Friday, 20 January 2023

Oblique References...

I have been watching scary movies recently and something odd has jumped out at me: many films lately have references to the Mythos contained within them for no readily obvious reason. It’s started to make me wonder.

I have a feeling that this is predicated upon a two-pronged phenomenon. Firstly, Lovecraft has become “cool”. I mean, sure, he’s been trendy for a while now, but recently his work has moved upwards into a stratospheric level. He’s become a household word. Secondly, his stuff exists more-or-less in a public domain limbo: everyone uses his material without having to reference the fact too hard. This is in keeping with HPL’s own thoughts on the matter – he and his Circle friends took each other’s concepts and messed about with them all the time, without fear of it being called out as plagiarism. It was “open source” material within their set, before such a concept existed. Later members of Lovecraft’s extended circle of correspondents – like Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley – are more controlling of their works and concepts these days, but in Lovecraft’s lifetime it was open slather. My sense is that copyright issues and IP concerns will soon be tightening up about Mythos material…

In the meantime, many producers of film and televisual horror material seem to be using Mythos imagery to shortcut notions of what it means to be ‘scary’ into their works. In the first season of “True Detective” for example, the villain at the heart of the first season mystery was referenced as the “King in Yellow”, a term that has all kinds of implications for Mythos fans. It turned out that the villain had nothing to do with Chambers, or with Lovecraft, but the term was deliberately used as a flag to get imaginations and fan expectations running wild before dragging them to bitter disappointment. Later on, in James Wan’s “Aquaman” film, there was the blatant insertion of a paperback copy of “The Dunwich Horror”, lying unregarded on a coffee-table, just to set a certain tone. Previous to that, Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” featured a character that looked very much like it was based upon Campbell’s Great Old One Y’golonac, and I wondered at the time if there had been any legal discussions concerning the portrayal.

It's common knowledge that movie production houses are less than keen to risk money on untried material. They will bank cash only on stuff that’s been done before, on copycat material that their spies have told them that rival companies are investing in, or on ideas that have already been enthusiastically embraced by the viewership. Paradoxically, what the audiences want however, is stuff that’s actually new and interesting – we want our expectations challenged; we are keen to have accepted notions subverted. And yet, the money won’t support it – they’ll give us another version of “Dune” instead, but with better effects technology, for what that’s worth. I have a sense that slapping a Mythos rationale onto a horror flick that has nothing – ostensibly – to do with Lovecraft’s oeuvre, has become seen as a ‘safe bet’ option and one worth financing, regardless of the fact that the best cosmic horror films of the last few decades – “Primer”; “Pi”; “Spring”; “The Endless”; “Synchronic” -  have had nothing at all to do with Cthulhu and Co. As it is, I fully expect season two of “Wednesday” to feature a Mythos trope of some kind…

The two recent filmic versions I’ve seen that caught my attention were “Underwater” by director William Eubank starring Kristen Stewart and “The Empty Man” by David Prior. They’ve debuted more-or-less in that order, so let’s deal chronologically:

“Underwater” is a futuristic, ostensibly science fiction, thriller set onboard a mining facility seven miles below the ocean in the Mariana Trench. An explosion destroys part of the base, and what’s left seems likely to follow suit, taking all the survivors with it. A plucky band struggles to avoid a grisly fate by donning deep-sea diving apparatus and walking across the ocean floor to a neighbouring structure that has escape pods as a feature. Many things go wrong, and someone has to stay behind to ensure the survival of the rest of the group: this doomed saviour witnesses the entity behind all of the chaos which is revealed to be…Cthulhu! Fhtagn! The creature design is a bit wonky and idiosyncratic but, if you needed any other confirmation that this is indeed the Big C., we are treated to HPL’s own design for his cosmic critter jumbled together with some maps (marked with suspicious pentagrams) in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot while Kristen Stewart is rummaging in an abandoned locker for supplies.

This film is basically a re-make of “Alien”, with a few of the crowd-pleasing elements of “Aliens” folded in, so there’s really nothing new happening in this movie – Stewart is so obviously channelling Lt. Ripley from the first frame that it’s almost painful to watch. Perhaps the director and writers thought that injecting Cthulhu into the narrative would make it somehow ‘fresh’? I don’t think that it had the effect they were after – for my money it bent a straightforward sci-fi thriller right out of shape and ground the entire story to a halt, in much the same way that “Event Horizon” became a disappointing supernatural horror flick after establishing itself as a science fiction action film. I know it’s called ‘cosmic horror’, but that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be set in space (or beneath the sea, which amounts to much the same thing).

Prior’s “The Empty Man” is a more subtle beast. Right at the end, our protagonist is confronted by an entity existing ‘beyond the veil’ which has been trying to cross over into our dimension. The visuals of this tense moment are sketchy and quickly glossed over but the image of the alien creature is, to all intents and purposes, a dead ringer for Nyarlathotep in its form as the Bloody Tentacle, or Bloody Tongue. As with “Underwater” there is little or no preamble to this revelation; it just gets unveiled in a ‘ta-dah!’ moment.

I’m not sure why these filmmakers think this kind of thing is a good idea. In these types of movies, the excitement of the situation and the slow unfolding of the narrative are what keep the viewers engrossed; dumping these icons in at the last minute undermines all of the creative activity that precedes them. Sure, an uninformed newb will see the Bloody Tentacle in all its glory and go “Woah! That’s a cool looking beastie!”; however, those versed in Mythos lore will all go “Oh, okay: it’s just Nyarlathotep. All is revealed.” In one fell swoop, the boundless possibilities of the enigma get wiped off the board to be replaced with a limited subset of expectations.

And sure, some of those expectations are quite bad. Much fan material established on the notion of Nyarlathotep winnows down to “he just makes people go mad!” and all narrative through-flow stops the moment that this happens. The entity is so much more complex than this, but this short-sighted view of the Outer God kills off many stories before they get a chance to go anywhere interesting (I direct you Joseph Pulver’s woefully-edited compilation volume Ripples from Carcosa as evidence). Fear thrives on a lack of information; the unknown scares us while the familiar does not. A familiar monster is just that – as soon as we know that “it’s vampires!”, the mystery vanishes like a popped balloon: we all just break out the stakes and garlic and get busy.

And it’s not new: Stephen King learned the problem of the familiar trope while writing ‘Salem’s Lot – sure, there are some genuinely scary moments in that book, but essentially, once we know it’s vampires, the cat leaves the bag and we’re all soon just getting down to the business of leech extermination.

“The Empty Man” is based upon material that’s so much more interesting than these surface notions of the Big N. and its so-called modus operandi. Tulpas and their manufacture by organised cults attempting to contact the Beyond are a great idea, and this movie shows that there’s a lot of creative room to move and to delight an audience; but plonking a Mythos mainstay in the middle of it all – without any foreshadowing, or any clues – just cuts it off at the knees. I wonder if the writer and director actually wanted Nyarlathotep to be the cause of the mayhem? Or was it just some art director who saw the Chaosium image and thought “That’s cool – let’s rip it for the film!”? And was the director a bit miffed when he found out? Or did everyone involved just think nobody would be paying attention? Well, hate to break it to you, they were.

Working with books, you see a distinct difference between generations of readers and sometimes it can be painful to navigate. Oftentimes I get a young person coming in who is going off about how cool some new writer is and how they’re doing stuff no-one has done before. I immediately say “Michael Moorcock” because if it’s ‘new’ in sci-fi or fantasy, odds are, he’s already taken a stab at it. Most often I’m met with bewilderment and the response, “who dat?”. (I roll my eyes quite a lot.)

And yet, this lack of knowledge seems to be what filmmakers are banking on. “We’ll just bung a shoggoth in there,” they’ll say; “no-one over thirty will be coming to see this flick, so they won’t spot it for what it is.” It’s a shallow and patronising attitude. And it’s lazy.

Of course, if the intention all along was to have Nyarlathotep as the villain of this piece, and to create a Mythos-based work of cinema, then that’s perfectly fine. I would suggest though, that the writers needed to seed their story with more references to the Outer God in the preceding material before the big reveal – intention only looks like what it is if it’s worked for; otherwise, it’s all just arbitrary.

As it is, this film has many issues, before you even get to the neat-and-tidy red bow of a Mythos connexion trying (desperately) to pull it all together. The pre-credit sequence is a standalone (and later abandoned) twenty minutes that feels like it’s the (much better) short film that springboarded the idea of the later movie, bolted whole and unmodulated onto the piece; the urban legend notions of blowing bottles on benighted bridges (a la “Candyman” and its successors, but possibly a ham-fisted nod towards the idiot pipers surrounding the throne of Azathoth), is dropped almost as soon as it’s mentioned and then thrown out with the trash; the investigation is plodding and dull; the revelation of what the cultists are up to and the source of the mystery is a densely-packed somnolent monologue that will punish anyone falling asleep during its delivery; and the reintegration of the opening material is sloppy and unhandily managed. A lot of breathless commentary is available online to the effect that re-watching the film after having the secret revealed is worthwhile for deeper understanding – I’m sorry, I’m a firm believer that reading the last page before starting the text is cheating. And anyway, life’s too short for do-overs, and a movie should show you what it’s all about without requiring that the viewer do subsequent homework. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but if people start clamouring online to have someone explain a movie to them, doesn’t it mean that the film has failed – explicitly – to do its job?)

