Thursday, 31 August 2017

Review: House of Leaves

DANIELEWSKI, Mark Z., House of Leaves, Pantheon Books/Random House Inc., New York NY, 2000.

Octavo; paperback; 709pp., with many colour illustrations. Moderate wear; covers rubbed and curled; hinges scraped; many dog-eared pages. Good.

Funny story: I bought this book because I thought that it might be something I could discuss here on my blog. I began reading it and got so thoroughly bored and annoyed with it that I took it to the second-hand bookshop where I work and put it on the shelf to be sold (perk of the job). Two years later, I’m buying books off a young couple who’re moving house and – whaddaya know? There’s my old copy of this book, a bit worse for wear, but ready to go back into the system again. However, I’ve done a bit of research and had some exposure to other opinions about it, and so the book has come home with me once more. I don’t know: I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

When the movie “Inception” came out, someone told me that I would be seeing it twice. I was told – to my face – that it was too deep and multi-layered a film for anyone to grasp entire all at one screening. Well, I went and watched it anyway and was less than enthused. I’ve been writing roleplaying scenarios for many years - for conventions; for my home teams - I know twisty plots and plot twists backwards and forwards: I am the Ancient of Days when it comes to multi-layered story outlines and nested plot arcs. I ended up being annoyed and frustrated with “Inception” because it wasn’t anywhere near as difficult to comprehend as I had been led to believe.

This kind of “woo, buddy: you wanna think twice before you go there” attitude surrounds and personifies Danielewski’s exercise. It’s too hard; you wanna think twice; you’d better carb up, mentally. Frankly it’s all crap.

I was talking to a friend (with English as an extra language of necessity) who was complaining about the impenetrability of the works of a particular Welsh horror author – Rhys Hughes - who practises a form of writing called ergodic literature in order to capture a sense of the madness felt by a typical Lovecraftian victim. He belongs to a loose writing fraternity going by the name “OuLiPo”; they specialise in using mathematical and other logic-based transcription formulae to alter their texts in precise ways, forcing the reader to do more than simply go along for the ride. These techniques involve avoiding the use of certain letters (for instance, Georges Perec’s A Void) or replacing verbs or nouns with the word appearing seven entries below (or above) it in the dictionary. Their type of thing ranges from Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies (which is great) to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (which is not).

Early forms of this type of writing last century were fairly mild: the early works of Calvino – and later ones like If On A Winter's Night A Traveller – all have a stated purpose and premise and all make sense, using an internal logic established by the ‘rules’ of the work. The results are beautiful and strange, and very satisfying. William Burroughs’ work also makes partial use of these techniques: The Red Night Trilogy and The Nova Trilogy both have sections which were written, cut up into pieces and randomly re-assembled in order to create strange revelations. This works in places, but never completely satisfactorily and reading these books often feels disconnected and episodic.

The point of all this tinkering is to try, on various levels, to force the reader to engage actively with the text, rather than simply passively turning the pages and scanning the words. Ergodic writers have made the assertion that a stack of the finest novels of human creation are of less value than a disassociated pile of damp and mouldering newspapers, the idea being that you have to put a lot of work into trying to get sense out of something which is basically pâpier maché.

Which brings us to Danielewski. This is essentially a rather trite story about a house that defies the laws of physics and tries to eat those who prowl around inside it. That’s it. That’s all it is. This story is overlain by self-indulgent references to a movie about the house, which doesn’t exist, and an overblown academic analysis of that film which includes swathes of interviews and observations made by real-world members of the intelligentsia – from Anne Rice to Camille Paglia – none of which texts (annoyingly) are real. On top of this is dumped a jumbled memoir of an amateur tattoo artist and drug abuser who becomes obsessed with the academic thesis while trying to get on with his dead-end existence.

When I tried to read this book the first time, it was this layer concerning the junkie inkster which annoyed me the most. His random musings, fantasising about his customers and his morbid self-pity were filled with a host of egregious typing errors which had been adopted by Danielewski to make the character seem ‘real’ but which stridently worked against this very notion. “Alot” is not one word, it’s two; and the phrase is “rather than”, not “rather then”. These slips are distracting and wrong, given the level of literacy that the character exhibits in all other areas of his internal monologue. It’s a cheap non-starter in the characterisation department and it put me off right from the word ‘go’.

The rest of the book follows these sorts of cheap gags: the fonts change when other characters take over the narrative; the margins grow enormously when characters are squeezing through enclosed spaces; single revelatory thoughts are strung out across the page to give them greater impact (in the manner of Tristram Shandy). There are footnotes, and footnotes with footnotes, and footnotes with footnotes with footnotes*: It’s T.S Eliot’s wet dream come true, including quotes in Sanskrit. Essentially it’s a bunch of typographical tomfoolery that is trying to cover up a not-very-good story.

Then there are sections of text that have been crossed out, or which have been printed backwards or sliding partially off the page, and various sections written in code. The author has made every attempt to make the story as obtuse and unclear as possible. He wants to make his readership work for his ideas – which is, actually, his main, probably sole, idea – but these notions are of essentially dubious value. In fact if you pick up this book, flip through it once, then immediately think “I see – his message is ‘obfuscation’” then you’ve done all you can hope to achieve with this ‘work’. There’s no more to be said, and you can safely turn your mind over to other things of greater worth.

