Review – Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales from Beyond

Please be aware that you may encounter spoilers in these reviews.
Also note that the film and book reviews posted between 11/13 and 11/30 appeared previously (in shorter, often unedited forms) on Goodreads and Whippoorwill Hollow.  I have updated links within reviews whenever necessary. New reviews begin on 12/10/15. Thanks for reading!



Resonator
, from Martian Migraine Press, is an anthology of Mythos fiction that draws its title from the machine built by Lovecraft’s character, Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond. Its function was to “break down the barriers” between our world and those that exist “at our very elbows.”

touchme500
from Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986)

Scott R. Jones does a nice job of summarizing the general focus of the collection in an introduction entitled, “Magic Circles, Noxious Machines.” Here’s a quote from that:
“Everything is either corruptible or corrupted, and those with the eyes to see that corruption will see it. And once it is seen, it cannot be unseen.”
All of the stories in the anthology employ a version of the Tillinghast Resonator in some way (From Beyond is included in the book, as well), and it was interesting to see the variations on it from story to story. While the focus on such a specific object, the Resonator itself, or even the larger trope of a “thinly veiled reality” might seem to ask for a load of pastiche or, at least, only slight variations on the same ol’ story, that doesn’t happen with this collection.

A few of my favorites:

“Infernal Attractors” by Cody Goodfellow
At first blush, this story appears guilty of that mimicry/pastiche mentioned above. I know that when I began describing it to a friend, that was the reaction that I got. It does have some of the standard From Beyond dressing: flipping the switch, amoeba-like things floating and biting, the reckless pursuit of knowledge; however, it takes those familiar images and turns the spectatorship inward a bit, towards addiction and, ultimately, identity. I liked it and appreciated the way sexuality was employed in this tale for a change (Since Stuart Gordon’s movie, the pineal gland can be the source of all sorts of sexy silliness). And, to be completely honest here, I got a real kick out of seeing the term “teledildonics” in print for the first time since….hell, grad school. My antennae perked-up at that and I enjoyed the cybersexual/VR implications that term carries with it.  My old Harraway/po-mo tendencies may have made my reading of the story a little rosy; regardless, it’s a sound piece of Weird fiction, and I think most Lovecraftians who appreciate the original story, Gordon’s movie, and new Mythos works will, too.

“Turbulence” by Scott R. Jones –
This story is intensely creepy in its “practicality.” And if you’ve ever worked in/with the military in any capacity or are connected in some way with folks who “do their duty,” you might understand what I mean by that. If you don’t, it’s probably for the best, and I don’t know how to say a lot about this piece without giving too much away or dampening its truly unsettling effect. I will say that the visuals are chilling, and the author has a real knack for description. I actually heard this story a while ago on one of my favorite podcasts (Pseudopod) and was pleased to see it included in the group of tales. I hadn’t realized at the time of hearing it that it was Scott R. Jones; I just knew I liked it a lot. Here’s a link if you’d like to listen to the story (free access).

“The Wizard of OK” by Scott Nicolay –
Nicolay’s tale incorporates the concept of the “invisible magic circle” present, arguably, in the original tale and mentioned by Jones in his introduction. It has a much more insidious function, it seems, than in some other stories since it is at the heart of a sacrificial Chaos ritual by Mortuus. And rather than an over-reaching scientist, its main character is a deeply, deeply flawed victim of circumstance. For me, that quality heightens the horrific effect of the final few paragraphs. I’m not sure everyone will find these characters sympathetic, but the sense of desolation rang true for me and was consistent throughout. Additionally, this story isn’t alone in the collection in its poignancy; “Professor Hilliard’s Electric Lantern” also dwells on the more emotional consequences of tinkering with the “forbidden.”

As an aside, if you’re not familiar with the branch of the Mythos dedicated to various magical disciplines and occult practices (both the “real” and fictional), it’s worth some exploration. Despite HPL’s own atheism and Materialism, it’s a lively and fertile realm—one that I really enjoy despite my own frustrated agnosticism. Eugene Thacker does a brief reading of From Beyond in his In the Dust of this Planet that is worth checking out if you have the time and opportunity.

“Programmed to Receive” by Orrin Grey is also notable. I enjoy Grey’s work a lot, as well, though (again, one of my personal quirks) the use of the present tense threw me off a bit. If it has that same effect on you, just stick with it. It’s certainly worth it.