(Also, for anyone who might have missed it, the main character’s surname – Lasombra – is Spanish for “the shadow”. This is appropriate, given how things transpire, but did anyone else realise that it’s the name of a vampire clan from the “Vampire: the Masquerade” roleplaying game? Given that they chose to use an image of Nyarlathotep that is heavily-promoted by Chaosium in its gaming products, the film’s art department and writing staff are obviously well-versed in gaming tropes and material, so how did they miss this? Personally, I heard the name, and my first thought was “no – they wouldn’t dare…!”; I’m fairly certain I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. Was it accidental? If so, don’t movie production houses have people who check this stuff so that unintended connexions which derail or confuse the plot are prevented from happening? Which (again) raises the question: was it deliberate? And to what purpose?)

What I’m wending my tortuous way towards is that, if you’re going to make a Mythos movie, commit to it. Don’t be coy and hide clues where no-one will see them without sifting the footage frame-by-frame (like I did). Don’t have some Lovecraftian mainstay leap out of a box at the end without any kind of preamble or context. As Yoda said, “do, or do not; there is no try.” If you’re making a film that directly references the Cthulhu Mythos and the writing of the Lovecraft circles, scatter some Elder Signs around the place; put some of the background cast in “Miskatonic U.” t-shirts; let there be at least some possibility that the viewers will be able to connect the dots and lock into what the movie is all about.

Otherwise, do your own thing; make your own movie from your own ideas. Stop bothering Cthulhu and let him sleep…

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Review: "Great White"

Martin Wilson (Dir.), “Great White”, Piccadilly Pictures/Altitude Media Group/Thrills and Spills/Universal, 2021.

“We are told how MARDUK slays TIAMAT – after much the same fashion that the Chief of Police of Amity slays the great white shark in Benchley’s novel JAWS, blowing an evil wind (the oxygen tank) into Her mouth and sending in an arrow (bullet) in after it to explode her [sic.]. Surely, the two or three most box-office successful films of the past few years, JAWS, THE EXORCIST and, perhaps, THE GODFATHER, are an indication that the essence of Sumerian mythology is making itself felt in a very real way in this, the latter half of the Twentieth Century?”

‘Simon’, from his version of the Necronomicon

Those who encounter Shakespeare for the first time are often struck by how familiar it all seems. This stems mainly from the fact that many expressions which were coined in his works have become commonplace turns of phrase in the English language and are still being tossed about to this day. It’s the same, but to a lesser extent, with Charles Dickens. This sense of being au fait with the material leads some to feel that Shakespeare is somehow ‘old hat’, or unfashionable (when it is in fact anything but), while others may ascribe a sense of coziness to the work. With this instalment in a seemingly endless parade of shark flicks, that sense of familiarity is firmly in place – but for very different reasons.

Within the realm of the shark-flick, this linguistic phenomenon is noticeable also. If you’ve seen “Jaws” – arguably, the progenitor of the shark flick – you’ll be aware that many lines from that movie have percolated from the celluloid and out into popular culture. Lines like “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, “here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women”, “that’s a bad hat, Harry!” and “wanna get blitzed and fool around?” have all become familiar catchphrases in various niches of western life and we recognise them whenever we fall over them. But, in line with such kitchen-sink dialogue, there’s another feature of screenplay writing which breeds this sense of ‘been there, done that’.

I’ve harped on about it before, but there is a rigid set of rules in place affecting the writing and filming of B-grade cinema fare. I call it the ‘Hollywood Morality Playbook’ and it can be detected almost every time you go to see a mass-market horror flick like this one. Essentially, it’s a set of complex rules that dictate how characters act and what happens to them after they transgress these unwritten laws. If an unattached female character has sex early in the piece, she dies later on; if a male character ogles a woman lewdly at the start of the show, they die before the end. It writes itself… and is an example of extremely lazy screenwriting. Oddly enough, it’s been around so long now that audience expectation almost guarantees that movies subscribe to the Playbook, because the money backing these cinematic offerings will only support something that’s ‘safe’. With “Great White”, we see the Hollywood Morality Playbook in full, workmanlike swing.

There are five characters in this film – three men, two women – and, because the Playbook demands it, two blondes and three brunettes (these latter three are also non-Caucasian, which opens up another worm-can…). Hair-colour isn’t something I bring up lightly: according to the Playbook, being blonde is either a signal for imminent demise, or of heroic stature, depending upon the character’s actions. The catch cry “blondes have more fun” is often treated as evidence for being morally lax, so if a blonde misbehaves at the film’s commencement, they’re dead by the third act. Brunette women are seen as ‘demure’ under Playbook strictures and so they tend to win through; blonde women need to have a certain something extra in order to make it to the credits.

We see that here: our blonde woman is the business partner of her equally blonde, ex-marine biologist, seaplane-pilot boyfriend. She is concerned about the viability of their little tourism company; she cautiously balances the books; she keeps her high-spirited boyfriend on track; she’s a nurse by training and she’s pregnant. Her level-headedness guarantees that she will make it through (she also figures prominently on the DVD’s cover – another point in her favour). Our brunette woman is carrying around the ashes of her beloved grandfather – she wants to scatter them on the reef where he and some others were once stranded and of whom he was the only survivor. Her boyfriend is arrogant and rude, and she is palpably embarrassed by his outbursts, especially when they are inspired by her attempts to strike up a conversation with the Maori cook. Normally, her mild flirting with the only other unattached male in the group would signal her death; however, that urn of ashes counterbalances things somewhat.

Of the male characters there’s only one thing to be said: don’t get attached. The blonde guy is too much of a larrikin and a flake; the Japanese guy is pushy and hot-tempered, governed by a huge sense of entitlement; and the cook is lazy and superstitious, with a roaming gaze for the ladies. All doomed, and for really no good reason. On a side note, it’s obvious that a decision was made to the effect that everyone with a Y-chromosome should also bite the Big One; this feels like a holdover from “Deep Blue Sea 3” where everyone who wasn’t female – including the fish – died horribly. Who says these films don’t inform and grow off each other?

Much is made in the promotional material of the fact that the executive producers on this gig were responsible for the “47 Metres Down” franchise. That hype, and the resulting lacklustrousness of the product it’s promoting, can only signal that this movie series is on the way out. Those two earlier films actually managed to attract the involvement of relatively well-known players – Matthew Modine and Mandy Moore in the first film and John Corbett in the second – but here, everyone’s agents were obviously out to lunch when the casting calls were issued. Instead, we have what looks like a bunch of “Neighbours” alumni and an American actress of whom you’ve heard practically nothing (great Aussie accent though – that’s no mean skill for a non-native speaker). I guess, along with a B-grade cast, you end up with a B-grade set of scriptwriters leaning heavily on the crutch that the Hollywood Morality Playbook provides. The result is a tedious piece of cinematic fluff.

Seriously. Five minutes in, I could have stopped and written down a list of who dies and who lives, and it would’ve been right on the money. There are no surprises here and nothing new to divert anyone, least of all a fan of this niche genre. Even the special effects failed to impress: I’ve said before that the ease of computer-generating bitey fish must drive the making of these films but here, whoever was pushing the pixels was doing so with the help of a Dummy’s guide. Computer Shark Generation for Complete Idiots. I’ve seen better CGI sharks, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen worse (and remember, I’ve sat through all of the “Sharknado” abominations!). Spielberg could make a ton of flabby rubber look scary in the water; these guys? I got nuthin’.

If you’re looking for shark thrills, find yourself a copy of “Deep Blue Sea” or “47 Metres Down”. Hell, dial up “Open Water” if you must and you simply can’t find a copy of “Jaws” anywhere. Or try this: cut out a few pictures of sharks from a magazine and pin them to the wall – like this film, it's as close as you’ll get to shark wallpaper.

One-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors.

Monday, 15 November 2021

Review: "The Green Knight"


David LOWERY (Dir.), “The Green Knight”, Sailor Bear Productions/BRON Studios/A24, 2021.

Longtime readers know that I am a fiend for canon, and that that obsession extends into many areas, not only Lovecraftian material. I am a keen Arthurian devotee, and I first discovered the travails of Sir Gawain when I was 13 or so, at about the same time that I discovered Tolkien. At that point I was devouring anything that carried the ‘T-word’ on its cover and so, naturally, I found Tolkien’s translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in the volume which also contained his version of the Pearl manuscript and the adventures of Sir Orfeo. Sir Gawain has been a constant companion of mine ever since.