Sadly though, there is a breathless faction of readers out there who have taken all of this smoke-and-mirrors to heart and who have established online communities to discuss the ‘mysteries’ of the House of Leaves, when actually there’s nothing to talk about. If you mention to others that you want to read this book, they will tell you – as they told me prior to watching “Inception” – that you won’t understand it, that it will devour your spare time and distract you for months. This is just the self-generating haze of fandom surrounding this piece which amounts to little more than sharing the pain.

And it’s not new. In 1500, Johannes Trithemius wrote his infamous Steganographia (“Secret Writing”) which was a magical text devoted to talking with angels but which had encoded within it many blasphemous magical ideas and systems. It’s where we get the word ‘steganographic’, meaning a type of code which is recorded within the fabric of the book itself, not just the textual component. And Trithemius had a point - he was facing the Inquisition if word about what he was up to got out. In the Nineteenth- and early Twentieth Centuries, authors were compiling picaresque and quirky novels which posed many striking arguments across many interwoven story arcs, a majority of which were frustratingly unresolved. The Comte de Lautreamont’s Lay of Maldoror is a good example, as is Beckford’s Vathek, or even Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. You can get more out Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain” than you can get from Danielewski’s inconsequence.

Time your waste simply will which Celeste Marie literary a it’s. Answers no are there which to questions battling you leave will which fiction genre of hole black a it’s. In you suck to written been has book this, essentially.

The final clue is in the dedication at the beginning of the book, which – again – has been stolen from French literature of one hundred years previous – “This is not for you”. If you’re smart, and you value your limited time spent here on Earth, you will take the author at his word in this one instance and comply.


*Fungal and bacterial conditions – including “athlete's foot” - occur because the feet are usually enclosed in a dark, damp, warm environment. These infections cause redness, blisters, peeling, and itching. If not treated promptly, an infection may become chronic and difficult to cure. To prevent these conditions, keep the feet - especially the area between the toes - clean and dry and expose the feet to air whenever possible. If you are prone to fungal infections, you may want to dust your feet daily with a fungicidal powder.**

**Henriksen Lance en Tatum Bradford, Steenburgen Mary, Goldblum Jeff met, titelrol de in Flanery Patrick Sean met Salva Victor door geregisseerd en geschreven, 1995 van fantasiedrama Amerikaanse een is "Poeder". ***


Monday, 28 August 2017

Deep Waters - Womenfolk...

I waited until I couldn’t hear any more gunfire. At that point I sat up and fumbled for the door, slamming it shut. My foot bumped against something in the footwell, so I instinctively picked it up hoping it was another gun: it turned out to be a full bottle of Jack Daniels. I unscrewed the lid and took a long pull. That accomplished, I noticed that I was covered with little flecks of light that sparkled in the ambience.

‘What’s all this sparkly crap?’ I said.

Prudence glared at me from the rear-vision mirror. ‘There was this great party at Studio 54 where they covered the floor in about three inches of glitter. I haven’t been able to get rid of it. You wanna tell me what that shit was all about?’

I winced and lounged back in the seat. ‘Those were some customers of Winston’s’ I said; ‘that should be enough to tell you why they’re so cranky.’

‘He screwed them over?’

I nodded. ‘And they’re probably the reason why the Drowners are affecting the town.’ I filled her in about our dealings with the Latinos earlier that evening.

She slammed her hand on the steering wheel. ‘Gods-dammit! That smirking little fry is gonna cop the back of my hand!’

I grinned and took another slug of the bottle, imagining that interaction.

‘And don’t think you’re getting off lightly either,’ she went on glaring at me from the mirror, ‘you’re big enough and ugly enough to know better than to let Winston off of a short lead! What were you thinking, Benson?’

‘Hey!’ I grumbled, ‘I was all set on getting wasted with Rodney – I didn’t ask to get dragged out to Hicksville.’

Prudence slammed on the brakes and I mashed my nose and the bottle neck into the head-rest of the seat in front of me. I shook my head and listened to her footsteps crunching gravel around to the door to my right. It swung open and she launched herself in to sit next to me.

‘Hand over the Jack,’ she said waving her crimson-clawed hand. I did so and she took a long swig.

‘Those guys ain’t gonna take an insult lying down,’ she said, coming up for air; ‘in fact they’ll be wanting to exact some kinda vengeance…’

‘I told Winston he should’nt oughta have…’

‘…And you say that Boone kid worked some kinda mojo on them?’ Obviously, I was just going to be a kind of fact-checker for Prudence while she got everything straight in her head, so I just nodded and reached for the bottle.

‘Yep,’ I said, ‘he “undimensioned” them.’

She handed over the hooch. ‘Which means that anything else “undimensioned” out there - like a Drowner, for instance – would be able to see them and follow them here. Dagon’s water-wings Benson! You guys led them to Innsmouth!’

