Archive for August, 2010

Occultation by Laird Barron

Words are strange and imprecise ways of conveying meaning, more often than not, being slippery friends. What you think you know and understand, may be subverted by cultural changes and shifts. What you hope is non-controversial suddenly appears to generate controversy. Life is not so bad for those who inhabit the mainstream of life. They can continuously assimilate novelty, matching it to what they know and modify their expectations as to how they should behave in future. As one on the fringes of retirement, I no longer swim with the flocks, but am now thrust out on to the periphery to observe from a distance. Perhaps, in epicurean terms, I have moved from gourmand to gourmet. Whereas I used to bolt down vast amounts of cultural content, I am now a slower eater who looks for savouriness and extra flavour to enhance the experience. This pickiness means I now miss more and learn less.

Occultation, a new collection from Laird Barron comes to me courtesy of Ellen Datlow — it’s always safer to have someone to blame at times like this. Three of the stories in this collection were picked by Datlow for inclusion in Lovecraft Unbound, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One and The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two. They were all interesting which stimulated the decision to buy this new collection from Night Shade Books. It contains nine stories, three original.

Writing horror fiction is fraught with difficulty. This may sound odd given that most of what is sold as “horror” is relatively unrealistic but, for the author, it’s all about striking a balance between the real and the unreal in a way that has some credibility. As readers, we will only suspend disbelief if there’s something we recognise as real in the narrative or the characters that inhabit it. The mistake so often made by writers in this genre is to believe the content is more important than the characters or that style can mask all shortcomings. This leads to a morass of badly conceived narratives, often written in a florid and melodramatic, if not cosmically hyperbolic, style. As an adjective, Lovercraftian is used by many in a pejorative sense of someone who uses language allusively to hint at or, worse, to describe the ineffable (the smart way of saying the unnameable and indescribable). Except, of course, even that is a con. There’s nothing one cannot describe if one wishes to. Even though language is inherently imprecise, we can approximate. There may be no word to precisely describe the colour, or as a simile to say exactly how the tentacles move. But being less than vague would spoil the game. The convention is not to describe something from “beyond” because that allows readers to use their own imaginations to fill in the blanks. Whether on the page or in the cinemas, our own worst fears are far more frightening than the slippery words on a page or the CGI images on a screen.

In much of this collection, Barron is flirting with Lovecraftianism and, on balance, emerges with great credit. His more modern sensibilities avoid some of the crass sensationalism of many who play in this sandbox, while preserving the spirit of the Lovecraft mythos. In this respect, the standout story is “Mysterium Tremendum”, one of the originals. This more than any of the other more “conventionally” otherworldly efforts, sets believable characters out on a journey, cleverly ratcheting up the tension as they follow the trail of breadcrumbs. More importantly, it demonstrates the old truism about jokes. It’s not necessary to be original, but success lies in the way you tell them. So, there’s literally nothing about the story that is original. Every single plot element, including the ending, have been done to death over the decades. But Barron remakes them all in the exuberance of his telling. For me, this is one of the best Lovercraftian stories I have read in years and, Datlow please note, deserves to be in the next “Best of” she puts together.

What a joy to come back to “The Lagerstätte”, taking the time to savour this powerful story about grief. Again, this is elevated from the norm by the strength of its characterisation. The notion that memory works in the same way as geology to trap a complete record of the past like fossils is one of the truly slippery. No matter how rich the sample of fossils one can excavate from a given piece of sedimentary deposit, it’s nothing more than a random snapshot of what happened to die in that place over an uncountable number of years. Similarly, just because you find one memory next to another does not mean they are truly connected. It could be just an accident both happen to be associated in your mind. So, when we think about people who have died, what is it we remember about them and why? Is everything always accurate? Or do our emotions distort perceptions and recollections? One of the more scientific approaches to the exploration of memory is through the idea of the engram. Animal experiments suggest memories may be distributed throughout the brain rather than located in any one part — a finding that would deny the practicality of an archaeological approach to psychological excavation. How or why we “know” what we remember is real rather than imagined or refashioned to suit our emotional needs has not be explained and, as this story suggests, probably will never be explained.