The Arthurian story-cycle derives from many sources, some historic and some mythological, and the body of lore that it contains and which it reveals has been added to and re-worked by many scribes across an enormous period of time. It’s as if centuries of creative effort have formed a narrative landscape which is familiar to all who walk across it. To my mind, that landscape – the canon lore – is fundamental to the understanding of this material. Without it, working with the concepts is pointless – you would be better served creating your own story from scratch. I believe that canon – no matter for which genre, or lore, it forms the substrate – is sacred: one messes with it at peril. Others feel that canon is there specifically to be broken down and discarded: that’s fine; each to their own. We are all free to make our own ways with this stuff. It frustrates me, though, that people with the iconoclast mentality then try to insert their own stuff into the canon, the very thing that they’re rejecting out of hand. What they should really be doing is just making up their own stuff. This is what David Lowery should have been doing too.

To begin this dissection, let’s take a look at Sir Gawain. Of all the knights of Arthur’s Round Table he is the one that has the most originally distinct character – that’s after Lancelot, of course. Many of the knights have been built upon by later authors, and their characters have been established and crystallised over a period of re-telling. These personalities usually derive from attempts to explain why certain, seemingly inexplicable, narrative events take place. Thus, Sir Kay’s penny-pinching and resentful mien was identified by Thomas Malory and retrofitted into the other stories concerning him, while Sir Pellinore’s fusty and distracted attitude was built-in by T.H. White to suit his own narrative purposes. It’s arguable that the seeds of these personalities are discoverable, lying dormant in the canon, and so highlighting them in this fashion is entirely reasonable. Gawain, however, has had his own personality from the start.

Gawain’s “origin story” (if I can so express it) is that he is descended from the Orkney Kings, a son of Queen Morgawse, sister to Morgan-le-Fay, herself a half-sister of King Arthur. The Orkney knights have always been depicted as blow-in hayseeds, uncultured and wild, and an unsightly family obligation for Arthur to bear. Gawain is the eldest of the Orkney lads – who include Gareth, Agravaine, Yvaine and Mordred – and, as such, he is constantly corralling the others and trying to get them to behave in a manner becoming their status as royal scions. Sometimes this puts him on Arthur’s side, sometimes it doesn’t – a very political animal is Gawain, and his resentment towards such characters as Lancelot and Galahad is often palpable. At some point early on in the proceedings, his mother’s magical nature and faery heritage gave him some magical abilities – specifically, his strength increases from sunup, peaking at twenty-fold by midday, before dropping back down again by nightfall – but some writers choose to overlook this quirk. It remains, however, that Gawain was formed as a personality from the start, not just some characterless cipher, or spear-holder, about whom some foibles accreted over time as the need arose.

This being said, many of Arthur’s knights take on a particularly characterless flavour in the hands of some authors. Each knight strives to be an ideal, and this reaches its apotheosis in Sir Galahad: Galahad is not a personality at all; he’s a collection of idealized responses that represent knighthood in its most evolved form. This form was established by Arthur but corrupted before its final flowering by the need to make him a political agent; it was revived in Lancelot and then ruined by his romance with Guinevere (and further tainted by his incessant sleeping sickness and subsequent madnesses); and then it was imprinted upon Galahad as a ‘personality’. Whenever the spotlight turns to highlight another knight on his own particular journey – Sir Gareth, or Tristan for example – they often take on this idealized character for some, or all, of the narrative. In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Gawain wears this personality too, and keeps it until close to the end, when his political nature arises once more. His essential character always comes through in the end. In this film, with Dev Patel playing him, Gawain is once more true to his nature, despite everything which Lowery – as writer and director - does to try and break him.

(I should point out, too, that no-one in this movie has a name apart from Gawain and his girlfriend. Arthur is listed as “a King” and Merlin is “a Sorcerer”. Perhaps Lowery was trying to factor in some plausible deniability along the way? For the rest of my rant, I’m going to use the characters' actual names and not play into Lowery’s coy games – it feels like too much of an insult to do otherwise.)

Moving on, let’s take a closer look at the plot of the original poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. It begins with a Christmas feast during which Arthur declares that he will not eat until a fantastic tale, or a demonstration of some wonder is presented to him. Almost at once, the Green Knight appears to offer a challenge to the King: if he will take the ‘Knight’s axe he can deliver unto him a blow of his choice; he will not resist the strike, on the condition that – one year hence – Arthur will journey to the Green Knight’s abode and there receive the same undefended strike from the ‘Knight in return. As a matter of political expediency, Gawain takes on the King’s role in this exchange and – angry at the Green Knight’s effrontery – cuts that fellow’s head off. Untroubled by this, the ‘Knight gets up, retrieves his head and tells Gawain he will see him next Christmas to settle things. The challenge is thus set: Gawain waits a year and then sets out to pay his dues.

Along the way, he encounters a manor owned by a gracious Lord and his Lady. It’s a day’s journey to the Green Knight’s home and there are three days until Gawain must go there. The Lord invites Gawain to stay and rest: he says that he intends to go hunting on each of the next three days and that, if Gawain will keep his lady company, the Lord will give Gawain anything he obtains from that activity, on the proviso that Gawain will give him anything that he receives while resting in the manor. While the Lord rides out to the hunt, his Lady embarks on a campaign of seduction against Gawain, who is forced to work his hardest to deflect her attempts without insulting her. He capitulates only to give her a kiss, which he trades for the fox which the Lord brings him that evening. On the next day, Gawain is forced to yield up another kiss in exchange for a deer. On the third day, the Lady plays dirty pool: she offers Gawain a magical green girdle that will turn away all blades directed at him on the condition that he sleep with her. With his head at risk, Gawain does the deed, and, when the Lord shows up with a dead boar, gives him only a kiss in exchange for it, knowing that he is lying in order to save his own skin. In the final confrontation, the Lord is revealed to be the Green Knight in disguise, and he knows all about the girdle: thus discovered, Gawain rejects the magical protection and submits to the decapitating blow, only to be spared by the ‘Knight who praises his tardy truthfulness and gives him his axe as a token of honour to be taken back to Arthur as evidence of the strange tale.

These then are the tentpoles of the story. Even in this bald outline, we can see the stakes at play, and we know the pressures under which all of the characters are acting; it’s clear what is going on and why. If one was inclined to re-tell this story, it’s possible to embellish the elements and to play with the trappings of the story as seems fit; however, if you move the tentpoles, you do so at your peril. In this instance, that’s just what David Lowery has done – he has broken the narrative and now it longer makes any sense. Or rather, it makes the sense that he wants it to make; it’s just not clear exactly what that is as far as the viewer is concerned.

What is very clear in this movie, is that the director knows his Arthurian canon and that he knows it very well. It’s therefore even more baffling to see him break the narrative in the ways that he does. Primarily, he lays the origin of the Green Knight and of the magical girdle in the lap of Gawain’s mother – in this tale she comes up with both of them and the rationales behind them - along with their places in the narrative – become frayed and contentious. If the Green Knight is some test of Gawain’s mettle devised by his mother, then why is it so deadly, and why does Morgawse react with such surprise afterwards? If Morgawse is the source of the magical belt, then why have the sequence with the mysterious Lord and Lady at the end of the film at all? Here, unequivocally, the Green Knight and the Lord are distinct entities, the ‘Knight being an embodiment of Nature in the Green Man style, so why have the hunting sequence? The stakes have been removed from the game and, therefore, so has the point.

Replacing the core elements of the tale, Lowery lays on a bunch of nebulous blather about Gawain’s romantic life with an outcast girl played by Alicia Vikander (who, confusingly, also plays the role of the Lady), a bunch of travelling thieves and an encounter with a Welsh saint. None of which add to, or deepen, the narrative in any meaningful fashion. Sure, the tale of St. Winifred centres on decapitation, but why do we need to foreshadow something that’s been a burning issue since the opening act? Perhaps if the director had increased the pace of his screenplay and kept an eye on the clock, the viewers wouldn’t need such a reminder by the halftime mark. And why introduce material that has absolutely nothing to do with the Gawain legend, the story at hand, or anything to do with Arthurian lore at all? It reads as if the director got bored and wanted to play with other toys for a while.

Pacing is definitely an issue with this film. There are scenes which carry on for too long, shots that meander when they should be direct and to the point. Too often the camera lingers on a sheep or a flock of birds when it should be moving us to the crux of the scene. The opening sequence has a Hieronymous Bosch-like panoramic quality to it where the frame encompasses a wide number of elements each of which is suggestive of a larger story happening elsewhere; this is fine, but as often as the director indulges in such scenes, he forgets them later on. We spend too much time watching a single horseman walking from one side of the screen to another, or travelling the length of a long road comprising a single shot, and the story suffers as a result. This film is over two hours long and it doesn’t sufficiently reward the viewer for that investment. Rather, it punishes the audience, ridiculing them for engaging with it.

For instance, most of what goes on in the movie takes place in almost total darkness. Whole sequences are obscure, hard to fathom and basically impenetrable: the director could literally have left the lens cover on the camera whilst filming and we would have been just as informed as to what was taking place on screen. Perhaps he was trying to capture and impart a sense of a world without constant lighting such as we enjoy nowadays? It’s anybody’s guess, but surely there are better ways to do this in a visual medium. Such obscurity is normally code for the fact that the special effects are less than acceptable; here, when they’re visible at all, the effects are gorgeous and effectively realised - it seems that Lowery just wants us to not clearly see everything that he’s committing to film, for some bizarre reason of his own devising.

