Monday, 28 September 2015

Review: "Avengers – Age of Ultron"

Whedon, Joss (Wri. & Dir.), “Avengers – Age of Ultron”, Marvel Studios, 2015.

Writing reviews of superhero flicks might seem a little out of place on this blog but I’m a Marvel fan from way, way, way back. There’s another reason which makes this review apropos and that is the theme of ‘monsters’ which underlines this story. Whedon is playing with fire in doing this, and throws himself inadvertently into some very hot water along the way, but the notion of what makes something ‘monstrous’ is the question that this show asks us to ponder.

Firstly, let’s get something clear before we hook in: if you’re not a Marvel fan and you haven’t been paying attention to the movies which preceded this one, then you’re in trouble. Stuff happens that you won’t understand and people will show up and then exit whom you will not recognise. This film squarely asks you to pay attention and to do your homework. If you’re not prepared to do the hard yards then you will probably not enjoy watching this. Go and see “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”; you’ll have a much better time. The other option is to watch the following films in this order:

“Iron Man”
“The Incredible Hulk” (the Edward Norton one)
“Iron Man 2”
“Captain America: The First Avenger”
“Iron Man 3”
“Thor: The Dark World”
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

...And you’ll need to pay attention. You’ll also need to watch all of the post-credit sequences and, if you’re so inclined, the TV shows “Agent Carter” (starting after Captain America 1) and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (after Avengers 1), although these options are probably for completists only. Then you’ll be ready for this mighty wedge of awesome!

The movie begins by dumping us straight into the action: the Avengers have assembled and are throwing themselves against a Hydra hideout led by Baron Strucker (a bit-part played by Thomas Kretschmann who, frankly, is wasted here. Some might recognise him as the ship’s captain from Jackson’s “King Kong” do-over). Explosions and amusing dialogue proliferate; bad guys eat humble pie, betray each other, or escape; and Loki’s infamous sceptre is back in safe hands once more. Or is it? During the revels that follow, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner tinker with Things Better Left Alone, and they unleash the menacing sentience that is Ultron, a robotic intelligence that immediately dedicates itself to protecting the planet, mainly by eliminating the greatest threat to the planet, i.e. humanity. Newcomers Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch team up with Ultron and wreak havoc on our heroes, who are forced to re-group and lick their wounds at Hawkeye’s secret homestead, where they wrestle with issues of morality and formulate an heroic response to the villainous threat.

Foremost with the Marvel material – and something which divides it sharply from the more white-bread DC universe – are the ethical issues which drive the characters, along with the minutiae of their lives sans capes. Within this crowd of powered leotard-wearers, tensions bubble just below the surface, and characters are quick to cast blame and cry “foul!” on each other. Allegiances are tenuous and hesitant – the glue that keeps the Avengers together as a unit is not particularly adhesive. This is as it should be since, as a result, the characters appear to us as more rounded and realistic. Whedon understands this very well: he plays the contrasts between superheroism and everyday human-ness very sharply, showing that ordinary people can rise to extraordinary things, while extraordinary people may appear disarmingly human. Much pathos and humour is mined to good effect along the way.

The scene with the hammer (“Myew-myew”, or, more correctly, “Mjolnir”) is the core of the film and everything blossoms out of this single sequence. The characters are tested and state their motivations; the notion of “worthiness” is displayed to good effect; and finally, Ultron makes his entrance. Everything that precedes this moment leads specifically to this point; everything that follows is a direct result of it and the clues to the resolution of the conflict lie within. On top of all this, it’s truly hilarious: the look on Thor’s face when Cap tries to pick up the hammer is worth the price of admission alone.

The story wends its explosive way across the face of the planet from here. Trailers and other promotional material carry on about the far-flung and exotic shooting locations, but really, it doesn’t add anything to the overall effect. The confrontation between the Hulk and Iron Man in the “Veronica” outfit (there’s a test for you readers who’ve never looked at an “Archie” comic) takes place in Johannesburg in South Africa, while the recovery of Ultron’s new-made body in its cradle occurs in Seoul. Really though? They could have been shot anywhere. The moment we arrive the action starts: anything that displays local colour or ethnic distinction is immediately blown up in clouds of flame. As a contrast, the scenes that were shot in the fictional East European country of Sokovia were all filmed on a backlot in London and they have far more exotic flavour than the real world locations. Is the planet actually falling into this kind of homogeneous generity, or were the directors desperately trying to eliminate any cultural identity from these locales? Hard to say, but the end result is that it was probably money wasted.

Now we get onto monsters. The word is used 6 times in the screenplay which, in light of the fact that film scripts tend to play up visuals while eliminating verbiage, means that it’s significant (the term “circus freaks” is also used which, despite being an alternative usage, brings the final count up to 7). In every instance, the word is used to indicate that someone being identified in this way is a negative individual, set to do harm. We are asked to determine whether or not an individual is morally ‘bad’ if they are defined by this term, or if they are merely misunderstood. In the case of the Black Widow, the message is unfortunately unclear – the text seems to ascribe ‘monstrousness’ to women who are unable to procreate; the actual intent of this speech is, I think, to describe all who go through the Red Room as ‘monsters’, not every woman unable to bear children, but Whedon’s script is loose enough that a negative reading remains. And, in terms of internet backlash, he is certainly reaping the consequences of his nebulousness.

In the various “Spiderman” comics, there is much talk of power and its need to be used responsibly; also, of its capability to corrupt. In this film, powerfulness is equated with monstrousness, if the ends to which it is used cause harm. Thus, all of our heroes are forced to question the very things that motivate them – the reasons why they get out of bed in the morning. By the time the credits roll, we understand which side of the moral line our guys are standing on, but it’s a long, hard process.