The other stories maintain interest and impress through the elegance of language. Except that “–30–”, for all its promise, somehow fails to define itself with sufficient precision to be truly satisfying. When you are writing in this genre, one of the givens is that, while you can hover over a number of possible tropes, letting the reader guess where you will finally alight, at some point you should signal with some precision what the story is actually about. This has two people isolated in a wilderness experiencing a kind of cafard in which their moods become increasingly focused on the possibility they are not alone. Yet, perhaps, we all want the security of being in the dark with those we have loved.

Overall, Occultation is genuinely impressive and deserves to be on the shelves of everyone who is interested in a new synthesis between classical Lovecraftian ideas and a slightly more literary (but no less visceral) modern sensibility. For a review of Laird Barron’s first novels, see The Croning and The Light is the Darkness. His third collection is The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.

Occultation was shortlisted for the 2010 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Collection.

I’ve also interviewed him here.

The Last Airbender (2010)

I finally raised myself from the torpor of negativity, putting aside the mantras, “How can anything by M Night Shyamalan be any good?” and, “All the critics I routinely read and whose sensibilities are close to mine are unanimous in their condemnation of this film.” Why, you mutter darkly into your metaphorical beards, should you do something so obviously daft? Well, I’m a fan of the original Nickelodeon Avatar: The Last Airbender. And the film version has grossed about $225 million worldwide. So, could it be that the quality of the original story has saved Shyamalan from himself? Eventually, I decide I have to see for myself. I collect two experts — nine-year olds with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the original — and we enter the depths of the 3D realms with hearts beating apprehensively.

First, the good news. Confronted by the task of distilling the 20 episodes of Book 1: Water into a film of sensible length, Shyamalan has actually made some intelligent decisions. The narrative is clearly focussed so that it builds to the self-sacrifice of Princess Yue. This should produce a climax of great emotional power as a counterpoint to the Avatar’s destruction of the invading Fire Nation’s fleet. Even more importantly, the change of emphasis in Iroh’s role lays down more clear makers for future developments.

We all liked the “look” of the film and felt the realisation of the bending was well done except the general limitation on the fire benders seemed unnecessary. There’s no reason to force the majority of benders to use existing fire rather generate it internally. The elite fire benders like Iroh can make their own and so much of the rest of the series revolves around the power of the comet to enhance this internal power, that it looks a strange plotting choice. Ah well, if the other two films are made, we can make a better judgement. About halfway through, both boys took off their 3D glasses. Even though I felt the depth of field was poor, I kept mine on to the end. You can always hope for an intelligent use of technology. Shame really. . .

On the acting front, the standouts are Shaun Toub (an Iranian actor) as Iroh and Dev Patel (an Indian) as Prince Zuko. They actually feel real and have a genuine relationship that casts a giant shadow over the entirely wooden performances turned in by everyone else. I can only assume this was a directorial decision, simplifying Zuko’s coming-of-age journey by providing a more emotionally supportive Iroh from the outset. Only if you have the leisure of three seasons of half-hour episodes can you fully realise Zuko’s wrestling match with his conscience.

Well, that’s the end of the good news. First a thought about the casting. Noah Ringer as the Avatar, Nicola Peltz as Katara and Jackson Rathbone as Sokka are Americans rescuing the world from the threatening foreigners led by Aasif Mandvi as Commander Zhao and the Maori Cliff Curtis as Fire Lord Ozai. Hollywood has this tedious insistence on white supremacy over the foreign devils. I have noticed some defensiveness from Shyamalan on this issue. If the second in the series is to be made, he has a chance to recover the situation with the casting of the pivotal Toph. If we avoid the mandatory American, we may feel Shyamalan has slightly redeemed himself.

But there remain two major problems that wreck the entire experience. The first is the essentially declamatory acting style of the American trio. There’s absolutely no investment of emotion in their performances. They are sincere and honest, but all attempts at acting are avoided. I cannot understand this decision. Not to inhabit the characters, but merely to state their lines credibly, is extraordinary to watch. It immediately places an insurmountable barrier between the actors and the audience. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the complete lack of emotion in the relationship between Sokka and Princess Yue. Which brings me to the second problem.