There are chapter divisions in the narrative, each headed by a title in a font which keeps changing as the film progresses. Why he couldn’t have picked one font and stuck with it I’m not sure, but to me it was distracting and weird. The section with the thieves is called “A Kindness”; the bit with St. Winifred has its own title; the one after that is simply called “An Interlude”. What? The previous two meaningless encounters weren’t “interludes” as well? Of course they were, but Lowery is playing around, and he’s slapping his viewers for giving him the time of day. In the end, all of these inserts into the narrative serve no purpose at all and are hugely indulgent, no matter how pretty they look (when you can see them at all).

What’s left is a long, tedious shemozzle. We wander along in Lowery’s idle footsteps following meaningless tangents which he instills with seemingly pregnant energy before dropping them and getting back to the main point… whatever that is. And it’s a shame: there are very few Arthurian stories committed to film that are any good and this could have been one of them, except that it feels like the director was sulking and wishing that he could have been doing something – anything – else. If “at least it was better than that earlier version with Sean Connery in it” was all that he was going for, then his work here is done, I suppose. The cast is great, the settings nicely realised, the costumes wonderful; however, like so many things served up as entertainment these days, the bones are bad - the foundations are crap. Perhaps Lowery should have just sat behind the camera and left the writing to someone else, someone who wasn’t trying so hard to be too clever by half. And perhaps he could have hired a lighting specialist while he was at it.

Two-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors from me.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Review: Bitter Seeds - The Milkweed Triptych: Book One

Ian TREGILLIS, Bitter Seeds – The Milkweed Triptych: Book One, Orbit/Little Brown Book Group, London, 2012.

Octavo; paperback; 398pp. Ex-library: somewhat rolled; the usual cancelled ink stamps and library accoutrements; covers wrapped in adhesive plastic film. Fair only.

Like most long-term roleplayers (I assume), at some point the rules just don’t suffice, or the game setting no longer tantalizes; and so, the ardent gamer sets about trying to cobble together a rule set or a gaming environment – a game in short – that covers all of the bases that they’re hankering for. I’ve done this several times; people I know have done it too. Do these games get published? Usually not. Those created and abandoned - especially in the days before Kickstarter - are now unregarded testimonies to an ardent fandom. A genre that I encountered several times through my association with this process was the notion of an arcane World War Two setting, drawing heavily on the ideas surrounding occult Nazism and its associated kookiness. To be fair, it’s fruitful ground for working supernatural, or science fiction, storytelling – “Achtung! Cthulhu” and “World War Cthulhu” are two games that have mined this aspect fervently, not ignoring those elements that are now canon within the “Call of Cthulhu” roleplaying game itself. I mean, what’s not to like?

In this vein, Ian Tregillis has written this trilogy of speculative fiction titles which are a blending of one-part horror story, one-part science fiction and one-part alternative history, à la Harry Turtledove. My copy of this came into the shop, abandoned by its former owner, who bought it from a sale at the library from whence it was withdrawn. Having play-tested much occult Nazi gaming material in the past, I put this aside to have a look at it on my own time. I’m glad I did.

The premise of this series is that, in the lead up to World War Two, starting right after the Great War, a mad German scientist begins experimenting with the notion of creating super-soldiers and is able to generate several super-powered entities, who come into their own just as the Axis and Allied powers turn their warlike attentions towards each other once more. The powers displayed by these hot-housed youngsters read like a splice of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four: a guy who can fly; a girl who turns invisible; a fellow who can surround himself with super-hot flames; a kid who can phase through solid objects; a cretinous man-mountain who can tear up the scenery with his mind; and Gretel, who can see the future. Their super-powers were brought about by means of them being horribly tortured as infants and by being surgically equipped with batteries connected to wires implanted in their brains. They are a formidable team of Nazi super-commandos and, in our narrative, they are enthusiastically embraced by Heinrich Himmler as everything to which the Aryan ideal should aspire. Of course, things are not entirely happy down on Professor von Westarp’s experimental farm. The scions of his medical tinkering are riven by arrogance and competitive aggression, fostered by von Westarp in a foolish attempt to urge his creations on to greater efforts. His ‘parenting techniques’ only make his creations turn on each other in hatred. And then, to make things worse, there is Gretel:

Much of this narrative turns on the fact that Gretel knows what is coming and uses this knowledge to her own advantage. All the way through the story, we learn that she is subtly manipulating the timeline to ensure that her own desires are met, often at the expense of everyone else around her. Across the narrative, we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of her brother Klaus, the phasing master, and his increasingly appalled recognition of the fact that Gretel is willing to destroy everything and everyone – including himself – to see the world shaped as she would have it be. Her long-game cruelty is riveting to watch: she allows the flying kid to get caught in a missile strike - which she herself foresees and evades - for criticizing her less-than-Germanly-perfect ethnicity; she allows herself to be captured by the Allies in order to infiltrate their secret operations, and to annoy her brother, who is sent in to rescue her; she drives the invisible girl to suicide in order to spite the fiery lad, who sees her as a target for his lust (her death doesn’t actually stop him in this regard, but it does somewhat spoil his moment). At every turn it becomes clear that Gretel is in charge, and everyone is dancing to her tune, whether they realise it or not.

I was reminded strongly of Bill Willingham’s 80s comic narrative “Elementals” and the story arc that it was launching shortly before it was cancelled. At that point in its overarching plot, a televangelist with world-domination ideas had corralled a large number of the Faithful, who signed away their rights to life and liberty and who were horribly tortured to death. In the aftermath of this hideous carnage, a handful of the killed were returned to living existence with new and alarming superpowers and were set on a collision course with the titular heroes… Of course, the inevitable super-punch-up never took place because, it seemed, the origin of our bad guys was deemed too controversial to put before the readership and the entire comic run ground to a halt (and also, Comico went into receivership, so I’m probably just reading too much into the timing!). Given that the origins of our evil super-crowd in Bitter Seeds are remarkably similar, I’m thinking this ‘Horrific Mass-Killing Leads To Superpowers’ idea has become a trope in its own right, thanks to Mr. Tregillis.

The nature of this book means that the characters fall distinctly into two obvious camps – the nominal Good Guys and the evil Nazi Malefactors. Of the two, the baddies are the most compelling crowd, riven as they are by internal conflicts, twisted worldviews and full-on madness. It’s easier to write evil characters, and writing Nazis is easiest of all, because they rely on a stereotypical presentation that’s been common to everyone since before WWII even ended; here they’re treated with a touch more nuance than the material overtly calls for, and that’s quite pleasing. That’s not to say that the White Hats are less crafted than the evildoers; it’s just that the reader is forced to go a lot further in order to believe in them. Mr. Tregillis is more than capable of writing compelling characters of all stripes and, if these were British personae of 1940s-era England, they would be truly great. As it is, they’re not: they are Twenty-first Century Netflix television-show characters pushed against a faux WWII London backdrop.

This is a personal beef and I’m more than willing to own it and be pilloried for it. The characters that comprise our ‘good guys’ team in this book (along with all the others) have clearly been written by an American, who has an obvious outsider’s view of the interiorality of the characters that he is trying to craft. The dialogue has clearly been penned by someone not raised on decades of BBC dialogue – idiom and usage fall down periodically into a thumping mess. Brits of this period did not say “half seven” when they meant 7.30, for instance – that’s a modern expression, and there are plenty of others just like it, lurking in these pages. Also, class distinction is deeply ingrained in characters of this milieu, and the lines were rarely, if ever, crossed, no matter how ‘anti-establishment’ a character is supposed to be. Here, we have a member of a landed family eschewing the costume and behaviour of the upper classes for no really believable reason, and it would not have stood in the time wherein this story is set. Conversely – even perversely – the lower British classes were as proud of their place in society as the toffs, and any attempt to blend in would have been seen as the worst type of parody; here, we’re asked to lap it up. Well: no. No, thank you.

There are other indicators of an American hand at work here: Yanks love their armaments and periodically here, we’re treated to a ballistics info-dump that distracts from the story in progress. Just say “he packed his rifle and revolver”, for chris'sakes; don’t give us the makes and models of each and every gun. American authors also like to treat us to Scottish stereotypes; in this instance our “Scotty from Star Trek” tech-expert analogue is borderline offensive and saddled with the same false anti-class sentiments mentioned above. This just doesn’t wash. Also, Brits were not as effusive in swearing as these people are, not by a long shot, and certainly not within the confines of a workplace hierarchy – here the dropping bombs are as often F-bombs as they are doodlebugs. To be fair, I’ve read far worse along these indicated lines than Mr. Tregillis has provided here; on balance, ignoring these egregious elements, his style of writing is captivating and thoroughly enjoyable – well worth the price of admission.

There is a final issue I have with the writing of this book before I return to the things that are good about it. Firstly, it’s the easiest thing to write plot: pages and pages of writing can be generated just by saying “and then…; and then…; and then…”. It’s the reason why, nowadays, so many books are so huge and yet say so little. Mr. Tregillis has this in spades, and then he does something weird: every so often, the action jumps and the surrounding dialogue and description shifts to accommodate stuff that’s implied but not seen. It feels almost as if, every so often, a few pages have gone missing. Sometimes it’s just an attempt to impinge an arbitrary structure onto the material (the “Prelude” and “Interludes” which really add nothing to the tale) and at other times it’s as if someone took a set of pruning shears to the manuscript, chopping out huge tracts of the plotting and then just roughly ‘making-good’ around the raw edges, like a workman cutting a door into a blank wall. It’s peculiar and yet, I’m not sure that it’s completely a bad thing: in part, it forces the reader to work a little harder to make sense of the proceedings (and therefore, engage more with the text); at other times, it feels like the unwelcome intrusion of a ham-fisted editor. Strange…

Now on to the good stuff…

The ideas in this book are what makes it work. By making a bifurcated plot – with points of view from both teams – Tregillis has to juggle the notion of what each faction knows and understands about the other side. Our goodfellows have only the merest scraps to work with in the beginning – a burnt dossier, part of a crisped photograph and fragments from a melted film reel. They don’t know what it is that they’re looking at and barely know how to begin investigating the matter. When they start to get it all pieced together and to formulate their own response, the baddies get swiftly thrown into the same predicament – what is the enemy up to and how do we counter it? Tregillis handles these viewpoints with ease and makes them work well, elegantly displaying the players’ bewilderment and confusion. In part, he’s able to rest firmly on the fact that his readership is all too aware of what’s going on – we all know what the X-Men can do so he doesn’t need to waste time talking to us about it; he can concentrate entirely upon his own characters’ responses. In a sense, this book is just like Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, but instead of imagining what the Confederacy would have done with AK-47s, he’s riffing on the idea of what if the X-Men were real and were captured by the Nazis as instruments of war?

Of course, if you mess with history, you get to re-make it how you like, and Mr. Tregillis has a bunch of fun doing this. We see the Nazi advances into France and Belgium through the Ardennes perform far better than they actually did; the Dunkirk rescue becomes a shambles and we read a heart-breaking litany of sea vessel names that are suddenly far less successful than they were in reality; and the London Blitz has its atrocities ramped up to 11. If you know your history of World War Two – and it’s clear that Ian Tregillis does - there are a lot of very satisfying little asides to take away from this.

Most intriguing though is the way that the Allies – the Brits, anyway – choose to address the issue of Nazi Superbeings. They call upon the services of warlocks, strange little trainspotting men able to speak in the Enochian tongue and who concoct bargains with powerful entities that dwell upon the fringes of reality, and which actively despise humanity. By working blood magic to get these “Eidolons” to do things that they want, these warlocks slowly help turn the tide of the supervillain-led Nazi menace. It’s a nice idea to conjure, harkening back to a tradition of nationalistic hedge-wizards using magic to defend the Sceptred Isle, from John Dee to Aleister Crowley. Along with this, the entities ramp up the cost of their services in blood, and the willingness of the SOE commanders to pay this fee – and the way that they do pay it - speaks nicely to the callousness that the British leaders displayed in reality, in instances such as Coventry, India and Pearl Harbour. Injecting this morally-dubious element into his portrayal of the ‘Good Guys’ lends a nice equivocal touch to the narrative.

(One thing that the Eidolons do however as part of their blood-pact with the warlocks, is to block the English Channel with icebergs and blind all the traffic there with pea-soup fog. I guess, if anyone’s going to fantasize about how magicians might counter an invasion force against the UK, they’ll be thinking of a way to stop them crossing this watery barrier; but Susanna Clarke did this too in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (along with phantom ships), so it felt a bit tired. I would have preferred something more in line with Roger Bacon’s invisible brass wall, but that’s just me.)

Ian Tregillis has a PhD in Physics which allows him to explore aspects of his manufactured reality that are unique and peculiarly piquant. I said that he doesn’t need to quote chapter and verse to us about his Marvel Superhero analogues but, in describing how their powers work, he looks at their operation through a physicist’s lens and treats us to the ‘reality’ of how such abilities might manifest. Phasing doesn’t allow the one so doing to breathe, for instance, and being able to melt fired bullets on your chest doesn’t let you escape the force of their momentum. These wrinkles in the effectiveness of our supervillains’ abilities allow for some clever observations, and also help to put some brakes onto characters who are otherwise undefeatable. Go science!

Then there’s time travel. Initially, there’s just Gretel, seeing the future and using her knowledge of it to confound and manipulate everyone around her. This makes for some incredibly chilling moments for the reader and seeing them being set up and followed through is a delight. However, once the Allies start to work their mojo, they realise that the Eidolons, existing as they do outside of time and space, can carry men and munitions anywhere in Reality that they’re paid to, and so they start to mess with temporal events as well. As with Gretel’s prescience, Tregillis handles this stuff well: things happen that don’t seem to make much sense – a man appears out of nowhere and vanishes shortly thereafter; one of our heroes has a leg wound that mysteriously heals; whenever these things occur, we generate question-marks, but Mr. Tregillis doesn’t leave us dangling in the dark for too long. It all starts to crystallise beautifully in short order. Having, until recently, been engaged upon a writing project along these lines myself, I’m aware of just how much cogitation and fine-tuning these “timey-wimey” narratives involve, so my hat is off to the writer on that score.

On balance, I liked this book far more than I thought I would. I have to confess that I get irritated out of all proportion by clunky attempts to re-create past times and places, but – despite the shortcomings listed above – the strengths of this novel far outweigh these altogether far-too-common faults. Many writers struggling with this stuff tend to come off as tourists, doggedly typing while tracing a line on a map of a place they’ve never visited and with which they have no resonance; Ian Tregillis manages to rise above such amateur efforts and displays a real understanding of his setting and a real sense of the place about which he writes. It’s good. If you want a template for magical Nazi occultism in speculative fiction, sadly, you can do worse. You should just stick with this.

Three-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors from me. 

Friday, 12 March 2021

Review: The Twisted Ones


“T. KINGFISHER” (Ursula VERNON), The Twisted Ones, Titan Books/Titan Publishing Group Ltd., London, 2020.

Octavo; paperback; 405pp. Mild wear; covers a little rubbed; spine lightly creased. Very good.

When Ursula Vernon writes horror for grown-up readers, she does so under the pseudonym “T. Kingfisher”. This is my first encounter with her work, and I have to say that I’m quite impressed. This book is a helter-skelter ride: it begins with a rather engaging narrative based in the real world and then rapidly drags the reader on its wild hunt towards the conclusion. A colleague loaned me this book to read saying he “couldn’t put it down”; I have to say that I had the same experience.

Lovecraftian devotees might wonder what this work has to offer their particular niche of the horror genre. Well, hang on to your hats, because Lovecraft is the reason that this book exists in the first place. The author has taken Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and has written a sequel of sorts to that narrative, compelled by a remark lifted from Lovecraft’s copious correspondence to a friend about certain unspoken aspects of that initial work. Vernon observes that “books exist in dialogue with other books” in her Afterword and outlines how Lovecraft’s musings upon certain glossed-over aspects of Machen’s tale inspired her to create a new extension of the dialogue, from Machen to HPL to herself. And she has succeeded immensely.

Lovecraft always said that Machen was one of his ‘Precursor’ storytellers; those writers who inspired him to put pen to paper and who typified the sort of horror he was trying to create. I’ve always felt that – after reading Machen’s work myself – Lovecraft’s attempts to shoehorn aspects of Machen’s stories into his own work were a little forced. In “The Dunwich Horror”, Whateley notes that he has to wrestle with the Aklo tongue and that his incantations were “answered from the hills”; these are all concepts taken directly from Machen. Unfortunately, while they work in Machen’s pieces, they ring somewhat hollow in Lovecraft’s, coming off as a little contrived. Fortunately for the current piece, Vernon takes us back to Machen’s world and retails a narrative using its logic and rules – with the epistolary observations of Lovecraft worked in – and the whole sits much better as a result.

The novel involves the musings of Mouse, a free-lance editor and dog-owner, who faces the unlovely task of clearing-out her grandmother’s house after her death. The deceased woman was a harridan and a hoarder, and Mouse faces a Sisyphean task, along with the effort of trying to come to terms with her feelings about the woman and also the man who was her reluctant husband, Frederick Cotgrave. Cotgrave, it transpires, has more than a few secrets, most of which devolve from his having been born with the genetic stamp of the White People.

Mouse’s undertaking of the task, along with the maniac diversions of her dog Bongo and the various local people she encounters, help make the novel instantly appealing and absorbing. Before you know it, it’s 3.00am, and you still want to see what happens on the next page. I don’t really want to get into the substance of what happens here – any elaboration will involve spoilers – but take my word for it that this is captivating and ‘hooky’ writing at its best.

