Sunday 30 April 2023

Blood Relations by Kristopher Triana (Grindhouse Press) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Short story collection shifts impressively from gore and smut to grief and nostalgia.

The first Kristopher Triana story I read involved a home invasion. The violence was so over the top that I still remember where I was when I read it. I presumed that Triana was an extreme horror one-trick pony… a blood and guts conjurer whose sole aim was to make the reader cringe at the brutality of his characters’ actions. Blood Relations, Triana’s family-themed (but not family-friendly) collection of short horror stories, proved me wrong. 

Yes, there are the gruesome, flesh-mangling, bone-crunching, and sexually depraved entries. “Womb”, for instance, involves an incestuous brother and sister using the bodies of murder victims to recreate the place they felt safest. In “Jailbait Frankenstein”, a Lolita tale-turned-horror story, a man in his forties who rationalises his attraction to underage girls learns a painful lesson. He grows smitten with a teenage girl who’s a “butterface”, meaning beautiful in every way but her face. Her repulsive facial appearance becomes an embodiment of his shameful attraction. 

The collection, however, also features less graphic though equally entertaining stories, such as the Steven Kingesque “We All Scream”, which comments on children’s need for immediate gratification. This one puts a new spin on the dangerous ice cream truck trope by offering a much subtler and creepier scenario. Children who hear the ice cream truck playing “Turkey in the Straw” know it’s time to return home immediately. Things get out of hand when little Tommy decides to flout that warning and approach the truck. 

Some stories involve characters unearthing shocking secrets about their relatives. In “My Name Is Chad”, for instance, a young man mourning the death of his mother finds disturbing video footage that reveals something about him and his deceased sister. “Kin” is a country bumpkin piece in which a West Virginia family makes an awful discovery about a young man in the family. 

“The Solution”, about a lusty mother and apathetic daughter who use sexuality to extract something from teenage boys, offers such an exaggerated take on the mother’s libido that it is at times laugh-out-loud funny. Look for the hilariously overindulgent similes and metaphors in which Triana compares the sounds the mother makes in the throes of ecstasy to those of animals. 

The details that Triana offers in “The Solution” speak to his skill as a writer – the smells of tobacco and microwave pizza within the mother’s home, for example, or her “layer of trashy desperation” that resembles bacon grease. 

Another curious element within the story is the boy the teenage protagonist sees glued to the TV each time he enters the mother’s home. The boy watches horrific programs like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or autopsies in which a mortician scoops brains from a corpse. Though he plays no major role, the boy helps set the mood for the oddities the protagonist encounters. 

Did you think those boys in Lord of the Flies had a tough time? Maybe you thought the kids in The Hunger Games were violent? Read “Dog Years”, a story both bloody and nostalgic, and you’ll reconsider both. All the adults are gone, and now gangs of children roam the streets. They are afflicted by a disease that makes their lifespans comparable to those of dogs. Kids in their late teens are in the throes of dementia. Sixteen-year-old narrator Skye reflects on her survivalist father whose advice on female empowerment proves valuable. During one of the more poignant scenes, the children, forced to exist in a world where social media is absent, reflect on the things they miss. Chapstick, for instance. 

When one character in Blood Relations enters a basement to discover a relative doing something sickening to another human being, her response is, “Hey.” The reader will find several such instances of indifference to human suffering within this collection, but the reader will also experience a wide range of the emotions that make us human.—Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday 24 April 2023

Evil Dead Rise | review by Stephen Theaker

Evil Dead Rise is the fifth of the Evil Dead films, following Sam Raimi's brilliant original trilogy and a so-so remake directed by Fede Alvarez. Neither a reboot nor really a sequel, this is a new story set in a universe where reading from the wrong book can open the way for capricious, malevolent entities to enter our world and take over our bodies.

In this film, an earthquake breaks open a secret vault hidden beneath an apartment block. The block is due to be demolished soon, but not everyone has found a new place to live, and the boy from one flat emerges from the vault with a book bound in human skin and vinyl recordings made by those who hid it there. He starts to play the records, with horrific consequences.

The boy's mother (Alyssa Sutherland) is possessed by the evil dead (or is she, having died, now the evil dead herself? I've never been quite sure), and mayhem ensues. The three kids turn to their aunt (Lily Sullivan) for help. Bodies are mangled, blood is spilled, neighbours pop around, and there comes a time when nothing but a shotgun and a chainsaw will do.

Before I go on to explain why the film was for me mildly disappointing, it's only fair to mention that I saw it on a Cineworld screen that was not particularly bright. I saw two other films the same day, and so I saw how much more effective the trailer of The Boogeyman was on a better-lit screen. That said…

The biggest problem for this film is that it doesn't follow Evil Dead, the tepid 2013 remake, it follows Ash vs Evil Dead, which took the insanity of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness and turned it up to 11. That show took things to such bizarre extremes that Mrs Theaker told me off for waking up the children with my unconscious expostulations.