(An example of actual monstrousness can be seen in Jeremy Renner’s recent remarks that the Black Widow in this film can only be described as a “slut”. At the end of this movie, when the ‘next generation’ of Avengers is paraded, I was relieved to see that Renner’s Hawkeye was absent. Renner, as his unthinking comments reveal, is exactly the kind of misogynist monster that this world has too much of, and which it can definitely do without.)

The goal of this film is to erode the notion of what we think of as wrong. Ultron is protecting the planet; the Avengers are doing likewise. Who’s version is the better one? There is an unsettling sense of ‘going with what we know’ in the end result, which may please the general comics fan – in that it maintains the status quo - but which begs the question of whether the Avengers’ goal is truly the most beneficial one. This is where Whedon really does justice to Marvel’s work: sometimes the questions produce answers that aren’t particularly palatable, and the decision to go through with them often boils down to personal taste. Just look at Colossus’s critical decision in “Secret Wars” and you’ll understand what I mean. This is Marvel at its best.

In the final analysis, despite the heroic job that Joss Whedon does to translate the material for all-comers, this is a film for fans. If you know your Marvel, you will get this – it’s a gift with your name on the tag. If you don’t, it will annoy you because you won’t know who certain people are, why other characters behave as they do, where stuff comes from, and why. But then, this movie wasn’t really made for you: it’s a mash note from one Marvel fan to all of the others. Because of this, I’m cutting a tentacled horror from its rating; that being said, I’m getting my geek on and enjoying my exclusive access!

Three-and-a-half tentacled horrors.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

In Deep – 14: Alphonse

Those of you who have been paying attention will realise that there is no cemetery in Innsmouth that caters for the majority population. Not at all. Anyone living here, with connexions to the Esoteric Order of Dagon, knows that life is an adolescence of variable length on land before the Change is complete, and thereafter, an eternity of life in the glory of Y’ha-nthlei, beyond Devil Reef. Even those who meet an untimely death are sent out for burial at sea. However, since 1928, other folk have come to the town and some of them have made homes here; not all of them have – how shall I put it? – the worship of Dagon in their blood. Therefore, to the north of the community, just back from the coast, there is a small burial ground for outsiders. I had completely forgotten about its existence; most likely, no-one on my trail would think of it either.

Dawn had come but the rain wasn’t letting up. It had developed that blunt, bone-chilling cold that comes after a full night without the sun to warm it, and I was soon drenched to the skin. I made my way along the Manuxet banks, past the old gold refineries and down to the beach; I forded the river where it meets the Atlantic and set about trudging along the sand close to the water’s edge. Away towards the eastern horizon, a waterspout dropped its swirling liquid tentacle down from the clouds and lightning flashed in its wake. I kept my head down and my pace steady: not all of the people who would be looking for me would be in the town; certainly, many of them would be in the water...

Distant cliffs appeared ahead of me and I made for the rain-spattered dunes. Wet through as I was, slogging through the loose sand didn’t help me to set any land-speed records, but here amongst the coarse grass and sea-wrack, I had a little more cover to play with. Eventually, I exited the sandhills and stepped out onto the ocean road behind the beach. Here, at its northern end, it was little more than a dirt track: to the south it turned to gravel and then to bitumen, until it ran past what once had been my home. I wondered if I’d ever be seeing that home again.

I crossed over and hopped a post-and-rail fence into the salt marshes on the other side. A hundred yards ahead, on top of a slight rise and surrounded by an iron fence topped with rusty spikes, was a huddle of headstones and decrepit tombs, many of which had seen no maintenance since the turn of last century. I made a beeline for it, slogging through cold, black mud, and worked my way along the fence-line until I came to the gate. A curving metal sign over the entranceway read “Foreigners’ Graveyard” in steadily dripping letters. I shouldered my cylinder and scanned the grey horizon in all directions: for what it was worth, I couldn’t see anyone, so I made my way inside.

Within, the ground was only slightly less boggy than outside the fence’s perimeter. Headstones and other grave markers sagged and teetered in the mire, choked with overgrown thorn plants and wayward grass. Towards the centre of this sombre isle, several ponderous tombs leaned against each other, their sculptured finishes cracked and tumbled. The earth was pitted and hummocked, where subsidence down below dropped the sod on those nestled within.

The rain gathered itself for another assault. I dropped my cylinder and sank down under the wings of a headless angel. I fumbled in my pockets for a cigarette and gratefully lit up, cupping my hands around my lighter. I was tired and hungry, and I needed to rest somewhere before exploring the options available to me here.

While thus occupied, I noticed a light coming from the largest of the tombs. My heart sank and I groaned: surely the E.O.D. wouldn’t post a watch for me here? My presence was a fluke, a lucky accident generated by a random and freaky dream, unless... I looked towards the coast. Maybe a pair of eyes out beyond the breakers had seen me and spread the word?

I flicked my smoke out into the weather where it fizzed into silence. Hefting the heavy leather tube over my shoulder, I stood up wearily: I was going to have to take a look at whatever was waiting for me and see if it posed a threat.

My shoes were soaked through, so I didn’t bother trying to avoid the puddles; I just moved circumspectly towards the tomb’s gaping entrance by the most discreet and direct route possible. Several granite steps led up to the entryway and a morbid inscription over the door declared in Latin that we were nothing but shadows. Just beyond the threshold, out of the downpour, was a well-used hurricane lamp generating a friendly yellow light.