There’s absolutely no set-up for the key events in the film. It starts and, before you can draw breath, Katara and Sokka have dug up the Avatar and lost him to Prince Zuko. It must rank as being one of the most perfunctory of opening five minutes in any major action film made during the last twenty years. But the worst of this comes when we finally get to the North Pole. I cannot recall seeing the opportunity for a magnificent ending so butchered by the script and acting performances. What should be a touching relationship between Sokka and Yue, complicated as a love triangle in the animated version, is completely thrown away. Worse, because we are not given any chance to see Yue as a rounded character, her decision to replace the Spirit of the Moon is merely sad instead of an example of heroic self-sacrifice to save her people. Finally, there’s the extraordinary decision to have the Fire Nation navy frightened away by the Avatar’s demonstration of water power. In the original, the Avatar kills everyone in the fleet. This emasculation of the Avatar is beyond redemption. The Avatar is the power to bring balance to the world and, in each incarnation, does whatever is expedient to arrive at a just outcome. This unfortunate end to the invasion of the North Pole is one of the psychological factors making the Avatar’s journey to find peace within himself so powerful. In this, the Avatar matches Prince Zuko as they both seek redemption for the “sins” of their earlier incarnations/fathers. This was not too dark for an essentially children’s and YA audience in the animated version. It should not be too dark in this film. No self-respecting Fire Nation fleet would simply have retreated in this cowardly way. Their fear of the Fire Lord would have kept them fighting to the bitter end. More importantly for the future plot, it’s because the fleet is destroyed that the Fire Nation invests in air power when rebuilding its military capabilities.

So, as a curiosity piece, demonstrating in no uncertain terms how not to make a motion picture of a fine animated series, this is unbeatable. As a final thought, my nine-year olds emerged full of ire, quoting chapter and verse of all the “good stuff” missing from this version. Even they could see this was but a pale imitation of a brilliant original.

And for those who missed the news, this epic has gone on to win five Razzies as the worst picture, worst director, worst screenplay, worst supporting actor and worst use of 3D. It seems we are unanimous.

Are You There by Jack Skillingstead

Serendipity was a wonderful invention — our eternal thanks go to Horace Walpole for having so powerfully redefined an old name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Having made the discovery, I wish you could bottle it and pull it out on a slow day. Perhaps I am growing jaded as age advances, but random good fortune seems to strike less often than when I was younger. So often you pull a book off the shelves full of the hope that this will be “the one” — not in the sense of Neo in The Matrix Trilogy which is in an anomalous class of its own — but that it will prove to be one of those books whose memory you will treasure for years to come. Although, even there, you find an irony because, as the years pass, you never dare reread any of these treasured books. The constant fear is that your sensibilities will have moved on and, on rereading, the book will prove ordinary, leaving your fond memories in ruins. Sorry, I’m going round in circles here. . . Where was I? Yes . . .full of hope when you pick up a book only to find it ordinary even on first reading.

Well, Are You There is anything but ordinary on first reading. Rather, it is a completely unexpected joy. I confess to living in one of these hermitically sealed worlds. I used to read Amazing back in the 1950s and early 1960s but, since then, apart from the occasional dip into Interzone, I have avoided the medium. Only books have the magic password to enter the reading zone. Thus, the name Jack Skillingstead was completely unknown to me. In fact, I can’t even remember how I came to order it. I suppose I must have read a review of it. Anyway, I run a taxi-rank, first in/first out reading system. All books are shelved in the order they come in and I conscientiously read them in that order. So yesterday, it was Skillingstead’s turn.

He has a deft touch, with casual detail capturing a mood. But his most interesting quality is the sheer simplicity of it all. So often short story writers feel they have to encapsulate their frequently rejected first novel in each story. This means everything including the kitchen sink can be thrown in for us to admire. Yet Skillingstead focusses on a single idea in each story and never overelaborates. This self-discipline makes such a pleasing change. So starting off with “The Avenger of Love” we have a collaboration with Harlan Ellison that proved not to be. The result of this exchange of ideas is what some might call phantasmagoric. A son in pursuit of missing memories finds a way of remembering his father and is recruited into an unusual policing role. “Dead Worlds” continues the theme of love, this time with a couple who snatch a moment before he heads out to the stars again.

“Life on the Preservation” is a celebration of life as a “terrorist” finds herself seduced by the richness of the world she intends to destroy. It’s a pleasingly elegant way of thinking about recursion. Thematically, it links with “Rewind” in which we wonder whether we could ever make the right decisions on the replaying of an explosion in a pub. It’s so tempting to think how easy it would be to go back and rescue everyone, or perhaps just that one person. Similarly, “Reunion” wonders about how we come to be as we are. Many believe we are the sum of all our life’s experiences. If so, we must always insure we have those experiences so we turn out as we should. This musing continues in “Thank You, Mr. Whiskers” in which we speculate on how we would turn out if we could reverse time at the point of death and slowly grow young again. “What You Are About To See” continues the theme of manipulating reality to determine which one will prove to be the most durable. While “Strangers on the Bus” teases us with the idea that one person’s dreams might shape the world around him.

“Double Occupancy” is a pleasing venture into Lovecraftian territory without going totally over the top with tentacled monsters, while “The Tree” is a solid tale of arboreal threats to a young boy. “The Chimera Transit” poses the ever-fascinating question of what makes us human and what we would lose through the scientific manipulation of our brain chemistry. And, perhaps more importantly, what we might sacrifice to journey between the stars. In “Overlay” we have a tired idea reborn. Many have played with the idea of the technology to rent out your bodies for others to use. This wonders whether the host might recover memories of what happened during the “possession” and what he could do with that information.

“Scatter” is a delightfully witty take on the PI trope in which we have an interesting inversion of the first story. Rather than a man recruited into another type of world, we have a man encouraged by a woman to take a more realistic view of her world. In the titular “Are You There” we have a Russian doll story in which personalities can be stored electronically and then interact with the world. Except how do you tell who or what is at the end of any text-only conversation? With “Bean There” we have the first of two stories about evolution in the human race. It’s followed by “Girl in the Empty Apartment”, both thinking about how we might come to recognise the changes in ourselves and get the confidence to experiment with new abilities. Although using different conventions, “The Apprentice” also explores how a boy might learn about latent powers and then make decisions on how best to use them. Similarly, in “Everyone Bleeds Through” we have a kind of world-walking, inter-dimensional story in which a couple manage to find themselves in the right place when it matters most.

Continuing the idea of exploring the implications of what we are, “Transplant” answers the awkward question of what might happen if one person became physically immortal, always able to regenerate any lost part so that youthful perfection was always preserved. In a more humorous vein “Here’s Your Space” offers an insight into the constant requirement if you should happen to find yourself floating disembodied in “outer space”. “Cat in the Rain” deals with the phenomenon of loneliness except, perhaps, it’s all the fault of the aliens. It’s rather the same with “Alone With an Inconvenient Companion” in which we wonder whether beauty is really only skin deep. In “Rescue Mission” we also have to confront the blurry line between intellectual and physical attachments given the knowledge that only physical beings can actually rescue each other from a physical threat. In a more ironic tone, we see that there would have to be at least “Two” to breed their way to victory. It’s slightly different in “Scrawl Daddy” where you might find yourself connected to another version of yourself. In “Human Day” you might have to use a simulacrum to explore what was left of the world after a possible catastrophe.

This is one of the best collections of 2009. If you have not already tried it, it’s still available from Golden Gryphon.

PS Great jacket artwork by John Picacio who holds the copyright on the image reproduced above.