If I have a complaint, it’s that by the time we get hip-deep in the horror, we get treated to a lot of wisecracking internal monologue from the narrator, which undercuts the fearful revelations. There are some great, horribly disturbing moments to be experienced here, but all of them get cut off at the knees by the author’s need to make the narrator come out with some smart-aleck observational comment. I could have done without these and would have liked to wallow undistracted in the terrifying moment instead.

That’s a minor quibble on balance. As for the rest, if you’re a Machen fan, if you’re a Lovecraft fan, or if you like your horror of the swampy-Gothic kind, then this is a book for you. Just be prepared for a late night!

Four Tentacled Horrors.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Review: Stealing Cthulhu


WALMSLEY, Graham, with Kenneth Hite, Gareth Hanrahan & Jason Morningstar (Jennifer Rodgers & Olli Hihnala, illus.; Harriet Evans, ed.), Stealing Cthulhu, the author, Chippenham Wilts. UK, 2011

Octavo; hardcover, with illustrated boards; 178pp. with monochrome illustrations. Minor wear; spine extremities softened; marginal notations in ink throughout. No dustwrapper as issued. Very good.

I don’t do a lot of roleplaying anymore. In other lives it was all I did, weekends, after hours, holidays. I had a regular gaming crowd and other groups available for one-offs and scratch games. Then there was the convention circuit. I wrote a bunch of adventures for all kinds of systems and genres and I learnt a lot about narrative and refereeing techniques and styles along the way. Nowadays, I don’t have a roleplaying crowd, because life has intruded far too much: what free time I have is used up by other demands and – co-ordinating with other like-minded people and finding say, three hours spare to do stuff in? – forget it. It ain’t happening. I was talking with a friend about this situation the other day and we spoke of ways in which ‘fast and dirty’ games could be generated, allowing time – if time could be allocated – to be used efficiently and with less waste. To this end he loaned me this book.

Graham Walmsley has written a textbook that attempts to tell Keepers of all levels of competency how to prepare and conduct horror games based on Lovecraft’s oeuvre. He wades through some of HPL’s best-known works and drags out the essential qualities that makes these narratives work, demonstrating how they can be re-engineered for a roleplaying format. He breaks down the construction of narrative through-put logically and systematically, covering topics such as Beginnings and Endings, Creating Narrative “Distance” (essential for building dread), and The Investigator. As he proceeds, marginal comments by Kenneth Hite are inserted into the page edges, commenting on – and sometimes forcefully disagreeing with – Walmsley’s material (where these are legible – handwriting styles vary). With this particular copy, there’s an extra bonus: Walmsley has hand-written further marginal material on the pages, addressed to my friend, a long-time correspondent and contributor to the Kickstarter campaign behind this book.

The word “stealing” in the title is a bit annoying. The author’s stated aim is that all sorts of things in Lovecraft’s works can be “stolen” for the purpose of adapting them into a roleplaying context. That’s fine, but the word gets hammered like a brand name throughout the book and it gets old very quickly. Especially when you consider that Lovecraft himself was more than open to other writers taking his concepts and having a play with them: can you steal from someone who’s giving away their stuff for free? What he’s talking about here is borrowing and adaptation, appropriation at some level. Is the loaded word “stealing” meant to imply some kind of cowboy mentality? Some sort of devil-may-care attitude, perhaps? I mean, come on, it’s roleplaying for God’s sake – we’re not getting down with the cool kids here. It was off-putting for me frankly, and I had to consciously steel myself against it before continuing.

Regardless, there’s lots to like in this book, especially if you’re interested in the narrative techniques of HPL. Walmsley breaks down many of the major works in terms of their narrative structures, highlighting what works best and what occasionally operates against the author’s intent, and giving plenty of advice about how to use these techniques in a roleplaying scenario. He discusses plot structure, word use - how to construct descriptions so that they fall into the rhythm of Lovecraft’s material - and, most of all how to turn a story from one of straight horror to one of Cosmic Horror. There are plenty of useful insights to be found here.

Conversely, there’s a somewhat formulaic approach to Lovecraft’s work taking place. Walmsley insists that Keepers not be “afraid” of HPL’s narratives and urges us to simply replay those stories where possible, recycling them for our gaming crowds much as a movie reproduces a print story, putting a personal “spin” on things. He urges us to not treat the canon as something holy, but to take those sacred cows and make hamburgers out of them. I’m afraid this is where Mr. Walmsley and I part company.

I spend a lot – a lot! – of time trying to preserve the canon and to work with it, such that nothing is lost and that all of it makes sense, even when it’s inherently contradictory. It’s a high wire act. Accordingly, when someone pairs Shoggoths with the MiGo, for example, for me they had better make a compelling case for something not supported by the published material. Walmsley doesn’t do this, by the way, but his approach to writing Mythos material certainly has the potential to let it happen. Again, this is a personal gripe which others won’t be bothered by.

In essence, Walmsley turns the bulk of the stories by Lovecraft (and Colin Wilson and Ramsey Campbell) into pared-back frames, into which a bunch of ‘plug-and-play’ tropes and other concepts can be inserted, supporting a number of thematic styles. Thus, if you want to play with concepts of ‘Time’ you run the “Shadow Out of Time” framework inserting the Great Race of Yith as antagonists; if ‘Possession’ is your theme, then your framework is the “Insects from Shaggai” and you stick in the Shan (obviously) or Yithians once more. And the MiGo apparently are our ‘go to’ guys for doing pretty much anything else. Each antagonist has its own array of features: the Lloigor have Minions; the MiGo have Technology; Flying Polyps have Elemental Control. All of these addenda are thrashed out in individual chapters but there are glaring omissions – no Ghouls, for example – although, to be fair, Walmsley clearly states that creatures not covered in the text can be built using similar critters as templates. (There are some that I found odd – my reading of the Colour out of Space is that it’s an effect, a contagion; Walmsley ascribes sentience and will to it – as a species of alien - which doesn’t seem at all appropriate to me, or supported by the text.)

The processes discussed in this book reminded me a lot of an article I read in “Dragon Magazine” way back in the 80s. In that text, the writer stated that he had no advance warning about a gaming session which he was expected to referee. The game was “Gamma World” and in desperation he turned to things that he had in his workspace: a book of old castles provided a working map and a quirky miniature of a carrot-headed creature (possibly a Flaming Carrot gaming piece?) suggested the mutants du jour. In short order – explained step-by-step - he had a game involving the penetration of the secret underground base – an ex-nuclear missile silo – of the Karit tribe (or something like that – it was a while ago!). Walmsley’s treatment of Mythos gaming here is very like this – pick one from column A, take two from Column B. It’s quite formulaic.

Walmsley also encourages Keepers to flip environments and settings, with no regard for the rationales for these things in the original stories. Thus, since “At the Mountains of Madness” is set in Antarctica, he suggests re-locating the story elsewhere – the Amazon, for example – and, accordingly, “Shadow Over Innsmouth” can be dropped easily into the heart of some desert. Now, this may be true, and as a means of brainstorming ideas for a roleplaying game it’s well-travelled ground. But it all seems a bit haphazard here: any story can be pared back to its essentials until it loses all connexion to the original version so there comes a point when you’re not really running a Lovecraft narrative, and swapping in-and-out antagonistic monsters willy-nilly smacks of computer gaming and random “Boss” generation, rather than any kind of considered roleplaying gaming structure. At its most fundamental, this system advocates stuff that is the roleplaying equivalent of the “Howard Lovecraft” animations.

(Pinning down the monsters in this way kind of robs them of their mystery too. Running an “If Deep One (or whatever) then X” protocol for each beastie in question, seems a bit overly simple. Too much like August Derleth trying to ‘explain’ everything with a single (elemental) theory. On top of this, the author states that if your various combinations don’t make sense, then just run with it – the Mythos defies rational explanation. Can you say, “cop out”? Nice try.)

Now, I get it: taking on the role of referee in any roleplaying game is daunting, especially for those who’ve never done it before, so any guide that shows you how the techniques work and makes it seem less forbidding is a good thing. This book is a valuable resource in that regard. However, in terms of narrative construction, it oversimplifies the process unnecessarily, taking a structural and mathematical approach to something that is essentially not able to be – completely – reduced to these terms. Roleplaying cannot be reduced to a bunch of computer game algorithms. I mean, it can, but who wants that? Further, the material reveals the personal peccadilloes of the author which might not have been so obvious except that the commentators have been allowed to scribble in the margins highlighting these biases. Walmsley clearly likes the MiGo, Lloigors and the Colour out of Space and there is an inordinate amount of text provided for them; comments asking where overlooked creatures – and the stories which highlighted them – have gone, only serve to underscore the shortcomings of the text. And, in a post-Trump era, I’ll bet he regrets that snide jab about Obama being a mask of Nyarlathotep too.