‘Yeah, I know,’ I waved my hand to get her to lower the volume, ‘I’ve been slowly working that out as I’ve been going along. If you don’t mind, I’d like to be able to do something about it before Abner finds out.’

‘“Do something?”’ she gaped at me. ‘Haven’t you done enough?’

‘Not nearly,’ I said kicking open the door nearest to me. ‘It’s Winston’s mess, but I had a hand in it; so I’m gonna put it right. Wanna help me?’ I gave her a questioning look; she thought about it for a minute, which I took as a realistic assessment of my capabilities.

‘Okay,’ she said at last, opening the door next to her, ‘but only because it’s you. We’re here; let’s go.’

The Eliot place was brooding in the darkness in its austere majesty. It was all towers and cupolas and widow-walks, not unlike someplace the Addams family would choose to settle. From inside, we could hear the weird ululations that normally signalled a gathering of the distaff aspect of the Innsmouth community. I let Prudence take the lead – this was definitely her territory, not mine.

We walked up the steps to the rickety front porch and hopped the missing or broken planks until we were at the front door. Prudence rapped sharply on one of the unbroken panes that decorated it. A blurred pale shape appeared on the other side of the glass and coalesced into a staring blue eye. It withdrew and the door creaked malodorously open.

Innsmouth women are a pretty traditional lot, even moreso than the men. After marrying, they all seem to adopt severe black as a uniform, with a preference for headscarves and sensible shoes of the same colour. The only relief to this inky pallette are their aprons which range across the entire spectrum of the tropical fish-tank. The woman who had admitted us was typical in this regard: four feet tall at most, pop-eyed and lacking in the chin department, head to foot in black with the exception of an apron adorned with a colourful pizza image and emblazoned with the words “That’s Amore!”. She darted a brief dismissive look in my direction then stepped back to run a slow gaze over Prudence from stiletto heels to afro ‘do. Her expression remained impassive but I could tell by the way her Adam’s apple bounced that she was experiencing a wave of deep disapproval.

‘Hey Prissy,’ Prudence chirped, ‘Abner sent me over to see what’s going on.’

‘Come in Prudence,’ a dark and sinuous voice rolled out from the gloom within, ‘we should have something to report soon.’

‘Hey, Mama,’ Prudence said slipping past Prissy and I crept in behind her, trying to blend in with the hallway wallpaper. Prissy ogled me for a moment, her throat bobbing, but decided I was harmless and hobbled off back to the gathering inside.

Prudence was talking to her mother Jezebel. Like the rest of the Gilman clan, Jezebel Gilman was not one to adhere to conformity. She was tall with long, straight black hair. She wore the regulation black skirt and shoes, but with a dark green sweater over the top. She was leaning heavily on her cane and smoking a cigarette. In the baleful ambience of the Eliot mansion, her pale green eyes glowed.

‘Prudence,’ she was saying, ‘couldn’t you have at least tried to dress appropriately?’

Prudence pouted. ‘I came as soon as Abner called,’ she replied, ‘I was on my way to a great party, too.’

‘I’m not sure that I like you living down there in that sinful city,’ said Jezebel, ‘it seems to be giving you bad ideas.’

‘Mama, I’m there because Abner and the Order want me there. You know that.’

‘I’m sure there must be someone else who could do their dirty-work for them,’ Jezebel complained, ‘and let my baby-girl come home.’

‘That’s quite likely Mama, but no-one can do it like I can. Now, can we get to work here?’

‘Who’ve you brought with you?’ Jezebel beamed her glowing green gaze at me.

‘You remember Benson, don’t you Mama?’

‘Hmm.’ Jezebel gave me the once-over, much as Prissy had given Prudence. ‘Benson Waite. I hear you’ve been mistreating Doreen Hepplethwaite…’

I blinked. ‘“M-mistreating”?’ I stammered. “No. We just had a disagreement, is all.’

Jezebel narrowed her gaze at me and took a long pull on her cigarette. ‘Well that’s not the way I hear it,’ she said with a ring of finality, ashing her smoke on the hallway carpet. She took Prudence by the arm, ‘come along – we have work to do.’

Hunch-shouldered and muttering, fists in my pockets, I shuffled after them.

When I mentioned earlier that Abner had said “word had come from the ether”, I should have been more specific. It was not to imply that auguries had descended from some nebulous outer void; rather, he was talking about the substance, used in earlier times as an anaesthetic, and its effects upon Stan Eliot’s daughter, Constance. Constance was an “exotic”, a member of the Innsmouth community kept hidden from the wider world due to their special natures. How it happened that someone discovered the unusual effects of ether upon Constance, I don’t know, but the results have been a useful community resource ever since.

Entering the parlour in the wake of Jezebel and Prudence, I met the collective gaze of the female aspect of that community: a phalanx of black, floating upon which was a sea of wall-eyed faces above a cacophonous riot of coloured aprons. There was a hushed and outraged murmur rising to the ceiling at which Prudence rolled her eyes and signalled me to take a seat next to her on a rickety chaise.