For a review of Jack Skillingstead’s first novel, see Harbinger.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)

August 18, 2010 4 comments

Neutrality is a most curious convention in International Law. When all about you are fighting, one country stands aloof and refuses to support any of the “sides”. The curiousness lies not so much in the wish to avoid fighting — the risk of casualties both in the armed forces and the civilian population would deter all rational governments from involvement — but in the willingness of the actual combatants to respect the assertion of neutrality and not allow the theatre of war to stray over the relevant borders. So Sweden managed to remain relatively uninvolved in WWII. There was significant trade, significant volumes of money moved through the banking system, some Swedes fought in the German army. Some even worked as guards in Treblinka. The degree of collaboration is one of those unexplored pieces of history. More modern Swedish governments prefer to remember heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian jews by issuing them with Swedish passports, carefully reconstructing history in the schools and media generally to divert attention from the inconvenient truth.

One of the more illuminating lines in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor is that everyone has secrets, even countries. Given that the plot surrounds a family whose wealth was undoubtedly enhanced through collaboration with the Nazis, we are immediately pitched into a classic murder mystery from the Golden Age with the political ideology of Aryanism to the fore. Only a limited number of people could have “done it” because, at the relevant time, all the key players were trapped on an island by a serious traffic accident. But there are two elements that lift this from a mundane Agatha Christie plot into a work for modern sensibilities. The first is that it plays with the nature of history and the power of the modern eye to interpret and reinterpret the signs from the past. In this, it’s clearly following in the tradition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose with its deconstructionist and semiotic undertones. The ability to manipulate images and to excavate the past for even the most trivial of pieces of paper are the keys to all understanding. The second decision of note is to take an unflinching look at misogyny. I cannot remember a film in recent years that exposes all the prejudices and abuses that lie mostly hidden under the surface of most modern societies. Perhaps from a poor understanding of Scandinavia, I had always thought Sweden was a relatively civilised country. Sadly, if this film is in any way representative of reality, it seems just as venal and corrupt as the rest of the world when it comes to the treatment of women.

In this, the pivotal character is the eponymous girl, played with outstanding suppressed violence, by Noomi Rapace. It’s an intensely demanding role and, in the wrong hands, it would have completely changed the character of the film, probably condemning it to the direct-to-video route to oblivion. As it is, her performance is one of the most memorable I can recall in the last decade. She has been abused at every point during her life, yet she manages to retain integrity and a brutal kind of honesty. In the end, she gives as good as she gets. Playing her foil is Michael Nyqvist as a journalist paid to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of a girl some forty years ago. Nyqvist is passive and understated but, because of his honesty and empathy, he is able to bridge the gap with Rapace’s character. Apart they are interesting. Together they become an unstoppable force for truth. Unlike Sweden itself which played a game of neutrality during WWI, this film takes no prisoners when it comes to confronting the abuse of women in Swedish society.

Almost without exception, every character is beautifully played from the obsessed industrialist who pays the journalist to find the murderer, to Peter Andersson’s extraordinarily corrupt Guardian responsible managing the dragon girl’s money while she is out of mental hospital on licence, to Björn Granath as the determined local police officer. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with the current stars of Swedish film and television, but the entire cast of “unknowns” emerge as fresh and talented. One further cast member must be mentioned. The scenery of the island and key locations are stunningly beautiful, if somewhat bleak, a factor that plays against the emerging horror of the investigation and surrounding events.

I am disturbed by stories that the film is to be reshot for American audiences. Apparently, Daniel Craig is lined up to play the journalist. Frankly, I think this is a supreme insult to the director and cast of the Swedish original produced by Yellow Bird. I cannot conceive of any sanitised script with a cast of stars coming remotely close to being as good. Having James Bond in the remake is ludicrous casting against type and can only be explained by Hollywood’s lack of faith in the quality of the story. You can just imagine the producers in a smoke-filled room, “We need a star to carry this movie — unknowns would condemn our remake to the arthouse circuit.” In truth, the only reasons for this offensive decision are the extreme parochialism of America that, for the most part, is hostile to any culture other than what it claims as its own. And the inability of the audience to read the subtitles. Let’s face it, the desperation of US distributors cannot be better illustrated than by the rerecording of the voice tracks for Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animations. There has been no worse butchery in recent years than cutting out the sensitive vocal performances of the Japanese casts in favour of Hollywood stars. I shall be watching the other two Swedish films in this Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I will not be queuing to watch the Hollywood remakes.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

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