This is horses for courses. If you find yourself needing to come up with a “Call of Cthulhu” scenario in no time at all, then this is your first port of call. It’s incredibly useful in that regard. But wouldn’t you rather present a carefully constructed, considered story to your group, rather than just “The Whisperer in Darkness” on ice? Or “Call of Cthulhu” with Azathoth standing-in for the Big C? I know what I’d prefer.

The format of the book leaves a little to be desired also. I get it that someone thought it would be cute to have other notable roleplaying scribes doodle in the margins and make their own comments, but it’s also distracting and some of the comments don’t make a lot of sense – they’re minute and constrained by being marginal, and so some relevance gets lost. But Walmsley also works like this in the main text: there are a lot of throwaway one liners and footnotes that confuse otherwise salient points. An instance of note is how often he whacks out a footnote, or a tangential sentence, stating “this is a General rule…”; I would have preferred a list of these rules and their explication at some point in the main text, rather than having to scrabble through various afterthought insertions looking for them.

I am, frankly, in two minds about this book. It’s a solid resource for anyone who wants to write their own Call of Cthulhu roleplaying material, but it feels a bit reductionist to me and a slave to its cute design concept. If you’re interested in HPL’s writing technique, there’s a lot here to inform about his process. If you’re trying to write a computer game featuring the Mythos, then this is a solidly number-crunchy architectural overview for that project. And if you’re running or writing a roleplaying scenario, it’s a good foundation to work from, although – in terms of writing one - it’s incredibly simplified and you’ll need to finesse your stories in order to make them convincing. That being said, there’s a lot of good material here about improvisational technique, narrative engineering, refereeing tips, and the addition of colour which can be applied to any campaign, new or ongoing.

Roleplaying is many things to many people. For some it’s about mathematical probability and modelling; for others it’s about improvisational theatre; for most, it’s somewhere between these extremes. The main issue that this book has is that it assumes gaming, and the process of writing scenarios, follows a single format when it absolutely does not. Read this book: it has lots of good advice and some great insights. At some point though, your ideas of what a Mythos-based roleplaying game is, and those of the author, will diverge dramatically. Be prepared for that and you’ll still get some value from it.

Three Tentacled Horrors. And "catacomb".

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Who Goes There?

CAMPBELL Jr., John W., The Thing From Another World – Cherry Tree Book no.408, Fantasy Books/Cherry Tree Novels/Kemsley Newspapers Ltd., London, nd. (c.1950s).

Octavo; paperback; 192pp. Mild wear; covers rubbed and edgeworn with some light creasing text block edges lightly toned with some spotting; light foxing to the preliminaries; original printed price on the front cover scribbled out and a new price added in ink. Very good.

In 1938, writing under a pseudonym, John W. Campbell Jr. wrote a short story which was destined to become a touchstone of 1950s Cold War drama. “Who Goes There?” (later re-published as “The Thing from Another World” or just “The Thing”) was a tale about research scientists trapped in Antarctica who discover a frozen alien creature, one that can shift its form to replicate virtually any living organism. Once it escapes confinement, the story becomes less about the discovery of an unmentionable horror, and transforms into one of infiltration, hidden danger and paranoia. It’s a very effective format and informed much of horror cinema in the years after its publication, including such films as “Invaders from Mars”, “The Bodysnatchers” and “The Blob”, all the while feeding off the real-world paranoia that tensions between Russia and the US were brewing. Inevitably it was turned into a movie itself which we will investigate below.

The print version is an interesting read. It eschews any attempt at grand guignol, in your face horror, relying instead on inference and suggestion to unfold its drama. In this way it heightens the notion that, even in a close-knit community, it’s impossible to keep track of everyone all of the time. The action tends to glide over the attacks by the monster and jump to a narrative moment afterwards when some attempt at re-grouping and evaluation takes place. Most descriptions of the creature are quite oblique. In this way it’s quite a confusing read too, and you have to work to keep track of who’s who (which is quite likely the point!).

The locale and all of the characters are established in this version: McReady our hero, biologist Blair and Copper the medic, and Commander Garry the team leader, among others. Later film iterations dispense with some of this detail, even the location at times. McReady – like many science fiction heroes of the day – is described as mythical in proportion, and there’s a clear debt to the Doc Savage novels going on with him:

“Moving from the smoke-blued background, McReady was a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked. Six-feet-four inches he stood… And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it. The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing, gripping, relaxing, on the table planks were bronze. Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath heavy brows were bronzed.”

It’s evident that they had this description firmly in mind when casting Kurt Russell as McReady in the John Carpenter film.

The decision to base the story in Antarctica is likely a derivation from Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, although the story is in no way a copycat version of that other narrative – it is clearly its own beast. The sense of isolation, claustrophobia and the threat of the unknown are definite hallmarks of both tales, however. The decision to use the name ‘Copper’ for one of the characters is also interesting – perhaps an homage to Basil Copper, the author of the Lovecraftian novel “The Great White Space”? All of these works begin with the idea of entering the unknown and discovering strange realities; it is only in Campbell’s story where we see the strangeness exploring as well and entering our – from its perspective - unknown reality.

The other clear debt to “Mountains” is the level of scientific exactitude that is on display here. Everything about the scientific base and the roles and duties of its occupants is laid out for the reader in almost excruciating detail. To be fair, these kinds of stories – where the location is the important ‘character X’ that finishes the cast list – do require this amount of exposition, otherwise the closed-in sense of being trapped, the limited amounts of resources and the high level of the stakes involved cannot be adequately conveyed. Lovecraft knew this; Campbell Jr. does too.

There is a lot of conversation that happens here as well. Once the nature of the Thing starts to be discerned, there’s quite a bit of theorizing and cogitation about its origins that takes place. Much of it – especially to people who generally know the deal as far as this story is concerned – is wildly off piste and fantastical but nevertheless is probably just the sort of discussion that would take place in the face of this nightmare. A thing I particularly like, and which I had overlooked on my first reading way back when, was that the creature has an active and telepathic sentience which expresses itself in the dreams of those sleeping nearby, even while it is frozen solid: this resonates highly with the sort of things Lovecraft discusses in his tales about the unbidden malevolence of the Mythos.

The reason that this tale had so great an impact is that it spoke directly to fears of Communist infiltration which were being wildly disseminated in the US at the time of its release. Communists were a real threat, it was assumed; they looked like us and they acted like us: there was no way to tell who was who. Replacing them with the symbol of the creature from an alien planet, these fears were crystallised and made manifest. The enemy was a “Red under the Bed”, as much as it was a Thing from Another World.

NYBY, Christian & Howard Hawks (Dirs.), “The Thing from Another World”, Winchester Pictures, 1951.

It was inevitable that someone would turn the story into a movie, such was its popularity. The bonus in this regard, is that it was possible to script the narrative such that it could dispense with any over-the-top special effects and boil the particulars down to an intense psychological study. Much of film noir had been taking this approach up until this time so the techniques were well-known and easily implemented. That being said however, the writer and directors decided to jettison all notions of a shapeshifting infiltrator from their script and reduced the story to a simple alien invasion premise.

In this version, the scene is set in Alaska, and the scientists are combined with some US Air Force flyboys. Tracking a magnetic anomaly in the district that’s throwing off compass readings, the group discovers what they initially think is a large meteor – it is in fact a UFO or flying saucer. They try to excavate it using thermite bombs but accidentally blow the whole thing to pieces: the only thing that they are able to recover is the body of a strange creature trapped nearby in the ice. This is entirely in line with what happens in the short story – the scientists, unable to identify the metal that the craft is made of, use too much thermite and set fire to the device, blowing it up and almost killing themselves at the same time.

Taking the ice-bound creature back to their base, they place a watch upon it whilst awaiting further instructions from military headquarters. Immediately the group fractures between the idealism of the science boffins led by Dr Carrington and the harsh practicalities of the military types. Inevitably the Thing defrosts and escapes, and it becomes a scenario of Communicate or Kill, with both sides of the equation seeking to outmanoeuvre each other in attaining their goals.

Given its 1950s roots, the ‘good guys’ in the tale inevitably turn out to be the military faction. They are all rough and ready, down-to-earth types while the scientists all come off as a bit fey and unconnected to reality. Dialogue, as is typical of this era, is quick-fire, dense and often muttered so it’s tricky to follow in places if you’re not used to the style. All the men are tough and bloke-y while the women – there are some in this version – are suitably compliant, according to the mores of the time.

The Thing’s motivation is a vampiric one – it wants blood in order to reproduce, which it does by budding like a plant. The scientists sneakily take some cuttings and propagate some seedlings but are quickly shut down by the flyboys. The group barricades itself inside, away from the horror, and devise a plan to kill it if it should enter. It does; they do; everyone cracks wry jokes and lights up their cigarettes: problem solved. For all the talk about aliens and their supposed “great wisdom” it’s all wrapped up with very little difficulty. There’s even time to foster a little romance along the way.