In the centre of the room an old enamel hip bath stood in the middle of the circular parlour rug. In a circle around this five women sat on dining-table chairs dragged in from the room next door; each of them held a pen or pencil and something upon which to write. The rest of the women stood around the walls of the room, or sat on the parlour chairs, while Prissy and another woman circulated among them with steaming teapots, re-filling cups.

In the bath lay Constance Eliot. She looked young and unwell, but this was mostly a function of her being fish-belly pale. She was wearing a swimming costume from the previous century, including the frilly cap which hid her short-cropped dark hair. From each of the sleeves of this costume protruded three long coiling tentacles, which writhed and slopped in the water, occasionally crawling up the sides of the bath as if independently exploring their surroundings. Although not visible, I knew that, from the waist downwards, Constance was simply a mass of similar appendages, all the same bluish-white hue mottled a light dove-grey, and constantly roaming of their own accord. They don’t come more exotic than Constance Eliot, and her presence was considered a blessing upon the community.

As we watched, Verity Eliot – Stan’s frizzy-haired wife – emerged from one of the inner rooms, walking carefully and carrying a large fruit jar filled to the brim with a pellucid liquid. The sharp, caustic tang of it shot through the room and at once Constance’s lolling head reared up and she began to make incoherent mewling sounds. The five seated women straightened up and began to prepare themselves: one of them, wearing thick-lensed glasses, placed the tips of her fingers against her temples and began muttering; another began rubbing an old, stone Dagon fetish; the rest uncapped pens or smoothed down pages. Verity crouched down carefully next to the hip bath.

‘Yes dear,’ she said, ‘Momma’s here with your magic drink.’

Gently fighting off a wave of grasping tentacles, she tipped Constance’s head back and carefully poured the jar’s contents down her throat, slowly so as to give her time to swallow. When she had finished, she stood and carefully wiped Constance’s face with the edge of her “Kiss the Cook!” apron. Everyone in the room craned forward expectantly.

At first nothing much seemed to happen, although Constance began to slump down lower and lower in the bath. I began to get alarmed that she might start drowning while all of us watched on. I looked nervously at Prudence, but she was busy fixing her lipstick using a mirror compact. When I looked back, Constance’s head was almost completely underwater and still, no-one seemed to be bothered. Around me, muttered conversations and the clinking of teacups continued. I started to rise up from my seat to go to her aid…

Suddenly, the water splashed violently and Constance rocketed upwards out of the bath. Suspended in the air, water running freely off her, she began making burbling sounds as her head lolled about and her limbs shivered and writhed in complex knots around her. To my even greater surprise, no-one else in the room flinched. The gathered witnesses all just put down their drinks and turned to pay attention, as if an invited speaker had just stepped up to the lectern and signalled their intention with a polite cough.

‘Oh good,’ said Prudence next to me snapping her compact shut, ‘that didn’t take long at all.’

The five seated women began scribbling as fast as they could, while Jezebel walked around them and examined their work, occasionally leaning-in to make corrections or clarifications.

‘The salmon are going to be running early this year,’ said the woman with the Dagon fetish, in a distant, dreamy voice. At this, several women cheered and huddled together in excited discussion, resuming their teacups once more.

‘Storms in October,’ said the woman seated across from her, tapping her fountain-pen on her notebook, ‘that’s hardly a surprise Constance. Come on, you can do better than that!’ There were several nods of agreement around the parlour, and Verity craned upwards to whisper encouragement to her daughter.

Jezebel leaned in sharply to look at what the bespectacled woman had written and there was a terse exchange.

‘I don’t know what it means,’ said the woman shrugging, ‘but it came in clear as a bell!’

Jezebel snatched the notepad out of the medium’s hand and held it up. ‘“She wasn’t thinking when she said she thought your dream of becoming a private detective was silly; it just caught her off-guard. She didn’t think you were being serious,”’ she read aloud. She looked carefully around the room: ‘does that mean anything to anyone?’

Unfortunately, it meant an awful lot to me, but I didn’t feel like owning up to it in the midst of all this gathered company. I slumped down on the chaise and tried to make myself invisible.

‘Nobody?’ queried Jezebel as heads shook all around her, ‘alright it must be just random noise. Let’s continue…’

And so it went on, Constance twitching, lightly shrieking and burbling while floating in the air, the five mediums receiving and interpreting the babble, and the scraps of information thrown to the gathered community to be chewed over and discussed. The teapots went round and around.

One of the mediums tentatively raised her hand.

‘Yes, Tabitha?’ Jezebel commanded.

‘Umm, it’s maybe nothing…’ Tabitha responded.

‘Out with it: let us all be the judge of that.’

Tabitha read out her scrawl: ‘“You can tell by the way I usually work, I’m a wanted man, no tiny fork.” No, I think it’s just more noise…’

‘Give it here,’ ordered Jezebel, ‘Beatrice, you and Mabel see if you can make anything of this.’

On the chaise, I was trying not to snigger and wondering how many more of my friends were about to get exposed by Constance’s mojo.

Suddenly Constance stiffened and her head snapped up, staring eyes open and seeing nothing. A pale tongue emerged to lick her lips and she nodded, growling all the while.

‘‘Es,’ she said, ‘‘Essss…’

‘Yes what, dear?’ said Verity at her side.