I stepped inside and the sound of the rain diminished greatly. Within, was a stone room lined with shelves, stocked with crumbling and decrepit coffins. Opposite the entrance, some dark stairs led downwards toward a distant, unseen, second source of illumination.

Picking up the lamp, I headed over to the stairs and peered down. A stone door stood open and flickering candlelight flooded out. I could hear movement coming from beyond, objects clinking and rattling, and a tuneless, breathy whistle accompanying it all. I took a couple of cautious steps downwards and my foot struck something sitting on the stairs: raising my lamp, I saw a crude pottery bowl wobbling on the stonework; within was a thick, brown gravy, dribbling around a hand with many of the bones exposed.

‘Whoopth!’ said a lisping voice, ‘Thorry about that: thilly of me to leave my breakfatht lying about!’

The creature – there is no other word for it – that stood before me was confronting indeed. It was vaguely human. That is, the lineaments of humanity clung to it; however, apart from this rudimentary foundation, the balance was decidedly alien. Its face was dog-like, with a forward-thrusting muzzle filled with sharp teeth which made its attempts at speech difficult; it was covered all over – as far as I could see – in matted and dense dark fur; its legs were those of an animal with strange, half-hooved paws at the extremity. But for the fact that it was wearing a shirt and waistcoat, covered by a sturdy, much-stained apron, and a pair of pince-nez, I probably would have been less inclined to hang around. It reached down jauntily to scoop up the forgotten meal and then, holding this at its side as if it were nothing of any consequence, held out its other hand for me to shake.

‘My name’th Alphonthe,’ it said brightly, ‘I wathn’t exthpecting you to get here tho quickly.’

I blinked, then slowly took the extended hand. ‘I wasn’t otherwise occupied - Alphonse?’ He smiled warmly at me, showing all his crooked teeth.

‘I’d athk you in,’ he said turning to the room beyond, ‘but it’th forbidden for you to enter.’ He began busily bustling about: inside there was a large table beneath the curving low arch of a cavern. The walls were burdened with shelves, upon which sat bottles and jars and various items of brass and wood construction; in one corner stood a furnace with an anvil and blacksmith’s tools alongside. It looked for all the world like how a wizard’s workshop is supposed to look.

‘I altho won’t athk you to join in my repatht,’ said Alphonse returning to the doorway, ‘but here’th thome cheethe and bread. And thome beer.’

He passed to me a wooden bowl with a loaf in it and a wedge of hard cheese with a knife sticking out of it. With this came a hefty, rustic-looking jug with foaming suds slopping over the sides. My stomach growled unrepentantly - I sank down on the bottom step and immediately tucked in.

‘I thuthpected that you might need that,’ smirked Alphonse. Grabbing a three-legged stool, he plonked himself down in the doorway and proceeded to light up a pipe. He sat there blowing smoke rings while I chugged down everything I could get my face around – it had been a long time since that measly fruit cup.

‘Just what the doctor ordered,’ I belched when I was finished. My host gave a nod of the head by way of response.

‘Now,’ he said, tapping his pipe on the stone floor and then scraping its bowl with his claw, ‘you have quethtionth that need anthwerth...’ he raised his eyebrows and stared at me with his golden, canine eyes.

I organised my thoughts, then pointed a finger at the room behind him. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘what’s all that?’

Alphonse waved a dismissive hand. ‘All thith,’ he said, ‘ith me doing a favour for thomeone elthe, by thpethifically coming to your athithtanthe. You met him before. But I think you have other, more prething conthernth.’

‘Alright,’ I said, frowning, and adding this information to the other bizarre conundrums locked in my head, ‘let’s go right back to the beginning: there was a stranger in town; who was he?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Alphonse, shrugging, ‘I’m not pthycic. What can you tell me about him?’

I rummaged around in my pockets. Pulling forth the intricate lumps of metal and the hexagonal plates, I dropped them on the floor before him.

‘He looked like a cockroach with a bad case of acne; and he had these with him.’

Alphonse sniffed, and pawed at the assembled doo-dads. He rolled the lumpy metal thing carefully to one side. ‘That’th a weapon,’ he said. ‘Careful where you point it. Thith,’ he lifted up the metal rod, ‘ith dangerouth, altho. Thtick the pointy end in the ground and all hell will break loothe.’

He picked up the metal plates and scrutinised them closely, holding them up to the light. ‘I figure they’re some kind of instructions,’ I said, ‘information maybe? Mission parameters?’

He nodded, contemplating. ‘Pothibly. Pothibly...’ he murmured. He slid them together in a stack and turned to me.

‘Thith thtranger,’ he said, ‘ith a member of an alien thpethieth from the far edge of the Tholar Thythtem. They call themthelveth by variouth termth, but thome people here on Earth call them the Mi-Go.’

‘“Mi-Go”? As in “Me Tarzan; You Go?”’

‘It’th a Himalayan dialect actually,’ Alphonse continued, ‘They had a bathe there many yearth ago, and there were dithputeth with the indigenouth population. If one of them ith here, then it’th very bad.’

‘Oh, he’s not gonna be troubling anybody anymore,’ I said, smiling grimly.

Alphonse tipped his head back to look at me through his glasses. ‘Well, good,’ he said. ‘Now you’ll want to know what he wath doing around thethe partth.’

I pulled out my cigarettes and lit up. ‘Enlighten me, Alphonse.’ I blew a cloud of smoke to one side.

Alphonse leant back and rested his head against the door lintel, narrowing his gaze.