“IPO” by Darrin Brightman isn’t really a narrative as much as a collection of ephemera that works towards constructing a story. I’ve seen this “series of documents” approach in a few places recently: Laird Barron has a piece of short fiction structured like this, if memory serves, in a recent anthology; I’ve seen an “email” story and even an “IM” tale, as well, in the past few weeks. It’s not necessarily something “new” (hey, the epistolary novel has been around a while), but it’s not always enjoyed by everyone. If you don’t care for non-standard structure, just be aware that it’s first in the collection.

I feel fairly comfortable with saying that are no “bad” stories in the anthology—simply ones that weren’t of interest to me for one reason or another. I definitely recommend this anthology to Mythos Fiction fans and lovers of the Weird Fiction Horror subgenre.

Review: Jazz Age Cthulhu

Please be aware that you may encounter spoilers in these reviews.
Also note that the film and book reviews posted between 11/13 and 11/30 appeared previously (in shorter, often unedited forms) on Goodreads and Whippoorwill Hollow.  I have updated links within reviews whenever necessary. New reviews begin on 12/10/15. Thanks for reading!

Jazz Age Cthulhu is a collection of short fiction—three novelettes, actually—published by Innsmouth Free Press in 2014.  It offers some excellent examples of new Mythos fiction and avoids the dreaded sin of “pastiche.” I’ve found myself suggesting it when I get those “Hey, where do I start with this newer stuff?” asks on the other blog. The options for readers can be a little overwhelming (in a good way), so I like being able to comfortably point folks to specific publishers, authors, and works that seem to foster a love for this type of Weird while sustaining and expanding the Mythos into all sorts of new (and hopefully more dynamic/inclusive) directions.

I. Dreams of a Thousand Young

The first story in the collection, “Dreams of a Thousand Young,” is by Jennifer Brozek. Reading it brought to mind watching old movies with my mother when I was a kid—The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, those sorts of films. I wouldn’t label it Noir, obviously, but it benefits quite a bit from flirting with its aesthetics. And while “action” is not really what comes to mind when one thinks about traditional Lovecraftian Horror (it’s more about the atmosphere, you know, and those reticent, bookish protagonists…and…fainting), the story mingles “identity intrigue” with cult conspiracy to meet the contemporary expectation that a story move along at a certain clip.

It also features a few moments of tension rooted in post-colonialism that demonstrate the sort of self-awareness that I hope to see in most new Mythos works of this sort (generally speaking). I was a little concerned when it took what I thought—at first—to be a ‘typical’ (i.e., “old guard”) turn when the villains were revealed, but I was more than happy with all of the twists by the end. Helen is a fun protagonist and, for me at least, demonstrates something a bit closer to what I mean when I say I’d like to see “strong women” characters in my Horror. She’s not quite as developed as she could be, but she could easily shoulder an entire collection of stories or a novel.

Finally, I’m a sucker for anything that features Shubby and/or the Dark Young. I love that hungry mother-god and her offspring and hope to see much more fiction dedicated to them in the coming years.

II. The Lesser Keys

Orrin Grey’s “The Lesser Keys” was my favorite of the three works, and I’ll try not to give too much of it away here since I find it difficult to summarize without doing so. Grey’s an excellent storyteller and definitely has a cinematic eye for detail that many authors don’t. His stories tend to be deceptively simple yet layered and infinitely “un-packable,” analytically speaking. I left this story wanting more of its characters, as well; Jasper and Caroline are interesting and full of potential. And the plantonic nature of the start of their relationship is a breath of fresh air. I’m a big fan of dethroning romance as the go-to plot crutch across the board.

Finally, I enjoyed the use of the Seals of Solomon and the “magic circle” (see Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet for an excellent theoretical exploration of that trope) as part of the Occult background in this world of zombie musicians and demon aided racketeers Grey’s created. Sometimes Hoodoo seems to be tossed into the mix in Horror films and fiction, often as a last minute bit of twangy ornament or, more insidiously, to hook into  cheap-n-easy prejudices/fears of  poor, rural communities and cultures among readers and viewers. Grey did a nice job of avoiding that while respectfully interweaving the use of the Seals and resisting too much explanation of the machinations behind the magick. That’s usually my biggest pet peeve with works that attempt to incorporate folk practices. The story’s a nice example the good things that can happen when the “veil” is left (for the most part) in place.