The film looks good and does what it sets out to do with little fanfare; it follows the plot of the story fairly didactically, although it dispenses entirely with what makes the original tale so thrilling – the paranoia and claustrophobia. There are many lingering shots of aeroplanes, and I can only assume that they were the contribution of producer/director Howard Hawks and are the main reason he gets a director credit. The movie was shot partly in Montana’s Glacier National Park and partly in a meat-packing plant in Los Angeles, so all of the scenes of ice and snow ring convincingly true.

CARPENTER, John (Dir.), “The Thing”, Universal Studios, 1982.

In this version, Carpenter puts back all of the essential elements of Campbell Jr.’s original work. The Thing is no longer just a rampaging monster to be casually electrocuted the moment it kicks down a door; here, it resumes its original conception as a shapeshifter and infiltrator. That being said though, Carpenter remains essentially faithful to the material created by Nyby and Hawks: there are constant callbacks to the first film – the title and its appearance melting into view on the screen; the explorers standing in a circle on the ice to plot the dimensions of the sunken alien craft; even the tough-guy attitude of the protagonists remains. For the most part however, he returns to the original story: we are in Antarctica once more and the familiar names – McReady, Blair, Copper, Garry - pepper the script.

The film begins with a long sequence of a helicopter chasing a dog across a wide expanse of snow. The dog runs into the Americans’ camp and the Norwegians aboard the chopper follow it, guns blazing, at which point the Yanks respond in kind, rescuing the animal and killing the Scandinavians. The dog of course is the Thing, on the loose having decimated the Norwegian settlement and its personnel. Once the dog has been welcomed inside, it’s all over bar the shouting (and screaming).

In this version, McReady is a pilot with a stupid hat, physically modelled on Campbell Jr.’s depiction, but free of the world-weariness and introspection of that prototype. He drinks heavily and takes risks and can’t tell the difference between Norwegians and Swedes. We are introduced to the other team members and their peccadilloes, and we see the tensions already in the group that will inevitably blossom forth once the Thing has had its way. Given its ‘80s roots, there’s some political incorrectness at play in the casting – the expedition cook here is black, in line with the fact that the cook was Chinese in the Nyby/Hawks film – but it’s not too egregious overall. There’s also the casual attitude to marijuana, which seems to be a hallmark of horror movies at this time (cf. Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” in the same year). I was left wondering – in an environment where the largest wild creature you’d be likely to meet is either a penguin or a seal – why there were so many guns and so much alcohol lying around; but I figure, Yanks gotta Yank.

Of course, what this film is really known for is its special effects which were cutting edge at the time. There is no use of CGI here – everything is done practically and, even today, it stands up incredibly well. Much better than 2019’s “The Colour out of Space”, for instance. The scenes between the grotesque body-horror moments where everyone is trying to work out who has been affected by the creature and who hasn’t, are suitably tense and are a nice callback to the same moments in the original book. The ending is nicely equivocal too, which is quite classy.

VAN HEIJNINGEN, Matthijs (Dir.), “The Thing”, Morgan Creek Productions/Universal Pictures/Strike Entertainment, 2011.

This film, released in 2011, is posited as a prequel to the events depicted in Carpenter’s 1982 movie. It takes place almost entirely within the Norwegian camp that Kurt Russell and his cronies investigate in the earlier film and reveals where the creature came from – something that the 1951 movie shows but which Carpenter relegated to some found footage in his version. To this end, the makers of this movie spent a whole bunch of time making sure that what we see during this flick tracks more-or-less directly with what is seen in the Carpenter film. Thus, where McReady finds an axe stuck in a wall in the Norse camp, we get to see just how it came to be there. This is all fine, however it means that the film doesn’t really say anything new about the matter at hand.

Blokey-ness reigns supreme once more as we meet a bunch of slovenly Norwegian guys who drink and fart and tell filthy jokes to pass the time. Into this arrangement comes Mary Elisabeth Winstead’s character as a scientist, dropped off there by two American helicopter pilots, who are immediately forced to hang around due to the bad weather. The creature is found in the ice and taken indoors to be thawed out; it revives and goes on a rampage; yada, yada, yada. In an homage to the 1951 film, they also take the time to destroy the creature’s spacecraft with thermite charges, but deliberately this time: not by accident. With newer technologies – this time a blending of practical and CGI effects – the horror manifestations are less clunky and more seamless, but, as I said, there’s nothing really new to add to the mix. By the time the dog heads for the hills being pursued by two Norwegian guys in a helicopter, we know exactly what comes next.

This is a very well-made film and doesn’t really deserve the hate that seems to bubble up online every time it gets mentioned. It channels a bit of “Alien” and “The Predator” into its narrative mix but its only real weakness is that it doesn’t break any new ground. Fortunately, it doesn’t fall prey to the many tropes that Hollywood is prone to when it comes to sequels – ‘More is More’, or ‘The Maximising Card’, immediately spring to mind – and, in that it takes time to honour what has gone before, it stands up pretty well as far as I’m concerned. And it’s good to see some non-American actors strut their stuff for once.

(It’s interesting to note the difference in pronunciation between cultures here as well. Americans all tend to say “Ant-arctica” or “Ant-artica”, while others pronounce it “An-tarctica”. Wandering through these films really highlights the disparity!)

NUTTER, David (Dir.), “The X-Files Season One: Ice”, Ten Thirteen Productions/Twentieth Century Fox, 1993.

This episode kind of demands an inclusion in this list simply because it riffs off all the notions of the films and stories that went before it. It’s clear that the writers were deliberately channeling the source material – one of the characters who dies in the pre-credit sequence is even called “Campbell”, a clear invocation of the original author.

The story revolves around the discovery, in the Alaskan ice, of a species of alien worm that parasitizes its host, making them behave erratically in order to achieves the worm’s ultimate survival aims. Pinned down in claustrophobic proximity, the science geeks split from the government goons in a critical face-off, while a time-intensive cure is developed, and no-one knows who is infected and who isn’t. There’s even a pilot character who looks like Kurt Russell. Ultimately, the fate of the planet is resolved, and humanity is saved.

Personally, I don’t like this episode because it’s too deliberately arch and contrived. The actors have all obviously been told to dial up the drama, becoming shrill and unbearable, and in doing so, break character quite badly. Still, it pays direct homage to the source fiction as well as both previous film versions, incorporating some of the better elements from both of those iterations.


This story and the themes it riffs off – paranoia, mistrust, isolation – are all good things to hang a “Call of Cthulhu” story from. In fact, there is a write up of the monster in the rule book. It’s possible to just replay one of these cinematic versions with your own team, or to set up the scenario in some other way. There are some things to keep in mind however.

The first is that these creatures are deadly – not that any “CoC” beasties aren’t – but just one of them will take a hideous toll on your group of regular players. You might wish to treat such a scenario as a one-off, with everyone rolling up some new characters. You should probably only try this with a set of experienced players as well, or a group who are quite comfortable gaming together. Issues of trust can extend further than just the imaginary world in which the action takes place.

It’s possible, as well, to play a scenario of this nature in “Live Action Roleplaying” mode, if you have a team that’s willing to dress up and go for it. There are extant gaming styles – such as “Werewolf”, where one player is a secret monster that needs to co-opt as many of the other players as possible without the non-monsters finding out – that can be adapted to this kind of story.

The other thing that needs consideration is setting. In the canon tales, the events take place in isolated and cold environments. Isolation is key for generating the kind of paranoia that makes this type of narrative work: having limited supplies and resources definitely ramps up the stakes. The other thing is that it gives the party a goal. If the monster gets free of the locale and makes its way to inhabited territory, then the fate of the world hangs in the balance – this should be the primary driving motivation for your heroes. I said “should be” but this isn’t always necessarily the case. In the canon, the inaccessibility of the Antarctic (or Alaskan) wastes forms an ideal environment; however, there’s no reason why you can’t set the story in a remote jungle, or a deep mine, or even underwater.

Temperature comes to mind too. All of these stories are set in the cold, but we’re told that the Things come from a hot planet: perhaps if they were in a climate more like their home world, they might be even nastier than they appear in these stories?

Technology is something to consider also. At the end of Campbell Jr.’s story, the Thing manages to build a nuclear fusion reactor, an alien hand weapon, and an anti-gravity jet pack out of some old soup tins and other odds-and-ends in just under a week. Taking the weapons capabilities of the Mi-Go or the Great Race of Yith as a guide, you can outfit your baddies with all kinds of nasty surprises!

Finally, there’s that telepathy. In order to work properly and to give your players some kind of advantage, you will need to think about how exactly it functions. In the rulebook, it’s listed as a skill which means that the creature must actively use the ability in order to gain information, noting that the skill level is 99% which makes it almost a fait accompli. You might wish to work it as a contested roll based on Intelligence instead, just to stop the Things from becoming virtually omniscient. The creatures’ ambient ability to ‘seed’ dreams is also a good way to feed vital clues about the situation to the party members if they seem to lose track of the scenario.

And that’s it. From the pages of early science fiction writing and the vaults of classic cinema, a solid gaming mainstay that can be brought to almost any type of horror roleplaying. Don’t forget your mittens!