‘Thethe creatureth,’ he began, ‘had a colony not far from here to the north. Thentral to their community and itth practitheth was a thtone, which wath taken from them by a man who dithcovered too much about them and who began revealing their prethenthe here on thith planet.’

‘A stone?’ I immediately thought back to my session with Mrs Pettifer and the crazy utterances of Madame Klopp.

‘Yeth,’ continued Alphonse, ‘a thtone which wath brought from their dithtant planet of Yuggoth. Thome people think that Pluto ith Yuggoth, but it’th actually a different rock altogether. Anyway, thith man thent the thtone to a colleague in Arkham in the care of hith thon, but the lad wath ambuthed along the way by a devotee, a human agent, of the Mi-Go.’

‘Wait: people work for these critters? That’s messed up.’

Alphonse nodded. ‘Humanth can be thwayed by all thortth of promitheth,’ he said, ‘very few of which need to be made good on.’ He pulled out his pipe once more and began packing it with tobacco.

‘Well, the human agent dethided to hide with the thtone,’ he went on, ‘I gueth he wath thtarting to mithtrutht hith Mi-Go mathterth. He came here, figuring that it wath off the map and fairly thecluded.’ I leant forward with my lighter and lit his pipe. He sucked at the stem a few times and then blew a pall of smoke towards the ceiling.

‘The trail goeth cold at that point,’ he said. ‘Thith fellow came here and then – poof! – he’th gone.’ He gave me a sidelong look: ‘I’ll bet you can offer a theory ath to what happened to him...’

I took a long drag at my smoke and narrowed my gaze at him.

‘Yep,’ I answered, ‘yep. As a stranger to Innsmouth, he would’ve been marked as soon as he set foot in town. He would’ve been rounded up and either scared away – if he was no threat – or he would’ve been made to disappear if he was.’ I stubbed out my cigarette on the step. ‘We’re not really a welcoming community.’

‘Tho, you mutht have thome idea of where the thtone ith at thith point?’ Alphonse regarded me levelly.

I nodded. ‘I’ve got a pretty good idea,’ I said. Alphonse puffed at his pipe. I looked at him and then dragged out the leather cylinder from the step behind me.

‘One thing more,’ I said, ‘what are these? And how do they figure in all this mess?’ I popped the cap on the tube and slid one of the hexagonal bars out for him to look at. I turned it around so he could see the teeth marks I’d made on one end.

‘Interethting,’ he said drawing it forth and inspecting it closely. ‘I believe I know what thethe are, but let me do thome tethtth.’

He stood up and pattered across to his anvil. Taking a pair of grunty clippers, he adroitly snipped a piece off the end of the bar, making a rough, disfigured disc of the metal. This he threw into a small dish on the table. Then, taking a glass phial from off a shelf, he poured a clear liquid over the sample, at the same time holding a paw over his snout. Smoky white fumes issued forth and Alphonse flapped them away expertly. Then he picked up a set of pincers and lifted the sample out to regard it carefully. Walking over to the doorway, he showed me the shiny piece of metal steaming in the pincers’ grip.

‘It’th platinum,’ he said, ‘which raitheth a few quethtionth...’

‘Yeah,’ I growled, ‘what in this town is worth 19 three-foot long bars of platinum to a bug from outer space? And who’s naming the price? The bug was here on a goddam' shopping expedition!’

Alphonse dropped the pincers and their sample back on the table and picked up the remainder of the bar from the anvil. Coming back to the doorway he handed it to me and said:

‘Find the thtone, you’ll find your anthwerth...’

To Be Continued...

Friday, 25 September 2015

In Deep - 13: The Cavern of Flame

As the trolley squeaked its way into the distance, I stepped into the room and closed the door. The Gilman House, despite its size, has never really been the sort of place that gets packed to the gills, but even so, there was a chance that someone might have heard the shots and not mistaken them for thunder.

I didn’t know how much time I would have to myself and I desperately needed a moment to think and to work out my next move. Madame Klopp might fail to mention me to the Management - she might even have forgotten about my existence entirely - but I wouldn’t put it past her to sell me out if the opportunity arose... I stopped suddenly and patted my coat. Damn! My gun wasn’t the only thing she’d lifted from me in the stairwell. My 25K was currently riding down to the fourth floor on her trolley. Growling, I decided to toss the room and try to get a handle on what the Bug had been up to.

Room 664 was light on luxuries and strong on Spartan reserve. Its recent occupant, who I prodded carefully into the centre of the space with a cautious toe, had spread some kind of fungal bloom over every surface and spores erupted into the atmosphere with each move I made. I dragged out my handkerchief and made myself a bandana to try and avoid breathing them in. The bed was unused: I guess “John Smith” either didn’t sleep or else he hung from the ceiling after hours. The only pieces of luggage were a suitcase, the leather a dusty riot of fungal rot, and one of those calfskin cylinders that architects carry blueprints around in. I moved both of these onto the bed and was instantly struck by the immense weight of the tube. I popped open the cap on one end and saw, neatly arranged inside, 19 long metal rods, hexagonal in cross-section, about an inch in diameter and three feet in length. A youth spent stripping the metal deposits out of decrepit buildings to sell for scrap, told me that these were not steel or lead, and that they were too heavy to be aluminium. Sliding one out, I bit gently on one end: the impression left by my teeth told me that they were not of any use in construction. I filed them away in the ‘Mysteries’ folder in my brain and turned to the suitcase.