All of the mediums suddenly jerked into motion some of them screaming. Pens and pencils ground away at tearing paper. Around them Jezebel and the other ladies leapt into action with shoulder rubs and cool compresses, urging them on to action while Constance’s tentacles whipped through the air above them. The woman with the Dagon fetish began to go into spasms and Jezebel rallied her troops.

‘Rebekah’s done, ladies; take her away to lie down.’

At this point, there finally seemed to be something I could help with, so I stood and picked Rebekah up in one smooth movement. Turning to the women backing away from me in surprise, I said: ‘Tell me where you want her, ladies.’

Cowering back from me, they looked to Jezebel for a sign. She gave a terse nod and flicked a finger by way of telling them to carry on. As I followed the women from the room, several of Constance’s tentacles lighted on my face and dragged off as I moved to the hallway. She gave a gurgling laugh as they did so.

The women took me upstairs to a small bedroom on the next storey. Rebekah came out of her fit as I laid her on the bed and she stared upwards blearily at me.

‘It’s you,’ she said weakly ‘you’ll be there when it’s done.’ She fumbled on the bed as the other ladies tried to cover her with a quilt.

‘Take this,’ she said pressing something hard and cold into my hands, ‘you’ll need it for sure.’

I looked down and saw that she’d given me the stone Dagon fetish. It was about the size of a pine-cone and made of greenish-black smooth stone. Its blank eyes and pointed teeth gleamed in the low light. I was drawn back from my examination by one of the ladies, her apron an explosion of red and white hibiscus flowers and lobsters.

‘Git out,’ she ordered, ‘no menfolk needed here.’ I didn’t need to be told twice.

I wandered back downstairs and noted that there seemed to be a degree of excitement coming from the parlour. As I walked in, Tabitha was reading from her notebook:

‘Three men-’

Four men,’ one of the other mediums cut in, consulting her notes. Tabitha rolled her eyes.

‘Three or four men,’ she went on, ‘threaten us in the name of the Black One-’

He Who Comes In Darkness…’ several other women chanted tonelessly.

‘…and they carry his gateway with them, shining in the darkness.’

One of the other mediums stood up lifting her notepad.

Ta Will et Ummer – I’m not really sure of the pronunciation – Constance seems certain that a minion of this being walks cloaked amongst us and is causing us harm.’

Jezebel breathed out a cloud of smoke. ‘Is that French?’ she asked. The medium shrugged.

‘Let’s get that to Abner as soon as possible’

‘What of the black faceless demons?’ queried Tabitha.

‘Um, I'm pretty sure Barney Marsh and I took care of them,’ I interjected.

Jezebel narrowed her eyes at me and stubbed out her smoke on the rim of Constance’s hip bath. Constance was back in the water, seemingly passed out amid the excitement and bustle around her.

‘Alright ladies,’ Jezebel turned to her troops, ‘finish writing up your thoughts and give them to Prudence. She needs to get this information to the Temple quickly.’

There was a rustling of paper as Prudence gathered the transcribed pages into her arms.

‘Right,’ she said, ‘we’ll be off then.’

The women all gave in to a communal sigh of relief and self-congratulation as we left, but I could feel Jezebel’s eyes on my back all the way out to the front porch.

‘Well, that was interesting…’ I shook my shoulders, shuddering, and hopped across the rickety boards after Prudence, who was jingling her car keys.

‘Be impressed,’ she replied, ‘you menfolk don’t often get to be involved in that.’

We were stopped in our tracks by an approaching cry.

‘Benson? Is that you?’

Boothe ran in out of the darkness and stopped, panting, his hands on his knees.

‘What’s happening Boothe?’ I hurried over to him.

‘Trouble. In town,’ he gasped. ‘The Latinos…’

I shot a glance at Prudence.

‘You go,’ she said, throwing her pages into the back seat of the Caprice with a puff of glitter, ‘I’ll get this stuff to the Temple.’

I nodded and Boothe and I raced into the dark…


To Be Continued...

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Deep Waters - Latino Resurgam...

There was no point trying to run into the dark after my vanishing car so, after venting my anger into the night, Barney and I headed back into town, following the old train tracks east towards the sea. In the blackness, slogging through swampy ground, tripping over bent rails and rotting railway sleepers, the tenor of my temper was in no way improved. When we hit that point where the tracks and the main road out of Innsmouth parted company, we switched to the pitted tarmac and trudged the rest of the way back to the Temple of the Esoteric Order.

      We made our report and the Elders seemed content with what we had to say. Afterwards, Barney was tasked with something that would see him head out into the waves while I was let go with a warning to stay nearby in case I was needed again. I slouched off to the Gilman House Hotel, where the distant sound of the disco winding down could be heard on the night breeze.

      Entering the musty foyer I caught my reflection in the age-etched mirrors behind the reception desk. If I’d needed a reminder that I’d just spent several hours tromping my way through a swamp and up a steep hill this was it. I decided to forego the dubious pleasures of descending to the Boathouse where the party was limping through its final phases and just head up to the private room that Winston had arranged.