This film does not do that. Compared to some horror films, it's not understated: horrific things happen to the kind of people who do not usually get seriously hurt in horror films, for example, and everyone still gets soaked in blood. It's an 18-rated film. But it never hits the heights of delirium that is this franchise's raison d'être.

And it's not funny. Nor was the original film, but it is part of what makes the sequels so special. There are a couple of amusing moments – the very first shot is a gag – but I didn't hear anyone in the cinema laugh.

Was it the evil dead that made the films so beloved? Or was it Bruce Campbell's reactions to them? I think perhaps the actions of the evil dead are so random, their powers so unlimited, that they don't lend themselves particularly well to a traditional horror film structure. They could win at any moment if they chose to – the only reason they don't is that they're having too much fun torturing everyone.

It's definitely not a bad film, though. It is quite literally hair-raising at times, and there are some very striking images. The moment when the title appears on screen is superb – and perhaps raised my expectations for the film too much.

On television, with every gruesome detail visible to the eye, perhaps it would make it to a fourth star. ***

Friday 21 April 2023

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #73 is now out in paperback and ebook!

free epub | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #73, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood!

This issue contains an eighty-page novella – "The Frog and the Scorpion" by Patrick Whittaker – and four short stories: "An Absence of Ghosts" by Andrew Hook, "The Arrival of an Acquaintance" by Charles Wilkinson, "The Scorpion" by Harris Coverley and "BNR" by Ross Gresham.

It also contains reviews by Douglas J. Ogurek and Stephen Theaker of A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill, Dirty Rotten Hippies and Other Stories by Bryan Smith, Vampire Hunter D by Hideyuki Kikuchi, Bad Candy, Black Adam, Blood Red Sky and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Season 1.

The cover art is the third of our covers by Steve Upham.

Friday 14 April 2023

The Black Phone | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Child abduction story dials in supernatural element but avoids calling up fashionably exuberant characters.

The individual whose name graces this ezine liked the horror film The Black Phone so much that he saw it in the theatre twice and almost went back a third time. Hold on – was this film, directed by Scott Derrickson and based on a Joe Hill short story of the same name, that good? Let’s find out.

The year is 1978. A boy named Finney (Mason Thames) and his much rowdier and crasser younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) – she’s the one who isn’t afraid to clobber a bully – are being raised by alcoholic and physically abusive father Terrence (Jeremy Davies). Their mother, who had a gift of seeing things in her dreams that Gwen seems to have retained, is gone, and a kidnapper nicknamed the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) is abducting boys in the family’s Denver suburb. Naturally, the Grabber grabs Finney.

Here’s where the story diverges from the typical: while he’s confined in the Grabber’s basement, Finney gets a series of calls on a disconnected black phone mounted on the wall. The callers, who are the villain’s previous victims, offer pointers about how Finney can survive. Meanwhile, Gwen has dreams that may or may not lead the authorities to the Grabber. 

Recent horror productions such as Stranger Things and the remake of It feature child protagonists who are outspoken, brash, funny and in some cases, supremely confident. However, Finney, the boy protagonist of The Black Phone, is much more serious and reserved. He comes across as a thoughtful boy known by his friends for his ability to take a beating and keep getting up. His weakness: he doesn’t fight back. That’s going to be put to the test, of course. 

The film’s biggest strength is Hawke’s portrayal of the menacing villain. The devil-like mask he always wears – sometimes the whole face, other times just the top or the bottom – underscores his unpredictability and his lack of a backstory. Particularly unsettling are the games the Grabber plays with his victim. When he exits the basement, for instance, he deliberately leaves open the door to the stairs and, by implication, to freedom. But it’s not so easy. Furthermore, Hawke’s tone shifts from silly commentary to vivid descriptions of how he’ll punish Finney for being disobedient.  

My biggest gripe with The Black Phone involves the presentation of the ghosts, shown with all their Grabber-inflicted bruises and scars. Their lips move in tandem with their phone voices as they communicate with Finney. Thus, the viewer sees Finney’s predecessors, but he does not. The viewer would have been much more aligned with the protagonist (and the film would have been more frightening) had the filmmakers elected to only focus on the voices and leave out the visuals that add a jarring campiness to an otherwise serious film. Another shortcoming of the ghosts is inconsistency – either give Finney cryptic or straightforward clues, but don’t do both. The film also misses an opportunity to capitalize on parallels between Finney’s father and the Grabber. 