Here’s a link to Carolina Conjure‘s article on the Seals.

III. Pomptinia Sum

The third novellette, “Pomptinia Sum” by A.D. Cahill, draws heavily upon atmosphere and voice for its nicely Weird effect. I found reading it less enjoyable than the other two pieces, though I acknowledge that response is highly subjective; I have a pet peeve about shifting points of view in short works. It’s not as much of an issue in novels, but when point of view shifts a few times in relatively quick succession, I catch myself skimming the surface of a world rather than seeing or feeling it. I re-started the story a couple of times just in case it was my mood at work but had the same reaction.

I will say, however, that the piece features a couple of truly creepy and unsettling scenes. Had I been more invested in the characters, they would have left an even stronger, even more chilling impression since it succeeds in evoking feelings of both familiarity and strangeness simultaneously—the definition of the Uncanny. It’s a strong piece of short fiction, overall, and I have no doubt that most readers (i.e., folks without my oddball, readerly quirks) will really enjoy it.

I think that I should mention, at least in passing, that this is not the Cosmic Horror of Ligotti; it’s not the brutal Nature Mythos you’ll find in some of Laird Barron’s work. Even so, it’s solid Weird Fiction, and I believe there’s room enough in the genre for those soul-crushing treatises on the futility of human existence and lighter, playfully mysterious tales like those featured in this collection. The movement towards a greater diversity of style, tone, and voice will only add greater depth to this fictional realm in the long run.

Obviously, I recommend Jazz Age Cthulhu to fans of the Cthulhu Mythos and genre fiction—particularly those looking for a spot to begin their exploration of newer Mythos works.

Lovecraft and Cosmicism

This post originated as a response to a request for Lovecraftian Horror movie suggestions on the other blog. I’m including here as what will be an ever-expanding list of Cosmic Horror and the Weird on film.

This is a notoriously frustrating subject….with a few great exceptions. I’ll try to highlight those and direct readers to additional resources they might explore.

image

from In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Note:  I’ve taken the opportunity to combine a couple of previous posts with the content written for this response, so this is lengthy. I just wanted to everything in one spot. Hope it’s useful to someone!

There is a quality to Lovecraft’s work that often defies visual representation, and part of what makes Weird Fiction weird is that it “veils,” or doesn’t show too much…it relies on atmosphere and dread to generate fear. The reader is intended to “do the work,” so when revealed on screen his monsters often tend to look a bit, well, goofy or, worse, directors overcompensate the inability to capture the horror from the stories by shoveling-in sex and gore.

A lot of the films I’ve listed here, for that reason, are “Lovecraftian” rather than direct adaptations. I think it was Kenneth Hite (?) I heard say once that one of the best Lovecraftian films he’s seen includes no characters or ideas from the Mythos–The Thing (the original, not the one of which we never speak). I will, however, include adaptations, of course. **I’ll put asterisks next to the titles that are adaptations or that, at least, are recognizably based-upon one of Lovecraft’s works.

image

    First, here are a few “top” recommendations plucked out of the long list. I figure it’s pretty overwhelming, so this might be a good place to begin.

The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness make up what Carpenter refers to as “The Apocalypse Trilogy.” See the excellent article from Strange Horizons for more on the Trilogy and Lovecraft’s influences on Carpenter, linked here.  If there’s one of them you have not seen, go watch it now. Go.  🙂

  • The Thing (1982)
  • Prince of Darkness (1987)
  • In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Also the following are among my favorites out of the longer list below and highly-recommended:

Check out Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008); it’s a nice documentary on the author.

image

************************************************

Film List, combined:

  • Absentia (2011)—if you haven’t had the opportunity to view this film, please do. It is definitely Lovecraftian in its atmosphere and tension reliant upon setting/“external” reality, its invocation of mythology, the existence of a “world beneath or just outside,” as well as its unhappy ending.
  • The Banshee Chapter (2013)—a fantastic sort of variation on the Resonator–tons of creepy atmosphere and “veiled” horror.
  • The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)**
  • The Corridor (2012)—I wobble a bit when categorizing this as Lovecraftian; I would certainly place it in the realm of the Weird, and it’s a good movie.
  • The Mist (2007)—based on the King novel, of course, I have always believed this to be an underrated film; it is one of his most Lovecraftian stories, and it has been adapted wonderfully to film. The best monster in the bunch, in my opinion, is the tentacled creature that we never actually see in full–that big, lumbering fellow.
  • Yellowbrick Road (2010)—90 percent of this film is a wonderful representation (albeit a low-budget one) of what can be done with Cosmic horror; the final 10 percent left me cursing at the screen, but you can judge for yourself.
  • The Burrowers (2008)—excellent horror movie, in my opinion, though I want to shake the creators for showing the monsters so clearly towards the end. If they’d left them almost/partially unseen, it would have been perfectly Weird and utterly terrifying.
  • The Shrine (2010)—this is another film I really like that I think is a tad underrated. It’s not perfect by any means, and I wish they wouldn’t have “explained” so much, but the premise is fantastic and it has some genuinely scary parts.
  • The Curse (1987)**this is a Wil Wheaton film, and thanks to a follower a few weeks ago, I learned that there are several more (terrible) adaptations in this line of movies. For instance, The Curse II is an adaptation of The Curse of Yig(don’t watch it or any of the rest of them).
  • Wishmaster (1997)—the quality of this isn’t that high, but I’ve always liked it, particularly the beginning. There are many Lovecraftian punishments meted-out just in the first 7 minutes alone.
image

from Wishmaster (1997)

  • Monsters (2010)—I catch a little grief for liking this movie as much as I do. I confess that I love it, however, primarily for the giant, glowing, tentacled mating-aliens-at-a-gas-station scene. How great is that?
  • The Objective (2008)such a great movie; be warned, though, that its setting is Afganistan and includes all of the trappings of War. I’m not a fan, usually, of that type of movie, but this is well worth tolerating the guns and silly machismo to get to the fascinating integration of myth and Weirdness.
  • Jeepers Creepers (2001)—this is one of my favorite horror movies (Lovecraftian and otherwise). I love that it’s a brother/sister team and that the film isn’t propped-up on a sexual/romantic subplot that has little to do with the actual story, that it presents a “new” and truly weird sort of creature, that it introduces the monster without making it entirely “supernatural” or “religious”/occult, and that we don’t know all that much more about it by the end of the movie than at the beginning.
image

from Jeepers Creepers (2001)

  • Die Farbe (2010)**—this is a good adaptation of The Colour Out of Space, though many details of the setting and plot are changed. It’s still recognizable as the story.
  • Europa Report (2013)—a friend recommended I watch this, and I was ready to strangle her until the very last portion of the thing. I’m not sure if it’s worth the creature “payoff” to sit-through the tedious first part, but it does have an interesting ending.
  • Event Horizon (1997)—I think I’ve talked enough about this movie on this blog. 🙂
  • H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House (2005)**—a Stuart Gordon adaptation. It’s pretty bad, but if you want to be thorough, it’s a necessary watch.
  • Re-Animator (1985)**—Stuart Gordon; this film has a huge cult following, particularly among Lovecraftians. I’ve never cared for it, but many adore it. It’s a decent adaptation of Herbert West—Reanimator that takes many liberties.The sexual content is a bit over the top (especially compared to the story), so be aware of its presence.
  • From Beyond (1986)**—Stuart Gordon; adaptation of the story with the same name. I like this Gordon film, though it drips with (non-Lovecraftian) sex, as well. I heard, though, an argument made (somewhere) regarding the pituitary gland and sexual response; the individual claimed it reasonable to expect heightened sex-drive if the gland were stimulated by the Resonator… so there’s that.
  • Dagon (2001)**—Stuart Gordon; this is actually The Shadow Over Innsmouth…or something close to it, at least. Closer to that than Dagon, that’s for certain.
  • Castle Freak (1995)**—Stuart Gordon; I love that the wiki article describes this as “slightly based” on the story, The Outsider. 
  • The Dunwich Horror (1970)**—this is a Roger Corman film and, as my family back home would say, “hokey as all get out.” It is a B-movie adaptation of the story and stars Dean Stockwell. I think another version was done recently that had him in it, as well. It’s necessary viewing, though, if you’re working through the movie side of this stuff.
  • Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)—more of a Blackwood-through-HPL-back to Blackwood vibe to this, though it is in this way that del Toro snags the opportunity to introduce younger viewers/readers to Algernon Blackwood’s tales.
  • The Last Winter (2006)another movie that I seem to love but that others don’t (anyone?); I will just say this about it: Wendigo…and not the cannibal version but the Blackwood-esque, “vengeful spirit of bitter cold Nature” Wendigo.
  • The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007)this is a film about a man who is murdered each day and then enters a new reality the next. It’s a bit flawed here and there, but it is an interesting premise and I enjoyed it overall.
  • Cool Air (1999)**—I still haven’t seen this one!
  • Rare Exports (2010)–a Lovecraftian Christmas featuring a giant, monster Santa Claus.
  • The Unnamable (1988)**this is pretty bad, but it is based loosely on the story with the same name and integrates a few regular people/aspects from HPL’s fiction.
  • Lurking Fear (1994)**also very bad; it is loosely based on The Lurking Fear…you have to squint to recognize it, honestly.
  • The Haunted Palace (1963)**—this is based on the plot of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and stars Vincent Price; again, a lot of liberties, of course, but it’s fun to watch and, well, Vincent Price.