      The lift gaped wide and vomited me out onto the sixth floor. I stepped out into the sticky-carpeted gloom and it almost seemed like the potted palms to either side craned inwards towards me in an attempt to suck down some fresh atmosphere. I headed towards the deluxe suite at the end of the corridor from behind the door of which something loud and moody was thumping with an over-abundance of bass.

      Suddenly, a door on my left sprang open and Boothe lurched out into the hallway. ‘Uh, hey Benson,’ he droned, pulling the door quickly shut behind him, ‘how’s it going, man?’

       Behind him in the room there was a tinny sound of pop music and the high-pitched giggling of schoolgirls. ‘‘sup Boothe – you having a private party?’

      He grinned at me sheepishly. ‘Summat like that,’ he said, ‘‘m just going to get some more - supplies.’

      ‘Okay dude,’ I said, ‘lead the way: after the evening I’ve had, “supplies” is something I could definitely use.’

      He carefully locked the door behind him and we shuffled through the rotting carpet pile to the door of the suite.

      As we approached, the door opened releasing a wave of Hawkwind’s “Spirit of the Age” to wash over us. Carrying her with it was Prudence Gilman, shrugging into a hip-length white furry jacket over her shimmering disco mini-dress. Seeing us, she stopped and beamed a broad smile at me, idly wiping a streak of white powder away from beneath her nostril. Her lips were bright red and glossy, her eyes heavily shadowed in blue with extra-long lashes and her bouffant hair shimmered. She sashayed sideways on her platforms as Boothe slinked through the open door.

      ‘Why, Benson Waite,’ she said, throwing a long arm over my shoulder, ‘I was wondering when a real man would be joining this shindig.’

      ‘Hey Prudence,’ I smiled, ‘you talk to like that to all the high-school seniors you meet?’

      ‘Only the good-looking ones,’ she purred, smiling to show all her pointed teeth. ‘Are you heading on into this Dutch oven or do you wanna come with me?’

      ‘Where you headed?’

      ‘Ol’ Abner wants me to run an errand for him.’

      ‘Let me guess,’ I said, ‘something to do with the Drowners? I’ve already been trekking through the wilderness for him on the same duty.’

      ‘Then you’re all up to speed,’ she said, slipping her arm through mine and turning me to walk back towards the lift. ‘All he wants me to do is to head out to the Eliot place and see if anything else has come through the ether.’

      We caught the lift back down to the lobby and stepped out into the moody atmosphere. At once, I steered Prudence behind some limp greenery.

      ‘Why so pushy?’ she smiled.

      I nodded towards the entrance. On the far side of the glass doors stood a guy peering into the gloom, his hands making spectacles against the glass. I’d recognised instantly the flared polyester pants and the shiny shirt – it was the boss Latino from Newburyport, and his presence here signalled no good thing. On the street behind him at the base of the stairs a long car loitered by the kerb with the Latino’s two buddies standing next to it; I saw no sign of the big guy, but it was even money that he’d be somewhere in the neighbourhood.

      ‘Who’s that?’ Prudence asked.

      ‘Not someone we particularly want to run into,’ I said.

      As we watched, the head Latino turned around and signalled to his friends to circle around the building; he did likewise, heading in the opposite direction. I watched the other two on the street: they were walking close together – a bit too close really – and they lurched rather than strode, like they were taking part in a three-legged race. Then a flash caught my eye: The head Latino stopped on the sidewalk briefly, looking left and right; as he smoothed down his nightmarish shirt and slipped a pistol in his belt at the base of his spine, a flicker of light beamed out from what appeared to be a hole in the fabric, shining silver up the stairs. Then he turned right and skulked away.

      ‘Looks like they’ve gone,’ said Prudence, ‘shall we go?’

      I nodded, and we slinked across the dead carpet to the doors.

      ‘Where’s your car?’ I said peering out into the night.

      ‘Where’s yours?’ she responded.

      ‘AWOL,’ I growled, ‘I’m currently without wheels.’

      Prudence dug in her purse and pulled out a set of keys, jangling on the end of a tiny glitter ball. ‘I’m over there,’ she said, placing a finger on the glass, ‘on the other side of the square.’

      ‘Right, then’ I said, ‘let’s go, quick and quiet.’

      She slid her stacked heels off and slipped her hands through the straps to grab her purse. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘but I’m going to want to hear all about it.’

     We moved smoothly through the doors and down the stairs to the sidewalk. I manoeuvred us around the Latinos’ Lincoln Continental and angled towards Prudence’s Chevrolet Caprice and thought we were doing fairly well until the sound of rending metal broke upon the night.

      Spinning around, I pulled Prudence behind me and stared. The rear passenger’s-side door of the car had blown off and the chassis screamed as – something – burst its way out on to the street, bellowing as it did so. Tyres burst beneath its bulk and the car’s roof pitched over and onto the stairs of the Gilman House like a trifling annoyance.

      The entity behind this mayhem was a mound of hideous flesh that quivered and moved like soap bubbles erupting up out of the base matter. With each bubble that rose up from its centre, it put on more shuddering, gelid mass. There was a distorted - but familiar - face, a mask of towering rage that floated atop this bulk and this – along with some shreds of garish polyester – signalled to me that the Latino’s muscle had seen us and wasn’t too happy about that.

