership, and different expectations of sustainability. The people I most envy are those who have many strings to their bow, producing novels, short stories, non-fiction books and also editing anthologies and performing other roles on that side of the editorial divide. I love being a freelance editor, but the closer I can bring my hobby and my more “legitimate” work, the happier I’ll be.

Imagine that a hundred years from now, a researcher into the work of Tim Major discovers this interview. Can you tell us something that she would be delighted to learn?

Oh, good grief. I don’t want to be too self-effacing, but that doesn’t strike me as a plausible scenario at all. I’m not a surprising person. I’m honest, I think, and I’m tenacious in a professional sense. Although this isn’t scandalous or surprising, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it in a writing interview before: I’m a decent bassist. The band I was in, The Hired Sportsmen, was named after a children’s book by Russell Hoban, who also wrote the SF classic Riddley Walker. When we played on the radio show hosted by Paul Heaton (the lead singer of the Beautiful South, who was very friendly), the studio wasn’t really set up for live performances of bands, so me and the drummer were relegated to performing in the bathroom, not even able to see the other band members.

You've co-edited three issues so far of BFS Horizons with Shona Kinsella for the British Fantasy Society. How has that been, and what have been your favourite stories so far?

It’s been lovely. Shona’s terrific to work alongside, and we had no trouble finding a groove in terms of responsibilities from the start – and more importantly, we tend to agree on story selections. I wouldn’t want to pick favourites, though I will say that I was very pleased that we decided to print Val Nolan’s story “Green Skies” in the most recent issue (#9) – it was a much longer story than our submission guidelines encourage, but we were both determined to include as soon as we read it. It’s a terrific story.

Is there a kind of story that you don't see enough of in the BFS Horizons submissions?

Fantasy stories, oddly enough! This isn’t a complaint, exactly, and of course fantasy is a very broad genre that can be defined in all sorts of ways. But it always strikes me as strange that we get so much weird fiction, SF and horror, but far fewer examples of traditional epic fantasy, say. Also, humour. We always look for lighter stories to balance out the grimmer stuff, but there never seem to be many to choose from.

Is there anything you can tell us about upcoming issues?

Not much, no! As soon as one is delivered we turn our attention to the next, but right now we’re at the very start of the process for #10. I do know that the cover is going to be great, though.

I loved the story you let us publish in TQF61, “To Ashes, Dust”: what of your other work would you recommend to people who enjoyed that one? Is any of your other work in the same continuity?

Yes, that story is one of several all set on the same nostalgic, idiosyncratic version of Mars, many with loosely interrelated elements. I’ll have to check my own website to figure out how many there are – bear with me… Ah, there are eight short stories so far, maybe nine at a push. Four of them have been published in Shoreline of Infinity, the excellent Edinburgh-based SF magazine that won Best Magazine at the British Fantasy Awards in 2018 and is nominated again this year. Two of the Mars stories (“The Walls of Tithonium Chasma” and “Throw Caution”) have been selected for successive editions of Best of British Science Fiction, published by NewCon Press. I’ve recently completed a novella in the same series – a Martian murder mystery – but that doesn’t have a home yet.

Could you tell us about your recent novel, Snakeskins? It feels so rare now to see a standalone novel from a new science fiction writer published by a mainstream UK publisher.

Do you know what? That hadn’t occurred to me, about standalone SF titles being rare. I would say that Titan Books, who published Snakeskins, may be bucking the trend on that score. I’m a huge fan of their recent output – novels by writers such as Nina Allan, Matt Hill, Helen Marshall, James Brogden and many more, all of which are standalone.

Anyway. Snakeskins is an SF thriller about a group of British people who have inherited the ability to rejuvenate every seven years, and in the process produce a short-lived “Snakeskin” clone of themselves, which possesses all of their memories and characteristics and may live for minutes, hours or days. So it’s about identity – the shock of coming face-to-face with yourself, and wondering whether you’re the most effective version of yourself. But it’s also a political novel. Over generations, this strange power has had the effect of Britain shutting itself off from the world to protect its secrets, and the corrupt British Prosperity Party now rules uncontested. So, without fear of giving away too great a spoiler, it’s about Brexit too.

Congratulations on your PS Publishing book about the film Les Vampires being up for a British Fantasy Award! How does that feel? (Nine years since our last nomination so we've forgotten!)

Thank you! It feels very nice. I don’t think of myself as a non-fiction writer, and it felt like a huge indulgence being allowed to spend so long thinking about a film I love, but I’m proud of the book. My approach wasn’t wholly academic – while I did a lot of research, I spent an equal amount of time trying to unpick and explain my fascination with the film, which is a 10-part silent crime serial from 1915–16. There are also ten pieces of weird fiction included in the book, one following each episode of the serial, and I’m very fond of those. They’re very weird. But hey! You should find a copy of the film and watch it, which would be the most satisfying outcome of the book getting attention. Les Vampires has everything: proto-horror, car chases, sequences that rival David Lynch for weirdness, plus Musidora, the greatest female action star of all time…

Finally, the most important bit, your newest book: And the House Lights Dim. What can you tell us about it? And is that a cover by the esteemed Daniele Serra?

Yes, it is a Daniele Serra cover! I love the image so much, and I was floored when Daniele allowed Luna Press to use it. A copy of the painting is hanging on the wall beside my desk, next to an illustration of Musidora, in fact.

And the House Lights Dim is a short story collection, featuring stories written over a four-year period (plus another three written solely for the collection), spanning the years in which my two sons were born. That timing explains the thematic through-line, I suppose – the stories are all concerned with houses, homes and families. One story is actually narrated by a sentient house, and there’s also a lonely space station guarded only by a married couple, a post-apocalyptic holiday village, a supernatural Greenland shark that threatens a mother and her son, a camping trip that turns a family feral… it’s all very jolly. The Greenland shark story, “Eqalussuaq”, was selected by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year, so that’s a solid recommendation, and the novelette “Carus & Mitch”, which was one of my first publications, was shortlisted for a This is Horror Award back in 2015. Also included in the book are commentaries on the origin of each story, and also links to a couple of soundtracks to accompany the two longest stories – I produce book soundtracks for any of my longer work, an obsession that sometimes takes almost as long as editing the manuscript!

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BFS Horizons submission guidelines: