The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985) is a Rankin & Bass adaptation of the 1902 L. Frank Baum children’s book, and it is superbly Weird.

Here’s a link to a short article on the film from Odeon Review and one from Comics Alliance, where Chris Sims offers a summary/review with so much enthusiasm that I almost caught a moment of spirit while reading it:

“[I]t is awesome. And it definitely tells you a lot about Santa Claus, like how he was weaned on the milk of a lioness, raised by immortals who taught him to speak the language of birds, and learned of man’s inhumanity to man by being astrally projected to Japan to watch children train to kill each other as samurai.”

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Almost.
It is one of the few films from our fairly limited selection of “Holiday Weird/Holiday Horror” options that I can comfortably recommend, and I think it’s my favorite of the Rankin & Bass holiday specials.

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The book by L. Frank Baum is in the public domain and can be read here (pdf). There’s also a recent re-telling of the tale by Kelli Ripatti from Compass Media that features some fantastic artwork by Ivica Stevanovic.

Here is Stevanovic’s depiction of the evil Awgwas:

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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.”

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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.

Review: Ghost Road Blues

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!

I read Jonathan Maberry‘s novel, Ghost Road Blues, mostly out of curiosity after hearing how much a friend enjoys the author’s work in Horror and in the world of (Marvel) comics. I’m not sure I would have picked it up otherwise; all in all, however, I’m glad to have found my way to Pine Deep.

Ghost Road Blues is a fun, fast read: it’s very light, to the point that it feels somewhat “optimistic” at times (and that feels really strange to write). Of course, that interpretation’s probably more related to the stuff I usually read, as well as to my own personal take on things, than the story itself. I never thought that it wouldn’t end with some form of a happy ending, and that’s definitely not something I expect (anywhere, much less in my Horror). The happy ending path works fine for these characters and in this tale, and it all remains just this side of too sugary for me.

While I’m not quite sure I was ever completely sold on the “ancient evil” aspect of this story while reading, it is still a lot of fun to watch play its part in the story play out. There are also some very familiar good guy/bad guy crime tropes mingled-in with the typical Horror ones. That gives the tale  a comfortably familiar feeling for me—in that “I’m going home, putting on my pajamas, and turning on the Law and Order marathon” kind of way that I enjoy sometimes after a rough day. It’s the kind of familiarity almost ensured by the “good/evil” construct, and when that construct works, there’s not too much to dislike about it.

Some of the events in the story continue to strike me as fragmentary. Additionally, some details felt unnecessary or, at least, strained at this starting point in the series. The inclusion of some intensely racist language and race-centered violence without a fully-developed context in which to situate it had me scratching my head a bit. I find that scenes like that are often used in order to quickly establish historical, cultural, situational, and/or relational contexts. In many instances, they evoke anger in the (rational, I guess) reader towards specific characters and towards the systemic racism of a specific place or time, create a sense of desolation and loss, of frustration, learned helplessness, etc. This is set in rural PA, not the deep South.

I know—racism is ubiquitous when we’re talking about the U.S. and is, sadly, trans-historical, as well, but even considering Pine Deep’s “rural” qualities (although it’s also referred to as an “art town”?) it all felt a little disjointed, oversimplified, and a bit gratuitous (i.e., seeking to shock for shocking’s sake). I understand that Pine Deep is intended, in some way, to at least draw upon Maberry’s own upbringing in Kensington (see this Wild River View article), and I think those personal roots do contribute to a real sense of “place” to Pine Deep, but I don’t think a reader should need to know Maberry’s background in order to make full sense of the story’s context. It’s something that should, if learned later, add even more depth…but not be required for it ring true.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on that aspect of it, but it puzzled me when I encountered it, so I’m mentioning it here. I suspect that’s why a few folks immediately jump to the issue when reviewing, or at least that’s what I’ve observed in a few spots. The writer could have made us hate the “bad guys” in a million other ways but chose this one. I like to assume there’s a very important reason for choosing this path.

That said, I didn’t realize Maberry’s novel was part of a series until I was half-way through, and that heartens me a quite bit. It leads me to believe that the ideas that seemed fragmentary will be fleshed-out and that some of the details that left me confused will be resolved at some point. It’s definitely a character-driven novel, and I left it really caring about Crow and Iron Mike quite a bit. I want to know what else happens to them and that quality alone (again, for me) makes up for most shortcomings in a work of genre fiction.

Pick it up if you are looking for something that still falls under the “Horror” umbrella but is lighter than the usual (Cosmic Horror, especially) fare.