Within were the clothes that the creature had been wearing around in public, along with the Lionel Ritchie headgear. Along with these were a set of five incredibly thin hexagonal metal plates about five inches across - engraved all over with some type of writing that I didn’t recognise - and two oddly-shaped lumps of metal. One of these fitted pleasingly into my hand and the slight gaps between its fitted plates glowed faintly blue as I moved it around. There was a round protuberance on one side that looked kind of like an eye. The other object was a slightly curved short rod, pointed at one end and flat on the other. It too seemed to be made of many interlocking pieces, but it did nothing when I fiddled with it. I dropped all of these into my pockets with a grunt: now was not the time to investigate them further.

The mouldy stench in the room was getting overpowering, so I stepped to the window – the glass completely obliterated by an aggressive slime mould – and threw it open. Wind and rain blew in like a sweet balm. Immediately, the corpse on the carpet began to make odd popping noises and I turned quickly, raising the Desert Eagle:

Before my eyes, the Bug slowly disintegrated, dissolving into the floorboards like an ice sculpture at a surf safari in August. In no time at all, the only thing left of him was a disquietingly sticky puddle. I moved around the mess and snatched the rubber mask off the floor. Tossing this inside the suitcase along with the clothes, I slammed the lid shut and then heaved the lot out through the window, into the rainy night. With no body to speak of and no reliable witnesses as to what had happened to him, the Knights of Y’ha-nthlei would be scratching their heads about their mysterious Stranger for quite awhile.

I hefted the leather cylinder and quietly opened the door to the corridor. Nothing was moving out there, so I stealthily retraced my steps back to the stairwell and let myself in. Returning to the window I’d come in by, I sat down on the bottom step nearby and lit a cigarette – I had some thinking to do.

My brain was sluggish and unresponsive. Too much of this night had passed without any down time and I was beginning to feel the after-effects. Even the nicotine wasn’t cutting it. I was in a jam with no way out. Everyone thought that I’d murdered Abner Gilman, the pillar of the community, and consequently, I had E.O.D. grunts and their assassins on my tail. Getting out of Innsmouth without my car was problematic as it was still parked (I hoped!) outside of the Gilman mansion, and most likely watched by those unlikely to hand over the keys. It was a lead pipe cinch that anywhere I went that was any kind of refuge would also be watched, so I needed to find some place unique and cunning to go to earth. On top of it all, I was running out of dark. I looked across to the window to gauge the time and noticed something peculiar:

A ruddy red-and-orange glow was flickering off the pane of glass and shimmering in the raindrops that pelted on the other side. Most alarmingly, the light seemed to be coming from somewhere inside. I stood up slowly and stepped over to the window. As I did so, I noticed that the stairs leading down from here to the next level had changed: not only were they no longer nested tidily beneath the stairs leading up, they were made from stone and spiralling downwards. The fiery luminescence pulsed angrily up from somewhere way down below.

Cautiously, I moved towards the first step. Had some kind of panelling slid away to reveal this bizarre construction? From what I could see, it seemed to have just appeared in place, taking over the original building like a benign tumour, lodging itself comfortably within the existing fabric. I touched the stonework and it felt warm and distinctly real, so I scratched ‘illusion’ of my list of hypotheses.

I took a step down onto the first flagstone: it remained there, so I took another step. Soon I was tiptoeing my way ever downwards. I had gone around several spirals when I realised that I ought to be counting how many steps there were, to avoid getting lost. I estimated that I’d walked about fifteen steps and I continued onwards, counting under my breath as I went.

Very soon, I began to discern a roaring noise coming from up ahead. The light intensified along with the heat and periodic explosions shook the blistering air. As a precaution, I pulled out the Desert Eagle and crouched down as I moved ahead. In a short while, the outer wall of the stairway opened up, revealing that the steps led to a gigantic chamber, along the outer edge of which I was proceeding. In the centre of the chamber, an enormous pillar composed all of flame roared upwards from a worked-stone pit in the middle of the floor and disappeared through a fissure in the ceiling high overhead. Every now and again a burst of explosive flame shook the column dramatically, making it roil convulsively, and fire flickered through the air. I was so intent on this spectacle that I stumbled over the last step.

‘69,’ I muttered, dazed.

I stood up from the floor, noting as I did so that it was paved with massive flags, decorated with a worn and ancient-looking design. As I dusted-off my trousers, I noticed two pairs of sandaled feet standing right in front of me. I jumped, startled, and raised my gun. A giant hand grabbed me by the shirtfront and another one glommed the weapon away from me. Then I was slowly lowered to the pavement once more.

‘Tsk, tsk,’ said the man before me.

I say “man” but I’m not sure that he was even human. He certainly looked like it but, at an easy twelve foot in height, he was definitely out on the far edge of the spectrum. He was Middle-eastern in appearance and dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh, complete with the natty hat and the enamelled beard. He had jewelled armbands and criss-cross sashes across his torso resembling feathered wings. In one hand he held a blue-and-gold striped hooked stick and a golden flail-like thing; in the other he held my gun, which looked ridiculously small, and offered it back to me, holding it by the barrel. I took it from him and dropped it back into my pocket.

‘Sorry,’ I said, abashed, ‘you startled me.’

He nodded and the other guy stepped forward to look at me quizzically. He was identical to the first fellow, but of different stock, looking like he had originated somewhere north of Oslo. Piercing ice-blue eyes looked down upon me, so pale as to be almost transparent, and regarded me over a flowing coppery-coloured full beard. He stuck his hooked stick under my chin and lifted my face up for examination.

‘What is it doing here?’ he said, possibly to me, I don’t know.