      ‘What the Hell is that?’ yelled Prudence.

      ‘No idea,’ I responded, ‘try to get to the car.’

      The brute reached down to the wreck of the Continental and tore off the front side panel. This it lifted up towards the night sky and bellowed a battle cry before slamming it down, like a makeshift club, sparking on the tarmac. Its shiny, veined flesh swelled up even more, domes of the rancid skin boiling up across its hide.

      ‘Screw this,’ I said.

      Suddenly, a shot rang out from behind me and a portion of the horror that might once have been its shoulder burst wetly, like a brick dropping into a pond. The creature screamed and dropped the panel, clutching at its wound, its flesh running like soup through its fingers. I turned my head to see Prudence standing next to her Caprice, the front door open, a pistol in both her hands.

      ‘Come on,’ she called, ‘while it’s distracted.’

     I needed no further encouragement but, if I did, it came in the form a bullet ricocheting off the twisted remains of the Lincoln. Obviously, the big guy’s friends had heard the ruckus and were coming to his assistance. A few more shots rang out before I landed in the back seat of Prudence’s car. Without waiting for me to close the door, she gunned the engine and we took off like a startled rabbit, across the Manuxet and into the dark…


To Be Continued...

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Blades In The Dark...

I’ve been a little bit distracted lately, so I haven’t been posting as much as usual. I’ve been without a gaming crowd for close on 10 years now and I’ve been missing it quite badly, so when some friends asked if I wanted to try out a new game with them, I jumped at the chance.

The game is called “Blades in the Dark”, written by John Harper and produced via Kickstarter by Evil Hat Productions. There is a free quick-start .pdf version running around, which contains just enough information to commence mayhem in a limited fashion and I’ve been devouring it steadily (the game itself isn’t available through normal channels as yet).

Serendipitously – as far as my mentioning it here is concerned – the major influence on this game is Fritz Leiber’s series of short stories and novellae, set in Lankhmar on the world of Nehwon and starring that dynamic duo, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The added input from one of the Lovecraft Circle is just icing on the cake for me!

Not that the game itself is set in Leiber’s fantasy milieu. The setting is more of a steampunk one, in a city called Duskwall, on a world existing through a post-magical calamity, trying to cope by using low-grade electronics and steam technology. Ghosts and demons are a common problem but the major storylines are generated by gangs of street thugs, trying to grab (and hold) turf, and trying to skate beneath the gaze of the Authorities. Here is where the influence of Leiber is at its strongest.

The players generate characters and incorporate them in a “crew”. For however many individuals make up this gang, the crew is the +1 character that binds the players together: as the individuals gain experience and wealth, so too does the collective entity which binds them together, allowing them greater capability, notoriety and advantages. Much of what happens amongst the players, is a matter of discussion about what’s best for the whole and planning and strategising focuses on this aspect. For this reason alone, I’m quite excited about getting into this game – a system which dispenses with the ‘kill and collect’ mentality and puts storytelling front and centre has much to recommend it, as far as I’m concerned.

On top of which there are canals with gondolas, corrupt officials, decadent Emperors, Thieves’ Guilds, ocean-dwelling Leviathans and hungry ghosts. How can I resist? If you need to know where I am, I’ll be out in the dark with my blades. I may be some time…

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Review: "American Gods"

FULLER, Bryan, & Michael GREEN, “American Gods”, Fremantle Media North America, 2017.

We live in a world which celebrates the rise of Homo economicus, the capitalist human. We have been taught to fear the monetarily unquantifiable - that which cannot be reduced to a bunch of digits preceded by a dollar sign. An offer of assistance, an act of charity, the preservation of a wilderness area, or the saving of a single animal species – none of this is considered economically viable and our leaders shy away from such things instinctively and as an act of policy. Communities turn into wastelands as absentee slum-lords raise rents and turn villages into negatively-geared ghost towns; property developers are regularly escorted away from speculating on school playgrounds. 90% of the world’s wealth is held by only 10% of the population and it is they who regularly instruct us to behave just like them, to blame the poor for their multifarious problems, the homeless for not having houses, when the merest shift in government economics, or a rate increase, was the act which proved how tissue-thin is the security which we call ‘home’.

What “American Gods” is predicated upon, is the notion that the world’s deities have arrived in the New World on the coat-tails of the faithful and have languished, as faith – the power which keeps them real – falls by the wayside. In the canon of fantasy writing, this is not such a new concept, and it fails absolutely to factor in a major point: America already has a God – the Greenback; the Sawbuck; the Benjamin. Specifically, money.

I read a lot of journalistic hyperbole about how shocking and fresh this series is and, having finally come to it, I find it’s both pointless and dull. There was a time when Neil Gaiman was a name to conjure with, but folks, his time has passed. If nothing else proves that he has lost his grip, it’s this vehicle. In between the sordid frippery of this show, there’s some indulgent musing about how “America doesn’t know what she is” but, in the full-flight of Trump’s “AmeriKKKa” we can positively claim that assertion to be a fallacy. The US knows exactly what it wants and Gaiman’s relevance to that goal is non-existent.