Another observation: much of the film, especially the beginning, feels as if it is moving in slow motion… even a fight between two boys. And except for Gwen, none of the kids shows much enthusiasm. This strangeness, however, oddly adds to the film’s aura by giving it a more authentic vibe. Moreover, its gritty feel underscores its moment in time and creates a sense of creepiness. The film also introduces comic relief in a cocaine-fuelled theorist who thinks he can help the police pinpoint the location of the Grabber. 

This all brings us back to our initial question: is The Black Phone worthy of two trips to the theatre? I’m not sure – I’ll have to watch it again.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday 3 April 2023

Children of Men | review by Rafe McGregor

Climate change allegory.

Children of Men is Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of P.D. James’s dystopian novel, The Children of Men. Cuarón was initially uninterested in the project, which he described as “a science-fiction thing about upper classes in a fascist country”, and his adaptation replaces James’s Christian themes with a rich and rewarding exploration of the compatibility of the free market and authoritarian nationalism. The novel was published in 1992 and set in 2021, the film released in 2006 and set in 2027, and both narratives take place in England during an extended global pandemic of human infertility. The film was a critical success and commercial failure (the latter relatively minor, recouping 93% of its budget at the box office). Its critical and cult following rose steadily over the next decade and a half, reaching a wider audience with the coincidence of the novel’s setting and the COVID-19 pandemic. The late music critic Mark Fisher opened his 2009 bestseller, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, with a discussion of the film’s representation of a dystopia unique to late capitalism, in which “internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist” without contradiction. As we approach 2027, the UK is increasingly resembling Cuarón’s depiction, led by a self-selected elite that seems to delight in cruel and unusual punishments of the poor and displaced as much as it delights in exploiting its public service for financial reward. Praiseworthy though this prescience is, the film’s contemporary value lies elsewhere.

As Fisher notes, Children of Men is not simply what Amitav Ghosh would later call disaster fiction set in the future in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The film is neither about adapting to post-apocalyptic conditions nor about anticipating the apocalypse to come. The apocalypse is, rather, already in progress, ‘being lived through’. Creating a compelling and convincing narrative that is neither pre- nor post-apocalyptic is notoriously difficult, challenging enough in a novel or television series but even less likely to be achieved in a two-hour feature film (Children of Men is only 100 minutes from opening to closing credits). Octavia Butler is one of the few narrative artists to succeed, with her peerless 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower. For all Butler’s literal genius (she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1995), she was unable to continue as successfully in the sequel, Parable of the Talents, and unable to complete the trilogy with Parable of the Trickster, which was unfinished at the time of her death in 2006. Parable of the Talents relies on a conspicuously artificial compression of several decades for credible closure and Butler’s multiple attempts at writing Parable of the Trickster never reached more than fifty pages. Cuarón’s success is akin to Parable of the Sower and his mastery of the multiple temporalities of cinema is exemplary, perhaps even unique.

The fertility crisis in the film is approaching its second decade and the global response has been economic and political collapse, which have only been averted in the UK by the election of an authoritarian government and the establishment of a police state. Refugees are detained on site in streetside cages and transported to sprawling concentration camps like Bexhill-on-Sea, where they are largely left to their own devices. The police have been militarised, a new paramilitary force created, and the Armed Forces placed on internal security duties, providing three overlapping levels of counter-terror and social control. The narrative initially seems to deploy the mythic mode of storytelling characteristic of Hollywood, proceeding from an inciting incident through an initial objective, watershed, and nadir to an unpredictable but inevitable zenith. In retrospect, Cuarón both deploys and subverts the archetype of the hero’s journey, exploiting it to prioritise a specific engagement with the apocalypse that I cannot reveal without spoiling the film’s final few minutes. That hero is Theo (played by Clive Owen), a former activist who is called to action when his estranged wife, Julian (played by Julianne Moore), recruits him to the Fishes, a resistance movement led by Luke (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Theo’s mission is to escort a young refugee, Kee (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey), to the south coast, where she will be picked up by a mysterious international organisation known only as the Human Project. Theo has become a cynical alcoholic since his split from Julian, but remains useful to the Fishes because his family connections are sufficient to secure transit papers for himself and Kee. Theo acquires the papers, meets Kee, and then discovers that she is pregnant, about to give birth to the first human baby in eighteen years. The watershed is his decision to complete the mission, in spite of the exponentially increased risk, Julian’s death, and betrayal by Luke.