‘Why do they all come here? He is seeking answers.’ I felt inclined towards the first fellow; he, at least, offered me personal pronouns.

‘It cannot proceed,’ said Blondie, sticking out his bottom lip.

‘Well, obviously,’ said the first guy, smiling wryly, a twinkle in his eye, ‘but we can at least allow him a question, no?’

Blondie looked inclined to disagree, but then he waved his stick and turned away dismissively.

‘As you wish,’ he said, ‘waste your time as you see fit...’ He slapped away across the floor in his flip-flops.

‘Never mind him,’ said Good Cop, patting me on the shoulder, ‘he’s in a mood. Now, you’re allowed a question, what’ll it be?’

‘What...?’ I stammered.

‘Excellent question!’ he said, cutting me off. He propelled me over to the bottom of the stairs once more. ‘I have an agent in your local place of interment. Go there and he will ensure that you get the response you need. Alright?’ I nodded dumbly and he gently pushed me onto the first step.

‘Up you go!’ he jollied me along, ‘and just FYI - there’re 70 steps, not 69.’

The column of flame belched incendiarily once more and a spark lit on the back of my hand. I jerked awake, sitting on the step in the hotel stairwell: my cigarette had burnt right down, sticking to my lip, and the ash had fallen and singed my hand.

I jumped up and looked around in shock. All was normal: no mysterious stairs; no pillar of flame; no giants. The only thing that caused me alarm was the pale light illuminating the window and spilling inside. Dawn was near.

I made it down to the foyer in double time and barged my way across to the entrance, pulling my hat down and my collar up. Ned Pierce was having a smoke outside on guard duty, so I pasted him in the kisser with the leather cylinder. I stalked off into the rainy morning leaving him an inky blot on the front steps...

To Be Continued...

Thursday, 24 September 2015

In Deep – 12: Conversations in a Madhouse

As the rumbles faded away into the white noise of rain, Madame Klopp tittered enthusiastically and rubbed her pink and squelchy hands together beneath her hunched shoulders. I watched her eyes roll in their sockets and considered that, in a town full of Peter Lorre impersonators, she was the best I’d seen. I cleared my throat preparatory to speaking and she jumped in her sneakers, as if she’d forgotten I was there.

‘So, Madame Klopp,’ I started. ‘What is that? Dutch?’

‘Maybe,’ she squeaked, irked, ‘maybe not. Why so nosy?’

I frowned looking down at her. ‘It’s my job to be nosy, Madame Klopp. Why so secretive?’

She hunched over again, looking left and right. ‘Secrets and lies. Secrets and lies. Which is which? They’re my secrets and I will keep them.’ She stuck out her lower lip truculently.

‘Never mind,’ I said raising a hand in defeat, at which she cringed, hissing, again. ‘Look, there’s a stranger staying here at the hotel; not from around here. ‘Looks like Roy Orbison on a bad hair day. Do you know which room he’s in?’

She took a cautious step towards me, a strange gleam in her eyes lighting up her face. She stared at me as if I had suddenly become an object of exceptional rarity and interest. She pulled gently at the rubber tip of one finger letting the fabric snap back repeatedly into place.

‘What does he want with the bug?’ she wondered out loud in a sing-song cadence, as if I wasn’t part of the conversation.

‘Bug? No, Madame Klopp, I’m trying to find out about a guest here at the Hotel. A funny little guy from out of town...’

‘Yes! Yes!’ she said, eagerly nodding her head and showing her peculiar milk teeth. ‘The bug! The bug! The stinky one who hides his face! The one who never walks in the light! The one who never fills in his breakfast menu! He who wards his portal with the sign of “Do Not Disturb”! His room will be very hard to clean, I think. Very hard...’ Her eyes glazed into the middle distance as she contemplated the Augean task ahead of her. I gave her a few moments but the monologue seemed to have reached a terminus of some kind.

‘...And the number of that room is...?’ I prompted, circling an extended finger.

She reached forward convulsively and clutched my coat, looking over her shoulder and all around as she did so. ‘It’s coming out into the hall,’ she whispered frantically up at me, ‘I tried all of the elixirs, the sprays. It’s in the carpet now – I can sense it. Soon all will know. Soon Management will know. It comes! There is no stopping it!’

‘What comes, Madame Klopp?’

‘The smell!’ she hissed in a fevered undertone which ended in a stifled scream. She backed up hard against me and bit the wrist of her pink glove. I rolled my eyes.

‘Sure, sure: the smell,’ I spun her around by the shoulder, an action that induced the weirdest wincing expression I think I’ve ever seen on a human countenance. ‘Can you take me there, Madame Klopp? To the room with the smell?’

She was shaking her head violently before I’d even finished. ‘No: I mustn’t,’ she whispered desperately; ‘it is... forbidden!’

I sighed. Reaching into my coat pocket I pulled out a ten-dollar bill. ‘Perhaps this will help offset the taboo?’ I said.

She snatched the note out of my hand and held it up to what little light there was in the stairwell. Then, stuffing the bill beneath her bra strap, she nodded, gurgling with delight.

‘Sure, sure!’ she chortled, ‘you come: I show you!’

She led me up the stairs to a door and opened it with a key; stepping through, we were in the hushed interior of the Hotel. The wallpaper was tired and garish, the carpet was even moreso, threadbare in places of high traffic. Madame Klopp slinked over to a cart piled high with towels and cleaning products parked against the wall behind a struggling pot plant: the conveyance was slightly higher than she was, but she pulled it out of its parking site and hauled it forward. As she did so, she snatched a pager off the side of the trolley and quickly scanned it with an angry hiss.

‘The fool at the Reception Desk summons me to the Fourth Floor,’ she snarled darkly; ‘apparently, there is vomit.’

I nodded sagely. ‘Well, I’ll try not to keep you from that,’ I said. ‘If you could just show me quickly...?’

‘He needs to be quiet!’ hissed Madame Klopp, with a chopping motion of her hand. ‘The way opens before us...’

So saying she heaved the cart into motion and crept forward as though ninjas were on the lookout for her. I followed closely behind her, keeping pace. The trolley had a single malfunctioning wheel that squeaked irritatingly once every rotation: I developed the strong impression that it was emulating the contents of Madame Klopp’s head. We moved slowly through the benign otherworldliness that signals the common areas of hotel floors – hushed, artificial, and expectant.

We turned a few corners and I started to sense that familiar Gilman House scent of rising damp. We were up on the sixth floor according to the signs, so the odour was somewhat alarming on that score; but then, the Hotel has been here since the early 1860s so I figured that the damp had had plenty of time and opportunity to go mountaineering. Eventually, the stench reached fever-pitch, and even the lackadaisical standards of Innsmouth hospitality would have baulked at such an intensity. We had reached a door around which a spreading black halo of mould had stained the wallpaper, woodwork and carpet.

‘Behold!’ Madame Klopp stepped timidly forward and waved her rubber-clad arm dramatically

‘Room 664,’ I read.

‘The bug is within,’ my crazy guide intoned, ‘it marshals its forces for the coming battle...’

‘“Coming battle”?’ I repeated, ‘what are you on about?’

‘It seeks the stone,’ she hissed with Shakespearean delivery. Then: ‘Do not talk of the stone! It means nothing to him! Yes, and that is why you must say nothing of it! He will discover nothing. Are you certain? No. Then say nothing! Very well – I will not mention the stone.’ She stood, tensely, near her cart, looking everywhere but at me. I narrowed my eyes at her, then turned to knock on the door.

‘It is not nine o’clock, detective.’ The rhythmic, gurgling voice sounded like there wasn’t an inch of wood and a bunch of air between myself and its owner; in fact, it felt like it was emanating straight out of my own head.

‘Yeah, I know,’ I chuckled, ‘I just thought I’d pop up and get a clearer idea of what sights you’d like to take in tomorrow.’

‘At four o’clock in the morning?’ the voice echoed hollowly.

He had me there. ‘Well, no time like the present they always say.’ I winced at how lame this sounded.

There was a significant pause. ‘Very well,’ the voice said. ‘The door is unlocked: come inside.’

I grabbed the doorknob and turned it. As I pushed the door inwards, sticky noises indicated how much mould had generated to form a seal around the entry. A wave of fungal stench wafted out into the corridor. Patting for the light switch, my hand slapped squidgy wetness on the wall by the side of the door, so I fumbled in my coat for my torch instead. Wiping the moisture off my hand onto my sleeve, I clicked on the light and stabbed it into the room beyond. The first thing I saw was Roy Orbison’s face, creased down the middle, lying on the mouldy carpet. I panned my light upwards.

There before me was a creature so bizarre that I froze in my tracks. Its head was a lumpy ellipsoid that flexed spasmodically; the body which supported it was pale and pinkish, reminding me strongly of something like a grasshopper, or an albino cockroach; about it, like a fuzzy cape, membranous wings twitched and flickered like ruddy, unburning fire. Mostly though, I noticed the spiky legs and claws that were slashing towards me at deadly speed.

Die!’ said the voice in my head, and the grotesque ellipsoid pulsed with a range of pinkish fairy lights.

I sunk my hand into my coat pocket: an icy fist gripped my heart as I realised my gun was gone.

Boom! Boom! Boom! The epaulette on my coat ripped free and the right sleeve burst into flame. The pulsing head of the insectoid thing before me exploded into a gooey mess and the deadly trajectory of the pincer appendages was suddenly interrupted. The creature fell backwards into the room and skittered around like an arthropod hit full-on with a spritz of insecticide. I slapped at my coat to kill the fire and rubbed my suddenly-deaf ear.

Behind me, Madame Klopp picked herself up off the floor and rushed to look at her accomplishment, both pink rubber hands still gripping tightly to my Desert Eagle. The look on her face was that of a small child whose Christmas dreams had all just come true.

Vengeance!’ she shrieked, and loosed another round into the twitching spiky mess before her. I hastily snatched the gun out of her paw, pressed the safety and pocketed it again.

‘No offence, Madame Klopp,’ I said, ‘but next time you want to borrow my gun, you need to ask. What are we going to do about this mess?’

She turned her head in my direction; it took some time for her eyes to catch up.

‘Mess?’ she said. ‘This mess is yours.’ She skulked back to her trolley and wheeled it around.

‘I am needed on the Fourth Floor,’ she said ponderously; ‘there is vomit.’

To Be Continued...

Monday, 21 September 2015

In Deep – 11: Madame Klopp

Outside in the rain, I rubbed the deep scratches on the back of my hand and looked about, wondering what to do next. All around stood closed and lightless doors and windows, offering no refuge; the only light not descending from the heavens, spilled out from the Gilman House across the way. Seeing this, I paused and stood upright. A little tiddler of a thought wriggled at the base of my brain: would anyone connected to the E.O.D. think to look for me inside the bastion of the Gilman legacy? Fearful that Remora would soon be back in business, I decided it was worth putting money down on that number and I loped off across the square.