This is not to belittle any of Gaiman’s other work. When he roared out of the darkness in the 1980s, he was able to savage Thatcher’s Britain like no-one else, with major works like “Neverwhere” and with his work in “Constantine: Hellblazer” – I will always champion the genius which is the standalone issue of that series entitled “Hold Me”. However, there comes a point in success where the author starts to sniff what they’ve been shovelling and things go off the rails – it happened to Stephen King; it’s happened to Alan Moore; it’s happened to Neil Gaiman. Once able to make us guffaw out loud with the magic that was Good Omens, now we get “American Gods”.

The issues abounding on this show fall into two halves – the concept, which I’ve touched upon above, and the production which, despite involving Gaiman as Executive Producer (along with six other guys), cannot strictly be laid at his door. In terms of production quality, this show feels like yet another series of “Supernatural” circa Season One, when it was grittier and darker without the later teen-appeal. On top of this, the violence and sex has been dialled up to 11 which, I have to say, leaves me bored and queasy by turns. The action sequences obviously involve people off-screen tossing buckets of red paint about and the infamous sex-scene with the ‘Love Goddess’, Bilquis, is just old hat: come on people – have none of you seen “The Kingdom”? In fact the nudity is just curious: there’s the odd bared nipple, but female anatomy seems to be coyly obscured or hinted at, while we’re subjected to rampant boners at every turn. It’s like there was a lunchtime meeting of the producers where the waiter said “do you want extra cock with that?” and there was an overly enthusiastic response.

Added to this, the repeated scenes of cows being clubbed or bolted to death in episode two, I have to say this show is not going to rate highly with me. The first thing I do when this happens is check the animal cruelty disclaimer, mainly to see if there is one. Even with that though, the producers get around this by saying, “these animals are going to be killed anyway, so it’s just a touch of documentary filming in the midst of the story”. No. It’s pornography. It’s snuff filming. Yes, a lot of people on this planet need to get over themselves and learn where their food comes from, but this isn’t the vehicle in which to educate them about that. Allow fellow creatures the dignity of their deaths, as you would like to be allowed the dignity of your own. And what about the actors who are being asked to do these things, to participate in these acts? Again, it’s the capitalist principle at work – strip off and take part in an extended no-holds-barred sex-scene, walk around with your dick at full-mast, club a cow to death with a sledge-hammer, otherwise we’ll find someone even less principled who’ll step in. There’s no shortage of people out there willing to prostitute themselves.

The language is confronting as well, which never sits well with me. The writers seem Hell-bent on throwing every four-letter word that they can think of at the viewer and often it’s just for the sake of the effect. At other times it works – as when the spider-god Anansi talks to the slaves on the Dutch slaving ship (although, this whole scene also seems like an extended advert for Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which, as obvious promotional material, cuts it off at the knees from the get-go). The concept extends to every part of the film where everyone seems dribbling in an effort to degrade every sacred cow that they can get their mitts on – Gillian Anderson was great as the deity Media, fronting-up as Lucille Ball, but they lost me the moment she offered “to get her tits out”. And the character of Mad Sweeney seems to be just a stereotypical excuse to get as much profanity in the script as possible. In fact, against the background of all this twisted concept-work and foul-mouthed, death-fetishist, soft pornography, the only character that comes across as remotely sympathetic is our protagonist Shadow Moon.

(As an aside, Neil Gaiman has always had a tendency to try and show off how much he knows in what he produces. That’s fine, but when it amounts to second-string characters dropping terms like Lex Talionis, or Shadow Moon referencing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” after almost being lynched, I find myself rolling my eyes quite a bit. Yes, these sidelong references allow us to join the dots, but it’s already clear from the context and doesn’t need this underlining. It’s TV, Mr. Clever-clever – show us, don’t tell us.)

In short, this show has been rolled over by the true gods of the money-machine, packaged, pre-chewed and drained of all of its poison. It’s spectacle – bread and circuses – and it’s doing the job of stopping outrage, killing protest and soothing the masses. Give us erections and blood-baths and we’ll give you our hard-earned cash. On top of all this, the money vortex has clearly sucked Gaiman into its maw and drained him of all potential – I hope he enjoys rolling around on his pile of cash. If you have to watch your television and you want to watch something that speaks to our world and comments on our society, watch “The Handmaid’s Tale”, or even “Preacher”, which actually says something about the nature of faith – this show is simply distracting you from the urgency about us.

Homo economicus are killing us along with our planet; they want to reduce everything to coinage; to dismay and distract any opposition; they want to play golf while cities collapse in ignorance, destitution and violence. They’re out there and they walk amongst us, in our governments and our council offices. You can spot them because of their rampant greed and their ability to rationalise everyone around them – the elderly, the poor, the homeless and abandoned – to a point where they’re an inconvenience, or an obstacle to be moved, or ignored. They will reduce us all to numbers in the end: the sale price for the Statue of Liberty after it gets sold off for scrap metal and the development opportunities generated by raising a shining beacon to the “smart money” at Grenfell Tower…