Children of Men’s style is as nuanced as its form and its cinematography and mise-en-scène are routinely praised by critics and theorists. With respect to the former, philosopher Slavoj Zižek has analysed the film’s apparently inexhaustible visual density, the totality of a world represented with meticulous attention to detail in every aspect, which is both a reflection and critique of the post-9/11 culture of control. With the respect to the former, the narrative is threaded between two magnificent long takes, one of 247 seconds and the other of 379 seconds. The first, which takes place approximately a quarter of the way through, depicts a car chase in which Luke tries to save Theo and Julian from homicidal bikers. The second, which takes place approximately three-quarters of the way through, depicts Theo’s attempt to rescue Kee when Bexhill-on-Sea erupts into a tripartite battle among Islamist revolutionaries, a Romani militia, and the British Army. Together, the two takes constitute a seamless combination of film style and film form, which are deliberately and brilliantly understated to produce a very familiar – and very British – dystopia. The understatement also facilitates the integration of the mythic with the everyday (to which I shall return below): Children of Men is about both ordinary people and the end of the world.

Cuarón’s reproduction of the lived experience of an apocalypse-in-progress is the film’s greatest achievement. But if it is to be anything other than a purely aesthetic accomplishment, then it must matter in some way and Children of Men’s extra-aesthetic values are not immediately obvious. In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present, which was published in 1999, literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues for the ethical and political value of what she refers to as the literary imagination. She focuses on language, reading and literature, but her thesis can be extrapolated from the literary mode of representation to hybrid modes of representation that combine the linguistic with the pictorial, such as cinema. The literary imagination frees the reader from the constraints of truth without severing the text from the world, which is why one is moved by a literary text without believing in it. As such, the literary imagination is a paradigm for value without a commitment to truth and trains one to reconsider, reappraise, and reconceptualise social reality as socially constructed rather than naturally extant. Drawing on a tradition that began in the Romantic era, Spivak calls this training aesthetic education, demonstrates how it transforms the individual by indirect, implicit and figurative means, and concludes that it is “an excellent instrument for a slow transformation of the mind”. The transformation is achieved by a detranscendentalisation of elitism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression that exposes them as political and plastic and thus susceptible to being dismantled as part of the reconstruction of a more just and sustainable social reality.

The experience of watching Children of Men is the experience of living through the late capitalist apocalypse with Theo, Julian and Kee and recognising that the sequence of events narrated are both fictional and relevant to our own lives. Returning to Fisher (not to be confused with the fictional Fishes), the particular and peculiar relation between the reality of the film and the reality of the world in which we watch the film is the shared experience of what sociologist Jason Moore refers to as the Capitalocene in Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. The Capitalocene is the geological epoch during which capitalism has had a significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate. Capitalist world-ecology began in 1450, drove climate change for over five centuries, and is currently self-destructing in consequence of the copious amounts of waste it generates. Children of Men detranscendentalises the Capitalocene in the way Fisher suggests, by dramatising, exaggerating and anticipating the epoch’s final decades. The relevance of the film’s reality to our own is all too easy to identify – it is what lies ahead in a few decades or in a few years, during another global pandemic, one far more destructive than COVID-19. Sadly, this world is much easier to identify in 2023 than it was in 2006, which was after 9/11 but before the Great Recession. The crucial point, however, is that we are already living in and through this more destructive pandemic and the relations among our reality, the film’s reality, and the Capitalocene are articulated by the figurative element in Spivak’s aesthetic education.

The setting of Children of Men is an extended fertility crisis at the literal level of narrative meaning and a foreclosure of human futures that represents climate change at the symbolic level of narrative meaning. The fictional fertility crisis is the real climate crisis: both will destroy the human species if they are not averted or ameliorated; both occur across rather than within generations; and both create contemporaneous economic, social, and political crises. They are also both turning points in the web of life, the response of an overpopulated and exhausted planet to the numbers of people it is required to sustain and – much more importantly – the concurrent and exponential increase in resource consumption. In the fiction, this response is human infertility, which will reduce consumption by reducing the population. In reality, this response is climate change, which Moore describes as capital being forced to internalise the cost of its own waste, which is in turn the beginning of the end of the Capitalocene. The significance of this symbolism to the narrative’s thematic content means that Children of Men is best understood as an allegory. Traditionally, allegories took religion as their subject, integrating the real, material, and everyday with the figural, spiritual, and divine, which recalls the centrality of Christianity to James’s original novel and the way in which Cuarón combines formal and stylistic devices to portray the everyday experience of the apocalypse-in-progress. Allegories do not impose a single or even twofold meaning on a narrative, but function so as to reveal a structure of multiple and intersecting representational and extra-representational levels of meaning. They are, in consequence, ideal vehicles for the detranscendentalisation of the complexities of the late Capitalocene, in which multiple crises combine to exacerbate multiple inequalities and multiple injustices. All of which is to say, I cannot recommend this film enough. If nothing else, it helps us make sense of the complicated, confusing, and contradictory world in which we find ourselves in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. As such, Children of Men exemplifies the great writer Samuel Johnson’s criterion for poetry, that its purpose is ‘to instruct by pleasing’: Cuarón has provided us with one of the most pleasurable lessons we are ever likely to receive on one of the most unpleasant subjects possible. *****