Not that I intended to waltz through the front doors of course – that would truly be madness. Instead, I circled around to the deliveries entrance to one side and loitered there in the shadows. Here, on the unseen and largely dilapidated back end of the hotel, stood a series of tacked-on outbuildings, reeking of bleach and mould with an undertone of wet dog: obviously the laundries. Peering out from below the eaves, I discerned that I might well be able to climb up onto their roofs and then make my way into the hotel via one of the windows.

I crouched, then jumped cautiously upwards, gripping the guttering that ran the length of the overhang. It groaned beneath my weight as I hung there, trying to gain purchase with my toes on the brick wall. Using a burst of thunder from overhead, I pulled myself up onto the corrugated iron. The metalwork shrieked and complained, but otherwise stayed in place. I lay there momentarily letting the rain wash over me, checking the wall of the hotel for lights suddenly illuminating the windows. Nothing happened.

I staggered to my feet and walked gingerly up to the peak of the laundry roof. Beyond, there was a sharp slope downwards until the steel sheeting met the brickwork of the hotel wall. Where the two structures met, there was a series of metal pipes that ran upwards to the hotel roof far above. Along the ascending line of these pipes, a number of windows indicated possible access points.

I gripped onto the strongest-looking of them and slowly let it take my weight. I was rewarded by a small shower of brick fragments but, on the whole, the project seemed worth pursuing. Slowly, hand over hand, I began hauling myself upwards, trying as much as possible to keep my body as still as I could and not swing about too much.

After a few nervous minutes and many groans and pops from the metal struts, I reached the first window. I hooked a toe onto the window ledge and let it support me. Reaching for the window frame I tried to haul it upwards: no joy. The pane was locked tight. Growling under my breath, I swung as gently as I could back to the pipe and began squirming my way up to the next level. The next window also proved to be shut tight, but I perceived something through the glass, due to the fact that it was cleaner than the one below, which lightened my mood a little. These windows all seemed to open into a stairwell, something which would make staying hidden a bit easier. Another bright note was that I could see from here that the next window up was slightly open.

I muttered an invocation to Dagon and began shimmying up the pipe once more. After a few awkward minutes when my trouser cuff snagged on a projecting nail, I managed to just get into range of the window ledge when the inevitable happened: with a prolonged moan and several alarming cracks, the pipe gave way and began to swing out away from the wall, releasing all of the water which had been sluicing away inside of it. Cursing, I launched myself towards the window and grabbed hold of the frame, my shoes sliding crazily across the brickwork as I desperately tried to gain some kind of purchase. I managed to wedge my shoulder into the gap offered by the open window, then I forced my way inside rolling wetly to the linoleum floor, a sodden, panting mess. Lacking a downspout to carry the excess water down from the rooftop, a cascade of water was blown in from outside, guided by the wind. Angrily, I reached up and slammed the window fully closed. In the sudden silence that followed, I heard a disturbing noise.

It was like someone was slowly letting the air out of a bicycle tyre. The light in the stairwell was limited to the erratic bursts of lightning from without and shadows writhed deep in every nearby corner. Eventually, I seemed to place the hissing as emanating from the bottom of the steps leading to the next floor and there seemed to be two dully glowing points of light hovering there. I very slowly slid my hand into my coat pocket, grasping the small but powerful torch I carry around with me. In one smooth motion I produced it and snapped it on:

There, cowering against the wall, was a bizarre creature at which I peered closely, trying to comprehend. Initially, I thought I was looking at some weird, emaciated and drug-hazed parody of Mickey Mouse. It seemed to have two enormous ears – triangular instead of round – and its feet and head were oversized in proportion to the rest of the body. I blinked, then realised that I was looking at a small woman – she would barely have cleared my knee if I’d been standing – of a strangely wizened and pinched Asian appearance. She was dressed in one of those completely functional dress uniforms which hotel cleaning staff are wont to wear, accessorised by pink rubber gloves which went up to her elbows, and white sensible tennis shoes. What I had taken for ears was actually her hair, styled ornately into two triangular wings off the back of her head. Then I tuned in to what she was saying:

‘Forgive me!’ she whined in a shrill mousey voice, ‘I didn’t mean to disobey! But the urges, they are so strong...!’

I didn’t get what she was on about until I saw the myriad cigarette butts crushed beneath her feet. I added this fact together with the partially opened window I had just entered by and came to a solid conclusion. I pulled my smokes out of my pocket, pulled one out of the packet with my lips and held the rest out to her.

‘Have one on me,’ I offered.

A slow light of realisation crept across her features and soon a cunning smile appeared to replace the look of dismay and horror which had been there previously. Her teeth were blunt and spaced widely apart in her pink little gums. She struck me kind of like some peculiar breed of demented rodent, harmless if caught alone, but possibly dangerous in numbers.

I lit both our cigarettes and we spent a moment inhaling gratefully. Then she began chuckling crazily, a breathy, gurgling mirth that definitely sounded like it belonged in a padded room. She was acting like a schoolgirl delighting in being deliberately out of bounds. She savoured every moment of that coffin nail like it was a Cuban stogie.

When I felt that we’d enjoyed enough pleasantries, I held out my hand. ‘Benson Waite’, I offered.

She cringed as if she thought I was going to wallop her, then gingerly took my fingertips with her rubber paw. Leaning forward conspiratorially she looked left and right and then declaimed sotto voce:

‘I,’ she waited a beat, ‘am Madame Klopp.’

Lightning cast gruesome shadows across her face, and thunder added the necessary emphasis.

To Be Continued...