At the Borders/New Weird: 

  • The Damned Thing (Masters of Horror, 2006)—this is very, very loosely based upon theAmbrose Bierce story by the same name.
  • Cigarette Burns (Masters of Horror, 2005)—I have a soft spot for this film by John Carpenter; it focuses on a movie so terrifying that it alters reality/dooms the viewer. Check out a younger Norman Reedus in it, as well.
  • Dead Birds (2004)—This is actually really close in “feel,” story line, and setting to Robert E. Howard’s story Pigeons from Hell; it’s not a direct adaptation but it retains the spirit and general story…and it’s truly creepy.
  • Kill List (2014)—this was another recommendation that didn’t pay off until the final portion. In this case, though, it is worth suffering through all of the (to me) boring hitman/gun-shooting nonsense to get to the great creepy, cultish ending.
  • Midnight Meat Train (2008)—The story by Clive Barker (you can find it in The Books of Blood, Vol. 1) is definitely Lovecraftian; the film adaptation is just over the line, I think, due to gore. It’s still fun to watch; I recommend it.
  • Grabbers (2012)—humor, alcohol, and bizarre creatures from the sea/outer space; I love this movie and love the monsters in it.
  • Frailty (2001)—I used to use this movie when I taught courses in Critical Thinking, specifically in the chapter dedicated to “Perceptions and Belief.” Watched through one lens, it’s a story about child abuse and the brutal making of a serial killing family. Watched through the lens of belief, it’s a story about sin, connections to a higher power, and “avenging angels.” Matthew McConaughey’s presence doesn’t hurt matters either.
  • Jacob’s Ladder (1990)—another great movie about “reality,” memory, and what guilt, in particular, can do to the way we engage the world around us.
image

from Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

  • The Ruins (2008)based on the novel with the same name by Scott Smith, this involves the enormous egos of young American tourists, an “untouchable”/ “unspeakable” horror quarantined on and around Mayan Ruins, and some really smart, murderous vegetation. Lots of body horror and blood in this movie.

This is all terribly, terribly incomplete, I realize, even at this length, and there are a few sites that explore Lovecraftian film in depth or at least to some degree worth mentioning.

Here are a few of those:

  • Unflimable doesn’t update as much as it used to, but the older content is excellent.
  • Mike Davis (Lovecraft eZine) has a nice list going that I’ve seen him update from time to time. Here’s the link to that.
  • The HPLovecraft site maintained by Donovan K. Loucks has a short list that contains mostly older “classics” like The Crimson Cult (1968) and Die, Monster, Die! (1965), with a few mentions of movies from more recent times.
  • The wiki entry on this topic is a bit shaky, at best. Many of the films on the list are not adaptations of works by HPL, though many of them are decently Lovecraftian in mood, content, and stylistic approach. Maybe it’s a picky distinction, but I think it’s misleading to say all of them are based on stories.  Here’s the link.
  • Finally, here’s a link to the HPL Film Festival and Cthulhucon. It includes dates, locations, as well as movie information.